Friends, family and former colleagues are paying tribute to the NWT and Nunavut’s “fearless and dogged” first information and privacy commissioner.
Elaine Keenan Bengts passed away on Monday, Aug. 8, after a battle with cancer. She was 63.
“She was like a bulldog,” says her sister, Leanne Tait. “When she got something in her head, she pulled out all the stops to try and make it happen.”
Born in Saskatoon, Keenan Bengts moved with her family to Yellowknife in 1969, where she would live most of the rest of her life. She began her career as a lawyer, being called to the NWT bar in 1983 and later started her own practice.
Katherine Peterson, a colleague, mentor, and occasional courtroom opponent of Keenan Bengts’s who practiced in Yellowknife for 33 years, remembers her as “a fearless and dogged representative for her clients.”
“She was not an “easy” opponent, she was fierce and determined. Her dedication and spirit was inspiring to so many, myself included.”
Her tenacity shone through in her personal life too: Tait says in April, Keenan Bengts was given just weeks to live by her doctors. However, her seventh grandchild wasn’t due until October, and she was determined to hang on until then.
Although she didn’t make it, “She lasted a lot longer than people thought she would because she had that determination,” says her sister.
She became the NWT’s first privacy commissioner in 1997, when Nunavut was still part of the territory, serving in the role for more than two decades before retiring in 2020. During her tenure, the territory saw many privacy-related scandals, including multiple incidents of private medical documents accidentally being faxed to CBC, and the discovery of more private medical records at a dump in Fort Simpson. During these incidents, Keenan Bengts was in the news, shining a light on the territory’s privacy failures and advocating for the importance of privacy in a democracy.
However, Tait says her sister’s proudest accomplishment was her work with the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club: As president of the club, she spearheaded the fundraising campaign to have a permanent home for gymnastics added to the multiplex in the early 90s. “She did it because her kids were involved in gymnastics, but [also] because the community needed it,” says Tait. “She got ‘er done.”
She also contributed to Yellowknife’s sports community by serving several years on the board of Sport North.
Keenan Bengts didn’t keep many close friends, but Gail Parker-Simpson was one of them, after the two met at a Girl Scouts camp nearly 50 years ago. “She was a loyal friend, a true friend,” says Parker-Simpson.
Over the course of their friendship, the two were present for many milestones in each others lives, from new jobs to new grandchildren. Each time they reunited after long spells apart, “It was like we had never left each other,” says Parker-Simpson.
“It was a long and storied life. She was well loved, and she will be well missed.”
Keenan Bengts leaves behind a husband, three children, and six grandchildren, with a seventh on the way. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Aug. 13 at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph School.