‘Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’

Even though one of Montreal’s most respected freelance journalists decided to step out of the media spotlight and head a non-profit organization, it’s not the last you’ll hear from Anne Lagacé-Dowson.

Recently named executive director at Tolerance Foundation, a group of educators teaching students about the effects of bullying, Lagacé-Dowson first became an anti-bullying advocate when she found out her daughter was being teased by her classmates.

“My daughter Emma has a bone anomaly, which makes her very small, and she goes to school in downtown Montreal. At one point I realized she was being hassled by kids at her school. Like any journalist I decided to get on the story to find out what was going on,” Lagacé-Dowson said. “I contacted her teachers and principal and they asked me to come in and talk to the kids about inclusion and Emma’s situation.”

Lagacé-Dowson ended up speaking to seven classes of her daughter’s peers and teachers. Not long afterward the position of executive director at Tolerance Foundation opened up and they were looking for someone with a media skill set to extend their presence and reach into English and French schools all across Québec.

“This is a really good outfit that needs to get the word out and that’s trying to spread the analysis of bullying and discrimination in schools,” Lagacé-Dowson said. “I knew I could help out with that. It was a good fit.”

With over 30 years of experience working in Montreal’s media, Lagacé-Dowson knew she could work well at an organization with similar objectives. As a journalist, she’s covered important stories that have shaped contemporary Québec history. Starting as a reporter in the CBC Montreal newsroom, she was there for the Oka crisis, she covered the anniversary of the Montreal massacre at Polytechnique, and got her big break during Quebec’s infamous ice storm, when CBC was broadcasting 24 hours straight and Lagacé-Dowson became a trusted Montreal anchor and host.

Respected for her opinion by both anglophones and francophones in Montreal, Lagacé-Dowson has been referred to as “un trait d’union entre deux cultures” by Québecers. Those tuning in to CBC Radio Noon and Homerun during Lagacé-Dowson’s hosting stint always got an earful when it came to federal politics, social issues and problems facing Québec society.

“I was always taught to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” Lagacé-Dowson said.

Fast forward to 2008 when she decided to take a leave of absence from CBC to run as a candidate for Canada’s New Democratic Party in the hotly-contested by-election in the Montreal-area riding of Westmount-Ville-Marie. Her reason for wanting to become a federal politician was to counter the perceived conservative agenda in Canada by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“Journalists are people, and citizens, as well as gatherers and interpreters of information. I felt that the political character of the country was changing in ways that made me uncomfortable,” Lagacé-Dowson said. “I wanted to be able to say to my kids that I had tried, that I tried to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

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Click the link to listen to the radio interview I did with Anne Lagacé-Dowson about her new role as executive director at Tolerance Foundation and as Canada’s most outspoken anti-bullying advocate.

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Always an outspoken critic of Stephen Harper’s conservative government, Lagacé-Dowson was narrowly defeated by the Liberal Party’s star candidate, celebrity-austronaut Marc Garneau. This proved to her, and the party, that people in Westmount and around Québec were willing to vote NDP and make it a viable option. Some say she paved the way for the orange wave of 58 NDP MPs elected to the House of Commons in the May 2011 federal election.

However, she fears her candidacy for the NDP may have tarnished her image as a bi-partisan political affairs reporter and broadcaster because she wasn’t allowed to return to her job at CBC.

“I got used to having a certain freedom to express myself, and those were forums for me to continue to do so. I think a left leaning perspective is as legitimate as a right leaning one,” Lagacé-Dowson said.

She bounced back quickly when local English radio station CJAD 800 approached her to host a weekend program. Lagacé-Dowson was back on the airwaves and in print publishing a weekly column about anglophone culture in Québec.

As for family matters, Lagacé-Dowson’s husband, independent filmmaker Brian McKenna, has supported her in all endeavours, changing careers from professional freelancer into the role as Canada’s most outspoken anti-bullying advocate and youth educator.

“It was a bit tough for us. It is hard to change gears professionally. We are both living off our wits at this point,” she said. “I was never a staff member at CBC, and fewer and fewer people are permanent employees. There are no ‘jobs’ in the old fashioned sense, but there is lots of work. The CBC and Radio-Canada are critical cultural institutions in the life of the country.”

Lagacé-Dowson can still be heard on the airwaves every week on Radio-Canada’s Téléjournal and CJAD 800’s Gang of Four panel on the Tommy Shnurmacher show. You can also read her take on federal politics and other unique Montreal stories in her weekly column Bloke Nation in Hour Community newspaper.

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About

Adam Bemma is a journalist and media development advisor.

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