“Peter was one of the last gentlemen reporters in Ottawa; intelligent, thorough, always well informed and ready to miss a story if he felt he couldn’t get all or most of the facts,” said Mr. Newman, who worked with him there. “His approach was never partisan but fair and unbiased, occasionally too fair.”
Vince Carlin, who worked for Time magazine at the time, said he interviewed Pierre Trudeau with Mr. Desbarats and the two Montrealers seemed to respect each other.
“Trudeau wasn’t someone who liked reporters, but you could see by his body language that he had time for Desbarats,” Mr. Carlin said. “Desbarats was very generous. He taught me a lot about the country when I first moved here from the States.”
In 1973, Bill Cunningham, who ran the news department of the newly formed Global TV, lured Mr. Desbarats to become the joint anchor of the nightly news, and he held that job until 1980. During this time, his first marriage broke up and CBC reporter David Halton remembered it caused Mr. Desbarats some embarrassment.
“Desbarats stood up at an Ottawa news conference and was the first to ask Trudeau about his separation from Margaret. Trudeau obviously knew about Desbarats’s marriage troubles and said something like, ‘I'll tell you about my separation when you tell me about yours.’ Desbarats sat down. It was the only time I can remember him not having a comeback.”
While he was at Global, Mr. Cunningham kept telling him to sign a contract, but he never did, so when the network changed hands in 1980 it was easy to fire the highly paid anchor.
Explaining Lévesque to English Canada
Mr. Desbarats’s bestselling book was René: A Canadian in Search of a Country, published in 1976 just ahead of the surprise victory of the PQ in the November election. It was snapped up by English Canadians who wanted to understand what happened.
After Global, Mr. Desbarats worked for a number of inquiries and commissions. The first one was Tom Kent’s Royal Commission on Newspapers. Shortly afterwards, he was approached to become the dean of the University of Western Ontario’s journalism school, where he stayed from 1981 to 1996. His wife, Hazel, said he was surprised when he was offered tenure, especially after his experience at Global.
“I remember he said, ‘Is this what I think it is: a no-cut contract?’”
There were some rumblings from academics at Western about hiring a man who didn’t even have an undergraduate degree. Some of them never got over it. When the university wanted to close the journalism school, Mr. Desbarats led a spirited campaign to keep it open; in a dramatic ending, his side won by one vote.
Near the end of his time at the journalism school, he took on the job as a commissioner of the Somalia Inquiry, looking into atrocities committed by Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia.
“He was really angry when the government shut it down,” said his wife. He got even by writing a book about it and there was some grumbling that he was using information gathered on government time, but nothing came of that complaint.
Among his other accomplishments, he wrote three plays, the early ones performed at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, the other in London, Ont. Peter Desbarats received a number of awards over his long working life, including two ACTRA awards. His family said he was proudest of being an officer of the Order of Canada.
Mr. Desbarats died from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease. He leaves his wife, Hazel, his children Michelle, Lissa, Sharon, Brynne, Shasta, Nicholas, Jane, Jennifer, Jane and Jonathan, and 13 grandchildren. A daughter, Gabrielle, predeceased him.
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