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Among his many accomplishments, John Godfrey was elected as an MP five times and served as Minister of State for Infrastructure and Communities. He is pictured outside of his office in Ottawa on July 22, 2004.Tobin Grimshaw/The Globe and Mail

John Godfrey was a true Renaissance man. His accomplishments, in no particular order, included being the editor of the Financial Post; a history professor at Dalhousie University; president of the University of King’s College, in Halifax, where he started its Journalism program; a member of Parliament, elected five times; a cabinet minister; a man who went on canoe trips in the remote north; and a writer and advocate for his favourite causes, which in recent years related to climate change.

Mr. Godfrey died on Dec. 18, a day before his 81st birthday. He was in many ways a textbook example of the Laurentian elite, but he wasn’t concerned with social status; he had learned about and abandoned all that by the time he was out of his teens, and he didn’t care much about material riches.

“When I met him, he was driving a Volkswagen and was editor of the Financial Post,” his wife, Trish Bongard Godfrey, said. The two met on a ski hill.

John Ferguson Godfrey was born in Toronto on Dec. 19, 1942, to Mary (née Ferguson) Godfrey and his namesake father, a prominent lawyer, staunch Liberal and the party’s chief fundraiser. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau named the elder Mr. Godfrey a senator in 1973. Mary raised their four children and was involved with charities, including the Canadian Opera Company, and running her busy household.

“She entertained a lot; she really created a home away from home for a lot of people especially a group of extremely elegant Hungarians who came out in the 1950s,” Ms. Bongard Godfrey said. “Of her day, she did the volunteer work but she could have run a corporation; she was a formidable personality and extremely organized.”

The family grew up in Rosedale, which was then a mixture of private single-family houses and others that were broken up into apartments and rooming houses. Young John went to Rosedale Public School, an eight-minute walk from the family home on Elm Avenue, and then Upper Canada College.

He and a friend started a newspaper at UCC, and young Conrad Black, one grade lower, contributed articles. He also met a number of foreign students at the school. John became fascinated with languages, especially French.

He graduated from Grade 13 at Neuchâtel Junior College, in Switzerland, where he perfected his French and became a true francophile.

At the University of Toronto, he studied French history and met Margaret MacMillan, the historian, whom he also knew later at Oxford. “He was unusual in his time because he spoke French, which a lot of anglophones didn’t; he was fascinated by France,” Ms. MacMillan said in a telephone interview from Oxford.

Mr. Godfrey and Ms. MacMillan were debating partners at U of T. “We used to go down to the University of Pittsburgh to a big tournament there. The Canadian style was very good for him because the Canadian style was based on Parliament and the American style was based on Congress and Senate hearings, so the Americans were very organized and had lots of filing cards in those days and we tended to be a bit more freewheeling and debated a bit more in the parliamentary manner and John was very good at that. He usually wore gowns and was quite flamboyant.”

Mr. Godfrey completed his master’s and doctorate at Oxford, while also teaching European history at Dalhousie starting in 1970.

“He did his doctoral thesis on a French minister in the First World War, Étienne Clémentel, the Minister of Reconstruction at the end of the war. John was extremely good at finding things and he found the [Clémentel] family and discovered that they had a box full of papers and John became friends with them all.”

The thesis was published as a book: Capitalism at War: Industrial Policy and Bureaucracy in France, 1914-1918.

He was an outgoing and popular lecturer at Dalhousie and with a colleague, David Crook, invented a game for students with a points system that rewarded them for attending lectures.

He was named president of King’s College in 1977, when he was just 34, and he continued to teach. During his time at King’s College he founded its highly regarded School of Journalism.

Meanwhile, Mr. Godfrey contributed opinion pieces to the Financial Post and also made suggestions on improving the paper. When there was an opening for editor, publisher Neville Nankivell went to Halifax and hired Mr. Godfrey straight away.

“He had been contributing think pieces on global issues and he had good ideas for improving the paper,” Mr. Nankivell said. When Mr. Godfrey started in June of 1987, the Financial Post was a weekly broadsheet, but Maclean-Hunter sold it to the Toronto Sun months later and there were plans to convert it to a daily tabloid.

Mr. Godfrey had to hire nearly three dozen journalists. The Financial Post went daily on Feb. 1, 1988. The two men remained close after Mr. Godfrey left the paper in 1991.

“John was one of the most intelligent and decent people I have ever known,” said Mr. Nankivell, who spoke to Mr. Godfrey the night before he died.

After the Financial Post, Mr. Godfrey was hired by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. His job there as vice-president involved fundraising and administration as well as taking complex papers written by the institute and translating them into articles laypeople could understand.

As a bilingual man with a public profile as the editor of a serious business newspaper, Mr. Godfrey made an ideal candidate for the federal Liberal Party. He won the nomination for the riding of Don Valley West and was elected in 1993. It was one of Canada’s most dramatic federal elections, with Jean Chrétien winning his first term and the Progressive Conservative Party under Kim Campbell reduced from 156 seats to just two. With so many Liberals elected in Toronto, Mr. Godfrey had to wait until Paul Martin was prime minister before he was named to the cabinet in 2004 as Minister of State for Infrastructure and Communities, a portfolio he held until 2006.

In his memoir, Hell or High Water: My Life in and out of Politics, Mr. Martin described his appointment of Mr. Godfrey as “inspired,” writing: “John quickly recognized that the most effective way forward was to embrace the variety and complexity of our urban life. Instead of developing a single rigid national mould and then trying to cram each particular municipality into it, he decided to go after the provinces one by one, with the aim of signing three-way deals involving the city, the province and our government.” His strategy was highly successful.

Mr. Godfrey served as parliamentary secretary to the minister responsible for the Francophonie, chair of the National Children’s Agenda Caucus Committee, and chair of the Standing Committee on Children and Youth at Risk.

He served under four Liberal leaders, and in opposition he was the critic on environmental issues.

After leaving politics in 2008, the francophile Mr. Godfrey became the head of the Toronto French School, a private institution that, as its name implies, teaches in French. Mr. Godfrey transformed the school during his six-year tenure, including starting an International Baccalaureate Program.

He subsequently became Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s special adviser on climate change.

When Mr. Godfrey was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2019, the citation lauded him for his “broad and lasting contributions to public life.”

In semi-retirement Mr. Godfrey continued to write about public policy, in recent years concentrating on climate change. In December of 2021 he wrote that flooding in British Columbia should be a warning to other parts of the country.

“Let the catastrophic events of the past month in B.C. be a lesson for Ontario,” he wrote in The Globe and Mail. “We can’t be prepared for climate change if we don’t know what’s coming. It’s high time we found out.”

Mr. Godfrey was a voracious reader, and he had a vast library as well as a collection of music. He and his wife had a property in Upper Kingsburg, N.S.

He belonged to several groups aligned with his wide-ranging interests, including history, the arts and justice issues, according to Ms. Bongard Godfrey. “Even until his last few years he was involved in chairing the refugee-sponsorship committee at our church, Christ Church Deer Park. He was extremely interested in climate-change policy and adaptation. All of those things really worried him.”

When Mr. Godfrey died, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement, “His dedication to serving Canadians will continue to be an inspiration to me and many others.”

Though he had been ill for a few years, Mr. Godfrey stayed physically active, bicycling until last spring when he suffered an injury. He leaves his wife, Trish; their son Ian; his sisters, Anne and Sally; and his sister-in-law, Susan Harrington. His brother, Stephen, predeceased him.

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