Peter C. Newman, an idiosyncratic journalist and historian who shook Canada’s political establishment while developing into a staunch nationalist there, his adopted country to which he had fled as a boy from Nazi-occupied Europe, died on September 7 in Belleville, southeastern Ontario. He was 94.
His death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of Parkinson’s disease, which he developed after a stroke last year, said his wife, Alvy Newman.
In a long and productive career, Mr. Newman has held responsibilities as editor of the Toronto-based Maclean’s magazine and of The Toronto Star, while producing nearly three dozen books, some of which delved into the inner sanctums of four Canadian prime ministers, the in Canada-based Bronfman liquor dynasty and Canadian media mogul Conrad Black.
He also wrote a history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670; a three-part dissection of “The Canadian Establishment” (1975); and a memoir that began with his Jewish family’s escape from Europe under dive bomber fire.
“Nothing compares to being a refugee; you are robbed of context and you flail about, seeking self-definition,” Mr. Newman wrote in the memoir. “When I finally got to Canada, I wanted to have a voice. Being heard. That desire has never left me.”
That, he added, was why he became a writer.
His mission was not simply to be a chronicler of events, but to be a kind of muckraker.
“I pioneered the approach to writing about politics and things like blood sports” in Canada, he told Maclean’s immodestly. As he explained to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: “I’m neutral, I attack everyone. I think they should be attacked, they are responsible to us.”
“I judge our leaders harshly,” Mr. Newman told Maclean’s, “because I feel strongly about preserving Canada.”
He wrote that Joe Clark, the Progressive Conservative who was prime minister for less than a year before being defeated in 1980, would “never set the world on fire except by accident,” and that Clark’s fellow Tory Kim Campbell, who had also done for an equally short period as Prime Minister in 1993 ‘demonstrated an unerring instinct for her own jugular.’
As for “the clubby male establishment that ran the country,” he wrote in Maclean’s in 2013, it consisted of a “fractious cadre of elitists who controlled Canadian affairs, an informal junta of several thousand wary pragmatists, more closely linked than to their country.”
Peter Charles Newman was born Peta Karel Neumann in Vienna on May 10, 1929, the son of Oscar Karel Neumann, a prosperous factory owner, and Wanda Maria Neumann. The family fled Nazi persecution in 1938 through Czechoslovakia and then through Biarritz, France, where they were shot at by a Luftwaffe dive bomber while waiting to board a Belgian merchant ship.
Peter was eleven when the family arrived in Canada in 1940. He was educated at Upper Canada College and the University of Toronto, where he excelled in writing. He became a Canadian citizen in 1945 and enlisted as a reservist in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1947.
Mr. Newman established himself as an author in the 1960s with his two books on Canadian prime ministers: “Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years” (1963), a critical study of John Diefenbaker’s Tory government in the late 1950s and early ’60s , and “The Distemper of Our Times” (1968), which examined Lester Pearson’s government in the late 1960s.
Reviewing ‘A Nation Divided: Canada and the Coming of Pierre Trudeau’ (1969) in The New York Times Book Review, Stuart Keate wrote: ‘Newman, a brilliant reporter, imbues his chronology of unfortunate events with anecdotes and insights that are his reputation as the guardian of the best series of leaks in Ottawa.
Mr Newman went from what he described as a “small ‘l’ liberal” to a committed nationalist, explaining in 1971: “We used to be a kind of bastard Englishman. Then we became bastard Americans. What we need to do is become bastard Canadians.”
In 2005, he announced the publication of “The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister,” which focused on Brian Mulroney, another progressive Conservative, who served from 1984 to 1993. The book quoted Mr. Mulroney as another prime minister vilified, Pierre Trudeau, who held the office under the Liberal banner for almost sixteen years.
Mr Mulroney then sued Mr Newman, accusing him of publishing comments he said he had made in confidence. The lawsuit was settled in 2006 — the same year, as part of another lawsuit, in which Mr. Newman apologized to Conrad Black, who had sued him for defamation over comments in the Newman memoir, “Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power” (2004).
After a long period of reporting for The Financial Post, Mr. Newman was editor of The Toronto Star from 1969 to 1971. His tenure ended abruptly, he wrote, after he rejected the publisher’s request to praise Toronto’s mayor in an editorial that coincided with the paper’s application for a new printing plant.
Mr. Newman called himself a victim of the publisher’s “mushroom treatment”: kept isolated in the dark, sprayed with manure and then canned.
He had more success editing Maclean’s, from 1975 to 1982, when he helped transform the magazine from a money-losing monthly into a prosperous and influential weekly.
In 1990 he was promoted to the rank of Companion of the Order of Canada.
Distinguished by his ubiquitous Greek fisherman’s cap, Mr. Newman was married three times before marrying Alvy Bjorklund. He had two daughters from previous marriages and two stepdaughters, the children of Alvy Newman. Complete information about his survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Newman attributed his failed marriages mainly to his workaholic habits, although, he said, one divorce resulted from a theological dispute: “I thought I was God and they weren’t.”
His energy hardly diminished in his later years.
“There’s a sticker on my computer that says, ‘We don’t stop playing because we’re old. We are getting old because we stop playing,” he said. “That is my credo.”