A Journalist First

By Beverly Fast

Early feminist, social reformer, fierce nationalist—this is how colleagues describe Margaret Weiers (BA’49, DLitt’10). Weiers, however, is not entirely comfortable wearing these labels.

Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Early feminist, social reformer, fierce nationalist—this is how colleagues describe Margaret Weiers (BA’49, DLitt’10). Weiers, however, is not entirely comfortable wearing these labels.

She sees herself as a journalist. If she wrote on equality for women, social issues and foreign policy—and she did —it was as a journalist. If she led by example— and her inclusion on the College of Arts & Science 100 Alumni of Influence is one indication that she did—it was not her primary goal.

“I didn’t go into journalism to make a difference in the world. I went because I was interested, and it was what I wanted to do,” Weiers said. “I’ve always been an independent person, even as a child, much to my mother’s dismay.”

'Weiers attended the University of Saskatchewan in the post-World War II years. Returning veterans were taking advantage of the federal government’s promise of free tuition and flocking to universities across Canada. “I was straight out of high school and going to university with men who’d been overseas. They had experiences those of us just out of teens couldn’t relate to, and they were determined to get the best education they could. Never mind crowded classes and drafty buildings, they spurred us on.”

After earning her Bachelor of Arts, she got her start working on a small weekly newspaper in Regina. She was the only reporter on staff, but soon found herself doing a lot more than reporting. Weiers said she also “wrote a column and my firsteditorial, and learned all about proof-reading, copy-editing, layout, advertising, printing and circulation, because everyone on that small staff doubled in brass.” Two years later she landed a job at the Regina Leader-Post “on the women’s pages, the ghetto to which female journalists were then assigned,” she said.

Weiers stayed with the paper until 1955, then did a brief stint with the Canadian foreign service, serving as vice-consul for the Canadian Consulate General in New York City and a press officer for the Canadian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly.

In 1957, she married Robert Weiers (BA’47, BEd’48, BComm’52). This happy occasion marked the end of her foreign service career, as the Department of External Affairs required women officers to resign after they married, a policy that continued until 1971.

In 1960, the Weiers went to Ghana on a 15-month foreign aid assignment. While her husband helped set up a school of business at the University of Accra, Margaret worked as a freelance writer for radio and television. After they returned to Canada, her career took a new direction when she joined the Toronto Star in 1963.

In almost three decades with the Star, Weiers worked as a reporter, a feature writer and most notably a member of the Star’s editorial board. “It is important to make the distinction between a reporter and an editorial writer,” she said. “It is the duty and responsibility of a reporter to observe and report events accurately. A feature writer goes into more depth than a reporter. Fairness and accuracy are still key, but the analysis should never be personal.

“Editorial writing becomes even more impersonal. You are writing opinion, but it is the collective opinion of the newspaper for which you work. That is why editorial writers are a breed apart from reporters. In my whole career I don’t think I ever used the personal pronoun. That’s not so today, and I’m not sure it’s a change for the better.”

The Star’s editorial board met every morning to discuss the next day’s editorials. The debates about what stand the paper should take on new issues was often vigorous. It was during this time that colleagues began to attach the feminist label to Weiers.

Weiers receives an Honourary Doctor of Letters at 2010 spring convocation from U of S Chancellor Vera Pezer (BA’62, MA’64, PhD’77)

Weiers receives an Honourary Doctor of Letters at 2010 spring convocation from U of S Chancellor Vera Pezer (BA’62, MA’64, PhD’77)

"I didn’t go into
journalism to make
a difference in the world.
I went because I was
interested, and it was
what I wanted to do.”

She concedes it is a legitimate term. “I wrote about equality for women, equality of opportunity and the ability to make choices about what women wanted to do with their lives. I supported public policies that encouraged that choice, so I was labelled a feminist.”

Weiers earned her reputation as a social reformer by writing about a wide range of social policies, from child care to family law to education for children with mental disabilities. As for the term “fierce nationalist”, “I don’t put this label on myself. I think it came from a colleague who used to laugh at me because I defended the Canadian Football League, as a joke,” she said. “But I defended the CBC, I believed in equalization [payments]. The idea that you should be treated differently depending on which province you live in always bothered me. I think policy should be made in the interest of Canadians, whether it is foreign policy, economic or social policy. Let’s decide for ourselves what makes sense for Canada.”

Weiers retired from the Star in 1991. She went on to write a book about women in the Canadian foreign service. Published in 1995, Envoys Extraordinary: Women of the Canadian Foreign Service chronicles the experiences of 22 female career officers struggling to succeed in a predominantly male world.

Despite her obvious role in opening doors for other women, Weiers does not claim credit for the inroads she sees women making in journalism. But she is nonetheless pleased to mark the progress. “I see more women in newsrooms, more women as managing editors, city editors and publishers of newspapers, more women in managerial positions in the media. There are also more women being sent by their employers as foreign correspondents—that’s a major achievement,” she said.

“Before, during and after World War II, newspapers and broadcasters did not send women abroad. It was considered ‘too dangerous.’ There were women covering the war, but they were freelancers. They went on their own and sold their work to major outlets. They didn’t have the backing the men had. Now, you see women working for major outlets and covering Afghanistan, the floods in Pakistan and so on. That’s a major change since the 1950s.”

Looking back on a career that spanned some of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century, Weiers declines to single out any experience above the rest. Instead, she quotes a line from a well-known poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “I am a part of all that I have met.”

“There’s nothing better than a career in journalism for learning. All my life, the things I’ve learned have shaped my point of view,” Weiers said. “You can’t isolate yourself from the environment; what you live becomes what you think.”