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The Early Years « Douglas Fisher



The Early Years
Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, incorporated as a town in 1912 and served as a railway junction for the National Transcontinental Railway. Not much more than a village, it was named after a nearby mountain and there is an aboriginal tale that goes with it. Legend has it that Sioux Lookout provided a vantage point from which to see on-coming attackers. Even today the masthead of the Sioux Lookout Bulletin shows an aboriginal with his hand to his brow surveying the horizon.[21]

Douglas Mason Fisher was born here on September 19, 1919. Like the aboriginal gazing out across the rapids for danger Fisher would spend much of his life serving, observing, thinking and opining about his country.

The son of a railway engineer Fisher went to elementary school in Sioux Lookout. He told Tom Earle, in his oral history, that he was four when he started reading the sports pages of the Winnipeg Tribune and his life-long love of reading got its start early. Fisher says he’s been reading books since the age of seven.[22] A three-page “profile” of Fisher in the CCF/NDP papers says “he was a child prodigy at the local public school, graduating with top marks at the age of 10.”[23] In 1932 his parents moved to Fort William so that Fisher and his brother could attend high school in a bigger community.

    We both went to high school with dubious results. I don’t think my brother ever finished high school and neither did I, although I spent more time than my brother in high school – seven years.[24]

When he arrived in Fort William a cousin introduced him to the public library. Fisher discovered that the reading room was filled with books and newspapers. “They had the St. Louis Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune, and of course the Canadian newspapers. I became a fan of the American newspapers, particularly the Chicago Tribune.”[25]

As a teenager Fisher was keenly interested in sports. He played many and also covered minor league hockey games for the local newspaper. “I had a very early interest in sport, particularly in baseball…I just dived into the American newspapers, and of course you spread out from the sports section.”[26]

His father instilled in him an interest in politics. He remembers his father, a life-long Liberal supporter, putting him to work as an “errand boy”[27] during the 1935 federal election campaign. “I was a messenger for the local Liberal hack, a guy by the name of Don Donnelly, a real old Irish Liberal”[28]

In 1938 Fisher dropped out of high school, and left Fort William, to work as a miner at a gold mine in Pickle Lake. He organized the miners to sign a petition to prevent the mine from making a new deduction from their pay. Although the petition succeeded, the mine owners fired Fisher for his involvement in the petition drive. It was one of the first of a long series of efforts by Fisher to challenge authorities or, as he says, “to stir the pot”. With his mining days over Fisher turned to logging jobs in the area and got in at least one scrap with the law. After being caught with some buddies stealing gas the local magistrate suggested Fisher find something to do to “show that he has better intentions than to sit around stealing gas.”[29] Fisher took the hint and signed up in the army.

He enlisted in Winnipeg and served as a private in the 12th Manitoba Dragoons. When he was stationed in England in 1944 awaiting deployment to France, Fisher couldn’t stay away from politics, working on a by-election in West Derbyshire. This violated military rules but he spent his days off campaigning for the independent Labour candidate who beat the Conservative candidate. His superiors also looked the other way when he and some army buddies showed their political colours.

    We talked a lot of politics in the regiment. Then we got these black overalls…Pearse and I cut a stencil “Vote CCF”, and of course there were all kinds of guys willing to have “Vote CCF” stenciled on and I guess we got about a dozen who did it…So when we went to France, I and a few others were wearing “Vote CCF” on our backs.[30]

Like many soldiers Fisher wrote a lot during the war. He used his letters home to “make statements if you want.” He wanted his letters to get past the censors. “I tried to develop a skill at something that would try to mock them and yet wasn’t so petty and silly that they wouldn’t have the gall to push it on and cut me.”[31] He challenged military authority time and again. “Of the group of us I would say that it wasn’t that we weren’t cooperative. We were proud of our group and so on, but we didn’t respect authority very much.”[32]

