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Reporter’s Blog: Big names in small towns — the fun of covering election news in Northern Ontario

In his long career, Sudbury.com reporter Len Gillis has met former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s dad) and many other famous figures in Canadian history
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Len Gillis. (File)

If there is one thing reporters will compare notes about — with some conservative memories and liberal doses of horse feathers — it is covering elections. 

It is something every journalist has done whether it is for a small town council or doing coverage for a national campaign. 

I can't be sure, but I don't think everyday Canadians get caught up in politics as much as reporters do. Some of my favourite stories are about the politicians I have met and written stories about. Some of them impressed me greatly. Let me be clear, I can be just as upset as anyone else when politicians say or do dumb things. 

But on the whole, I admire people who stand up and put themselves out there for what they believe in.

We are still more than two years away from the next federal election but already the national party leaders are aligning themselves with issues and people to prepare for October of 2023.

I remember well working my first federal election as a professional reporter in the summer of 1974.

I was a cub reporter on a hot summer morning in the Timmins riding. NDP national leader David Lewis had arrived at the airport and was being followed by a highway coach loaded with national media to tour the riding for several hours. Lewis was famous for calling out Canadian companies as "corporate welfare bums.”

I was told to get on the bus. It was noisy, crowded and full of cigarette smoke. No one really took notice of the skinny kid with the camera and notebook shuffling toward the back of the bus.  The first guy to say hello was a very tall, smiling and confident fellow in a dark suit, who handed me a beer in a stubby brown bottle (It was before noon!) and asked me if I wanted a bologna sandwich with or without mustard. It was reporter Henry Champ of CTV news. He would become a superstar foreign correspondent with NBC News. Awesome.

Also on the bus was reporter Mike Duffy, then with CBC Radio, and later a national correspondent on both CBC and CTV. Duffy was kibitzing with the RCMP officers by suggesting the banana in the pocket of his sport coat made the same silhouette as the pistols they carried in their pockets. (You had to be there!) 

There was also Mark Phillips of CBC TV, who would become more famous for his work with CBS News, all over the world. I was star-struck. I don't know how these guys managed to get their work done with all the beer and joking around on the campaign bus. It sure was fun. 

We covered Mr. Lewis at four or five different stops where he shook hands and gave speeches in places like Matheson, Ramore and Iroquois Falls. I got enough photos and notes to write a couple of stories. 

I was back at my typewriter later that afternoon feeling sad that I couldn't stay with the gang as they departed and travelled across Canada. 

At another event, I remember being assigned to get photos of Ontario Premier Bill Davis. It was a summer day and Mr. Davis was leading an entourage of supporters on Algonquin Boulevard in Timmins. I was running to stay in front of the group so I could point my brand new Nikkormat FTn in Davis' direction and get my shots. 

In those days, before I was able to afford a second 35mm camera I had to change lenses to get different shots. So there I was, running sideways and backwards, to stay in front of the group. 

I reached down to unlock my 28mm wide angle lens, which I intended to plop into my shoulder bag and then attach a 50mm standard lens to the camera. Something happened. I dropped the 28mm. It hit the pavement — and unbelievably — it bounced. I shouted the forbidden swear loud enough that people nearby could hear me. I'm not sure, but maybe even the premier heard me.  

I caught the lens as it bounced, put it in the shoulder bag and then attached the other lens. 

I just kept moving, hoping nobody really noticed my faux pas. So embarrassed. Luckily I got some decent news photos. I still have the lens, a beautiful Auto Nikkor 28 with an obvious dent in the metal ring on the front. It still works. 

On another occasion, I met Bill Davis again, but I was not allowed to take his photo at that moment. It was the late 1970s. There was an important political conference happening in Geraldton, Ontario of all places. 

It was important for Davis to make an appearance. The local MPP Alan Pope was a member of the Davis cabinet. Pope wanted coverage of the event, but there was no way I could drive out to Geraldton and back and get the story on the news that night. Still, if the premier was in the North, I should try to cover his appearance. 

Pope telephoned me at the office. Be at the airport in 30 minutes, he said. So I drove to the airport and just in time, an executive looking airplane was touching down for fuel. I think it was a twin-engined Beech King Air 350. Pope got off the plane and came into the terminal. He said something like, "Here's your ride to Geraldton.”

He told me Davis was on the plane, but there would be no interview and no photos, especially because Davis liked to enjoy a cigar now and then. I agreed. We got on the plane. Davis smiled and nodded, but said nothing. Then he took a long and enjoyable draw on his cigar. He was reading the Globe and Mail and having a drink. He was sitting toward the front, but the large executive seat was facing the rear of the plane. 

Alan and I sat at the back. We flew to Geraldton. We covered the meeting, got back on the plane, and it dropped me off in Timmins. I had my pictures. I had my notes. I had my story. 

The other famous person I met with in those days was none other than Pierre Trudeau, in the spring campaign of 1979.  

The Liberals had a strong, high profile candidate in Pierre Bélanger of Earlton, who was running to unseat New Democrat Arnold Peters that year in the Timiskaming Riding. There was enough confidence in Bélanger’s candidacy that the national Liberal office agreed to kick off the campaign in Earlton, Ontario. 

Of course, the Liberal plane departed Ottawa that morning but the first stop on the national campaign was indeed in Earlton. I had hounded Bélanger’s campaign with several phone calls and they finally agreed to give me face time with Trudeau. 

That consisted of about five minutes on the bus ride from the tiny Earlton Airport to a church hall in town. We stood in the aisle with me trying to ask smart questions while Trudeau gave calm and confident answers to a small town TV reporter. 

I can't remember anything about what we talked about except he had the bluest blue eyes.  Bélanger lost his bid for the seat. Arnold Peters was elected. Trudeau lost also. Joe Clark became the prime minister that year. 

Another major event back in the day happened on May 20, 1980. That was the date of the first Quebec referendum. I was sent to Val d'Or that day, but not to cover the referendum. It was a sadder event. 

That was the day of the Belmoral Mine disaster, when the roof of the mine caved in and thousands of tonnes of mud, slimes and water flooded the mine. I was the first reporter at the scene after the Sûreté du Québec revealed there had been a cave-in. I remember meeting election reporters from Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City who had rushed to Val d'Or to cover the mining disaster. 

It happened on the night shift with 24 men working underground. Sixteen escaped. After days and weeks of rescue efforts, it was deemed that eight men had died. Quebecers that day said no to the idea of a separate province. But for the people in Val d'Or, the referendum was a minor issue compared to the loss of life. That's a story for another day. 

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.




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About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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