Rex Murphy speaks in Saskatoon in 2017. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Kayle Neis)

Rex Murphy was the people's intellectual

He wore his erudition lightly and took his audience seriously

Robert Rex Raphael Murphy was a great Canadian. His profound erudition could have led to a career in academia, but, fortunately for us, Rex chose journalism because he hated footnotes. In voice and print, Rex communicated his point of view with a coruscating flare unanimously agreed upon as unique amongst Canadian polemicists. His vast mental archive of poetry, essays and famous speeches, casually dipped into here and there to embellish his theme, made other writers (including me) gnash our teeth in awe and envy.

Some Canadians, mind you, suspicious of people with an extensive vocabulary they dare to use on a quotidian basis, found Rex’s eloquence pretentious. He was once parodied on This Hour has 22 Minutes and there’s a Facebook “Rex Murphy Stinks” page. (But there’s only nine members.)

Perhaps the most salient fact in explaining Rex’s peculiar distinction in the world of journalism is the fact that he was a Newfoundlander, born two years before the Rock joined Canada. Growing up in Newfoundland endowed Rex with a lifelong attachment to that special place, whose weather, landscape, strong affiliation with British cultural values and precarity of life shaped his character and moral compass. Newfoundland gave him a “special zone of the mind,” as he once told an interviewer, adding, “It’s a very oral place,” so the hardships Newfoundlanders had to endure found expression in “irony, sarcasm, or in some cases, even poetry.” Rex’s passion for politics can also be attributed to growing up in a province where the legendary political icon Joey Smallwood was, apart from the weather, the main topic of conversation.

In a CBC 1994 documentary, Unpeopled Shores, a threnody to Newfoundland’s collapsed cod fisheries, Rex unsentimentally described his home province: “It has no soil, its trees are dwarfs, we have fog for ozone. It’s bare and stark and bleak, yet affection for Newfoundland is stronger than a chemical dependency.” His humble background there gave him a lifelong sensitivity to the challenges of the poor and the “little guy,” like the unemployed Newfoundland fishermen who found work in the Alberta oil patch.

Rex was himself, like Newfoundland, somewhat “bare and bleak” in his appearance. Novelist Robert Everett-Green described him as “a cross between Homer Simpson and Jean Chrétien (The Simpsons were one of Rex’s few pop-culture addictions)” and “the result of an unacknowledged tryst between Beetlejuice and (lyric poet) Dylan Thomas.” Happily, he hadn’t a shred of vanity in him.

The CBC in its heyday was Rex’s home, a win-win, where Rex showcased his talents on many different fronts. He loved radio, and listeners loved his Gaelic-adjacent accent and quirky personality. He owned Cross Country Checkup for decades, which drew an audience of 250- 350,000 listeners. But he was also a great success on Newfoundland’s supper hour show, Here and Now, the weekly show, Definitely Not the Opera and, from 1977-78 on Up Canada, a precursor to The Fifth Estate (cancelled, “because it only had one million viewers,” Rex told an interviewer with a laugh).

Rex has been described as “Canada’s most idiosyncratic observer,” and one of Canada’s “most watched and best-read commentators.” It’s impossible to overstate his popularity in those salad days. In the era when CBC was a welcome visitor in the homes of a plurality of Canadians, Rex was amongst Canada’s most recognizable public figures. His appeal crossed all demographic lines: men, women, old, young, old-time Canadians and immigrants. He was a character in a children’s book. A cartoonist produced an alphabet of superheroes and Rex was one of them (“Rex is for Rex Murphy Magnifico.”)

Rex was an intensely private man, who enjoyed hours a day of solitude to revel in the printed word — one visitor to his home said he had never seen such an astonishing collection of dictionaries — but he also loved speaking to crowds. Rex was a “shy exhibitionist.” He was in demand as a speaker all over North America. He spoke to doctors, accountants, plumbers, miners, librarians, various faith groups – the list is endless. No need for notes, he was fluent, funny and engaging on any subject. He bore his erudition lightly. His audiences felt respected. Taken seriously. You can’t fake that. Ironically, this Grand Panjandrum of vocabulary had difficulty pronouncing the names of individuals. It became a running joke Rex was happy to be the butt of. He had no vanity. The words, “Do you know who I am?” spoken to gain advantage would never have occurred to him.


Charles Shanks, his longtime senior producer at Cross Country Checkup, whom I consulted for this column, remembers Rex as intensely loyal to his friends and to “that class of people, the salt of the earth, who worked hard and followed the rules.” He laid great stress on the importance of decency in human relations, something he not only practiced with his coworkers and others he engaged with, but something he expected in politicians, “because he believed one’s humanity must always come first, politics later.” Students of George Orwell will understand the true weight of that word, decency. Nothing angered him more than the condescension toward, or mistreatment of ordinary people by the rich, the powerful and those who claim to love The People.

Shanks provided me with an irresistible anecdote: After 21 years as host of Cross Country Checkup, Rex announced his retirement. His colleagues prepared a special broadcast of memories. After the show, Shanks and Rex were thanked for their service and the Director of Radio presented Rex with a $50 gift card for Tim Hortons.

Rex was a member of that public-facing cohort — Barbara Frum and Peter Gzowski spring to mind — who were proud to be Canadian, and whose love of country infused and enhanced their natural talent with a buoyancy that gladdened the hearts of their rapt audiences. They were open to a diversity of viewpoints. Rex didn’t change, but when the CBC shifted its axis further and further left to embrace identity politics, assigning a-priori guilt to heritage Canadians, for genocide and various inherent phobias, the relationship could not be sustained.

In 2010, Rex found his natural home at the National Post, where his enduring classic liberal principles and moral clarity, and his often acerbically expressed common sense on climate alarmism amongst other topics, made him a beloved superstar to conservative readers and colleagues alike. He came from The Rock, and he became a Rock to countless anxious Canadians — not only conservatives — who feel the “post-national” cultural earth beneath their feet crumbling to sand.

Rex worked literally to the end. His last two columns, on the October 7 pogrom in Israel, its dreadful aftermath and the failure of Justin Trudeau’s government to rise to the occasion with honour, written on his deathbed, will be remembered as amongst the best he ever filed.

Rex was never awarded an Order of Canada. Make of that what you will.