Lindalee Tracey, a friend of Bhopal, dies at 49

Lindalee Tracey grew up poor in Ottawa and turned to stripping as a teenager. After becoming the central subject of Not a Love Story: a Film about Pornography, she began directing her own documentaries. In 2004, her film Bhopal, A Search for Justice, a scathing indictment of the Bhopal disaster, was aired on CBS
A child of poverty, Lindalee Tracey ran away from home as a young teenager, made a living as a stripper and exotic dancer in Montreal and forged an award-winning international career as a writer and documentary filmmaker.
Multi-talented and driven, almost as though she had a presentiment that her time would be short, she had an uncanny ability to document her own life in print and in film. As a journalist, she had an innate talent to connect with people on a visceral level, a quality that made her work controversial and unforgettable.
When her young son, Liam, started asking questions about his dead grandfather, Ms. Tracey decided to make a documentary about the father who had abandoned her as a baby. Abby, I hardly Knew Ya (1995) was a cinematic journey that took her through flop houses and long-term care facilities, as she sought out her father’s drinking buddies, and ended up in the cemetery beside his grave. Although she had intended to mouth conventional bromides about absent fathers while the cameras rolled, she found invective pouring out of her mouth in torrents of rage. Another filmmaker would have yelled cut, composed herself and started again. That might have been professional, but it wouldn’t have been authentic. And authentic, was what Lindalee Tracey was all about as a filmmaker, a writer and a person.
“She wanted people to read her work and to react to it. She had an incredible sense of adventure and a very clear idea in her own mind of right and wrong and what she should do to change things,” says Lynn Cunningham, the magazine and book editor whom Ms. Tracey credited with having “demanded the truth, however much I winced” as a writer.
“She has a great, raunchy, Rabelaisian sense of humour,” says broadcaster Shelagh Rogers, host of Sounds Like Canada on CBC Radio. “And her laugh goes on about two minutes longer than mine. And she is a vault. I have told her things I have told no one else. And those things have gone nowhere. She is everything you could want in a girlfriend. And her eyes are so beautiful. You just know you are loved by looking into her eyes.”
Those eyes — were variously described as sparkling, alive and a mirror into her personality, which was mischievous, determined, difficult and passionate. She was theatrical, a trait that she used to advantage as a burlesque dancer, and irrepressibly interested in other people, especially the poor and disadvantaged. She would walk down the street and see a panhandler. Instead of passing by with her eyes averted or dropping a loonie from on high into a plastic cup, she would sit down on the curb and have a conversation and then, as likely as not, she would invite her new friend to join her for a meal at the nearest eatery.
Of Irish and Quebecois ancestry, Lindalee Tracey was the elder of two children of Abby Tracey, an alcoholic who was in and out of jail, and Yolande Tremblay, a government clerk. Her father took off when she was a few months old, reappeared briefly and left again before her brother Paul was born a year later.
She grew up above a diner in the west end of Ottawa. “There were no trees, no parks, just the incessant rattle and dark belching of warehouses, factories and rag plants,” she wrote in her first book, On the Edge: A Journey into the Heart of Canada (1993), which was nominated for the Gordon Montador award.
“I remember a sweet unknowing before awareness and shame. The cheesy clumps of Kraft dinner and Ketchup in the roof of my mouth. The gummy front-yard tar melting to my shoes in summer. The slow creaking of springs as my mother unfolded her hide-a-bed in the living room each safe night.”
Her father was “a deadbeat, a man I didn’t know” while her mother “lived for years without her own room, without new clothes, with constant worry that lined her face early. She was poor so her children wouldn’t be.”
Ms. Tracey went to D. Roy Kennedy elementary and Woodruff High School in Ottawa. She was a sickly child, and suffered from rheumatic fever in the days before universal health care. Although she was always proud of her mother’s frugality and strength, Ms. Tracey was a rebellious teenager who ran away from home when she was 15. She rode the rails until she was picked up in Kamloops, B.C., and sent home. In 1973, she quit school and moved to Montreal where she began appearing in clubs as a stripper and an exotic dancer. She was 16.
“I just loved stripping; those were grown-up girls with real boobs, and I wanted to do that, too! It was the express lane into adulthood,” she explained to Marc Glassman in an interview in the fall, 2006, issue of POV magazine. “We paraded our imperfections. We enjoyed them … The people who came to the clubs were often sorrowful folk; and we talked to them.”
She wrote a book, Growing up Naked: My Years in Bump and Grind (1997), about her life as a peeler, working at a club called Eden under the stage name Fonda Peters. She was a runner up in the Miss Nude Canada contest and was billed as Canada’s Top Young Show Exotic on a tour of the United States, before going back to Montreal in 1967 to work in an upscale club called SexOHrama and eventually organizing an annual fundraising striporama for the Montreal Children’s Hospital called Tits for Tots. “Certainly the mid-seventies was the last good time to be a stripper,” she wrote in her memoir, “just before television swallowed our imagination, before the corporate agenda made us homogeneous and hard-core pornography spread its numbing venom.”
At first, she was a willing participant in a film titled Not a Love Story: a Film about Pornography made in 1981 by Bonnie Sherr Klein and Dorothy Henaut for Studio D, the women’s unit of the National Film Board. When she saw the finished film, she felt betrayed and exploited. “I’m reduced to porn queen, me, the softest thing in the film, the stripper who doesn’t spread, immortalized as a cheap cliché and the ‘articulate’ voice of all the live sex girls,” she wrote in Growing up Naked.
