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Andrew Cohen, Ottawa Citizen Special « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

A custodian of Canada, September 22, 2009

Douglas Fisher was a big man. Big as in displacement. He was 6 feet 5 inches. He had a 58-inch chest, a 19-inch neck and a head the size of a buffalo, as his son Matthew puts it.

Douglas filled the seat in the National Press Theatre, the halls of Parliament, the cafeteria table in the West Block. For decades, he filled the television screen, too, hosting his own interview show.

His size served him well in the many dimensions of his outsize life, which ended last week on the eve of his 90th birthday. As a miner, forest-firefighter and soldier, there was something existentially physical about him. Yet Big Doug, as his family called him, always carried himself easily, his rolling gait identifiable from a distance.

He came from Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and for eight years represented the riding of Port Arthur as a New Democrat. He knew that storied land intimately; he could name every river and lake, as well as every tree, animal and flower in the forest. Fundamentally, he was from the frontier and of the frontier. Always.

There was a scent of the woods in his unorthodox views. He talked the language of the bush — “he come up with a good game!” he could exclaim — with a touch of a backwoods twang.

Of course, what really mattered wasn’t his size but his stature. As a student, teacher, librarian, politician and journalist, he studied, taught, argued and wrote. He was less a stylist than a polemicist, persuasive and clear but rarely poetic.

I met him in 1980. He had been out of politics then for 15 years, and he was writing a column for the Toronto Sun. No one knew more about Parliament, which he revered, or its players on all sides of the House. No one had his institutional memory.

Unlike more snobbish members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, which was more exalted then than now, Doug always had time for juniors like me. He told us that we could do anything and we loved him for it. He told his five able sons the same thing.

Eternally rumpled, Doug would amble into our news bureau, his shirt a canvas of creases. He would fall into a chair, light a cigarette (he rolled his own) and talk. And oh, how he could talk.

He could talk about anything or anyone. But he was worth hearing, because he read voraciously (two books a day even in old age, Matthew says). He didn’t drink and he didn’t go out evenings — I never saw him at the National Press Club — preferring to read instead. His office was a temple of books rising in precarious columns to the heavens.

It was a joy to find an advance copy of the latest political biography, which he’d read and reviewed before it was even in the bookstores. We talked history, government and politics. He often tilted against the wind. It took guts and principles, and he had both.

When we disagreed on Pierre Trudeau, which we often did, he would growl: “Oh, you Montrealers …” I would tell him that what he meant to say was, “oh, you ‘Liberal’ or ‘Anglo Montrealers’.” He would laugh.

Doug was right on most things, but he could admit when he wasn’t. (Once he paid off a minor bet with a spectacular meal at a first-class restaurant.) I never thought that Doug understood Quebec, in particular. Some francophone colleagues said Doug was anti-French. I never went there.

Doug opposed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; he believed in the supremacy of Parliament. He didn’t care much for Trudeau, its architect, or Trudeau’s Canada. But that didn’t prevent the two of them from talking, one night, on the high terrace behind Parliament. Staring down at the Ottawa River, a troubled Trudeau shared his reservations about marrying a woman a generation younger. They talked until dawn.

A conversation with Doug was a tour d’horizon of the zeitgeist. Beyond politics, we would speak of hockey, the press and the Second World War, which was another great influence in his life. He recalled the Nazis with visceral anger.

We talked about Lester Pearson, whom he liked a good deal. It was a treat to romp through his capacious mind, knowing the riches you’d find there.
Doug disliked recognition of any sort; indeed, he repeatedly refused the Order of Canada. His large, feverish life was never about himself as much as it was about Canada. He believed deeply, unabashedly, in the idea of this country, and he thought Canadians had a duty to embrace it. At the end of the day, he was a custodian of Canada.

He didn’t want a funeral, a burial or a memorial service. Next summer, his five sons will scatter his ashes in the woods and on the waters of the Laurentian Shield, where his shadow still looms large.


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