‘Storytelling was her life’: Veteran CBC journalist Elizabeth Gray dead at 86 | CBC Radio

‘Storytelling was her life’: Veteran CBC journalist Elizabeth Gray dead at 86 | CBC Radio

For Elizabeth Gray, journalism was more than a job — it was an identity.

The veteran reporter, who hosted CBC Radio’s As It Happens and Cross Country Checkup, died on Wednesday from lung cancer. She was 86.

“Her life as a journalist was such an important part of who she was in the world in general,” her daughter Rachel Gray, 58, told CBC. “Storytelling was her life.”

Sen. Pamela Wallin, who used to work with Gray at CBC, called her “an amazing woman and a great friend.”

“I think many people who listened to her over the years will be feeling a sense of loss,” she told current As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

LISTEN | Sen. Pamela Wallin remembrs Elizabeth Gray:

As It Happens7:32Elizabeth Gray was a tough mentor and ‘an amazing woman,’ says Sen. Pamela Wallin

Gray had a decades-long career in journalism that spanned continents and mediums.

She’d lived in — and reported from — Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, London and Moscow, filing stories for TV, radio, newspapers and magazine.

She spent the bulk of her career with CBC, working both on-air and behind-the-scenes at a variety of local and national TV and radio programs, including Morningside and Sunday Morning. Her work with the public broadcaster earned her three Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) awards.

“It was so important to her, the CBC, and having a national broadcaster,” Rachel said. “It meant that there was an opportunity to tell stories and to have voices on the air that would never have been heard.”

Bouncing back after losing her ‘dream job’

Gray hosted the national call-in radio show Cross Country Checkup between 1976 and 1978, and, in 1981, landed what she described as her “dream job” — co-host of the evening current affairs flagship As It Happens.

“I think one of the reasons that As It Happens was probably the dream job of dream jobs is because they could ask questions, and she was expected to ask questions of literally everybody in the world,” Rachel said, remembering her mother’s repeated interviews with anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu.

Gray and As It Happens co-host Alan Maitland in studio. (CBC Archives)

But in 1986, CBC replaced her at As It Happens, citing editorial differences and a desire to take the show in a different direction.

The decision sparked hundreds of angry letters from CBC listeners, and an internal petition signed by dozens of Gray’s colleagues, according to the Review of Journalism.

Wallin says her friend made “profound sacrifices” to host As It Happens, including commuting back and forth between her home in Ottawa and the studio in Toronto, before finally moving her whole family to Toronto.

But she didn’t let her disappointment get in the way of her work. Soon after her ill-gated stint with As It HappensGray got right back to work, producing for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning and making radio documentaries until she retired in her late 60s.

“It cut her deeply,” Wallin said. “But Elizabeth was also very resilient.”

A very current affairs household

Gray grew up in Toronto, and got her start in journalism at the Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, where she met her husband, the late Canadian journalist John Gray.

Growing up with two journalists as parents made for a unique childhood, Rachel said.

“I was an adult before I kind of finally understood that not everybody in the world actually talked about current events incessantly at every meal all the time,” she said.

Five people smiling with their arms around each other.
Elizabeth Gray, second from the left, pictured with her three children, Joshua, Colin and Rachel Gray, and husband John Gray. (Submitted by Rachel Gray)

While Gray often took her work life home, Rachel says she never took her home life to work.

“In the ’70s, she couldn’t talk about her kids too much at work because that was a sign of, you know, her showing her true colours as a woman as opposed to a good journalist,” Rachel said.

“When we were sick … my dad, as much as possible, was the one who would, you know, come home to be with us, because it was held against her in a way that it was not for him.”

‘A tough minded mentor’

Rachel said her mother always made a point of befriending and uplifting other women in the business.

“She loved the camaraderie of other women,” she said. “Smart, capable, you know, bossy women who wanted to tell stories and wanted to have their voices be part of these conversations as well.”

She was not intimidated by those in power or those who paid her salary.– That. Pamela Wallin

Wallin says she admired Gray’s work from afar for a long time before she finally approached her.

“She was able to cut to the chase in complicated issues. She was able to ask the tough question without flinching. She was not intimidated by those in power or those who paid her salary,” Wallin said.

“It was just an attitude and a state of mind that I truly admired.”

She finally sought Gray out at a conference in Ottawa in the ’70s.

“I was overwhelmed by Ottawa. I remember walking past the Parliament buildings for the first time and thinking to myself, someday I want to work there. And then Elizabeth was just one of those people who said, ‘Well, then do it,'” she said.

“She was very much like that through all her life. She was an amazing friend and a tough-minded mentor, and I think she helped an awful lot of us along the way.”

Grain photo of four people smiling at a table covered in Styrofoam cups and newspapers. One woman, second from the right, is holding both hands in the air and making a goofy face.
Elizabeth Gray, second from the right, with some of her As It Happens colleagues. (Submitted by Rachel Gray)

Gray soon took Wallin under her wing, and they went on to work together at CBC Ottawa in the mid- to late-’70s.

“Elizabeth had extremely high standards, and I am so grateful to her every single day because she expected the most not only of herself, but of you,” she said. “She was tough. She was abrasive. She was kind. She was caring. She was a teacher, but there was no coddling.”

Dinner parties and fun

Wallin remembers being invited to Gray’s house for family dinner for the first time.

“I thought I was really, really special because the table was set and there were cloth napkins and wine was being served, which never happened in my house. And I’m not even sure I’d ever had a glass of wine at all, never mind that dinner,” she said.

“And then, of course, I ended up going there for dinner all the time, and then I realized that is how they lived.”

Rachel, too, remembers lavish dinner parties with journalists at her Ottawa home.

“You can just imagine what it was kind of like having the meeting room suddenly transposed into our kitchen. Everybody talked loudly all the time. There was, of course, lots of wine. There were cigarettes being smoked all over the place back then as well,” she said.

“But there was a lot of energy. There was a lot of passion. There was a lot of care for understanding what was going on in the world.

It’s a passion that her mother instilled in her children, she said.

Gray is survived by her daughter Rachel, her sons Joshua and Colin, two sisters-in-law and five grandchildren.

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