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Art Mantell took a break from journalism in the late 1960s, spending five years at the National Research Council.
Art Mantell took a break from journalism in the late 1960s, spending five years at the National Research Council.

Journalist Art Mantell loved to cover human drama Add to ...

When Quebec’s language police arrived at The Low Down To Hull And Back News to measure its sign to ensure the French was sufficiently prominent, Arthur Mantell whooped with excitement at what would surely make for a strong front page.

The inspector had visited the paper a few weeks earlier, but dashed away when she was spotted. Mr. Mantell was faster this time, racing out from the junk shop he kept next door to snap several images of her doing her work. The government agent was not impressed, and tried desperately to get her hands on his negatives by demanding Mr. Mantell hand them over “or else.”

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“They really didn’t want us to publish those photos,” says his daughter Nikki Mantell. “This made him want to do it that much more.”

The inspector argued reporting about the inspection wasn’t the problem – it was 1998 and l’Office québécois de la langue française was flexing its muscles on language laws – it was the photo itself, because a new law made it illegal to publish photos of an individual without consent.

Or so the official argument went – Mr. Mantell was having none of it. The next edition of the paper, based in Wakefield, Que., featured a huge front page headline that read: “We can’t show you this photo.”

“And right under that it said we were going to do it anyway,” says Ms. Mantell, who bought the paper from her father the same year. “He argued it was a government employee doing government work, not an individual. I didn’t understand the magnitude of the story right away, but he knew it was going to be a big deal and was so excited.”

His instincts were right, and the government’s photo reclamation efforts became international news.

Journalists from as far away as Japan reported the story, putting the small town just over the border from Ottawa in the spotlight for weeks and winning anglophone Quebeckers temporary reprieve from the province’s language inspectors.

It was the highlight of a life spent mostly in journalism, and an example of Mr. Mantell’s belief that running a small-town newspaper didn’t mean assigning reporters to a constant series of bake sales and book-club meetings.

Mr. Mantell, 81, died on July 28 at Wakefield Memorial Hospital of natural causes. He leaves his wife and two daughters, Alexis and Nikki.

The only child of John Mantell and Bernice Samets, he was born in Winnipeg and later moved to Brandon, Man. His father was a serial entrepreneur; opening several restaurants and one of Manitoba’s first drive-in movie theatres. Mr. Mantell inherited the same stubborn streak and love of quirky concepts, traits that would ultimately push him toward journalism.

“He was always full of ideas,” says Ike Prokaska, whose friendship with Mr. Mantell stretched back more than 70 years. “And once he got those ideas going he liked to get rid of them and move on to something else. The last time I spoke to him he was going on about importing canes into Canada for seniors.”

In 1955, Mr. Mantell was serving coffee in his father’s diner when he spotted a table of reporters from the Brandon Sun having lunch. He criticized a story one of them had written, and the defensive reporter said: “Oh yeah, Mantell? Why don’t you give it a try?”

He did, at least for a while. He became a reporter at the paper before being promoted to a daily columnist. But he was fired a few years later for suggesting a Crown prosecutor “coached” a witness. That might not have been enough to justify a firing at most papers, but his publisher and the prosecutor were both high-ranking members of the province’s governing Conservative Party.

A tip then led him to the Ottawa Journal, with his wife, Kitty, and daughter Alexis in tow.

“At the Journal, he covered the kind of stories he loved,” Ms. Mantell wrote in an obituary published in her own paper. “Crashes, bridge collapses and anything with human drama.”

One of his favourite stories was about a fire at the Beacon Hotel. Other reporters were trying to get pictures of firemen and flames, but he spotted a man working his way down a ladder away from all the action. He interviewed the man as soon as his feet touched the ground, but the escapee dropped dead in front of him before he could get his name.

“No name meant no story,” Ms. Mantell wrote. “Art dug into a pocket and found the man’s wallet and ID, a trick not taught in journalism school. His first editor said he had crossed the line; colleagues considered the story to be in bad taste. But they ran it on the front page.”

But with a growing family and a sizable piece of land outside the city to maintain, Mr. Mantell made the move most Ottawa-based journalists spend time considering – he quit the newspaper and took a media relations job with a government agency (in this case, the National Research Council).

He spent five years being “terminally bored,” and in 1973 decided to invest $2,000 with his wife to start The Low Down To Hull And Back, the name a regional pun that made him laugh out loud when it first came to mind. Low and Hull (now Gatineau) are communities in the paper’s coverage area.

Every edition features “The Worst Joke of the Week.” A recent one: “Auctions speak louder than words because of the auction-ears.”

He may have had a wicked sense of humour, but he also spent a lot of time arguing with the people he met every day.

“I basically became the arbiter of his arguments,” says Martti Lahtinen, a former Ottawa Citizen editor who served as editor of the Low Down for three years. “He was a curmudgeon of the first order and he was cantankerous, but we took him as he was.”

The paper still turns a profit, but like most is finding it increasingly difficult to convince advertisers to spend money in its pages.

If the day comes that the paper does fold, a piece of it will always remain in Wakefield. And not metaphorically – one day Ms. Mantell saw workers laying a new sidewalk in front of the newspaper office and had them bury the negatives from the 1998 language inspection to ensure the government never gets hold of them.

“The whole thing was just so funny,” she says. “There was just no way he was ever going to surrender those negatives.”

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