Tribute to Journalist Frances Russell

By Doug Smith

Before there was a CCPA-Manitoba, there was Frances Russell. Her journalistic career started in the 1960s and took her to Ottawa, Toronto, and Victoria. But in the mid-1970s, she returned to Winnipeg and began to occupy a perch, first on the op-ed page of the Winnipeg Tribune and from the 1980s onwards at the Winnipeg Free Press. For more than three decades, she used her column to defend the Canadian welfare state against the depredations of neo-liberalism. 

Winnipeg in the late 1970s provided Russell with a preview of the wave of the political reaction that would soon shred what was once termed the post-war consensus. Under this consensus, capitalism retained its economic legitimacy, while ordinary folks were supported by strong unions, economic regulation, and a strong welfare state. This consensus was always contested, and its benefits were far from uniformly distributed, but it did represent a real improvement in the lives of millions of people in the industrialized world. 

Globally, the attack on this consensus was led by Margaret Thatcher (elected British prime minister in 1979) and Ronald Reagan (elected American president in 1980). But one of the first “new right” parties to come to power was Sterling Lyon’s Conservative Party in Manitoba in 1977. The Lyon government was committed to instituting a period of “acute, protracted restraint.” Crown corporations were sold, civil servants were fired, services were reduced, and legislation advancing women’s rights was repealed. 

Russell may have been horrified, but she quickly emerged as the scourge of the Lyon government. And while Lyon was defeated in 1981, the assault on the welfare state continued. The Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, with its undermining of the tax system, introduction of free trade, and undermining of national programs, meant that her attention was often turned to national issues.

Her approach was reminiscent of the radical American journalist I.F. Stone. A socialist in McCarthy-era Washington, Stone knew he would never have access to insider information. Instead, he “tried to give information which could be documented so the reader could check it for himself. I tried to dig the truth out of hearings, official transcripts and government documents and to be as accurate as possible.”

While her opinions were strong and her judgment could be severe, Frances Russell’s language was measured. She preferred facts and research to vitriol and rhetorical flourishes. She read voraciously—and little of it could have been for pleasure. Her columns were often articulate and clear expositions of obscure but significant research papers or based on long interviews with social policy experts. Should anyone ever develop an index that assesses political columnists based on the balance of personal opinion versus quotes and facts they employed, I suspect that Russell would be found on the quote-and-fact side of the ledger. It is doubtful that she ever used the first-person pronoun in any of her columns: an incredible accomplishment given her output. She drove herself hard, but it was never about her. The windbaggery she left to others.

In private conversation, Russell expressed despair over an editorial-page colleague who told her that he viewed predictability as the worse sin of which a columnist could be accused. He strove to write columns that advanced opinions that people would not have expected him to take. Needless to say, Frances viewed such an approach as being close to immoral. The bedrock of her writing was her principles—her work was not predictable but consistent.

Lazy critics accused her of partisanship. She certainly supported the Liberals when they did things she approved: adopting a Canada Health Act that entrenched the principles of a national healthcare program or opposing the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord. But she had no trouble taking issue with the Liberals when they were weakening the welfare state or the NDP when she felt that they had not fought the good fight against the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. Her criticism may have been more in sorrow than anger, but she did not allow partisan sympathies to mute her judgment.

She stood her ground, fought her corner, and was one of those journalists who do comfort the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Her death this fall, following so close to the passing of Bill Blaikie, who fought many of the same battles in parliament, diminishes us all.

Doug Smith is a Winnipeg researcher, writer and author of numerous books on political and social issues.