Craig Oliver - TV News Pioneer (Part 2)

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“You Called Him Pierre?”

Description: “You Called Him Pierre?”

The CBC moved Oliver to Winnipeg next, where he married, despite what he describes as lifelong problems with commitment. “Linda deserved better,” he writes in Oliver’s Twist. The marriage ended after five years and the birth of son, Murray. The three have remained friends.

By the ‘70s. Oliver had reached CBC headquarters in Toronto, but chafed under the restrictions of the corporation’s often bitter and byzantine bureaucracy. When the CTV Network expanded news operations to meet requirements from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications commission, opportunity knocked. Oliver was in Ottawa, where he would become CTV bureau chief. It was the age of Trudeau.

Oliver became friends with the charismatic Prime Minister. He says now:

“I could be wrong, but my impression is that his legacy, his reputation grows with time. People are in awe of the fact that I knew Pierre. People kind of stop and say, “you mean you called him Pierre?” He impacts our life every day through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, through the patriation of the Constitution, and through his style. I mean he changed the whole international image of Canada. Before ’67, people saw us as a boring kind of backwater. Trudeau spanned that change and helped to create it with his whole image. And he won the big battles on Quebec with the most dangerous guy ever-René Lévesque was powerful. He was a deep believer and he was great media and Trudeau took him on and won.”

Oliver puts the friendship in parentheses:

“Trudeau was a very private person. Nobody ever got close to Trudeau. Even his kids never got that close to him. He was enigmatic. He didn’t let anybody in. he had his own wounded childhood. He had this deeply religious Scottish Presbyterian mother and a father who was a boozer and a womanizer, and he spent his whole life psychologically torn between the two of them.”

In the early ‘80s, Oliver was dispatched to cover the White House and Washington for a reason:

“I became far too close to Trudeau and his people. I had cabinet ministers literally saying to me, ‘would you talk to the boss for me?’ Everybody called him ‘the boss’. And I would be going for dinner with people in cabinet secrets with me sitting there and then I couldn’t report them because of the circumstances. I felt I’d compromised myself especially after I’d made one canoe trip with Pierre before he was defeated. Then everybody said,’ Well. The guy’s just a Liberal,’ and I really wasn’t ever a Liberal. So we agreed, my bosses and I. that I would go to Washington for ‘delousing.’ And that lasted about nine years.”

Those were the Reagan years. (Oliver is an admire) He also spent time on the ground covering conflicts in war-torn Central America. Returning to Ottawa in the late ‘80s, he’s remained a fixture on CTV News, where his frequent chats with Lloyd Robertson (ending with “Goodnight Craig,” “Goodnight Lloyd”) revealed a warmth between the two news veterans that continues today.

Robertson made his last newscast in September 2011 and is happily retired from nightly duties. Oliver, too, is about to change his role:

“My contract will be up next summer. I’m going to hand over the morning show, Question Period, to my friend Kevin Newman. I won’t miss getting up every Sunday morning at 8 a.m. and putting on a suit and tie I can tell you, or having to work on Saturday. I hope the network will continue to treat me well. We’ll have to see.”

Plugged In

In conversation, Oliver is lively and fun. In his informed, upbeat style, he vigorously defends mainstream journalism in an age of blogging and shares fascinating observation of the foibles of notables including Mulroney, Chrétien, and Harper. His voice slows when he reflects on his childhood. Of his father, Murray Oliver (“a handsome, good-natured man”) he says:

“He would pop in and out of my life. I don’t have a lot of memories. I never spent very much time with him. I think he cared about me. He just wasn’t able to take on all the responsibilities of fatherhood. He did send the cheques. I think that, for however long it was I was kind of wandering the street, that was probably pretty bad. But he just couldn’t look after it and he was busy with his bootlegging business. I have no bad feelings about my father. No bitterness.”

His close relationship with his mother, Elizabeth, (“a lively brunette”) he now sees differently:

“My mother was clearly bipolar and I didn’t recognize it. I’d never heard of what bipolar was. I just found it very difficult to deal with all her issues, and maybe I should have been more sympathetic. I bought her a condo in Vancouver to get her out of Rupert, and then she just went steadily downhill. She was an alcoholic and obviously had pretty serious mental health problems, and just never seemed to be able to beat them.

“But at her best, she was a lot of fun. My mother was very smart. She had a quick wit. She was impatient with people who weren’t as fast as she was. And she was very kind. Imagine in a racist town like Rupert when my best friend, an Indian, had nowhere to go, she said, ‘Well, he can move in with us.’ She had Scots determination. And she worked hard, God she worked hard. She never had very much peace in her life, and when this guy she lived with, left her, she never recovered from that, never recovered.”

Oliver’s Twist has a simple dedication: “For my mother.”

Both parents long gone, Oliver reflects on Prince Rupert:

“The town is half what it was. It was just booming when I was young. I think it will come back again. It has one of the deepest natural harbours in the world, a very protected harbour.

But it’ll take a while. I want to go back there and just have a look at that town on last time.”

In Ottawa, Oliver relishes his “plugged-in” status. As our conversation winds down, he recounts a list of social obligations as well as recent personal phone calls from Jean Chrétien and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. He is a much-liked “social person.” “Some would say overly so,” he laughs, “but I can handle that. And I like that. My wife prefers a quieter life, so I have that at home.” He married for a second time in 1988, to CTV colleague Annemarie Bergeron. Their daughter, Annie Claire, was born in 1989. he has said that his one regret is that he can no longer see her face.

Oliver’s hard-won enthusiasm for life continues. And moves ahead, he says, with his trademark directness, “with no apologies, none whatsoever.”

In conversation, Oliver is lively and fund. In his informed, upbeat style, he vigorously defends mainstream journalism.

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