When Hana Gartner started at CJAD, she says she was the first woman at the Montreal radio station to report news instead of cleaning tips. “In 1970, you didn’t see women in radio or on television because the prevailing opinion of male managers — and they said it out loud — was that women liked the authoritative voice of men, and they didn’t want to listen to women,” says Gartner.
Gartner’s ability to shatter the glass ceiling while raising a family — her husband stayed at home with their two kids, an anomaly at the time — is just one of the reasons Gartner will be the keynote speaker for International Women’s Day at Festival Place, taking place March 7.
Born in Prague and raised in Laval, Quebec, Gartner’s graduating class at Loyola College in Montreal (now part of Concordia University) was only the second group of co-ed graduates at the Jesuit school.
In 1974, Gartner landed a job as a reporter at the Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa and parlayed her success into a 35-year television career with the CBC, which included working on programs such as the fifth estate and The National.
She’s interviewed everyone from contract killers to the Dalai Lama, but the biggest and last story of her career is the one that stays with her. In 2010, Gartner did the first in-depth news story on Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old girl who strangled herself to death while in solitary confinement at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ontario. Guards were ordered not to intervene if she was still breathing, but recorded the incident.
Gartner worked on the story for two and a half years while the federal government fought to prevent her from releasing information, including footage of Smith’s death. “It was a failure, not just of the government, Correctional Service of Canada, but of juvenile mental health. It was the failure of the school system that gave up on her when she was 14 and expelled her,” says Gartner. “[Smith] had the bad luck to be in a system that actively worked against her rather than trying to help her. Her short life was a cry for help. Nobody heard, nobody listened, nobody helped. It made me angry.”
The fifth estate won the 2010 Michener award, an honour that recognizes outstanding public service in journalism, for its work on the report. “I have always been very passionately involved with the stories I do; I twist about them a great deal,” says Gartner. “I retired in 2010 and this story has not left me.”