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Nancy Fulford poses for a photograph while in Toronto for the holidays, on Dec. 18, 2019.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Christmas was coming, and Nancy Fulford needed a job.

It was 1979, and she was taking time off from theatre school in Montreal, partly because the holidays were coming and partly because she was pregnant.

Unmarried and only 20, in a still-conservative Toronto, she trudged to the local Manpower board, which is what job centres were called “before we cared about language," she explained. That’s when it jumped out at her, absurd but beckoning: Morningside Mall in suburban Scarborough was looking for a Santa.

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She couldn’t have known that this obscure posting was about to launch a human rights campaign that would bring her fan mail from around the world and a lesson about the enduring stupidity of prejudice. For that matter, she didn’t know she would get the job. But Nancy – I call her that because she’s my father’s cousin – was determined to try.

Even then, she was a committed feminist, and knew there was a subversive edge to applying. She also had an unmistakable self-confidence. “In the words of k.d. lang, I’m a ‘big-boned gal’ who loves kids and is a character actor – perfect fit for Santa.”

The mall manager wasn’t so sure. “‘You’re not really what I had in mind,’” she admitted. But, after an audition, Nancy was hired.

Now it was time to assemble a costume. Her father, Wayne, played St. Nick every year at his office party, so there was a red satin suit hanging in the closet. That, and her pregnant belly, gave her a good start. But Nancy didn’t stop there, rounding out the look with size-13 boots, hockey pads and a healthy application of aftershave. “I’m a details person,” she says.

At first, most parents seemed convinced. “I even had some middle-aged women flirting with me,” Nancy later said.

But skeptics loomed. Her hiring had sparked a small revolt among the shoppers of Scarborough. Ken Roher, manager of a mall shoe store, summed up the response for a reporter at the time: “The typical line from the mothers was: ‘I think it’s disgusting.’ ”

After her second day, Nancy got a call from the mall manager. “‘I’m going to have to let you go,’ ” she said. “ ‘We’re just getting so many complaints about you being a woman.’ ”

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Nancy instantly felt this was wrong, not to mention possibly illegal, and went straight to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Soon after she submitted the paperwork, her uncle Warren (my grandfather) asked her: “So, what’s it like being the spokesperson for the feminist movement?”

“Am I?!” she replied.

For a moment, she was. A Globe reporter was soon at their house in Scarborough. The Star followed.

The next morning, her dad awoke to let the cat out and found both papers on the front stoop with Nancy’s picture on the front page.

Nancy made the front page of the Dec. 7, 1979 edition of the Globe and Mail.

The Globe and Mail

“He was incredibly proud,” said Geraldine Sherman, Nancy’s aunt.

No wonder: Nancy’s quotes flew off the page with verve and self-possession. She described herself, rightly, as the victim of an “injustice on the part of closed-minded people” and said, of her firing, “Can you think of a more un-Santa Claus thing to do?”

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Fan mail poured in, including from a Mountie who proposed marriage. A toy store on Yonge Street saw a chance for publicity and hired her as an openly feminine Claus. (Though even there, sexist attitudes marred her performance. “Why not a sexy Santa for a change?” the store manager Greg Hagglund leered to a reporter.)

Nancy in costume at Mr. Gameways' Ark on Dec. 24, 1979.

DEREK DEBONO/for The Globe and Mail

With Nancy’s story in the headlines, the commission rendered swift justice. By January, the mall had settled the case with a $500 cheque.

“I was very happy they didn’t get away with it,” she said. “It would have been such a struggle to pay my rent.”

Forty years on, Nancy is still acting and still a dauntless feminist. She is head of the drama and dance department at a girls’ high school in Wellington, New Zealand; a wonderful mother and grandmother; an artist of many stripes; and a cool and glamorous figure in the eyes of her Canadian family.

The world’s progress in those 40 years seems to Nancy more mixed. Today, some aspects of her ordeal look like relics of a backward age, but she isn’t close to declaring victory in the fight for gender equality that she helped wage. Look at Donald Trump, she says – elected U.S. President after boasting on tape about sexually assaulting women.

“We’ve made terrific, terrific advances, but there’s an undertow there,” she said. “The work is not done. ”

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Nancy is putting her shoulder to the wheel. She works with a group at her school called Femineast, for “women who are conscious of the fact that it’s important to continue to lobby for women’s rights.”

And this month, she exercised those rights in a way she was prevented from doing four decades ago – she played Santa at the office Christmas party, resplendent in a white beard.

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