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Former CTV broadcaster Helen Hutchinson, pictured in 1994, was a trailblazer in public affairs television in Canada as the first woman to host Canada AM, and a host and reporter for W5.Handout via The Canadian Press

Helen Hutchinson, who died on Feb. 21 at 88, was the first woman to host Canada AM and a trailblazer in the world of public affairs television in Canada. After five years of waking up early to host CTV’s national morning telecast, she moved on to the current affairs program W5, where she was a host and reporter in the field.

During her career she travelled to 89 countries and interviewed prime ministers, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and countless other politicians and celebrities.

“My mother said two of her favourites were Omar Sharif, who was absolutely charming, and John Travolta,” said her son, Max Hutchinson, who is in the music business in Nashville, Tenn. “She said Omar was just very present, very articulate, well-read and very thoughtful, and she said the same of Travolta, but she said that in the Travolta [interview], there was a power outage, and all the lights went off, but he was totally cool and they just hung out in the darkness and chatted.”

Working in early morning television is gruelling. In her case, it meant going to bed around 8 p.m. and then getting up at 4 a.m. to be ready to get into a limo outside her house in Toronto’s Rosedale district for the half-hour drive to CTV’s studios on Highway 401. When most people were barely awake, she had to be bright and at her best to interview guests ranging from public figures to dog trainers.

Before the program started at 7 a.m., she would have to go to makeup and be briefed by researchers on that morning’s interview subjects. Being a researcher on Canada AM was an important stepping stone for many young Canadian journalists.

Once a year, Canada AM went on the road. Her producer and friend Rosemary Vukmanich remembered one of the most successful of those trips was to Israel in 1978, where they broadcast from the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel, recording the program and then sending it by satellite to the studio in Toronto.

“We landed some big names, including Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon – everyone except Golda Meir,” Ms. Vukmanich said. “We travelled the world together for both Canada AM and W5.”

She remembered going to the Cayman Islands with Ms. Hutchinson to cover a story about Canadians heading there for plastic surgery.

“While the other reporters at the time were doing important stories in places like Central America, that plastic surgery item played again and again. I think it rankled Henry Champ [a co-host],” Ms. Vukmanich said.

Ms. Hutchinson with broadcaster Pierre Pascau on CTV's Canada AM in 1974.CTV

In her two decades with CTV, Ms. Hutchinson was one of the best-known broadcasters in Canada. She won an ACTRA award in 1975 for Best Public Affairs Broadcaster and was nominated again in 1976.

While she is remembered for her two jobs at CTV, she was also the first woman to appear as a commentator on Hockey Night in Canada in the 1975-76 season. CTV gave her permission to work on the Wednesday night game, which meant she didn’t work at Canada AM the following day.

“I was floored when they asked me,” Ms. Hutchinson told the Toronto Star at the time. Part of the reason CTV went along with the arrangement was that the games were broadcast on some CTV network stations. Along with being a political junkie and a person who devoured books, Ms. Hutchinson was also a big sports fan. She played sports growing up, and her first husband, Jack Hutchinson, was a fullback with the B.C. Lions, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a five-year CFL career in the 1950s.

“We’d been thinking of putting a woman on the broadcast for over a year now,” producer Bob Gordon told an interviewer. “We weren’t interested in bringing in a woman as a token gesture. We wanted a good broadcaster with presence, knowledge of the game, maturity and enthusiasm. Luckily we found all these qualities in Helen.”

Helen Anne Donnelly was born in Vancouver on Dec. 15, 1934. Her father, Gordon Donnelly, worked in the forest industry; her mother, Nina (née Diakonoff), was born in Siberia but came to Canada via Japan after her parents fled the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Helen, a star student, entered the University of British Columba at 16 and graduated with an honours degree in English at 20. She married Mr. Hutchinson in her 20s and moved with him during his football career and then to England, where he studied at the London School of Economics.

When the family returned to Winnipeg, Mr. Hutchinson got a job with the CBC and Ms. Hutchinson, who was at home with two young children, Megan and Max, began doing book reviews for the CBC.

Outgoing, articulate, and ambitious, she soon began working on camera for the CBC, including as a commentator on a program called Sportsview, which led to work later in her career. She wrote book reviews for the Toronto Star and was a regular on CBC Radio’s This Country in The Morning with host Bruno Gerussi. She was also a frequent guest on the CBC’s Front Page Challenge, though that stopped when she joined CTV.

Before Ms. Hutchinson joined Canada AM in 1973, she was already an experienced in-studio broadcaster, hosting interview programs, including four 13-part series on the local Toronto CBC station, which caught the eye of CTV executives in Toronto.

“I was born with a deep voice. I can write, I’m well trained academically, I’m an incurable ham, I have an insatiable curiosity, I’m a compulsive talker, and I’ve always taken the job that would extend me and let me learn all sides of the business,” she told an interviewer.

The deep voice was important at the time; women with higher-pitched voices didn’t do well on camera. She was a quick study and could be briefed on an interview subject in a hurry. She was one of the best TV interviewers of her generation.

“Helen interviewed Mike Wallace, the 60 Minutes star, on depression, which she eventually suffered from as well,” her second husband, David Harrison, said. “Wallace said she was the best interviewer he ever dealt with.”

One of the problems with doing so many interviews is that on-air people often have difficulty finding time to read all the books that are discussed. This can create awkward moments if it becomes apparent that the interviewer never read a book but is merely working from a researcher’s notes.

“Writers loved her because Helen actually read the books before meeting the author,” said Ed Gabis, her third husband, from whom she was amicably separated at the time of her death.

And in a business that thrives on image, it helped that she was telegenic.

“The camera loved her,” said Peter Rehak, who was the executive producer of W5. “But once the camera was off, she could be a different person.”

Ms. Hutchinson was a heavy drinker and it affected her personality, leading to clashes with her co-workers.

“She was a functioning alcoholic her entire life. She probably started drinking in college when she was about 16,” her son, Max, said. “She was never taller than about five feet one inch and 105 pounds, and she just didn’t have the body mass to metabolize the alcohol.”

Mr. Hutchinson said perhaps his mother’s drinking was a “generational thing,” a product of the culture of high alcohol consumption in Canadian newsrooms in that era.

Along with her duties at Canada AM and W5, the CTV star broadcaster appeared in other roles, including commenting on the Grey Cup Parade, the Royal Wedding of Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981 and the Santa Claus Parade from 1975 to 1980.

“She was a complete overachiever,” her son said, “and her father, Gordon, was one of those A-type guys. When Helen bragged she got 99 per cent on a test, he would say, ‘what about the other one per cent?’ I think that was a major driver in her overachievement. Also, with Jack [her first husband] having left, she also now had to support two children, which was quite a terrifying driver too.”

There was one major controversial moment in her career. It involved a story on W5 in 1979 that suggested there were too many foreign students from China at the University of Toronto. The program was called out for being racist and for having made several errors, including misidentifying Canadian-born students of Chinese descent as foreign students. CTV had to apologize, and at least one producer was fired. Ms. Hutchinson kept her job because although she narrated the segment, she did not do the research.

Ms. Hutchinson was predeceased by her daughter, Megan, in 1989. She leaves her son, Max, and a granddaughter, Molly Bell.