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Daphne Bramham: Mourning the death of an incorrigible advocate for equality and justice

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OPINION: Jancis Andrews was a prolific letter writer, poet and unswerving advocate who led the fight for justice for the women and children of Bountiful. She died peacefully on July 8. It may have been the only time she did anything peacefully.

Undated photo of Jancis Andrews taken when she was in Malta as a member of the Women’s Royal Navy Service. Family handout / PNG

Jancis Andrews first burst into my life when I was The Vancouver Sun’s editorial page editor. She demanded to know why there was a one-a-month limit for prolific letter-writers like her.

Having inherited the policy, and being new in the job, I don’t recall that I had an answer. Regardless, any answer would not have pleased Herself.

Jancis barged back into my life again in May 2004, raging in an email all in capital letters. Since then, she has remained a constant for me, until July 8 when she died peacefully in Lions Gate Hospital, a day before her scheduled release following a short illness.

Dying may be the only thing that Jancis ever did peacefully. As a poet, she might appreciate the irony of not having done as Dylan Thomas advised. But I’m also certain that Jancis would also acerbically note that it was men who were advised to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

No doubt, she would argue that good women — women like her — spend their lives raging at injustice.

Her May 2004 email was responding to a column I’d written about the trafficking of Asian women in Canada. Why wasn’t I writing about the girls trafficked between Bountiful in southeastern B.C. and other polygamous communities of fundamentalist Mormons in the United States.

I politely replied in upper and lower case that I didn’t know anything about it. What did she know? The response was long and detailed. So detailed that it included the private cellphone number for Utah’s attorney-general at the time, Mark Shurtleff.

Turns out they were on a first-name basis, having spoken so frequently about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and, in particular, Bountiful’s bishop Winston Blackmore.

And so began a 15-year journey for me and many others trying to get justice for Bountiful’s women and children. Always, Jancis prodded us to do more.

Although she was living in Sechelt at the time, Jancis was the first to raise the alarm with the RCMP in Creston. Her letters over the years were so frequent and voluminous that RCMP created a Jancis Andrews file.

She was delighted to learn that, but also furious that it has taken so long for anyone to be charged, tried and convicted. She was angry to the end that Blackmore and another former FLDS bishop, James Oler, were only charged with polygamy and not with raping under-aged girls, even though that evidence is also in the RCMP’s files.

Her second-last letter to The Sun was in July 2018 after Blackmore was sentenced to six months under house arrest. She called it a “a slap in the face of all Canadian women who trusted that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality before the law to all Canadians, would be upheld.”

Born 85 years ago in Northumberland, she ran away from school at 15, and at 18 joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

While posted in Malta in 1954, the HMCS Glasgow hosted a party attended by Jancis as well as Lord and Lady Mountbatten. There were “excuse me” dances where people were encouraged to cut in on the dancers and swap partners. With the Mountbattens on the dance floor, her friends Val and Bleachy bet Jancis five shillings to cut in on the couple.

“It was,” she said, “the easiest five shillings I’ve ever earned.”

She tapped Lady Mountbatten on the shoulder and found herself “dancing with an elephant — he had no sense of rhythm.” Still, he was one of the handsomest men she had ever seen.


Jancis Andrews (centre) in her WRENS uniform flanked by her sisters in arms.

Family handout / PNG

In Malta, she also met a handsome sailor named James Ian Andrews. They married and had two children, Keith and Elaine, in England before emigrating — against her will, or so she said. They lived first in Toronto before moving to West Vancouver in 1972.

While raising her children, Jancis completed the high school courses she needed before going on to complete a bachelor of arts degree at the University of B.C. But it was at Capilano College that an instructor encouraged her poetry writing.

Her poem titled Grandmothers in Chinatown was the unanimous winner in The Vancouver Sun’s 1991 poetry contest.

She described them as “twigs of black pants and dragon-embroidered jackets, shuffling between family and franchise on a culture still alien after 50 years.”

It ends with questions: What do they have to teach me, the loud-mouthed, white-skinned giantess from British Properties/ crashing the barrier of Chinatown’s East Pender Street?/ What do I know of dragons, however silken, that stalk their sleep?/ How does one enter a language shaped like twigs/ even though those twigs be cherry blossom?

She had three books published with two of the poetry books reviewed in The Sun (albeit, not entirely to her liking, as she complained in a letter to the editor).

But it was her letters to the editor that readers will best remember and that plot her passions, wide-ranging interests and cheeky wit.

In 1995, she wrote: “I don’t understand the complaint that cordless telephones are dialling 911 when their batteries are dying. It’s an emergency for them, right? What other number would we expect them to dial?”

After a particularly light sentence for a father convicted of raping a child, she tartly wrote in 1997: “So Justice Kerr Twaddle of the Manitoba Court of Appeal believes that ‘babysitting and household chores,’ such as dusting, washing the dishes and sweeping the floor, turn 13-year-old children into mature, informed, equal partners in sex acts with adults, does he? Judge Twaddle is exquisitely well-named.”

Nothing inflamed Jancis more than injustice, except people’s willingness to hide behind rules and regulations rather than remedy the situation, regardless of whether they were attorneys-general or executives of the several University Women’s Club chapters that she joined and quit in disgust.

For all her anger, compassion, endless emails and absolute unswerving, unbending dedication to women’s rights, I adored Jancis and already miss her fiercely.

She taught everyone willing to listen that fighting for justice and equality isn’t brave or even a choice. It’s our responsibility, even if it is a lot of thankless, bloody work.

[email protected]

Twitter: @bramham_daphne


Jancis Andrews surrounded by family shortly before her death on July 8, 2019.

Family handout / PNG

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