Douglas Fisher, 1919-2009
September 19, 2009
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Before he was the dean of parliamentary journalists in Ottawa, Douglas Fisher, was known as the dragon slayer. As a Second World War veteran, a high school teacher and a rookie candidate for the CCF back in 1957, he defeated Liberal powerhouse and “Minister of everything” C.D. Howe in the Port Arthur riding that Mr. Howe had held for more than two decades.
For months the husky, towering candidate stumped the bush camps, mining towns and fishing villages of the huge Lakehead riding. But he also took advantage of the fledgling television service, a medium on which he was a natural, to speak directly to his potential constituents, thundering away at Mr. Howe, the dictator, and Mr. Howe, the unapproachable MP.
“I had to create the same sympathy for the underdog that makes fans want the Baltimore Orioles to knock over the Yankees,” he said later.
And for all his post-war education, he wasn’t above showmanship. Having slipped a disc late in the campaign, he had himself carried into a political meeting on a stretcher. Then, propped upright by two nurses in full, starched medical regalia, he loomed over them while he delivered his speech. It worked. He beat Mr. Howe by nearly 2,000 votes.
Mr. Fisher sat as a backbencher from 1957 to 1965 for both the CCF and its successor the NDP. He attempted a comeback in the 1968 federal election, running for the NDP in York Centre in Toronto, but was defeated in the Trudeau sweep. “It would have taken a bugle band and a couple of Trudeaus to pull me up again,” he told The Globe, shortly after the polls closed.
He began double-hitting as a political columnist for the now defunct Toronto Telegram, at the invitation of publisher John Bassett in 1961, while he was still a backbencher – a dual role that is hard to imagine today, although nobody accused him of partisanship. He continued to write and broadcast political commentary and analysis for nearly 50 years, switching to The Sun, after the Telegram folded in 1971.
Mr. Fisher was on Parliament Hill for so long that he was the go-to pundit about every significant Canadian politician in the last half century. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien met Mr. Fisher in the early 1960s. Mr. Fisher, whose French was as fragile as Mr. Chrétien’s English, took the rookie politician to the House of Commons to show him around. “You’ll be sitting there,” Mr. Fisher said pointing to the back row.
“Yes,” Mr. Chrétien replied, according to his memoir, Straight From the Heart, “but some day I’ll be there” and indicated the front bench. “The guys who go to the front bench are the ones who work,” said Mr. Fisher. “Don’t worry,” Mr. Chrétien said, “I will work.”
Mr. Fisher did the same favour for Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae when he arrived as the NDP member for the Toronto riding of Broadview in 1978.
He used to “give me his unvarnished opinion on everything,” Mr. Rae said in e-mail message yesterday. “My favourite story was a coffee we had together after my first week. He said ‘you’re doing ok, but x (a colleague of Fisher’s vintage) thinks you are a horse’s ass. If he keeps thinking that, he’ll tell more people than just me.’ ”
Besides tutoring young politicians, Mr. Fisher, who had a fiercely honed mind, loved political debate and analysis. “His political views were an extraordinary amalgam of radicalism, old fashioned English Canadian nativism, and deep love for Canada, of whose history he was a lifelong student,” Mr. Rae said.
Rival journalists also remembered Mr. Fisher. “Too intemperate to be furiously sincere about his party’s official policies, he went his independent way and in the process became recognized as the conscience of the Commons,” said Peter Newman.
“He had a 6’5″ frame, weighed 265 lbs, and ambled like a bear searching for a spot to hibernate – always seeking facts that might shed light and reason on a world he regarded as being murky and irrational. He belonged to a category of his own, and never compromised.”
Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe’s national affairs columnist, recalled how “amazingly well read” Mr. Fisher was. “I couldn’t possibly keep up with him,” Mr. Simpson said yesterday, “but I enjoyed dropping into his messy office, with papers and books stacked everywhere, and spending time discussing recent books and political development.”
Mr. Simpson “always thought of him principally as anti-establishment, rather than ideological, which is why as the years went on, he spent time with and enjoyed the company of Conservative backbenchers whom nobody had every heard of. They used to gather at the West Block cafeteria in the morning for coffee: he, a former NDP MP, and them from rural western Canada. They didn’t like, in no particular order, Pierre Trudeau, civil servants, people with money, the Liberal Party, the CBC, The Globe and Mail, or anything that smacked of being part of, or pretending to be part of, what they thought of as the Establishment.
