JOHN LOVES CANADA
John Fisher loves Whisky Creek, B.C., Ecum Secum, N.S., and all points between with an oratorical fervor that keeps him a CBC ace
IS JOHN FISHER a flirt? Does Canada’s most, articulate lover get infatuated too easily? Is the CBC’s passionate-voiced weekly commentator “and observer of Canadian ways” really as mad about Quebec from the parapets of the Chateau Frontenac as he is about Victoria when he’s holed up in the Empress? What about Edmonton when he’s in the Macdonald?
“I love them all with fervor,” says this real-estate Romeo. “Each part of Canada has its own flavor, its own personality. Each place is an individual.
I am merely the. type of man who can find romance in a piece of bread.” And the man who for six years has been mooning of his infatuation for his country over the CBC network once actually built one of his weekly 15-minute programs around a slice of bread. His voice throbbed with oratorical splendor as he told of Fife and the one stalk of wheat from which the first successful crops were grown on the Prairies. He rocketed along describing the fields of waving grain, the breadbasket of the world, in the manner of a man retracing the features of his beloved.
Fisher can do this with Pickle Crow, Ont., Ecum Secum, N.S., and Whisky Creek, B.C. His eyes glow with a lover’s fire over Hamiota, Man., Malignant Cove, N.S., and Manyberries, Alta. He quivers like a twanged bow on the main streets of Frosty Hollow, N.B., Trois Pistoles, Que., and Medicine Hat, Alta.
Often regarded as our most eloquent Canadian, Fisher certainly is one of its best informed on Canadiana. He knows that “O Canada” is sung with three different sets of lyrics and that it was composed by a Canadian who found his fortune in the United States. He knows that Negro porters on our trains are often college graduates, some of them doctors. He knows that the British flag has been flying longer over Manitoba than any part of North America. He knows that four out of five newspapers in the western hemisphere get their paper from Canada, that the Cariboo gold rush was started by a man who ran away with a trader’s daughter, that Canada’s normal annual tourist business is only slightly larger than that of the state of Minnesota.
His phrases of love range from colorful to corny. He says that Canada is the maple leaf crisp and clean in autumn ... it’s the beaver minding his own business and working hard . . . it’s the goose on a straight course . . . it’s the smell of boiling sap, burning brush, sweet hay, ripe grapes and fresh sawdust . . . it’s also hot pavements, gasoline, cigars and the sweat of cities . . . it’s driving, wind-crazy snow dying in the warmth of an Eskimo’s face . . . it’s a bullfrog’s throaty protest at the silence of a summer evening . . . and the rattle of freight cars following each other like frightened cattle.
Fisher, a balding, chunky, 37-yearold, who looks not unlike another great lover named Boyer, is a critical Casanova. He complains about Canada’s “mental constipation” and about the “haemorrhage of brains” to the United States. He calls the food and personality of his country “dull.”
He often says that the old expression about a prophet being without honor in his own land was written about Canada. When it comes to making history and pioneers live we are total flops. We excel at hiding our heads under bushel baskets. He points out that this country has no national library, but Ethiopia has.
Jolting John Fisher is sometimes the stern parent in his anxiety to hurry along the vintaging of a fine Canadian. Over the network he has on occasion advised his people to pull themselves together, organize a Freedom Train filled with Canadian treasures like the Confederation table and take it across the country. He suggests that high schools sponsor Canadian appreciation contests.
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HAM, CORN AND COLOR - THAT’S JOLTING JOHN
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In the meantime Fisher is a one-man Freedom Train, a packaged coast-tocoast tour. He brings to Canadians every Sunday evening warmly worded descriptions of the Fathers of Confederation chatting together over their documents. His listeners have flinched as the muskets cracked on the Plains of Abraham and have smelled the fishing schooners of Digby, N.S., and the roses blooming at Christmas in Victoria. Fisher fills the air with dramatic adjectives which occur to some people when they are deeply moved, but which they rarely utter for fear of ridicule.
“You’re a circus barker,” accused one listener.
“Forgive me, madam” answered Fisher softly, “I am carried away by my subject.”
Fisher’s critics fall into two classes, those who complain about his fondness for ballyhoo and those who are disturbed because they feel he is antiBritish or pro-American.
Fisher is never upset by these charges; he is a natural debater and when he receives some warmly worded blasts he takes to the air delightedly.
