Archive for the ‘cobalt-60’ Category

Sylvia Fedoruk spent her life moving toward royalty.

In fact, she came far closer, far more often, to the British Royal Family than many other Saskatchewan citizens. And in this time of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, it’s fitting to recount the many times that Sylvia Fedoruk connected with royalty.

It started, as many stories do, with her parents. Sylvia’s mother, Annie Romaniuk Fedoruk, was an ardent royalist. She cut images from newspapers and magazines, built a scrapbook, lovingly followed the royal family, and when Elizabeth II came to the throne and gave her Christmas broadcast, Annie Fedoruk was in the living room, radio or television on, family hushed to hear the Queen’s speech. That reverence was part of the fabric of the household where Sylvia was raised.

The first royal encounter came when Sylvia was twelve. It was 1939, and the new king, George VI and his wife Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother) were on a royal tour of Canada. Western Canada, especially the towns near the stations where the royal train was due to stop, were on fire with royal fever. Sylvia’s parents, Annie and Ted Fedoruk, arranged for a farm truck and scooped up the local schoolchildren — Ted was Sylvia’s one-room schoolteacher — and took them on a trip to the nearby town of Melville, where the King and Queen were to stop.

For one brief moment, Melville became the largest town in Saskatchewan as people poured out of wagons, buggies, cars, and trucks to fill the streets. Sylvia darted away from her schoolmates and parents and, sneaking and swirling, made her way through the crowd towards the rear of the train, where the royal couple — stunned at the size of the pulsing, wildly cheering crowd — were waving. She snuck as close as she dared and waved madly, shivering in excitement as the sky filled with fireworks. For a kid who managed to survive the Great Depression, it was a moment caught in Sylvia’s memory: I saw the king and queen.

Image of Sylvia Fedoruk at age 12, dressed in a white dress with a neck bow and wearing flowers in her hair, ready to greet royalty in 1939.
Sylvia Fedoruk in 1939, thought to be dressed for the royal visit at Melville

By 1951, there was a new royal superstar in the making: Princess Elizabeth and her dashing naval officer husband, Prince Phillip. With Elizabeth’s father suffering in secret in declining ill health, Elizabeth and Phillip were starting to take on a more active role in the colonies. Their Canadian tour in 1951 brought the royals to Saskatoon, right to the University of Saskatchewan where Sylvia had just finished her stunning masters work on calibrating the depth dose for the cobalt-60 unit, for cancer treatment. Again, Sylvia, as ardent a royalist as her mother, would have been in The Bowl on campus, probably perching in the bleachers, waving and cheering as Elizabeth — not yet queen — swept past with Phillip.

Sylvia’s royal watching cooled for a time, as she threw herself into work and built an impressive science career as a medical physicist. Yes, she remained faithful and, alongside Annie, listened to the new Queen’s Christmas broadcasts and kept abreast of royal comings and goings.

In 1971, Sylvia went with a group of Canadian ladies to Scotland, to participate in a moving, multi-venue bonspiel of epic proportions. Before returning home, Sylvia crafted and sent a warm thank you note to Queen Elizabeth, to tell her about the trip and thank the Queen for the impressive British and Scottish hospitality. Sylvia was delighted when her simple note drew a warm official response from Buckingham Palace.

In 1977, the Queen was once again in Canada and this time, there was going to be a party in Ottawa: a Tribute to Young Canadians Who Have Achieved Excellence in the Arts and Sciences — and Sylvia, as the first first woman member of the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada, was invited. Apparently, no one looked at Sylvia’s birth certificate because if they had, they would have realized that ‘young’ was a bit of a misnomer: she was, in fact, just one year younger than the Queen, and both women were on the far side of fifty. Nonetheless, with Ottawa covering the costs, Sylvia flew to the capital to attend the glitzy gala and — in the Queen’s quiet, intelligent style — Elizabeth II circulated through the room and to Sylvia’s lasting honour, stopped Sylvia for a private chat about nuclear physics, cancer treatment, and nuclear power.

