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Friday February 20, 2015

'No one messed with Simma Holt'

Bestselling author, journalism pioneer and Liberal MP leaves behind a legacy of empowering the powerless

Special to The Globe and Mail

Simma Holt was a whirlwind of energy, with strong opinions and a burning desire to fight injustice as she saw it. For 30 turbulent years, she blew through the newsroom of The Vancouver Sun, becoming a household name in the city, and at times across Canada, with her propensity to ferret out stories and land them on Page One.

In the days when the few women in the newspaper business were almost always relegated to the fashion and family pages, Ms.

Holt was a pioneer, revelling in the heretofore "man's world" of crime and punishment.

Along the way, three convicted murderers who were sentenced to hang were granted reprieves after she threw herself into reporting on their cases. One of those reprieves arrived just 11 hours before the man's scheduled rendezvous with the hangman.

Later, she took an interest in the plight of prostitutes, shining a light on their bleak lives and questioning why they were often jailed while their customers were not charged. She became known as "the court of last resort" for those down on their luck.

Little could keep Ms. Holt silenced outside the realm of newspapers, as well. She wrote five books, including two bestsellers, spent five years as a vocal Liberal backbencher in Ottawa, served on the National Parole Board, injected herself into the early stages of the presidential nomination campaign of George Bush Sr. and continued to adopt causes wherever she found them, including a bitter, seven-year compensation fight for a leaky condo she bought.

"Life for Simma was a vigorous melodrama. The good and the bad," says Lisa Hobbs, a friend and colleague of Ms. Holt at the Sun. "She was totally fearless, and she loved every second of life."

But she made her biggest mark in journalism. Even in a newsroom full of larger-than-life characters, Ms. Holt managed to stand out. Sun columnist Bob Hunter likened her to "Mary Worth on speed." Allan Fotheringham recalls the time Sun editor Jack Scott enraged Ms. Holt by telling her he had removed only three words from her story: "By Simma Holt." He fled to a cubicle in the men's washroom. "Simma followed, stood on the throne in the adjacent booth and beat him over the head," Mr. Fotheringham says. "No one messed with Simma Holt."

Yet Ms. Holt, who died of cancer on Jan. 23 at the age of 92, had to be tough to survive the rampant sexism at the Sun in those pre-feminist times. It wasn't easy.

She had to weather snide remarks, an office pool for the first reporter who bedded her (none did), photos of pin-up dolls tossed on her desk with pointed references to their "lungs," and, on one occasion, an editor loudly announcing that "what Simma needs is a big football player to service her."

Later, when other like-minded women joined her at the Sun, they all took part in an undeclared newsroom war. The women ripped down suggestive photos, returned lewd remarks in kind and memorably celebrated one International Women's Day by plastering the walls of the men's washroom with pictures of hunky, skimpily dressed men.

Nor did Ms. Holt abandon her ways when she left reporting in 1974 for politics and five years as a federal Liberal MP, after upsetting the NDP in one of its stronghold ridings, VancouverKingsway. The first Jewish woman elected to Ottawa, she was in the news almost immediately for objecting to being called "the Honourable Lady" by a House of Commons adversary. "I am an Honourable Member," she retorted, prompting the inevitable headline: "Simma Holt says she's no lady."

In committee, she regularly harangued business and banking executives over the lack of women in their ranks, openly criticized cabinet ministers, and, as a hardliner on crime, Ms. Holt abandoned caucus solidarity by voting to keep the death penalty and voting against lesser penalties for marijuana possession.

Yet Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, with a maverick streak of his own, seemed to appreciate his backbencher's candour. After Ms. Holt was defeated in 1979, despite a rare personal campaign appearance by Margaret Trudeau, he sent her a warm personal letter of condolence.

Simma Milner was born March, 27, 1922, in the Alberta community of Vegreville, where her family ran the imposing Prince Edward Hotel, which included a café, billiard parlour and general store.

