'A force of nature': Activist and educator Wendy Robbins has died

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'A force of nature': Activist and educator Wendy Robbins has died

'A force of nature': Activist and educator Wendy Robbins has died

Wendy Robbins, a New Brunswick Liberal activist who played a key role in shifting the party's abortion policy and pushed the federal party to change its policy on assisted dying, has died.

Robbins, a professor at the University of New Brunswick Fredericton and co-founder of Women's Studies, suffered a brain aneurysm on April 12 and died in hospital Tuesday night after being removed from a ventilator. She was 68.

Her daughter Chimène Keitner, 41, described her as a "force of nature."

"My brother [Haydon Keitner, 38, of Boston] posted on his Facebook something along the lines of a light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Hers definitely burned more than twice as bright," she said, her voice cracking with emotion during a telephone interview from her home in California.

Robbins, a "child of the '60s," studied in France during the 1968 riots and "activism was in her blood," said Keitner.

"She always thought of how what she was doing could help make others' lives better — whether it was her students, or women becoming involved in politics and then enacting legislation that would help other women. 

"She wanted every person and especially every woman to have the full ability to make decisions about their own bodies — whether that was reproduction or end of life."

The night of the aneurysm, Robbins had attended the New Brunswick Liberal fundraiser, An Evening With Jean Chrétien, in Saint John, and took full advantage of the opportunity to bend the ear of the former prime minister.

"She was in fine form and she was classic Wendy," said Heather Robinson, former student and a friend for two decades, who was also there.

Robbins had written a letter advocating dual-member constituencies to ensure more women were in political office. She planned to deliver the letter to Chrétien during the champagne reception, hoping he would speak to Premier Brian Gallant about it as an option in New Brunswick, said Robinson.

As Chrétien started to move through the crowd, Robbins "stopped him in his tracks," gave him her "10-second elevator pitch" and the letter.

"She came back and she said, 'I did it,' and her eyes were sparkling and Wendy would get so excited about things when she knew she was making an impact," said Robinson.

She was a "truly amazing lady," an "angel on Earth" with a "dogged determination to do right by the world," she said.

Gallant tweeted on Wednesday, saying he is "sad to hear" of her death.

"Wendy was a strong advocate for women's equality in NB and across Canada," he wrote.

It was during her drive home that night that Robbins experienced a severe headache and nausea. She pulled over and called a friend, who drove her to the Saint John Regional Hospital, where a CT scan showed the aneurysm.

Robbins was lucid and opted for an endovascular repair, her daughter said, but during the ambulance ride to Moncton the following morning she suffered a rebleed, which caused "irreparable damage."

Both her children rushed to be by her side and the surgery proceeded, but by Tuesday, Robbins was starting to experience stroke activity in the brain.

"We all made the decision — consistent with her very explicit advance directive, because death with dignity is also another one of her really big core beliefs and areas of activism — that it was her absolutely clear wish that given the irreparable damage she had suffered that we should withdraw the ventilation that she was on," said Keitner.

She doesn't expect a funeral service but rather a "party" in Fredericton in the coming weeks to allow people from out of the country time to make arrangements to attend. Then her mother's ashes will be scattered in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, as her own mother's were, she said.

"I hope that when people are thinking of her, even in these very sad circumstances, what will overwhelmingly be in their hearts is joy rather than sadness," said Keitner.

Robinson agreed. "Obviously, our hearts are broken, we're grieving," she said.

"But we know that Wendy would want us to live the way that she lived every single moment of her life, which is with optimism, fighting to make it a better world, loving each other, showing compassion, showing vulnerability and just living with zest.

"All of us who have known her, that lesson is not lost on us. And I think really, her legacy is huge, but that's one of the ways we can honour her is by living the way she lived every moment of her life."

Robbins was the first woman to be promoted to full professor of English at UNB and developed numerous courses on women's writing and feminist approaches to literature, winning the Allan P. Stuart Award for excellence in teaching, according to her biography on UNB's website.

She co-founded PAR-L (Policy, Action, Research - List), one of the world's first feminist online discussion lists, served as vice-president of women's and equity issues for the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences; chair of the Women's Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT); and member of the expert panel on Women in University Research at the Council of Canadian Academies, it states.

Robbins is survived by her two children and five grandchildren, aged three to 11, whom she loved "beyond all measure."