Cohen: A quartet of formidable voices lost to journalism

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He had confidence, talent and humour, too, which showed in his stylish writing from Europe and Russia. In 1996, he wrote hilariously about the perils of flying in winter in a Twin Otter plane across Labrador. He froze. On the return trip, he wore snowmobile pants and insulated boots. This time the cabin had heat, and John melted like “a poached fish.”

Bill Johnson chose journalism instead of the priesthood. This explained the passion, rigour and humility in his writing. His affections lay in Quebec. An anglophone, he had done graduate studies in French literature and spoke French at home.

In 1990, I opened the Montreal Gazette one morning to read a critique of the Meech Lake Accord, one of the great battles of Canada’s constitutional wars. The analysis was not his but mine and that of another columnist. “There are days – not many – when I wish this space could be turned over pro tem to another writer,” he wrote. And that is what he did, showcasing my argument in his column. It was uncommonly gracious to an interloper on his well-plowed turf.

Bill left journalism to lead the movement defending minority language rights in Quebec. This made him occasionally unhappy and usually unpopular, but never unprincipled.

He had a Jesuitical frankness. Once, he allowed that he’d been trapping skunks and squirrels devouring his garden and drowning them in the Ottawa River, but he gave up. “I got tired of the killing,” he shrugged.

At his height, Allan Fotheringham was the best-known journalist in Canada. He was also the best paid, which he liked to remind me of. “I have five jobs,” he’d boast, including newspapers, magazines, books, speeches and television, where he was resident gadfly and sage.