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Former CBC broadcaster Elizabeth Gray, pictured in 1978 at CBC's Cross Country Checkup, attracted loyalty from friends and colleagues throughout her long career and was a role model for many female journalists. Ms. Gray has died at the age of 86.Eric Hayes/Handout

When Elizabeth Gray was offered the job as host of As It Happens, CBC Radio’s current affairs interview show, in 1981, she was thrilled. “It was the job I’d spent 20 years preparing for,” Ms. Gray later recalled.

She initially hesitated to take the position, because it meant leaving her family in Ottawa and commuting to Toronto where the show was based. But with encouragement from her husband, the late Globe and Mail correspondent John Gray, and their three children, she decided to accept the offer, which saw her succeeding the popular Barbara Frum, who moved to CBC Television as the debut anchor of The Journal.

Ms. Gray, who died on Oct. 25 in Toronto at the age of 86, hosted As It Happens for the next 3½ years, her gravelly voice asking tough, incisive questions of politicians and whomever else came on the show. Then in mid-1985, her contract wasn’t renewed. It was a shock. Ms. Gray hadn’t seen it coming. It didn’t help that CBC management came up with vague reasons for the dismissal, saying the show needed a shakeup to boost ratings and that Ms. Gray wasn’t “high-profile enough.” There were hints that management wanted the show to lighten up on its contents and that Ms. Gray’s personality made her difficult to work with.

The outrage from Ms. Gray’s fans and colleagues was instantaneous. More than 100 producers, editors and journalists from CBC petitioned against her firing as did 23 parliamentary reporters in Ottawa. The network received hundreds of angry letters from irate listeners. The late newspaper columnist Allan Fotheringham called out the CBC for “about the most stupid decision in years in an organization that has quite a record in stupidities.”

On Ms. Gray’s final day at As It Happens, Andrew Simon, the manager who had delivered the bad news two weeks earlier, arrived at the CBC studio to offer Ms. Gray a bouquet of flowers. She rejected the gift. “Don’t think me ungrateful, but to accept would be hypocritical.” As Ms. Gray’s friends and backers crowded into the control room, Mr. Simon left and remarked to colleagues, “I got turned down by the star.”

The decision was never overturned, yet within four months Ms. Gray was back at the CBC, working as a field producer with Sunday Morning, the newsmagazine, and continued to work for a variety of current affairs programs until she retired.

While Ms. Gray attracted huge loyalty from friends and colleagues throughout her long career in broadcasting and was a role model for many female journalists, they’re the first to admit she could be irascible at times.

“She was tough as nails and very, very smart. She didn’t suffer fools,” said journalist Shelley Ambrose, the onetime executive director of The Walrus and longtime friend of Ms. Gray, whom she says she was terrified of when they first met.

“She asked the tough questions without fear or favour,” said Pamela Wallin, the senator and veteran broadcaster, who was in her early 20s when she met Ms. Gray at a women’s conference. “She was skeptical. She was tough-minded. If you were working with her or for her, she expected every bit as much of you as she did of herself.”

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As It Happens cast, clockwise from the left, Michael Enright, Elizabeth Gray, Dennis Trudeau, Barbara Budd, Mary Lou Findlay, Alan Maitland and Harry Brown.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Gray was then hosting CBO Morning, a local Ottawa CBC radio show. She encouraged Ms. Wallin to move to Ottawa and got her a job as a researcher for the show. She was quickly immersed in the Grays’ world, where politics and journalism mixed with their social life. Soon after her arrival in the capital, she recalls being taken by the Grays, 16 years her senior, to a party at the home of Allan Gotlieb, the high-powered Canadian diplomat, and his journalist wife, Sondra. Other Ottawa notables were there. Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister at the time, dropped in.

On the way back from the party, Ms. Gray told the young journalist, “These are the people you need to know. These are the people you need to understand.” The two became life-long friends.

Elizabeth Binks was born on April 26, 1937, in Toronto. She was the only child of George Binks, an insurance broker, and Enid (née Watts) Binks, a homemaker. She attended University of Toronto where she spent much of her time working at The Varsity student newspaper and met Mr. Gray, who became her lifelong partner and professional colleague. Mr. Gray, who called his spouse Binks throughout their long marriage, died in 2020. She called him Gray.

After working for a short time in Toronto newspaper jobs – Elizabeth at The Telegram and John at The Star – the young couple moved to London, England, where he reported for United Press International and she freelanced. With two young children, they realized they couldn’t afford life in London and after five years abroad, returned to Canada when Mr. Gray was hired by The Montreal Star.

The family moved to Ottawa in 1969 as Mr. Gray pursued his career at The Ottawa Citizen, The Ottawa Journal and The Globe and Mail. Ms. Gray was active as a broadcaster, hosting the local CBC radio show and producing for a variety of national programs including Cross Country Checkup, either as staff or freelance. “She was always working,” recalls her daughter, Rachel Gray, the middle of three children.

Living in a household with two high-profile journalists made for an unusual childhood. “It took a long time for me as an adult to realize that not everyone in the world would spend every dinner time in conversation about current events and the news of the day,” Rachel said. “The joke in our family was that we would never call our parents between 6 and 6:30 any night. Ever. They would be listening to the news.”

Preoccupation with current affairs was a hallmark of the Grays’ boisterous and well-attended parties, full of excellent food, wine and banter. According to Ms. Ambrose, “You would be subjected to quizzes at dinner.” She provided a sample question: “Can you name every premier sitting today and what party do they belong to?”

As a couple, the Grays complemented each other. “They had very different dispositions,” Rachel said. “My father was a softspoken Renaissance man, who was much more gentle and good-natured. My mother could be more abrasive.” But she said that her mother’s toughness was in part a survival technique in a male-dominated professional world where women had to struggle to be recognized.

“She did not talk about her kids at work, especially when we were younger, because that was seen as a sign of a weakness in a female employee,” she said. “There was a period when if we were sick, my Dad would be the one who would come home to take care of us so she didn’t take flak at the office.”

Yet her mother could also be “incredibly sweet” with friends, family and colleagues, she added. After Ottawa, Mr. Gray was posted to London and Moscow by The Globe and Mail and Ms. Gray freelanced for the CBC. They moved back to Toronto in 1994.

Over her career, Ms. Gray won four ACTRA awards.

Ms. Gray, who had a heart attack in September and was then diagnosed with lung cancer, leaves her children, Colin, Rachel and Joshua, as well as five grandchildren.

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