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Twenty-Third Parliament « Douglas Fisher



Twenty-Third Parliament
As Douglas Fisher prepared to run for Parliament in April 1957 he thought his chances of winning the seat were slim. However on June 10 the people in the riding of Port Arthur turned away from the Liberal member of parliament, C.D. Howe, and gave their support to Fisher, the high school teacher and recently signed up member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation party (CCF). Howe’s 22-year run as the riding’s MP ended and the Liberal Party also lost its majority on June 10. The Progressive Conservative Party, led by John Diefenbaker, formed a minority government; the CCF elected its first members from Ontario in a general election and now had 25 members.[111]

The House didn’t sit until four months later but the members, old and new, got a taste of the style of the member from Port Arthur when the September edition of the Canadian Forum hit the newsstands. Even before being sworn in their new colleague, Douglas Fisher, contributed the lead article. “An Interesting Campaign,” assessing the campaign that spring in Port Arthur. A careful read would have given the members of parliament, the press gallery and Canadians, a sense of the forthright, opinionated member Fisher would become.

First there was his honesty.

    When we began the hooting, bellicose journey through the town two concerns were bothering me. First, we were racketing more than any wedding group’s triumph – a practice I had always sniffed at. Second, was I not presuming – to move without a concession. Might it not lead to unpleasantness when we met the giant?[112]

Then there was his frankness.

    The Port Arthur newspaper is one of the Thomson chain thus insipid and cagey…Its hand was shown in the last issue before the election. There were four stories on Mr. Howe and his views, with several pictures of him, and no real mention of either of his opponents.[113]

His penchant for poking fun was also there to be read.

    One vitriolic fellow compared me with a yapping Pomeranian snapping at the giant bulldog, Mr. Howe. Everyone with a TV set was aware of the disproportion in physical size between Mr. Howe and me. The metaphor quickly became joke material.[114]

And finally if there was any doubt, the last sentence in the article, showed a writer not afraid to give his opinion.

    Perhaps I won’t be accused of unfairness then, if I comment that it would be nice to face Mr. Howe again. But with the election so close behind, with the election so near ahead, we are probably over-conscious of the politician as one who wins votes.[115]

More than 50 years later Fisher explained the thinking behind the first column as an MP.

    I was trying to be very down the middle and particularly determined to put, if I had something that was unusual, I wanted to be read because it might affect things. I wanted it clear. So I wrote fairly pointedly. I suppose I made one resolution. You know that first thing I had in the Canadian Forum? I just wanted to stir things up and get things going.[116]

This article by Fisher could only have added to his reputation as the “giant killer” who knocked off C.D. Howe. Lester Pearson was among the many Liberals surprised by Howe’s defeat. “I could hardly believe my ears when the results came in that Mr Howe had been beaten by someone I had never heard of, one Douglas Fisher.”[117] So, like Pearson, the members of the House must have been curious to meet Fisher, a newly minted politician and writer, the participant-observer.

Fisher was new to Ottawa but his stint as a librarian at Queen’s University in the early 1950s gave him the opportunity to read and learn about how Parliament worked. It also gave him contacts in Ottawa. “Because of my library background I knew people in the building.”[118] Fisher also sought out advice. He recalls Liberal MP Jack Pickersgill offered the rookie member some tips. “Pick(ersgill) set out to enlighten me and he said, ‘I’ll give you a fast course in the Hill.’ And he did and he warned me too. He said, ‘remember in a pinch this is war and I’ll screw you.’ And he did.”[119] Fisher was aware that he still had a lot to learn but he also knew he had little time to make an impact before the next election.

    If I was going to survive at the next election, which was going to be called pretty soon – anybody but a fool could see that – then it was very important to me to show that I was more than just an upsetter, that I was capable of something, that I had ideas.[120]

We have one account of Fisher in the House when it sat on October 14. Pierre Sevigny, a Conservative MP, wrote in his memoir.

