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The Politician « Douglas Fisher



The Politician
In the fall of 1956 Fisher was 37, with three young children, when the idea of running for Parliament first came up. Fisher told Tom Earle about a high school class trip to the local arena to watch a speech by C.D. Howe, the long-time Liberal member for Port Arthur, and Prime Minister St. Laurent’s powerful senior cabinet minister. During the rally another teacher, an active CCF member asked, “Doug, wouldn’t you like to take a crack at the old bugger?”[59]

A few weeks later, Donald MacDonald the leader of the Ontario CCF, met with Fisher to discuss the idea. A group of local CCF party members approached Fisher as well. Seven years earlier Fisher had declared himself a “small ‘l’ liberal but now, after four years of involvement in the community of the Lakehead, and honouring the CCF logo stenciled on his back as he went to fight in France, he decided to run for the socialist CCF. The Port Arthur CCF riding association met in the public library auditorium on the evening of March 22, 1957. Fisher easily won the nomination when a second candidate quickly withdrew.[60]

    When we decided we’d go we were determined. We put together a small committee of three or four people…and we went to work on everything you could do to get ready for an election campaign. In other words we were months ahead of the game.[61]

C.D. Howe had represented the riding for 22 years. He was one of the Liberal Party’s key fund-raisers so he campaigned across the country. When the campaign began, Howe’s team thought little of the high school teacher’s chances. A Liberal Party “memorandum composed in early April indicated, ‘no…seats are thought to be at stake’”[62] in Northern Ontario. Fisher agreed. At the outset he put his chances at fifty-to-one. [63]Fisher raised money and decided to buy television time at the brand new station in Port Arthur and Fort William. The 1957 campaign was the first to use television in remote northern Ontario.

The station’s signal only covered a radius of about forty miles around Port Arthur and Fort William. A Liberal supporter owned the local station but the Howe campaign hadn’t thought to buy any time. Television “was not part of the political experience of any of Howe’s managers. They simply didn’t think of it.”[64] Fisher, on the other hand, understood television’s potential and maximized its use. He ran a series of folksy chats all delivered live. Fisher explained the use of television in an article in The Canadian Forum.

    We could not count on anything more than indifference from the press; and very early we chose TV as our main medium, booking a number of 15-minute periods, increasing in frequency until the final night for TV, Friday, June 7. For that night I took the last half-hour the station was to be open; the other shows I tried to spot just before the $64,000 Question. In presentation my aim was to do without scripts (there was no teleprompter), to use the arm-chair – fireplace setting, and to bring on a variety of people, almost all of whom would be publicly unknown.[65]

During the week Fisher taught at the high school and in the evenings and on the weekends he toured the logging camps throughout the riding. Towards the end of May the Howe team started to worry. Howe’s campaign tour in western Canada was not going well. He endured hecklers at stop after stop for his part in managing the famous Pipeline debate in the House of Commons that had led to the election call. “Howe got a frantic call from his campaign committee in Port Arthur. Things were going badly. He must come home immediately.”[66]

Howe also had more money to spend on the local campaign but Fisher got important financial help from an unlikely source. Howe had made his share of enemies over the years and one was Cyrus Eaton, an American based businessman. “I got a telegram from Toronto and then a phone call informing me that several thousand dollars had been placed at my disposal. And shortly after the campaign I found out that Eaton had been one of the major contributors.”[67]
The Howe campaign grew desperate. In the final days Howe raced out to the lumber camps but without support from the unions only a handful of loggers showed up.

    Rumours began to fly that Fisher was sewing up the bush. Thus came respect from those inclined to dismiss us summarily. Mr. Howe helped. He convinced the TV management that the sign-off on June 7 should be delayed a half-hour so that he could follow my half-hour. On this telecast he forthrightly used the Labour progressives. “Would you want a young fellow down in Ottawa who was under Communist influence?”[68]

Three days later, on a drizzly Monday evening, the voters gave Fisher an easy win and the moniker “the giant killer”[69]. The Liberals lost their majority and nine Liberal cabinet ministers lost their seats. The Toronto Telegram reported, “The biggest head to roll was C.D. Howe’s, minister of trade and commerce.” It went on to report Fisher “sitting quietly at home last night…credited the success of this campaign to two strategies – the use of television and files”on Howe’s record.[70] The Conservative Party led by John Diefenbaker won a minority government and the CCF won three seats in Ontario gaining a foothold in the province for the first time.

The librarian turned teacher had bucked authority once more. He took his talent for organization, detail and oratory to the House of Commons in Ottawa. Fisher received a leave of absence from his teaching job, left his young family in Port Arthur, and took a room in Ottawa in a house with another newly elected Ontario CCF MP, Arnold Peters.

As a new member of the CCF caucus Fisher sat in the second last row at the far end away from the Speaker and three seats from the back of the chamber. In his first session, the Hansard Debates Index lists Fisher speaking to 94 issues including 31 questions in a short parliament that sat for less than four months.[71] He worked hard to make an impression in Ottawa but also to make his mark with his constituents so that he would win re-election. Fisher predicted a big win for the Conservatives and worried about his re-election. On February 1, 1958 Diefenbaker saw his moment and called another election.