Fisher’s war experience was an important part of his early life. He fought in Europe as a trooper from Normandy to Germany and the lessons of war stayed with him. He remembered it this way in his last column for the Legion Magazine, “I felt like a tiny grain in a huge mass of Allied soldiers. Nevertheless I believe the majority of my comrades in our unit, in our army, indeed in our several armies, were with me then and now (wherever they are).”[33]

When the war ended Fisher returned to Canada arriving in Quebec City on VJ Day. His father pushed Fisher to “further his education.” He used his status as a veteran to attend Victoria College at the University of Toronto taking courses in English and history. Northrop Frye was one of his first professors. Frye enthralled Fisher who took five of Frye’s courses while at Victoria. Fisher also entered campus politics and contributed to the Acta Victoriana, the Victoria College student magazine, editing it in 1949. Frye noted Fisher’s activities in his diary on February 8. At a meeting of the Victoria College Union (VCU) Frye commented: “Fisher himself seems to have made an excellent speech. The main attack came from the VCU President Keith Davey.”[35] A few weeks later, on April 5, Frye wrote, “Doug Fisher was in – another big VCU row – motion of censure on Acta defeated by one vote.”[36] At that meeting Fisher introduced a motion calling for reform of the Victoria College Union executive.

    Whereas the VCU Assembly as constituted at present has lamentably failed to carry on its business with any kind of dispatch or dignity, perhaps because of its size, perhaps because the members are incapable of parliamentary procedure.[37]

The President of the Assembly, Keith Davey, responded. “We all know the mover of this motion is the magazine’s editor; however because of the rather cheap attack to which I personally have been subjugated to in the most recent issue of that journal, I feel, Mr. Chairman, that some reply is in order.”[38] The active participant-observer is already at work. Fisher used his position as editor of the Acta Victoriana to report on events he participated in as a member of the Victoria College executive.

Keith Davey, would go on in life to be a key Liberal Party backroom operator and then a Senator. In his memoir he acknowledged Fisher’s leadership role at Victoria College.

    I would inevitably clash with Doug Fisher…In these post-war years, we had come from two different worlds: I was fresh from high school and Fisher was returning to university like thousands of others who had served over-seas and whose lives had accordingly been turned inside out. We became leaders of our respective groups.[39]

Davey was just one of the important connections Fisher made at Victoria College. Future cabinet ministers, Paul Hellyer and Judy LaMarsh as well as CBC reporter Norman DePoe were at university with Fisher. He recalls, “There was quite a cast who later went on to become deputy ministers and that kind of thing.”[40] The 1965 Fisher profile in the NDP papers gives a sense of what it called his “rebellious spirit” in his university days. “He stirred up a protest march when students were cut down to one glass of milk at breakfast, even managing to smuggle a cow onto campus to lead the parade.”[41]

Fisher wrote a couple of short stories and articles for the Acta Victoriana. His longest article is about the state of professional hockey in the winter of 1948. His conclusion, written more than 60 years ago, rings true today.

    The trends have largely turned a fierce, competitive team sport into a thrilling high-priced entertainment. If you doubt this, why the long schedules and the laughable intricateness of all play-off arrangements? This emphasis on entertainment has permeated through the hockey system and into the corner lot. The kids emulate the big stars down to the last wicked glare at the referee. I think hockey as a sport is in jeopardy.[42]

Frye was the faculty advisor on the Acta Victoriana and he was also on the editorial board of the left-wing Canadian Forum magazine. He encouraged Fisher to contribute pieces to the Forum. The first, published in August 1950, was a light take on professional wrestling. Fisher wrote the “simulation is unbelievably good” and concluded that the popularity of wrestling “reveals that Canadians, or at least many of them, are not so staid in expressing their emotions as we’ve been led to believe.”[43] These first contributions to the Canadian Forum had a populist touch. They focused on topics like wrestling, the parts of Toronto where he got the best tips selling beer door to door, and again, hockey.[44]

