It was a blessing in racist disguise. In early 1942, when the federal government expelled tens of thousands of Japanese-Canadians from the West Coast of British Columbia, 18-year-old Margaret Inouye moved from her family’s berry farm in Mission, B.C., to work as a domestic in Winnipeg. Her mother had trained her in the arts of sewing, Japanese-style cooking and flower arranging. The plan had been for Margaret to be sent to finishing school in Japan, so that she might become a traditional wife and raise a family in what was, until that point, an insular community. But as their world blew apart, Margaret glimpsed emancipation among the shards.
“It was one of the great adversities in her life,” Ruth Lyons, Margaret’s daughter, said in a recent interview. Still, “people didn’t approve of this, but she always said that it was also a huge opportunity for her. Because she would say it got her out of the ghetto.”
It got her much further than that. By the end of the 1940s, Margaret was in London, newly married to a Caucasian man and on her way to a pioneering career that shouldered aside racism, broke through a glass ceiling and helped to save public radio in Canada from what seemed at the time to be a likely death. After cutting her teeth at the British Broadcasting Corporation, Margaret and her young family returned to Canada, where she landed at the CBC and helped launch what became known as the Radio Revolution, hiring talented young guns and setting them free to create shows of extraordinary durability: Sunday Morning, This Country in the Morning [which became Morningside, Quirks and Quarks and As It Happens]. In 2010, she was invested as a member of the Order of Canada.
“I think Margaret Lyons was arguably the most important and the most influential CBC radio executive in the past 60 years,” said Peter Herrndorf, a longtime CBC executive who served as Ms. Lyons’s boss from 1979 to 1983.
And she left this world as she lived her life: on her own terms. On Oct. 5, at age 95, Margaret Lyons underwent a medically assisted death at her home in Toronto, with her daughter and husband holding her hands.
She also leaves two sisters, as well as several nephews and nieces.
The eldest of seven children (though one died as a youngster), Keiko Margaret Inouye was born on Nov. 21, 1923, to the Japanese immigrant farmers Yoshinobu Inouye and Teru Tsuji. Margaret grew up speaking Japanese at home, but was a voracious reader of the English-language Vancouver Province, to which her father subscribed, and she dreamed of working at the newspaper someday. She went fishing and hunting with her father, to her mother’s displeasure, and was handy with the cross-cut saw.
Months after Japan bombed the United States naval base of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the cabinet of Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King issued an order-in-council excluding all people of Japanese extraction from being within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of the Pacific Coast. Farms, including that belonging to the Inouyes, were seized and later sold off at fire-sale prices by a federal agency known as the Custodian of Enemy Property. While many Japanese-Canadians worked as labourers in B.C., Margaret went with her mother and most of her siblings to Manitoba. Margaret landed a position in the house of a wealthy family as a cook and downstairs maid, while a sister served as a nanny and upstairs maid.
Still, Margaret regretted that choice. In avoiding the internment experience, she wrote decades later in a magazine published by the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, in Burnaby, B.C. “I feel that I missed a valuable life lesson, and I admire the hardy pioneer spirit of people who pulled the communities together after they had lost everything.”
In 1944, Margaret left the job and travelled to Hamilton – one of the few cities in Canada where those of Japanese extraction were then permitted – to work as a chambermaid at McMaster University while finishing up her high-school diploma at night. She then entered McMaster and began studying economics, calculating that the subject matter would give her an advantage over other aspiring journalists. She met a fellow economics student by the name of Ed Lyons, and they fell in love. According to Ruth, on graduation day they received their degrees, got married, had lunch and hopped on a ship for London.
For the rest of her life, Margaret felt a debt of gratitude to McMaster for offering her an education few other institutions would. She and Ed funded the Lyons New Media Centre in the university library, and sponsored a scholarship in new media. She received an honorary degree from the university in 1996.
Their daughter, Ruth, was born in 1951 and son, Erskine, followed in 1958. In 1952, Margaret landed a job as a dictation typist in the BBC’s foreign newsroom and quickly worked her way from one clerk position to another before landing in the broadcaster’s producer training program. She served for six years as the senior current affairs producer for Asia. In 1957, when Lester B. Pearson visited London – the same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize – Margaret interviewed him for the BBC. “He told me that I should be back in Canada working for the CBC, not wasting my time in the BBC,” she wrote. Three years later, she, Ed, and their two children would make the leap back across the Atlantic.
