A photo of Peter Puxley standing by the sea.
Peter Puxley.

Peter Puxley died this past Thursday, at age 81. 

His is not a name many will recognize, but Peter was one of those selfless and talented people who have kept the movement for social, democratic and economic justice alive.

A cursory description of some of the episodes of Peter’s life and career make him sound like a true Renaissance person. 

In his time, Peter was: a political aide to the only elected federal New Democrat from Alberta, a key advisor to the group that became the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories, a producer and manager for CBC network radio, head of research for the federal New Democrats (when Jack Layton was leader), and a Rhodes scholar. 

And that is only a very partial list. 

In recent years, Peter described himself as “an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk and political staffer by practice”. 

To that, he added that he has had some of his poetry, fiction and non-fiction published.

Worked for the Dene before his broadcasting career

This writer counted Peter as a friend, although in recent years their contact was electronic, not face-to-face.

We first met, decades ago, when we both worked at CBC Radio. 

In 1992, Peter was a manager for the national CBC radio news service when I decided to leave the bright lights of TV to sign on as senior editor of a Saturday morning radio staple, The House, “the week in national politics”.

During the interview for the job, I first met Peter, and immediately recognized his name. 

Some years earlier, in the mid 1970s, Peter, his wife Lois Sweet and their family lived north of the 60th parallel, in the Northwest Territories, at the same time as my wife, Marty, our oldest daughter and I lived there.

Marty and I taught school and edited a local newspaper in Tetlit Zheh, or, as it was then called, Fort McPherson, a Gwich’in community of about 800, north of the Arctic Circle.

Peter and Lois lived and worked further south, in the territorial capital of Yellowknife, where Puxley worked as an advisor to a young Indigenous organization, the Dene Nation. 

Peter’s name was well-known in the North during that period. 

The notions of Indigenous rights to land, resources and self-government were fairly novel back then. Many naysayers blamed Indigenous peoples’ newfound militancy on “outside agitators” such as Peter. 

It was an unfair and small-minded accusation. Peter’s role – and that of others such as Mel Watkins – was to help Indigenous peoples articulate and formulate what they had long assumed to be their rights. 

Peter and other advisors did not lead the process of negotiation with majority white Canada. They followed and supported it.

Brought his wisdom and knowledge to CBC Radio and the NDP

At CBC radio in the early 1990s, Peter was my guide, advisor and wise counsellor, as I took on my new role piloting The House. Later that decade, he moved to Ottawa to head up CBC radio news’ Parliamentary Bureau, where he remained my supervisor.

Putting on a national radio show can entail plenty of behind-the-scenes drama and Stürm un Drang. We had more than our fair share at The House. 

Peter handled it all with logic, calm and something close to elegance. As great managers do, he made it possible for me to succeed, to the extent I did.

Former CBC producer and manager Marilyn Mercer remembers a time when Peter’s Northern experience informed and buttressed his work at CBC Radio. 

It happened in the 1980s, and involved a Winnipeg reporter’s story about eight northern Manitoba Ojibway-Cree children who lost both of their parents and migrated to Winnipeg. 

The Winnipeg-based reporter was C. William (Bill) Smith. Mercer, who was area executive producer in Manitoba at the time, had brought Puxley from Toronto to assist Smith, a fledgling CBC journalist, with this complex and emotional tale. 

Mercer characterizes Puxley’s contribution this way:

“Reporter Bill Smith had rare access to the diaries of a Winnipeg social worker. One of these kids had told her that he felt life in the city was a ‘room with no doors.’ And that became the working title of a 5-part short documentary series, which later won a Canadian Association of Journalists award. The late great David McLauchlin [a long-time CBC radio national reporter who died of brain cancer in 2003] also collaborated on this. Peter Puxley’s radio journalism was informed in part by his years working in Dene communities north of 60. He worked with Bill to draw listeners to the difficult drama of how our institutions were failing Indigenous people. We rarely meet people with Peter’s wisdom, quick wit and profound humanity.” 

