My friend and mentor George Maclaren died August 30, aged 79. George had been in failing health but when I called his wife Anne at their Mahone Bay, N.S. home the week before he passed, she said he’d gotten up that morning and asked for breakfast.
Phil Authier’s Gazette obituary lists the milestones in George’s life — born in Bondville in 1939, Sherbrooke lawyer, Sherbrooke Record publisher, active Progressive Conservative, Montreal Daily News publisher, Jean Charest’s advisor and confidant, Quebec Delegate-General, philanthropist. What it doesn’t do is talk about what it was like to work with George Maclaren, gentleman adventurer, wise counsellor, hands-off publisher, colleague and friend.
I met George in the summer of 1977. He and several partners had just purchased the Sherbrooke Record from Conrad Black, Peter White and David Radler, all of whom were ready to move on to bigger things. George was looking for an editor looking for a challenge. A mutual friend, Gazette columnist Glen Allen, told George to give me a call. I was a former Gazette reporter and desker then employed as an assistant city editor at the Montreal Star and looking for escape options. Everyone at the Star knew the pressmen were headed for a strike. What we didn’t know was the strike would kill Montreal’s largest newspaper and leave the Gazette with a monopoly that George and I would challenge 10 years later.
Our initial conversation wasn’t auspicious. Maclaren, a parsimonious Townships Scot if ever there was one, proposed to pay me half of what I was making at the Star. But I’d be the editor of Quebec’s third-largest English daily newspaper, with a car and expenses — and I could sign my own editorials. “Jamie, come on down for a visit,” he drawled.
In 1977, the Record occupied a former fishing tackle factory in an industrial park. The Goss press occupied a quarter of the building. The production department took up another big whack of space. Sales had the front office. The newsroom was jammed into the southwest corner against a back wall. It was walled off from the rest of the building with sheets of plywood. The desks were ancient refugees from the Record’s posh Wellington Street home during the Bassett era. A bank of Teletype machines churned out wirecopy, most of which we reversed and wound into spools hung on clothes-hanger holders so we could use the blank side to hammer out our stories on ex-government typewriters.
It was a low-cost operation. I’d heard stories about just how knife-edge from Record alumni Hugh Doherty, Paul Waters, Hubert Bauch and Scott Abbott. George knew how to get to me. “You decide what stories to chase, what goes on front, what photos to run — everything. It’s your newsroom.”
That was the clincher for me.
George and I had three wonderful years running the Record. We broke national stories — Gerald Bull’s big guns, Charles Marion’s bogus kidnap, Saad Gabr’s attempt to buy North Hatley — with the same signed local editorials George vowed when he bought the Record. I’m sure some of the stories we broke cost us advertising, but to his eternal credit, George never brought it up. His only grumble was with John McCaughey’s court reporting from Sweetsburg Ward. “Why must we run the names of people convicted of drunk driving,” he asked me. “If we did it everywhere we cover, it would be one thing. But we’re not. Therefore it’s not fair.” He could have ordered me to stop running the names. Instead he made his lawyer’s pitch for fairness and convinced me to stop.
George and I shared a reverence for what the Record represented — an essential component of the Townships English community. We both read the ‘bush notes,’ the dismissive term used by generations of apprentice journalists to refer to the files from correspondents in far-flung corners of what was once a vast English community stretching from Philipsburg on Mississquoi Bay to Inverness, a hamlet 70 miles from Quebec City. Correspondence editor Helen Evans oversaw and co-ordinated a dozen or more contributors and George would admonish me to find space for their unpaid submissions. “Jamie, they’re important to people,” he’d say when Helen complained about insufficient space.
He also convinced me to meet face to face with longtime scribes like Ivy Hatch, Carl Mayhew and Charles McVety. “Your visit would mean a lot,” he added. “Take the time to go see them.” So once a week, I’d head my fire engine red Record-issue Fort Pinto to one of these far-flung outposts of the Record’s empire. In the process, I discovered wonderful places I never would have visited — the Gosford Settler’s Road, Knowlton’s Old Stagecoach road, Lawrence Colony, Ruiter Brook, Mont Hereford, Leadville — and moving experiences, like sitting on Charlie McVety’s front porch in Inverness as he reminisced about the English Townships.
People came first for George and Anne. Between the two of them, they knew people all over the country and made it their duty to bring them together. We dined with Conrad Black (I dimly recall a wine-fuelled argument), with Prime Minister Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer and with ordinary people from all walks of life. We drove to Ottawa to watch Kim Campbell win the Tory leadership from George’s candidate Jean Charest and to Quebec City to lobby for the English community in the National Assembly dining room. He and I got involved in the association representing Quebec’s English-language weeklies, driving to the Gaspé to work with Sharon McCully and the hard-working group that created the SPEC, the Coast’s English voice.
