‘A giant in journalism.’ Prolific columnist Christie Blatchford dies at 68

‘A giant in journalism.’ Prolific columnist Christie Blatchford dies at 68

Christie Blatchford, a veteran journalist and award-winning columnist whose decades-long career took her from war zones in Afghanistan to courtrooms deliberating Canada’s highest-profile criminal cases, has died. She was 68.

Blatchford had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer at Princess Margaret hospital in Toronto.

The cancer had metastasized to bones in the spine and hip by the time it was detected late last year, according to a profile.

Her brother Les Blatchford confirmed she died Wednesday morning.

Born in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., in 1951, Blatchford moved to Toronto with her family when she was a teenager, attending North Toronto Collegiate Institute where she graduated in 1970. She studied journalism at Ryerson University before joining the Globe and Mail in 1973, where she was billed as Canada’s first female sports columnist.

Blatchford’s journalism career led her to a variety of publications over the years. She joined the Toronto Star as a feature writer in 1977, the Toronto Sun as a columnist in 1982, and the newly-launched National Post as a columnist in 1998, before joining the Globe and Mail again in 2003.

Her coverage of crime, cops and courts amassed a large audience drawn to her sharp wit and oft-controversial takes. She won the National Newspaper Award for column writing in 1999.

Christie Blatchford's journalism career led her to a variety of publications over the years including the Toronto Star. She's seen here in 1977.

“Today we are all mourning the death of Christie Blatchford, a giant in journalism,” Mayor John Tory said in a statement.

“She worked tirelessly to shine a light on the justice system and how it works or sometimes doesn’t work — always with a focus on getting the story right and getting people to do the right thing.”

When the Post launched in 1998, Kenneth Whyte, founding editor of the National Post, hired Blatchford because he needed writers “who could command an audience,” he recently told the Post.

“Christie put us on the map for a huge number of readers. She was passionate and intelligent about every assignment,” he said.

She had no trouble speaking her mind either, he recalled.

“She yelled at me when I edited her in ways she didn’t like, or when I didn’t give her work enough prominence in the paper.”

Blatchford’s incredible empathy for victims of crime drove her need to write their stories, said Alison Uncles, editor of Maclean’s magazine.

“Christie would weep into the phone during breaks in testimony at almost every trial and inquiry she ever covered while we worked together,” Uncles told the Star. “She felt victims’ pain acutely, devastatingly so, and she carried the heavy responsibility of telling their stories. As an editor I often endured her famous wrath, to be sure, but she also showed me, almost daily, the kindness and humanity that lay underneath.

Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno (right) with Christie Blatchford, circa 1998.

“Her journalism was infused with it.”

Before returning to the Post in 2011, she was sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan on an assignment from the Globe in 2006-07 to report on the experiences of Canadian soldiers in the midst of war.

The trips were formative experiences that would shape the rest of her career, she said.

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At Queen’s Park, where politicians sometimes felt the wrath of Blatchford’s pen, Premier Doug Ford paid tribute.

Ford told the Star on Wednesday that the veteran columnist “always called it like she saw it” and praised her for her pragmatism.

Former premier Kathleen Wynne, who spent time with Blatchford when she covered the Liberals’ doomed 2018 election campaign, told Newstalk1010 that the National Post scribe was “one of my heroes.”

“There are tears not just across the city but across the country,” Wynne told host John Moore.

At a public speaking event in Burlington in 2007, Blatchford told a crowd that she had never asked to go to Kandahar; the Globe and Mail simply assigned it to her, and she said yes because she would never turn down a story. What started as a simple request turned into a “profoundly life-altering experience,” she said.

From her reporting in Afghanistan came “Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army,” Blatchford’s first of four non-fiction novels, which went on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award in non-fiction writing in 2008.

“It was scary, so raw and so important at the time, that nothing else will really match that experience,” she later told the Post. “I loved being with the soldiers, I loved the fear, I loved the excitement, the whole thing.”

In 2011, Blatchford returned to the National Post to continue as a columnist, where she turned her attention again to court reporting. When asked about the decision to leave the Globe by a J-Source reporter on the night of her farewell party, she said: “The whole time I was at the Globe I still talked about the fact that my heart is with the Post.”

Her extensive coverage of the justice system — where she witnessed trials as grizzly as Paul Bernardo’s serial murder and rape case and as polarizing as Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual assault case — led her to write “Life Sentence: Stories from four decades of court reporting,” where she laid bare the shortcomings of legal proceedings and the role of judges.

The book was a finalist for the 2016 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. In their citation, the award’s jury labelled Blatchford “the supreme doyenne of Canada’s court reporters.”

Beyond her journalistic endeavours, Blatchford was an avid cyclist and self-avowed dog lover. In an ode to her bull terrier, Obie, who died in September, she wrote: “We didn’t look alike, as the myth that owners and dogs grow to resemble one another has it. He looked like the actor Richard Gere, all lovely schnozz and small, smart, dark eyes; I looked like me. But we were the same being. We looked tough, sometimes, but mush on the inside. The qualities he had in spades — goodness, kindness, clownishness — are nowhere near as abundant in me. I could only aspire to be as fine as him.”

She was inducted into the Canadian News Hall of Fame in November 2019.

In a recent interview reflecting on her career, she told the Post she was drawn to stories about life and death.

“It’s about processes that are important to the country, whether a military process or criminal court process,” she said. “I don’t give a f— about a celebrity book or any kind of other story. I care about stories that tell us why the system matters, why things are worth protecting, why the rule of law is important.”

More later

With files from Jenna Moon, Robert Benzie and The Canadian Press

Jacob Lorinc

Jacob Lorinc is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jacoblorinc

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