February 1965: A new flag, a new day for Canada — and then …

What came next in that 26th Parliament? Pettiness, selfishness, intolerance as crisis gave way to crisis

Israelis are silhouetted behind a Canadian flag at a rally to thank Canada's PM Harper for his support of Israel during his visit at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem

Bob Lewis was editor of Maclean’s magazine from 1993 to 2000. Back in 1965, he was a fresh reporter on Parliament Hill:

On February 16, 1965, having arrived in Ottawa with all his worldly possessions in a green steamer trunk, a fresh-faced 22-year-old reporter walked up Parliament Hill to report for his first day of work. His excitement and anticipation heightened as he looked up in the clear, chill air and saw the new Canadian flag snapping atop the Peace Tower, the stylized, 11-point red Maple Leaf proclaiming a new day. It had been hoisted for the first time the day before amid prayers and much hope. Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who had led the divisive battle to replace the Red Ensign as Canada’s national flag, intoned: “God bless our flag and God bless Canada.” Governor General George Vanier told a cheering crowd of 10,000: “I appeal to all Canadians to set aside pettiness, selfishness and intolerance where they may exist, and to cultivate a spirit of brotherhood and mutual confidence.”

What unfolded inside the building over the remaining months of the 26th Parliament — and beyond — gave new meaning to the words pettiness, selfishness and intolerance.

From one day to the next, crisis gave way to crisis. Personal name-calling and allegations of scandal reverberated through the halls, whether it was that a federal worker was a Russian spy or that a mysterious East German woman had slept with members of the government. Someone set off a bomb in the washroom adjacent to the prime minister’s office, killing himself, but no one else. Aides to the prime minister were accused of consorting with the mafia and one went to jail for accepting a bribe.

Cabinet ministers left in disgrace, seemingly almost as fast as they arrived.

The many judicial commissions of inquiry became a growth industry for lawyers and consultants.

Even from a distance of 50 years, it was truly one of the most bitter periods in Canadian parliamentary history, embracing the bloody downfall of Conservative leader John Diefenbaker, scandals and allegations that tainted the reputations of cabinet ministers on both sides of the House, the demise of Lester Pearson and the rise of two promising leaders, Pierre Trudeau and Robert Stanfield.

It was a wonderful time for a journalist to claim a front-row seat to watch Canadian history unfold, with all its imperfections — and in all its glory. Indeed, amidst the many crises — manufactured and real — came some lasting legislation that endures today: the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, abolition of capital punishment, reform of immigration rules. And throughout, there was the leitmotif of Canada’s past and present, the ebb and flow of nationalism in Quebec and the federation’s struggle to respond.

It was an era when journalism on Parliament Hill was intimate and intense, when reporters tapped out their stories on typewriters in an aptly named “Hot Room” near the House of Commons — when they weren’t dictating them on deadline into a bank of telephones. It was a time when reporters actually sat covering the House of Commons, interviewed MPs in the members’ lobbies of the House and were the objects of feeding, watering and leaking — all in aide of conveying a party’s agenda to the nation.

With the exception of Norman Depoe and Jean-Marc Poliquin of the CBC and Radio Canada, newspapers were the dominant force, their publishers and editors regular visitors to the corridors of power; their correspondents the confidants of ministers and backbenchers of every stripe. Blair Fraser of Maclean’s, The Toronto Star’s Peter C. Newman, W.A. Wilson of The Montreal Star, Tony Westell of The Globe, Charlie Lynch of Southam, Jean-V. Dufresne of Le Devoir and Amédée Gaudreault of Le Soliel were among the stalwarts who set the agenda for the nation — as well as for a new generation of reporters who had the good fortune to become their protégés: Geoffrey Stevens, Norman Webster, Joyce Fairbairn, Luc Beauregard, among others.

To the young reporter, February 17, 1965 belonged to the promise of the future—well at least to his first assignment: covering a reference to the committee on privileges and elections. It its own small way, the case spoke volumes for what had gone before—and what was to come. Gilles Grégoire, the fiery deputy leader of the Créditiste party, a rump of Quebec nationalists who often supported the minority Liberals, had been arrested on the Hill for ignoring two outstanding traffic warrants. Grégoire had refused to accept the warrants because they were not “officially” issued in French. He claimed he had been manhandled by three RCMP officers and called the RCMP Commssioner “public enemy number one” of all French Canadians. The government’s house leader actually supported Grégoire’s right to a hearing. MPs of all parties, said George McIlraith, must be allowed to attend to their parliamentary duties freely. “It is clear,” he added, “that the service of Parliament is paramount to all other claims.”

And there it was in a nutshell: language rights, an RCMP controversy and a brouhaha in the Commons, themes that resonate even today. There would be bigger issues and battles to come, bigger stories to cover, a world of wonders to discover. For now, February 17 was a day of immense pride for a young reporter, a sense of arrival in the big league of his chosen career. The headline on the left-hand column of The Montreal Star on page 28 read:


By Robert Lewis
Of The Star’s Ottawa Bureau

Bob Lewis was editor of Maclean’s magazine from 1993 to 2000.

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