Last week, Margaret told the former CBC radio and TV producer Mark Starowicz that she had hoped to get into the CBC’s nascent television service when she returned to Canada. But TV was a men’s-only club at the time, so she had to content herself with radio: She landed a job as a public affairs producer, turning out long-form documentaries.
Within a few years, she became a supervisor and began hiring scores of talented – if sometimes rough-hewn – producers and on-air journalists: Mr. Starowicz, a newspaperman with an anti-authoritarian streak who had been fired by the Toronto Star and ended up in charge of As It Happens, then Sunday Morning and finally CBC-TV’s The Journal; Barbara Frum, who had been dropped from the suppertime TV news show but seemed a perfect fit for As It Happens as it went five nights a week; Stuart McLean; Peter Gzowski; Michael Enright. In the mid-1970s, she hired a 19-year-old named Ivan Fecan to create a pop science show called Quirks and Quarks, hosted by the rising star David Suzuki. (Later Mr. Fecan oversaw the creation of such shows as The Kids in the Hall and Road to Avonlea.)
Some wag dubbed the group of young upstarts “Lyons’s Kindergarten.” Margaret was their diminutive den mother. A 1982 newspaper profile gives her height at 4 feet, 10½ inches, but she was a commanding presence. “I remember this conclave of males surrounding her,” Mr. Starowicz said. “There would be this clarinet-like voice: ‘I want you to do this.’ And these hulking males who towered over who would go do her bidding.”
“She was arguably the greatest talent developer that CBC radio had ever seen,” Mr. Herrndorf said. “She was kind of a contrarian. She looked for people who weren’t the conventional obvious choices.”
“She and the people who worked with her and after her were responsible for the programming that has defined CBC radio for half a century,” he added. “And she was just a ferocious defender of public broadcasting, which isn’t about selling things. In Margaret’s mind, it was about getting to know the country, getting to know its history, its values, its aspirations, its rhythms and it was about giving Canadians the kind of information they needed to make thoughtful choices.”
Ms. Lyons had a mandate to shake things up: When she took over, ratings for the AM and FM radio services had fallen to perhaps a share of four per cent; the bulk of listeners were over 50. “This place is boring, boring, boring,” Mr. Starowicz says she told him. She chased young audiences, introduced more pop music into the rotation and slashed long-form documentaries. She introduced a new mantra: “Presentation is as important as content.”
Her changes alienated many. In 1978, Val Clery, the original executive producer of As It Happens, wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail calling himself “one of Margaret Lyons’s early victims,” and complaining about her “remote, patronizing attitude to listeners. The same philosophy, that hype and packaging are more important for boosting audience figures than content, has permeated current affairs programming also.”
After Margaret became the managing director of radio for CBC’s English-language division in 1981, the Toronto Star columnist (and CBC broadcaster) Clyde Gilmour noted she was not only “the top woman at the CBC,” but also “one of the highest-ranking female executives of any broadcasting system in the world.”
Even Margaret’s supporters spoke of her in language that now feels of a distant era: Newspaper profiles frequently noted that she was known inside CBC as “the Dragon Lady.” Margaret insisted the nickname didn’t bother her.
Still, there were private struggles, and immense pain that she hid from all who knew her. Her son, Erskine, battled personal demons and died by suicide in 1985, in his late 20s. And her daughter, Ruth, acknowledged last week that it took years of therapy before she could love her mother. “I think probably her work was in many ways her life. I personally feel that if she were a generation or two younger, she would have said, ‘To hell with having a family, I’m just going to pursue my career.’ "
After Margaret’s death, though, Ruth praised her for living "with courage.”
She also had a cheeky sense of humour. Mr. Starowicz recalled that at one point Margaret’s office was next to the studio occupied by the famously idiosyncratic pianist Glenn Gould.
“He would practise so loudly – I can only assume it was the speakers – that Margaret would thump on the wall to get him to lower the volume. And I said, ‘You would thump on the wall to get Glenn Gould to turn it down?’ And she said, ‘Yeah! You couldn’t hear yourself think! We couldn’t do a program!’ And, as you know, in Gould’s recordings, you hear breathing, and humming, and tapping. And on some of them, I wondered: Is that Margaret in the studio next door, thumping?”