Peter left CBC at around the same time as I did, at the beginning of the new millennium. He worked, for a while, for a social policy think tank, the Canadian Policy Research Networks, headed by economist Judith Maxwell.

After that gig, he headed communications for the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, and then accepted the call of partisan politics to become head of policy and research for the federal parliamentary NDP. 

The leader who recruited Peter was Jack Layton. Peter was on board for the Orange Wave election in 2011, which put the NDP into the role of Official Opposition for the first time. 

During the 2011 campaign, when it looked like the New Democrats had a reasonable chance of winning, Peter canvassed many people for ideas as to what a new NDP government could put forward as policy during its first few months in office.

I was among those to whom Peter reached out. 

I suggested putting an emphasis on Indigenous self-government, including control of natural resources, and cultural policy. A new, progressive government should, I advised, move quickly to update the mandate of the public broadcaster, while putting that institution on a secure and enduring financial footing. 

The election didn’t quite deliver the mid-campaign promise, and Peter did not stay around too long after the 2011 campaign. He decided to move on from the rough-and-tumble of politics to pursue more personal interests.

Never really retired

Peter and his journalist and writer wife Lois Sweet chose to live in semi-rural Nova Scotia, where Peter’s roots lay. There Peter spent his time writing fiction, working in progressive politics locally, and volunteering at a grassroots level.

Peter was theoretically retired, but, in reality, extremely busy. He took a special interest in environmental battles. He chaired a local stewardship association devoted to protecting a vital wetland resource, Artie’s Pond, from rapacious development. 

More broadly, he took an active interest in the vigorous debates in Nova Scotia over the pressure to expand mining operations in that province.

In 2019, in an article for the Nova Scotia Advocate, Peter argued that, economically, it would be better for the province to develop and restore what he called traditional areas, such as tourism, agriculture and forestry, than to encourage highly polluting extractive industries.

Puxley compared the value of the fishery, in terms of jobs, to that of oil.

“In 2016,” he wrote, “17,500 people were employed in Nova Scotia’s fishery. Another 43,000 earned their living in the tourism sector. Leaving aside boat- and ship-building and other marine-based activities, compare those numbers to the 300-400 direct jobs the oil industry provides in a good year, or even to that industry’s own over-blown estimate of 3,500 jobs.” 

Peter added that, as with jobs, revenues from oil extraction were tiny compared to the revenue generated by the fishery and tourism.

“The value of seafood exports in 2018 totalled $2 billion, of which lobsters accounted for $1 billion. Tourism brought in another $2.6 billion. That revenue, mostly spent locally, has a multiplier effect several times as much, or a contribution likely well over $10 billion a year from both sectors combined. The oil industry’s earnings largely leave the province, while total royalty revenues from 16 years of production offshore amount to less than one year’s revenue from seafood exports.”

More recently, Peter actively maintained a blog he called “colonialismus” in which he commented on current politics, Indigenous rights, and, especially, environmental and natural resources issues. 

On the blog, he demonstrated the same dedication to facts, figures and reasoned argument as in his other writings.

Peter was not a person given to ranting and raving, or to excessive, over-the-top rhetoric. He was a rational man, to his core.

For this writer, and many others who worked with him, Puxley’s calm reasonableness helped tame our tendencies to let emotion overtake us in the heat of conflicts or challenges.

Today, we need that sort of rock solid and uncompromising commitment to reason and evidence more than ever. 

We will miss Peter’s clear-eyed view of this fragile and imperfect world, a view that was at one and the same time dispassionate and compassionate.

This writer, and rabble.ca, would like to share our sympathy and condolences with Lois Sweet, with Peter’s and Lois’s children, Chinta, Luke and Kate, with Peter’s grandchildren, and with his many friends and admirers.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Editor’s Note 2024/01/02: A previous version of this story stated that David McLauchlin died in the 1990s when he in fact died in 2003. rabble regrets the error.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...