Radiant Life, A

8 October 2020

A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk, Scientist, Sports Icon, and Stateswoman
by Merle Massie
Published University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$34.95 ISBN 978-0889777330

As twelve-year-old Sylvia Fedoruk watched their majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on their 1939 cross-Canada tour, she thought this would be the closest she’d ever get to royalty. How mistaken she was. Nearly fifty years later she was sworn in as the Queen’s representative, becoming Saskatchewan’s first female lieutenant-governor.

Merle Massie’s lively biography, A Radiant Life, offers an intimate look at the life and career of Sylvia Fedoruk. In her preface, Massie describes Sylvia as someone who “sang lustily, laughed uproariously and often, and believed that life was for living.”

Instead of using her subject’s surname, Massie uses her first name throughout. Sylvia, after all, sounds much more personal. Right away, readers get to know her on a personal level and instantly feel closer to her.

Sylvia attended one-room schools east of Yorkton, SK., where her father taught. To avoid being called “teacher’s pet,” Sylvia endeavoured not only to perform well, but to outperform. She did. She averaged at least two scholarships every year throughout high school and university.

A sports enthusiast, Sylvia excelled at curling, baseball, and golf. She spent thirty-five years as a physicist at the Saskatchewan Cancer Commission, where her development of the cobalt-60 radiation unit saved the lives of many cancer patients. She became chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, was inducted as an Officer of the Order of Canada, and received the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, the province’s highest honour.

Massie shows a thoughtful and caring woman. When Sylvia won a sweepstakes by correctly guessing the arrival date of her supervisor’s baby, she donated her winnings to the newborn’s parents. At the cancer clinic, she kept ample change on hand to feed the meters, ensuring that her patients didn’t get parking tickets while undergoing treatment.

A master storyteller, Massie goes beyond listing Sylvia’s accomplishments; she treats her as a human being, with human frailties. In her role as lieutenant-governor, Sylvia was required to maintain a position of impartiality. When news broke that she’d written a cheque to a federal political party, she quickly admitted, “It was a stupid thing to do.” Despite this, she remained as lieutenant-governor.

Another scandal erupted in 1993 when Christopher Lefler, a self-proclaimed gay student at the University of Saskatchewan, insinuated that Sylvia was in a lesbian relationship. Such was the high esteem in which the media held Sylvia that they withheld her name, saying only that accusations had been levelled against a “prominent Saskatchewan official.”

Not having children of her own, Sylvia, as lieutenant-governor, more or less adopted all Saskatchewan children as hers. But she didn’t let the children’s adoration go to her head. With typical self-deprecating humour, she remarked that of course children were glad to see her. It meant they got the day off school.

With an index, notes, and forty-seven black and white photos, Merle Massie’s A Radiant Life paints a portrait of a radiant woman who loved life, and lived it to the fullest.


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