I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Margaret Murray was known to everyone in the Cariboo region of British Columbia’s interior as “Ma.” Born in Kansas in 1888, Margaret Lally, as she then was, left school at the age of 13 and worked at a variety of jobs, including bookkeeping and office work. Then, she got into the newspaper business and became a legend in her own time.
Margaret Lally Moves to Canada
Lally seems to have had a romantic notion of the life of cowboys in Canada, because she slipped notes into saddles made by one of her employers that were bound for the north. Some of those cowboys wrote back and Margaret and her sister Bess set out to see if they could attract and marry one.
They arrived in Vancouver in 1912 with the aim of heading for Calgary. But, Margaret Lally met a young journalist named George Murray, fell in love, and married. The cowboys had to remain lonely in the foothills and prairie.
Together, Margaret and George Murray engaged in a number of periodical publishing ventures.
Ma Murray’s Style
With political ambitions in mind, the Murrays settled in Lillooet, about 240 km east of Vancouver, where George won the provincial seat for the Liberal Party. Margaret described her new home as “a little bit of Switzerland tucked away between two mountain ranges in B.C.” But, that is an uncharacteristically lyrical piece of prose from someone more likely to deliver a sharp-tongued epithet.
In 1934, the couple published the first edition of The Bridge River-Lillooet News and “Ma” Murray’s legendary career in the newspaper business began.
The newspaper carried the following promise: “Printed in the sagebrush country of the Lillooet every Thursday, God willing. Guarantees a chuckle every week and a belly laugh once a month, or your money back. Subscription: $5 in Canada. Furriners: $6. This week’s circulation 1,769, and every bloody one of them paid for.”
Ma set about campaigning for issues on which she had strong opinions, and that included just about everything. Her prose was salty and to the point, described by Esther Darlington MacDonald in The Ashcroft Cache Creek Journal: “her opinions … seemed pretty crude, rude and well, let’s face it―socially unacceptable.”
In a 1966 profile, Maclean’s Magazine described her as “like her paper—as gentle as a shotgun and timid as a muleskinner.”
Ma Murray’s writing style had only a distant acquaintance with standard English. She was largely untroubled by rules of grammar and punctuation and her spelling was appalling. Her written vocabulary included words such as “craparoni” and “snafoo.” But, it was the language of much of her audience who didn’t care for “hifallutin” prose.
Accepted journalistic standards didn’t bother her either. Historica Canada notes that “Most of the time she simply made things up. When covering a town council meeting where the citizens of a Vancouver suburb were irate, she wrote that the Reeve had been thrown out the window. It was pure fiction and she was sued. ‘Boy,’ she wrote to her sisters back in Kansas City, ‘these Canadians sure take themselves serious!!’ ”
Even an obituary, usually an occasion for solemnity, could not suppress her back country straight talk. In writing about Agnes Campbell, who she described as a beautiful singer, Murray wrote that she “would inflate those bellows of hers and almost knock the steeple off Mount Pleasant Methodist …”
To the politicians who don’t like our appeal . . . they can get their own bloody ink and white space to air their views.”
A Ma Murray editorial
In 1949, George Murray won election to Canada’s federal parliament as a Liberal, but he lost in the next election. Meanwhile, Ma Murray was also campaigning for provincial public office but for a different party than her husband’s.
She kept her political activities secret from George, probably in order to ensure family dinners did not involve flying crockery.
However, part way through the provincial campaign Ma Murray switched to a party known as the Common Herd. She pulled out of the election before being handed what would probably have been a humiliating defeat.
George Murray’s political career was also quite short-lived. There was some talk that Margaret’s antics had embarrassed him and he lost his seat in the next election.
Campaigning Journalism in Lillooet
Margaret Murray took on and defeated plans to build a copper smelter and a federal prison in beautiful little Lillooet. She was a ferocious attacker of government waste and her pithy editorials often ended the same way―“and that’s fer damshur!”
She pushed hard for the building of the Alaska Highway and for the extension of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway to Fort St. John. Both projects were completed.
She noted that the building that housed the offices of The Bridge River-Lillooet News had previously been a brothel and that the former and current businesses were not dissimilar.
The publisher of a biography of the wives of Canadian politicians that, included Ma Murray, wrote that, “She won continent-wide fame for some of her columns―either because she had a point, or because they were downright funny, and often coarse―or at least matter-of-fact.”
Honours for Ma Murray
Library and Archives Canada notes that, “Her editorials were reprinted in other papers, letting readers across the country share in the laughter or outraged responses they evoked. Articles about her in national magazines, appearances on CBC television, and her own half-hour, twice a month television program followed.” A play about her by Eric Nichol entitled simply “Ma” was performed to rave reviews.
In 1971, she received the Order of Canada, and in 2001 the British Columbia & Yukon Community News Media Association named its annual awards for excellence in journalism after her.
She continued writing her often acerbic column in the newspaper almost until her death in 1982 at the age of 94.
- Between 2008 and 2018, 189 community newspapers have gone out of business in Canada. As of January 2020, The Bridge River-Lillooet News has escaped the carnage.
- The Murrays started up The Alaska Highway News in the 1940s with the motto “We’re the only newspaper in the world that gives a tinker’s damn about the North Peace.”
- “Margaret ‘Ma’ Murray.” Library and Archives Canada, undated.
- “Honouring Ma Murray.”, undated.
- “People in Print.” Charles A. White, Canada and the World, February 1976.
- “The Inimitable ‘Ma’ (Margaret) Murray, Newspaper Icon.” Esther Darlington MacDonald, Ashcroft Cache Creek Journal, January 10, 2012.
- “Spouses of Canadian Politicians.” Books LLC, September 2010.
- “Sage Editorial Advice.” Bridge River-Lillooet News, July 27, 2011.
- “Margaret ‘Ma’ Murray.” Historica Canada, 2020.
- “Ma Murray: The Salty Scourge of Lillooet.” Maclean’s Magazine, March 19, 1966.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor