Montreal

Patricia Pleszczynska, driving force behind the CBC in Quebec for decades, dies at 67

The longtime CBC and Radio-Canada executive grew up in the Eastern Townships and ensured Quebec's stories were told to Canadians.

The longtime executive grew up in the Eastern Townships and helped tell Quebec's stories to Canadians

Longtime CBC and Radio-Canada executive Patricia Pleszczynska, who helped shape the broadcaster's coverage in Quebec for three decades, passed away on Thursday. (Courtesy of the Pleszczynska/St-Laurent family)

In every television or radio station there are the faces the public knows, and the folks who work behind the scenes to make things happen. People who develop a vision and make it real.

Like Patricia Pleszczynska.

As longtime managing director of CBC's English-language services in Quebec — and later as director-general of radio services for Radio-Canada — she was the architect who designed and built the infrastructure for much, if not all, of what you see and hear on the public broadcaster's airwaves in the province, and what you read on its websites.

On Thursday, she passed away of cancer. She was 67.

"She always thought about the people that we serve and how to make sure that we're bringing the stories from these communities so that all of Canada can hear them and know them and ultimately so that we can be brought together with an understanding of each other," said Meredith Dellandrea, the CBC's senior managing director for Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and one of the countless journalists Pleszczynska mentored.

Pleszczynska spent her youth in the Eastern Townships and graduated from Bishop's University with a bachelor's degree in drama in 1974.  She was the daughter of a Polish father and an Italian mother.

According to longtime colleague and friend David Gutnick, a CBC journalist who first got to know Pleszczynska in Quebec City in the 1980s, her agronomist dad would bring her along as he visited farms through the region.

"Her languages were English, French, Polish and Italian," Gutnick said. "She literally learned this region (the Townships) through its very soil."  

A meteoric rise

As an undergraduate at Bishop's — a institution whose board she would join in retirement — she met her husband, Bernard St-Laurent. He started working as a reporter for the CBC in 1981.

The couple, and their growing family, shuttled between Quebec City, the Gaspé peninsula and Sherbrooke before settling in the provincial capital in the mid-1980s.

That's when Pleszczynska joined the CBC. It was 1984, the network had just opened a bureau in Gaspé and she was offered a two-week contract as a researcher on the afternoon show, which was doing a series of live remotes from the new outpost.

Barbara Uteck, who oversaw the station, knew little about her new hire and was somewhat leery of nepotism.

"Well, she of course turned out to be completely and absolutely brilliant. She was lovely to work with, engaging and she picked it up instantly," said Uteck, who went on to senior positions in the federal public service. "She was a fiercely intelligent, creative person, a problem-solver. But she was also interested in other people."

Two weeks turned into 33 years.

She rose quickly through the journalism ranks. First she produced shows, then ultimately ran the Quebec City station. After that came a move to Montreal, where she would soon take over as director of radio programming for the province.

"Patricia was a leader," said Susan Campbell, a CBC journalist in Quebec City who first encountered Pleszczynska in the early 1990s. "She was a woman who was smart, decisive, tough. It's only years later that I realize what an impact it had on me seeing a woman in that role. She was an amazing listener … she believed in the power of the CBC to create and foster community. And she instilled that in all of us."

As director of radio for Quebec, she had a key role in shaping the coverage of everything from community events in far-flung regions to seminal political moments like the 1995 sovereignty referendum.

"As an artist, she understood the need for nationalism. And as a child of immigrants, she also understood the danger of what nationalism could become and had become in Poland," said Gutnick. "She was a formidable person. I think she understood, in her body, Quebec."

Telling Quebec's stories to Canadians

Pleszczynska cared deeply about teaching other Canadians about Quebec, and was instrumental in the creation of shows like À Propos, hosted by the singer Jim Corcoran, and C'est La Vie, which was hosted by St-Laurent, to a broader audience. She also helped find a home for the quirky series WireTap.

In the late 1990s, Pleszczynska took on a role as Assistant Programming Director for the CBC in Toronto before returning as head of English services for Quebec. She oversaw the integration of the radio and television operations and was one of the driving forces behind the development of digital news in the province.

Patricia Pleszczynska and Louis Lalande of Radio-Canada in Aug. 2015 (Radio-Canada)

In 2009, Pleszczynska was standing in line for a coffee in Montreal's Maison de Radio-Canada when Louis Lalande, a senior executive from the French-language service, struck up a conversation and asked if she'd be interested in crossing over — an unusual career move at the time.

She was.

And so Pleszczynska oversaw all of Radio-Canada's regional programming — going from telling the stories of the anglophone minority in Quebec to telling the francophone minority's in Canada — and eventually became director-general of radio and audio products for the French network.

She retired in 2017 and soon busied herself with developing the Maison des Arts St-Laurent, a cultural and event space in Compton, Que., the hometown of former prime minister Louis St-Laurent, her husband's late great-uncle.

Patricia Pleszczynska is survived by two brothers and a sister, and by St-Laurent, their children Jasmine, Jacob and Marianne, as well as five grandchildren.

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