Remembering Liss Jeffrey (1951-2008), McLuhan Scholar, Educator, Media Practitioner, Activist

I was pleased to see that the recently published Volume 2 of the International Journal of McLuhan Studies honored the late Dr. Liss Jeffrey of Toronto by being dedicated to her memory (see the 3rd posting below this one). Thanks to Editorial Director Matteo Ciastellardi and his staff for doing so. Liss would have been an enthusiastic supporter of this journal, as she was of all things McLuhan-related. She has a rightful claim to be remembered among the second generation of the Toronto School of Communication. It’s a good time to remind those who knew her, as well as those who didn’t, about her life and accomplishments…….AlexK

Dr. Liss Jeffrey (1951-2008)

Energetic McLuhan disciple broadcast the power of new media

After a youth spent battling authority, she became a journalist and a media visionary

NOREEN SHANAHAN   –   Special to The Globe and Mail   –   February 23, 2009

TORONTO — ‘At the speed of light, policies and political parties yield place to charismatic images.” When Canadian media luminary Marshall McLuhan wrote these words, it was as though he foretold the work of his disciple, Liss Jeffrey. Ms. Jeffrey was director of the McLuhan Global Research Network at the University of Toronto. She taught graduate seminars in “Understanding McLuhan and Media,” “Communications, History, Theory and Technology” and “New Media and Policy.” But this barely scratched the surface. Friends and colleagues sometimes referred to her as a force of nature when speaking of her work history.

In 1997, Ms. Jeffrey directed a new media and policy think tank called the byDesign eLab. It provided a public space network used to advance civic participation, community development and cultural content creation. This work was done through the national not-for-profit group Electronic Commons/Agora Électronique.

Mary Elisabeth Jeffrey was born in Kenya. Always in a hurry, she walked at six months and spoke full sentences at a year. Her father, Paul Jeffrey, was a businessman who worked for Massey-Harris (later Massey-Ferguson). He moved his family to Durban, South Africa, while Liss was still a toddler. As the story goes, she enticed their Zulu servants into teaching her to dance. When the family was transferred to Paris, Liss quickly learned French; she held onto the language the rest of her life.

The Jeffrey family hailed from a long line of Canadian missionaries. Her great-grandfather spent his life working in Indochina. Her grandfather was head of a mission in Vietnam, where her father was born and raised. The missionary tradition ended when he decided to pursue a future in business, but it continued to affect Ms. Jeffrey’s life, both personally and professionally. In 1954, the family returned to Canada and settled in Toronto’s upscale Forest Hill neighbourhood. Liss was a brilliant child, although one with an attitude that often required her parents to “take tea” with the headmistress at the private girl’s school, Bishop Strachan. Once, her Grade 7 teacher became so annoyed with Liss’s interruptions that she said, “If you think you can teach this class better than I can, you can come up and teach it.” She did.

“She had endless battles with authority,” said her sister, Jennifer Deacon. “She was always challenging, always pushing the edge, which was uncomfortable for the teachers and for the headmistress, who was a very formidable lady … finally, she had to leave because it was either the teachers or Liss.”

She transferred to Forest Hill Collegiate in Grade 12. As a result, her final high-school years were spent among people who supported and appreciated her. As a teenager, she was invited to host a televised political forum on TVOntario called With Liss Jeffrey. On this show, she interviewed political figures from a youth perspective. Her confidence soared when she applied to and was accepted by Harvard-Radcliffe. In 1973, she graduated with one of the highest honours, an AB magna cum laude, in social relations.

Toronto writer Susan Cole, who met Ms. Jeffrey at high school, described her friend as a “cyclone.”

“She was a force to contend with and sometimes it wasn’t easy to be in the eye of her storm, but often it isn’t easy to be in the eye of a visionary storm,” she said. In 1971, Ms. Cole joined Ms. Jeffrey at Harvard. Before she had time to settle into her dorm room, she was urged to join a women’s collective organized by Ms. Jeffrey. The group challenged Harvard’s male hierarchy – only one in five students was female. “Liss had unbelievable energy. To be around her was to be around one big intense vibration that was both challenging and inspiring,” said Ms. Cole. “I would claim that the Harvard campus was never the same.”

