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As a jack-of-all trades reporter, then foreign correspondent, then editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail and later Montreal’s Gazette, he helped Canadians make sense of a changing 20th century

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Norman Webster, left, then The Globe and Mail's China bureau chief, stands in the summer of 1970 with two Chinese Communist Party members at a commune near Guangzhou where he was reporting a story about family-planning initiatives.The Globe and Mail

Norman Webster, one of the finest journalists this country ever produced, had the knack, or good fortune, of being in the right place at the right time.

To many readers of The Globe and Mail, that time was 1969 to 1971; the place was Beijing and Mr. Webster, just 28, was posted there as the newspaper’s China correspondent. It would be a memorable time.

In October, 1970, with Quebec roiled by the FLQ crisis, prime minister Pierre Trudeau unexpectedly announced that Canada was formally recognizing “Red” China and would establish diplomatic relations with the “People’s Republic.”

“The Canada-China recognition started the great thaw in international relations,” Mr. Webster would later write, and the young Canadian reporter had a front row seat. There was no television news coverage of China at that time – there were not even telephone links to the West. He was one of only three Western correspondents in the country (the others were from France and West Germany) and he had an eager audience for all the news and human interest stories he could produce.

He reported on the madness of the Cultural Revolution that banned most art and music and outlawed public sporting events in favour of large-scale readings of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book.

Mr. Webster died on Friday morning in Magog, Que., from complications of Parkinson’s disease, according to his family. He was 80.

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U.S. table-tennis player Glenn Cowan breezes through a practice session in Beijing in 1971, during the period of Sino-American 'ping pong diplomacy.'Norman Webster / The Globe and Mail

Just six months after Canada’s recognition, Mr. Webster found himself reporting on yet another signal event: U.S. president Richard Nixon’s own overture to China.

The story began with a busload of U.S. ping-pong players returning from the world table-tennis championships in Japan, who were invited by Chairman Mao, himself, to stop off in China for a few days and play some matches with Chinese players. Mr. Nixon accepted the invitation on the team’s behalf, and Mr. Webster, one of the few reporters with the necessary permits, found himself travelling on board the bus. It was, as Mr. Webster later wrote, “the biggest story in the world.”

The Canadian’s reports were picked up by U.S. newspapers, in particular the New York Times. His photos from the team bus were a world scoop; many sold to Time magazine (a colour cover), Newsweek, Paris Match and others.

For his coverage, Mr. Webster received a National Newspaper Award, the first of two NNAs he was accorded during his career.

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Mr. Webster, whose Chinese press credentials are shown at top, took the picture at bottom on April 12, 1971, of visiting U.S. table tennis players at the Great Wall of China. Mr. Webster considered their visit, a moment of Cold War rapprochement between the Nixon administration and Beijing, to be 'the biggest story in the world.'Norman Webster/The Globe and Mail

Norman Webster, born June 4, 1941, in Summerside, PEI, where his father, Eric Webster, was commander of the Air Force base during the Second World War, was meant to be a newspaperman. He was 14 in 1955 when his uncle, Montreal businessman R. Howard Webster, purchased The Globe and Mail, and he was 18 when he spent a summer working at The Globe in Toronto as an editorial clerk (2nd class).

The following summer, after his first year at Bishop’s University in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where he was raised, Mr. Webster parlayed his brief Globe employment into a reporter’s job at the local Sherbrooke Record. From that experience he became editor of his university’s student newspaper, The Campus.

In Mr. Webster’s journalistic memoir, Newspapering, he wrote that he had the good fortune to be editor of three newspapers: The Campus, The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. In many ways, he said “the Campus job was the most difficult and satisfying of the three.”

Satisfying because the readership gave the editor “an instant reaction” to what he had published.

When he wrote an editorial denouncing the “pretentious” gowns that students were made to wear everywhere on campus, they gave him an earful; saying the gowns added a sense of academic tradition to a small institution.

Since then, Mr. Webster said, “I have always tried to understand the other side’s position.” And to his last days he adhered to the dictum issued by Dic Doyle, his predecessor as editor of The Globe and Mail: “Don’t assume a goddamn thing.”

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Mr. Webster at a Canadian University Press convention in 1961.Supplied

It was in the Eastern Townships, then a predominately anglophone enclave in a largely francophone province, that Mr. Webster learned a great many other lessons as well.

After the war, Commander Webster returned his growing family to a home just outside Sherbrooke.