The publicity from Not A Love Story, which was variously banned and lauded, helped her to find on-air work on a Montreal television show. “I wasn’t supposed to do anything but wear tight clothes, but I brought on people like [Henry] Morgentaler,” she said in POV magazine. She began writing stories and columns for print, including articles about street people, notably a piece about homeless women — largely unexplored territory in the early 1980s — and worked in radio, hosting and co-producing Montreal Tonight on CJAD.
Ms. Tracey “went down the road” to Toronto to work for As It Happens and Sunday Morning in the mid 1980s. “She was very street wise, incredibly brash and an amazing thinker — very curious and very smart — and she could connect with almost anybody. I could send her into the most improbable places and she would find a way to get them to open up and bring back great tape,” said Norm Bolen, then the executive producer of Sunday Morning and now an executive vice-president at Alliance Atlantis. “She genuinely cared about what made other people tick and she had no respect for conventional definitions.” Ms. Tracey was also a “fabulous writer” who could fix other producer’s script problems. “She was a real word master.” At the same time, she had no deference for authority or experience, which could irritate her colleagues even as they were “dazzled” by her talent.
She met her husband, filmmaker Peter Raymont, in a documentary workshop at the old CBC radio building on Jarvis Street in 1986. “She was very bright and a quick study and she came from a different world,” Mr. Raymont said. They connected romantically at a staff party at Mr. Bolen’s house. Like Ms. Tracey, he was born in Ottawa but on the “other side of the tracks.” His father, a colonel in the Canadian army who was awarded the MBE for his war service, was a senior staff officer and historian for Department of National Defence. Together, they shared a deep commitment to social justice, human rights and making the world a better place, but her approach, at least initially, was much more hands-on.
When Mr. Raymont travelled to Nicaragua to make The World is Watching in 1987, Ms. Tracey went with him. They were married in Ottawa in 1989 and their son Liam Tracey-Raymont was born the following year. “We had a very good relationship,” said Mr. Raymont. “It was often tempestuous and sparky, but you don’t want to marry yourself. It is really good to get together with people from different worlds and you complement and help each other.”
She joined him as a partner in White Pine Pictures, an independent film, video and television production company in 1993. Its credits include Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire and A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada, for which Ms. Tracey also wrote the book.
An unregenerate multi-tasker, Ms. Tracey, who had been writing poetry since her days as a stripper in Montreal, was also writing magazine articles, mainly for Lynn Cunningham then a senior editor at Toronto Life while she was working on films with Mr. Raymont. “She was cold-calling editors and I picked up the phone,” Ms. Cunningham remembers. “She was an amazing bundle of energy and charm and outrageous wit.” Her story proposals were “the Lindalee trademark” of a writer who scorned celebrity and felt passionately about the forgotten and marginalized people in society.
One of her pieces for Toronto Life was The Uncounted Canadians about the thousands of illegal migrants who work in our fields and kitchens, hotels and restaurants. It won a couple of journalism awards and went into production this week as a pilot for a television series. Her approach, working at a story from the inside — from the perspective of a participant, rather than from the viewpoint of a detached “objective” observer — is the signature of Ms. Tracey’s work as a journalist in print and on film. “Being, moral, being decent, being honourable” whether “you are in front or behind the camera,” were lessons, Ms. Tracey said that she had derived from her experience with Not a Love Story.
Broadcaster Shelagh Rogers recognized Ms. Tracey as “a force” when she interviewed her in 1993 and was immediately attracted to her energy and fearlessness as a storyteller. She was never afraid of being a do-gooder or too-small “l” liberal in her views or of venting her outrage about the many people “who didn’t have a voice and who weren’t reflected in the national media.” Ms. Rogers says she loved Ms. Tracey’s compassion, her “personal power” and her ability to take charge and to inspire change in people.
Although she was a very active partner in White Pine Pictures, Ms. Tracey formed Magnolia Movies, as a “boutique production company” in 2003, partly because she wanted her own identity and partly because she wanted to make films that either didn’t fit the profile of White Pine or wanted to come at similar subjects from a different slant. Her first film for Magnolia was An Anatomy of Burlesque, which Globe television critic John Doyle deemed “smart and entertaining” and a “cheerfully informative jaunt through the history of burlesque funny business.” In 2004, her film Bhopal: The Search for Justice, a scathing indictment of what happened after the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 2, 1984, aired on CBC.
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About five years ago, Ms. Tracey was diagnosed with HER-2 Neu positive breast cancer, a very aggressive form of breast cancer. She was 44. After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, “it looked as though it had disappeared” for about two years, Mr. Raymont said. “Then it came back in the same part of her body and it was in her bones, her lungs and her liver.” She sought out an alternative cure in Tijuana, Mexico, in the late fall of 2004 and returned looking devastated. Desperately ill with metastatic cancer, she was eligible to receive Herceptin, on the health system, as a last-hope treatment.
“It gave her another nine months, or a year, of life,” her husband said of what seemed a remarkable recovery. During that time, she continued her frenetic work schedule, and found time to lobby Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman to make Herceptin available as well to non-metastatic Her-2 breast-cancer patients.
In January of 2006, the cancer invaded her brain. Late in September, her family took her to the palliative care unit at Princess Margaret Hospital, expecting she would last two or three days. In the end, she defied death for almost a month, as she had always confounded authority — grabbing as much life as she could and asking, on one occasion, for her loved ones to sing Gordon Lightfoot songs around her bed. Lindalee Tracey was born in Ottawa on May 14, 1957. She died of metastasized breast cancer in Toronto yesterday. She was 49. She is survived by her husband Peter Raymont, their son Liam, her mother Yollande, her brother, Paul, and her extended family.

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