Back in Toronto after graduation, Ms. Jeffrey became a journalist, working at the newly started CITY-TV under the direction of Moses Znaimer. In 1976, she became the first producer of the investigative public-affairs program The Shulman File, hosted by Dr. Morton Shulman. She also worked with Stephen Lewis on a show called 4 Quartets. While attending a 1984 New Year’s Eve party, Ms. Jeffrey met her future husband, Fraser McAninch. Meanwhile, she attended York University and graduated in 1987 with a master’s degree in environmental studies and communication and media analysis. She and Mr. McAninch were married at her sister’s farm in Unionville, Ont., in 1989.

In 1995, Ms. Jeffrey co-curated an original exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, “Watching TV,” as acting director of the MZTV Museum of Television. The same year, she wrote the summary report on “Women in and Behind the Media: 1984-1994,” for the Canadian delegation to a UNESCO conference in Beijing.

In 1997, she launched “Canada by Design: Building a Canadian Knowledge Nation Using New Media and Policy” through the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program, which she so ardently supported. She organized the 12-part visionary speaker series and announced her intention to have two federal cabinet ministers make presentations.

“Knowing better than to contradict her, I suggested that perhaps this was a tad ambitious as the series was beginning within weeks,” colleague Gale Moore said. “No, she assured me, they would come, and come they did – the minister of Canadian heritage, Sheila Copps, and the minister of industry, John Manley, both gave talks, along with other prominent figures from the media and corporate world.”

Once again, she leapt back into the fray of academia. In 1998, she received her PhD in communications from McGill University.

Her doctoral thesis was called “The Heat and the Light of Marshall McLuhan: A 1990s Reappraisal.” This led directly into her work as founding director of the McLuhan Global Research Network.

As a media visionary, Ms. Jeffrey often spoke about Canada’s struggle to maintain a space for cultural diversity, public access to new information technologies, and the transformative effects of new media. Under her guidance, the eLab and the McLuhan Program designed and ran Canada’s first online public consultation, to form part of the official federal public record. This was called the New Media Forum, and set up on behalf of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Ms. Jeffrey served as a Canadian expert on the Council of Europe’s New Information Technologies project in 1991, and contributed to the Culture Committee’s “Cultural policy for the new millennium: public access and freedom of expression” initiative. With the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development, byDesign eLab led a civil-society partnership that hosted the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade eDialogue with citizens on directions for Canada’s foreign policy.

The Foreign Policy eDialogue won Canada’s best of content category for e-government in the national phase of the World Summit on the Information Society awards, and was showcased at the Canada Pavilion in Geneva in December, 2003.

Ms. Jeffrey continued working her vision until her last breath was drawn. She presented at a conference in Guelph, Ont., advising on global issues and the Internet, two months before her death.

“Liss was a giver and what mattered most were ideas,” said Gale Moore. “Not only ideas, but ideas combined with action -visionary pragmatism, she proclaimed, was her philosophy. … And through it all, she never wavered in her belief that is possible to change the world.”

Mary Elisabeth Jeffrey was born in Nakuru, Kenya, on June 28, 1951. She died Dec. 18, 2008, in Toronto from cancer. She was 57.  (Source: )


A media practitioner more than an academic, unfortunately, Liss never found time to convert her McGill PhD dissertation, The Heat and the Light of Marshall McLuhan: A 1990s Reappraisal” (1998), into a book. However, the following essay offers a précis of her thesis, The Heat & the Light: Towards a Reassessment of the Contribution of H. Marshall McLuhan (1989): .


One Response to “Remembering Liss Jeffrey (1951-2008), McLuhan Scholar, Educator, Media Practitioner, Activist”

  1. 1 Speculation and Reflection on McLuhan in the 21st century – Marshall McLuhan & Gutenberg

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