What emerges from these early years is a young man, as he himself put it, “resentful of authority” and looking for opportunities to make a mark. Fisher was a big man, six foot five and nearing 240 pounds. He was full of contradictions. He loved sports and wrote about sports even in his teens but he could also write a tender story about a Canadian veteran returning to an English town seven years after the war for the Acta Victoriana. Northrop Frye picked up on this in his diary entry of April 5, 1949 writing Fisher is “going to Library School, of all places. His tastes are more consistently bookish than I thought they would be”[45] The University of Toronto historian, Frank Underhill, another one of Fisher’s professors wrote, “he hasn’t quite mastered the art of expressing everything that is in his mind. But he knows that it is an art, and I hope he gets the chance to go out and do experiments with himself.”[46] For Fisher his years at Victoria College shaped his worldview and he credits Frye and Underhill for being his main influences and shaping his attitudes and positions.[47]

The decision to major in library sciences showed a practical side to Fisher. He was older than many of the other students and he knew he needed to choose a subject that would give him a skill. Fisher thrived on reading he wanted to know as much as possible about everything the library was where information resided. In 1993 Fisher told Earle, “I’m still writing as a journalist, you know, some forty years later, on what library school showed me.”[48]

It was at the University of Toronto that Fisher met and married his first wife librarian Barbara Lamont. After his graduation with honours in history and library science the couple made plans to go to London, England for a year so Fisher could study archives administration at University College. Underhill’s letter of recommendation for a scholarship rated Fisher’s academic abilities this way. “He was one of the two or three best men in a very good group. He is very interested in ideas and has a philosophical capacity which most students lack. He is also interested in literary style, which is unusual in a student of history.”[49]

Fisher wrote Underhill on June 5, 1950 to tell him he did not get the scholarship but that he would still go to London. He wondered why he didn’t get it. “It may have been the personal impression I made. However, from the trend of the interview, it was likely a feeling that archives was a minor and limited field. Certainly they never got around to ideas or theories.” He ended the letter asking if he could send “observations on the English scene” to Underhill and gave this characterization of his political view at the time “as it looks to what I hope is a liberal (with a small ‘l’).”[50]

In a letter to Underhill on October 10, 1950 Fisher wrote about the British press.

    The newspapers have been my best contact with the country so far and their standard seems lower than during the war. Sex, crime, Hollywood, and football pools dominate while all the papers but the Herald and the Mirror warp every news item into a pike at the government, much as does the Globe and Mail but with even less subtlety.[51]

With his librarian education completed Fisher now chose a position at Queen’s University working at the university’s library. For the next year and a half, Fisher organized the library and established a government documents section. This experience allowed Fisher to learn much about the history of government in Canada because as Fisher put it “Queen’s became the model university for gathering government publications from the federal government, the provinces, the United States, Britain and so on.”[52] It provided him with an expertise that few politicians or journalists had when he ended up in Ottawa five years later. Another plus for Fisher was that his time at Queen’s became a “crash course in academe and the state of academe and scholarly research.”[53] He worked on a Masters part-time and considered his next step.

He wrote Underhill asking for his thoughts on a library position in Toronto. “Nearing thirty-five and with one child, one cannot afford to continue in a field which promises to be very restricted and offers either a poor living or the continuance of my wife at work.”[54]

In the summer of 1953 Fisher opted to go back to Fort William to set up a research library for foresters at the Lakehead Technical Institute. He saw it as an opportunity to combine his profession as a librarian with his keen interest in forestry. “The challenge that came to me …your home town! This is something that only you can pull off.”[55] The hope was that the library would eventually “become an integral part of the proposed Lakehead College.”[56] When the man in charge of the project died suddenly Fisher decided that the project was too tenuous to continue and he took up a teaching position at Port Arthur Collegiate Institute. For the next two years Fisher taught English and history. Fisher enjoyed the teaching and he now had a young family to keep him busy but that was not enough for a man who always loved to fill his days with a variety of interests.