“You boys have missed the boat,” he announces cheerfully. “If I am wrong about jolting people out of their apathetic rut, then why are there five million people of Canadian origin living in the United States? ... I am neither anti-British nor desirous of imitating the United States. I am a Canadian trying to develop a strong Canadian spirit so we can show the world a beautiful new way of life, the Canadian way.”
William Arthur Deacon, dean of Canadian critics, comments: “He is doing this in the only possible way it can be done. Canada is a mindless giant. The only way to pierce the apathy is to be a bit of a ham, use sensationalism. How else can you get anyone in this country to turn off Roy Rogers?”
Fisher’s antisensationalism critics had a barn-size target when he went on the air following the recent Grey Cup games lauding the showmanship of the Calgary supporters and deploring the ennui of their adversaries. “You’re wrong,” he told them. “If that spirit Calgary showed will catch on, some day every boy in Canada will be dreaming of playing in the great Grey Cup game. Right now no Canadian boy would swap a Rose Bowl game for three in Varsity Stadium.”
A Death Threat Was Delivered
That Fisher is sincere cannot be doubted. He has abandoned almost all social and family life for cross-country trips punctuated every few hours with speeches in factories, hotel dining rooms, schools, theatres, skating rinks, drill halls, bandstands and, once, the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. His most casual conversations are studded with Canadian trivia, his ambition is not to become richer but to reach more people with his message, his concern is how much progress he can make in his oneman effort to inspire a nation.
It even pains Fisher to be reminded that he is making a living selling Canada to Canadians. “If you mention my income people are apt to think that I’m just a professional Canadian,” he complains. “I am on good terms with trappers and fishermen who see about $300 cash a year. My income would seem colossal to them.” Fisher averages about $10,000 a year, after
expenses which average $3,000 or $4,000.
His listeners were shocked recently when he announced, in the course of an unusually impassioned plea for more Canadian spirit, that a woman had attacked his wife in their hotel room in Montreal and had threatened to kill the Fishers and their four-year-old son for their “ideas.” Fisher didn’t mention what ideas the woman resented, but her attack followed a visil by a wild-eyed man who stood in the hall outside the room and denounced Fisher for his friendship with Jews and Catholics.
Fisher’s wife, the former Audrey Paynter, whom he married in New Brunswick in 1937, is almost an invalid and this attack caused her to have a serious breakdown. Fisher drove her to Florida, stayed three days himself (two of which it rained) and drove back in time to address a home and school club meeting in Burlington.
Fisher’s red flag is the subject of fees paid to speakers. He complains that British and American speakers, regardless of the obscurity of their topic, haul down enormous fees and are applauded by packed halls, while Canadians are given next to nothing and very rarely attract a big attendance. “And we wonder why Canadians go to the United States,” he fumes. “They would have gone to Great Britain or France too, if those countries had been as handy as the U. S.”
Fisher has had some nebulous offers to go to the States himself. One advertising agency toyed with the idea of having him do the vocal on movie travelogues, after the James Fitzpatrick, or “as we leave beautiful Trinidad,” pattern. Fisher’s lack of interest has cooled a number of proposals like these.
But his lectures are popular there and he could possibly make a comfortable living on the rubber peas circuit if he chose to emigrate. An agent handles his U. S. engagements.
Kids Get a Free Fisher
In the past few years he has become Canada’s most persistent after-dinner speaker. This year he estimates he will receive 2,000 requests to address meetings and he has bookings 10 months in advance. He will accept about 300 of these. He handles his Canadian bookings himself, with the assistance of his secretary, Pat Sutton.
His favorite audiences are children and Americans, in that order, because of their enthusiasm. “The reaction of Canadian adults is pallid next to the reception I get from their children and their neighbors from the south,” he comments.
Fees enter into the picture to only a limited degree, he insists. When Fisher speaks in the U. S. he draws as much as $500, pays his own expenses. When he speaks in Canada before a professional audience he asks for from $75 to $200 plus his expenses. He asks no money for addresses to home and school groups, school children and similar noncommercial groups. The CBC pays his expenses when he travels on a rare speaking assignment for the corporation.
The CBC’s program director, Ernest Bushnell, has not after six years been able to classify Fisher’s job there. He was hired as a talks producer, a man who hires speakers and gives them coaching. In the confusion which followed Fisher’s first broadcasts, when 27,000 letters were received, the CBC entirely lost track of the man. He is still listed as a talks producer.
To some extent this is a legitimate title, because Fisher has the only network broadcast without a producer in the control room giving signals to indicate when to start the show, when to stretch the material to fill an unexpected gap, when to hurry it up to beat the sign-off. He does all this himself, to the discomfort of new announcers, holding a slop watch beside his script, editing and rephrasing as he goes along and always ending right on the nose.
