A crusader for social justice and a witty spitfire, June Callwood
has been called “the conscience of Canada.” When she passed
away in 2007 at the age of eighty-two, Callwood left an undeniable
legacy of integrity and caring. Despite having
no formal education past the age of sixteen, she became one of
the most prolific and respected magazine writers in the country, as
well as the host of CBC-TV’s In Touch.
Pushing the Envelope
It’s tough for young people to imagine, but there used to be a lot of public pressure for a journalist to write happy and supportive stories. I remember doing a magazine piece on the Happy Gang, a team of CBC radio DJs. The story revealed that in reality, the Happy Gang hated one another. I got a lot of hostile mail after that story ran.
The first time I realized my duty to present more than an airbrushed version of reality was when I was writing about a young virtuoso pianist named Patsy Carr. She was eleven or twelve years old and I could see how her mother dominated her and how unhappy she was. Instead of writing about how amazing this young girl was, I wrote the truth: that she was a miserable child prodigy. That was very much ahead of its time in Canada. Back in the 1950s, no one was doing much honesty. From that point on, I was a much better reporter.
Gradually, my work focused more on the ails of society and the people who were being ignored or tossed aside. As a journalist, you can only do so much. There is a Chinese wall between journalism and social activism. The journalist cannot cross it. You can’t write about the people you’re trying to help. You can’t write about the things you’re doing on the other side of the wall. What you can do, however, is take off your journalism hat and make a difference. It’s a tricky line to walk, but it’s important.
In the 1970s and 1980s, I was writing a social criticism column for the Globe and working shifts in a women’s hostel. Some of the stories of the women who came through the door were so poignant, they were a journalist’s dream. But while working there, I never wrote about any of it.
I couldn’t imagine getting started into journalism today. A person like me wouldn’t have a chance in journalism school. Besides, I’m not sure they’re good places to learn journalism. They’re technical — they can’t teach you how to learn or feel. All they teach is the stuff everyone knows anyway: how to write a lead and how to write a paragraph. You need a heck of a lot more than that to be a writer.
“Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started”, © 2008 by Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel. Published by Dundurn Press, www.dundurn.com