Just a year later, the Queen was visiting Yorkton as part of her cross-Canadian tour. Sylvia made a strategic visit home to the small city to see her aunt (Sylvia’s mom had died in 1968 and her father in 1977). Sylvia and her auntie, along with Sylvia’s dog Tinker, stood along the roadway, waving madly at the motorcade, then hopped into their own car and scooted across town to stand alongside another part of the route and wave enthusiastically when the Queen swept by again. Sylvia’s extended family lore relates that the Queen — a dog lover — took a second look when she recognized the dog! [Note: I mistakenly remembered this incident from 1967 and my original post set it there and then, but a subsequent dig through my files put the story into the right year… sorry!]

Ten years later, in 1987, Sylvia Fedoruk was the first female Chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan and invited to attend a luncheon at the Centennial Auditorium — with a mere thousand other guests — in honour of the Queen’s visit. Sylvia also filled out the crowds at the royal ribbon-cutting for the new canoeing and rowing facilities on the edge of the south Saskatchewan. Yet all of these encounters were just a foretaste: the real connection to royalty was still to come.

Sylvia Fedoruk became Saskatchewan’s first female lieutenant governor, in 1988. It was a wildly exciting time for Sylvia, not least of which because, as per custom, each new lieutenant governor was granted one trip to Britain to meet the Queen, sometime during their tenure. Sylvia was eager to go. However, that trip would have to wait. In the meantime, one of Sylvia’s first, and joyous, announcements as Lieutenant Governor was to let the public know that a slightly different royal trip was in the works: Prince Andrew and his then wife Sarah Ferguson (affectionately known as Fergie) were coming to Saskatchewan. Their Saskatchewan trip gave Sylvia multiple times to connect and act as the province’s official royal hostess, including presenting Sarah with several homemade teddy bears, one dressed like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer.

Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson, and Sylvia Fedoruk. Sarah is holding up a teddy bear made for her.
Andrew, Sarah, and Sylvia, 1989

In 1993, quietly but with great excitement, Sylvia was finally able to board a plane to London, UK, to meet the woman she had been representing as Lieutenant Governor in government and in communities across Saskatchewan. Her day timer notation said it all:

Meet with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Sylvia’s handwriting in Sylvia’s day timer.

Sylvia thought, perhaps, that visit to London, to Buckingham Palace and her private meeting with the Queen would be the end. But, in line with Sylvia’s astonishing royal luck, there was one more meeting. In 2005, for the province’s 100th birthday celebrations, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip returned to the province. And Sylvia, as a past lieutenant governor and past member of the University of Saskatchewan Board of Governors, was invited to some of the Queen’s smaller events. It’s from this last visit that Sylvia’s treasure trove of photograph albums reveals its prize: a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, walking outside at USask and greeting people. Finally, after all these meetings, far and near, personal and amongst the cheering crowds, Sylvia had a photograph of the Queen to keep, for her very own, to remind her of their long long history of connecting. Sylvia was content.

Queen Elizabeth II in Saskatoon. Photograph by Sylvia Fedoruk, 2005.

[As an aside: that 2005 trip garnered one of my favourite stories about someone I know meeting the Queen. Dr. Bill Waiser presented Queen Elizabeth II with a copy of his Saskatchewan provincial history, called “Saskatchewan: A New History.” Prince Phillip, ever the curmudgeon, asked “What’s wrong with the old history?”]

Sylvia Fedoruk would have been 95 this year, just a year younger than Elizabeth II. They saw the world change from Depression through war through scientific advancement and cancer treatment to rockets and a trip to the moon, to the internet and a world that became both larger and smaller. Through it all, Sylvia remained an ardent royalist and a woman as dedicated to service and supporting others as the Queen herself. If we can’t characterize their connection as friendship, it was certainly one of mutual admiration and respect. And Sylvia cherished each and every one of those connections, from driving wildly across Yorkton to wave twice at Her Majesty’s motorcade, to riding in style through the gates of Buckingham Palace for a private audience with Elizabeth II.

