Peter Calamai, a leading figure in Canadian journalism for decades and an adjunct research professor at the School of Journalism and Communication since 2001, died on Jan. 22 at his home in Stratford, Ont. after a period of heart-related health problems. He was 75 years old.
Peter’s career as a local reporter with the Brantford Expositor and Hamilton Spectator, parliamentary specialist and foreign correspondent with Southam News, editorial pages editor at the Ottawa Citizen and national science writer with the Toronto Star spanned more than 40 years, earning him three National Newspaper Awards, a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism and numerous other honours.
He was born in the U.S., but his family moved to Brantford, Ont. when Peter was a child. A passion for conchology — the study of marine and terrestrial mollusc shells — took hold early in life and never let go. His collection of thousands of specimens, accumulated over 60 years, was donated to Ottawa’s Ashbury College in 2016.
Though he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from McMaster University in 1965, Peter’s award-winning tenure as editor of the campus newspaper was an equally influential experience. His passion for both science and journalism shaped the course of his career, which culminated with a decade-long run as the Star’s chief science writer from 1998 to 2008.
He was also a founding member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association in 1971 and founding director of the Science Media Centre of Canada in 2010, working through these and other organizations to promote accuracy in scientific reporting, to strengthen transparency and accountability in scientific agencies and to improve Canadians’ understanding of science and technology.
Peter held a number of academic positions. He was a Southam Fellow at Massey College in 1982-83, the Max Bell chair at the University of Regina School of Journalism in 1985-86 and a visiting associate professor at Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication in 1997-98. During that year, he co-taught with Prof. Mary McGuire the School’s inaugural web-based reporting workshop Capital News Online. “CapNews” remained a key part of the curriculum for 20 years until it was merged this fall with Centretown News to become the School’s new flagship digital publication Capital Current.
As a sessional lecturer at Carleton in 2008-09, Peter also twice taught the senior workshop in science journalism. He also gave many guest lectures at the School to share his knowledge with students and teaching colleagues, and supervised or evaluated numerous Master’s research projects and theses — most of them on science-related topics.
Kathryn O’Hara, who held the CTV chair in science journalism at Carleton, was a longtime colleague and friend. “Peter liked to be curmudgeonly in the classroom,” she said, “trading on his tough newspaperman persona and booming voice to enlighten students who used their reporting tools carelessly. Of course, it takes an innate tenderness to carry that off and get results. Peter had that skill as a teacher, editor and mentor.”
He was also a member of the steering committee of the School-administered R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship, which offers an annual award of $25,000 to cover travel, reporting and research expenses and a stipend for a journalist aiming to provide first-hand, in-depth coverage of an issue beyond Canada’s borders. The winners of that award follow in the footsteps of both James Travers and Peter Calamai, who were close friends and colleagues as foreign correspondents with Southam News and as senior editors at the Ottawa Citizen.
“Peter made a tremendous contribution to the life of this university and to the lives of many, many students who went on to careers in journalism and other fields,” said Prof. Susan Harada, associate director of the School of Journalism and Communication and co-chair of the Travers Fellowship steering committee. “His own work was a shining example of journalistic excellence, and we’re so grateful that he shared his unwavering commitment to insightful, accurate and balanced reporting with the future members of the profession. He will be missed as a teacher, colleague and friend.”
After a few years as a young reporter with the Southam-owned Spectator, Peter was promoted in 1969 to the Ottawa-based Southam News parliamentary bureau, spending the next 21 years there as a national and international correspondent. His foreign postings included London, Washington and Nairobi; the turmoil of the Margaret Thatcher era in Britain, the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa and the 1988 U.S. presidential election campaign were among his many high-profile assignments.
Back in this country, a ground-breaking 1987 series of articles that exposed the crisis of adult illiteracy in Canada was a professional highlight. Peter’s leadership of the special Southam News project gained him recognition not only as a superb journalist but also as a determined social reformer.
He went on to serve as the Citizen’s main editorial voice from 1990 to 1996, cementing his reputation as a journalist of great integrity and influence. He challenged, educated and mentored fellow reporters and editors in every newsroom he inhabited. But he was also an earnest listener and lifelong learner with an insatiable interest in the natural world, political and social change, and journalism itself.
In 2014, Peter was named a Member of the Order of Canada. The citation at the investiture ceremony trumpeted his role as “an advocate for science, literacy and journalistic professionalism” and noted that, “he demonstrated a strong commitment to public issues and was acclaimed for his spot news reporting and feature writing.” The citation further praised his efforts “to promote accurate scientific reporting” and added that “he is also known for his award-winning 1987 series on the issue of adult illiteracy in Canada and has since become a tireless champion of the cause.”
In 2015, Peter was awarded an honorary doctorate from McMaster University. A collection of papers documenting Peter’s long and distinguished career in Canadian journalism was donated to that university in 2016; a sizable collection of books about the profession was subsequently donated to Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication.
He was deeply devoted to his wife Mary, with whom he moved from Ottawa to Stratford in 2016 to be closer to family and to better share their enjoyment of theatre. Peter continued with his most enduring avocation: researching and writing about the life and legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. Peter was an enthusiastic and much-decorated member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.
Always an engaging and entertaining presence at social gatherings, including the annual holiday potluck at the School of Journalism and Communication, Peter will be fondly remembered by his friends and former teaching colleagues for many years to come.
— Randy Boswell, School of Journalism and Communication
Toronto Star obituary by Bruce Campion-Smith:
Ottawa Citizen obituary by Blair Crawford:
More News Posts
Not one, but two book nominations for Jacques Poitras (BJ ’90/MJ ’91)
Most authors count themselves lucky to be nominated for even one of this country's celebrated book awards. Jacques Poitras (BJ '90/MJ '91) is on shortlists for two distinguished awards – the Shaughnessy... More
Journalism students investigate water issues in the Ottawa Valley
An investigative reporting class last fall that brought together Carleton fourth-year Bachelor of Journalism and second-year Master of Journalism students has produced a series of feature stories in the National... More