On Canada Day: Let’s Pay Homage to “Mr. Canada”

Any review of Canadian history during the twentieth century will inevitably red circle 1967 as a year of significance. From coast to coast to coast, celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of Canadian confederation were the order of the day. A central figure in these activities was a native of the Tantramar. On July 1, 1999, let’s recognize this individual, who during his lifetime, came to be known as Mr. Canada.

John W. Fisher (1913–1981), son of Frederick and Nora Wiggins Fisher, obtained his early education in Sackville schools; later graduating from Rothesay Collegiate and Mount Allison University. Then it was on to Dalhousie Law School; and admission to the bar of Nova Scotia in 1938. Destiny, however, was to intervene and he did not pursue a career in law.

Following a stint as a newspaper reporter, Fisher accepted in 1943, an appointment with the CBC. Almost overnight, his voice became one of the best known in Canada. Radio programs such as: The Wandering Observer and later John Fisher Reports. attracted a national audience. He had found his niche, as a colorful and creative radio journalist and commentator.

Crisscrossing the country time and again, John Fisher was at home wherever he went. In his broadcasts he sought the unique aspects of Canadian society and reported all discoveries with boundless enthusiasm. As he expressed it: I roam across this country, probing, portraying and prodding with but one purpose: to awaken Canada to its true potential.

Several characteristics resounded throughout his broadcasts. One was a strongly held pro-Canadian point of view. Each corner of Canada stabs my soul, he once remarked; for I am in love with the whole. Yet in his radio scripts, which numbered in the hundreds, Fisher never lost sight of the little places. It was from obscure and out of the way locations, that he made some of his most memorable broadcasts.

John Fisher always remembered his roots. Time after time he would return to the Tantramar for inspiration. One broadcast began: It comes to my desk every week. I never fail to read it. It’s only a small town newspaper, full of the doings of a small place. You’ve probably never heard of it, the Sackville Tribune Post. The other day I noticed a story about a little church known as St. Ann’s in nearby Westcock… Then Fisher’s words tumbled out; as the story of the Bard of the Tantramar, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, came alive for his listeners.

Growing up in Sackville and spending summers on the family farm in Frosty Hollow, he developed an affinity for the Tantramar landscape. Here is one of John Fisher’s carefully crafted passages, written in late autumn, when local scenery is never at its best:

Just over the hill from a little grey church, is the great divide between marsh and upland. As your car climbs the hill you look back on Westcock, then suddenly a new world looms and spreads before you, almost hits your windshield. The land is as different as day from night, the winds are cold now, the color weird. As far as the eye will stretch there is marsh and salt water and then chill of ocean. This hill is the dividing line. Through these marshes winds the Tantramar River, snaking, turning back to look on itself; forming strange patterns in the brown mud, empty onetime, overflowing the next. Tides ferociously keep the warm chocolate color agitated.

In 1956 Fisher’s career took yet another turn when he was named Director of the Canadian Tourist Association. This was a logical appointment; for no one could lay better claim to knowing Canada in its entirety. In this role he continued to be in demand as a guest speaker and commentator.

Once John Fisher was asked to address a conference of Canadian Food Industry executives. After a glance at the printed menu, he threw away his notes and ad libbed a new speech. Never one to shy from controversy he commented: The worst thing about conventions are the banquets. Picking up the menu, he chided the organizers for their lack of imagination in not providing a unique Canadian meal.

Unfortunately, I have only space to quote a few of Fisher’s local examples. How about fiddlehead salad or quahaug chowder? No one at the head table had heard of the latter delicacy. He went on: Surely then, you’ve heard of PEI’s famous Malpeque oysters, or lobster or perhaps shad fresh from the Bay of Fundy? For dessert, he suggested something featuring either New Brunswick cranberries or Nova Scotia blueberries. He then took the audience on a cross country gastronomic tour reeling off menu suggestions from every region. His insight and good humor earned a standing ovation. John Fisher had made his point!

He held this position with the CTA until named special assistant to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961. Two years later he was appointed Centennial Commissioner, charged with the responsibility of coordinating events that culminated in the celebrations of 1967. In this capacity he again toured the country urging Canadians to rid themselves of that strange disease of apology and non-support for things Canadian. In no small measure, the success of Canada’s 1967 Centennial may be traced to the enthusiasm and energy of Mr. Canada.

I first met John Fisher during one of his visits to the University of Western Ontario. He was always pleased to come to Western and was proud of the fact that he had graduated from the University’s famed French Language Program at Trois Pistoles, Qubec. In this and through later contacts, I came to appreciate the private John Fisher, a man of sparkling wit, wisdom and thoughtfulness.

My last meeting with him was twenty years ago, on July 1, 1979 when he chaired a panel discussion on Canadian unity at a conference convened at Thinker’s Lodge, Pugwash, Nova Scotia. It was held to coincide with the International Gathering of the Clans, which rotates every four years between Old and New Scotland. John Fisher was at his persuasive best as he pleaded for understanding between all races and peoples in a united Canada. Would that we had someone with the same devotion and eloquence in 1999!

John Fisher died on February 14, 1981. In a symbolic move, a grateful House of Commons passed a motion paying tribute to his outstanding contribution to his country. On July 1, 1999, let’s pay homage to Mr. Canada; for John Fisher’s message is as relevant today, as it was in 1979.