Nova Scotia·Atlantic Voice

Joan Jessome reflects on difficult path she walked to become NSGEU president

Former NSGEU president Joan Jessome reflects on her 17 years as union leader and the difficult path she travelled to get there.

Jessome hopes her own story of redemption and success might inspire others struggling to find their way

Joan Jessome at a meeting in 2000, a year after she became president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. (Canadian Press)

You know Joan Jessome, right?

She's loud. She's brash and opinionated and until recently, spoke for thousands of union members.

No doubt, most Nova Scotians picture her in a sound bite on the TV news or standing with a megaphone on the steps of Province House.

A far cry from what she was like as a young girl in Cape Breton.

"I didn't have a lot of friends growing up. If I go back to New Waterford today, there isn't a single person that I will call up and talk about the good ol' days in school," she said in an interview.

"Bullied, that would be a mild way to describe it. Right from Grade Primary, I remember being pushed in the brook, rocks being thrown at you, being chased to school.

"I was always afraid. That didn't stop in junior high, that didn't stop in senior high. I was very withdrawn type of person."

At one point, Jessome took off to the West Coast to stay with an aunt and uncle and attempted suicide by swallowing 70 pills. She was rushed to hospital in Chilliwack, B.C., where they pumped her stomach and put her in the mental health ward for several days.

Jessome said she was bullied as a child growing up in Cape Breton. (Joan Jessome)

Heart-wrenching ultimatum

She returned to Cape Breton and by the time she was 17, she was single and facing a heart-wrenching ultimatum — give up the child she was expecting or be disowned by her family.

She chose to keep the baby, a girl. Jessome quit school and hitchhiked to Halifax because she no longer felt welcome in Cape Breton.

"I was absolutely alone. No friends, no family. Nobody," she said. "I cried a lot. I took care of my daughter."  

She said she supported herself by collecting beer bottles. Jessome made furniture out of milk crates and meals out of crackers taken from restaurants on Barrington Street. And the father of her child, a married man, was still in the picture, even though the relationship was rocky.

"At that age, I was in love with the guy," she said.

Finally returning home

She had another daughter with him, and was still estranged from her parents in Cape Breton. It wasn't until her second child was 10 months old that the frosty relationship began to thaw.

"My parents asked my sisters what did they want for Christmas and they said, 'We want Joan to come home,'" she said. "So I go home, I go home for Christmas that year."

Her younger brothers had grown taller. The family dog — an Irish setter — no longer knew who she was. The reunion with her parents was awkward at first, but eventually after many trips back home home to Cape Breton, the old wounds healed.

Jessome holding her youngest daughter when she was a baby. (Joan Jessome)

She had a third daughter with the same man and they eventually married in 1980.

She worked a number of part-time jobs, including selling erotically shaped chocolates, to help keep the family afloat as best she could.

"I never had a lot of money, lived many times with our power being cut off or the oil tank running dry," Jessome said. "Sometimes you never answered your front door, never checked your mail, because you didn't know what was going to be disconnected."

Turning her life around

Jessome was overweight, smoked a pack a day, and couldn't get decent work. The day she turned 30, she was laid off from her accounts payable job at a grocery store and decided she needed to make a change.

She earned a medical secretarial diploma and eventually got a permanent job at the provincial Department of Health.  

At home, another transformation was happening. Jessome decided to get her stomach stapled to lose the weight, despite her husband's objections.

"It was life changing. It altered my confidence, my outlook," she said. As for the impact on her marriage, that ended for good a few years later.

She got her first taste of life in the labour movement when a co-worker invited her to a union meeting.

The union, she said, gave her the opportunity to change her life, providing child care, training for public speaking and a place to meet people.

Finding her passion for labour

When the president of the local of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union stepped down and no one else wanted the job, Jessome put her hand up.

Her rise in the labour movement was not an easy one though, especially for someone who describes herself as an introvert. She remembers being told she wasn't fit for the job because she was a woman and "only a secretary."

Jessome hopes her own story of redemption and success might inspire others struggling to find their way. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Still, she moved up the ranks and by 1999 was elected president of the NSGEU, the largest public sector union in the province — a post she held for almost 17 years before stepping down earlier this year.

And that's how many Nova Scotians know Joan Jessome, as one of the region's most prominent and controversial union leaders.

So why share her personal story, especially one that's at times very painful?

Jessome said she started to talk about her life in tight groups and at women's conferences. She hopes her own story of redemption and success might inspire others struggling to find their way.

"It's emotional," she said. "Every time you tell that story, you relive it."

About the Author

After spending more than a decade as a reporter covering the Nova Scotia legislature, Amy Smith joined CBC News in 2009 as host for CBC Nova Scotia News as well as Atlantic Tonight at 11. She can be reached at amy.smith@cbc.ca or on Twitter @amysmithcbc