The Progressive Conservative Party swept the country. Support for the CCF collapsed and only eight CCF MPs were elected. However Fisher won handily in Port Arthur. He told his supporters on election night “Perhaps immodestly, we are taking the result in Port Arthur Riding as a personal and organizational triumph in the light of the national trend”[72] A few weeks later he resigned from his teaching position but his family stayed in Port Arthur.

The CCF named Fisher to three committee posts for the first session of the 24th Parliament: the standing committee on Railways, Canals and Telegraph Lines, a newly formed committee on Broadcasting and the committee on the Parliamentary Library. As the son of a railway engineer Fisher understood the importance of the railway. It was still the most important mode of transportation and a significant employer across the country. It was also vital to his constituents who relied on rail service for transportation, supplies and to move the resources of northern Ontario to markets in the south. Broadcasting and the CBC was also important to Fisher’s constituents who wanted access to television signals that were available only in urban areas. “I knew that if there was one subject my constituents were following it was television. So I went for that…also the CBC was a marvelous whipping boy because it was both the programmer and planner and so it ran the whole system.”[73]

Fisher turned his interest in broadcasting, journalism and the CBC into a forum for headlines that gave him a significant political profile across the country. Throughout his parliamentary career Fisher picked high profile issues that were certain to get noticed by the reporters scribbling away in the press gallery above the Speaker’s chair.

Tom Earle, in his interview with Fisher, says Fisher became a “media star” in his first session as an MP.[74]

Fisher became the chair of the small CCF caucus. The fifth and final session of the twenty-fourth parliament, in the spring of 1962, was also a short three-month session yet he spoke at least once to 149 issues including asking 52 questions.[75]

The political leaders of the CCF, M.J. Coldwell and Stanley Knowles, were defeated in 1958 and the party leadership didn’t have much time for their eight members in the House. Even before the 1958 defeat, a faction of the CCF promoted the idea of forming a new party. This process sped up after the 1958 election.

    The national executive took few pains to hide its view that the caucus was second rate and that it was incompetent and lacked the discipline and intellectual rigour of previous caucuses. The caucus, for its part, felt that its interests were being sacrificed in the interest of the new party and, in any case, it was unwilling to accept any direction from either the party executive or defeated members.[76]

On February 19, 1959 the party secretary, Carl Hamilton, wrote David Lewis, then the party’s national president, and the tension between the party executive and caucus is evident in the dismissive tone.

    There has been considerable concern in the caucus that they have not been able to hit as hard and get as much publicity this session. I must confess to taking a certain detached view of this situation because, in the longer run, the big things that will effect our future are not, I think what happens in the House.[77]

In August 1960, now as the CCF caucus chair, Fisher wrote Hamilton and Lewis about Hamilton openly working against the leader of the CCF, Hazen Argue.

    The caucus is much disturbed over Hamilton’s own admission to the chairman of the caucus that he had been working with the “anti-Argue” forces.[78]

Fisher’s anger against Lewis spilled onto the pages of the Canadian Forum’s September 1960 issue.

    One continually hears in the CCF: “What does David say?” or “What does David think?” Mr. Lewis has tried several times without success to get elected to Parliament. Since he became the party master-mind, it has made no significant national gains.[79]

The following chapter will discuss Fisher’s role as a politician journalist and participant-observer more fully. What is clear is that three years after coming to Ottawa Fisher, as chair of the caucus, was fully engaged in the politics of his party and preparing to report more regularly on the events in Ottawa.

During the long twenty-fourth Parliament Fisher contemplated ways to supplement his income and one was to write for a newspaper.

    What happened is it was quite simply a money thing. I was getting into overdrafts at the bank. My wife and I both hated the thought of debt and I was not going into the hole. So how am I going to make some money? I am not going to make money as a miner or as a teacher. Teacher work. How can you be a full-time MP and be a teacher? So I decided the only way to do it was to write.[80]

Fisher contacted the three Toronto newspapers and settled on the Toronto Telegram. “I sent a copy of two trial columns and I got a phone call. I sent it in by wire and the next morning there was a wire from Big John (Bassett) saying you’re on. We’ll talk contract as soon as possible.”[81]

On Saturday December 2, 1961 Fisher wrote his first weekly page seven column for the Toronto Telegram. Chapter three will look more closely at these columns but the Telegram introduced Fisher this way.

    One of the most independent voices in Canadian politics speaks out on Page Seven. DOUGLAS FISHER, CCF member for Port Arthur, tells of the tactics used when politicians choose a new leader, and calls the odds on the PM’s…HEIR APPARENT.[82]

His column deal with John Bassett also included hosting a weekly television program on the Toronto CTV affiliate, CFTO. Bassett, owner of the Telegram also owned CFTO. That program, called “Doug Fisher and” began its run in the spring of 1964 initially on Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. The second program featured an interview with the Toronto MP Paul Hellyer.[83]

Fisher also enhanced his profile amongst Canadians with a series of controversial statements about French Canada. These earned him more headlines, important contacts and a few opponents who opposed his views on Quebec. In 1961 at Laval in Quebec City Fisher told a conference organized by Brian Mulroney that a stripper, Lili St. Cyr, and the hockey player, Maurice Richard, formed English Canada’s perceptions of Quebec. Fisher recalled the fallout “I was a swear word in Quebec because of the Lili St. Cyr thing.”[84] His own party distanced itself from Fisher’s controversial statements.