Bill Byles, of the Young and Rubicam advertising agency, which has had some dealings with Fisher, speaks in awe of his lack of temperament.
“One time he got to Ottawa just before he was to go on the air for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company,” Byles relates. “He sat down in the studio in his overcoat and started typing. He typed his script right up until time to go on the air and then moved over to the mike and started to read it. The timing was perfect and the script was beautifully written.”
Another time the sponsor liked a certain recording of a Fisher broadcast so well that they wore it out. Fisher heard of this and made them a new record free. “He never even asks me what his fee will be when I talk to him about a new show,” says Byles in wonder.
In One Day, Nine Deliveries
Two years ago when Ken MacTaggart, a Toronto newspaperman, became seriously ill while in England, his mother was working with Fisher on a series for a flour company. Margaret MacTaggart decided on a Sunday that she would fly to England, made her reservations for the following Thursday and then contacted Fisher to find out what they could do about the broadcasts. Fisher sat down and wrote 17 broadcasts, worked all one day and until 4 o’clock the next morning recording them so Mrs. MacTaggart could go with no loss of income.
Fisher speaks with ease and without notes. Be enjoys his dinner thoroughly without a thought in his head about what he will say, while the big businessman beside him who is to make the introduction writhes and fusses.
A few week ends ago he addressed the National Welfare Council in Ottawa and an international meeting of more than 2,000 insurance underwriters in Montreal. On his return to his office in Toronto he was horrified to discover multiple requests for copies of his speeches.
“I not only haven’t got copies of those addresses,” moaned Fisher, “but I haven’t a clue about what I said.”
Nevertheless, he agreed to supply copies and within the next few days wrote out two speeches he hoped would approximate the ones he had given. To avoid this in the future Fisher bought himself a $500 recording machine and all his addresses now are recorded as he makes them.
This vrill run into a ceiling-high collection of records if Fisher continues to make speeches at the clip he has
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maintained for the past few years; About a year ago he arranged to appear at the winter carnival in Fort William —one day and one speech. His train arrived at 3 a.m. and the reception committee jovially informed him that they had arranged for him to speak to some school children, people like that.
By 8 o’clock that night he had given nine addresses, two at schools, one over the radio, one at a luncheon, another when some Indians made him an honorary chief, another in the armories before 2,000 women, two more to pulp and paper company employees, and finally at the banquet which he had been scheduled to address in the first
Two years ago, when he returned from a tour of Europe sponsored by the Canadian Appeal for Children, he went across the country in 19 days and made 65 speeches and broadcasts, almost all ad lib.
Only occasionally does Fisher do any advance work on his talks. Once he has been told that 31 of the highest mountain peaks in the Rockies are in Alberta that fact is irrevocably his. His mental notebook fails him only
This year the Faculty of Dentistry of the University of Toronto asked him to talk on “Seventy-Five Years of Progress in Dental Education.” Fisher protested that his dental knowledge was confined to the reactions of the victim at the business end of the drill, but the faculty insisted. Fisher did some research and henceforth he will have fascinating bits of information about dentistry that he can slide into any of his addresses.
Fisher never forgets his audience in the process of getting off a wellpolished metaphor. He reaches his listeners by lauding the local terrain before he slips into Canada’s place in world affairs. This latter theme is his native habitat; here you find the John Fisher most at home. Excerpts from his addresses across the country can be fitted togetherinone smooth paragraph, so uniform are his sentiments.
“We should get away from the smallness of one part of the country knocking another,” he said once in Brantford. “How can we in Canada ever think about aiding the cause of world peace when we cannot stop bickering between provinces?” he asked in Halifax. “The friction between the French and the English is overemphasized,” he added in Saint John. “We are not sufficiently aware of the potentialities of our country,” he told a woman’s club in Montreal. “The best way to assert Canada to the world is to fascinate Canadians with their own country,” he continued in Guelph.
“In the United States,” he reiterates everywhere, “men who rise to prominence are heroes, they are worshipped. They are mobbed for autographs, deluged with fan mail. In England such people receive enormous respect, their names are spoken with reverence. In Canada, what happens? The attitude is ‘How the hell did he get there?’ ”
A Loyalist on Both Sides
Sometimes Fisher’s eloquence gets him upstream with no paddle. In Halifax he remarked that Toronto was the “problem city of Canada.” Two days and 50 indignant telegrams later, in Moncton, he hedged with “there are two sides to Toronto,” and on his return to Toronto he was in full retreat. “Toronto is a shy, friendly Canadian (own,” he told bemused newspapermen.