Norman and his siblings were instructed always to be humble and to work hard. That meant, even at a young age, taking turns working in their family hardware store in Sherbrooke – the retail front of a nationwide wholesale business – as well as working weekends and summers on the sizeable farm their father bought on the west shore of Lake Massawippi, just outside North Hatley.

Winter in the townships was mostly about hockey on the pond with both English and French-speaking kids. “Guys would just come out and divide up,” Mr. Webster said. “There was no sense of them-versus-us.”

“Hockey on ice is the fastest, most skillful, most exciting team game in the world,” he wrote in a 2000 column for the Montreal Gazette. In an interview in August, he described it as a game that “rewards the player who never gives up.”

In his last year at Bishop’s, Mr. Webster won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford (to study philosophy, politics and economics) and the first thing he did on arriving at the English university, was sign up for the hockey team.

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Mr. Webster in London during his posting there for The Globe in the late 1970s and early '80s.Courtesy of Patterson Webster

Perhaps the best part of his two years in Europe was meeting Patterson Roop, who would become his wife. It happened en route to France in the summer of 1964. The rather geeky-looking scholar, whose photos of that time bring to mind a young Clark Kent, was sitting in a train’s bar car, dressed in an Oxford man’s typical tweed jacket and tie. Except, he also had a banana protruding from his breast pocket. Pat, an attractive philosophy student from Richmond, Va., who had just finished studies at the University of London, sauntered by and asked “What’s with the banana?”

“In case I get hungry,” he replied.

Noticing an accent, she asked where he was from.

“Canada, eh?” she said, as she sat down beside him. “Tell me about it.”

What followed was a lengthy dissertation by Mr. Webster on the makeup of the country, including a map. He covered national economic policies and interprovincial disputes. It went on so long and was, he admitted later, so boring that he, himself, actually fell asleep, with his head on the young woman’s shoulder.

The couple would marry the following year.

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Norman and Patterson Webster chat with then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau at the 1972 National Newspaper Awards ceremony in Toronto.courtesy of Norman Webster

Mr. Webster headed to The Globe and Mail in Toronto in January, 1965, where he had been hired as a general assignment reporter.

Before long, he was dispatched to Quebec, to report on the provincial legislature; another timely move.

The Quiet Revolution was in full bloom and the star performer was René Lévesque, then still a Liberal and a minister in the government of Jean Lesage.

Mr. Webster, just 23, found himself making contact with future political stars, including Mr. Lévesque’s chief aide, Bernard Landry, who would remain a good source even as premier some 20 years later.

“I loved it,” he said.

For the next three years, he was a jack-of-all-trades for the paper. In addition to Quebec, he reported from Ottawa, was a member of the editorial board in Toronto, assistant to the editor-in-chief, and editor of a new weekend Globe magazine – all befitting the training of a future Globe and Mail editor.

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Mr. Webster covers the police beat for The Globe in 1965.Courtesy of Norman Webster

After that came his posting to China, where he developed a folksy style of reporting often rooted in the simplicity of most Chinese lives. The light-hearted touch would serve him well as a columnist back in Canada – first, writing primarily on Ontario politics.

Queen’s Park got covered and politicians exposed, but his most enduring work came from the humour at plowing matches, common sense at weekly markets and politicking at county fairs.

Satirical writing didn’t come easily to Mr. Webster; he sweated over the shortest piece. As Stephen Leacock, a writer he greatly admired, once wrote, such work is an “arduous contrivance.”

Mr. Webster was quicker when writing in anger.

In a 1976 column on the Canada-Sweden hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, he wrote about the “witless rubes” who booed every time the P.A. announcer spoke in French.

“It would be nice if somehow those responsible could be rendered sterile, so they couldn’t pass on their tiny minds and miserable principles to another generation,” he wrote. “They don’t deserve this country.”

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Mr. Webster had a front-page story in The Globe and Mail on May 4, 1979, on the election of the Thatcher Conservatives in Britain.The Globe and Mail

After Ontario, came London, which meant more than just Wimbledon and the Royal Family. It meant reporting on the person he described as “the most impressive leader” he ever covered – Margaret Thatcher – “who took over a staggering country” and set it right.

Mr. Webster returned to Toronto in 1981, as The Globe’s assistant editor, and was promoted to editor-in-chief in 1983 – at just the right time.

Mr. Lévesque’s separatist government in Quebec had refused to sign the 1982 Constitution Act and a new federal government led by Brian Mulroney would come to office in Ottawa in 1984. Constitutional storms were gathering across the country and the Meech Lake Accord was the issue of the day. Intended as a means to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, it called on all other provinces and the federal government to recognize Quebec as a “distinct society.”

