When esteemed editor Arthur Irwin married P.K. Page in 1950, she was already an accomplished poet and budding painter. But Irwin, 18 years her senior, and having just wrapped up his quarter-century tenure at Maclean’s, “was the principle character” in the relationship, recalls his son, Neal. However as Irwin, who passed away in 1999, approached retirement, “It was just the other way around. He went into full support mode for her,” he says. The same man who had pushed for writing to be a collaborative process begun by the journalist but shaped by the editor, “leaned over backwards not to impose his editorial thinking on her,” says Neal. “He recognized that she had a creativity that he never had.” Page, who is 92, recently remarked, “I couldn’t have done it without him.”
On Saturday, family, friends and local literati gathered at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., for the dedication of the Page Irwin Colloquium Room, and for the launch of Page’s newest collections of poetry, Coal and Roses and The Golden Lilies. Fittingly, the room is the focal point for the English department’s Public Texts graduate program. As Masters students explore the political, aesthetic and economic significance of publishing, there are perhaps no better muses. Page’s poetry has earned her a Governor General’s award; her paintings adorn the walls of the National Gallery of Canada. And Irwin, who is often described as “the man who made Maclean’s,” recruited some of the country’s most prolific non-fiction writers and published stories that sparked change in public policy—and consciousness. According to longtime Maclean’s writer Peter C. Newman, “It was his inspiring and stubborn purpose to turn Canadians into an independent frame of mind as he transformed the magazine to become their house organ—must-reading for a then, new generation of Canadians who discovered their home country’s untapped potential.”
Long before he met Page, Irwin was making his mark on Canadian journalism. Born in 1898 in the village of Ayr, Ont., he started his career after returning from the First World War, while he was still a student at the University of Toronto. His first gig at the Mail and Empire paid just $30 a week. But within a few years he had been picked up by the Globe, and was covering Parliament Hill. He resigned “on principle” during the 1925 federal election, after Globe owner William Gladstone Jaffray took issue with an editorial he penned, which had raised the hackles of a group of prominent businessmen.
Maclean’s was still a bi-weekly, general interest publication when Irwin started as associate editor. Determined to “keep in touch with men who are doing things, and keep alive to what is going on,” as he explained in a letter to his new boss, Irwin brought the issue of Canadian brain drain to the U.S. to the fore by canvassing recent emigrants, and sparked an investigation that changed the way government defense contracts are awarded. At the same time, he set his sights on finding new talent. As Pierre Berton, perhaps Irwin’s most renowned recruit, once wrote, “an entire generation of writers, both freelance and staff, cut their teeth on Maclean’s.” The cadre he assembled included Barbara Moon, Blair Fraser, June Callwood, Trent Frayne, James Bannerman, Sydney Katz, Fred Bosworth and Clyde Gilmour.
Though he may be best known for his contribution to Maclean’s, cemented during the five years he spent as editor-in-chief, Irwin’s influence can also still be felt at the National Film Board, where he became commissioner in 1950. Believing creativity would come easier away from the federal seat of government, he moved the NFB from Ottawa to Montreal. Page, who immigrated to Canada from Britain as a child, was working as a scriptwriter there. After a brief courtship, they were married. (Irwin’s first wife Jean, who he married after university, died of asthma in 1948.) As he went on to serve as a diplomat in Australia, Brazil and Mexico, she won acclaim for her poetry and painting. As Neal recalls, “She said, ‘He gave me full freedom to do my thing, and a safe and sheltered place to do it from.’” When the pair returned to Canada, they settled in Victoria, where Irwin was publisher of the Times until 1970. He died at the age of 101.
Page could not make the trip in from Victoria for this weekend’s dedication. But her presence, and that of her late husband, was certainly felt. Irwin’s great-granddaughters wore T-shirts silkscreened with images Page scrawled as a child, and people lined up to buy her books. And Page’s paintings—including one of Irwin—hang on the walls of the Colloquium Room. In the doorway, there’s a large black and white photo of the couple, with wide smiles across their faces.