A “Salvo” For Tantramar’s “Mr. Canada”

In the days and weeks that followed the death of Peter Gzowski, tributes to his distinguished career in journalism and broadcasting flooded Canadian media. And rightly so. Of few people could it be said that they were icons of Canadian culture.

More personally, Gzowski was referred to as the Voice of Canada and sometimes as Mr. Canada. Given the depth of his understanding of this country revealed on so many weekday mornings; all of these tributes were appropriate. At his memorial service, one of the most incisive comments came from Sussex New Brunswick native, Sheree Fitch who said, as only a poet might: Without being there, Gzowski took us there.

Going beyond this well deserved rhetoric, there is a generation of Canadians who recall with affection, yet another who earned with equal qualification, the same title, Mr. Canada.

Like Gzowski, his career in journalism and broadcasting was shaped by long service with the CBC. He too, travelled the country from coast to coast to coast. In part, because of his many years as the CBCs chief roving reporter; few others of his time gained a better understanding of our country.

By now, many readers will have guessed the identity of the first Mr. Canada; Tantramars John Wiggins Fisher (19131981). He once recalled: Down in a part of Canada where the Atlantic Ocean makes its call, there is a romantic village known as Frosty Hollow. It has a little schoolhouse, a brook which joins the sea, and meadows between wooded hills I love this place for I was born in Frosty Hollow.

He was the son of F.A. Frederick Arnold Fisher and Nora Millicent Wiggins. Educated at Rothesay Collegiate School, Mount Allison University and Dalhousie Law School; he graduated from the latter in 1938.

A stint reading law with the Halifax firm of Pearson, Rutledge and Donald was followed by admission to the Bar. He then became legal counsel with the Rowell-Sirois Royal Comission on federal provincial relations. In John Fishers world, all the stars seemed to be in place; as a promising future in law beckoned.

Then suddenly, John Fisher switched careers. Those who knew him well were not surprised. Always outgoing and affable, with a natural curiosity and zest for life, he was attracted to journalism. Following an apprenticeship with the Saint John Citizen and the Halifax Herald he joined the CBC.

From 1943 onward there was no turning back for the man from Frosty Hollow. Within the space of a few years, the voice of John Fisher became one of the best known throughout Canada. Advertised as the CBCs Roving Reporter the country became not only his beat; but his audience. The unusual, the controversial, and especially stories of unsung people were all guaranteed to gain his attention. Criss crossing the country on assignment provided a wealth of material for his widely acclaimed radio series: John Fisher Reports.

On reading some of these radio scripts, one characteristic stands out. John Fisher had an uncanny ability to establish rapport with Canadians wherever they might be found on a wharf in a lumber camp or in an igloo. Further, John Fisher could be equally at home participating in a Pacific Coast potlatch, giving a university lecture or making a presentation in a boardroom on Bay Street.

Although deeply rooted in his native Tantramar, no part of Canada was ever neglected. In his interpretation of the country to all Canadians, John Fisher learned, as a young man, to speak French. This was a major achievement in an age when such a skill was uncommon among anglophone Canadians. He perfected his study of the French language at the University of Western Ontarios summer school at Trois Pistoles, Qubec.

Soon honors began to come his way. Several universities bestowed honorary degrees. These were supplemented by the Beaver Award (1946) for his outstanding contribution as a broadcaster and commentator. The LaFleche Trophy was awarded twice, in 1946 and 1947; followed by the Centennial Medal 1967; the Order of Canada 1968 and the Queens Jubilee Medal in 1978. Because of his keen interest in Amerindian and Inuit culture, he was named an honorary chief by a number of First Nation communities.

In 1957 John Fisher left radio to become Executive Director of the Canadian Tourist Association, a post for which his earlier career in broadcasting provided a perfect background. In this new role he continued his travels to all regions of Canada. As he went about, John Fisher often gave keynote addresses at conferences and conventions.

It was on occasions such as this, that the full power of his oratorical skills were put to the test. I was present on one such occasion. It was near the end of a busy five day conference and Fisher was the last speaker on the program. His assignment was to summarize the deliberations of the previous week. One might have expected the hall to be half empty. But not this time.