To Mr. Webster, raised an anglophone in a francophone-majority province, Quebec was and always will be a distinct society. Meech was simply stating the obvious and nothing in it would weaken the other provinces. Speaking as a “proud Quebecker” he argued that Meech would strengthen the country.

On this point, Mr. Webster found himself in full agreement with the prime minister, another bilingual anglo-Quebecker. That is not to say the editor was a toady. In fact, he viewed Mr. Mulroney as a “self-vaunting blowhard.”

To strengthen The Globe’s editorial board he brought in William Thorsell, a vibrant Western voice on the Constitution and the economy. Mr. Thorsell would also would be the person to replace Mr. Webster.

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William Thorsell, Mr. Webster's successor as editor-in-chief, shows off newly redesigned papers with publisher Roy Megarry in 1990.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For reasons that are unclear, Mr. Webster was relieved of command on Boxing Day, 1988, by then-publisher Roy Megarry. The blow came just five weeks after another Mulroney election victory. That vote was fought largely over a free-trade agreement with the United States, an agreement championed by Mr. Thorsell. Mr. Webster was stunned by the move. “I thought we had done a good job,” Mr. Webster said, referring to the leadership he provided along with Geoffrey Stevens, the managing editor he had appointed.

Nevertheless, Mr. Webster agreed to take a year’s paid sabbatical and then return to the paper as a regular columnist. However, when the new editor removed Mr. Stevens as managing editor, even after the publisher had assured him the job was safe, Mr. Webster cancelled any plans to return.

Shortly after, Mr. Webster accepted an offer to be editor of the Montreal Gazette. “It was a good time to take that position,” Mr. Webster said, with the province and the rest of the country embroiled once again in constitutional crises.

At Bishops, 27 years earlier, Mr. Webster had excelled in debating, leading a team that won the Canadian championship in 1962. Teams had to argue two sides of the same issue. That year, he said, it was a resolution that Quebec should secede from the Dominion. Mr. Webster was equally persuasive on both sides.

His arguments would be tested once again.

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Quebec premier Robert Bourassa reads a copy of The Globe and Mail at the legislature in 1988, a period when the Meech Lake Accord was in trouble.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Through 1988 and 1989, the Meech Lake Accord unravelled as Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Manitoba, refused to ratify the agreement. The premiers of both provinces said that ceding powers to Quebec would weaken the federal government and their provinces depended on a strong Ottawa to sustain them.

In a column in the Gazette in January, 1990, Mr. Webster conceded that Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells was sincere about his opposition to Meech and a man of principle. What the man doesn’t acknowledge, Mr. Webster wrote, is that “in his efforts to save the country, he may destroy it.”

Five months later, Meech was dead.

At that time, in June, 1990, as “Quebec, psychologically, took one of the most brutal kicks since conscription,” Mr. Webster wrote, it was Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, who stepped forward. “All he [Mr. Bourassa] had to do was come out of a phone booth clad in blue and white, waving the fleurdelysé … and Quebec would have been on its way out” of Confederation. “Hell,” Mr. Webster candidly confessed, I might have voted Yes myself at that point.”

Instead, the premier gave a remarkable speech, that “responded to feelings of hurt and alienation but did not fan the flames.”

“Quebec has freedom to choose,” the premier said. “It must make its choice in realism, calm and lucidity.”

The premier “calmed the choler,” Mr. Webster wrote, “and set about patiently working on new proposals.”

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Mr. Webster presents an international-reporting award that bears his name at a Toronto ceremony in 2018.Galit Rodan/The Canadian Press

Mr. Webster stepped down as The Gazette’s editor two years later to run the R. Howard Webster Foundation that gives grants to a wide range of non-profit organizations across the country.

Mr. Webster continued his weekly column for The Gazette and, for two years, also wrote a column (in French) for Le Devoir. In those years, the principal topic was the 1995 Quebec referendum in which, by the slimmest of margins, the majority of Quebeckers voted not to secede.

“Canada has had the scare of its life,” Mr. Webster wrote that night. “It just might be what was needed to save it.”

Looking back, Mr. Webster recently allowed that his involuntary departure from The Globe and Mail “was for the best.”

He had settled his family back on the property his father had farmed, and resumed his role as a proud Quebecker.

“It was almost as if I was meant to be here,” he said; “… to come home.”

Mr. Webster leaves his wife, Patterson; children, David, Andrew, Derek, Gillian and Hilary; 11 grandchildren; sister, Maggie; and many nieces and nephews.

With reporting from Tu Thanh Ha

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