Brian McKenna, founding producer of CBC’s The Fifth Estate, dies at 77

Brian McKenna, acclaimed Montreal documentary filmmaker and founding producer of CBC’s The fifth statedied Friday evening at the age of 77.

McKenna is remembered by his family as “passionate”, an “incredible role model” and “someone who was willing to ask tough questions about our country’s history”.

The family said McKenna “suffered from a long illness.”

His daughter, Robin McKenna, said her father was very fond of the family and she remembers lots of laughs, jokes and teasing. A filmmaker herself, she said her father was a big inspiration.

“We had a lot of adventures with him and he was inspiring as a father. I was able to accompany many of his film shoots when I was young,” she said.

“He had a great love of poetry and art and a sense of the sublime which he passed on to me. The dinner conversations were always lively, we were encouraged to have our own opinions and not to be OK.”

Award-winning career

McKenna’s career began as editor of his college newspaper, Loyola News, before joining the Montreal Star and later the CBC.

He was best known for the award-winning series Valor and Horror. The three-part series examining Canada’s involvement in three battles during the Second World War was the subject of controversy after it aired and led to a five-week Senate investigation, a CRTC hearing, a $500 million lawsuit and a report from the CBC ombudsman.

McKenna is pictured with Pierre Trudeau on the set of Memoirs of Trudeau. (Courtesy of Conor McKenna)

McKenna’s best-loved work delved into Canada’s role in various wars over the past few centuries – having made more than 20 films on the subject – but he is also known to local Montreal news as the controversy surrounding the construction of the Olympic stadium in 1976.

“He was a wonderful father,” said his son Conor McKenna, the host of The morning show on TSN 690.

“It left me with huge shoes to fill that I certainly don’t think I can begin to do. But a lot to aspire to, a lot to experience both as a father and a professional.”

WATCH | An episode of The fifth state produced by McKenna:

‘Who Killed JFK’ aired on November 22, 1983 to three million viewers — the highest ratings in Fifth Estate history. It was produced by award-winning producer Brian McKenna and host Eric Malling.

The filmmaker received 40 nominations in Canada and abroad 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 meet the challenges of communicating history through modern media with originality, determination and a deep respect for those whose he tells the stories”.

McKenna was also an advocate for press freedom and against the kidnapping of journalists and founded Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

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 other notable feats in his life.

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

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

A crime “ripe to solve”

During his career at the Fifth Estate, former producer Brian McKenna created several documentaries about John F. Ken-nedy, including the 1983 episode “Who Killed JFK?” which attracted more than three million viewers. Fifty years after the president was shot, McKenna offers his personal recollections of more than three decades of investigating what happened that day in Dallas.

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