Yellowknife lawyer and former privacy commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts passes away at 63

·5 min read
Elaine Keenan Bengts, left, with her siblings Vaughn, Rena and Leanne. (Submitted by Leanne Tait - image credit)
Elaine Keenan Bengts, left, with her siblings Vaughn, Rena and Leanne. (Submitted by Leanne Tait - image credit)

A fearless lawyer known for her strong work ethic and tenacious dedication to family has died.

Elaine Keenan Bengts passed away in her Yellowknife home Monday after fighting with cancer. She was 63.

Keenan Bengts was born in Saskatoon in 1958 and came to Yellowknife "for two years" with her family in 1969. Like many northerners, she ended up staying for over 50 years. She raised her family here and made the North her home.

She was inspired by her father to earn her law degree. "Dad always used to say that if he had the opportunity to do it over again, he'd want to be a lawyer," said Leanne Tait, Keenan Bengts's sister. "So I think that's what inspired her."

Keenan Bengts earned her degree at the University of Alberta. After being called to the bar in 1983, she practiced with a local law firm before starting her own practice, Keenan Bengts Law Office, in 1988.

Sheldon Toner, president of the Law Society of the Northwest Territories President, first worked with Keenan Bengts in 1997. He remembers her as a hard-working family lawyer who was always on the go. "She was an absolute powerhouse in terms of work ethic," said Toner.

Jamie Malbeuf/CBC
Jamie Malbeuf/CBC

He admired her commitment to her clients, saying it was "personal, impassioned, and undeterred by anything but the best counter arguments."

Toner said he admired her ability to remain respectful and kind to everyone around her. Even in the adversarial court system, she would still ask about your personal life, have a laugh with you, and cheer you on, said Toner.

He also said that the lawyers who passed through her firm came away with a solid appreciation for hard work and scrupulous ethics. "Her style was iconic and gave generations of new lawyers, including myself, a fast education in advocacy," said Toner.

A legacy in gymnastics

Keenan Bengts served more than two decades as the Information and Privacy Commission in both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Keenan Bengts was also active with the territorial law society and the Canadian Bar Association. In 2013 she was awarded the Douglas Miller Award for her contributions to the latter.

She was active in athletics in the N.W.T., most notably in her work with the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club.

John Tram, longtime gymnast and coach with the club, started doing gymnastics with Keenan Bengts's three daughters, Amanda, Stacie and Lauren, in the '90s. He remembers they used to practice out of school gyms. Everyone would have to pitch in to pull out the equipment and then put it all back into storage after practice, said Tram.

Keenan Bengts played a significant role in the success of gymnastics in the North, Tram said, because she wanted all the children in Yellowknife to have an opportunity to try and excel at the sport.

Keenan Bengts fundraised and lobbied for over 10 years to get the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club a dedicated building. She even convinced her husband Peter and three other families (including Tram's parents) to use their homes as security so the gym's mortgage could be approved.

"She stepped up in ways that no one else would," Tram said.

Even after her daughters aged out of the club, Tram said she continued to generously donate her time and energy to make sure it stayed successful.

Submitted by John Tram.
Submitted by John Tram.

She continued to volunteer at the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club, as well as the NWT Gymnastics Association and served on the Sport North boards for many years, including serving as president of the Yellowknife Club for 16 years.

Tram said all the hard work paid off in 2011 when the club won the Gymnastics Canada award for being the top recreational gymnastics club in all of Canada. "A very significant award for a small club in the North and a very proud achievement for all of Elaine's hard work over the years," said Tram.

Tram said the gymnastics facility will be formally renamed after Keenan Bengts, recognizing the tremendous role she played in its creation and success.

"She is so deserving of this and it is so important that her lasting legacy and impact on the sport of gymnastics in the north be honoured and remembered."

Family first

As accomplished as she was in the community, as the mother of three girls, Keenan Bengts always put her family first. Stacie Stocker said it was almost like her mother had two different personas.

Stocker said her mother was fierce in many ways but they always felt safe going to her for advice on anything. She was a person that would let you work through your problems and would never judge your decisions.

Submitted by Leanne Tait
Submitted by Leanne Tait

Keenan Bengts's sister, Tait, said that their families were very close-knit and Keenan Bengts always took the lead in getting them together for family occasions. "She had Sunday dinners and everybody came."

Especially during the holidays, the families would always get together. She served a traditional Swedish dinner every Christmas Eve.

"She kept us together as a family," said Tait.

Drive right from the start

Tait said her sister's accomplishments started long before her career as a lawyer. In high school, she was the student council president and represented Yellowknife at a national debate tournament.

Tait credits her parents for that drive. "The 1960s wasn't a time you empowered women to have careers and to get a university education and to fight for what's right," said Tait. "But absolutely that's what mom and dad instilled in us from an early age."

Stocker will remember her mom's ability to comfort her at any age. A cuddle or a hug from her mother would melt the world away, no matter what she was going through.

"And that was just her softness," said Stocker. "When it came to her girls, she had a different level of compassion."

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