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Reporter’s blog: The anger and the sadness of covering tragic stories

Len Gillis recalls his emotional reaction to covering a 1978 canoeing tragedy on Lake Timiskaming that claimed the lives of 12 teenagers and one teacher 
CanoeSized

Overwhelming sadness and a bit of anger. 

It all comes back to me when I remember the terrible canoeing tragedy that occurred on Lake Timiskaming back in 1978. 

Living in Northern Ontario, one is exposed to the fun and frustration of canoeing on the thousands of lakes and rivers in the North. I was pleased to have canoed the Abitibi River and the Moose River in the summer of 1977 on my way to Moosonee. It gave me a strong sense of the hard work and hardships that can happen on a canoe trip.

It all came rushing back on June 12 of 1978. It was early evening on a Monday night and I was preparing to cover a regular meeting of Timmins city council.

The Sudbury newsroom (CKSO TV) paged me to inform that the Canadian Press wire service reported a group of Toronto schoolboys, aged 13 and 14, were stranded on an island in Lake Timiskaming and that the police, the Sûreté du Québec at Ville Marie, were involved in a rescue. Very few details were provided. I was thinking this could be a nice rescue story. 

I scooted out of the council meeting, made sure I had lots of film for my camera, and hit the road. I had never been to Ville Marie, but I knew I could get there quickly enough by going south to New Liskeard and then crossing over into Quebec on Highway 65 at Notre-Dame-du-Nord.

It was dark when I rolled up in front of the police station in Ville Marie.

I met a friendly police officer who understood right away why I was there. I was the first reporter to arrive. He explained that police were recovering several bodies and rescuing several others. In all, there were 25 male students and several teachers. He said no names were being revealed at that time and that parents in the Toronto area were being notified. 

Right away I knew this story was far more serious than I expected. It was around 10 p.m. and I called the newsroom in Sudbury. I wrote a quick voice report in my notebook (no laptops or cellphones in those days) and then called back from a payphone to voice my story.  

The police officer I chatted with mentioned there was coffee in a kitchen in the back of the police station. He also said I was welcome to stay the night if I didn't mind sleeping on a bare mattress in one of the jail cells. I thought this would be an interesting night.

As 11 p.m. approached, other reporters began arriving at the police station. There was a Toronto Star reporter and photographer, a reporter from Canadian Press from Ottawa, and a couple of newspaper reporters from Montreal. I remember one fellow dragging a large machine about the size of an old-fashioned TV set. It was a wirephoto machine.

As an hour passed, the front reception area became packed with reporters. There had to be about 20 people in the room. At that point, the friendly Sûreté officer I had been speaking with told me I would not be able to stay at the police station overnight. He said there were just too many people.

I asked about hotel rooms nearby. All Ville-Marie rooms were being booked for parents and family members. The officer said there was a motel in Notre-Dame-du-Nord and he suggested I go there. He said there would be a formal news conference at 8 a.m. the next morning. 

I looked around the room and figured it was time to move. I left the police station and began heading north on Quebec Highway 101. Sure enough in about 15 minutes I saw the motel. I pulled in. There was a person ahead of me and a person behind me. I asked about a room. 

The lady said there was one left. I pulled out my cheque book, for my bank in Timmins. The motel lady frowned and said they don't usually take cheques. I wasn't sure how to answer. The only credit card I had back then was a card for gasoline. Suddenly a deep voice behind me said, "I will pay for the room if you let me share it."

I turned around and the fellow explained that since there was only one room left, it only made sense to share the room, and he would pay. I had to agree. The fellow introduced himself as Taylor Parnaby, a man I didn't know, but who was incredibly well-known as one of the voices of CFRB Radio-1010 in Toronto. We shared the room and then went our separate ways. I met "Hap" Parnaby again more than 20 years later at a broadcasting conference in Toronto. We remembered our meeting with a drink and a laugh.

It was that next morning back in Ville Marie that I still have trouble with. 

The Sûreté du Québec took the gathered reporters to the Lake Temiskaming shoreline for a photo opportunity. I was shocked. We were about 25 metres from a boat docking area with one long pier where the bodies of 12 boys and one teacher were lying, side by side. The bodies were covered with blankets and tarps, but it was easy to see a hand, a foot or an arm sticking out. 

It suddenly brought home the fact that so many young lives had been lost. I was angry. As a canoeist I wondered, how could this possibly happen. 

That morning was a blur as the police held two news conferences. One with police officials and another with members from Saint John's Anglican boy's school, which was the school that sponsored the canoe trip. There were 18 survivors, numbering 13 other boys and a handful of teachers.

Sadly, many of the parents of the boys who had died had arrived in Ville Marie that morning, and sat in to watch the news conference. It was difficult to hear mothers and fathers sobbing. I knew the story was big, but was surprised to see a helicopter arrive with a crew from ABC News in New York. 

As the afternoon approached, I was relieved of the story by a far more experienced crew from CFTO news in Toronto.

I decided to head back home to Timmins that afternoon and as I was driving north on Highway 11, something came over me, and I was shaking. Maybe it was an anxiety attack. It never happened before or since then.

I had to pull off to the side of the road. I lit a cigarette. I needed to calm down. I needed someone to talk to. I remember talking out loud, to myself, inside the car. That's when the sadness hit. And again the anger.

An inquest was eventually held where it was described how the group set out in four custom-built canoes to cross the lake when suddenly the weather turned bad. The wind and the waves whipped up and within a few hours, all four canoes had capsized and most of the boys ended up in the freezing lake. The inquest ruled that the entire incident was accidental. One canoe had flipped over at first and as the other canoes came to the rescue they too would be turned over. Things just got worse and worse from there. Plenty has been written about the disaster. 

It should never have happened.

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




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Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

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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