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Columnist – Participant « Douglas Fisher



Columnist – Participant
After the election call in 1965 Fisher went from two to three columns a week. The Toronto Telegram put Fisher’s decision to leave politics on page one.

    He will cover the Ontario scene for The Telegram and CFTO-TV during the current election campaign. His Page Seven (sic) column will appear from Ottawa regularly during the election and thereafter.[254]

Fisher did not write about his decision in his columns. Instead he turned immediately to predicting a narrow Liberal majority.[255] In his next columns Fisher presented a two-part series; “A Dissection of Pertinent Issues.” Both were much longer than his usual pieces. The first focused on the question of national unity and the second on economic issues.[256]

During the campaign Fisher participated politically. He spoke at the NDP Port Arthur nomination meeting and was quoted as saying, “Liberals and Conservatives would tear each other apart during the campaign.”[257] He delivered speeches to the Empire Club in Toronto and the Canadian Club in Ottawa. Both drew the attention of the media. Fisher was also on the platform at a big NDP rally at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and introduced the leader of the Quebec wing of the party, Robert Cliche.[258]

In a column on November 6, at the end of the campaign, Fisher returned to his prediction of a slim Liberal majority. The participant-observer is very much at work in the way Fisher framed this column.

    Contrary to the (sic) most newsmen, I have sensed an erosion in Pearson strength in Ontario this past week. It does seem possible, if far from a certainty, that the expected gains in Quebec for the Liberals could be cancelled out in this province.
    Those of us who are partisan have our hopes and dreams for our own party. Unlike many New Democrats I do not wish a minority Parliament, particularly in order to have the NDP in a leverage position. For the good of the Left in Canadian politics, for the good of reform and a progressive approach to the economy, for the good of threatened elements of radicalism in the Liberal party, the vital point is that we do not have a Liberal sweep.[259]

While Fisher referred to himself as both a newsman and a partisan it is worth noting that the editors of the Telegram did not acknowledge Fisher’s party affiliation during the campaign. This lack of disclosure by the editors would carry forward for a few months. Fisher knew he had to decide if he would be a columnist carrying a NDP tag or not.

    The toughest thing of all was if I was going to play it, like Gerry Caplan and Dalton Camp[260] and so on, as a partisan or am I going to be neutral? After two years, about I guess, I dropped my membership[261] . I tried to play it down the centre until I was getting more shit for my positions and attitudes from my former colleagues then I was from anybody else.[262]

Suddenly on March 22, 1966 the Telegram began adding a note at the end of Fisher’s columns. In brackets it said, “Mr. Fisher is a former NDP Member of Parliament.”[263] Fisher isn’t sure why this happened. He recalls one incident during the 1965 campaign involving Diefenbaker.

    Diefenbaker was in Toronto and he was given a copy of the Telegram and there was a column of mine there making fun of the Conservative campaign to this point. And Dief just exploded with John Bassett. Anyway they backed down and changed something. There was an uproar over it. Bassett didn’t bother to phone me but his editor did. He said we’re going easy on you because the Conservatives are complaining.[264]

Since the insertion acknowledging Fisher’s political affiliation didn’t happen until almost five months later it is unlikely this incident instigated it. What is interesting is the Telegram ran this for only a few weeks. On May 12 it was dropped and didn’t re-appear.

One can only speculate why it popped up for this short period. It was probably a coincidence but Fisher’s column on May 12 was about being a columnist. He reviewed a book about the press in Washington applying some of the insights in the book to Ottawa noting that Canada had only eight political columnists compared to the “swarm” in Washington. Fisher quoted one “paragraph that hit me” from the book.

    Too much column writing today is a mere rehash of the news that has already been printed, gravied over with whatever the columnist thinks about it, and dished out in what he thinks is his own inimitable style. And all too often, the personal opinion columns with their big “I think…” or “I believe…” are the results to mere head scratching, thumb sucking and fingernail biting.”[265]

Looking back Fisher says the Globe and Mail columnist, George Bain, was “the closest to the perfect columnist” and the columnist he tried to emulate. He adds, “I think what got him so much respect in the trade was that he eased up on the partisanship and he was judged on fairness and competence.”[266] When asked if that was Fisher’s style he responded: “Yes. But George tended to spread his, what would I say, his common sense, a bit wider than I did.”[267]

In the fall of 1966 Fisher took on a partner for his column. “I deliberately was looking to spread my interests and that was the thing Crowe gave to me.”[268] Harry Crowe, an historian, was a professor at York University. Like Fisher, he was a man with many interests, including an activist in the labour movement, an authority on the writings of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and a recent researcher for the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission. According to Fisher, “Crowe was, I think he was, a pure communist. He couldn’t stand the Trots and the Stalinists.”[269] Fisher recalls that the two split the column writing duties but they always both vetted columns.

    We’d never let it go without the other guy having a hand. I’d say we used to spend three or four hours a day on the phone with each other going over it. Our main difficulty was not of ideas. It was of grammar and vocabulary. Harry had a much more sociological vocabulary and very few colloquialisms compared to what I used.[270]

Fisher announced the change to his readers in his column, “Exit Douglas Fisher, Enter Fisher and Crowe” on September 21, 1966.

