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obituary

Poet and author Helen Potrebenko.Handout

A job driving taxi in the gritty Vancouver of the early 1970s inspired Helen Potrebenko to write a realistic novel about life as a woman behind the wheel.

Her debut work, titled, not surprisingly, Taxi!, was issued by a small, left-wing press in 1975.

The plotless novel, narrated by the caustically funny Shannon, includes vignettes of life as a hack, capturing the class divisions in a port city dependent on a boom-and-bust resource economy, as well as the everyday misogyny faced by women, including the ever-present menace of male violence.

“It just never occurs to them we’re people and not zoo animals to be stared at,” she wrote in the novel, “and that we have feelings and don’t like being prodded and mauled by thirty different guys in one day.”

Neither of the city’s daily newspapers reviewed it, and it garnered little attention at the time.

The novel was reissued by the press in 1989, by which time the author’s feminist and working-class sensibility found a more receptive audience.

Later still, in 2009, the novelist Anakana Schofield helped revive interest in Ms. Potrebenko’s work, praising it in the pages of this newspaper as “a novel to read for then and now: Potrebenko’s unique voice and perfectly paced writing render it in witty exchanges and jazzy Chekhovian musings.”

The proprietors of the Paper Hound bookshop in Vancouver continue to stock copies of Taxi! to this day. “It’s a book that’s very easy to recommend,” co-owner Kim Koch said. “It’s a great Vancouver novel. Captures a lot of the conflicts in the city.”

Ms. Potrebenko, who has died at 82, had a long career as a writer, producing poetry and fiction about the barriers faced by women in a society aggressively opposed to their interests. She also wrote an important work of social history with No Streets of Gold, a personal and idiosyncratic look at the life faced by impoverished Ukrainian immigrants in Canada, using her own family’s story as a guidepost.

She jokingly described herself as being “almost rich and nearly famous,” though in truth her fame was limited to literary circles and her wealth depended entirely on her hourly wages as a bookkeeper and legal secretary.

When not at work or at the keyboard, she could often be found on the picket line. Her first collection of poetry was titled Walking Slow, a feature of her sidewalk shuffling in support of striking workers at a restaurant.

She was born on June 21, 1940, on a homestead near Woking, a rural hamlet in Alberta’s Peace River country about 60 kilometres north of Grande Prairie. She was the fourth of five children. Her parents, the former Olena Hapaniuk and Makar Potrebenko, were ethnic Ukrainians born in villages outside Brest in what is now Belarus, who immigrated to Canada in 1928.

The couple’s first child, a boy, died shortly before his sixth birthday. Young Helen was raised on the family’s subsistence farm on a diet of her father’s revolutionary communism and her mother’s forbearance in a life of abject poverty. They wore clothing made from flour sacks.

The girl’s earliest memories of classroom lessons involved a struggle with identity.

“One school assignment required each of us to draw a flag of Canada and write under it what country our parents came from. We didn’t know,” she wrote in No Streets of Gold. “We told our teacher our parents came from the Old Country, but she said that wasn’t good enough. My mother told me they came from Russia and I told the others, so we all dutifully wrote under our Union Jacks that our parents came from Russia. It seems absurd now, looking back, to remember those Canadian kids writing under a British flag that their Ukrainian and Belarusian parents came from Russia. No wonder we were confused.”

After completing high school, Ms. Potrebenko worked as a laboratory technician in Wainwright, Alta., and Salmon Arm, B.C., where she was active in the local chapter of the Voice of Women, taking part in a 1967 protest in Vancouver against the Vietnam War.

She moved to the city to attend university, where she earned a sociology degree. By 1970, she was a volunteer and contributor to Pedestal, a monthly newspaper published by the Vancouver Women’s Collective.

She drove a delivery truck – at $1.75 an hour, while male drivers earned twice as much – before becoming a cabbie.

“She knew all about the city,” she wrote about her narrator in Taxi!, “and watched the traffic get gradually worse, pollution increase, monsters being built, and all the other changes. Long-haired entrepreneurs changed the ugliness of Water Street into the ugliness of Gastown. The city never really changed; it had a way of transforming change like a great sprawling organism which absorbs foreignness into its own body.”

Ms. Potrebenko saw no romance in being a cabbie, “a disgusting, poorly-paid and destructive job.”

By the time her novel was published by New Star Books of Vancouver, she was working as a secretary. She became active in the Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC), which was dedicated to organizing women in industries neglected by trade unions.

She spent several years supporting striking workers seeking a first contract at the Muckamuck restaurant in the city’s West End. The restaurant, which served First Nations cuisine and employed mostly workers of First Nations ancestry, though the owners were white Americans, hired strike-breakers. The dispute lasted five years, ending with the restaurant shuttered and the owners ordered by the B.C. Labour Relations Board to pay the union $10,000 as partial compensation for not negotiating in good faith.

In the early 1980s, she was picked up by Lazara Press, which published several of her works, including Two Years on the Muckamuck Line (1981), Walking Slow (1985), Life, Love and Unions (1987), Hey Waitress and Other Stories (1989), and Letters to Maggie (1999). Lazara also distributes Taxi!, which remains in print.

“I liked her poetry,” publisher Penny Goldsmith said. “I thought it was funny, bright, smart and perceptive. She had a quirky sense of humour about hard work, exploited work.”

One Potrebenko poem, which has been included in anthologies, carries a punchline in the title:

Better You Should Learn Wen Do

Men protect women, a man once told me indignantly.

Sure,

some do.

Who do they protect them from?

Other women?

Children?

Wild rutabagas?

Rampaging rabbits?

Ms. Potrebenko, a long-time resident of the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, died of cancer on Aug. 10. She leaves her husband, Earl Scott, with whom she would have celebrated a 40th anniversary in December. She also leaves a brother, Mike Potrebenko, of Port Alberni, B.C. She was predeceased by a sister, Rose Ames, who died in 2016, and a brother, Archur Potrebenko, known as Arch, who was beaten to death in 1998 in Lake Errock, B.C. There were no convictions in her brother’s murder, which Ms. Potrebenko blamed on the incompetence of Crown prosecutors.

“The prosecution was so lacking in interest they did the defence’s job for them,” she told Ian Mulgrew of the Vancouver Sun in 2002.

She was among the family members of crime victims who were surveyed for a scathing federal-provincial report, titled No End of Pain, which critiqued the treatment of survivors by police, coroners, prosecutors, and other public agencies.

While her debut novel was ignored on its release, she did gain media attention that same year for another achievement. When she tried to form a one-person bargaining unit as a secretary for the Volunteer Grandparents’ Society, she was turned down by six unions before joining Local 1 of SORWUC.

She managed to improve her pay to $600 a month from $530, though she had to acknowledge such typical workplace actions as a picket line would be ineffective in a one-person shop.

“I first thought decisions would be unanimous,” she told a reporter, tongue firmly in cheek, “but unfortunately I always have a dissenting vote. I can’t always make up my mind.”

Editor’s note: The father of the writer Helen Potrebenko is Makar Potrebenko. An incorrect first name was published in her obituary on Sept. 5. This version has been corrected.