Joy Butler

Obituary of Joy Irene Butler

Joy Butler, lifetime athlete and educator, died on September 16th, surrounded by friends and chosen family.


Joy was born in Cambridge England on June 16th, in 1957. Always determined to make a difference in the world, she surmounted class and gender obstacles in order to attend college and become a teacher. A visionary Head of Department and national youth basketball coach, Joy used methods and programs that were considered innovative at that time. In 1989, Joy and her partner Claire moved to the US where Joy completed her master’s degree and then her doctorate, both at Boston University.


After taking up a faculty position at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, Joy became one of the world’s best-known advocates for TGfU (Teaching Games for Understanding) a teaching model that uses adaptations to sports and games to make them accessible for all students. The inaugural TGfU conference that Joy convened in Waterville Valley (New Hampshire) in 2001 was the first time international TGfU educators had met formally. Their rich collaborations led to an international TGfU Task Force, which Joy chaired for many years. In her position as full professor at The University of British Columbia, Joy worked with international colleagues to continue to document and implement TGfU, as well as researching ways in which it can be used to teach democratic skills such as negotiation and decision-making. Her book, “Playing Fair,” is now used by many practitioners.


Joy delivered keynote speeches across the globe, published many books and articles, and received many awards, including the prestigious R. Tait Mackenzie Award, which honours Canadian Physical Educators who have effected major change in the field over long careers. However, Joy was perhaps most proud of the graduate cohort program she designed to encourage practicing teachers in the connected fields of Health, Outdoor, and Physical Education to rethink their assumptions about knowing, teaching, and learning. Her first priority was always systemic change in the field that fore fronted social justice and equity, and fun and fairness for all.


Joy practiced what she preached. Diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer over 5 years ago, she exercised daily, despite debilitating treatments, until three days before her death. Those who knew her will recall her firm encouragement to ‘get moving’ and probably their amazement at what they could achieve with her support. Joy was a talented basketball player and coach, took her dog, Bella, to national agility trials, and she loved to kayak and hike. More recently, she took up dragon boating with Abreast in a Boat and writing with Callanish Writes. She won hearts and minds in all these communities with her generosity, her understated British humour, and her joyful smile.


Joy is predeceased by her father, Gordon, and her aunt, Pauline. She is survived by her beloved wife, Claire Robson, with whom she shared love and adventure for over 30 years. She is also survived by her mother, Irene, her uncles, John and Kenneth, her brother, Laurie, her sister-in-law, Tina, and her cousin, Debbie, as well as several other cousins, nieces, and nephews. Joy will be missed by her chosen family, students, and colleagues, and her friends in many community circles.


A memorial service will be held on October 20th at Burnaby Lake Rowing Pavilion – 6871 Roberts Street Burnaby BC V5A 3C1. The service will begin at 2pm. A second service will be held in the UK at a later date. No flowers please. Instead make a donation to the Callanish Society at


Our deep gratitude goes to BC Cancer Agency, Bayswater Family Practice, and the Pacific Spirit Palliative Care team for their outstanding care and kindness during Joy’s illness and death. Thanks also to the amazing circle of friends who supported Joy and Claire during that time. Joy did not see her journey with cancer as a battle to be won or lost, but as a journey. She completed that journey with tremendous courage and unfailing consideration for others.



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