God Save our Gracious Queen. Long live the King.

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I’m so honoured and proud to announce that my most recent book, A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon and Stateswoman (University of Regina Press) was both nominated for, and won, the 2021 Saskatchewan Book Award USask President’s Award for Non-Fiction. My biggest thanks to the Saskatchewan Book Awards and to the three judges in my awards category: Anne Budgell, Annahid Dashtgard, and Ariel Gordon.

The other nominees are luminous, with critically important and/or really fun books:

Genocidal Love: A Life After Residential School (University of Regina Press) by Bevann Fox.
Flat Out Delicious: Your Definitive Guide to Saskatchewan’s Food Artisans (Touchwood Editions), by Jenn
Sharp (photography by Richard Marjan).
Loss of Indigenous Eden: and the Fall of Spirituality (University of Regina Press) by Blair Stonechild.
In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation (Fifth House Publishers) by Bill Waiser.

If you’re so inclined, and didn’t get a chance, I recommend that you take the time to watch the two videos created by the Saskatchewan Book Awards for the event. The first is the video for the shortlist, so you can stock up the next time you’re in a bookstore:

Saskatchewan Book Awards: Shortlist 2021

The second is the video with this year’s chosen award winners and gala:

I’m absolutely gratified by the nomination, and then by the win, in part because I had such an unexpected hiccup while writing the biography. I came to the biography by way of friendship with C. Stuart Houston, a Canadian radiologist, medical historian and ornithologist. He had the idea that Sylvia’s biography should be written, and that he thought I should take the lead on that and he would help. Our partnership was not in writing (my job) but in background research, as Stuart spent a bit of time searching out some of Sylvia’s published journal articles, and spoke with several of her colleagues. It soon became clear, though, that we had quite different visions for the book. I was deeply interested in Sylvia’s sports and volunteer history, as well as her medical research after her groundbreaking cobalt-60 work and her role as the first female USask Chancellor and first female Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor. She had a huge life, well-lived, that deserved time and energy. Stuart’s focus tended to the firsts, lists of her many accolades, and would often veer into side biographies of men and women that Sylvia hadn’t necessarily worked with or even met. I pulled him back, and off he’d go again. Even so, those differences were navigable, more or less, until we hit a rather large snag.

That large snag was the story of USask student, Christopher Lefler. Lefler came to Saskatoon to pursue a masters in art, and he was a cutting edge student doing avant garde artistic installations which regularly pushed audiences to places that they hadn’t expected to be. As I went through Sylvia’s files in the archive, then pored through newspaper articles and W5 CTV segments and documentaries and spoke with people, the connection between Lefler and Fedoruk was impossible to ignore, and impossible to leave out of the biography.

In essence, the story is simple: Christopher Lefler created artistic installations that worked to ‘out’ Sylvia Fedoruk as a gay woman, while she was the head of government as the Lt Governor of Saskatchewan. The result was a university, a provincial media, and a provincial government who moved entirely in lock-step to protect her: removing and censoring the art installation, retracting Lefler’s funding and supervisor, eventually expelling him from the university; media refusal to publish her name in connection with the story and censorship of the student newspaper (The Sheaf) when they aimed to publish the story; and the provincial government rescinding a jury-awarded Saskatchewan Arts Board grant to Christopher Lefler, the only time in Saskatchewan history that an awarded grant has been rescinded.