    The eyes of those present at the opening ceremonies of Parliament were fixed for a moment on the seat reserved in the CCF section for the Member from Port Arthur. What they saw was somewhat startling. They saw a tremendous man with huge hands, large feet, and the build and gait of a well-conditioned wrestler. Those who knew the early Fisher during his first few years in the Commons can hardly forget – though they can forgive – the obnoxious performance of this Socialist nuisance, this giant-killer from Western Ontario. In order to make sure that no one failed to notice his presence, Fisher would appear in the Chamber resplendent in the loudest possible clothes, wearing a red sports shirt that would be colourful in a ski resort but was rather at odds with the usual dignity of the Commons.[121]

Fisher didn’t waste time re-enforcing the impression Sevigny noted asking his first question on October 16, the third day of the session on an issue of concern to his constituents.

    What plans has the minister for assuaging the feelings of the Port Arthur city council regarding the minister’s initial decision to send only minor departmental officials to confer with the council about deep sea shipping facilities at the lakehead?[122]

The next day Fisher was back with another question, again about matters related to his constituency.

    Is there any provision in the contract to be let for the pipe line east of the lakehead under the aegis of the northern Ontario Pipeline Crown Corporation…as a means of easing the growing unemployment problem in this area?[123]

Fisher delivered his maiden speech ten days after the Throne Speech on October 23. He listed four things he would discuss as he began.

    Firstly, the significance of the electoral result in the constituency of Port Arthur; secondly the role of the press and television in the political campaign; thirdly the problems of the constituency of Port Arthur; and fourthly some of the questions on the principles and ideas of Liberals and Conservatives. That is to say the parties, not the small “l” liberal or the small “c” conservative.[124]

The speech was cut short when that day’s sitting came to an end and Fisher resumed it on November 11. As he opened part two Fisher addressed a topic that he would come back to time and again until he finally got what he wanted, more money for MPs.

    Mr. Speaker this house has learned that the government is not interested at the present time in higher pay for members of parliament. Amongst the new members of all parties with whom I have had the opportunity to chat there was not any real concern about higher pay but there was concern about a more complete stenographic and secretarial service.[125]

The speech also singled out the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for special attention. Fisher called for better service in remote communities. “Television brightens, informs, and moderates life in remote places.”[126] For the rest of his parliamentary career the CBC was one of Fisher’s key interests.

After his retirement he described to a reporter for the Hill Times his fondest memory of all his years on Parliament Hill, both as a politician and journalist.

    It wouldn’t be as a columnist. It would be as a Member of Parliament. And that was making my maiden speech in 1957. It was memorable because tradition was that, when a person’s making their first speech, nobody razzes them or causes them any trouble. That didn’t happen with me for various reasons. I was greeted by a storm of roasting and jeering and I had to just deepen my voice and shout a little bit longer and louder. It was a trying, but at the same time, an amusing and happy experience.[127]

The next day the speech landed Fisher on the Toronto Star’s front-page. It wasn’t the substance of the speech that attracted the editors. The report said “it often takes a rookie MP, not yet blemished by the dull gray fog of rhetoric, to come up with a few sharp phrases.” It then highlighted a few.

    On MP’s: Sketchy, misinformed, and underinformed.
    On the standard of parliamentary debate: A business of “You said this.” And “No, I didn’t.” And “Yes, you did.”
    On the CBC: Rather frumpy.[128]

The next day the Star ran another report on the speech and said Fisher:

    …opened fire in the Commons in his first full-length speech lashing out with a steady aim but varying targets…It was a tour de force in which he showed how he earned his title of ‘Doug the Giant Killer,’ a nickname that emerged first from his defeat of Rt. Hon. C.D. Howe at the polls, and second because Fisher is somewhat of a giant. He stands six feet five inches and weights 255 pounds.[129]

Fisher understood that he needed to make an impression on his constituents and that the way to reach them was through the media.

