Phil Adler: The great Canadian journalist of his generation

Written by By Erik Ricketts, CNN

Following the sudden death of long-time Canadian Press journalist Phil Adler earlier this month, attention has turned to what the coming months and years will look like for his surviving family.

Profound, thoughtful and occasionally whimsical in his choice of topic, the author of numerous books of personal essays made an indelible mark on his readers.

While Adler never publicly set foot in his alma mater Canada’s Carleton University, he was long associated with the journalism school.

On Wednesday, his former student and colleague, Michelle French, released a blog post looking back on the time she spent with the man she describes as “the the unquestioned smartmouth of all the journalists of his generation”.

“The man who could seamlessly explain the almost theoretical complexities of what it means to be a plant or a journalist in a narrative style and make it, somehow, understandable, was a guy that literally taught me to do that,” she wrote.

A monument to journalism in peace and war

Adler died aged 84 earlier this month, while on a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a research team for a book he was working on. He was found dead at the end of a long walk and is being laid to rest this weekend.

French noted that, in addition to his publication career in Canada, he worked as a news editor at the news agency CTV in Toronto, and then held the same position at Bell TV in Montreal and then La Presse in Montreal.

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During this time, he wrote extensively about himself and related them with great wit and narrative flair, taking readers on an unusual tour of Canadian cities and cultures.

As well as being known for his insights and knowledge about Canada’s diverse landscape, Adler also played a role in reconstructing Holocaust commemoration services throughout Canada.

During World War II, he served in the Canadian army. During his time in Berlin, he worked for a special unit set up by the Canadian army and tasked with raising funds to rebuild Jewish homes and property destroyed by the Nazis.

“As we knocked on doors, he helped me with my German,” said Gerald Kelly, the former editor of La Presse at the time of his death. “It was a nice experience, and by the time I got to France we were all talking French and everything.”

Despite his interest in journalism, in recent years, Adler pursued his love of historical fiction, exploring novel spaces created at the turn of the 20th century. He wrote several acclaimed books about Canada’s colonial history, its early ties to Europe and its role in world events.

“He was one of the main contributors to giving our work a history in Canada, and one of the pioneers of that history, so it was very much a part of his life,” said Hugh Mackenzie, a co-founder of Scholars First Publishing and a friend of Adler’s for more than 30 years.

In his last book, “Anthropogenic Paradigm in Post-Enlightenment Society”, Adler began to grapple with the specter of another global disaster: nuclear war.

“There’s a real tension here between historical fiction, and then the question of whether we can be at peace with ourselves because we have this metaphysical idea of modernity, but also if we can really move beyond nuclear weapons,” Mackenzie said.

He said that post-2015, more than ever, Canada’s attention has been focused on itself, as Canada prepares to host the G20 next year. “There’s an urgent need for us to spend that time in contemplation of our own legacy as we move into a global stage,” he said.

Described by Mackenzie as “a fascinating person who’s done a lot of things” but who spoke passionately about what interested him the most, Adler was “a sort of encyclopedia of Canadian history and literature,” said Heather Grant, another co-founder of Scholars First.

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