My friend of about 25 years, Laurie Kingston died this week after a long battle with breast cancer. I have boundless respect and admiration for her and she will always be a role model to me. Much has been written about her and the story I would tell involves how she forgave me for being the bad boy of her tenure as chair of the Ontario Federation of Students.
Me and my comrades of the OFS staff complement had high hopes for Laurie when she took office in the early 1990s. A feminist. A leftist. From Trent. Fluent in french and demonstrating no obvious ego or entitlement problems.
Naturally we were horrible to her. And I was the ringleader.
Her staff staged a mass sick day to back our demands in negotiations with the employer — her and the other cats on the OFS board of whom she was herder-in chief.
She wasn’t on the ‘management’ bargaining team but she got to listen to all the messages on the answering machine as we called in sick.
The other board members thought the staff were petulant children, playing union while blithely ignoring the real problems the federation faced. It’s possible Laurie did too. But she never said that — to me anyway — probably because as ever she was thinking ahead to how she was going to fix this.
Her response was to organize a day long, professionally facilitated session among board and staff to repair relations and get back on track. It was, I believe, a good faith effort to problem-solve, motivated by Laurie’s faith in people and courage to face problems and have difficult conversations. A hallmark of her personality and a common theme throughout her life.
Naturally we treated it with suspicion and threatened to walk out constantly. Eventually the staff — it was probably me — tossed some sort of grenade into the proceedings and everyone left, full of despair.
The staff made t-shirts with her likeness arm-wrestling Karl Marx emblazoned with “Crush Management” in the biggest, boldest sans-serif type Corel Draw could produce. As the federation’s in house designer, it was my hand on the mouse. My thoughts in the mix. We all thought it was funny. Cute and endearing, even.
As someone who dedicated her life to championing workers’ rights, Laurie was mortified. Again she was the grown-up. She could have doubled down, called the lawyers, written up discipline letters. She did not. She stayed cool.
And in the end union and federation settled. For not a lot different.
But I had ruptured our relationship. Laurie’s term as OFS Chair ended and I’m pretty sure she’d decided she was done with that scene. Talented as she was, there were lots of people who wanted to hire her. This was also around the time she met Tim. So things took a deserved turn for the better.
I left the federation too. A few years later our paths crossed again in Ottawa. I think at a folk concert at the National Library Theatre. She had a big smile and gave me a hug. She might have been thinking “I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with you,” but again she took the high road even though the next step was mine to take and involved an apology.
Which I offered, as I recall. In another act of selflessness and grace she let me save face by insisting I didn’t actually owe her an apology and dismissing the whole thing as water under the bridge. It was her generosity of spirit and openness that allowed us to rebuild a friendship over the years.
Laurie was an exemplary human. I wish I had half her courage, her compassion and strength. I imagine in another world — one that didn’t put so much value on testosterone, competition and cruelty — she would certainly have been a cabinet minister or some other leader, mandated to bring people together to build something, solve a problem or otherwise change the world.
It is indescribably sad that she’s been taken from all those who loved and admired her so soon. But even in that there’s a lesson. She was dealt a shitty hand and, to borrow an apt meme, nevertheless she persisted.