Standing on the shoulders of a giant: George Bain, Canada’s first national affairs columnist

The uncompromising legacy of George Bain, Canada’s first national affairs columnist. This week we feature Iain Alec Bain’s story from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

By 1973, George Bain was restless. He’d been writing The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa column since 1964, and though he’d covered a fascinating, occasionally tumultuous, time in Canada’s political life—including the 1967 Centennial, Trudeaumania and the War Measures Act—he was up for a new challenge. Globe editor Richard “Dic” J. Doyle didn’t want to give him a managerial position because he worried that the meticulous Bain would be far too demanding of reporters who weren’t up to his expectations. He promised the columnist the Asia bureau, though not for a year. In no mood to wait, Bain left the paper.

But first, he wanted to write a farewell column. This put Doyle in a bind, because he didn’t want the columnist’s goodbye to disrupt a smooth transition to Geoffrey Stevens, who would be taking over the most prestigious piece of real estate in a Canadian paper: the bottom left corner of page six, right under the Globe editorials. So Bain’s farewell never ran, and his abrupt disappearance surprised some readers, including one of the most powerful in the country. Shortly after Bain’s column vanished, Doyle opened a letter from Pierre Trudeau, a prime minister the columnist had not been afraid to criticize. It read, “Where in the hell is Bain?”

The man who wrote “the most important column in Canada,” according to 30-year Toronto Star veteran Val Sears, plowed through the jargon and policy mazes of politics better than any of his colleagues. He offered readers his sharp analysis and wit, plus a few fictional characters and some poetry, up to five days a week. Allan Fotheringham, who owned the back page of Maclean’s for decades, called him the “pre-eminent columnist in the land” in 2001. And when CBC Radio giant Peter Gzowski was once asked if he had read Bain, he responded, “Do Catholic priests read the Bible?”

Bain, who died in 2006, later circled around to take on his own kind, attacking journalists and journalism in his book Gotcha! How the Media Distort the News. “George was not a man who would compromise,” says Clark Davey, who began his career alongside Bain. “He believed in his own rightness, and that’s what made him a difficult employee to deal with.” But that’s also what made him so good. He didn’t just write the first modern national affairs column in the country; he left a legacy of high standards for those who followed: Stevens, until 1982; Michael Valpy, until 1984; and ever since, Jeffrey Simpson. Today Simpson says, “I’ve always felt I’ve stood on Bain’s shoulders. Read the rest.