    Our column…will be a joint one, not an alternating of authors. That is, we shall consult together and write together. In most matters we are not identical twins but we share views on nationalism and the kind of Canada we want. Each of us is an ordinary member of the New Democratic Party. Neither of us, however, is so orthodox or consistent in our party attitudes that we could be labeled as typical New Democrats.
    And many members of that party, especially the elected leaders and officials, would cry: “Heaven forbid that Crowe and Fisher be considered spokesmen or publicists for us.”[271]

Fisher explained the benefits of having Crowe with him. “He brings to our new venture both academic lore and much more knowledge than I possess on labor history and economics.”[272]

With Crowe as a partner the column now ran five times a week, Monday to Friday. Time Magazine did a short piece on “Canada’s only tandem political column” declaring they showed “a refreshing readiness to write as if Ottawa were less than the hub of the universe.”[273] It praised the column for its “bifocal view.”

    Their combined aim, says Fisher, is to “popularize that shadow area between the academics – the experts – and the general public, including politicians.” Fisher and Crowe most successfully banish shadows on such subjects as education or labor that other columnists ignore – and are not afraid to sometimes contradict each other.[274]

A letter to Fisher and Crowe expressed one reader’s view on the teaming of the two writers. “I had my doubts about joint Fisher and Crowe articles when they were announced – not that I was against Fisher Crowe – far from it; I was just doubtful about a “joint” column.”[275]

The first “Douglas Fisher and Harry Crowe” column staked out its new territory clearly. Headlined “Let no historian put Confederation asunder,” it was a learned discussion on the survival of the “nation-state of Canada.” It referenced recent writings and speeches by three Canadian historians: Donald Creighton, Michel Brunet and Ramsay Cook. It tossed out a name like Abbe Lionel Groulx (an early Quebec nationalist) with no explanation. The column assumed a knowledge of the work of Henri Bourassa and it referred to a whole group of leading French Canadians by their last name only including (Charles) Taylor, (Andre) Laurendeau and (Robert) Cliche. However at the end of the piece their own take on Canada, written in the days of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, is revealed.

    The primary responsibility of political leadership in Canada is to see that a balance between the legitimate goals of Canadians and French Canadians should be maintained. The adjustments which seem to be indicated at the moment are the greater linguistic and cultural accommodations for French Canada on the Ottawa level and generally outside Quebec, and accommodation by French Canada at a wider range of operations by the Federal Government within the economy.[276]

With the addition of Crowe, Fisher accomplished a number of things; the five-day column meant regular exposure in the Telegram and in the other newspapers across the country that used it; it meant Fisher had more time for his television work that now included his own program, as well as appearances on CJOH newscasts and on CTV political specials and it made it possible for him to work on his other policy interests.

While Fisher’s work as a columnist had supporters there were also detractors. This is clear from a piece, “Rating the Ottawa Press Gallery,” in the January 1968 Saturday Night. [277]Writer Jack Batten assessed the positives and negatives of five Ottawa columnists: Fisher, George Bain, Blair Fraser, Charles Lynch and Peter Newman. He started with Fisher and the negatives came fast and furious.
He described Fisher’s personal style.

    Doggedly backwoods. Takes his shoes off in hosts’ parlours, rolls his own cigarettes, belches, interrupts and generally conceals a first-class mind a scholarly education and a professional pol’s savvy (eight years an NDP MP) under a barefoot-boy-with-cheek exterior.

Batten wasn’t finished.

    Cabinet reaction: Loathing. “Fisher is not a gentleman,” they say, correctly. Members of the Press Gallery share the cabinet’s dislike of Fisher because (a) he was accustomed to slicing up reporters in his MP speeches and (b) he conducted a bi-weekly newspaper column while he was in the House, an unforgivable transgression.

Batten noted that the addition of Crowe had “cost Fisher four papers including the Montreal Star” and yet admitted, “the column still deals with labour, education and constitutional issues more sharply than any other, and Fisher still describes the political process with a tough, in-fighting old pol’s skill.”

The article, which is much kinder to the other four columnists, showed vividly that Fisher had his enemies, in this piece all anonymous, but still his editorial contribution was undeniable.

The Fisher-Crowe column chronicled the end of the Diefenbaker – Pearson era. Canada’s federal political map changed. Fisher would be an on air commentator for CTV as leadership conventions became live television events. The Conservatives chose Robert Stanfield and the Liberals selected Pierre Trudeau. With that done the stage was set for Fisher, the observer, to resume an active political participant role.

254.Toronto Telegram, September 9, 1965, pg. 1.
255.Toronto Telegram, September 10, 1965, pg. 7.
256.Toronto Telegram, September 14 & 19, 1965, pg. 7.
257.Globe and Mail, September 20, 1965, pg. 8.
258.Globe and Mail, November 4, 1965, pg. 11.
259.Toronto Telegram, November 6, 1965, pg. 7. The Liberals won a minority government.
260.Kaplan and Camp were strategists for the NDP and Conservatives and both had newspaper columns
261.Fisher dropped his membership in 1969.
262.Fisher interview, November 9, 2008.
263.Toronto Telegram, March 22, 1966. pg. 7.
264.Fisher interview, December 6. 2008.
265.Toronto Telegram, May 12, 1966, pg. 7. The book Fisher reviewed and quoted is The Press in Washington by Peter Edson.
266.Fisher interview March 22, 2009.
269.Fisher interview December 6, 2008.
271.Fisher, Toronto Telegram, September 21, 1966. pg. 7. The Fisher-Crowe column lasted three years.
273.Time Magazine, December 16, 1966, pg. 12.
275.Harry Crowe Fonds, James Miller letter to Fisher & Crowe, FO 297 CB SC, 1981-012-\/21 File 3, York University, Toronto.
276.Fisher and Crowe, Toronto Telegram, September 22, 1966.
277.Batten, Jack, “Rating the Ottawa Press Gallery,” Saturday Night, January 1968, pg. 20.

©George Hoff