Elaine Keenan Bengts, inspirational and fearless lawyer, passes away

Elaine Keenan Bengts, whose fierce defence of those with no voice culminated in more than two decades scrutinizing government, has passed away at the age of 63.

No lawyer in the territory had quite the reputation of Elaine, who dedicated extraordinary hours to family law, one of the most difficult and overlooked branches of the profession.

Her refusal to be cowed in a courtroom and her compassion for clients proved an inspiration to a generation of female litigators. As the NWT’s first information and privacy commissioner from 1997 to 2020, she turned her steadfast, incisive gaze on government, successfully lobbying for the commissioner to be given the crucial power to order departments to make things right.

Yet she still found time for her family and community, notably spearheading a campaign to have a gymnastics facility built.

“The quality of the community in which she lived and raised her family was important to her, and she invested selflessly in that,” said Katherine Peterson, now the Nunavut legislature’s integrity commissioner, who worked alongside Elaine in northern law for more than three decades.

“When you’re a busy lawyer in private practice, you don’t have a lot of spare time. She took that time and invested it in Yellowknife.”

Lee Phypers, Elaine’s longtime assistant and friend, said: “She was a good friend, first, and then she was a really good boss. She respected my opinion, she would listen, and lots of times I was right – not that she wanted to admit it.

“She was just a really good human being.”

A trailblazer

Elaine was born in Saskatoon on October 3, 1958, then grew up in Sherwood Park before the family moved to Yellowknife in 1969, supposedly for a brief, two-year stay. She ultimately lived in the city for more than half a century.

Her father, Jack Keenan, not only propelled her toward a career in law but also helped to summon the fighting spirit for which Elaine would be known all her life.

“Our dad died when I was 16 and Elaine was 20,” recalled Leanne Tait, one of Elaine’s three siblings.

“Maybe that was a pivot point for her. Dad was taken from us too early and, by God, Elaine was going to make the difference he wanted to make. He was a huge community guy, too, right? He was chairman of the school board when St Joe’s [the Yellowknife school] was built – he’s the one who got St Joe’s built.”

Elaine was called to the NWT bar in 1983 and soon opened her own family law practice.

“She was a bulldog. She was absolutely ferocious,” said Sheila MacPherson, a partner at Lawson Lundell LLP who practised family law alongside Elaine for many years, then worked as the NWT legislature’s law clerk while Elaine served as information and privacy commissioner.

“She believed passionately in her files and she would work very, very hard to get people through an often difficult time in their life. It’s a tough area of law to practice in, and it is so important to do it well and with sensitivity, and let your client know you have got their back.”

Seeing Elaine succeed meant a great deal to younger female lawyers in a world where male voices often dominated and women were not expected to display the kind of no-nonsense fight Elaine possessed.

“When they talk about Elaine being so ferocious, direct and hard-working, that kind of thing – I’ve often been described as aggressive, too strong as a woman,” said Tricia Ralph, now Nova Scotia’s information and privacy commissioner, who began her career in the Northwest Territories and worked with Elaine before taking her present position.

“I really looked up to Elaine because I watched her in court, for years, argue like that,” said Ralph. “She was a trailblazer in that regard, especially as a woman in the North.

“I was afraid of her. I’d see her in court and think, ‘Holy shit, she doesn’t give a shit.’ In a good way! When people challenged her, she did not back down unless she was wrong. In her age group, responding to counsel trying to bully you, it was really powerful to watch.”

Peterson described Elaine’s work as “fearless” in representing people who did not have a voice in a system, ranging from people affected by privacy breaches to someone having difficulty adopting a child.

“Those people need someone to at the very least stand by their side and, usually, to be their champion,” Peterson said. “Elaine was a champion for those people.”

“She wasn’t somebody who often made headlines,” said MacPherson. “She wasn’t a showboat. She was a solid workhorse who did what she thought was right.”

A ‘significant’ legislative win

The creation of the NWT information and privacy commissioner’s role gave Elaine the opportunity to profoundly influence a position that became increasingly important in a world governed by data.

She went on to perform the role for the NWT and Nunavut simultaneously, a workload that might have sunk others.

“She very much identified with the individuals who get pushed around by either societal factors or institutional stupidity,” said Peterson. “She didn’t care if the government didn’t like what she had to say.”

“She faced a fair bit of pushback from all sorts of quarters,” said Tait, “because she was having to do things that were unpopular – holding governments and the legislature to account, which never brings you hugs and kisses.