He added his own voice in another report in the Canadian Forum in December. (This time the editors of the Forum called the piece “Commons Comment” and they used that name in his subsequent contributions.) In this article Fisher rated the issues before Parliament and the leadership of the four parties. Throughout the piece he looked ahead to the “election to come – probably in April or early May.”[130] He dispensed with the issues quickly. “Trade, unemployment, and national unity are familiar election issues and none is clear-cut.” Then he took on the leaders. The Conservative Prime Minister “John Diefenbaker has not dominated the House so much as opposition fears of his popularity in the country would seem to warrant.” Fisher made no mention of the Social Credit leader, Robert Thompson, and chose to ignore the CCF leader, M.J. Coldwell, while praising the CCF house leader, Stanley Knowles, for his expertise “on procedure.” He added, “The industry and cleverness of his tactics are blunted, however, by the way the counter-weighted older parties ignore the CCF (and the Social Crediters).” Lester Pearson, the presumptive leader of the Liberal Party, got a rough ride. “On a set speech Pearson is magnificent, colleagues say he is even better around a table, but, so far, in the question and needling periods he has seemed inept.”[131]

The twenty-third Parliament lasted only 110 days and held only 78 sittings but Fisher registered with the three groups he felt he had to reach: his constituents, the other members of the House and the Ottawa press gallery.

    Once I got to Ottawa, my whole aim was to make some kind of an impression in the House of Commons that would get back to the Lakehead to save me from the Diefenbaker override that was going to come on.[132]

One of the consequences of Fisher’s rush to get attention in that first short Parliament was that the CCF party hierarchy did not take to the brash rookie methods of Fisher and his colleague Frank Howard from British Columbia.

    Within two months you would not find two more unpopular MPs with M.J Coldwell, the leader, and Stanley Knowles (the House leader) than Frank Howard and me. This was the price of what we did…We were on our feet every day. We were pushing and we were raising hell in caucus…Because of where we came from, neither of us had ever been part of the CCF cadre.[133]

Fisher was a full time politician in the twenty-third Parliament. His commitment to politics can be seen in everything he did and said. He focused, almost exclusively, on getting re-elected. In this short Parliament Fisher was a participant who sought to be in the public eye. The CCF caucus “couldn’t quite figure it out and they almost figured there was something wrong with a new MP who could come in and get so much attention on so many stories.”[134] His role as a journalist/observer was in its infancy but it would grow in the next Parliament and the tensions caused by his notoriety would spill over to other parties and the parliamentary press gallery.

111.Note: CCF candidate Joseph Noseworthy won a by-election in 1942 but lost in the general election in 1945.
112.Fisher, Douglas, “An Interesting Campaign”, The Canadian Forum, September 1957, pg. 1. The “giant” Fisher refers to is C.D. Howe.
114.ibid. pg. 144.
116.Fisher interview, March 22, 2009.
117.Munro, John and Alex Inglis, editors, Mike, The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson, Volume 3, 1957-1968. (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1975) pg 19.
118.Fisher interview, November 9, 2008
119.Fisher interview, December 9, 2008.
120.Fisher Douglas, interview with Tom Earle.
121.Sevigny, Pierre, This Game of Politics, (Toronto, McLelland & Stewart, 1965) pg. 125
122.Canada, House of Commons, Debates and Proceedings (Hansard), 1st Session, Vol. 1, pg. 32, October 16, 1957. Ottawa.
123.Hansard, pg. 57, October 17, 1957.
124.Hansard, pg. 335, October 23, 1957.
125.Hansard, pg. 952, November 11, 1957.
126.Ibid, pg. 953
127.Song, Jenny, The Hill Times, Aug. 6 2006, pg. 1.
128.Toronto Star, November 12, 1957, pg. 1.
129.Toronto Star, November 13, pg. 31.
130.Fisher, “Commons Comment”, Canadian Forum, December 1957, pg. 201.
132.Fisher to Tom Earle, May 31, 1993, pg. 25.
133.Ibid, pg. 25.
134.Douglas Fisher, his memories of Prime Minister Pearson and the Pearson Government, Interviewed by Peter Stursberg, June 30 1976, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, pg. 14.

©George Hoff