If you wanted to know where Clyde Sanger’s interests and sympathies lay, they were neatly encapsulated in an article the British-Canadian journalist wrote for The Guardian in August of 1966.
Subbing as the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., correspondent that summer, Mr. Sanger dutifully showed up to cover one of the Beatles’ final concerts in the United States. Although he and fellow reporters got to spend plenty of time backstage with the band after the show, Mr. Sanger chose to devote most of his Guardian article to a riot by African-American teenagers that had happened the same night.
Rather than relaying yet more glib utterances by the Fab Four, Mr. Sanger spent the bulk of his story revealing the racial unrest in a city where a white minority governed a population that was two-thirds Black. It was an injustice he was keenly sensitive to, having previously spent five years as The Guardian’s first Africa correspondent, where he documented the independence movements of several colonized African countries.
Mr. Sanger “clearly saw the continued oppression of African-Americans for what it was – and found Beatlemania pretty faddish and ephemeral by comparison,” wrote his son, poet Richard Sanger, in a 2021 article for the Literary Hub website.
That awareness of the world’s injustices – and the desire to make it a better place – are what drove Clyde Sanger’s 70-year career as a journalist, author, mentor and champion of social causes.
“He was a man of incredibly high ethics and principles,” said veteran Canadian diplomat Alexandra Bugailiskis, one of Mr. Sanger’s many admirers. “Whenever there was a fight to be fought, he was there. He wasn’t always on the front lines, but he would write about it. He would ask the right questions.”
Mr. Sanger, who died on Jan. 20 in Ottawa at the age of 93, spent most of his long career in Canada, writing for The Economist and The Globe and Mail as well as The Guardian. He also had a sideline doing international development work and a continuing gig as a sessional lecturer (later adjunct professor) at Carleton University’s renowned journalism school, where he played a major role in attracting students from the global south, especially those from Africa.
Among them was Ghanaian-born Ottawa Citizen columnist Mohammed Adam, who credits Mr. Sanger with persuading him to come to Canada in the 1980s, then assisting and befriending him once he arrived. “Clyde had a heart of gold,” Mr. Adam said. “He didn’t just help me, he helped everybody.”
Born on Nov. 20, 1928, in London, Clyde William Sanger had journalism in his family background – but ironically it leaned to the right. His father, Gerald Sanger, was the editor of British Movietone News, the newsreel partly owned by the right-wing Daily Mail. His Canadian-born mother, Hope Sanger (née Munro), was involved in local Conservative politics and resembled, in the memory of one of her grandsons, “a female Winston Churchill.”
“They were stifling, conservative, upper-middle-class strivers,” Richard Sanger said. Clyde duly attended boarding school, did his national service with a tank regiment in Egypt and read history at Oxford’s Brasenose College. After serving his newspaper apprenticeship at the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel, he grabbed a chance to do an exchange with the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky in 1954, where he got his first taste of North America and, in his words, “the fiery-cross racism” of the Jim Crow-era South. It was a formative experience, which he later wrote about in his 2019 memoir, Coming of Age in Kentucky.
In 1957, in the same spirit of adventure, he signed on as editor of a new weekly magazine, the Central African Examiner, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There, he met and fell in love with a young Canadian journalist, Penelope (Penny) Ketchum, who was visiting relatives.
The couple moved to England when Mr. Sanger got a job with what was then still the Manchester Guardian. But no sooner had they married and birthed a pair of twins, Matthew and Richard, when he was tapped to be the paper’s first Africa correspondent. The family relocated to Nairobi in 1960, where two more sons, Toby and Daniel, would be born, while Mr. Sanger fired off dispatches to his British readers on the decolonization of southeastern Africa.
“It was an exciting time in African politics,” recalled Nick Ketchum, Mr. Sanger’s brother-in-law, who relocated to Kenya as a teenager to help the young family. “Clyde was in and out all the time because things were happening all over the continent.” Mr. Sanger interviewed and got to know some of the key independence leaders of the time, including Zimbabwe’s Joshua Nkomo and future presidents Hastings Banda of Malawi and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.
After five years in Africa, Mr. Sanger was posted to New York, where he served as The Guardian’s United Nations correspondent. Penny Sanger wanted to return to Canada, however, and in 1967 Clyde took a job at The Globe and Mail, serving first on the editorial board in Toronto and then with the parliamentary bureau in Ottawa.
He resigned from the paper to write a book on Canada’s role in the developing world, Half a Loaf, which was published in 1969. It led to communications work with Ottawa-based international development organizations, including the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the North-South Institute, as well as a two-year stint in Britain with the Commonwealth Secretariat, where he helped draft the 1979 Lusaka Declaration against apartheid.
Throughout, he freelanced as Canada correspondent for The Guardian and, most memorably (if anonymously), for The Economist. It was in the pages of that influential weekly that he helped shape the international perception of Canada, and at times – as in his coverage of the 1990 collapse of the Meech Lake Accord – painted an unflattering picture of its politics. He became particularly notorious for a 2005 article in which he popularized the sobriquet “Mr. Dithers” to describe the vacillations of then-prime minister Paul Martin. “Some people thought that sealed Paul Martin’s political fate,” Richard Sanger said.
Clyde Sanger’s long association with Carleton began in 1984, when he became a lecturer in its new master’s program in journalism. Former students remember him as a legendary figure, known both for his broad global perspective and his sharp intellect.
“Even though he was the most charming person to talk to, it was a bit intimidating,” confessed Allan Thompson, now head of Carleton’s journalism program, who first met Mr. Sanger in 1990. “He was so bright and well read, and he was always probing, asking questions, always the journalist.”
Off-campus, Clyde and Penny Sanger were famous for their parties. “Their house was rocking,” Mr. Thompson said. The couple owned a big, rambling dwelling in the Glebe, the historic Ottawa neighbourhood, where they welcomed – and in some cases, housed – a steady stream of guests, from journalists and students to poets and activists. “It was like this old salon in Paris where all the socialists and the intellectuals would come,” said Ms. Bugailiskis, who first met Mr. Sanger when he authored a book profiling Canadians at the UN. “They would gather and get energy and enthusiasm from the exchange of ideas.”
Among the regular visitors was poet and novelist Karen Connelly, who originally connected with Ms. Sanger through their shared efforts to support the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Ms. Connelly became especially close to Mr. Sanger, who belied his reserved British upbringing. “Clyde was a very emotional, very expressive man,” she said. “And he was so curious about people and so open to their worlds.”
After Penny died of pancreatic cancer in 2017, Clyde sold their house and moved into the Colonel By Retirement Residence. He donated his papers to The Guardian News & Media Archive, which included a large collection of reporter’s notebooks dating from his years in Africa. The notebooks have recently been translated from Pitman shorthand for use by future researchers as a valuable record of that watershed period in African history.
Mr. Sanger authored numerous books over the years, including biographies of the British politician Malcolm MacDonald, one of the architects of decolonization, and Lotta Hitschmanova, the founder (and iconic PSA voice) of Canada’s Unitarian Service Committee. Late in life, he turned to his memoirs, writing his Kentucky book and Our Golden Years in Africa. His 93rd birthday celebration last November also served as a book launch for the latter, as well as for a collection of his poems titled All Ages.
“He was the journalist’s journalist,” Mr. Thompson said, writing until the very end. More than that, he was a compassionate one whose actions matched his words. “Clyde is the kind of person we need more of in the world,” Mr. Adam said.
Mr. Sanger leaves his sons, Matthew, Richard, Toby and Daniel Sanger, four daughters-in-law, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.