Ghostwriter – Author – Journalist

CBC journalist Marguerite McDonald broke gender barriers

By on February 26, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

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Marguerite McDonald, who has died at the age of 73, was a teaching nun for 12 years before switching to journalism, rising quickly to become the first female national reporter at CBC Television’s parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. Her transition from teaching nun to top-level broadcast journalist was gradual at first.

She was still a nun, though on a religious leave of absence, when she started working at CBC Radio in Calgary in 1974, and asked to be known as Miss McDonald rather than Sister Marguerite McDonald. By 1976, she decided to leave religious life altogether. She moved to CBC Radio in Ottawa and was planning to work as a freelancer in London when she received an offer to host a new radio program called The House, about national political affairs.

Ms. McDonald took to the microphone on Oct. 22, 1977, with the program’s first edition, which dealt with the novelty of having cameras and microphones in the House of Commons.

“It’s almost impossible to remember what political reporting was like before the media were allowed to broadcast the House of Commons,” Ms. McDonald recalled in a CBC interview on the history of The House, a program that is still on the air.

“The idea of gavel-to-gavel coverage was unique” in world legislatures at the time, according to the report Television and the House of Commons, by the Library of Parliament.

“No one in the radio and TV audiences had ever seen or heard anything that took place inside the Chamber. Our whole view of national politics was shaped by what politicians said in scrums and press conferences after they walked out of the House.”

At first, the CBC was going to air only taped excerpts from the House of Commons. “In other words, boring,” Ms. McDonald said. So they added context with interviews and background information.

She remembered one time when her instincts were wrong on one prominent politician. “I remember interviewing Jean Chrétien, then minister of finance. As he reminded me of all the posts he had held in cabinet over the years, I thought, ‘My goodness, this man thinks he’s going to become prime minister.’ And I went on to think, ‘Not in our lifetime.’ Which goes to show how much more Chrétien knew than I did,” Ms. McDonald said in the CBC retrospective.

In her new job, Ms. McDonald was thrown into the deep end of Canadian politics, as there was a federal election campaign under way, with Joe Clark replacing Pierre Trudeau as prime minister in the election of May, 1979. She covered that election and the one in early 1980, when Mr. Trudeau was re-elected, working both in studio on The House and on the campaign trail.

Later that year, she moved to television as a national reporter. In CBC parlance, a national reporter is part of the A-team, working full time for the national news as opposed to local broadcasts. Ms. McDonald was based in Toronto at first and was a specialist reporter who covered social affairs.

“This is an entirely new kind of reporting for television news. McDonald’s mandate is to show us the people outside the mainstream, people who are causing change, demanding change and who are affected by change,” wrote Trina McQueen in announcing the appointment. Ms. McQueen was the executive producer of CBC National Television News, the first woman to hold that post. “It will be controversial, McDonald will report on the touchiest of issues, for example homosexuality and racism.”

By the time Ms. McDonald arrived in the Toronto newsroom, she was an accomplished TV journalist and had no trouble coping with the rigours of a nightly deadline.

“I remember her best as a hard-working, dedicated reporter who we were all afraid to swear around because she used to be a nun. But like everything else in the news business, we got over it,” said Peter Mansbridge, who was the weekend anchor of The National at the time.

After almost three years in Toronto, she was transferred to the CBC’s Ottawa parliamentary bureau, a place that, until then, was all male. If that macho environment bothered her, she never showed it.

“She broke the barrier and she held her own in what was a high-octane atmosphere of young, ambitious reporters. But she was determined to succeed,” recalled Elly Alboim, who was chief of the parliamentary bureau from 1977 to 1993.

Ms. McDonald was still the social affairs reporter and continued covering that beat from Ottawa, with a special emphasis on women’s issues. After a few years, she went back to CBC Radio as producer of Open House, a religious program. She later hosted the program and followed that with work as an announcer, not an unusual career path at the CBC. By this time, she was married to CBC announcer Harry Elton.

Marguerite McDonald was born on Dec. 18, 1941, in Morris, Man., and grew up on a farm near Aubigny, about halfway between Winnipeg and the Canada-U.S. border. In 1959, she graduated from Grade 12 at Ste. Agathe Collegiate in Ste. Agathe, north of the family farm. The school was administered and staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM). In 1962, she earned a BA from St. Paul’s College, a Jesuit college on the University of Manitoba campus.

In August of that year, she entered the novitiate of the SNJM in Outremont, Que., a Montreal suburb. During this time, she took the religious name Sister Audrey Catherine. The following year, she was sent back to Manitoba.

Sister Audrey Catherine taught Grade 10 at the Sir Maurice Roche School in Flin Flon for two years then moved to St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic girls school in Winnipeg, to teach English, French and religion. By this time, reforms in the order allowed her to use her own name. A young nun, she wasn’t much older than some of the girls she was teaching.

“She was always punctual and arrived at class right on time, but she was so excited about her subject she always ran into the next class,” remembers Joan Flood, who is 13 years younger than the woman she still calls Sister Marguerite.

“It was an all-girls school and we weren’t very experienced with boys, and didn’t know that many since there was no social media at the time. So when it came time for our prom in Grade 12, Sister Marguerite gave us some practical advice, in particular how to walk in heels and a long dress,” said Dr. Flood, a physician practising in Toronto.

Along with those worldly lessons, Sister Marguerite taught religion with a sixties twist. “She had a strong sense of social justice,” Dr. Flood said.

It was a time of change and rebellion – not just in mainstream society but also in religious orders. Though Ms. McDonald remained a religious Catholic all her life, she began to question her choice. It was a reflection of the times, says Sister Susan Wikeem, the retired director of St. Mary’s Academy.

“Marguerite’s years in religious life coincided first with the Second Vatican Council [1962 to 1965] and then with the tumultuous years of implementation and renewal. There were significant changes in the church and real upheaval in women’s religious communities. There was lots of soul searching that accompanied the renewal that the council asked religious congregations to undertake. We grappled with what was essential to religious life and what was superfluous or anachronistic.

“Thus, in the late 1960s the SNJM modified the habit, then abandoned it. Sisters were given the choice of returning to family names. Sister Audrey Catherine became Sister Marguerite McDonald. Institutional living gave way to small-group living. Marguerite was among the first to move to a small house in St. Boniface, in 1971.”

By that time she had moved from St. Mary’s Academy to Louis Riel, a Catholic school in St. Boniface. She had also become interested in journalism as a new career. She received permission to leave teaching and while still a member of the order, she moved to Calgary, where “she lived as a lay person. … Clearly she was questioning her vocation to religious life,” Sister Wikeem said.

She left the order in June, 1976, and spent the next 20 years working for the CBC. After her early retirement in 1996, she returned to university and earned a master’s degree in counselling.

“When she spoke with people, whether in a radio studio or just over coffee, she always seemed so engaged. She made you feel that talking to you was the most important thing for her to do at that moment. I know this is a skill that good journalists develop, but for her it went much deeper. She was simply the best listener I have ever known,” her former CBC colleague Rob Southcott wrote in a note to her husband.

Among other things, she became a counsellor working for many years as part of the Employee Assistance Program for a federal department in Ottawa. She also had some private clients.

“She had a real interest in counselling, but she never enjoyed anything as much as broadcasting and journalism,” said her husband, Bill Young, whom she married after the death of her first husband, Mr. Elton. “The only reason she left the CBC was that the early hours just got to her.”

Ms. McDonald sang in the choir at St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church in Ottawa, not far from Parliament Hill. She died in Ottawa on Aug. 24, of breast cancer. Ms. McDonald leaves her husband and a brother, Jack.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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