Few women in Saskatchewan led more notable lives than Sylvia Fedoruk.
Fedoruk, who was born in Canora in 1927, and grew up at Wroxton, while her family roots are in the Rhein/Hamton/Donwell area, was a pioneer in leading-edge cancer research, primarily in the field of nuclear medicine.
She was the first woman to join the Atomic Energy Board of Canada.
Fedoruk was also an outstanding athlete, competing at an elite level in women’s softball and curling.
Elected as the first woman chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan in 1986, she went on to be the first woman to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, being appointed in 1988 and serving until 1994.
It’s the sort of life books are written about.
That is exactly what Saskatchewan author Merle Massie has done with the release of her book; A Radiant Life The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon, and Stateswoman.
Massie, who is from Saskatchewan’s Lakeland region north of Prince Albert growing up on a farm near Paddockwood said the idea of writing the book came about because of a connection to another name familiar to Yorkton and area.
“I came to this book by way of friendship: Dr. Stuart Houston thought it would be a fantastic and important book to write, and I agreed,” she told Yorkton This Week. “He set me on the path and has been a superb supporter on this road.”
Massie knew Houston well.
Her first book, 36 Steps on the Road to Medicare, was co-authored with Dr. Stuart Houston who is from the Yorkton region.
Once Massie began looking into Fedoruk’s rather diverse career it was obvious it was the stuff books are written about.
Why did she think the book was worth writing?
“Sylvia Fedoruk is one of the most iconic, recognizable and fascinating people to rise up from Saskatchewan,” said Massie. “She would have been worth a book for even one of her three storied life directions: science, sports, or statesmanship. The fact that she succeeded at such a high level at all three makes her life story what former premier Brad Wall termed, sheer impossibility: Syl must have been “a character in a novel, or part of lore,” since her life “couldn’t possibly be true of one person.” Yet it was.
And, there was access to a treasure trove of material from which to glean a book.
“When Sylvia Fedoruk died, her files – which included hundreds of pages of important documents in Saskatchewan history, including her personal notes on the 1991 Grant Devine proroguing and special warrants crisis, Saskatchewan’s cobalt-60 and betatron history, Saskatchewan curling and baseball history, and extensive notes and mementos from her time as one of the province’s most popular Lieutenant Governors – were gifted to Archives and Special Collections unit of the University of Saskatchewan,” said Massie. “I was the first historian to fully access and use those files, which was both daunting and amazing.”
The daunting part meant literally working on the book for years.
“This project has been going off the side of my desk for more than five years,” said Massie.
“Parts of it were easy, such as documenting her science and sports career, though I appreciate the help and support I was given to make sure that my historian brain could understand and explain the science properly – one of Sylvia’s graduate students, Trevor Cradduck, gifted hours to the manuscript to sift it for the worst of the errors.”
It helped Massie had financial support on her quest to write the book.
“I was awarded a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant in the fall of 2018, which gifted me with the time needed to pull the whole project into a viable manuscript,” she said.
The time meant hours of research.
“The University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections unit, particularly Patrick Hayes and Cheryl Avery, were integral to my ability to sift through the massive pile of files and other items in the Sylvia Fedoruk collection,” explained Massie. “I would visit the archives at the university, take extensive notes while going through her well-organized files, and then I used those notes and photographs to build this biography.”
But there were bumps along the writing road.
“I got stuck and stopped the research for about a year, while I wrestled with my moral compass – one of the chapters of the book delves into the story of the University of Saskatchewan graduate student whose art installation and subsequent artistic work challenged Saskatchewan homophobia and provincial elite (the university, the provincial government, and the media) through his work, which attempted to ‘out’ Sylvia Fedoruk as a gay woman,” related Massie. “It’s a critical story in understanding just how much Sylvia Fedoruk meant to Saskatchewan people, and ultimately, that’s why I chose to include it.”
Massie said that was ultimately one of the two greatest challenges she faced in writing the biography.
“Two things: one, the ethics of whether or not to include the story of the outing controversy and all its permutations -- which were extensive and cascaded across Saskatchewan and Canadian media, the provincial government; including the floor of the Legislature and recorded in the Hansard, and the University of Saskatchewan, which expelled the student in a 2-1 decision, but their original decision to censor and remove the artistic installation was reprimanded by the Saskatchewan Human Rights commission,” related Massie. “In the end, I chose to include it but I wrestled with that decision for about a year, trying to see my way through.”
The second challenge was the sheer enormity of the task.
“It was absolutely impossible to cover all aspects of Sylvia’s life, and a huge chunk of the manuscript was cut from the final book, just to make it more manageable – though it’s still very large,” said Massie. “Those who knew Sylvia well, or those who are looking for a listing of all her many accolades and accomplishments will find things missing. I chose to focus on Sylvia the person, as much as possible. “
So what does Massie as a seasoned author see as the best aspect of the book?
“Hmm. Great question,” offered Massie. “I think the best aspect is that there is something in it for everyone.
“Do you love sports? Perfect – there’s lots here to enjoy, from summer ball to winter curling, university sports to the story of a woman who joined the USask hockey team – as goalie – because she couldn’t really skate!
“Do you like to read about medical science, and are you proud of Saskatchewan’s role in cancer research and therapy? Excellent – you’ll find much to learn, and much to swell our pride.
“Do you really like politics and political scandals and backstories? There’s lots of that, too, and many of those stories have never been told before, and are based on brand new archival evidence and oral stories.”
It is a book Massie is satisfied she has created.
“Absolutely! And, I’ve been really gratified by the massive support for the book from some of Sylvia’s closest colleagues and friends,” she said. “One called to tell me that I “captured the essence of Sylvia”, and her perspective is, to me, the finest accolade I could ever achieve.”
Massie said she believes there will be a broad audience for the book.
“There isn’t just one audience for this book – it’s multiple audiences: sports fans, political history buffs, those who like medical history, the artistic and LGTBQ communities, and anyone who remembers Sylvia Fedoruk when she was working as one of our province’s most beloved Lieutenant Governors – plus anyone in the Yorkton region who identifies Sylvia Fedoruk as one of the most successful progenies of the area’s Ukrainian heritage,” she said.