It was a huge, huge story and Stuart did not want the book to include it. A sentence or two, a paragraph at most, he declared. It didn’t deserve more. Stuart and I were at an impasse. I knew something was a bit wrong when he tried, on a regular basis, to steer me away from speaking with certain people, people that I knew had been close with Syl. It’s only in hindsight that I managed to put it all together: Stuart thought that even including this story would give readers the indication that Syl was, indeed, a gay woman. I, on the other hand, didn’t care at all about trying to ‘prove’ one way or the other Sylvia Fedoruk’s private life and sexual identity. I saw the story instead as one of power, of how it moves and can be focused, how it is actioned and how it protects and ostracizes. It also was a story that, in the end, showcased just how much Sylvia Fedoruk meant to the province: its government, university, media and the general public. Stuart said, vehemently, that he did not want to be part of a book that included that story. So we broke the planned co-authorship and I continued writing. It was a sad time, yet I knew I couldn’t make any other choice, and neither could he.

Even so, with the chapter fully written, I worried: should I include it? Would it overpower Sylvia’s story and her many contributions? So I asked my Mom, who in 2018 was dying from metastatic lung cancer. Mom, this is the story. Should I include it? Yes, she said, with fervor. Yes. You must include it. It’s when we see the dark parts of Sylvia’s life, Mom argued, that we also see how bright she shone. The book was dedicated to my Mom, Mary Kirychuk McGowan.

When I submitted the too-large manuscript to the press and asked for some help and direction in cutting the thing down to manageable size, I started to wonder: are they reading it? Had they got to the Lefler chapter yet? I had politely enthusiastic responses and some vague directions. Then BANG: my phone started to hop with texts and emails. A ha, I laughed. They got to that chapter. My editor was retired newspaper journalist Sean Prpick, and we meshed as a team over that chapter, in long phone calls and discussions, some cajoling, and some recalcitrant stubbornness to polish that chapter and make it as smooth as we could.

When I submitted the draft manuscript to the publisher in January of 2019, I also took a copy to Stuart and Mary Houston, for their review and editing. I gave them two different coloured pens, and instructions that I wanted both of their comments, but in different pens. It’s clear that Stuart read it first, with copious comments in red in the margins, especially about the medical history contained in the book. Mary’s pen was green, and hers made me laugh uproariously. If Stuart made a comment with which she disagreed, the green pen would gently stroke out his red exhortation and calmly say, ‘no’. It was a masterclass in editing, and in marriage.

There were no pens, of either colour, on the Lefler chapter. I wasn’t expecting them.

When the book finally went to press in 2020 and the author copies came in July, I drove to Saskatoon to take one to Stuart. Mary had, to everyone’s sadness, passed away in 2019 but Stuart and I toasted the book with a drink. Then I left and he read it, again and again and again over the course of the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021. Every few weeks, there would be another phone call and either a long chat or a message on my answering machine: I’ve read the book again, and underlined so much, and I only underline what you got right, and now the whole book is full of underlines. His praise meant so much.

On one of those calls, he quietly admitted that he saw why I included the Lefler chapter, and recognized that it belonged, even if he didn’t like it. It was, for both of us, a warm ending.

When A Radiant Life was awarded the Saskatchewan Book Award for non-fiction in late June of 2021, I tried calling Stuart. No answer, and a full voice mail so I was unable to leave a message. I kept trying, for weeks, covid still keeping restrictions on visitation. I never got through. At the end of July, I learned that Stuart had suffered a stroke and seemed to be recovering, but on July 22nd, he slipped away to join Mary. We never got that chance to connect and celebrate the win — but, I think, he knew.

I am intensely proud of this book, and I hope each and every one of you takes a chance on it, and reads it. Sylvia Fedoruk was a life force; her energy still radiates. I welcome you to come and meet her — you won’t regret it.

The University of Saskatchewan hosted the online book launch for A Radiant Life in September 2020 — with Merle Massie and Dr. Vera Pezer

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It’s here! It’s here! It’s here!

A-Radiant-Life-cover 1

The University of Regina Press has released my new book, A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon and Stateswoman. 

Isn’t that the most spectacular cover you’re ever seen? At first I was, hey, it should be green! She was Saskatchewan’s best and loudest cheerleader and that’s our provincial colour. But my son said, Mom, she was the lieutenant governor. The Queen’s colour is purple. And I thought — that’s right.

