Richard Gwyn was one of Canada’s most influential political journalists of the past 60 years. He worked at a number of outlets, from the old news agency UPI to Time Canada, but he was best known for his political and foreign affairs columns in the Toronto Star. Mr. Gwyn, who died on Aug. 15 at the age of 86, was also the author of seven books, including a two-volume history of Sir John A. Macdonald and The Northern Magus, a portrayal of the enigmatic prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Most of all, he was a reporter, a man who never gave up on a story and often embarrassed his peers by beating them to a scoop. His first big exclusive came in 1958 when he was working in Ottawa for UPI.
“Gwyn scored a world exclusive that Princess Margaret, then 27, had asked that John Turner, a 29-year-old Montreal bachelor, be added to the guest list for an official ball in Vancouver in the summer of 1958, where they danced the night away,” said Bob Lewis, former editor of Maclean’s, who interviewed Mr. Gwyn for his book Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill.
“Richard was the journalist you wanted to be,” Mr. Lewis said. “You could never stay ahead of the guy.”
Mr. Gwyn, who became such a part of Canada’s political commentariat, was an alumnus of a British public school. He had one of those hyphenated surnames and never quite lost his English accent, though he did drop the hyphen once he landed in Canada.
Richard John Philip Jermy-Gwyn was born on May 26, 1934, in Bury St. Edmunds, a picture-book English town 130 kilometres northeast of London. He was the son of Brigadier Philip Jermy-Gwyn, an army officer who served in India, and the former Elizabeth Edith Tilley. Young Richard went to Stonyhurst, a private Jesuit school for the Anglo-Catholic elite. He remained a Catholic all his life.
He next went to Sandhurst, the British military school, but soon left for Canada. He was 19 and found life in postwar Britain stifling. His first stop was Newfoundland, where he eked out a living selling subscriptions to a Catholic magazine. He then landed a job at a Halifax radio station. On the ferry over, he met Sandra Fraser, the Newfoundland-born woman who became his wife and literary partner.
They went on to become the journalistic power couple of Ottawa, she as a writer and contributing editor for Saturday Night magazine, he as a high-profile columnist for the Toronto Star. Both became officers of the Order of Canada; she won the Governor-General’s Literary Award, and he was nominated for the same honour.
After a stint in Ottawa’s press gallery, Mr. Gwyn went on to be executive assistant for the Liberal minister of communications, Eric Kierans. Two years later, he moved into the civil service under deputy minister Allan Gotlieb. Most people who leave journalism for such jobs never return. But Mr. Gwyn, fortified with insider knowledge of how government worked, returned to work as a journalist, eventually joining the Toronto Star.
When the paper hired Mr. Gwyn for its Ottawa bureau, the managing editor, Martin Goodman, told him: “What we’re looking for from you is a sense of the inside.” He delivered on that. Mr. Gwyn didn’t wait for something to pop up in Question Period or hang around the media scrums. He was out digging, using his contacts with civil servants, politicians and their army of aides.
In 1984, other columnists mused about when an election might be called. He gleaned the date through a careful analysis of inside dope, not guesswork. He knew that prime minister John Turner had flown to London to meet secretly with the Queen, asking her to postpone her visit because he wanted to call an election. “Circle the date September 4 on your calendars,” he wrote in his column. The prime minister’s office denied it all. But when the election was called, it fell on the date Mr. Gwyn had predicted.
In 1985, Mr. Gwyn was posted to England as the Star’s international affairs columnist. He covered everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the end of apartheid in South Africa. He returned to Canada in 1992.
Ian Urquhart, a former managing editor of the Toronto Star, said in addition to being a natural journalist, Mr. Gwyn had two great strengths: “He worked in government for five years, so he had insights most of us didn’t have. And he had the perspective of an outsider, coming from England as he did,” Mr. Urquhart said.
That outsider’s point of view applied not only to Mr. Gwyn’s journalism but to his books on Canada. Mr. Urquhart remembers being at a book launch for one of Mr. Gwyn’s volumes on Sir John A. Macdonald when he was chatting with University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss.
“Michael said to me: ‘Richard has put the professional historians of Canada to shame,‘” Mr. Urquhart recalled.
John Honderich, editor and then publisher of the Toronto Star, said above all Mr. Gwyn was a hard-working reporter.
“His genius was to take two giant steps back and analyze the situation. He was incredibly reliable, and he was a great digger. Pundits today do it off the top. Richard always did the work. He was a great reporter,” Mr. Honderich said.
The author Charlotte Gray says Mr. Gwyn was helpful and generous to colleagues.
“At one point, someone plagiarized one of his books, but he thought the novel was so good, he never said anything,” said Ms. Gray, who was Mr. Gwyn’s friend. “He didn’t pass a lot of moral judgments. He was quite amused when Sir John A. Macdonald or Joey Smallwood flirted with scandal. He was a pragmatist and understood what politics requires.”
Mr. Gwyn was also a force on television even though he was not naturally telegenic. He did several programs at TVO, the Ontario public TV network, starting with Realities, a program he did with journalist Robert Fulford. From 1994 he was a regular on Studio 2, the daily current-affairs program on TVO. That was so popular TVO expanded it to a program called Diplomatic Immunity, where he would appear with his fellow panelists, Eric Margolis and Janice Stein.
Steve Paikin said Mr. Gwyn was a natural on television.
“The guy could communicate. He could organize his thoughts well and articulate them well, and he played well with others. He could disagree with somebody else if he was in the midst of a debate without being personal or resorting to ad hominem attacks. That’s what made him so good at what he did,” Mr. Paikin said.
“Richard was a particular kind of guy. He didn’t know about sports, nothing about the Leafs or the Blue Jays, he didn’t golf, and as a result, his passion in life was issues, the country and the world. Policy, thinking, writing and reading were the things that he loved to do, and he could do all of them with the best of them,” Mr. Paikin said.
Mr. Gwyn was modest about his success. He said he was lucky to be born when he was, 11 years before the start of the postwar baby boom.
“The big thing in life is to time your birth. I was just ahead of the baby boomers. You didn’t have to worry about getting jobs. [Today] I would be struggling,” he told Mr. Lewis.
Mr. Gwyn felt he was lucky to come to Canada.
“The Canadian values of tolerance, civility, and decency are precious and are becoming more and more rare the world over,” he wrote in 1997. In one of his last columns in the Toronto Star in 2016, he said: “For some time now, it’s been obvious that Canada is one of the most successful countries in the world.”
Mr. Gwyn stopped writing and appearing on television as he realized he was suffering from dementia. He leaves his wife, Carol Bishop-Gwyn.