Peter Desbarats had several careers and was a success at all of them: newspaper reporter, feature writer, editor of a literary magazine, TV host, national anchorman, poet, playwright, political author, academic and writer of children’s literature. He published a dozen books, one a bestseller on René Lévesque just before the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976.
He was dean of the journalism school at the University of Western Ontario and commissioner of the inquiry into what was known as the Somalia Affair. The government of the day killed it, but that left Mr. Desbarats free to write perhaps his most important book, Somalia Cover-Up: A Commissioner’s Journal.
Peter Hullett Desbarats, who died on Tuesday at age 80, was born into a middle-class Montreal family in 1933. One of his ancestors, George-Édouard Desbarats, was the first official government printer of Canada and publisher of the Canadian Illustrated News from 1869 to 1883.
In spite of Peter Desbarats’s French surname, he was an English speaker – not uncommon in Quebec, where people with English names such as Blackburn or O’Neill can’t speak much English. The rule of thumb is that you can tell the mother tongue from the first name, and he was Peter not Pierre. He showed a talent for writing at an early age and was writing poetry by the age of nine.
The Desbarats family lived on Connaught Avenue in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and Peter went to a private Jesuit boys school, Loyola High School, a 10-minute walk from home. Loyola was English, but modelled on the eight-year French classical college model: four years of high school, four years of college. Mr. Desbarats dropped out after the first year of college, something that left him with a bit of an inferiority complex, in particular in his academic career.
When he was 18, he had a wild party at his house while his parents were away. When he woke up to see the chaos the next morning, he applied for a job he saw in the newspaper: It was to work in the office at the air base in Goose Bay, Labrador. He was gone for six months.
He started in journalism the old-fashioned way: as a copy boy at The Canadian Press, ripping feeds from wire machines and bringing them to the writers and acting as a general dogsbody at the bottom of the newsroom hierarchy. After that, he moved to the Montreal Gazette, where he chased fire engines, listened to police radios and fulfilled all the other duties of a cub reporter. But the Jesuits had taught him to write and he soon graduated to writing features.
In 1955, he went to London for a year and worked at Reuters, a rite of passage for many young Canadian journalists at the time. He returned to work for The Winnipeg Tribune then The Montreal Star, where he was a top feature writer. Mr. Desbarats knew the job of a feature writer was to find the odd things the daily news reporters didn’t have time to see.
‘Flying teacups and panicking poodles’
The big story in the summer of 1965 was Lucien Rivard, a career criminal whose escape from Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison was a local scandal: He went over the wall while “watering the skating rink” in temperatures that were well above freezing, and he was on the loose for four months. There was a national angle: Mr. Rivard had oblique connections to a prominent Liberal and it shook the government of prime minister Lester B. Pearson.
When Mr. Rivard was captured on July 16, 1965, in the quiet South Shore suburb of Woodlands, other reporters wrote about the dramatic takedown. Mr. Desbarats found May Birch, a woman having a tea party nearby, and wrote a front-page piece headlined “Tea Party Turns Into Turmoil,” contrasting the drama outside to her quiet afternoon ritual.
“One of the greatest manhunts in Canadian history ended yesterday in a hail of flying teacups and panicking poodles,” read the lead paragraph.