William Johnson's weekly column in the Globe and Mail comes adorned with the title: Pit Bill. This honorific, unsought but perhaps not undeserved, was thrust upon him.
Born of an Anglo-Quebecker father and a Franco-Ontarian mother, he grew up in English and French. For seven years he studied at Montreal's Collège Jean de Brébeuf, graduated at 18 with a B.A. from Montreal's Loyola College, then spent 10 years in the Jesuit order, preparing for the priesthood, while acquiring a degree in philosophy from Regis College and an M.A. in French literature from the Université de Montréal.
Leaving the Jesuits before ordination, he embarked on a career in sociology, studying at the University of Toronto and doing pre-doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He lectured in sociology for a year at the University of Manitoba and for three at the University of Toronto. He published a study, Inter-Ethnic Relations at Great Whale River, after living with Cree Indians and Inuit on Hudson's Bay. He did research in Yellowknife, NWT, and Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec. In 1966, he spent three weeks on a freedom march through Mississippi with Martin Luther King and also demonstrated with him in the streets of Chicago.
In 1967 his career in journalism began at the Globe and Mail where he spent 20 years as a reporter then columnist, posted successively in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa's Parliamentary Press Gallery, the National Assembly Press Gallery in Quebec, and as bureau chief in Washington, D.C. While in Quebec, he co-authored in French with Carole Devault a book of her memoirs, Toute ma vérité, which related her double life in the revolutionary Front de libération du Québec while acting as a police informer. He translated and published the book in English in 1982 as The Informer.
In 1982 he was made a member of the Order of Canada.
In 1987 he moved from Washington to Ottawa to be National Affairs Columnist for the Montreal Gazette. He was then nicknamed Pit Bill for his attacks against the Meech Lake accord, the politicians, the élites and the newspapers (including the Gazette and the Globe) which backed it. Those same columns also won him the National Newspaper Award, and twice he won the Citation of Merit, as a finalist.
He published in French in 1991 a history of Quebec's anti-English strain in literature and politics, Anglophobie made in Québec. Then, in 1994, he published a history of Quebec-Canada relations since the Quiet Revolution, A Canadian Myth.. An expanded version, in French translation, appeared in 1995 titled Le Mirage.
After his retirement as staff journalist in 1996, Mr. Johnson's columns were published by many newspapers, including the Gazette, the Vancouver Sun, the Edmonton Journal, the Windsor Star, the Financial Post, the Ottawa Sun, the Toronto Sun, the London Free Press and the National Post. He appeared regularly in the magazine Cité libre, where he sat on the board of directors. He received an honorary doctorate from Laurentian University.
In 1998 he became president of the association defending English-language minority rights, Alliance Quebec, a position he held for two years. He then became a regular columnist for the Globe and Mail in June, 2000, and is a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
He lives in Gatineau, Quebec, with his wife Carol Bream.