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The Journalist « Douglas Fisher



The Journalist
Fisher decided not to run for office in 1965. After the election he became a member of the Ottawa Press Gallery. He had already added a second column every week but now he began writing most week days for the Toronto Telegram. He continued his weekly television program, now produced at CJOH in Ottawa. Fisher also appeared on CTV especially during live coverage of political events such as leadership conventions. He contracted to do radio commentaries for a station in the Lakehead and he taught at Carleton University in Ottawa.

On top of his various commitments to journalism Fisher branched out further. In 1969 John Munro, the Minister of Health and Welfare, asked Fisher to write a report on sports, “The Task Force on Sports for Canadians”. One of the report’s recommendations created an organization to administer amateur and international hockey called Hockey Canada. Munro named Fisher to the board. Fisher was on the board of Hockey Canada until it was disbanded in the 1990s. He chaired Hockey Canada’s international committee. He was a key organizer of the 1972 Canada-Russia series and played a central role in Canada’s controversial participation in international hockey in the 1970s. Fisher says his role at Hockey Canada was “to keep control of the board to the extent of the aims that we had sketched”[90] Chris Lang says Fisher designed the “aims”. “Doug would have been the key, principal thinker on Hockey Canada in terms of the strategy.”[91] Lang also says that Fisher was “the author” of the 1972 Canada-Russia Series. It was Fisher’s idea to enlist the Canadian government to support the series. Fisher also oversaw the negotiations between the National Hockey League and the players’ representative Alan Eagleson, to agree to the eight-game series.

In 1972 the Premier of Ontario, Bill Davis, established a royal commission, the “Ontario Commission on the Legislature” to review the workings of the provincial legislature. Fisher joined Dalton Camp, a Conservative strategist and Toronto Star columnist, and Farquhar Oliver, former leader of the provincial Liberal party, as commissioners. This work lasted four years and produced a series of reports that reformed the workings of the Legislature.

The Commission called for the introduction of ways to limit debates including closure. However closure would be limited and only possible after consultations with the opposition. It recommended that television broadcast the legislature. As a former MP Fisher knew the value of the committee system in Ottawa and the Report calls for a broadening of the influence of committees in the legislature. Fisher’s life long defense of the place the legislature holds in our democracy was clear. “It is our general warning, however, that Members and their parties should show more critical concern about the standards of debate and the levels of participation in the Legislature as a whole.”[92] The Commission traveled to a number of other jurisdictions to gather research for the reports.

In 1980 Fisher worked on another Ontario task force on recreation and fitness. Throughout this period, Fisher received no salary for his work for the Ontario government or for his work on sports policy and Hockey Canada.

In addition Fisher found occasional work as an arbitrator in labour disputes representing trade unions in conciliation hearings. For example, in the summer of 1972, Fisher was a member of the conciliation board in a dispute between Canada Steamship Lines and the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks. The report stated that the Conciliation Board met over six days in August. Fisher wrote a minority report. “I dissent from the chairman particularly on his wage recommendations, because I find them inadequate and unrealistic.”[93] Fisher represented the Canadian Union of Public Employees on a labour dispute at the Civic Hospital in Hamilton. Fisher was paid a salary for all of these labour negotiations. He says the arbitration work was well paid. “I could see the opportunity in making a quarter million…a half a million a year on retainer and I decided no I didn’t want that.” Fisher’s commitment to the labour movement did not extend to making mediation a career. He preferred journalism and stopped taking mediation cases.

In May 1975 Fisher added a new monthly column called “Between Ourselves” in the Legion Magazine. The column was addressed to Canada’s veterans and Fisher continued writing it until his retirement in the spring of 2005. The column gave Fisher more freedom and an audience that he felt a close bond with, Canada’s veterans.

His television work also increased. Fisher continued his weekly late night program on Sundays that aired on CJOH and other stations across Canada. Through the 1970s he was a regular panelist on CTV’s weekly political program “Question Period”. He made regular appearances on CJOH’s supper hour newscast. In the late 1970s he hired Nancy Wilson, now an anchor on CBC Newsworld, as an associate producer in Ottawa for a new program called “Hourlong”.

    We worked on this program called Hourlong. It was a fairly ambitious co-production between CJOH in Ottawa and CFTO in Toronto. Doug was the host from Ottawa and Fraser Kelly and Isabel Bassett were the hosts in Toronto.[95]

“Hourlong” began its yearlong run on Monday October 10, 1977 at 10:00 p.m. on CTV affiliates in Toronto, Kitchener, Sudbury and Ottawa.

Wilson recalls that a year later Fisher worked with Max Keeping at CJOH to create another weekly political program called “House on the Hill”.

    He pitched why don’t we do a weekly slash parliamentary affairs program? Max Keeping was the host. I was one of the producers and Doug was in his element. He was basically the senior or executive producer of the show. He drove the stories. Through that he was the one pushing me on air.[96]

In 1979 Fisher was approaching 60. For the next twenty-five years he continued to write his columns for the Toronto Sun, syndicated to other papers across the country, and the Legion Magazine. He gained the moniker “dean of the press gallery” for outlasting all other members of the gallery. Politicians he had known for decades, advanced into senior positions, and three, John Turner, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien became Prime Ministers. Fisher’s column continued to reflect his respect for parliament. Graham Fraser was a reporter for the Globe and Mail in Ottawa during this period and says:

    He was one of the only columnists who systematically watched the House and systematically read the transcripts of the committees and then come out with a kind of appraisal of who were the good MPs and who were not good MPs based on a really careful observation of who was doing what in the House and on the committees.[97]

When Fisher arrived on the Hill in the morning he went to the parliamentary cafeteria for breakfast and an information sharing session. Wednesday is the day the party caucuses meet. Fraser recalls attending some of those breakfasts.

