A Life's Story
April 03, 2021
Career of challenging conventional thinking
Newspaper woman Marjorie Gillies, 97, led with 'sense of fairness and justice'
By: Malak Abas
They called her the "Black Widow."
In Marjorie (Marj) Gillies’ decades-long career as a journalist, she had a strange knack for interviewing people just before they died, usually of an age-related illness. While the moniker among fellow media members had a touch of dark humour, her devotion to putting the people she interviewed in the forefront was never a joke.
"I think her sense of fairness and justice has inspired her kids," says son Ian Gillies.
"I think we contribute to things, get involved with things, volunteer with things that align with making our communities and our society a better place — that was something that was important to her."
Born Marjorie McGillivray in Winnipeg in Feb. 11, 1923, to a school teacher and what Ian described as a "man about downtown" dentist, Gillies was raised in River Heights as an only child.
Known for being mischievous and free-spirited, she was known to buck the authoritarian classroom structure of the time, often driving the nuns of St. Mary’s Academy to take extensive measures to control her.
"She loved to tell stories about how she got in trouble in school, was reprimanded by teachers, was ordered to stand behind the fern in classrooms in school," says Ian.
Nevertheless, Gillies eventually earned a bachelor of arts at the University of Manitoba, where she was able to talk her way out of anything (she once passed an economics class only after promising the professor she would never take another) and into anything: she took on a reporting position at the Winnipeg Free Press after saying she had worked at the U of M student paper.
"She really didn’t," Ian says. "But she knew people at the Manitoban, and she had been into the Manitoban, and on that basis, she kind of bluffed her way into a job."
It opened the door to a decades-long career, where many of her articles focused on women who were doing extraordinary things.
"She was never afraid to kind of go against the stereotypical norms of the day, she liked to challenge conventional thinking," Ian says. "She was unconventional herself, in the way she lived her life."
Even after marrying Alastair Gillies in 1949, and having four children (Ian, Marsie, Colin and Nancy), she wanted to continue to work, a source of tension with her husband.
Her work in that time would be published in the St. Vital Lance and Winnipeg Tribune.
Leaving her job at the Tribune to follow her husband to Oakville, Ont., she continued reporting with the Oakville Journal Record, but it wasn’t meant to last.
She divorced her husband in 1972, and returned to Winnipeg — and the Tribune, where she worked as an editor.
After the Tribune was closed down in 1980, she transferred to the Ottawa Citizen, where she worked until her retirement in 1989.
Gillies never really stopped writing: her book, Street of Dreams: the Story of Broadway, Western Canada’s First Boulevard, a deep dive into the history of the area, was published in 2001.
Gillies was a prolific writer and a mentor to many young women entering journalism, but her legacy will be the work she did to make the world around her better. Ian recalled her sense of justice, feminist activism, philanthropy and the love she showed her children and youth in the neighbourhood.
"She was a progressive in many ways, and I think challenged her kids to be aware of those things and support the ones that were sort of on the progressive side of the ledger," Ian says.
One of those neighbourhood youth, Ted Bigelow, grew up with the family. His memories range from hunting for nightcrawlers with Ian at seven to visiting Gillies in her old age.
Gillies’ "caustic wit" and voice that carried — Ted could recreate the tone in which she would yell her children’s names to ensure they would be home for dinner — sticks with him today.
A friend at the time was so fond of the Gillies house he would sleep in their family’s sauna rather than go home, Ted says. It was indicative of who Gillies was, not just to her family and co-workers but to the community.
"You can always tell the most popular mom in the neighbourhood by the number of kids that end up hanging out there all the time," he says.
"It was always Grand Central Station with kids."
Ted was a newspaper delivery boy when Gillies’ byline graced the Winnipeg Tribune, and says growing up around a woman who was simultaneously bucking tradition at the time while being a kindly adult figure stuck with him.
"My mom passed away quite a bit earlier, and being connected to a neighbourhood mom was a cool thing," he says.
The house was always bustling. Gillies let the neighbourhood kids listen to the Beatles, Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers when they weren’t allowed to indulge in rock ’n’ roll in their own homes.
She was an "enthusiastic participant" of cocktail parties and Saturday night shindigs.
Gillies loved to party, Ian says, and once danced with longtime prime minister Pierre Trudeau at a local gala event.
"Never be afraid to live life to its fullest. Don’t doubt that you can put yourself out there and achieve your dream," Ian says, mulling on what his mother had taught her children.
While much of her retirement was spent trying new things and honing skills — even water skiing in her 70s — the last years of her life were plagued with small strokes and a struggle with dementia, leaving her unable to communicate with the colour and joy she once had.
Gillies died March 7, 2020, at 97.