Skip to main content

During his tenure as privacy commissioner, George Radwanski battled with government, saying it was trying to use September 11 attacks as an excuse for harvesting detailed personal information. He resigned in 2003 after being mired in an expense scandal.

FRED CHARTRAND/CP

In the winter and spring of 1977, George Radwanski had eight meetings with Pierre Elliott Trudeau at his well-appointed office in the Centre Block of the House of Commons. For Mr. Radwanski, who had just turned 30 years old, spending that much time with a prime minister managing a national unity crisis, a weak economy and marital discord was a coup. No other journalist had that kind of access, and he trumpeted it.

His eight hours of interviews – largely "free-flowing conversations, relaxed and informal," Mr. Radwanski wrote – would become the foundation of Trudeau, which was published the next year. The biography was a blockbuster. It was his first and, perhaps, his greatest success.

In 1980, though, Mr. Radwanski found himself at a dinner in Toronto with Mr. Trudeau and a table of other journalists, as well as Patrick Gossage, the prime minister's impish press secretary. Mr. Trudeau, whose steel-trap memory did not include a compartment for names, spent the dinner calling Mr. Radwanski "Peter." It annoyed Mr. Radwanski, but amused Mr. Gossage, whom Mr. Trudeau had once called "Peter," too.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Radwanski need not have worried what the prime minister called him. Or, in fact, whether he remembered him. In a dazzling career over five decades, Mr. Radwanski was a reporter, columnist, editor, author, speechwriter, adviser, consultant and mandarin. He was also an advocate and philosopher. Mr. Radwanski lived in a public world and found stimulation and nourishment there. It raised him up and brought him low. By the end of his busy, brilliant life, though, everyone knew his name. Mr. Radwanski died of a heart attack on Sept. 18. He was 67.

He was born on Feb. 28, 1947, in Baden-Baden, West Germany, the only child of Pierre and Isabelle Radwanski. His family came to Montreal in 1951, where his father was an anthropologist. George's ambition manifested itself early. As an 18-year-old student of philosophy at McGill University in 1965, he talked himself into a job at the Montreal Gazette. He was the youngest person on the staff. Talking came naturally to him; at McGill, he had been a champion debater. At the Gazette he was successively reporter, senior staff writer, columnist and associate editor.

He covered a wide range of stories, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their celebrated "bed-in" for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal in 1969, as well as the October Crisis in 1970 and the blood-drenched Munich Olympics in 1972. For six weeks he reported from the Soviet Union. Between assignments, he completed a Bachelor of Arts in political science and philosophy (1968) and a Bachelor of Civil Law Degree at McGill (1971). From 1975 to 1979 he was the Ottawa editor and national affairs columnist for Financial Times of Canada.

Mr. Radwanski moved to Toronto to work for the Toronto Star in 1979. That year he and his wife Julie (née Szasz) had a son, Adam, who is now a columnist with The Globe and Mail. As editor of the Star's editorial pages, George Radwanski twice won National Newspaper Awards for his writing. Within two years, he was named editor-in-chief. At just 32, he was the youngest editor-in-chief in the history of the newspaper. "He loved the job," his son says. "It was the happiest time of his journalism career. He liked to be in charge."

Mr. Radwanski – bearded, bespectacled and gnomish – was "not short on self-confidence," his son says. "He could rub people the wrong way. He was not abrasive with me, but he had a strong personality. He did not suffer fools gladly. I would not say he was arrogant, but he was smart and he knew who he was."

Philosophically, Mr. Radwanski was a liberal. He believed in the power of government to do things, and later, he was happy to serve in it. He was committed to social justice and a robust federalism. While he admired Pierre Trudeau – they often lunched after Mr. Trudeau left Ottawa – Mr. Radwanski called him "unfulfilled" as a prime minister. Robert Lewis of Maclean's found Mr. Radwanski's book "a well-researched portrait and an indispensable tool in unearthing the mysteries of our fifteenth prime minister." At the same time, he thought that Mr. Radwanski had failed to challenge Mr. Trudeau on his handling of the October Crisis and other matters, which he attributed to a sympathy born of the journalist's "extraordinary access."

As a writer, Mr. Radwanski was analytical, sometimes dense. He was not one for metaphor, simile or turn of phrase. But he reasoned tightly and closely, and his columns brimmed with ideas and insight. In 1985, after six years with the Star, Mr. Radwanski left. As colleagues tell it, he just knew that his time was up there.

Story continues below advertisement

After 20 years, his career in journalism was over. He soon entered government as a consultant – pondering big issues, researching their elements and writing pointed, substantial reports, which were widely praised. His range was broad. For Ontario Premier David Peterson, he wrote a study of the service sector and the economic, social and trade implications of the shift to the post-industrial economy. He followed that with a major analysis of education called Ontario Study of the Relevance of Education and the Issues of Dropouts. Years later, Adam Radwanski says, Premier Kathleen Wynne told him how influential his father's report had been to her as an educator and a politician.

Mr. Radwanski was now a freelance writer and strategist, running his own consultancy in Toronto. His clients included financial institutions, corporations, public organizations and governments, both federal and provincial. It was a business, but management, says his son, was not his strength. He was lousy at balancing the books. His marriage having ended in divorce, he was also largely responsible for raising a 10-year old boy. Mr. Radwanski learned to cook, which pleased him. Adam calls his father "a cool Dad" who supported him unfailingly in all that he did all his life. They travelled widely together and shared a lively interest in the Toronto Argonauts and Bruce Springsteen.

Other assignments, public and private, came to Mr. Radwanski. In 1995 and 1996, he chaired a review of the governance and role of the Canada Post Corporation. Between 1997 and 2000, he was executive director of the Canada Trust Scholarships for Outstanding Community Leadership. In 2000 came his most senior government job: Privacy Commissioner of Canada. It was a patronage appointment from Jean Chrétien, whom Mr. Radwanski had served for a decade, in and out of power, formally and informally, as a political and communications adviser and speechwriter. He had done the same, briefly, for John Turner when he was leader of the opposition.

For Mr. Radwanski, the role of Privacy Commissioner was no sinecure. He took positions, asked questions and wrote reports that reflected care and diligence. He made enemies and spent money freely, which would be his undoing. It was a big job. Mr. Radwanski was running a federal agency with a staff of 100 and an annual budget of $11-million. He restructured and expanded the office in preparation for the implementation of a new privacy-sector law. He increased the visibility of the office, giving some 93 speeches and hundreds of interviews. He opposed the opening of letter mail by customs agents and the creation of a database tracking foreign travel of Canadians after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Radwanski said the Liberal government had "lost its moral compass." Predictably, given his strong views, he clashed with the RCMP over his opposition to surveillance cameras. His spirited campaign in support of privacy was noticed abroad. One expert in Britain who followed his reports said "that he simply stated that certain practices such as indiscriminate CCTV monitoring were illegal, without equivocation or fudging, and that he was not obsequious to the power that appointed him."

But by 2003, less than three years into his seven-year term, Mr. Radwanski came under intense criticism for his spending on travel and meals. Auditor-General Sheila Fraser documented hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial abuses in what she called his "reign of terror." Mr. Radwanski was excoriated by an all-party parliamentary committee, which questioned his expense account claims, such as a $449.49 dinner. He countered that his expenses were in keeping with the standard of the time, claimed that people were out to get him and bristled that he never got a chance to testify in his own defence. Much as he admitted that he had mishandled money, he remained convinced that this was a witch-hunt. On June 23, 2003, he resigned. "I have been forced out," he allowed. "He was shell-shocked," Adam recalls. "He never saw it coming. He didn't think he had to resign."

Story continues below advertisement

The RCMP investigated Mr. Radwanski for 26 months. In 2006, he was charged with fraud and breach of trust, then in 2009 he was acquitted of wrongdoing (though his former chief of staff was found guilty.) Mr. Radwanski celebrated his innocence and while he admitted that he should have been more careful, he maintained that he did not think his spending was excessive for someone in his position.

But it was all too much. He never really recovered from his ill-starred tenure as privacy commissioner. He was sometimes melancholy, though not clinically depressed, in those years. He was unable to find satisfying work. To pay the rent, he wrote legal summaries, for which he was vastly overqualified. He felt the isolation. While he had friends who bucked him up, such as former MP Dennis Mills, there were fewer than before. He lived modestly.

Yet in Mr. Radwanski's decade of despair, there was satisfaction, too. He saw his son – his only child – marry. "It changed him in good ways," Adam says of his ordeal, recalling his father's generosity, his curiosity and his facility with young people, as well his interest in music, sports and politics and his unfailing desire to find a way back to respectability. There was also a touch of humility. "It helped more people to see him the way I did."

George Radwanski leaves his son, Adam.

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter