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Trailblazing journalist Gretta Chambers bridged Quebec’s two solitudes

For decades, no matter where you turned, Gretta Chambers was on the radio, on television and in the pages of the Montreal Gazette, listening, commenting and prodding.

The Chambers family

As a journalist, a committed federalist and the first female chancellor of McGill University, Gretta Chambers was a multitasking trailblazer. Opinionated, forthright and gracious, this tiny, elegant woman bridged Quebec's two solitudes effortlessly, explaining each group to the other – especially during turbulent times.

For decades, no matter where you turned, there she was, on the radio, on television and in the pages of the Montreal Gazette, listening, commenting and prodding.

"No matter where you stood on any issue, Gretta embodied the very best of Quebec society," said Michael Goldbloom, the principal and vice-chancellor of Bishop's University in Lennoxville. "She was knowledgeable and comfortable in both communities and to know her was to have respect and awe for her intelligence, empathy and the no-nonsense example she set."

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Ms. Chambers died on Sept. 9 at St. Mary's Hospital in Montreal while on a long-distance call to her daughter, Susan Lowry, in New York. She had been transferred from a medical facility in Quebec's Eastern Townships when a CAT scan revealed a serious heart problem.

At 90 years old, she was a legend in Quebec and beyond, a woman who smashed barriers for those who came after, a voice of reason with a predilection to state plainly what she thought, be it how to handle a public-relations crisis or whether or not her grandchildren should take a jacket when venturing outside.

Mr. Goldbloom first met Ms. Chambers when he was five years old and a student at Selwyn House, the private Montreal boys' school. He was best friends with her eldest son, Geoffrey Chambers, and the two boys' mothers took turns driving them to school – or seeing them off on the bus. She was a mentor and coach, not just for him but for everyone she encountered.

The Chambers family's Christmas parties were famous for their food, conversation and diverse guest lists, Mr. Goldbloom continued. Once, in the 1980s, he found himself chatting with Gérald Godin, a journalist and poet who had been arrested during the October Crisis of 1970, was elected to the province's National Assembly in 1976 and became a cabinet minister who was responsible for the passage of the French Language Charter, better known as Bill 101.

"You would be surprised to see the mix of people at other people's homes in Quebec, but not at Gretta's," Mr. Goldbloom said.

And when Mr. Goldbloom was named publisher of the Montreal Gazette in 1994, he made sure to call her for advice.

"It was one of life's pleasures to meet regularly with this wonderful person who created an opportunity for me and so many others through her CBC program on French media," he said. "She came around the paper once a week to drop off the column and we'd sit and chat. She just radiated calm and intelligence."

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Gretta Taylor was born on Jan. 15, 1927, in Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital to an anglophone father and a francophone mother. She was the first of three children born to Walter Margrave Taylor and the former Simone Marguerite Beaubien. Her father owned a steel company and her mother came from a politically engaged, voluble and close family. Growing up in Outremont, the children learned from their parents and relatives the importance of family commitment and community service.

The parents were also traditional in the sense that young Gretta, like many other girls of her generation, was kept at home and taught by tutors instead of being sent to a bricks-and-mortar school. It wasn't until she was 10, when her brother, Geoffrey, four years her junior, started classes, that she realized something wasn't right. And so began her first battle.

"She loved to tell the story of how her parents thought they were going to keep her at home," her son Geoffrey said. "She put her foot down and informed them otherwise."

Triumphant, she first attended Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's School, then located downtown on Guy Street. She later transferred to a girls' boarding school called Netherwood just outside of Saint John. She graduated early and returned home to study political science at McGill University.

She was no more than 16 years old when she started university, her son said – younger than many of her classmates but perfectly capable of holding her own.

After graduating from McGill in 1947, she worked as an aide in a pediatric dentist's office and in January, 1951, after a whirlwind courtship, married Egan Chambers, whom she met at a dance for returning Canadian soldiers. There were five children in six years or, as Ms. Chambers dryly described it, "three diapers at a time."

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Said her son Geoffrey: "Our family house was designed to have an upstairs sitting room, with a great big desk and lots of shelves. The door was always open so she could hear us and give instructions over her shoulder as to what we should be doing."

Her children thought she could do anything. Once, she even prepared an impromptu meal for young Geoffrey's entire high-school football team when he unexpectedly brought everyone over for supper.

"There were about 25 of us but I didn't phone to ask if it was okay. I didn't think to," recalled Geoffrey Chambers, now the vice-president of the Quebec Community Groups Network. "You'd think that I would have been sent straight to jail. Instead, my mother simply sent someone down the street to the local supermarket and prepared more of what we were already going to have – with no fuss."

In 1958, when the youngest child, Bill, was but four months old, Egan Chambers, a Progressive Conservative, was elected to Parliament for the Montreal riding of St. Lawrence-St. George. Undaunted, Ms. Chambers handled the responsibilities of being a political spouse and raising five children, all while volunteering in the community and working, first as a translator and researcher, then as a front-line journalist, public-affairs analyst and commentator.

From 1964 to 1978, she wrote and presented a weekly radio program on CBC called The Province in Print, which explained French issues and opinions to English listeners, and from 1977 to 1980 she hosted a weekly program on CTV called The Editors.

Also in 1977, soon after René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois came to power, Ms. Chambers began what would be a quarter-century of writing her column for The Gazette. At first, it was a review of French media, much like her CBC program but eventually, she found her own, mostly measured voice. Yet, there were times when measured was not enough, such as when PQ cabinet minister Lise Payette disparaged the "No" side during the 1980 referendum campaign, first comparing its complacency to that of "Yvette," a docile schoolgirl in pre-Quiet Revolution schoolbooks and then stating that Liberal Party leader Claude Ryan's wife, Madeleine Guay, was an "Yvette," too. The remarks inflamed Quebec women both old and young, and sparked a massive protest movement.

Senator Joan Fraser, at the time the Gazette's editorial page editor, recalled: "There was an emotion that she frequently worked to keep out of her columns, but she was a convinced federalist and the phenomenon of those thousands of women reached her in ways it wouldn't for many others.

"She became a major spokesperson for the English community at a time when passions ran high on both sides," Ms. Fraser continued. "By nature, she was a moderate person and not an absolutist about anything except human rights. She didn't believe in burning bridges. She wanted to build them."

Ms. Fraser recalled how some critics – right-wing anglophones who thought the community should vociferously challenge the provincial government, no matter if it was led by the Parti Québécois or the Liberals – derided Ms. Chambers as too meek, calling her a member, even leader of the so-called "Lamb Lobby." And yet, she forged ahead, convinced that dialogue, reason and a well-considered argument would win in the end.

When it came to committees, task forces and boards she sat on or chaired, her son Geoffrey said there were so many that it is easier to speak of types rather than name each one individually. They ranged from education to health and social services to the arts to a review of judicial salaries to finance and to public security. Between 1978 to 1988, she sat on McGill's Board of Governors, and in 1991 she was invested as chancellor, a position she held until 1999.

She was so tiny that she needed to have an academic gown specially tailored to her measurements, complete with ceremonial gold trim.

Said Ms. Fraser: "I don't know how I can do Gretta justice, except to say: She made a difference."

Ms. Chambers was named an officer of the Ordre National du Québec in 1993 and a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2000.

Ms. Chambers was predeceased by husband, who died in 1994, and her brother, Geoffrey Taylor, who was 44 when he died in an avalanche while skiing in British Columbia. She leaves her youngest brother, philosopher Charles Taylor; five children, Susan Lowry and Geoffrey, Michael, Simone and Bill Chambers; and eight grandchildren.

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