Well-known activist and recipient of the Order of the Northwest Territories Ruth Spence died Sunday morning, just days shy of her 90th birthday.

Spence was a community advocate in Yellowknife for the past 50 years. She was a dedicated community member who opened Yellowknife’s YWCA and was their first executive director.

On top of that, she was also a registered nurse, multiple-term city councillor, board member of Stanton Hospital and founder of the Yellowknife Ski Club.

“People may think of her as a hard person who would ask hard questions, but she was truly committed to Yellowknife and the welfare of this community,” her son Duff Spence told Moose FM.

“She lived here for over 50 years and she was always fighting for Yellowknife and for a better Yellowknife.”

Spence lobbied for women’s and children’s rights in Yellowknife, helping to establish programs for them within the community.

In 2015, she was recognized for her community leadership when she was among the first group of recipients of the Order of the NWT.

Unfortunately by then, her son says she was suffering from dementia.

“It was difficult for her,” Duff Spence said. Still, he thinks she was truly proud of her accomplishments.

“She took solace in [her actions] and knew that she had made a difference in the community.”

Spence moved to Yellowknife with her family in 1964. When his mother came here, Duff Spence says she was driven by the need for services within her new community.

“She was a nurse by profession and when she came to Yellowknife I think she saw a need in parts of the community,” he said.

“[In 1964] it was a young community that didn’t have a lot of social services, and I think that mom … really wanted to make this a better community.”

At home: “Tough” mother, loving grandmother

As a teenager, Duff Spence says it was hard having someone so driven for a mother, with high expectations and big shoes to fill.

“She didn’t allow us to give up or to not do our best,” he said, remembering the 20 years she spent prodding him to go back to university for his masters degree.

“I owe her for pushing me and getting me to do that. Now that she’s gone I can say that she was right, and she knew what I needed to do.”

He joked that you would never admit that she was right to her face. Showing weakness in front of his mother was off the table.

Spence’s own weakness was her 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Duff Spence says they were her reason for getting up in the morning, and it was a joy to watch her with them.

“It was quite amazing to see how she would connect with each one of [my kids] and really get to know who they were and who they are today.”

Conversations with her grandchildren ranged from politics to dresses and anywhere in between, and Duff Spence says those are some of his fondest memories of her.

But it wasn’t just her grandchildren Spence connected with, but everyone she met.

“There are a lot of people in this community that have great stories of how mom tried to make them better and pushed them to reach their potential,” he said.

“She knew how to work a room and knew how to genuinely connect with each [person] and have a conversation that resonated with each person.

“She made them feel special, because she was invested in the community and she was invested in each person separately.”

The one thing her son wants people to take away from his mother’s life is the high expectations she held to always do better.

“If people are looking for a way to commemorate mom’s life, go out and volunteer and be part of an organization.

“She spent 50 years in Yellowknife doing that, and I think we all can learn from that and put that foot forward to make Yellowknife a better place.”

Funeral arrangements have not yet been arranged, but the Spence family is looking to organize a day for the community to come pay their respects in the coming weeks.