Charles Bury, who died of liver cancer on Feb. 1 at age 67, was a country newspaper editor whose commitment to fairness and belief in the power of journalism to do good inspired the dozens of reporters he mentored at The Record in Sherbrooke, Que., and won him the admiration of the politicians he held to account.
Gruff and imposing, Mr. Bury was the editor of The Record from 1981 to 1996. Even though it was a small-town daily in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, Mr. Bury’s style and presence gave it an outsize influence in the province’s anglophone community in the post-Bill 101 years.
He trained numerous young journalists at The Record, giving them a strong sense of mission and a desire to use journalism in the service of the community. As a founding member of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in 1978 and a long-time board member and chair of its successor organization, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), he also helped develop and defend the profession he loved.
A contrarian even on his deathbed, Mr. Bury garnered national media coverage in January after he and his family successfully fought for his right to inhale marijuana from a vaporizer in his hospital room. “I’ve never died before, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he memorably told one media outlet. “This will help me … take it easy on the way through.”
Mr. Bury’s room on the sixth floor of the Centre hospitalier universitaire de Sherbrooke (CHUS) became the scene of an impromptu celebration of his life on Dec. 31 after word got out that his condition was terminal. Fellow journalists and friends turned up en masse to reminisce with him about his accomplishments and thank him for his mentorship.
“He’s one of those whose life will really be celebrated,” said Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec and onetime leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party, who called Mr. Bury that day for a lengthy chat. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair also called.
After Mr. Bury’s death, Graham Fraser, Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, posted a statement on Facebook calling him “a man of passionate integrity who brought his social conscience to journalism and was always ready to defend and champion those whom he saw as the underdog.”
Sharon McCully, publisher of The Record, has announced a scholarship in his name for local high-school students who want to pursue journalism as a career. The CAJ has said it plans to honour Mr. Bury and will make an announcement in the coming months.
All this for a man who never graduated from university and worked as a bouncer before going into journalism.
Mr. Bury was born in Montreal in 1946, one of four children of William Stewart Bury and Patricia Bury. A child of the 1960s, he wound up in the early seventies keeping the peace at the long-defunct Boiler Room on Montreal’s legendary Crescent Street. He boasted about winning the “Golden Door Award,” as the best bouncer on the strip, three years in a row and often said that he was able to put an end to trouble before it started just by imposing his considerable bulk.
“He had to use psychology because every time he got into a fight he broke his hand,” said Perry Beaton, a long-time photographer at The Record who was Mr. Bury’s good friend.
Mr. Bury met his future wife, Berit Lundh, in Montreal but moved with her to the French-speaking hamlet of Saint-Herménégilde in the Eastern Townships, southeast of Montreal, in 1973 when she became pregnant. “Being that they were hippies, they were damned if they were going to raise me in the city,” their son, Luke Bury, said. The couple divorced in 1979.
It was after moving to the Eastern Townships, the younger Mr. Bury said, that his father began to show an interest in politics and journalism. He organized one of the first protests against Bill 101, Quebec’s controversial language law, and began to write for The Townships Sun, a monthly newspaper based in Lennoxville, Que.
That led Mr. Bury to The Record, a daily newspaper with its own interesting pedigree. Owned at different times by future media barons John Bassett and Conrad Black (along with Peter White and David Radler), the paper was purchased by George MacLaren in 1977. He hired Mr. Bury as his second editor, in 1981.
At the time, Mr. Bury was practically living out of his truck, according to Mr. Beaton, and had settled into his signature personal-grooming style, which included long hair, a huge beard, an earring and plenty of flannel shirts. “Certain members of our stakeholders advised me very strongly not to hire him. But luckily I didn’t have to answer to anyone, so I did what I wanted,” Mr. MacLaren said with a laugh.
“Charlie had a lot of common sense. And he was a thoughtful person. And he was a humane person.”
Mr. Bury was also a smart person. He had a photographic memory and was renowned for his “piling system” – the knee-high stacks of paper that covered his desk, the floor and a nearby sofa, and into which he could reach and pull out the precise document he was looking for.
As a reporter and editor, the hard-living Mr. Bury (he usually ordered triples at the bar) “knew how to connect to the political elite and to the ordinary Townshipper,” Mr. Fraser recalled.
“He always had good reflexes and could find someone, somewhere, somehow that could give him the answer that he wanted,” Mr. Charest said. “Including calling me up at the end of the day directly and asking me, ‘What’s happening?’ He could be very insistent, in a nice way.”
Mr. MacLaren said it became obvious to him and Mr. Bury early on that hiring and mentoring young journalists was “our function” – partly, it has to be said, because it kept salaries down.
Young reporters making as little as $165 a week churned through the Record newsroom, staying for two years on average. They were expected to learn how to report and write, edit stories, write editorials, take photographs when Mr. Beaton was unavailable, lay out pages, select wire copy and help in production, when necessary. With the advertising department at the front of the warehouse-like offices and a printing press at the back that paid most of the company’s bills, reporters were given an integrated lesson in newspapering, with Mr. Bury’s straightforward and demanding editorial guidance at the centre of it all.
Jokingly referred to as “the human lede” for his ability to punch out the top of a story in seconds flat on behalf of a bewildered rookie, Mr. Bury gave his young charges a lot of rope to hang themselves with, and also a lot of room to shine.
“He trusted [the new reporters],” Mr. Beaton said. “He set the challenge and waited to see what would happen. That’s an art. Not everyone can do that.”
Ahead of his time, and perhaps even anticipating the age of social media, Mr. Bury insisted that his reporters share what they dug up with reporters from rival media. He believed information needed to be in the hands of the most people possible and was not to be hoarded for the sake of competition.
“Charlie instilled in us the importance of treating people with respect, of telling their stories fairly, accurately and with balance” said Robert Palmer, who got his start at The Record in the early 1980s and now works at WestJet in public relations. “It wasn’t about journalism, at least not exclusively. Charlie was trying to teach us about how to live our lives, define our value systems and be good citizens.”
Mr. Bury was moved from the CHUS in January to a hospice, where he was allowed to keep using marijuana and spent a final precious month with his family.
Charles Bury is survived by his children, Luke and Rachel; his partner, Catherine Campbell; his sister, Anne; his brothers, Philip and Bill; and by three grandchildren.
Note to readers: The story has been updated with a correction. An impromptu celebration of Charles Bury's life took place at Centre hospitalier universitaire de Sherbrooke (CHUS) on Dec. 31, not Jan. 31.