Opinion
5 min

Remembering beloved, formidable activist Frances Wasserlein

‘She was articulate, witty, smart and cared about people, a lot,’ says friend

“The Goddess came in the wee hours this morning and took my Frances gently and quietly with her. My heart is broken, but I know she is at peace.”

So wrote Marguerite Kotwitz on the morning of Aug 23, 2015, announcing to a heartbroken community of friends and colleagues that her beloved wife Frances Jane Wasserlein had passed away at their home at the Sunshine Coast’s Halfmoon Bay. Frances was 69.

I first formally met Frances in 1991, though we later discovered that our paths had crossed much earlier, and in curious ways. We were both with the Vancouver Writers Festival, I as their new publicist and she as their box office manager, and we were both cautioned in advance that this might be a chalk and cheese encounter. A self-described “big scary dyke” and a guy whose politics she would later describe as “Red Tory with a dangerous streak of libertarianism.” How could we fail to clash?  How could anyone have predicted that we would come to adore one another?

Life’s like that, isn’t it?

Frances was born in San Francisco and moved to Vancouver with her family as a child, attending Little Flower Academy. Even then, remembers school friend Julie LeBlond Parker, “she made sure we were all politically conscious, especially about our own rights as women.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s our little town was convulsed with San Francisco envy as we tried to recreate the Summer of Love experience on West 4th Avenue. Much of the sketchier activity of the day roared in an out of an address known as Mondo House, presided over by a wild child referred to as The Amazing JW. Those who were there will know who we’re talking about.

Frances’ husband at the time was a well-known purveyor of fine herbal supplies, and The Amazing JW was also involved in what some of us called “the family business.” Comparing notes decades later, Frances and I determined that we had many acquaintances in common, and surely there had been moments when we’d been in the same room at the same time. We just couldn’t quite remember.

After almost connecting during the haze and daze of West 4th, I headed off to write a gay gossip column in the Georgia Straight, and Frances got serious, beginning with her work to help organize the 1970 Abortion Caravan from Vancouver to Ottawa. She was one of the women who founded Battered Women’s Support Services and co-founded Women Against Violence Against Women. She also worked for the YMCA’s Munroe House for women escaping violence, and for the Women’s Research Centre.

 In 1983, in the troubled times that many expected to culminate in a province-wide general strike, Frances was an organizer with Women Against the Budget, part of the larger Operation Solidarity movement.

She also found time to complete a master of arts degree in history at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and to teach Women’s and Lesbian Studies at SFU and Langara College.

Through all this she supplemented her income by doing bookkeeping for arts organizations, which led to her career as an arts administrator and thus to our connecting, or reconnecting.

Her staggeringly impressive resumé includes a stint on the BC Arts Council, involvement in the creation of Vancouver’s Montreal Massacre Memorial, two runs for Vancouver city council (once on the COPE ticket and once as an independent), annual trips to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and a gig as MC when Sounds & Furies was launched in 1990 at the WISE Hall, during the Gay Games.

“She was articulate, witty, smart and cared about people, a lot,” recalls Sounds & Furies producer and lesbian community pioneer Pat Hogan.

Frances was best known through the late 1990s and early 2000s, the years we worked together, as the executive producer of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, where she brought me along as part of her team. By then Frances and I had become fast friends and it was during a mug-up one afternoon at the Dufferin Pub that we discovered another connection, even weirder than Mondo House.

We were comparing notes, as folks do, about where we had gone to school and I told her I was a graduate of John Oliver High in South Vancouver.

“I wonder if you knew Ken X?” she asked.

“Oh gosh yes,” I replied. “In fact Ken was the first guy I ever slept with!”

I thought Frances was going to fall off her bar stool, she started laughing so hard.

Finally she was able to say: “Unbelievable! Ken was the last guy I ever slept with!”

This was a story she took great delight in sharing in a small speech years later at my 50th birthday party, much to my parents’ bemusement.

In 2003, eight days after Canada’s legalization of same-sex marriage, Frances wed Marguerite, her partner of six years, in a ceremony in a grove at Jericho Beach Park, in the midst the bustle of that year’s Folk Music Festival, along with two other lesbian couples. Someone on the main stage flipped a switch and the park echoed the strains of “Going To The Chapel of Love.”

Frances had been married twice before (not to Ken) and swore she’d never wed again. “Not even for the revolution,” she often joked. She changed her mind. “Marguerite looked at me and said, ‘But this is the revolution,’ and there wasn’t really anything I could argue with about that.”

Among the tributes that poured into Frances’ Facebook page after Marguerite posted news of her passing, many comments included reference to how “intimidated” many felt by her upon first meeting. And she was a presence. But I think that longtime friend and arts colleague Walter Quan put it best when he explained that “what some initially found intimidating, and maybe even a little frightening about Frances, was that when she spoke to you she was totally present and totally focused on you, your words, your ideas. This is so uncommon that some folks just didn’t know how to deal with it.”

It was this unusual quality that could at first “intimidate” and later charm and endear.

Frances and Marguerite relocated to the Sunshine Coast’s Halfmoon Bay in 2004, where they operated a guest cottage until last year. 

Never content with one gig at a time, Frances became executive director of the Sunshine Coast Community Arts Council, served as a trustee of the Sechelt Public Library, and taught cultural event management at Capilano College. Jane Davidson, producer of the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, recalled Frances’ arrival on the scene.

“When she arrived on the Sunshine Coast she didn’t bring with her that ‘swagger’ (for lack of a better word) that some people bring to a small community when they move in, who arrive with a ‘let me show you how it’s done’ attitude. Frances came with this incredible wealth of experience and knowledge but she took her time, walked softly, talked to people, listened, and learned about the local culture and issues of the day.”

Lindy Sisson, executive producer of the Vancouver Children’s Festival during much of Frances’ term with the Folk Fest, spoke for many when she noted: “She also had the ability to make you feel like you too could take on the world and make it a better place.  She was a giant in the arts world for a long time, but her focus was very broad and she saw how interconnected things could be.”

Through her decades as a social activist, arts community leader, and educator, Frances Wasserlein was a champion, mentor and inspiration for two generations of LGBT and cultural community leaders in Vancouver and beyond. Her warmth, calm amidst chaos, and sharp wit will be deeply missed.