I have interviewed Canadian soldiers just back from Afghanistan about a fallen colleague and they have refused to give their names, so worried are they that their comrades will consider the public display crass self-promotion. I approach the death of Calgary Herald journalist Michelle Lang in Afghanistan yesterday with the same trepidation because, as the Herald’s Robert Remington puts it in his heartbreaking portrait of Michelle today, “it is what we do.”
Michelle was one of the first colleagues I met after arriving in Calgary from Toronto in February, 2007—a few of us drove up to Lake Louise to ski, Michelle, with her big teeth and round cheeks, in a strange, faux-fur-trimmed one-piece, fearlessly attacking the slopes (when someone said the get-up lent her a Bond girl panache, Lang called herself Natasha for the day). She would prove to be a generous friend.
Her smile could transform her into a beautiful, mischievous kid; yet she was a tough reporter. With no journalism degree, she had worked her way up from a small weekly newspaper, through Regina, and on to the strut of Calgary and a true, big-city daily. In Canada’s newspaper industry, prone to cronyism, it’s a climb few accomplish. Michelle did it through determination, a devotion to the facts and a pronounced distaste for guff (you could hear the edge creep into her voice when she detected it).
But there was something else, too: everyone liked Michelle Lang. Reporters, who spend all day listening carefully to strangers, documenting what they hear all the while, have an unfortunate tendency in their off hours to talk, endlessly. Not Michelle, a talented listener and a generous payer of compliments, who would offer help even to a competitor after the same story as she. Why not help? She already had it all covered; her work earned her a National Newspaper Award for beat reporting (she covered Alberta’s healthcare system) earlier this year. Even those she was toughest on—the flaks at Alberta Health, say—liked and respected her.
As others have noted elsewhere, Michelle had recently become engaged, to Mike, a lovely guy who seemed to match her perfectly. When I first learned yesterday through a mutual friend that Michelle had been killed, by an IED blast along with four soldiers, it was Mike I thought of first. Somehow, their plans together had seemed to me a safeguard against the worst happening in Afghanistan.
Michelle and I weren’t the closest friends, but I’m so glad to have known her. I recall, walking down 8th Ave. in downtown Calgary once a few years ago, coming across Michelle and her parents, in from Vancouver, and how proud she was of them when she introduced them. Above all her other accomplishments, how much fun she was, it’s that moment I remember now.