Remembering Peter Desbarats

By David Spencer and Jim Etherington

A widely recognized figure in Canadian journalism, author, playwright and former Dean of Journalism at Western University, Peter Desbarats died February 11, 2014, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

By David Spencer and Jim Etherington

A widely recognized figure in Canadian journalism, author, playwright and former Dean of Journalism at Western University, Peter Desbarats died February 11, 2014, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Born and raised in Montreal, he had journalism in his blood. His great grandfather published Canada’s first national news magazine, The Canadian Illustrated News, from 1869 to 1883. Desbarats attended Loyola High School, a private Jesuit school for boys, and dropped out of Loyola College after one year, a decision that made life interesting for him in his later academic life.

He started his career in journalism as a copy boy for Canadian Press and then moved to the Montreal’s The Gazette. In 1955, he found himself in England working for Reuters before returning to Canada and a career with the Winnipeg Tribune, the Montreal Star, the Globe and Mail and Saturday Night magazine.

In 1965 he published his first book, The State of Quebec: A Journalist’s View of the Quiet Revolution, which at the time was noted by reviewers as an excellent insider’s view on events unfolding in the province. 

Over his lifetime, he would publish 12 more, including an insightful biography of Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, a journalism textbook and several children’s books. He also wrote three plays and received a number of awards, including two ACTRA Awards.

In the mid-60s, Desbarats founded a quarterly literary and political magazine called Parallel that attracted contributions by well-known Canadian writers including Leonard Cohen and Peter Newman.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he moved into broadcast journalism as host of a newscast in Montreal and soon was hosting the nightly program Seven at Six on the English language CBC station. In 1970, he returned to print journalism with the Ottawa bureau of the Toronto Star.

Three years later, Desbarats joined the newly formed Global TV as joint anchor of nightly news where he remained until the network was sold in 1980. He then worked for a number of government-appointed inquiries and commissions, including the Royal Commission on Newspapers.

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In 1981, he accepted an offer to be Dean of Western University’s journalism school and he led the faculty until he retired from the academy in 1996, two years after taking a leave to serve as commissioner with the inquiry into misconduct by Canadian soldiers in Somalia. 

Desbarats’ academic appointment was controversial in the university community where virtually all deans hold graduate degrees.

Larry Cornies, a London-based journalist and a graduate of the Desbarats-led Master of Arts in Journalism program, had his own take on the man, suggesting his quiet, laid-back demeanour led people to believe he was cool and distant.

“I don’t think he was that so much as he was a dyed-in-the-wool journalist who seldom, by dint of his vocation, let down his guard,” said Cornies. “He was constantly observing, sensing and extrapolating with a blend of healthy skepticism and guided purpose. He had come up in journalism, after all, through the school of hard knocks.”

Despite his background, Desbarats was sensitive to the pending changes in his profession. Ken Bambrick, a retired professor from the Journalism school, remembers that Desbarats foresaw the impact the Internet and digital media would have on the news business.

“He was aware of the coming of electronic material and he was interested in moving into the new platforms,” said Bambrick.

Fred Langan, writing Peter’s obituary in the Globe and Mail, described Peter as a man of the Mad Men era: “handsome, well dressed (he almost always wore black), great at his job and cool in a Don Draper kind of way. He was among the first to sport long sideburns, and wrote a magazine article about it, and for a while wore a Sherlock Holmes-style cape. He rode a motorcycle to work.”

Desbarats’ term as Dean of Journalism at Western stimulated ongoing critical comments because of his lack of formal education—degrees being seen as the measurement of achievement in the academic community.

The commentary didn’t bother Desbarats as he was doing what he loved: encouraging men and women to undertake work in the journalism profession. This lack of respect by some may have coloured the decision by university administration in the fall of 1993 to gain approval to close the journalism school for cost-cutting reasons.

The move was approved by a narrow vote of the university’s Senate and sent to the Board of Governors for approval. But in an unusual decision, the Board rejected the Senate’s recommendation by one vote and the journalism school was allowed to continue.

Jim Etherington, a board member at the time and a graduate of the former undergraduate journalism program, joined with others—faculty, past and then current students, and journalists from across Canada and internationally—who objected to Western’s program termination.

“Peter realized he and his faculty were at edge of the cliff and while he reached out to any and all potential supporters, he was really quite calm,” said Etherington.

The strategy worked and the program survived and thrived.

“The legacy of Desbarats lives on in today’s journalism program in our students,” said Dr. Romayne Smith Fullerton, a journalism professor who currently teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, which now houses this program. “We continue to graduate top-level journalists who secure positions across media industries and become leaders in the field.”

Part of Desbarats’ major contributions to the style and value of Western's Journalism program, and its influence on the journalism profession in Canada and abroad,  is summed up by the reflection of Dr. David Spencer, a long-serving member of the Western faculty:

The times they are a changin’ as those in the learned professions often say. And Peter was no exception as his world, and ours as a consequence, started to leave the pages of the daily press and expand well beyond the limitations of analogue technology. 

But you can measure evolution in many and often conflicting aspects. Such was the pathway to one of the greatest changes witnessed in newsrooms around the world and right here in the then Graduate School of Journalism. It was rapidly becoming the home for young, intelligent, hard-working female journalists. 

When I joined the faculty in 1987, we had no women instructors out of 10 full-time appointments. So we set about to add to the faculty complement with a series of advertisements in media-oriented schools and locations. And, in 1988, our first full-time probationary woman stepped forward and accepted our offer. 

There was universal joy in the recognition that we had taken a first and important step in the evolution of the program. And as he always did, being sensitive in a most positive way, Peter, the “dining dean” as we called him, organized a welcoming reception and dinner for the candidate. 

As we collected ourselves in the University Faculty Club as it was then, out came the celebratory cigars. The huffing and puffing was well underway when a woman’s voice emerged from the blue smog asking if someone could open a window.

It was then we all realized that we needed more than the best of attentions to implement gender diversity in our unit. 

Today’s legacy is one that will recognize Peter’s extensive contribution to create a welcoming and learning environment in place for the next generation. 

Need proof?

Just take a quick look at the work being accomplished in the major Canadian media by the folks who passed our way. 

That tells it all.

Peter Desbarats is survived by his wife, Hazel, his children Michelle, Lissa, Sharon, Brynne, Shasta, Nicholas, Jane, Jennifer, Jane and Jonathan and 11 grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter Gabrielle.

Correction: This story has been updated to with respect to the date of Desbarats' retirement.