Speaking without notes as was his custom, John Fisher soon had the audience on the edge of their seats. The speech was not long; possibly fifteen minutes, no more. His wit, accurate sense of timing and gift of story telling earned him a standing oration; no ordinary achievement on a humid Friday afternoon in Toronto.

The next turn in his career took him, in 1961 to Ottawa, first as special assistant to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The centennial of Canadian Confederation was then on the horizon. Who might take on the role of organizing such an event? Obviously there was no one better equipped than John Fisher, and he took up this new assignment with customary gusto.

It was during the years from 1963 to 1968, when John Fisher served as Centennial Commissioner, that he became nationally known as Mr. Canada; athough in truth, the nickname had been coined as early as the mid-1940s. Once more, he travelled the country that he knew so well, coaxing, cajoling and convincing communities large and small to ready themselves for the greatest birthday party that Canada has ever seen.

That the 1967 Centennial Celebration was the success that it became, may be attributed, in large measure to the energy and boundless enthusiasm of the first Mr. Canada. As a fitting climax to these celebrations, during the autumn of 1967, two special honors came to John Fisher.

On October 29th, at the autumn convocation at Universit de Moncton, the university orator noted a coincidence in presenting John Fisher as a candidate for the degree: Docteur en sciences sociale. He commented in French: Ten days ago, a native son of New Brunswick, who has become a favorite son of all Canada, received the Doctor of laws, conferred by Mount Allison University. Today that same native son, is hereby acclaimed in the same way by lUniversit de Moncton. It is remarkable that these two neighbouring institutions had selected, quite independently and without prior consultation, to offer honor to the same individual. It is remarkable, but not surprising.

For the remaining fourteen years of his life, John Fisher continued his previous hectic pace as commentator and consultant on all matters Canadian. One of my last contacts with him was in 1979, when he chaired a panel discussion on Canadian unity at Thinkers Lodge, Pugwash, Nova Scotia. What I remember most about this occasion was the private, rather than the public figure; as he mixed easily with delegates from Canada, the United States and overseas. I recall not only the storytelling, but his considerable talent as a mimic. John Fishers imitation of Dief the Chief was more convincing than any tape recording.

While considerable attention has always been given to John Fisher the broadcaster and orator, his gifts as a journalist should not be overlooked. This is best explained by quoting from his introduction to Explore Canada: An Illustrated Guide; published by the Canadian Automobile Association and Readers Digest Canada, in 1967.

I have spent most of my life on a fascinating voyage of discovery up and down, back and forth across my country. The spread of Canada has at times overpowered me. Its diversity has ensnared me. The pulse of Canada I have felt in the speechless beauty of its face and in the promise of the people who inhabit it.

Too many Canadians wander to other countries without ever experiencing their own. They are losers. But Canada loses too, because the unity we seek can be woven only from the knowing, feeling and caring of all Canadians. How can we express our Canadianism without understanding our compatriots in other regions and being aware of their contributions to our rich mosaic of cultures and lifestyles? When will we terminate the tedious debate about Canadas identity?

One member of his extended family, a great uncle, Charles Fisher (18081880), was numbered among the Fathers of Canadian Confederation. Perhaps John Fisher had this relative in mind when he discussed the famous conferences that led to 1867.

If the Fathers of Confederation could look down now, they would be pleased. We stand at the judgement bar of world outlook, clean and fresh as the maple leaf. Blesssed are we in our dullness and love of the middle of the road. Neither are we a great power or a small one. Fortunate are we to have emerged from the shadow of two worlds. We are not a great power, but we are still a great force. The test of bigness is not in miles the test is in attitude outlook and goodness. Canada, here is your chance to lead the world. Such words bear repeating in 2002!

In reviving the memory of John Wiggins Fisher, late of Frosty Hollow and immortalized as Mr. Canada the first; this Flashback is inadequate. Only a salvo of artillery fire would do. Would that the now silent battery at Fort Beausjour could muster a 21 gun salute!