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'There's no one to fill his shoes': Journalist and author Peter C. Newman dies at 94

Veteran journalist and author Peter C. Newman, who held a mirror up to Canada, has died at the age of 94. He died in hospital in Belleville, Ont.
Veteran journalist and author Peter C. Newman has died at the age of 94. Newman is seen during reception at the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize ceremony in Toronto on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Veteran journalist and author Peter C. Newman, who held a mirror up to Canada, has died at the age of 94. 

He died in hospital in Belleville, Ont., Thursday morning from complications related to a stroke he had last year, which caused him to develop Parkinson's disease, his wife Alvy Newman said by phone. 

"It's a big loss for Canada," she said. "He has no peers. There's no one to fill his shoes. Who is there that's an author and a journalist that can show Canada to themselves?"

In his decades-long career, Newman served as editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star and Maclean's, and covered both Canadian politics and business.

Often recognized by his trademark sailor's cap, Newman also wrote two dozen books and earned the informal title of Canada's "most cussed and discussed commentator," said HarperCollins, one of his publishers, in an author note. 

Political columnist Paul Wells, who was for years a senior writer at Maclean's, said Newman built the publication into what it was at its peak: "an urgent, weekly news magazine with a global ambit.

"That was his idea in the 1970s and it was still basically the model for Maclean's until Maclean's went monthly in 2016," Wells said. "The Maclean's that I worked at was in its broad outlines still basically Peter's model for what Maclean's should be and could be."

But more than that, Wells said, Newman created a template for Canadian political authors. 

"'The Canadian Establishment' books persuaded everyone — his colleagues, the book-buying public — that Canadian stories could be as important, as interesting, as riveting as stories from anywhere else," he said. "And he sold truckloads of those books. My God."

That series of three books — the first of which was published in 1975, the last in 1998 — chronicled Canada's recent history through the stories of its unelected power players. 

Newman also told his own story in his 2004 autobiography, "Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power." 

He was born in Vienna in 1929 and came to Canada in 1940 as a Jewish refugee. In the biography, Newman describes being shot at by Nazis as he waited on the beach at Biarritz, France, for the ship that would take him to freedom.

"Nothing compares with being a refugee; you are robbed of context and you flail about, searching for self-definition," he wrote. "When I ultimately arrived in Canada, what I wanted was to gain a voice. To be heard. That longing has never left me."

That, he said, is why he became a writer.

The Writers' Trust of Canada said Newman's 1963 book "Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years" had "revolutionized Canadian political reporting with its controversial 'insiders-tell-all' approach."

Newman was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1978 and promoted to the rank of companion in 1990, recognized as a "chronicler of our past and interpreter of our present."

His popular histories and biographies brought to life people, places and events that shaped Canada, his profile on the Governor General's website says.

He was also dedicated to passing on the craft of creative non-fiction to a new generation as a professor at the University of Victoria, it says.

Newman won some of Canada's most illustrious literary awards, along with seven honorary doctorates, his HarperCollins profile says.

"It's such a loss. It's like a library burned down if you lose someone with that knowledge," Alvy Newman said. "He revolutionized journalism, in business, politics, history." 

On a personal level, Alvy Newman said, her husband had a sharp wit and generous spirit.

"He had a love of the absurd which was so wonderful," she said. "I think that's what brought us together. We both had the love of the absurd. We could just find the humour in anything."

—with files by Brenna Owen in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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