Joyce Nelson Credit: Beach Guild of Fine Art

Joyce Nelson was my friend.

She died in hospital on January 4. In her final two weeks, we talked on the phone each evening – she in her hospital bed unable to get up, and me many miles away at home in the Northumberland Hills.

We had our last conversation the day before she died.  We both knew she was dying, perhaps only hours away. Her heart could no longer sustain her life. On the phone, we celebrated each other and our long friendship. Her voice was fragile, but her spirit was intense. We spoke of our love for each other.  I thanked her for her wisdom and generosity, on behalf of decades of grateful readers. She received our gratitude with grace.

And then we said goodbye.

Joyce was my hero long before we met in person. I discovered her book, Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media in 1989 while I was pursuing my research and teaching, exploring the relationship between ideology, media ethics and technology.  Her analysis leapt off the page. As I read her words, I talked to the book.  Joyce helped me discover the clues hidden in political and cultural systems, supported by the media and technology. For me Joyce’s writing was a revelation.  I was so grateful to her for affirming my suspicions and adding to my understanding. 

When I visited Vancouver Island, far from my home in Toronto, early in the 90’s, a mutual friend encouraged me to find Joyce.  Much to my surprise, Joyce agreed to meet me. I was so nervous. When we sat together in a neighbourhood park, Joyce was initially somewhat wary. She asked me a few questions, listened carefully to my responses and soon relinquished her caution. I discovered that she was a warm and attentive woman. Our discussions began at that moment and continued until our last conversation just weeks ago.

When Joyce settled in Toronto some time later, we re-established our friendship and met up every couple of months. I would rush across town, pull up at her favourite neighbourhood café, throw off my coat and join her for a good cup of coffee. We would immediately plunge into conversation.

I am now discovering that she had a collection of meeting-for-coffee-and-conversation-friends, and we would probably all agree that Joyce was a very private person. We knew little or nothing about her family or her personal life story.  I imagine that we each implicitly agreed not to challenge her boundaries.  Although she was private, she was a welcoming and respectful friend. Joyce and I were each intense women. We never held back from the intensity and pleasures of our conversations. We learned from each other. We had fierce and thrilling exchanges about political and economic systems; we peeled away the layers of evidence of media control, state and corporate entanglements. 

She was the best researcher I have ever known – an information detective. She delved deeply and searched relentlessly on behalf of her readers. Brilliantly, she connected the information dots. She investigated corporate boards, political players, all manner of agents, leaders and enablers. She was best at uncovering state contracts and collaborations that were negotiated far below the surface of public life. From this information, she built her astute analysis of the relationships between the issues and systems that dominate our lives.

Joyce took us into the seats of power and control that most of us have no knowledge of. She nurtured our curiosities and grew our understanding of the world around us. Don’t get me wrong – she didn’t propagate simplistic conspiracy theories. She unveiled political and corporate structures and practices.  She was our investigator and our guide.

In my work as a documentarian, I developed an interest in the alarming reorganization of our health care systems.  I became hyper aware of the risks and realities of privatization. These concerns fueled many of our explorations. I brought her my questions, my confusion about government and corporate “bad stuff.”  I could put my hunches on the table and sound intuitive alarm bells. I would provide her with my own clues.

Joyce would become still, look at me, look out into the distance beyond my right shoulder, and her brain would engage quietly. She asked questions and thought some more. She respected my curiosity and never judged me for what I didn’t know or understand.  At times, we would join forces, amalgamating our searches and comparing our discoveries.

Sometimes, I felt inadequate in my contributions to our shared commitment to political and social justice. I would worry that my work was too “soft”, my creativity too mushy.  She would gently blow that doubt out of the water. She understood the creative process. She understood that we each had contributions to make, as artists and activists.

After all, Joyce was also an artist- a painter and a poet.  I only recently discovered her poetry, reading Seeing in the Dark, (1996).  Although she was so private in conversation, she expressed her deepest feelings and experiences through her poetry. In reading these poems now, I feel that I can become closer to her than we were in our fierce political conversations. This has provided me with another way of knowing Joyce.

Joyce made sacrifices in her life to sustain the integrity of her research, writing and her artistry. Her life was financially modest, to put it mildly. She wrote to reach her readers rather than to prioritize her personal gain.  She lived modestly.  Her various apartments were small, her needs reduced to the minimum. After facing a round of financial hardships, she camped out in a small trailer with no water or electricity, offered to her on a friend’s property on Vancouver Island. She made the best of it, focusing on the fields, the skies and the wildlife around her new home. This inspired her painting and her poems.

Joyce was courageous. She didn’t shy away from truth telling or risk. When she was writing a series of articles for The Georgia Straight documenting the relationship between Big Pharma and the public relations industry, she named names, she pulled no punches.

One night as she lay sleeping alone in her apartment, a masked intruder broke in and stole her computer. She awoke, and chased him out. I was frightened for her, and I tried to persuade her to go to the police, to seek out safer accommodation. She would have none of this.  No one was going to force her out of her home or her work. She was a writer warrior.

In a sense, Joyce chose to live on the margins rather than try to take a place in the mainstream. Years ago, in conversation, Ursula Franklin, reminded me that often, the margins are our village. People in those margins are often creative, smart and innovative. That was our Joyce.

Will I miss her? Will we miss her?  You bet. I have unanswered questions, unfulfilled conversations that only she could satisfy. Perhaps we will ask ourselves, “What would Joyce have said?” We can search out her seven books, her hundreds of articles. Her voice is stilled, but her imperative remains. She left us her legacy of insight and analysis. We are to take her commitment and courage forward. She would expect nothing less. 

But I will miss her at my side.

Already I know

that when the time comes

and my body falls away like a husk

I will rise like the heron

my blue wings graceful

and astonishing

while below the ocean endlessly

swells and rolls.

Joyce Nelson: Changing Woman, Seeing in the Dark (1996)

Laura Sky

Laura Sky is a writer, documentary filmmaker, producer and teacher. She has created over 30 award-winning films including Soldiers’ Children (2014) and Working Life (2011). She is also the founder...