Nfld. & Labrador

Newfoundland satirist Ray Guy dies at 74

Ray Guy, a writer who skewered politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador in a wide-ranging career that lasted almost five decades, died Tuesday of cancer.
Ray Guy, who died Tuesday in St. John's, appeared frequently as a commentator on CBC Television's Here & Now in his native Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC )

Ray Guy, a writer and journalist who skewered politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador in a wide-ranging career that lasted almost five decades, died Tuesday. Guy, who had been battling cancer, was 74.

Guy wrote for newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the stage, and even a movie script. One of his books took the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 1977.

His greatest legacy, though, will be the hundreds of newspaper columns, often satirical, that he wrote about politicians, scandals, spats and various current events in his home province. 

Guy became a household name across Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1960s when his weekday columns in the Evening Telegram took increasingly sharp aim at then premier Joey Smallwood, whom Guy often ridiculed for a dictatorial style, outsize ambitions and his obsessions with industrial developments.

"They had an obscene majority in the house of assembly," Guy recalled in a 2011 interview with CBC Radio, describing how Smallwood's Liberals held all but three seats in the house during Smallwood's final term, from 1966 to 1971.

"There was row upon row upon row of government members. I always had the image of an 800-pound gorilla on one end of the seesaw, and a little snivelling kid up on the other," said Guy.

"If I had any little weight at all in the newspapers, well, it was obvious where to put it."

Guy's sharply critical writing undercut Smallwood's influence, giving Ray the stature of the unofficial leader of the Opposition. Smallwood took umbrage with Ray's writing, which only seemed to encourage him more.

Guy, though, was no ally of any particular politician or party. He wrote about every premier Newfoundland and Labrador has had since Smallwood, usually with the same irreverent tone, and being at the receiving end of his acidic wit was pretty much a rite of passage for any prominent politician.

Guy stopped writing for the Telegram in the mid-1970s, but went on to write for other publications, including the now defunct St. John's Sunday Express, Atlantic Insight and most recently, the Northeast Avalon Times, where he published his final column.

He also wrote commentaries for CBC Radio in St. John's and appeared for years as a weekly commentator on CBC Television's Here & Now, delivering his acerbic take on events from the perch of an easy chair.

Writing career spanned genres

But Guy did not limit himself to being a pundit. He wrote the plays Young Triffie's Been Made Away With and Frog Pond in the 1980s, and another play —  The Ray Guy Revue and Caplin Supper — was developed by Mary Walsh and other performers from Guy's writings.

Guy played star boarder Jack Howse in the CBC Television series Up At Ours. (CBC)

He and Walsh collaborated several times over the years. She directed his screenplay for Young Triffie's Been Made Away With for a 2006 film. In the late 1970s, they acted together in CBC Television's production of Gordon Pinsent's Up At Ours, with Walsh playing a boarding house landlady and Guy playing the "star boarder," or anchor tenant.

Guy published several books, often consisting of columns and other work. That Far Greater Bay, which largely eschewed politics and instead focused on his upbringing in the rural outport of Arnold's Cove in Newfoundland's Placentia Bay, won the Steven Leacock Award for Humour in 1977.

Guy once said of his career, "I've written just about everything for the sake of putting shoes on the children's feet — and a bottle of gin in the cupboard."

Guy said in a 2011 interview that he was caught off-guard when he was first approached in the mid-1970s about publishing an anthology of pieces that he had written for the Telegram years earlier.

"I was surprised then, and even more surprised now," he said.

"The old attitude toward newspapers was that they were completely disposable — today's newspaper is tomorrow's fishwrap."

'Smallwood was much more fun'

But interest in Guy's writing remained strong. The Smallwood Years, a 2008 collection of his prime political writing, was a bestseller, and introduced Guy to a new generation of readers.

Guy studied journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto, and soon after graduating in 1963 was hired at the Evening Telegram. He was soon assigned to report from the legislature, and editors later asked him not to write news reports, but opinionated takes on what he saw.

Guy said the political theatre of the day was too much to resist — even though it had often gone unreported. Indeed, asked in 2008 to compare political leaders, Guy said his first target was still his favourite.

"Smallwood was much more fun," he said.

Guy is survived by his wife, former CBC News producer Kathie Housser, and their two daughters.