Bruce Phillips was a reporter from a bygone era. A lover of the English language, he belonged to a fabled group of shoe-leather newspaper reporters on Parliament Hill whose stories shaped a generation.
He listened well, got the facts, never sensationalized and wrote with talent and speed. He moved with grace, spoke with eloquence, didn't boast and hardly ever missed a deadline. He smoked cigars, drank Scotch, read books with a voracious appetite and was infinitely curious.
"He was a journalist to his core," said former CTV reporter Pamela Wallin, who was close to Mr. Phillips. "He was old school."
He was, in his own words, a "newspaperman." Yet it was television that made the handsome, gregarious, yet shy, Mr. Phillips a household name.
He became one of the most authoritative voices in Canada during his 17 years at CTV News, where he hosted the show Question Period and introduced end-of-year "fireside chats" with prime ministers.
"When he spoke, people listened," said Senator Jim Munson, another former CTV journalist who worked under Mr. Phillips.
Mr. Phillips died of kidney failure in Summerland, B.C., on Dec. 6. He was 84.
A firm believer in public service, he accepted three appointments from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, the last of which was as Canada's privacy commissioner. Years before privacy became a hotly contested issue, Mr. Phillips pushed the federal government to adopt landmark privacy legislation that protects Canadians in the commercial space.
Despite his modern achievements and pioneering forecasts, the old-fashioned newspaperman – who took a packed lunch to work and insisted that privacy commission colleagues call him by first name – seemed to yearn for a long-gone time.
"He was disappointed in the decline in the quality of journalistic discourse after the Watergate scandal," said his daughter Kelly Phillips. "He was kind of a bridge to a world that doesn't exist any more."
James Bruce Ross Phillips was born on June 6, 1930, in Fort William, Ont., to Alexander and Lillian Phillips. He was inspired to become a newspaperman by listening to his father, a respected editor of a local newspaper, tell stories about his work around the dinner table to young Bruce and his two older sisters. "His father's nightly storytelling absolutely infected him with the love of language," Ms. Phillips said.
As a teenager, he found work as a clerk at a logging camp for German prisoners of war, and at a Japanese internment camp. He was deeply affected by the fate of the Japanese inmates and, years later, was influential in persuading the Mulroney government to offer redress to Japanese-Canadians, Ms. Phillips said.
He attended Fort William Collegiate Institute for high school, played football and, after being a caddy as a young boy, developed a special affinity to golf that would stick with him for life. After high school, he spent one year at a technical college, where he learned to type.
He was hired at the Port Arthur News Chronicle as a cub reporter when he was 19, and scooped his father on a story about a fire across town – his mother told him about the fire before she told her husband. In 1950, he decided it was time to make a move, and took a job at the Portage la Prairie Press in Manitoba.
After a year in Manitoba, he worked as a crime reporter with The Calgary Herald, but left that position in 1952 to become a Queen's Park legislative reporter for The Canadian Press in Toronto. While he was good at his job, he was moved to the copy desk in 1953 for marrying his boss's secretary, Elizabeth Pellow. "Dad was demoted for marrying my mother because Canadian Press had a policy that reporters were to remain single," Ms. Phillips explained.
Shortly after, the couple moved to Calgary, where Mr. Phillips resumed work at the Herald. Their first daughter, Kelly, was born in 1957, followed by Allison in 1962.
After five years in Calgary, he was offered a job with Southam News as parliamentary reporter in the Ottawa bureau, under famed wartime correspondent Charles Lynch. He became close friends with Mr. Lynch, who wrote in his memoir that his "Brucie" was "the best writer ever to grace the halls of Parliament."
It was under the tutelage of Mr. Lynch that Mr. Phillips interviewed retired prime minister Louis St. Laurent and wrote some of his most memorable stories. In 1960, Mr. Phillips reported from South Africa, Congo, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.
Ms. Phillips said travelling abroad and reporting on conflicts likely gave her father great satisfaction; he had been too young to enlist in the Second World War, she said, and felt that the war was "this huge adventure that he missed."
In 1961, Mr. Phillips became the first president of the National Press Club, and that same year won a National Newspaper Award for his coverage of separatism in Quebec. In 1963, Southam sent him to Washington, to report on U.S. politics. He wrote about the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and interviewed President Lyndon Johnson at his Texas ranch. Mr. Phillips's critical coverage of the United States' role in the war angered U.S. officials, and after a U.S. press officer went to Ottawa to "blacken Phillips's name," Mr. Lynch wrote in his memoir, Mr. Phillips was recalled to Ottawa in 1966, although he was not told why.