In 1980 CBC Television offered me a job and I headed back to Montreal. George hired Townships Sun editor Charles Bury to replace me. The CBC went on strike for what was to be a year. Instead of dumping one of us, George kept me on for the year as the editor-at-large while Charlie got comfortable with the daily routine. It’s a measure of the man that he kept us both at the cost of an extra salary in an operation that couldn’t afford it. It was never mentioned.
Fast forward to the autumn of ’87. Québecor approached George Maclaren with an offer. Pierre Péladeau had it in his head to launch an English-language version of the Journal de Montréal, heavy on police and court news, gossip and sports. Part of the motivation came from Gazette publisher Clark Davey’s abortive try at launching an upscale French-language tabloid. Le Matin lasted just 42 issues but Péladeau sought revenge. Québecor would buy the Record in exchange for Maclaren agreeing to launch the new daily.
Seven years after our first meeting, George called me with another challenge he knew I couldn’t refuse. “How would you like to help me launch a new English-language daily in Montreal?” My family and friends were aghast. “You’d quit the CBC to launch a startup?” How does one explain one’s love for print journalism, the feel of holding one’s own daily miracle hot off the press? George and I met with Péladeau and somehow, we convinced each other it would work. I handed in my notice at the CBC, where I was hosting Daybreak. A week later, George and I were back working together, this time in Québecor’s headquarters just off the Main.
The Montreal Daily News began 1988 with nothing — no offices, no production facility, no staff. All we had was a March start date and vague plans for an electronic newsroom in the heart of downtown and a remote production facility in Lasalle — Québecor wanted to test cost-cutting technologies and the Daily News was to be their guinea pig for pagination, asymmetric modems and a funny-looking little computer called a MacIntosh. This is where I saw the other side of George as he found ways to work with an eccentric entrepreneur and Québecor’s old-school senior management. There was enormous pressure on him to get the new paper up and running in less that three months, but I never saw him slacken the insane pace that kept the project moving forward. George saw the launch of a new daily as an adventure and he made sure we did too. There was something of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton in George, the ability to motivate others to attempt the impossible.
There isn’t a lot written about how to launch a newspaper. Our bible was Peter Pritchard’s The Making of McPaper: The inside Story of USA Today. I kept borrowing George’s copy until he presented me with my own, complete with a frontspiece note in George’s trademark scrawl:
Here’s your very own copy. Can I have mine back.
Our critics — and they continue to surface 30 years later — faulted us for compromising on things beyond our control — the format, the lack of home delivery until it was too late, 50-cent newsstand price, Quebecor-style cronyism and a byzantine internal-economy structure — but I never saw George cave on principles. When Péladeau proposed to sell half his stake in the Daily News to British press baron Robert Maxwell, George reminded his boss the Kent Commission had recommended a 25 per cent maximum for foreign ownership. Péladeau’s proposal was quickly forgotten in the flurry of bigger news about Maxwell’s troubles.
Throughout the Daily News’s short life, internal debates raged in the newsroom and advertising department over the paper’s target market. Upmarket? Downmarket? Old-stock Anglos? New Quebeckers? Businesspeople? Public transit commuters? Throughout, George stuck to his Record hands-off credo, refraining from meddling in Daily News editorial decisions. The paper was sued for revealing that a popular Tory MP had a two-year lapse in his Parliamentary CV. We reported that he’d spent those two years in prison for the attempted murder of a Montreal cop during a bank holdup. We were sued for telling the truth about a dead mobster. For two years, George protected us from Quebecor’s meddling and protected Quebecor from our angry counterblasts. It was private-sector statesmanship of the highest order.
Québecor and I parted ways in 1990 as Péladeau’s son Pierre-Karl took over the task of trying to find a winning formula for the Daily News. George, who helped negotiate my exit, was philosophical. “What these guys don’t want is another walking wounded,” he explained. “Some of their ventures are successes, others were failures, but the worst case for them is a Daily News, hemorrhaging cash with no clear sense of where it’s headed.”
George and I went our separate ways, he to his posting as Quebec’s Delegate-General in London, me back into talk radio and print. Whenever I’d run into Jean Charest, we’d talk about George, Anne and the family. Charest, I grew to learn, places people before politics much as George did.
Louise and I last saw George in August 2016, during a road trip through the Maritimes that included a stop in Mahone Bay, where their stunning heritage home straddles a ridge high above the harbour. He was less interested in current events than in talking about his latest reading on Canadian history. Knowing that he had once served as the mayor of Ogden, I told him I was thinking of running for a council seat. “Don’t do it Jamie,” he cautioned me. “It will drive you crazy.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I wish I had heeded his advice.
As word spread among his circle of friends that his health was deteriorating, I wanted to tell him how much his mentorship and confidence meant to me. We had that conversation late this summer. It was uncharacteristically emotional for both of us, a reminder of that human need to give thanks and say goodbye before it’s too late.