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.
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.
“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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