If ever there was an appropriate occasion to evoke the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” it would be when reflecting on Valentine (Val) Werier’s ability to wed civic responsibility and appeal to one’s social conscience with the craft of journalism which he practiced with dedication and the highest professional standards.
Val Werier was the product of a Winnipeg Jewish North End culture that brimmed with creativity, and exuded intellectual curiosity, a culture seemingly limitless in scope and ambition, whose complexity and dynamism nourished and enriched Canadian life. In the words of Harry and Mildred Gutkin, “it seemed the best of times…the complex cultural intensity of the unenclosed ghetto fulfilled its promise of liberation…Crowded together in a few square miles, an energetic immigrant generation produced the community supports that would enable their offspring to take full possession of all the resources their country provided”. (Gutkin and Gutkin, p.269).
Werier’s parents were from Russia. His father, Mischa, tried to organize a union for barrel makers in Odessa. Sentenced to exile in Siberia he fled to Canada in 1908, accompanied by his wife Mania. They settled in Winnipeg’s North End where they established a grocery store on Selkirk avenue. After operating the store, Mischa became a travelling salesman. Mania trained as a nurse and midwife. Val was the fourth of six children. Susan Ferrier Mackay noted that the Werier family environment was one in which “social conscience flourished” and was “rich in culture speaking several languages between them and appreciating music and books”. Later Werier was to write in one of his columns that “the neighbours gossiped about my mother who bought a second – hand Heintzman piano before she bought furniture for the dining room”.
Though at first Werier aspired to be an architect he acquired a passion for writing and journalism. At the age of 13 he initiated a classroom paper at Machray School and later served as editor of the Aberdeen High School paper, the Aberdeen Voice. He began submitting articles to the Winnipeg Tribune in 1939 and was paid a mere 20 cents a column. In 1941 he was hired as a reporter and over the years took on numerous roles such as city editor, news editor, associate editor, and columnist
While Werier’s journalism cast a wide net on a variety of topics it was at its best when it penetrated the very essence of the everyday life of the economically disadvantaged and politically and culturally marginalized and transformed itself into a type of reportage that became a liberating force for progressive change and social justice. Celebrated are his numerous pieces on the importance of preserving the environment. According to Mackay, Werier was “prescient, calling his readers’ attention to environmental issues long before they became mainstream concerns. His 1985 columns were instrumental in the cessation of logging in Manitoba’s Atikaki Provincial Park, a place he described as an ’area of rushing rivers and pristine beauty’ “.
Though the folding of the Winnipeg Tribune in 1980 may have punctured his journalistic armour – the day of the announced closing was in the words of his daughter Judy “almost like another death in the family” – it wasn’t long before he was hired by the Winnipeg Free Press and thus allowed to resume the profession which he honed with great intellectual rigour and passion.
Worth noting is Val Werier’s enlistment in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the second world war. He served as a navigator with the rank of flying officer. On November 11, 1944, his plane was hit by enemy fire over Germany, killing two crew members and leaving him with lifelong back and leg injuries. It also left him with a lasting impression of the negative consequences of war. Years later he was to write in a Remembrance Day column, “we must take care not to impart nobility and glory to war for war is an institution that sanctions death and destruction”.
In 1948, Werier married Eve Lev who died in 1974.The couple had three children, Michael, Jonathon and Judy. In 2007 he told a reporter, “I’ve had a pretty good life and it’s all been in Winnipeg. We don’t appreciate what we have here”. There is no doubt that Winnipeg appreciated the efforts of Val Werier. He received the Order of Canada (1998), Order of Manitoba (2004) and the Winnipeg Press Club Presidents Award for Someone Who Made a Difference (2012). He also received the Province of Manitoba’s Prix Manitoba (1989), Distinguished Service Award from Heritage Winnipeg, Citizen Activist Award from the Joseph Zuken Memorial Association (1994), Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
Gutkin, Harry with Mildred Gutkin. The Worst of Times The Best of Times: Growing up in Winnipeg’s
North End. Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1987
Mackay, Susan Ferrier, “Winnipeg was Val Werier’s beat for 75 years” (obituary). Globe and Mail, May