September 26, 1996

A reunion of radicals

Story by Eric Smith (Daily editorial board '88-'89)
Photos by Owen Egan (Daily editorial board '84-'85)

Close to 200 ex-staffers of the McGill Daily crowd an upstairs room at the Westin Hotel on Saturday. A quarter-century ago, a gathering this large of these particular people could have meant only one thing: an occupation. It would have been a noisy affair reverberating with chants and slogans, and it would have been another headache for the McGill administration, courtesy of the University's oldest newspaper's skilled provocateurs.

But this weekend the crowd is in a more convivial mood. McGill's most famous activists are waxing nostalgic. They've come from all over the continent to reminisce about their years on the paper.

A stint at the Daily remains a pivotal event in the lives of many McGill graduates. Students who work in the basement of the Union Building are swallowed whole into a world of passionate ideals and rhetorical excess. Along the way they acquire skills that tend to define the course of their professional lives.

For Arnold Bennett, the Daily was a launching pad for a career in city politics and tenants' rights activism. It was after he lost a bid for the editorship of the paper by one vote in 1974 that Bennett, still a student at McGill, ran for City Council and won a seat for the Montreal Citizens' Movement in NDG. "If I hadn't joined the Daily," he says, "I wouldn't be doing anything I'm doing now. I mean anything: city council, tenants' rights, anything."

"When I heard about this reunion, I couldn't not come," says Judy Rebick, former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and co-host of CBC Newsworld's Face Off. "The Daily was the most defining experience of my life."

Rebick began at the paper in 1964. "I came to McGill from high school in Town of Mount Royal. University seemed just like high school, only bigger. I was desperate for something different. When I joined the Daily I got radicalized. It was the Daily that got me interested in journalism and activism."

Joy Fenster was editor-in-chief when Rebick joined the paper. It was a time when a career in journalism was largely inaccessible to women. Rebick recalls applying for a job in radio news after she graduated. "They told me they wouldn't hire me because I was a woman. That was allowed in Quebec then. They said 'Men swear in the newsroom.' I said, 'I don't give a fuck if they swear,' but I ended up in Toronto instead writing for Peter Gzowski."

A terse, four-paragraph news story on the front page of a 1973 issue announces the arrival of two Chinese students. According to the story, they will spend a year, maybe two, studying in Canada with the government of China picking up the tab. The story's byline belongs to McGill Maoist Jan Wong, back at McGill after 15 months at Beijing University.

Nothing in the drab story suggests that Wong will go on to become one of Canada's finest journalists, that as China bureau chief for the Globe and Mail she will file some of the most vivid reporting of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests and chilling accounts of the subsequent massacre.

Wong is at the Westin covering the reunion for the Globe. "I was a very lowly minor person on the Daily; most of my stories were about China," she recalls. "I was more interested in taking over the Chinese Students' Society. We were trying to get at the boring Chinese engineering students." Wong was elected president of the Chinese Students' Society in the spring of 1974. She campaigned in Mao suits.

When Jennifer Robinson was managing editor in the seventies, she wrote editorials about tuition fees. She still does. Now editorial page editor at the Gazette, Robinson argues in favour of lifting the freeze on tuition fees. "If you work out the amount students pay now, they're getting a much better deal today than we ever got. Students can afford to pay at least as much as what I was able to pay."

Robinson was also involved in starting to get the Daily out in French. The Daily français was born in 1977 and continues to be published weekly today, now with its own independent editorial board.

Speaking at the reunion dinner, Gazette columnist Josh Freed reminds the audience of the McGill français movement. "Thousands of us marched for more French at McGill and more French in Montreal. We were feeling guilty about 200 years of English oppression we never really enjoyed," he says. "Well, it worked!" He calls on his former colleagues, many of whom are returning from English Canada and the U.S., to join him now in demonstrating for McGill anglais.

Mark Starowicz was a central figure in the organization of the McGill français movement. He tells the group, "There are 12 people at my table. When Josh [Freed] spoke we split into 14 factions."

Starowicz went on from the Daily to create CBC Radio's As It Happens and CBC TV's The Journal and is now executive producer of documentaries for CBC. "Every other job I've done seemed easy after the McGill Daily," he says.

Joining the old-timers are representatives from the current crop of Daily editors. Anup Grewal coordinates the news section of the paper. She says the Daily's proud history continues to be important for the paper, "because it has a lot to do with where we are right now. We're continuing the Daily tradition. All the fights they were involved in have not gone away. We're still as contentious as we ever were."

And the Daily continues to wage battles for its own survival. Although it's been some time since the paper has had to contend with the firings and impeachments that have plagued it in the past, it came within a hair of losing its funding in a 1995 campus referendum.

It was a cover story in the McGill News last year that got the ball rolling for Saturday's reunion. Harold Rosenberg, Daily photo editor in the seventies, read the News article profiling past Daily editors and recognized several of the names. He wrote to his former colleagues. "They all wrote back and said, 'Why don't we have a reunion?'"

So Rosenberg got together with some friends from his era and went through old issues of the paper for the names of former Daily-ites. "We expected to have about 50 people," says Rosenberg. But the event kept growing with each phone call. And Rosenberg's phone bill reflected the importance the paper played in the lives of former staffers. Across North America, wherever he called to tell people about the reunion, "they put their lives on hold to talk about the Daily."


The McGill Daily is founded. It proclaims itself the first student daily newspaper in the British Commonwealth. 1933
Suspended McGill Daily students found The Black Sheep. The publication is banned after its second issue which, according to the Montreal Star, "aroused a storm of protest from parents, certain of the clergy of the city and even of McGill students themselves."

The Daily denounces a McGill engineering professor for U.S. military research. Student Council fires editor Sandy Gage. The paper's staff resigns in protest and briefly puts out The Free Press with funding from the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society.

Daily supplement editor John Fekete runs excerpts from Paul Krassner's "The parts that were left out of the Kennedy book," an obscene satire of Lyndon Johnson with John F. Kennedy's dead body. Montreal police confiscate the issue and McGill principal Rocke Robertson charges Fekete before the Senate Discipline Committee.

McGill français, the second-largest protest in Montreal's history, takes off from the McGill campus.

The McGill Daily publishes its first gay and lesbian special edition.

Daniel Boyer becomes the editor of the first weekly Daily français.

The Daily becomes autonomous, funded directly by students and no longer accountable to the Students' Society.

In a campus referendum, the editorial board of the McGill Daily is impeached. But few Daily dissenters move in to take over production, and within weeks the same staff is back at the helm.

Another campus referendum. Although more students vote to cut off the Daily's funding than vote to maintain it, the Daily survives, thanks to the number of "no opinion" votes.