Bruce Little, an economist and reporter whose “Amazing Facts” column in The Globe and Mail tracked Canada’s political leaders, central bankers and their economic policies, died on March 4 at the age of 74 after a brief illness.
Over a four-decade journalism career, including more than 20 years at The Globe, Mr. Little focused on explaining government finance in accessible, entertaining stories and charts. Much of his writing was done while federal and provincial leaders were struggling with soaring inflation and runaway budget deficits, economic issues that had an impact on every Canadian household and business.
“His talent in explaining and critiquing the sometimes complex and esoteric world of central banking for his readers was remarkable,” said former Bank of Canada governor Gordon Thiessen, who ran the central bank from 1994 to 2001, when the federal Liberals took aggressive steps to rein in government spending. Mr. Thiessen said: “His work was particularly valuable during those times when monetary policy was controversial and the Bank’s communications of its objectives and actions were not yet as clear and transparent as they have become since then.”
Bruce McDonald Little was born May 7, 1945, and grew up in Parry Sound, Ont. His parents were Justice Walter Little, who served for 30 years as an Ontario judge, and the former Marjorie McDonald. He studied economics at Queen’s University, graduating in 1967 and moving into the master’s program. As a graduate student, he devoted most of his time to the school newspaper, the Queen’s Journal, alongside several future Globe colleagues and David Dodge, a good friend who would go on to become governor of the Bank of Canada.
“Bruce was a big man on campus, a big personality,” said Gordon Pitts, a former Globe editor and reporter who was a few years behind his future colleague at Queen’s. He said: “Time spent with Bruce was always full of ideas and energy. He was always asking ‘What have you read?’ and ‘Where have you been?’”
Mr. Little never finished his masters, deciding instead to take a job as a reporter at a now-defunct Newfoundland newspaper, The Daily News. Over a year, he took on virtually every role in the newsroom, including night editor and managing editor, said his wife, Ellen Richardson, only to be laid off. From there, Mr. Little moved to the Ottawa bureau of the Financial Times of Canada, a national weekly publication, then opened the first Halifax bureau for the Southam newspaper chain in 1972.
In 1976, Mr. Little joined the CBC in Halifax as producer of the morning radio show. He only stayed nine months, but set the tone for mornings in Nova Scotia for two generations. Mr. Little decided to hire Don Connolly as a host on the show, starting a highly successful 42-year run on the airwaves. Ms. Richardson said Mr. Little got a kick out of being invited to Mr. Connolly’s retirement party in 2018, where he told the crowd: “If you only really make one decision as boss, it’s good to see that it worked out well for more than 40 years.”
Mr. Little left the CBC to work for the federal government in Ottawa, first as a staff member in the Privy Council Office, then at the Canada Development Corp. While he enjoyed the work, Ms. Richardson said writing remained his passion. When former Financial Times colleague Timothy Pritchard, a senior editor at The Globe, called in 1984 to offer a reporting job that paid considerably less than he made as a civil servant, Mr. Little jumped at the opportunity.
“Every good business newspaper needs a good economics reporter, because he or she will have a mind full of stats and indicators that are the makings of stories,” Mr. Pritchard said. “Back in the eighties, when the news lineup was looking thin on any day, I would wander over to Bruce, note our plight and ask if he had anything on his mental shelf that could be worked into a stand-up news feature for the front page. He would invariably say: ‘Let me think about it.’ And at that point, I had no doubt he would deliver.
“He was as complete a man as I have known, truly a citizen of the world,” said Mr. Pritchard, who recalled sharing martinis, dinner and evenings of theatre at the Stratford Festival. “He was an unflappable editorial manager and reporter, a master of spreadsheets, but he was also an energetic participant in so many endeavours beyond his day job.”
An early adopter of technology, Mr. Little began building his own spreadsheets in the 1980s to track government data, long before such information was widely available on the internet. "Bruce could transform the most dreary and impenetrable data into analysis and arguments that anyone could follow,” said Margaret Wente, Mr. Little’s former boss as editor of The Globe’s Report on Business (ROB) section. She said Mr. Little inspired the newsroom with his kind, open approach and said: “His work at the ROB was more than just a job to him. He read this stuff in his spare time, for fun.”
Mr. Little left writing for a short time to serve as assistant managing editor of The Globe, reporting to managing editor Geoffrey Stevens. “Bruce was a delight,” Mr. Stevens said. “He was fun to be with, always cheerful. When we weren’t talking about news or staff issues, we talked baseball – the Blue Jays.”
A four-seasons fan, Mr. Little taped Jays games during the summer, then stored them, unlabelled, for off-season viewing. Over the winter, he would pull out a tape at random. Mr. Stevens said: “Because the tape wasn’t labelled, he theoretically didn’t know the outcome of the game, thereby preserving an element of surprise. It apparently worked for him.”
In 2000, Mr. Little won the Hyman Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy Journalism. He applied for a voluntary buyout from The Globe in 2004: His whoop of joy on learning that he had been accepted for the package – the company reserved the right to turn down applicants – echoed across the newsroom. Mr. Little had already made plans for a second career that included a significant commitment to philanthropy.
“You know how they talk about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’? Bruce Little was my giant," said David Parkinson, who now covers economics at The Globe. He said: “He was the guy who pretty much invented the job I do today. Wickedly smart, a knack for explaining the complex, and a child-like excitement for the wonders of numbers.”
More recently, Mr. Little and his wife decided to join another couple on a Habitat for Humanity project, building a house in Whitehorse. When the friends cancelled, the couple went anyway and so enjoyed the experience they subsequently signed up for eight more projects, including trips to Portugal, Guatemala, Fiji, Trinidad and Iqaluit. The couple also billeted students taking part in the Toronto Summer Music Festival each year.
In recent years, Mr. Little served as a special adviser to Mr. Dodge, who was then governor of the Bank of Canada. In 2008, he published a book, Fixing the Future, on the reforms to the Canada Pension Plan in the 1990s, which was shortlisted for the Donner Prize, which recognizes excellence in writing on public policy. In 2012, he worked as a consultant to economist Don Drummond on a government-backed project to reform Ontario’s public services, known as the Drummond Commission. A proud son of a Scottish immigrant, Mr. Little always appreciated a good single malt. Along with his wife, Mr. Little leaves his sons, Will and Ned Richardson-Little, an adored granddaughter and a large clan of family and friends.