Monday 17 December 2012

Laurier LaPierre, R.I.P.

Today one of Canada's greatest citizens passed away at the age of 83. He was most famous as the co-host of the ground-breaking CBC-TV program This Hour Has Seven Days, but he was much more than that. A journalist, a teacher, a high-school principal, the first openly gay member of the Canadian Senate, and one of the few broadcasters in the history of the CBC ever to be fired (along with his co-host, Patrick Watson), Mr. LaPierre infuriated his bosses at the CBC and simultaneously won the hearts of the Canadian public from coast to coast to coast.

This Hour made television history, and not only in Canada. Its influence spread around the world, and it served as the model for television journalism worldwide. Its most obvious descendant, in American terms, was 60 Minutes, which although nowhere near as sharp and confrontational, in its own sphere also pushed the envelope. Laurier (one cannot help but call him by his first name, he had that kind of relationship with his audience -- one of intimacy, of empathy, and of absolute fearlessness when dealing with powerful politicians.

In one of his most famous and provocative interviews, with the mother of Stephen Truscott, who was found guilty of the rape and murder of his classmate and sentenced to be hanged -- at the age of 14. A year later, Truscott's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 2001, Truscott filed for a judicial review of his conviction. In 2007, after examining more than 250 pieces of evidence, the Ontario Court of Appeal declared his conviction a miscarriage of justice, and acquitted Truscott of the murder. During the interview with Truscott's mother, Laurier was seen to shed a tear, and this perhaps more than any other action sealed Laurier's fate with the CBC.

He so enraged CBC executives at the time that they not only fired Laurier and co-host Patrick Watson, but they also cancelled the show itself, as if determined to eradicate all traces not only of LaPierre and Watson, but of the program itself. This action inspired a nationwide protest the likes of which neither CBC nor Canada at large had ever seen.

Since then, a number of documentaries and books have been published describing the program, its influence and its wars. In its wake have come a number of vaguely similar shows (CBC's The Fifth Estate and Marketplace, CTV's W5, and others), but none have had the same impact as This Hour. It galvanized the nation, and no other journalistic program has ever gathered more viewers. It was almost as if it were a National Hockey League broadcast. Millions of Canadians gathered around the tube once a week, with a palpable aura of excitement.

As a Senator, Laurier continued in his fearless ways. He was a joy to behold, and he will never be forgotten -- even, and perhaps especially by, his enemies. He will be missed by a grateful nation.

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