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Brian McKenna, a founding producer of CBC's The Fifth Estate, dead at 77

Brian McKenna, a founding producer of CBC's The Fifth Estate, died Friday night at the age of 77. (Submitted by Conor McKenna - image credit)
Brian McKenna, a founding producer of CBC's The Fifth Estate, died Friday night at the age of 77. (Submitted by Conor McKenna - image credit)

Brian McKenna, an acclaimed Montreal-born documentary filmmaker and a founding producer of CBC's The Fifth Estate, died Friday evening at the age of 77.

McKenna is remembered by his family as "passionate," an "incredible role model" and "somebody who was willing to ask difficult questions about the history of our country."

The family said McKenna had suffered a short illness.

His daughter, Robin McKenna, said her father had a great love of family and she remembers lots of laughing, joking and teasing. A filmmaker herself, she said her father was a great inspiration.

"We had a lot of adventures with him and he was inspiring as a father, I got to go along on many of his film shoots when I was young," she said.

"He had a big love of poetry and art and a sense of the sublime that he passed on to me. Dinner conversations were always spirited, we were encouraged to have our own opinions and disagree."

Award-winning career

McKenna's career started when he was editor-in-chief of his college newspaper, Loyola News, before joining the Montreal Star and later CBC.

He was best known for the award-winning series The Valour and the Horror. The three-part series examining Canadian involvement in three battles during the Second World War was the subject of controversy after its release and led to a five-week investigation by the Senate, a CRTC hearing, a $500 million lawsuit and a CBC ombudsman's report.

Courtesy of Conor McKenna
Courtesy of Conor McKenna

McKenna's most commended work delved deep into Canada's role in various wars over the last few centuries — having directed over 20 films on the subject — but he is also remembered for local Montreal news like the controversy surrounding the 1976 construction of the Olympic Stadium.

He also co-authored an unauthorized, bestselling biography of former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau with his first wife Susan Purcell in 1980.

"He was a great father," said his son Conor McKenna, the host of The Morning Show on TSN 690.

"It left me with massive shoes to fill that I certainly don't think I could ever begin to do. But much to aspire to, much to live up to as both a father and a professional."

WATCH | An episode of The Fifth Estate produced by McKenna: 

The filmmaker received 40 award nominations in Canada and internationally and won the 1993 Gordon Sinclair Award For Broadcast Journalism.

He received the Governor General's History Award for Popular Media in 2007 for "his exceptional ability to tackle the challenges of communicating history through a modern media with originality, determination, and a deep respect for those whose stories he tells."

McKenna was also an advocate for the freedom of the press and against the kidnapping of journalists and co-founded a group that later became the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).

His family also cited dining with Fidel Castro, filming in North Korea, sharing Montreal dinners with Pierre Elliott Trudeau and drinking vodka in the Soviet Union with Wayne Gretzky and Vladislav Tretiak among the other notable feats in his life.

He is survived by his life partner Renée Baert; his children Robin, Katie, Conor and their mother Susan Purcell; Emma and Tess and their mother Anne Lagacé Dowson; his grandchildren Leo, Aedan and Dylan; siblings William, Joan, John and Terence; and his lifelong friend Stephen Phizicky.

WATCH | McKenna on investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy: