The True Believer: Richard Gwyn, 1934-2020

Longtime Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn, who chronicled Canada with the passion of an adopted son, passed away August 15 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 86.


Anthony Wilson-Smith

August 20, 2020

Some people are born to acclaim; some aspire to it; some have it thrust upon them by dint of their sheer excellence. For Richard Gwyn, over 86 years of life, the first and third generally applied.

Born in England in 1934, the son of an army brigadier, he attended a private Jesuit boarding school and graduated from the prestigious Royal Military College Sandhurst. With his patrician bearing, “proper” speaking manner and family DNA, he could easily have found a comfortable place at the top of Britain’s entrenched class system.

Instead, in 1953 at age 19, Richard said good-bye to all that, packed his bags and landed in Newfoundland. He stayed a short time: on the ferry to his next stop, Halifax, he met Sandra Fraser, who became Sandra Gwyn, noted author, editor and his beloved wife of 42 years until she died in 2000. In Halifax — one of the great reporting springboards for its mix of politics, industry, academia and maritime commerce and culture — Richard began as a radio reporter. By the time of his last print piece in 2016, his decades worth of Toronto Star columns, best-selling books, countless television and radio appearances and speeches had made him familiar to generations of Canadians.  

He was an icon within his chosen craft for his skills and sterling qualities as a person. His best-known books, 1980’s The Northern Magus (about Pierre Trudeau) and his magisterial two-book biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, released in 2007 and 2011, continue to resonate.

That said, for many of a certain age, Richard will always be tied to his days in Ottawa – and last week was a harsh one for those of that era. Along with Richard came, four days later, the loss of Allan Fotheringham. Foth, who rose to national acclaim in the same period in the 1970s, brought other strengths to the table: calculated insouciance, general disregard for the way politics was traditionally reported, and a playfulness reflected both in his columns and private life. Foth was a colleague of mine (in different cities) at Maclean’s for many years – and so I point to the excellent tributes by former editor Bob Lewis, Tom Hawthorn, and Paul Wells this week. This is an appreciation of Richard – and Foth would never have wanted to be an understudy.

Richard’s extraordinary career almost certainly could not have unfolded in the same manner today. After working his way up to a role as Parliamentary correspondent for United Press and TIME by the mid-60s, he wrote The Shape of Scandal: A Study of a Government in Crisis, about Lester Pearson’s Liberal government. Three years later, he became a political aide in the same government, then led by Pierre Trudeau. Two years after, he moved into the public service to became a director-general – and three years in, in 1973, left to become a syndicated national affairs columnist at the Star.

All those moves – the hiring by the party that he had criticized; the sideways jump into the public service; the hiring from there as a columnist for a large media organization – were unheard-of shape-shifting in those days. But Richard sailed through, aided by the different standards then and his intelligence and innate gravitas. Thank heavens, because he was a born writer, and his experience as a bureaucrat meant that he knew the people, process and internal politics of the public service in a way no other journalist could match.

In person, Richard stood out without seeming to try. He and Sandra were at the centre of official Ottawa’s busy 1970s and 80s social life. His trademark Prince Valiant haircut – evoking images of Julius Caesar – and his craggy features, which never seemed to change, made him a distinctive presence on television. He was a regular on TVO current affairs programs for years with host Steve Paikin, jousting cheerfully with opposites while delivering crisp, eloquent analyses. He dissected complex international political situations as easily as the cut-and-thrust of daily Ottawa politics. As a person, he was generous in his praise, advice and encouragement to others, including younger writers from other organizations (as I discovered when I became Ottawa bureau chief for Maclean’s in the 1990s).

Richard wrote seven books. Northern Magus remains a favourite among the politerati; among others, the senior Liberal strategist Davide Herle has said that reading it led him to get involved in politics.

Of all Richard’s feats of career alchemy, perhaps the most remarkable was his emergence as a historian of note when he took on the life of Macdonald in two best-selling, critically-acclaimed volumes after retiring from daily journalism. The books — Sir John A. Macdonald: The Man Who Made Usand Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our times, exemplify Richard’s fond but clear-eyed approach. Both are rich in details that reflect strengths and failings of his subject. He was an unabashed fan of Macdonald in part because Richard was an unabashed fan of his adopted country.

“Without Sir John A.,” he often said, “there is no Canada.” But he chronicled Macdonald’s failings – including that he was “corrupt” and “a drunk”, alongside his more redeeming qualities. He acknowledged that the starvation of Indigenous people on Macdonald’s watch — a major focus of examination in recent years — calls for “hard questions…to be asked about what he did when the Plains Indians’ food supply vanished with the disappearance of the buffalo.” But he vehemently rejected suggestions Macdonald was racist — and backed his position with other examples casting him in a better light. Richard began his research into Macdonald partly to allay the sorrow he felt after the loss of Sandra, his editor on many projects. He found solace with, and married, the art historian Carol Bishop-Gwyn.

Carol worked with him on the books, was his constant companion when he was well and — when he slipped into dementia and Alzheimer’s in recent years — devoted her life to his care. That love and reverence by Carol and many others remained undiminished even when he was beyond awareness of that, or anything else. A gentleman as well as scholar, he would have likely protested that he was unworthy. He was anything but.

Anthony Wilson-Smith, President and CEO of Historica Canada, is former editor-in-chief and senior correspondent for Maclean’s. He is also a Contributing Writer to Policy Magazine.