Chapter Twenty-six

The four years I worked in the CBC’s Edmonton newsroom were filled with political activity. Not provincially: there was only one Alberta election between 1961 and 1965 and the results didn’t surprise anyone. In 1963, the Social Credit Party won another landslide victory, taking all but three of the 63 seats in the Alberta legislature. Par for the course for Social Credit: in the six provincial elections preceding the party’s defeat in 1971, the party held its opposition to ten or fewer seats in five of them.

Federal politics were a different matter: the same four-year span saw three federal elections, all hard-fought, and all resulting in minority governments. In the first, June 18, 1962, the other parties were trying to rebound from the fearful pounding John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives had meted out in 1958 when the opposition was reduced to 48 seats – 40 Liberals, 8 CCFers and no Social Credit members from Alberta or anywhere else.
There were 265 seats in the House of Commons during those years, with only 17 of them set aside for Alberta: compare that to Quebec’s 75 and Ontario’s 85. Despite the slim pickins in our province, each of the three elections between 1961 and 1965 attracted a flood of prominent politicians, and we were happy to see every one of them. We were still struggling to fill our newscasts – and particularly the big one: the suppertime TV News.

Who were these ‘prominent’ politicians? The Conservatives sent everyone entitled to be called ‘Honorable’ because of service in federal cabinets: George Hees; Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first woman cabinet minister; the two Hamiltons – Alvin and William. And of course, the ‘Chief’ – John Diefenbaker.
The Liberals countered with ‘Honorables’ of their own, including the firebrand Judy Lamarsh.
In those early years of the sixties, Social Credit had reason to be more hopeful than the newborn NDP. Though the Socreds’ recent share of Alberta’s 17 federal seats had fallen to 2 in the sixties, they had taken as many as 13 in past federal elections; and the party’s success in Quebec and British Columbia since 1953 raised hopes of a genuine national presence next time around. Moreover, Social Credit had a new national leader, Robert Thompson, a comparatively suave Easterner who appeared to have the support of a national magazine. Thompson made the trip to Alberta for at least one of the many campaigns of the 1960s.

My face was only seen on Edmonton’s TV screens with four of these people: George Hees, the two Hamiltons and Judy Lamarsh. Each left me with something to remember.
I interviewed Hees at Edmonton’s airport. Authorities there had reserved a separate room for us, which the camera crew quickly filled with powerful lights on stands, microphones, transformers, cables and other power-hungry paraphernalia. By then I was used to the boring preliminaries to a TV interview and so was Hees, I’m sure. We chatted while focal lengths were measured, microphones tested, lights adjusted, etc.
George Hees cut an aristocratic figure: tall and tanned with a full head of hair and chiseled features, and his everyday wardrobe made his cabinet colleagues look positively dowdy by comparison. Our conversation was on the wane, and I was beginning to feel uneasy, when, quite suddenly, the room was plunged into darkness. I wasn’t too alarmed until I looked out in the hall and realized the entire airport building was without electricity. Here and there, emergency lighting began to take over, but that wasn’t going to help our case. There goes the interview, I thought. Better phone the newsroom with the bad news.
I glanced over at Hees. What I could see of his John Barrymore profile wore a fixed smile: he looked completely at ease. When I mumbled some sort of apology, he shrugged and said: “It happens.” Even when we learned that the power failure was our fault – too many of those powerful lights – Hees remained unruffled.
I don’t know how long we sat opposite each other in the eerie darkness, but Hees never mentioned the possibility of canceling the interview. And when the lights finally came on again, there wasn’t a hint of testiness in the interview we finally completed.
The pundits of the day feasted on George Hees. To them, he was a ‘lightweight’ and a dandy, the least effective voice in John Diefenbaker’s cabinet. I guess a nervous first-time newsman follows different standards; George Hees sure came through for me.

The two Hamiltons in John Diefenbaker’s cabinet – William and Alvin – were shocking opposites. William represented Notre-Dame-de-Grace, an English-speaking enclave of Montreal; Alvin was a prairie MP. Soft-spoken William was confined to a wheelchair, while ‘confined’ would hardly describe Alvin: he was ‘high profile’ in every respect. William was Diefenbaker’s Postmaster-General, one of the minor cabinet posts; Alvin was Minister of Agriculture, an appointment that seemed to call for plain speaking and a dash of color – think of Eugene Whelan’s ready quips and green Stetson.
When I met Alvin Hamilton, he was being described as the power behind the Prime Minister; his pronouncements carried weight – which made what he told me all the more shocking. When I asked him what was giving him the most difficulty in his job he replied: “Finding an honest French-Canadian.” It came at the end of the interview and left me speechless.
There were other people in the room with us at the time and I looked around for a reaction. Nothing. Technicians continued to pack up their equipment, staff gathered leftover press releases, someone was whistling softly . . . The politician might have just said: “I think I’ll have a cheese sandwich for lunch.”
The scene speaks worlds for the prevailing opinion of Quebec in English-speaking parts of Canada of 1963. That’s the year the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism began its work. Not a moment too soon, and perhaps too late.

