Quebec in the 1960s and early 1970s was a political writer’s dream: a society turned upside down with the secular Quiet Revolution replacing the old order of the Catholic Church, and the birth of a new political party, the Parti Québécois under Mr. Lévesque, a former star French-language CBC journalist whom Mr. Desbarats would have known from news conferences and downtown Montreal haunts.
His first political book was The State of Quebec: A Journalist’s View of The Quiet Revolution and was published in 1965. It was reviewed in The Globe and Mail by the paper’s Quebec City correspondent, Guy Lamarche.
“The result is a fair analysis of Quebec with a description of some of its social elements that could only be written by a young man who has known them all from the inside. I am thinking especially of Desbarats’ portrait of the Anglostocracy, a tribe that few French-Canadian reporters could deal with without prejudice,” Mr. Lamarche wrote.
Around the time the book came out, Mr. Desbarats founded an ambitious literary and political magazine called Parallel. The name reflected the French and English nature of Montreal. It was short-lived but attracted some of Canada’s best writers. In the second issue, Leonard Cohen published a short story called Luggage Fire Sale and Peter Newman, the Ottawa-based journalist, wrote a profile of the former Conservative prime minister with the very mid-’60s title: Diefenbaker a Go-Go. The magazine was a quarterly and lasted only about seven issues.
Paul Wright, a CBC current-affairs producer, then decided to put Mr. Desbarats on television as host of a series of profiles called Eight Stories Inside Quebec. There were documentaries on Jean-Paul Desbiens, author of the book Les Insolences du Frère Untel (The Impertinence of Brother Anonymous), a critique of Quebec society, as well as a portrait of an English-speaking woman in Quebec City looking for her roots. The tone of the programs, promoting bilingualism and done before the rise of the separatist movement, seems outdated 50 years on. But it proved Peter Desbarats had the cool McLuhanesque demeanour that television demanded.
Desbarats’s Don Draper phase
Soon, Mr. Desbarats was hosting a nightly program called Seven on Six, the title indicating that it came on at 7 o’clock after the evening news on channel six, the English-language CBC station in Montreal.
Peter Desbarats was in his element. The program, led by the intellectual Mr. Wright, took itself seriously and there were heated daily meetings to discuss ideas. One of the producers was the journalist and boulevardier Nick Auf der Maur. Mr. Desbarats was no slouch himself in the boulevardier department.
He was in many ways a man of the Mad Men era: handsome, well dressed (he almost always wore black), great at his job and cool in a Don Draper kind of way. He was among the first to sport long sideburns, and wrote a magazine article about it, and for a while wore a Sherlock Holmes-style cape. He rode a motorcycle to work.
“His boots were polished so you could see your face in them,” said Sandra Clementson, a script assistant on the current-affairs program and a fellow devotee of Montreal’s louche nightlife. “He was shy but very mischievous and an outrageous flirt, but always so polite to everyone, even when he crushed their ideas in a story meeting. And he was a natural on television.”
He worked on other programs as well, writing and narrating a controversial documentary Inside Television News. In the early 1970s, he and producer Mark Blandford were given free access to ABC News in New York on the condition that the 90-minute program was never shown in the United States.
“The program showed the shallowness of TV news at the time. The CBC tried to stifle it and only decided to run it at the last minute without any publicity,” Mr. Blandford said. “It was, to my knowledge, the first time that television news examined itself. The film remained a staple at journalism schools for years after that.”
Mr. Desbarats returned to print, however, in 1970, as part of the Toronto Star’s Ottawa bureau, though he spent as much time as he could in Montreal.