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Sea to Sky History: The newspapering pioneer behind the journalism awards

Who is this “Ma” Murray?
ma murraySquamish
Ma Murray.

Who is this “Ma” Murray, and why are the BC and Yukon Community NewsMedia Association’s annual journalism awards named for her?

In a newspapering world dominated by men, she pioneered a host of community newspapers, argued with premiers and prime ministers and took no guff from anyone on her way to becoming a legend.

Margaret Lally was born in Kansas in 1888, the seventh of nine children leaving school at the age of 13 to enter the working world. She moved to Vancouver with her sister Bess in 1912 with the aim of moving on to Calgary and marrying a cowboy.

Instead, she met her true love, a young journalist named George Murray at the Greater Vancouver Chinook, and her true calling – the newspaper business.

The Murrays settled in Lillooet in the 1930s, where George won elected office to the B.C. Legislative Assembly, and the couple founded the Bridge-River Lillooet News in 1934.

Ma’s unique style came shining through in its masthead: “Printed in the sagebrush country of Lillooet every Thursday, God willing. Guarantees a chuckle every week and a belly laugh once a month, or your money back. Subscriptions: $5 in Canada. Furriners: $6. This week’s circulation 1,769, and every bloody one of them paid for.”

The Murrays moved to Fort St. John in the 1940s and founded another newspaper, the Alaska Highway News, with another memorable motto still found on the nameplate to this day: “The only newspaper in the world that gives a tinker’s damn about the North Peace.”

The Murrays also founded papers in Squamish – the Howe Sound News, which folded during the Second World War – and the Fort Nelson News, which continues today.

The Murrays merged politics and journalism over the decades, with George serving as Liberal MLA for Lillooet while Ma edited the paper.

She later sought office herself as a Social Credit candidate in the Peace River area (placing third) while her husband became a federal Liberal MP for the Cariboo in 1949 – she stayed behind in B.C. to run the papers while George went to Ottawa – she found the conversation “too damned dull.”

But she still found herself at the forefront of politics in B.C., backing the provincial Liberals and showing up to heckle Premier W.A.C. Bennett at one of his public meetings.

Ma and George moved back to Lillooet in 1958, where George died in 1961. Ma rededicated herself to the News, bashing out editorials and columns that were picked up across Canada.

Her eclectic and utterly fearless writing style, punctuated with her signature ending “and that’s fer damshur,” made her famous despite the relatively remote environs of Lillooet. A 1966 profile in Maclean’s magazine, titled “The Salty Scourge of Lillooet,” begins thus: “She is like her paper – as gentle as a shotgun and timid as a muleskinner.”

She made a memorable guest appearance on the CBC-TV show Front Page Challenge, followed by her own half-hour, twice monthly TV program.

She also kept up a lively correspondence with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and was named to the Order of Canada in 1971, and playwright Eric Nichol wrote a play about her, Ma! A Celebration of Margaret Murray, which debuted in 1981 at Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops.

Even after selling the Lillooet News to Jeff den Biesen in the 1970s, Ma continued writing for the paper with her trademark salty wit right up to her death in 1982 at the age of 94.

The BCYCNA named its annual awards of excellence in her honour in 2001, and her name lives on in the Margaret “Ma” Murray Community School, which opened in Fort St. John in 2018.

@bcisawesome A legend. #bchistorywithbobk #newspaper #herstory ♬ original sound - BC Is Awesome
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