“But she was well-respected and I think that’s the balance she was able to strike, even though she had to issue some harsh criticisms.”

Elaine Keenan Bengts
Elaine Keenan Bengts. Photo: Supplied

MacPherson remembers the summer of 2019, in which Elaine – after years of trying – finally convinced NWT MLAs that the commissioner needed the power not just to recommend changes, but to order departments to make them.

In her role at the legislature, MacPherson knew before Elaine did that a committee of MLAs had accepted her arguments.

“I remember her sitting in the committee room as committee members read out the motions to amend the bill,” MacPherson recalled. “And when she heard those motions, she began to smile. I’ll never forget it.

“Those amendments gave the information and privacy commissioner the authority to make orders, not just recommendations, so she had the ability to direct the government to do things and produce certain information. And if the government didn’t like it, they had to go to court.

“That’s a very significant change to the law and Elaine was just utterly, absolutely delighted. That was one of her shining moments.”

Her sharp eye for privacy carefully tracked the vast changes to people’s lives introduced by the likes of Facebook, Google and Instagram.

“She was the one that had us changing our Facebook settings,” said Tait, recalling Elaine showing family members exactly how to push their privacy settings to the max.

“She didn’t just do the work, she lived it.”

‘She did everything’

As Elaine lived that work, she worked hard on the community in which she lived.

One week before she passed away, Yellowknife’s gymnastics club confirmed by letter that its facility will be formally renamed the Elaine Bengts Gym, recognizing her central role in its creation. A team of four who helped to fundraise for the facility will be honoured by plaques at its entrance.

“They did raffle after raffle, festival after festival. They raffled off a Hummer. They did car raffles year after year to raise money, and it still wasn’t enough,” said Tait.

“She pleaded her case to city council and said, ‘Listen, I don’t want taxes to go up as a result of providing support to the gym club, but here’s how you can help us.’ She persuaded council to provide the support that was needed.

“But still, the banks just wouldn’t give them a mortgage. So she and three other families put their houses on the line to underwrite the mortgage for the gym club.”

Phypers, whose kids were gymnasts and who spent more than two decades on the club’s board, remembers Elaine scrubbing toilets, painting walls and spending countless hours setting up equipment.

“She did everything,” Phypers said.

Behind what Tait calls her “public persona,” however, Elaine was “the central hub of a very close-knit family.”

“Sunday dinner was at her place,” her sister said. “Every time a new child was born into the family, she would spend hundreds of hours cross-stitching heirloom-quality Christmas stockings for them. She had this real inner core and this public outer core, and those two things were what made her tick.”

'Quintessential Elaine,' said sister Leanne, with cross-stitching and family photos nearby
‘Quintessential Elaine,’ said sister Leanne, with cross-stitching and family photos nearby. Photo: Supplied
Elaine and husband Peter with their dog
Elaine and husband Peter with their dog, Buddy. Photo: Supplied

Phypers remembers Elaine and her dog, Buddy, departing for walks every lunch hour.

“She was a force and people didn’t want to mess with her, but underneath she was a really kind person,” she said.

Elaine was diagnosed with cancer in 2021, a year after leaving her position in the NWT. She had been planning to retire to Prince Edward Island.

“I really just regret that she didn’t have time to enjoy some of the downtime in her life,” said MacPherson.

“I visited her over the past months quite a few times and she still had her spirit.

“About a month ago, she was shaking her head and saying, ‘This is so ridiculous.’ She was so frustrated. It was just like she was in court, responding to an argument I had made – ‘this is ridiculous!’ – but she was talking about the fact that she was dying.”

Phypers explained that Elaine chose PEI to be close to one of her best friends, Gayle, having bought property nearby.

However, when Phypers tried to use Facebook to confirm the spelling of Gayle’s name for this obituary, Gayle’s privacy settings were so high that she did not show up in a search.

“Oh my God, Elaine,” Phypers said, in mock exasperation, knowing who would be responsible for that.

“She has all the security measures in place. I can’t tell you.”

Elaine Keenan Bengts passed away on Monday, August 8. She is survived by husband Peter, children Amanda, Lauren and Stacie, six grandchildren (with a seventh on the way), and her siblings, Vaughn, Leanne and Rena.

A memorial service will be held at École St Joseph School’s gymnasium on Saturday, August 13 at 11am.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to be made to the Yellowknife Community Foundation or Canadian Cancer Society.