Craig Oliver - TV News Pioneer (Part 1)

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Description: Craig Oliver - TV News Pioneer

After more than 50 years in journalism, he’s still doing what he loves

While should Craig Oliver be apologetic? His colourful, fast-selling memoir, Oliver’s Twist : The Life and Time of an Unapologetic Newshound (Viking Canada, 2011), has been greeted warmly. He’s had a great career as a political reporter and enjoyed close contact with some of the most important politicians of our time. Perhaps he might apologize to some of them for his unflattering assessments? On the phone from his home in Ottawa, Oliver laughs at the suggestion: “No, and don’t forget I have reached a certain age where I’m probably not going to be around doing this a lot longer. If they want to get back at me, they’re not going to have much opportunity to do it.” (Born in Vancouver in 1938, Oliver continues as CTV’s chief political correspondent and co-host of the weekly Question Period at age 73) .

The memoir also reveals what few knew: that he was the only child of unmarried, alcoholic parents, that his childhood in remote Prince Rupert, BC, included long stretches in foster homes, and that he now bears a significant disability with dignity. A master of clear, forthright on camera commentary, Oliver doesn’t read a script from a teleprompter. He can’t. Diagnosed with glaucoma at age 35, the owlish Oliver is now legally blind, though he can make out shapes and colours. On familiar turf in Ottawa, he still walks the half hour to work. “When I’m in unfamiliar territory,” he says, “the visual impairment can be a bog problem; and night’s getting pretty much impossible. I take my wife’arm.”

Walking helps him maintain a fitness level that has been important to him. A sometime marathon runner, he’s also a longtime member of an expeditionary group of Canadian achievers which sometimes included Pierre Trudeau who for years spent two weeks each summer canoeing challenging river in Canada’s North.

Oliver’s loss of vision has been gradual, first costing him central vision in one eye, finally in both. That loss has been eased by digital software that can read computer copy to him and keep him connected and helped him write a memoir he says is “about survival. I think it’s about ability to change your life, to recast who you are every now and then when you need to.”

“Your Own Work of Art”

A popular figure in Ottawa, on Parliament Hill, and nationwide, he’s garnered a long list of awards from the broadcast industry. None of that was prefigured by his early years. Oliver’s Twist begins:

“My father was a bootlegger and, for a short time, a jailbird. My mother ran a successful taxi business, also for a short time. Both were alcoholics.”

His parents spit early. At times neither could care for him. As a boy, he often searched for his father in the boomtown bars of 1940s Prince Rupert. He was sent to foster homes where treatment was unkind. Finally, his mother found her feet and took him in. She entertained frequently and young Craig often fell asleep to sound of rowdy parties. A gifted storyteller, he writes of his hometown:

“Rain was the background music of my childhood. Situated on the edge of lush Pacific rain forest with mountains at its back, Prince Rupert endured what seemed a continuous downpour, lifting occasionally to a drizzle. We wore gumboots year-round and joked of being born with webbed feet. Out famous high school basketball team was named ‘The Rainmakers.’ As a crowed seaport, Rupert was a smaller and more northerly version of Marseilles and attracted equally eccentric characters.”

His stories of “growing up under the roofs of strangers” are poignant. Yet, he insists “tough years” taught him much:

“They taught me flexibility. You take whatever comes at you with as much equilibrium as you can and deal with it rather than let it knock you down, your own life is your own work of art and you make what you can of it. You have to prepare for whatever comes. You can’t just drift. I hate drift. The kind of childhood I had fills you with a lack of self-esteem or it does the opposite. You become very self-confident because you have to. And I think that’s what it did for me.”

Oliver’s family life was chaotic, but he was a quick-witted, popular kid, elected class president in his last year of high school. “I was well-liked,” he says, “not by accident; I worked at that.”

He let his grades drift and never graduated. Still, his love of books and words and his habit of memorizing passages from Shakespeare stood him in good stead when he was given a chance to fill in at the local radio station. It was, remarkably for Prince Rupert, a full-fledged CBC Radio station. Today, he marvels at his luck in finding his calling:

“To have a big league radio station in town of 11,000 people was so bizarre. And it was only there because it was built by the American army during the war. Without that, I might have ended up at the pulp mill; that’s where all of the local boys went. I wanted to join the Navy at one point-I loved the Navy; I was in the cadets, then the Navy reserve but I just had no idea. It was really an example of the importance of cultural institutions in small towns, whether it’s a theatre group or a reading group or tiny orchestra the locals pull together. You can learn that there’s something you’re good at that you would never have known.”

In time, his local role expanded. Then, in 1959, an audition tape landed him a job at CBC Regina. There he began filing reports from the legislature and improved his craft studying “theatre and speech with a wonderful German woman who was professionally trained.” He also found himself in a political hotbed as Tommy Douglas’s provincial government introduced public Medicare and shocked the continent. Oliver adds:

“Saskatchewan was also a laboratory of where North America was going two sharply differentiated, polarized political parties. Far-right wing under Ross Thatcher, and Tommy Douglas very much on the left though not wildly left; I mean, he believed in balanced budgets. This struggle between right and left today seems to have reached a point in the United States where they’re unable to make a decision. And here in Canada, we have a highly polarized political scene that’s quite unpleasant.”

He recalls Douglas as a great leader” “Tommy was about as impressive as it gets in terms of his dedication to creating a better world. He was also funny and charming and warm as a person. He’d been badly seared by the depression, but Tommy was just a great heart. Of course, he was deeply Christian and he lived that. But Tommy did not believe in ‘pie in the sky when you die;’ he believed in getting as much pie  right now on earth as you could get for people. That’s what drove him.”

Oliver also covered another Saskatchewan legend, Canada’s 13th Prime Minister, John G. Diefenbaker:

“Dief had an immense ego. And he was one of the great speakers, a great storyteller. He told me great stories, made me laugh. And he was a humanist. People have forgotten that. He brought in the first Bill of Rights, he brought in a lot of good legislation. Dief’s problem was he never ran anything larger than a three-person law office. And he was inherently suspicious of everybody. He couldn’t trust people. And gradually that kind of turned against him. That was his failing.”

His love of books and words and his habit of memorizing passages from Shakespeare stood him in good stead when he was given a chance to fill in at the local radio station.

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