One of five children of a prosperous manufacturer, John Fisher was born in Sackville, N.B., and pointed at an early age in the direction of law school. Today he is so insistent about the abolishing of privilege for members of “the charmed British circle” that people find it hard to believe he is a genuine United Empire Loyalist descendant on both sides of his family.
The Prairies Had No Padlocks
Upon his graduation as a lawyer from Dalhousie. Fisher was one of the researchers employed by the RowellSirois Commission to re-examine Confederation and the rights of the provinces. (“It was dull as the dickens,” he says.)
He got in newspapers via the Saint John Citizen and the Halifax Herald. The Herald also owned a radio station and Fisher began veering between the two mediums.
His interest in the Nova Scotia CoOperative Movement brought him an offer to do a CBC broadcast on the subject. He was so nervous that he could hardly hold his script, but he decided that radio was just the place for a growing boy.
He applied for a job with the CBC and it took him four years to get himself hired as a talks producer in Toronto.
In the winter of 1943 he went West for the first time with Gerald Noxon, who was preparing a BBC documentary on Canada. Fisher was electrified, a typical Fisher state. “It was so big, so friendly, no suspicion of strangers. It is a country without padlocks,” he says, getting in stride. “I couldn’t wait to tell Canadians who hadn’t seen them about the Prairies.”
He persuaded the CBC to let him get it off his chest over its regular travel and adventure series. He titled his talks with a flourish: “Dust But Never Despair” (Saskatchewan), “In the Heart of a Continent” (Winnipeg), and “This Is It” (Vancouver). The response won his steady employment— Canadians wanted 27,000 copies of the 13 addresses in the series.
Why Leave It to Leonard?
His eloquence made him a natural for an after-dinner speaker. He has been presented the key to Baie Comeau, Galt, Port Arthur and Fort William, Kenora and Thorold. He is an honorary citizen of the Republic of Madawaska in New Brunswick, and of St. Cath -.riñes, where he asked the mayor if this meant he could park all night in front of the hotel.
He is Great Chief Snowy Owl of the Ojibway tribe and possesses an enormous headdress to remind him. High River, Alta., has sent him handsome leather boots and Fort William gave him a silver fox hat with a Daniel Boone tail down the back. He has four ten-gallon hats, a complete ensemble of deerskins, another outfit suitable for Arctic exploration and a lavish cowboy costume. He has numerous ash trays, cigarette lighters and plaques engraved with expressions of good will from cities across the country and he has been given several Maple Leaf lapel pins by wet-eyed admirers.
Fisher speaks a French that is short on vocabulary and grammatically ghastly, but impeccable in accent. He has accepted many offers to make addresses in French in Quebec and has scored with the Canadiennes.
“You’re only half a Canadian unless you speak both languages,” comments Fisher smugly.
His most successful broadcast to date has been “Don’t Leave It to Leonard,” a caustic discourse on the plight of a Montreal youngster who fell in love with history during his school days in Boston—Paul Revere, the Declaration
of Independence, Custer’s Last Stand, Plymouth’s Pilgrims—and could find nothing to match this in Canadian history books.
“The poor kid . . . jumped from rich cultivated fields to a dry, dull desert . . . yet Cartier and Champlain were no sissies, neither were Joliet nor La Salle. What do we know about the lives of Galt, Brown, Tilley, Laurier and Macdonald? Ask most Canadian schoolboys who D’Arcy McGee was and they’ll probably say he was a hockey player! Where is the Confederation Table? Where are the pens
they used? Where are the Confederation documents?”
Fisher told how the boy’s father tried to find narrative history books in Montreal and Toronto which would satisfy his son’s thirst for historical drama. He discovered the only books for children available in Canada were about Lincoln’s boyhood, General Washington, Pitt and Disraeli. One book, about the Mounties, was published in Chicago and written for American students.
The father, Leonard Knott, then wrote two books himself, one about the
Saguenay and the other about the Great Lakes. Both are selling well in the States, but poorly in Canada.
“Admittedly the enormous cultural forces in Great Britain and the United States slow our efforts,” comments Fisher. “Yet for that very reason we in Canada should work harder at selling our own story.”
Fisher claims he isn’t a nationalist, but an internationalist bent on arousing a backward relative. “My job is to hit at this strange Canadian disease of apology and nonsupport for things Canadian. The field isn’t crowded.” ^