Robert Fulford's eulogy for Sandra Gwyn

(The National Post, May 31, 2000)

This is the text of a eulogy for journalist Sandra Gwyn, delivered May 30, 2000 by Robert Fulford at the Newman Centre, University of Toronto.

This is a time of sorrow and parting, but as a colleague of Sandra's, I want to speak about joy and engagement -- the joy of watching a fellow professional blossom, the joy of seeing a writer grow year by year toward literary fulfilment, and the joy of recognizing that she has found her unique voice. A young writer's main work lies in searching for the path to her true vocation, and I was fortunate to be Sandra's editorial companion during that search. Much of journalism depends on luck, as every editor knows, and the day Sandra Gwyn decided that she wanted to write for Saturday Night was one of the luckiest days in my career.

She entered journalism shyly, as if unsure she belonged there. In the 1960s, she learned the elements of the craft while performing relatively marginal tasks. In the early 1970s she began to realize her talent by choosing subjects that she cared about and she could help her readers care about. She revealed herself as an intellectual, in this crucial sense: Her self-chosen task was making connections, drawing the lines between facts and ideas. It became clear also that a certain feeling animated her work, a sympathetic understanding of those she was writing about. Warmth, optimism and openness became the basis of her success.

I believe there was always a place of stillness in Sandra, a place where she could read and reflect and develop her ideas in solitude; but nervous energy was just as important in making her a model journalist. She was always looking for a new task, a new form of involvement with the world as she found it. At the centre of that world was Richard Gwyn. We who worked with Sandra understood that there were two distinguished journalists in the same marriage, that each was the other's main cheerleader and critic, and that the beneficiaries of this loving partnership were their editors and readers.

Her main subject for many years was political Ottawa, and in the magazine business no one covered it better. In the Trudeau years she carefully defined the emerging issues. She wrote about French-English tensions and the rise in the power of the provinces, about the apparently uncheckable growth in the civil service and the decline of Canada's international influence, about the seal hunt and official multi-culturalism.

The authorial voice she developed was entirely true to her personality, a heightened, concentrated version of the way she ordinarily spoke. In many issues of Saturday Night, Sandra was the magazine's star attraction, partly because of her high competence, but even more because she sounded like no one else and spoke from a place where few other national journalists lived. She was inside the Ottawa dominated by networks of power, but she retained an outsider's scepticism and an outsider's perception that the less privileged regions of Canada needed sensitive treatment from Ottawa.

While mastering federal politics, she developed another subject, Newfoundland's emergence as a presence in Canadian culture. She was the first (and, for a while, the only) national journalist who eloquently urged an appreciation of Newfoundland's cultural and historical uniqueness. The opinions she articulated now seem obvious, but they weren't obvious at all when she had the nerve and originality to put them on paper, beginning with her 1976 Saturday Night article, "The Newfoundland Renaissance." In the first column of that first piece, she set the tone when she called the CODCO players the commedia dell'outport. That phrase compressed into seven syllables her light-hearted but determined effort to connect Newfoundland with the culture of the world.

This was her great accomplishment as a monthly journalist. A Newfoundlander who had lived on the mainland most of her adult life, she was perfectly placed to interpret her home province to the rest of us. Her writing on the painters, comedians, authors and scholars of Newfoundland permanently altered the national perception of her own province. Soon her ideas were borrowed across the country by writers for print, television and radio. Few journalists ever change public opinion as clearly and beneficially as she changed everyone's view of Newfoundland.

In the early 1980s she made a bold move upward, from journalist to independent scholar and social historian. She found she loved archives, and grew to love them more as she taught them to speak to her, so that she could speak to us. This led to two books that brought fresh life to our history.

The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier was full of rich characters -- and one of the richest was the author. We could sense her presence behind the words, pursuing her subjects through the documents they left behind, quickening to the discoveries she made, delighted by the stories she found to tell us.

Eight years later, in Tapestry of War: A Private View of Canadians in the Great War, she successfully applied her highly personal style to the most shattering event of the century. Those books are beautifully shaped works of social history, filled with gracefully worn learning. It seems to me they have as good a chance at a long life as any books of their kind written in recent times.

An acute sense of history, a love of literature, a feeling for words, a born reporter's need to know the specifics of place and social context: These were the elements Sandra brought to journalism and put to work in the service of understanding and truth. If a young journalist asks how to reach the higher levels of our profession, I can offer a simple answer. Study the ways of Sandra Gwyn, her ambitions, her techniques, her passions, her style. Right there you can find the heart of serious journalism, in all its splendour.

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