“He probably talked more than any journalist to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, except for [former] Globe editor William Thorsell, and I think they found each other kindred souls from places far removed from the big cities of Canada, although Mulroney, always with an eye for the media, knew he was writing for a rabidly Conservative paper, The Sun.”
Almost as passionate about hockey as he was about politics, Mr. Fisher was an integral force in brokering the Canada Soviet Hockey Summit in 1972 and in developing Hockey Canada, serving as the organization’s chairman from 1974 to 1977, as well as founding the Canada Cup Tournaments.
Douglas (Doug) Mason Fisher was born in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, just after the First World War, the second of four children of locomotive engineer Roy Waldon and his wife Pearl (née Mason). His parents were staunch Liberals, a political affiliation that would cause them some chagrin when their son trounced Mr. Howe at the polls.
Doug went to Sioux Lookout Public School and then Fort William Collegiate, graduating in 1937. He worked at a variety of jobs – fire ranger, watchman on the railway, construction, factory worker – until he enlisted in the Canadian Army early in 1940. He served with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons, an armoured car regiment that trained in Canada and the United Kingdom, before taking part in the liberation of Europe, following the D-Day landings in Normandy in June, 1944.
After the war, he used his veteran’s grant to enter Victoria College at the University of Toronto. He dreamt of becoming a professional football player – he had the bulk, the height and the drive – but, alas, he lacked the necessary timing and co-ordination.
Thwarted athletically, he hit the books, earning a BA in modern history in 1949 and a Bachelor of Library Science in 1950. By then he had married Barbara Lamont, a fellow student and the daughter of a clergyman. The Fishers eventually had four sons named after the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, although they didn’t appear in New Testament order, and a fifth son, they named Tobias from the Old Testament.
Mr. Fisher was a teacher/librarian at Port Arthur Collegiate in what is now Thunder Bay Ontario, when he toppled Mr. Howe in the 1957 federal election. The following year he held on to his seat when Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker routed incoming Liberal leader Lester Pearson’s party, winning 208 seats to the Liberal’s dismal 48.
The CCF, which had won merely eight ridings, began the process which eventually led to a formal alliance with the Canadian Labour Congress and the formation of the New Democratic Party in June, 1961.
Mr. Fisher, who had always been politically on the right of the CCF, had adamantly opposed the merger, fearing that the trade union movement would become too strong a force in the party. He supported Hazen Argue for leader, but when Mr. Argue lost to Tommy Douglas and crossed the floor to sit with the Liberals, Mr. Fisher remained in the NDP.
About this time, Mr. Fisher, who was chronically short of money, began writing his Ottawa column for the Telegram, ostensibly to provide a counterpoint to the paper’s Conservative political leanings.
As a political pundit, he could be irascible, especially about growing Québécois aspirations. He attended a constitutional conference at Laval University in 1961 and loudly insisted that Quebec culture consisted of nothing more than hockey hero Maurice Richard and stripper Lili St-Cyr and challenged francophones to prove the value of their culture to the rest of Canada. The fallout was huge, although he was able to resist efforts to force him to resign until he decided to leave politics in 1965.
When he failed in his comeback bid in the Toronto riding of York Centre three years later, he told The Globe that he was looking forward to bringing “critical finesse on the new Prime Minister” from his perch in the Press Gallery. “I want to see if adulation will spoil Trudeau as a person,” he said in a comment that some thought was prescient. “I worry about [his] arrogance.”
Mr. Fisher was so widely read, so knowledgeable about parliamentary procedure and so bitingly articulate that his column in The Sun was a must read until he finally signed off, at age 86, on July 30, 2006.
About the same time, he moved into a retirement home in Kanata Ontario. Globe journalist Roy MacGregor visited him there in June and found him sitting in a wheelchair, complaining about seeing “the colour of rust” when he contemplated his own faculties, but still reading three newspapers a day, scanning the news channels, watching C-Span and Question Period and continuing to worry about the country and the institutions he loved so well.
DOUGLAS MASON FISHER
Douglas Mason Fisher was born in Sioux Lookout on Sept. 19, 1918. He died on the eve of his 90th birthday from complications of a stroke in a nursing home in Kanata Ontario on Sept. 18, 2009. Mr. Fisher is survived by his former wife Barbara, five sons and six grandchildren. At his request there will be no funeral.
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