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Journalist Gerry McAulife with his wife, Bonnie. Credit: Michael McAuliffe

Michael McAuliffe

Gerry McAuliffe, an award-winning journalist who became a legend among Canada’s investigative reporters, died at his home in Burlington, Ont., on Oct. 28 after a long series of illnesses. He was 81.

Mr. McAuliffe, who may have played a role in more royal commissions and public inquiries than any other reporter in the country, twice evaded going to prison when he refused to name his sources while testifying. The judge at one inquiry told him to bring a suitcase for his next appearance. If he failed to name his source, the judge told him, he was going to be locked up. The judge was subsequently frustrated to learn the terms of the inquiry did not grant him that power.

“[Mr. McAuliffe] was a natural reporter,” said Robert Bishop, his editor for several years at CBC Radio News. “He really could sense when something was not right and it was very hard for anyone to hide from his curiosity when he was on the hunt. As a result he got some excellent work done over the years. When he got onto something he was not going to let go. There are a lot of investigative journalists these days but their work doesn’t have the snap and fizz Gerry’s did.”

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Gerald Francis Xavier McAuliffe was born in Toronto on Jan. 13, 1939, one of a pair of twins, into a large family with eight boys and one girl.

As a boy, Gerry was curious and mischievous and always liked listening to people. He left school after Grade 8 to work at various jobs, including at a men’s clothing store, to help support his family.

Eventually Mr. McAuliffe went to Northern Ontario to become a reporter, moving from one small community to another eking out a living writing for small newspapers and freelancing stories to bigger ones. While working for the Timmins Daily Press he met and married Bonnie Wilkins. Mr. McAuliffe told her he thought his lack of education would hamper his career as a journalist. “She told me I could be as good as or better than any other reporter in the country,” he said later.

Later in life, when he applied to attend Toronto’s York University to get a degree as a mature student, he was turned down because he was told, among other things, he had not read enough classical literature.

In the early 1960s he got a job as a reporter at The Hamilton Spectator, where he broke a number of major stories. In 1969 he began investigating questionable links between a millionaire Burlington businessman with a lengthy criminal record and the police, including the commissioner and senior members of the Ontario Provincial Police, while maintaining his friendly relationships with major mobsters in Hamilton. Mr. McAuliffe’s subsequent stories led to a commission of inquiry and national headlines.

It was one of a series of major investigative stories that kept coming for the next 30 years as he moved from the Spectator to The Canadian magazine and Star Weekly magazine, The Globe and Mail, Global Television, CBC Radio News and the fifth estate, the CBC’s flagship investigative program.

In 1974, at The Globe and Mail, he was the lead reporter on a series of front page articles that ran over 10 days detailing serious allegations of assaults on prisoners by Toronto police officers. A subsequent royal commission investigated 28 of the allegations and found evidence that nearly all them clearly occurred. It found several police officers committed assaults and lied under oath.

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He investigated what was then called the Ontario Workmen’s Compensation Board and found irregularities that led to an Ontario legislative inquiry. His investigation of bombings and shootings in the Toronto construction industry contributed to a royal commission that found extensive links to organized crime. The Niagara Regional Police, frustrated at his exposés of misconduct by its members, got a warrant to tap his telephone to try to find out who was talking to him.

While at CBC Radio in 1986 he won an ACTRA award for a series of stories about dangerous conditions in Ontario courthouses. He found the courthouse in St. Thomas, built in 1853, had no fire alarms, no fire escapes and a tiny witness waiting room in which rape victims had to sit with their accused.

Estanislao (Stan) Oziewicz, who joined The Globe as a reporter when Mr. McAuliffe was already making headlines across the country, remembers him as a larger-than-life source of inspiration.

“He looked the part of a sleuth with his thin, hooked nose, his protruding stomach pushing out his expensive three-piece suits, and his propensity for saying [a profane expletive] in almost any setting,” he said. “I always admired Gerry for breathing life into the journalistic injunction to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ ”

Alex Beer, who became a managing editor at The Hamilton Spectator, said: “Gerry was a moral man, very much so. He was always working to make the world a better place.”

Gerald McAuliffe, 17 (right), and his twin brother, Brian, are photographed debunking superstitions such as standing under a ladder, originally published in The Globe and Mail, on Friday Jan. 13, 1956.

The Globe and Mail

“Gerry was amazed at the accolades he got,” Mrs. McAuliffe said.” He’d say, well, he was just doing his job. We were all proud of him. We didn’t care about the threats. They used to call up and threaten to blow up my car, fire bomb our house, kidnap our kids and kneecap him. We’d get calls saying your kids left for school this morning at 8:30, just to let us know they were watching us. One time the police wanted to move me and the kids to New York and I said, ‘No way, we’re here with Gerry.’ We loved his job as much as he did.”

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Mr. McAuliffe and his wife had three children, Michael, Christopher and Shawna. Michael worked as a well-respected reporter with CBC Radio for many years before taking early retirement.

During their 58-year marriage, Gerry and Bonnie McAuliffe lived in 22 homes as he moved from job to job.

Mr. McAuliffe had the distinction of being accepted by the Supreme Court of Ontario as an expert witness on standards for investigative reporters. He testified before an Ontario legislative committee on the need for improved Freedom of Information standards. He actively supported the Newspaper Guild’s efforts to unionize Canadian Press workers. He won a complaint to the Ontario Press Council about a newspaper’s poor reporting. He wrote letters to editors to complain and congratulate.

Mr. McAuliffe talked about journalism across the country to different audiences, including lawyers, students and professional groups, such as nurses and teachers. He cared passionately about raising the standards of his craft.

There was a little-known aspect to the private life of the hard-nosed reporter. He and his wife often took in people who needed a meal or a place to stay for a night or two, and sometimes longer. Their Roman Catholic faith was an integral part of their lives.

The downstairs washroom in one of their houses was wallpapered with some of the many notices of libel served on him. In pride of place was an impressive gold-embossed subpoena signed by the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature demanding Mr. McAuliffe’s appearance before a committee looking into one of his stories.

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Then, suddenly, he seemed to disappear, after three decades of making headlines. He accepted a position in 1991 as director of issues management with the management board of the Ontario cabinet. Ill health forced him to leave on a disability pension two years later. He endured health challenges for the rest of his life, finally succumbing to cancer after a four-year ordeal.

Mr. McAuliffe leaves his wife, their three children, his sister, seven brothers and four grandchildren.

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