On March 6, 1964 Fisher went to Montreal to debate Rene Levesque and, again, it produced headlines. The CBC program, “Inquiry”, aired a half-hour of the debate. Right after the debate the Globe and Mail dispatched columnist Scott Young to Port Arthur and he wrote two columns the first of which was headlined “The Fisher Legend” and the second “Fisher’s Home Range.” In these columns Young profiled “the large man who has become one of the most interesting pop-offs in Canadian politics.”[85]

During the early 1960s the pressures on Fisher of being a politician became more and more apparent. His travel to and from his family in his constituency in northern Ontario took a lot of time and cost him a lot of money. During the 1962 campaign a report in the Globe and Mail summed up Fisher’s situation.

    Mr. Fisher, who has vociferously argued for an increase in pay for parliamentarians has told his constituents that if re-elected he will not be able to live in the riding because he cannot afford the cost of maintaining two households.[86]

He was also increasingly frustrated by the partisan nature of politics. The founding of the New Democratic Party had created political tension and the Globe and Mail described Fisher as “the enfant terrible of the New Democratic Party.”[87] Others called him a “maverick” or “gadfly”. However Fisher remained popular in Port Arthur and he won re-election in the 1962 election that returned a Conservative minority government.

In 1963, after another election and another minority government this time Liberal, Fisher was now the deputy leader of the New Democratic Party and sat on the front bench next to leader Tommy Douglas. In a letter to Douglas in the summer of 1964 the NDP MP, Harold Winch, wrote about his concerns about the decisions made in caucus. “Writing personally and confidentially, I can understand the attitude of Doug Fisher who can only see things in the realm of immediate headlines.”[88] Fisher says his duties including four elections in eight years revealed the risks of politics. “You see, when you’ve got four kids and the particular age and god knows I went into debt a bit as an MP. It’s a risky job being an MP. It wasn’t clear I could make some money enough to keep the family going.”[89]

59.Fisher interview with Earle, pg. 18.
60.Daily Times Journal, Fort William, March 23, 1957, pg. 2.
61.Fisher interview with Earle, pg.19.
62.Bothwell, Robert & William Kilbourn, C.D. Howe: a biography, (Toronto, McLelland and Stewart, 1979) pg. 324.
63.Winnipeg Free Press, June 27, 1957.
64.Bothwell & Kilbourn, C.D. Howe, pg. 327.
65.Fisher, Douglas, “An Interesting Campaign,” The Canadian Forum, September 1957, pg. 1.
66.Bothwell & Kilbourn, C.D. Howe, pg. 326.
67.Cyrus Eaton Fonds, transcript of CBC interview with Fisher for a program on Cyrus Eaton, 1976, Series 1, Box 1, File 18, McMaster University, Hamilton.
68.Fisher, Douglas, “An Interesting Campaign”, The Canadian Forum, September, 1957, pg 144.
69.The final result in Port Arthur was: Fisher, 12,228; Howe, 10,813; and Vigars (Conservative) 5,261.
70.Toronto Telegram, June 11, 1957, pg. 4.
71.Canada. House of Commons, Hansard, Index, Twenty-third Parliament, pg. 62.1957. On 17 issues Fisher spoke more than once. His roommate Arnold Peters spoke to 38 issues and asked three questions.
72.Daily Times Journal, Fort Williams, April 1, 1958, pg. 1.
73.Fisher interview, October 17, 2008.
74.Fisher to Earle, pg. 27.
75.Canada, House of Commons, Hansard Index, 23rd Parliament, pg. 64-66. In this session Arnold Peters spoke to 75 issues and asked one question. On some issues both spoke more than once.
76.Young, Walter, The Anatomy of a Party, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1969) pg. 235.
77.CCF/NDP Papers, “Letter – Hamilton to Lewis,” February 19 1959, MG28 IV 1, Vol. l 428, File 3, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
78.CCF/NDP Papers, “Letter – Fisher to Hamilton and Lewis,” August 11 1960.
79.Fisher, “The Last CCF Roundup,” Canadian Forum, September 1960, pg. 122.
80.Fisher interview, December 6, 2008.
82.Fisher, Toronto Telegram, December 2, 1961, pg. 7.
83.Toronto Star, TV Week, March 22, 1964. I determined the date by reviewing TV listings in the Toronto Star. The listing for March 29 promotes the Hellyer interview.
84.Fisher interview, March 9, 2009.
85.Young, Scott, Globe and Mail, “The Fisher Legend”, March 26, 1964 and “Fisher’s Home Range”, March 28, 1964.
86.Globe and Mail, May 29, 1962, pg. 7.
88.Stanley Knowles Fonds, “Harold Winch letter to Stanley Knowles,” July 8, 1964, MG 32 C59, Volume 101, Library and Archives Canada.
89.Fisher interview, March 9, 2009.

©George Hoff