It’s been such a journey. I began thinking about the book along with Dr. Stuart Houston in about 2013, and began writing in 2015, off the side of my desk in the bits and drabs of time I could give. In 2018, I was awarded a Saskatchewan Arts Board Independent Artist grant, which gave me four months of concerted time. A full manuscript in January 2019 (much too long) got edited (40,000 words cut) at a writers’ retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster in early May 2019. A lot of polishing, editing and copyediting, choosing photographs, typesetting and printing and ta-dah — it’s here!

The team at University of Regina Press has been absolutely stellar. From Karen Clark who gave me encouragement to keep going, to Kelly Laycock the managing editor, Sean Prpick who was my original editor (I could tell when he got to certain chapters — he got really excited!), Duncan Campbell the artistic director, and ZG Stories who has taken on the marketing and publicity for the book, I just couldn’t be better served by a Saskatchewan-based publisher — and I know that’s what Sylvia Fedoruk would have wanted.

I have an invitation for you: The University of Saskatchewan (which is both my and Sylvia’s alma mater) is hosting an online book launch on September 15th at 7pm. You can register for the event here, and an email link to the online launch will be sent to you in about a week. Please join us!

Timeline of Sylvia Olga Fedoruk: 

Born: May 5, 1927 at Canora, Saskatchewan

4. Sylvia and Annie 1927

Annie Fedoruk and Syl, 1927

Schooling: Chaucer and Scotland Schools, near Wroxton Saskatchewan. Then move to Walkerville, Ontario during WWII.

3. Sylvia in 1945 riding a bike

Syl Fedoruk, Walkerville Ontario 1945

Sylvia Fedoruk returned to Saskatchewan with her family in 1946 and entered the University of Saskatchewan. She took medals on 12 intervarsity sports teams, and won the Spirit of Youth Award at Convocation.

In 1951, Syl would make a Canadian scientific splash as the female Saskatoon team member of the cobalt-60 therapy breakthrough for cancer treatment. Dubbed the ‘cobalt bomb,’ it would become Syl’s best-known scientific accomplishment.

14. Sylvia showing the cobalt bomb treatment head, 1951

By 1960, Syl was making waves in the Canadian curling scene, playing third for Joyce McKee. Their team won the first Canadian ladies curling championship.

Once her sports career finished, Syl turned her attention to building the game and was instrumental in bringing Canadian ladies’ curling on par with men’s curling in the 1970s. By then, she was both a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the college of medicine, and Director of Physics Services for the Saskatchewan Cancer Association. Elected as the first woman to the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada, she retired from all of her positions in 1986 — but didn’t stay retired. She was elected as the first woman chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan in 1986, followed by her appointment, in 1988, as the first woman Lieutenant Governor for Saskatchewan.

Syl was also awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, the Order of Canada, and became a Dame of the Order of St. John. She served twice on the board of Governors for the University of Saskatchewan, and was awarded five honorary degrees — the last, in 2006, from her own University of Saskatchewan.

In her spare time and for fun, Syl could be found with her dog (in her lifetime, she owned three: Tinker, Charli, and MaxC), gardening and canning, playing poker, fishing up north, collecting curling pins, cheering at Huskie games while screaming at the refs, taking photographs and videos, or cooking — though she would send all the leftovers home with you.

Everyone in Saskatchewan who had the honour and joy to meet her, found an impressive mind, a warm spirit, an earthy humour, a no-nonsense viewpoint, and a new friend.

Syl Fedoruk passed away at age 85 in 2012, and was given a state funeral in Saskatoon.


It has been both an honour and a pleasure to be the first to delve into Sylvia Fedoruk’s files in the archives of the University of Saskatchewan, and to bring you this amazing story of a truly unique, truly Saskatchewan woman.

Listen to Merle Massie discuss A Radiant Life via these media stories: 

With Peter Mills on CBC August 29th 2020

With John Gormley: John Gormley – Merle Massie August 28th 2020

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