On one of the occasions that Judy Lamarsh came to Edmonton, her autobiography, “Bird In A Gilded Cage,” had only recently been released. I remember her as a big, outgoing woman; very conscious of the ‘tough broad’ image the Press had given her. But it was her impression of me that lingered. She gave me a copy of her book after she had written on its flyleaf: “For young Lochinvar come out of the west.”
I must have chuckled knowingly when I saw what she had written, but, frankly, the quotation meant nothing to me at the time, unlettered as I was. (Correction: Still am.) The name ‘Sir Walter Scott’ came to mind back then, but I had to go to the Internet, and only recently, to locate her reference more exactly. It’s from Canto V of “Marmion”:

O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best.

Well, I was right about the Sir Walter Scott bit, anyway. And how was Lamarsh to know that I had actually come out of the east to Edmonton? Or that my ‘steed’ had been an aging Henry J?
I sold her book at a garage sale recently for fifty cents.

When I started doing them, they were called ‘man-in-the-street interviews.’ Political correctness soon dictated that they be renamed ‘street interviews.’ Then, before long, people in the business began calling them simply ‘streeters.’ Whatever you want to call them, I’ve done enough of them to venture some fundamentals for the beginner:

THE QUESTION: Give your opening question a lot of thought. Can it be dismissed with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Or is it more likely to elicit the sort of answer that begs another question? And what will that question be? Think it through.
THE LOCATION: Set up where there’s a steady – but not too heavy – flow of people through a relatively narrow passage. Trap your subjects.
YOUR TARGETS: Avoid people in a hurry. Your best subjects will be ambling along, killing time. Try for two people walking together, preferably two people of the same sex. What one person, walking alone, might see as an ordeal suddenly becomes an adventure, a lark, with someone at his or her side to witness it. If you keep the microphone moving from one to the other with “Do you agree with that?” and “Is that the way you see it?” you can extend the interview well beyond monosyllables.
CONTRAST: Think contrast from the start: a man then a woman, someone old then someone young, a serious person then someone who looks flippant. You’ll be glad you mixed things up when you’re back in the studio, editing.
IN GENERAL: You’ll have to interview five people to get one decent clip for your collection so don’t waste time on the uncooperative or the dull. A polite ‘thank you’ and move on. But —
Be ready to wait out the person who is simply considering your question. After all, you’ve taken that person by surprise; perhaps if you wait a few seconds, you’ll end up with something profound. It may be the gem of your collection.
Avoid drunks. I suppose that sounds a bit obvious, but it does set the scene for the only streeter I ever did for television.

My list would apply about equally to radio and television streeters but TV does tend to pin the interviewer down and make him a particular target for drunks and weirdoes as I was to learn that day in 1964 on a busy street corner in downtown Edmonton.
Our question of the day sprang from the intense national debate that climaxed with Parliament’s adoption of a new Canadian flag February 15, 1965. Until then, the flags most often seen on public buildings in Canada were either the British Union Jack or an ‘ensign’ of it: that is, a flag dominated by the Union Jack but which included in its ‘fly’ a shield with symbols considered by some to be emblematic of Canada. The ensign’s dominant color was red, so it became known as “the Red Ensign.” We thought a good question to ask the passerby at a time when the country appeared ready to switch flags would be:

What do you think of the Red Ensign?

Except for the cameraman, I was working alone. The sound camera of that era – a cumbersome beast – had to be mounted on a tripod. Without thinking, we set it up far too close to a tavern. Before long the inevitable drunk appeared, to stand unsteadily just out of camera range. I had only managed to gather a few responses to my question before he came weaving over to ask:
Wh – why don’ you ask me wha- what I think?”
“Bugger off!” I hissed and gave him a shove for emphasis. He replied with a good-natured shrug and went weaving back to where he had been standing. I tried to keep an eye on him through the next few interviews, but one person I stopped claimed enough of my attention that, when I looked up, I found the drunk to be standing between me and the camera. It was the cameraman who shooed him away that time, but the pest always managed to wander back, close enough to unnerve me. One more interview would give us enough to pack things up. And along came a likely candidate: a young woman who seems totally unruffled when I approached her, microphone in hand.
“What do you think of the Red Ensign?” I asked.
Instead of replying, she looked to her left, then her right, and finally over her shoulder. “Where is it?” she asked. “Where’s the sign?”
“The sign?”
“The red ‘N’ sign.” She looked around again. “I don’t see a red ‘N’ sign anywhere.”

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