Fisher gained a reputation in the area as someone to call on to help solve problems with government bureaucracies. For example he worked with the town of Nipigon to lobby for a pulp mill in the town. He chuckled as he told the story.

    I drafted this five or 10 page letter putting the case with hearts and flowers and tears and sent it off and, by god, if they didn’t get an invitation to send a delegation of at least thirty or forty local citizens to the Ontario Legislature and (Premier) Leslie Frost. Within a week I had every little municipality up at that end of the lake. Get hold of him and he’ll write a good letter for you.[57]

He took on individual cases helping people seeking workers’ compensation or other responses from government. He recalled, “my wife would go to the door and there’d be somebody with a compensation case.”[58] Fisher did this work for free occasionally getting paid for any expenses he might incur. Sports continued to be part of his life and Fisher did publicity and writing for the Junior Hockey League and the Amateur Football League in the Lakehead and did his first broadcasting as a colour commentator on radio for both sports.

Even at this early stage in his life Fisher showed his interest in being a participant-observer. From his first teen-age efforts to play and write about sports in Port Arthur, then his active university years where he got involved in university politics and journalism and his community work as a teacher, Fisher always looked for ways to reflect and report on his work.

22.Fisher to Earle, pg. 1.
23.CCF/NDP Papers, “Profile – Douglas Fisher,” May 1965, pg. 1, MG28, IV 1, Volume 447, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
24.Oral History project, Mr. Douglas Fisher,” Ottawa. Interviewed by Tom Earle, May 1993, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, pg. 1.
27.Fisher, Douglas, Legion Magazine, January 1984, pg. 4.
29.Fisher interview to Earle, Pg. 4.
30.Fisher interview to Earle, pg. 10.
31.Fisher interview, Oct. 17, 2008.
32.Fisher interview to Earle, pg. 10.
33.Fisher, Douglas, Legion Magazine, March/April, 2005, pg. 88.
34.Fisher to Earle, pg. 12.
35.Frye, Northrop, The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942-55, Volume 8, Robert Denham, editor, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2001) pg. 119.
36.ibid, pg. 177.
37.Keith Davey Fonds, “Fisher motion,” Box 28 File 5, April 4, 1949. E.J Pratt Library Victoria College, Toronto.
38.Keith Davey Fonds, “Keith Davey speech notes,” Box 28, File 5, E.J. Pratt Library Victoria College, Toronto.
39.Davey, Keith, The Rainmaker, (Toronto, Stoddard Publishing, 1986) pg. 3.
40.Fisher interview to Earle, Pg. 13
41.CCF/NDP Papers, “Profile – Douglas Fisher,” May 1965, pg. 2.
42.Fisher, Douglas, Acta Victoriana, February 1948, pg. 30.
43.Fisher, Douglas, “Circuses and Kings,” Canadian Forum, August 1950, pg. 106
44.Fisher referenced the beer tipping story in his maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1957. Canadian Press picked up the anecdote and it was carried in Toronto newspapers.
45.Frye, Diaries, pg. 177.
46.Frank Underhill Fonds, Underhill letter to the Secretary of the Beaver Club Trust, December 19, 1949, MG 30 – D204 Volume 4, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
47.Fisher to Earle, pg. 174.
48.Fisher to Earle, pg. 14.
49.Underhill Fonds.
50.Underhill Fonds, Fisher letter to Frank Underhill, June 5, 1950, MG 30 – D204, Volume 4.
51.Underhill Fonds, Fisher letter to Underhill, October 10, 1950, MG 30 – D204, Volume 4.
52.Fisher interview to Earle interview pg 15
53.ibid. pg. 15
54.Underhill Fonds, Fisher letter to Underhill, June 13, 1953, MG 30 – D204, Volume 4.
55.Fisher interview, October 17, 2008.
56.Fisher, D.M, “Report on the Forest Library of Northwestern Ontario, 1953-1954, September 1954”, Lakehead University Library, Thunder Bay, pg. 1.
57.Fisher interview, October 17, 2008.

©George Hoff