'Combination of drill sergeant and den mother': First woman president of BCGEU dies at 93

Photo of Joan Gower Gillatt used with permission from BCGEU.

Joan Gower Gillatt (April 16, 1924 - Aug. 10, 2017)

The Canadian labour movement lost a formidable champion of women's rights this month with the passing of Joan Gower Gillatt, the first woman president of what is now the B.C. Government Employees' Union (BCGEU). Joan died on Aug. 10 in Duncan, B.C. She was 93.

Joan is survived by her daughters Susan Fullerton (Rob), Maggie Enwright (Doug Colwell), and Carol Gillatt (Shaun Pattenden) and three grandchildren: Barrett Fullerton, Beth Gillatt and Kate Pattenden.

Joan was born in Victoria on April 16, 1924. She joined what was then the B.C. Government Employees' Association shortly after it formed in 1944. The year before, she'd taken a job as a lab analyst in the provincial department of mines, testing minerals to be used in the war effort. It wasn't her intent to work for the government. Women were expected to resign when men returned after the war ended, but Joan refused. As an unmarried woman, she had no husband to support her. She was transferred to a filing department.

Joan resigned from civil service in 1958, after 14 years of active union involvement. She was the first woman first vice-president of the Victoria Branch, where, for a time, she held women's-only meetings. She was elected to the provincial executive in 1948-49, the only woman on the executive. The other executive members called her "Our Joanie." In 1950, she was elected as president of the Victoria Branch.

"She had to carve a brand new path of respectability for women, and she did," said Gary Steeves, a former BCGEU staff worker who wrote about Joan's accomplishments for the union newsletter The Provincial. When he met her in person, she was supervising a daycare at Duncan United Church. The woman he saw working with children completely "jived" with the labour activist he'd read about.

"She was a combination of the drill sergeant and the den mother," he said. "She had a real style to her. She was very straight, very direct, no-nonsense. She didn't BS you."

She needed that style. Joan worked at a time when women fought to be paid the same as men, something Steeves said "infuriated" her. Joan was one of the people who fought to abolish a provincial law mandating women retire five years before men.

In 1955, she was elected as the union's second vice-president, the first woman elected as an executive officer of the union. During that time, she was actively involved in negotiations with then premier W.A.C. Bennett's Social Credit government, and was prepared to strike if the government did not fulfill its promise to raise government employees' wages. The strike was averted. But Joan never forgot. In later years, she would turn off the television when the former premier appeared.

In 1957, union president George Horridge died, and Joan, then vice-president, assumed his role. Joan resigned in September 1958 to complete her education. She wanted to be a teacher. In 1960, she married Jock Gillatt, a widower, and became mother to his daughter, Susan. They moved to Duncan. Joan taught for a year, was a school board trustee for 10, and served several terms on city council. The BCGEU gave her a lifetime membership in 1997 and she was given a key to the city in 2005.

"If it wasn't fair, Joan wanted to fix it," said Steeves. "She insisted on fairness her entire life."

Joan had little patience for sentiment, her daughter Maggie remembers. Maggie said she only remembers her mother crying twice, once being when Jock died in 1992. She didn't yell at her children, Maggie said. Instead, she preferred to listen to them and reason.

Joan wasn't a mother who liked "mushy-gush," Maggie said. "I cannot recall her ever baking bread." The family joked that the only time their mother baked was for NDP and church functions. Joan was an active member of both the NDP and the Duncan United Church. Her children would maybe receive broken pieces of cookies, Maggie said.

But her passion was great. Joan "fiercely" defended her children; even if that looked like making sure her daughter wouldn't be forced to wear a "God-awful" costume at a dance recital, said Maggie. She created elaborate Easter egg hunts and pressed leaves in the fall.  Few saw her "whimsical" side, said Maggie. She loved complicated crosswords, cross-stitching and origami. Hundreds of origami butterflies are to be given out at her funeral.

Joan joined the NDP in the early '60s, and worked on several campaigns and provincial and federal councils. She was a constituent assistant to former MLA Barbara Wallace. Joan involved her children in her efforts: Maggie recalled folding leaflets or going door-to-door with her mother.

Her faith motivated her political activism. "She thought we were here to share goods and services, and she thought the NDP was the best political avenue towards enacting policies that would make that happen," Maggie said.

But she was open to listening to other views. For many years, Joan met with a group of women on Thursday mornings to discuss politics and world issues. The Buddy's Group would light a candle, pick a word, and discuss how it applied to their lives. Joan was especially good at listening to others, and asking questions about how the topic related to their lives.

"She didn't suffer fools because she was very clear in her thinking and I think helped other people clarify their thoughts," said Buddy's member Sandy McPherson. She and Joan were working to have a peace pole erected in Duncan. Joan had heard about the project through a church newsletter in 2011. Although it hasn't been erected, she saw the completed designs before she died.

Joan's volunteer activities were broad, including time on the hospital board and United Way. She didn't seek public recognition -- although she got it, receiving a Queen Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 -- but it was hard for her to watch her social connections shrink in her final years, Maggie said. She insisted on remaining tied to the community: up until the end, she hated it when her daughter suggested she use the ATM.

Joan's funeral will be held on Friday, August 25 at the Duncan United Church. Maggie, a former United Church minister, will preside.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo of Joan Gower Gillatt used with permission from BCGEU.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story...

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all. But media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our only supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help.

If everyone who visits rabble and likes it chipped in a couple of dollars per month, our future would be much more secure and we could do much more: like the things our readers tell us they want to see more of: more staff reporters and more work to complete the upgrade of our website.

We’re asking if you could make a donation, right now, to set rabble on solid footing in 2017.

Make a donation.Become a monthly supporter.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.