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Friday December 3, 2010

Montreal reporter considered Expo the highlight of his career

He developed close relationships with sources - some said a bit too close

Special to The Globe and Mail

Bill Bantey was a star reporter and city columnist with The Gazette in Montreal who marched to the beat of his own drum. An enterprising, fluently bilingual and well-connected newspaperman, he was for the most part, able to call his own shots. He is, however, best remembered for what he himself described as "the assignment of a lifetime," - the lead reporter for the Expo 67 World's Fair, which he covered for both The Gazette in English and for Radio-Canada in French.

He died in Montreal on Nov. 24, three weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. "He had a nose for the angle that other reporters missed," said former journalist Paul Leduc, a long-time friend, who went on to become Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau's secretary-general. "He had an exceptional way with colourful language. He was a workhorse, he was everywhere."

Bill Bantey was born in Quebec City on Dec. 16, 1928. His father was a Russian immigrant who disguised what may have been his Slavic Jewish identity by claiming to be a Roman-Catholic Portuguese fisherman. Bantey and his brother, Ed, were educated at St. Patrick's High School. Both were bilingual and both went to work for English speaking newspapers.

At the age of 16, Bantey started his career at the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph. In 1945 he joined the Montreal Star as a police reporter, where he covered one of the first acts of aviation terrorism in the world, the in-flight bombing of a Canadian Pacific Airlines DC-3, which exploded over Sault-au-Cochon in 1949 killing Rita Morel, the wife of the man who planted the bomb, and 22 others.

He then went to the Montreal Herald as a crime reporter, where he befriended the city's police chief, J. Albert Langlois. "He even did little PR jobs for Langlois," Leduc recalled, "giving other police reporters modest cash handouts. Bill and other police reporters were handed official police badges, which allowed him to enter banks that had just been held up. His special status made him a favourite with detectives," Leduc recalled at the funeral on Wednesday. "The chief of homicide at times even allowed Bill to sit in a dark corner of a room while he was questioning a suspect."

When Drapeau was elected mayor, Bantey befriended him, too. Eventually Bantey had unrestricted access to the mayor's office.

He took extension courses at McGill University before The Gazette hired him in 1956. He weaselled his way into Bordeaux Prison in 1961 to cover a prison riot, then covered the war in Vietnam.

In 1964 he took a road trip across Canada pretending to speak only French in an attempt to gauge public reaction in English-speaking Canada to what was then the emerging separatist movement in Quebec. His report, "I learned that there ARE two solitudes," was one of the first to signal the political tensions that were to about to erupt.

But it was Bantey's coverage of the 1967 Universal and International Exhibition, from its earliest beginnings to its opening ceremonies, that made his reputation. Not only did he cover Expo for the Gazette, during the same period he was on the municipal payroll moonlighting as the editor of Montréal, a slick promotional magazine.

A sharp dresser, a gourmand, with a vast knowledge of art and an appreciation of music, Bantey took full advantage of his journalistic perks. He travelled widely promoting Expo. The day the fair began Bantey wrote, "Stand up Canada, and take a bow. In record time you've built the greatest world exhibition the earth has ever known. You've confounded the prophets of gloom, converted the cynics, and proven that the quiet people can make dreams as big as their land come true."

Resented in some quarters for selling out as a journalist to become Drapeau's Expo publicist, Bantey cashed in on the fair by writing his own unofficial 95-page guide book Bill Bantey's Expo 67.

When Expo ended, he quit the reporting business and opened his own public relations firm. His major clients were Man and His World, a short-lived summer exhibition that Drapeau had hoped would become a permanent successor to the world's fair, and The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In later years he had a falling out with his brother Ed, also a Gazette columnist, who was an independentiste and an apologist for the separatist movement. They patched up their differences before Ed died in 1998.

Bantey leaves his wife of 60 years, Judy Doonan, his sons Daniel, Mark and Paul, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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