Ghostwriter – Author – Journalist

Jean Portugal chronicled stories of Canadian veterans

By on January 12, 2017 in Articles with 0 Comments

Pioneering journalist Jean Portugal, with her husband, Felix Portugal, in Vietnam in 1962.
(Courtesy of the Portugal family)

Jean Portugal, who has died at the age of 95, spent years chronicling the accounts of Canadian veterans of the Second World War, and published their stories as We Were There, in seven volumes. Ms. Portugal, who worked for The Globe and Mail for many years, was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of her work.

“Jean Portugal has played a major role in enhancing our collective memory about the Second World War,” said part of the citation for her Order of Canada appointment in 2007. The books were published by the Royal Canadian Military Institute in 1998.

Her husband, Felix Portugal, said his wife travelled across Canada as well as making trips to Europe to talk to Canadian veterans.

“She travelled on her own as I was working. I remember her going to Normandy, the Netherlands and Belgium in June of 1994, for the 50th anniversary of D-Day,” Mr. Portugal said.

Jean Portugal said the inspiration for the seven-volume history came 10 years earlier, at the celebration of the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which she also attended in Normandy. She was outraged that Canada, one of the three countries that landed troops on the beaches on D-Day, was being ignored.

“They had all kinds of American units leading the parade, there were French, all kinds of British, Czechs, Poles, you name it,” she told the Toronto Star in 1998. “But there was no place for Canadians. The band of the Queen’s Own Rifles was so mad they forced their way in.”

She then set about interviewing about 750 Canadian war veterans. The seven volumes of her history series contain 350 illustrations and 1.2 million words on 3,500 pages.

“She said the generals, politicians and other big shots had had their say. It was time to hear from the ordinary soldier, sailor and airman,” said Ted Barris, a historian specializing in the Second World War and a professor of journalism at Centennial College.

The books followed six decades of work as a journalist and government communicator. Jean Stenton, as she was known before her marriage, worked in hard news during an era when most women in journalism were banished to the social and cooking pages.

“She wanted to be successful in a man’s world, and she did it,” Mr. Barris said.

Jean Elinor Stenton was born in Kingston on April 19, 1921. Her family moved to Peterborough, Ont., where her father, Gerald, worked with the freight division of the Canadian Pacific Railway. She and her sister went to Peterborough Collegiate Institute. Her mother, the former Edna Elizabeth Singleton, was a teacher.

Her first major job in journalism was with The Peterborough Examiner in 1942. The editor was the rather fearsome Robertson Davies, who went on to become one of the great Canadian novelists of the 20th century. Ms. Stenton was in charge of foreign news and military news, which was rather important in the middle of a war.

“Jean claimed that she got the job at the Examiner because editor Robertson Davies … was tired of training male reporters and having them leave to fight a war. Robertson Davies was her mentor,” wrote her friend Richard MacFarlane.

Mr. MacFarlane recalled that she told him: “The men reporters were too close to it; too many of the casualties were their close friends and former school chums.”

She was on the desk early in the morning of June 6, 1944, when Canadian, British and American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in the D-Day invasion.

She wanted to put the headline the largest type she could, she told Mr. Barris. “As if it was the second coming of Christ,” were her words. But she was nervous about waking up the sometimes-cranky Mr. Davies. She did, without much hesitation, and the headline was approved.

Ms. Stenton stayed with the Examiner as foreign editor and reporter until 1956. She was looking for adventure and worked as a freelance correspondent in Mexico for a year. In 1958, she joined The Globe and Mail as a copy editor. She was soon given foreign-reporting assignments. In 1960, she worked in Asia, filing from Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia. It was in Cambodia that she met her husband.

“She was working for The Globe and Mail in Cambodia, and I was her interpreter,” said Mr. Portugal, who was also a land surveyor working in Cambodia at the time. The couple married in 1962.

The newly wed Ms. Portugal left The Globe to stay with her husband in Phnom Penh. She took a contract job with the United States Information Agency. In 1964, there was a riot in the Cambodian capital and the American Embassy came under siege. She received a commendation for her cool leadership during the crisis.

The next year she returned to Canada and worked as a government information officer for Ontario’s Department of Municipal Affairs. In 1967, she returned to journalism and worked as copy desk editor-in-chief for the division of Maclean-Hunter that published business magazines. She stayed in the job until 1987, by which time she had begun her ambitious We Were There project.

Her interest in the Second World War, which started with her work at the Peterborough Examiner in 1942, continued throughout her career. Ms. Portugal became an honorary member of two Canadian regiments: the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. She was also heavily involved in the Royal Canadian Military Institute, where she was vice-chairman of the library committee.

On the 50th anniversary of D-Day she was presented with a commemorative medal by the deputy mayor of Bayeux, in nor-thern France, “On behalf of the people of Normandy for the love and affection you have shown.”

Ms. Portugal had written about the devastation of the city of Caen, where German troops held out after the D-Day invasion, and she was presented with the city of Caen’s Medal of Honour in 1984.

“This was presented as a recognition of her series of articles about the devastation and struggle to rebuild devastated Caen after the Second World War. Her articles formed the basis of rebuilding the city’s destroyed archives and the history of the Ancient University of Caen,” Mr. MacFarlane wrote.

In 1991, she was granted an honorary degree from King’s College, “In appreciation of her life service as a journalist and military author and her service to the Dominion of Canada.”

She also worked as a travel writer and won several awards for her work, including one from the French government tourist office.

Ms. Portugal died on Nov. 26 at home in Scarborough, Ont., following a stroke earlier in the month. She leaves her husband, Felix. The Royal Canadian Military Institute is planning a memorial service.

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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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