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Lives Lived: Margaret Alberta Phillips, 84

Margaret Alberta Phillips

Feminist, social justice activist, community organizer, bookstore owner. Born on April 12, 1931, in Billings Bridge, Ont.; died on Nov. 4, 2015, in Thunder Bay, of congestive heart failure, aged 84.

Margaret co-founded Northern Woman's Bookstore, with Anna McColl, in 1984, more as a service than a business. She wanted her beloved women's community in Thunder Bay to have access to feminist literature and to create a safe space for women to gather. Months after her death, the store's book club and writers' circle ignored the "For Sale" sign out front and continued to meet in Canada's last independent feminist bookstore, where she had cultivated the exploration of writing and hosted literary events. True to her politics, the store was run by a collective and staffed mainly by volunteers, with Margaret playing a thoughtful curatorial role.

Born to Albert and Daisy Phillips in what was then Billings Bridge (now part of Ottawa), Margaret was orphaned young and raised by her aunt, Janet Riley. An exceptional student and athlete, Margaret did not have the money to attend university; she graduated instead from Ottawa Normal School in 1950 and taught at Garson Mine Public School near Sudbury.

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It was there that she discovered the power of recreation to transform children's lives. She decided to focus on this field, becoming an assistant recreation director in Renfrew, Ont., then in North Bay. In 1957, she became Canada's first female arena manager in the booming mill town of Iroquois Falls. She brought a touch of class as manager of local hockey teams, with her long auburn hair and her tailored suits.

Margaret moved to Kenora in 1960 to take the job of recreation director and found herself in the midst of the town's volatile race relations. She joined the Indian/White Committee and in 1965 was among the non-indigenous people who joined members of area First Nations in an anti-racism march to City Hall, a pivotal moment in the First Nations civil rights movement. In 1991, her name was added to the Anishnaabe Grand Council Treaty No. 3 Honour Roll of Gratitude and she was presented with a treasured eagle feather.

As the first female president of the Society of Directors of Municipal Recreation in Ontario, she honed her skills in coalition building and creating social policy. In 1970, she moved to Thunder Bay to lead the Lakehead Social Planning Council; during her tenure, the council started transportation services for people with disabilities, a housing co-op, regional daycare programs and a transition house for abused women.

She also helped to launch the Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre in the early 1970s, as well as Northern Woman Journal, a feminist newspaper that operated from 1973 to 1995. Northern Woman's Bookstore promoted local and indigenous authors, and in 2008 Margaret was honoured by the Northwestern Ontario Writers' Workshop for her contribution to writing in the region. For a decade, starting in 1983, she served on the board of InterPares, an international social-justice organization. She went to Bangladesh to work with women on projects related to their economic and social equality.

Fittingly, Margaret was on the advisory committee that created the Department of Women's Studies at Lakehead University. In May, 2015, the school awarded her an honorary doctorate. Her acceptance speech was a memorable synthesis of her beliefs in cultivating the mind, fitness of the body, and duty to community. Her long red hair now white, her blue eyes peering over her glasses, she beseeched the audience: "Read a book – even better, read a real book."

Elaine Lynch and Fiona Karlstedt are Margaret's friends.

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