    It wasn’t by invitation or anything. You just picked up your tray and came. It was one of the ways he knew before caucus what was happening and I am sure made calls at the end of the day and said so what happened when you stood up and talked about whatever.[98]

Mike Duffy betrays a tinge of envy about Fisher’s access during those years.

    Doug Fisher would be invited for lunch or a cup of coffee or whatever and I can only imagine what came out the other end. People had let their hair down pretty well and felt we can trust him not to betray them as the source of some of his insights.[99]

Robert Fife, now CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief was the Toronto Sun Bureau Chief from 1987 – 1998 working with Fisher.

    He was probably the most informed journalist on Parliament Hill. He was the only person that read Hansard from cover to cover every day and paid attention to the committee work. He had an extensive network of cabinet ministers, backbench MPs and the Prime Minister who would call him and talk to him. So there really wasn’t anybody on Parliament Hill who had such a wide scope of understanding of how parliament operated. He had first hand knowledge of how policy was made and in terms of politics.[100]

Interviews with three of those prime ministers, John Turner, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien confirmed that Fisher had easy access to all them. John Turner remembers he “had many conversations with Fisher through the years.[101] Fisher actively lobbied Prime Minister Mulroney on forestry issues and Mulroney invited Fisher to Harrington Lake. “We invited him in to have dinner with us and spend an evening together. My wife and I, the children were around then, we’d all sit around on a summer evening.”[102]

Fisher continued to take on various other jobs. His work at Hockey Canada continued with planning for the Canada Cup tournaments and other hockey issues. In 1980 the Ontario government named Fisher to conduct a study of the province’s sports policy. Fisher was not paid a salary to complete the $100,000 report. “The Policy and Programs of the Ontario Government for Recreation, Sport and Fitness,” was released a year later. It dealt with a wide range of subjects from athletic scholarships to the special needs of Indians and Metis.

    My fundamental conclusion concerning fitness is that Ontario will have a fitter populace if two changes are introduced in the education system. First, physical education should be made compulsory again in secondary schools to the end of grade 12. Second, and even more important, there should be some special programs to train more primary school teachers in physical education and sports leadership.[103]

In Ottawa much of 1981 was taken up with the debate about the adoption of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Fisher opposed the initiative and went to London twice to lobby for a “vote denying that the British should have the right to be the final judge of this thing.”[104] He said about the charter, “It’s nice if you have it but setting out to create one this late in the day of a country is nuts.”[105]

Fisher also testified before a number of parliamentary committees. His last appearance was to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in 1999 at the age of 79. After more than 30 years as a member of the Ottawa press corps Fisher, the participant, opened by providing this definition of his role as an observer.

    I’ve never been a reporter or a journalist in the sense of working in a newsroom. There was a discussion just before I came here about the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the people and the competition. I can’t speak to that any more than you can as outsiders who’ve been along the rim, so don’t look to me to be an authority on reporting and journalism as it’s practiced by the networks and the newspapers.[106]

Fisher’s testimony at this hearing focused on his recollections and expertise acquired as a participant. The brief of the committee looked at the issue of secrecy in committees and if and how the committee process might be opened up. Fisher told the committee about his experiences as an MP and his work on the royal commission for the Ontario government. He also told the committee he had written a report for the Canadian Bar Association that was submitted to a committee in 1982.

    One of the recommendations we made in that report was that committee reports must be responded to. There must be a formal response, and absolutely, if any member of the committee wants it, they must be debated in the House.[107]

His television work was now limited to his weekly interview program airing on CJOH and his regular commentaries for the CJOH evening news program. The program continued to give Fisher a profile in Ottawa and access to a new generation of Ottawa’s political elite who were all keen to get their face, and give their opinions, on television. However, perhaps as a result of the advent of 24-hour news, the program ended in 1992.

In his last years on the Hill Fisher’s column gave him an influence amongst politicians. Herb Gray says, “Doug Fisher was one of the people who the caucus read. And when they opened the paper they went to Fisher’s column. It had an impact both with respect to public opinion and inside the Queensway.”[108] For some reporters Fisher was the man to go to for the institutional memory about federal politics but for others he was more. Nancy Wilson says, “He was a mentor to so many people, myself included. For me he made a lot of things happen that were absolutely critical.”[109] Fife says, “You had to read Doug Fisher’s column, you just had to. It’s funny, he wrote for the Sun, but he really should have been in the Globe and Mail. His stuff was so insightful.”[110] That influence and respect was earned by a career as a participant and observer giving him that unique perspective that no one else had.

90.Fisher interview, November 23, 2009.
91.Lang interview, May 19, 2009.
92.Ontario Commission on the Legislature. Toronto: Queen’s Park. 1975. Committee co-chairmen Dalton Camp, Douglas Fisher and Farquhar Oliver, pg. 7.
93.Report of Board of Conciliation established to deal with dispute between Canada Steamship Lines and Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship clerks, August 31, 1974, HD 8039 L82 C2 A353 Library and Archives Canada.
94.Fisher interview, November 9, 2008.
95.Wilson, Nancy, interview with the author, April 27, 2009.
97.Fraser interview, March 6, 2009.
99.Duffy, Mike, (telephone interview) interview with the author, March 12, 2009.
100.Fife, Robert, (telephone interview) interview with the author, July 20, 2009.
101.Turner, John, (telephone interview) interview with the author, March 25, 2009.
102.Mulroney interview, March 27, 2009.
103.Toronto Star, January 20, 1981, pg. B2.
104.Fisher interview, March 10, 2009.
106.Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, February 18, 1999, Ottawa.
108.Gray, Herb, interview with the author, April 15, 2009.
109.Wilson interview, April 27, 2009.
110.Fife interview, July 20, 2009.

©George Hoff