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Roy MacGregor, GLOBE & MAIL « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

THIS COUNTRY / PERSONALITY IN PARLIAMENT, Monday, June 29, 2009

‘Press gallery ‘dean’ could teach today’s media, MPs a few lessons

The man in here,” says the elderly woman as she and a visitor pass by his door, “reads three newspapers a day.” She doesn’t know about the two books a day he was regularly plowing through until just this spring. Not to mention the daily scanning of the news channels while the man long known as “The Dean of the Parliamentary Press Gallery” keeps up on the country he worries about more than ever.

Later this summer, Douglas Fisher will turn 90 years old. A huge, once-athletic man, he now uses a wheelchair to move about this pleasant retirement home on the outskirts of Ottawa. But it is only his knees that have gone on him. Despite a claim that he sees “the colour of rust” when he considers his mind, no one else can see it as he remains as up to date and feisty as ever.

Just ask the cleaner who wandered in while Question Period was playing on Fisher’s big-screen television. “Whadya watchin’ that crap for?” the cleaner shouted over the sound of raucous debate. “They’re all a bunch of crooks and liars, anyway!”

“I will have you know,” Fisher growled from the great Poppa Bear chair he has squeezed into the little room, “I represented that place for four Parliaments.

“I revered it then – and I revere itnow !”

Well, to a degree he does. Parliament as an institution he reveres; Parliament as it exists in its present form he’s not so keen on. Nor does he hold in much esteem the Parliamentary Press Gallery, of which he was a leading member for 40 years.

Today’s media, he says, are largely in the business of “the murder of politicians.” Mischief, he would say, sells better than information. And, as for the historical perspective of today’s gallery, don’t even ask. With only the rarest of exceptions, there is none.

Fisher arrived in Ottawa in 1957 as the CCF member for Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), an unknown high school teacher who had pulled off the greatest election upset in Canadian history by defeating “Minister of Everything” C.D. Howe. By 1960, Canadian Press had named Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Liberal opposition critic Paul Martin Sr. and Fisher as the three most effective speakers in the House.

But that, of course, was back when there were listeners to make such judgment.

The CCF became the NDP and Fisher began dabbling in print to augment his $10,000 MP’s salary. He had two homes to maintain, one in Ottawa and one back in the riding, and five growing sons to help raise. Soon print became the sole livelihood, first at the Toronto Telegram, then for the Sun chain until his retirement in the summer of 2006.

He is not one to dwell on the past nor one to boast about achievement – his family says he turned down the Order of Canada – but son Luke has built a website, www.douglasfisher.ca, that includes everything from family history to Fisher’s war service, his journalism and even his pivotal work in the early years of Hockey Canada. If he wouldn’t take the Order of Canada, perhaps he should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category.

Fisher used his final words in print to state frankly what he believed the Parliament he loved had become: powerless, largely meaningless, with far too much power vested in the Prime Minister’s Office and the offices of the other party leaders than is healthy for democracy.

The House of Commons, he bemoaned, “has withered almost to insignificance. Stephen Harper is more supreme and absolute in the government, cabinet, House, and the country than John Diefenbaker was in my first House in 1957.”

This is not just an old, frustrated NDPer venting; by his own admission, the passage of time turned Fisher to conservatism. He was close to Brian Mulroney, critical of the Liberals and even today remains in touch with Conservatives in power. A cabinet minister had called only days before seeking advice.

What happened to the House is difficult to pin down. The dignity of Stanley Knowles and others of that ilk is now only distant memory. Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson spent considerable time in the Commons, but Pierre Trudeau thought it a waste and a bore. Prime ministers in the years since have largely ignored it apart from Question Period, which is far more theatrics than debate.

Television, which arrived in 1977, changed the tone, but so, too, did the tone of journalism change over the years until today it is mostly governed by a “gotcha” mindset that Fisher deplores.

And yet, he left his final column with a certain optimism. Quebec would stay whereas once he believed it was lost. “I am as positive about our country as I was in my 20s, coming home from the war.”

And now, on the verge of entering his 90s – the Fishers are long livers – that optimism for Canada is as strong as ever, looking ahead.

He just wishes Parliament Hill would look back – and see what it once was, and could again be, for both those who made the news and those who reported it.


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