She was the sixth of eight children born to Nassa and Louis Milner, whose own father, Yecheal, had fled Ukraine to escape a wave of pogroms. It was in Vegreville that Ms. Holt's life was first touched by murder. Her grandfather was killed in 1926 during a robbery at the Milner store.

Then in 1933, 11-year-old Simma rushed from school to the courthouse fence to catch a glimpse of the notorious Kenneth McLean and his son, William, who were being tried in Vegreville for killing a nearby farmer.

"Even then I knew that murder was truly 'The Big Story,' and that's when I got hooked on newspapers," Ms. Holt recalled decades later in her aptly named Memoirs of a Loose Cannon.

She loved hanging around the Vegreville Observer, watching its owner/operator A.L. Horton typeset his own copy by hand.

When she went to the University of Manitoba, she gravitated naturally to The Manitoban, becoming the student paper's first female managing editor. Her first paying newspaper job, with The Canadian Press in Calgary, did not begin well. On Day One, which also happened to be D-Day, she somehow jammed the national teletype machine, delaying feeds across the country on the year's biggest story.

Salvation and the real beginning of her career came that fall, when The Vancouver Sun's genial city editor Himie Koshevoy offered her a job as an assistant on the city desk. Ms. Holt was 22. Her first front-page story was typical of the way she operated. Sent to a fire at a Chinatown restaurant, she noticed a steady stream of cats heading toward a door across the way. Waiting until the other reporters had gone, she knocked on the door and discovered a restaurant employee being treated for burns incurred from rescuing dozens of cats from the blazing café.

That nose for news prevailed throughout her career. With a seemingly insatiable thirst to know what was going on, she hobnobbed with every important criminal lawyer in the city. As one-time colleague Pierre Berton observed long ago: "She never did the job the way a reporter should. She got too involved ... but she scooped us all."

Not long after she joined the Sun, she met Leon Holt, a freelance photographer and eventual high school teacher, at a sailboat party. The two married May 29, 1949. They remained happily wed for 37 years, until Mr. Holt died of a heart attack while playing tennis. Low-key and mild mannered, he seemed an unlikely partner for his often mercurial wife.

Asked what kept him by Ms. Holt's side all those years, Mr. Holt liked to say: "I stay to see what happens next."

Ms. Holt was named to the Canadian News Hall of Fame in 1996, the same year she was named a member of the Order of Canada, which cited her "lifelong commitment to assisting those suffering from injustice, persecution and poverty."

Ms. Holt's five books reflected her abiding interest in matters outside the norm. The Devil's Butler detailed a night of torture and assault by members of the Satan's Angels motorcycle club on a helpless young captive.

There was a book on what Ms. Holt felt were the dangers of teenage sex. Terror in the Name of God, her most famous book, dove headlong into the wave of nudity, arson and occasional bombings by Sons of Freedom Doukhobors in the 1950s and 1960s. Ms. Holt's account became a nationwide bestseller, though widely derided by some at the time and long afterward for its inaccuracies, absence of nuance and lack of objectivity. But the book was vintage Simma Holt, who saw most issues as black and white. She revelled in controversy and doing things her way.

At her best, however, her enduring curiosity paid off with exclusive stories that shook up the establishment. And this was what led her to Edna May Brower, John Diefenbaker's virtually unknown first wife, as the subject of her most accomplished book, The Other Mrs. Diefenbaker, which also became a bestseller.

After Ms. Holt died, many noted her lifelong tendency to speak out and rail against those who didn't see matters the way she did. Nephew Nathan Smith, a former journalist himself and now a B.C. Supreme Court Justice, recalled that Ms. Holt had left instructions at the assisted living facility where she lived toward the end, demanding that no death announcement proclaim she had passed away peacefully.

He reassured her: "Don't worry, you've never done anything peacefully in your life." He also recalled Ms. Holt's own proposal that her gravestone carry the inscription: "Silent at last."

Ms. Holt leaves her brother, Earl Milner of Edmonton, and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.

Associated Graphic

Pierre Trudeau chats with Liberal backbencher Simma Holt in 1974.

GEORGE DIACK/THE VANCOUVER SUN

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