"He thought he wasn't any good," Ms. Phillips said, adding that the episode was so disturbing that her father contemplated ending his life. "He tried to jump out of a window, but it was sealed."
In 1967, Mr. Phillips went to the Middle East to report on the Six Day War and in 1968 moved to CTV News, becoming Ottawa bureau chief. He became known for his analysis of current events on the nightly news, dubbed the Backgrounder, and his hosting duties on Question Period, a nascent show that turned into a success under him.
His year-end interviews with prime ministers "were genuine conversations" that resembled "an exchange of equals," said Bill Fox, a long-time friend and former journalist.
Although the former newspaperman resented television for its quick-paced, soundbite culture that left little room for detailed analysis of events, Mr. Phillips quickly adapted.
"He was believable and authentic on camera," said Craig Oliver, a CTV reporter who worked with him, adding that his former boss was often way ahead of his colleagues. "He could write the Backgrounder in an hour."
As Mr. Phillips's public profile grew, his domestic world suffered due to his heavy workload and extended periods away from home. His job was "hard on family life," Ms. Phillips recalled. "He spent two Christmas Eves outside of the Ottawa hospital, waiting for Margaret Trudeau to give birth."
Mr. Phillips was impatient with small talk and had high expectations of others, including his daughters. But Ms. Phillips said her father was not disrespectful, and "the worst thing he could say about someone is that they were not a gentleman."
In 1985, Mr. Mulroney, in need of someone who could help sell the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, asked Mr. Phillips whether he would take the job of press officer at the Canadian embassy in Washington. Mr. Phillips struggled with the offer, but ultimately decided he could not refuse to serve his country.
"He brought a sense of measure, discipline and fairness to his work," Mr. Mulroney said recently of Mr. Phillips, "and no one could tell whether he was Liberal, Conservative or NDP."
In 1987, when Mr. Mulroney decided to give his office a facelift and change what he called the "subterranean" relationship with the press, he sent his outgoing director of communications, Mr. Fox, to Washington to persuade Mr. Phillips to take his job. "Because of our friendship, he said, 'Well, what's going to happen to you?'" recalled Mr. Fox, who reassured Mr. Phillips that he was moving to another post with Mr. Mulroney.
After a two-year stint in the Prime Minister's Office, Mr. Phillips was named the federal privacy commissioner in 1990. In that position, he worked hard to persuade Parliament to adopt the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.
"The legislation came about because of his efforts," said Julien Delisle, who worked with Mr. Phillips at the privacy commission and became one his closest friends.
Mr. Phillips's investigative skills followed him to that office, where he and his staff discovered that the federal government was keeping an illegal database on 33 million Canadians, including tax, welfare, pension and immigration information. The database was dismantled after Mr. Phillips went public with the news.
His office also discovered that sensitive government files – including classified RCMP documents and security-clearance requests of public servants – were waiting to be sent to China for pulp production by a private company that was meant to shred them. When Mr. Phillips realized the files were about to be shipped, he ordered them intercepted at a dock in Vancouver and they were destroyed, Mr. Delisle said.
In 1998, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (one of Mr. Phillips's golfing partners) extended his role as privacy commissioner for another two years; he left the post in 2000.
In 2002, two years after the death of his wife, Mr. Phillips moved to Okanagan Falls, B.C., to be near daughters Kelly and Allison, and Allison's two sons. He spent much of the next decade fishing, reading, going to hockey games with his grandsons and discussing current events with friends. In 2012, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and suffered a stroke in June, 2014.
"He knew every Canadian prime minister since John Diefenbaker on a first-name basis and yet he was an extraordinarily humble person," Mr. Delisle said. "He was a really down-to-earth guy."
Mr. Phillips, who was invested an officer of the Order of Canada in 2010, leaves his sister, Jacqueline Balfour, daughters Kelly and Allison, and grandsons Alexander and Shane.
Although Mr. Phillips was, first and foremost, a journalist, he didn't report all of his stories. In his memoir, Mr. Lynch recounted how Mr. Phillips never told the full tale of how he missed a deadline while on assignment in Quebec City in 1960. After Mr. Lynch waited hours to hear from him, the phone finally rang. It was Mr. Phillips, saying he'd just been kidnapped. Mr. Lynch asked whether he was okay, or needed the police. No, he recalled Mr. Phillips as saying; the event "was all over now, and he would recover, and he was sorry about not being able to file."
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