CTV's Craig Oliver unveils moving new memoir
Published Saturday, October 22, 2011 4:31PM EDT
OTTAWA - Craig Oliver says he was inspired to begin writing his memoirs 15 years ago after watching a TV interview with someone who had just published an autobiography.
The veteran news broadcaster was flabbergasted.
"He had the world's most uninteresting life," Oliver said in an interview. "It was so humdrum, so boring and grey that I thought . . . if he can get a book published about his life, my life has been a lot more interesting than that, I'm going to go work on my own memoir.
"I wrote the first lines that day. I just worked on it in bits and pieces for a long time until finally I got serious the last year and a half."
His book, Oliver's Twist, is being published this week. It is a fascinating chronicle of a life that moved from the hard streets of 1940s Prince Rupert to a place near the top of the CTV News totem pole.
Oliver, who turns 73 next month, pulls few punches about his early years. His father was a bootlegger who grew too fond of his own wares and who did jail time. His mother was an alcoholic who at various times drove a cab, managed a taxi company and ran a seedy motel where she kept a revolver in a desk drawer.
The young Oliver was repeatedly farmed out to foster homes and the sadness of that comes through in the pages. It hit him personally as he wrote it.
"I didn't think it would," he said. "But, when I was writing about, it I saw this little boy in my head and I started picturing this little boy as if he might be someone else and feeling very sorry for him.
"I remember with the clarity of yesterday sitting in this home of strangers, with my father trying to persuade them to take me in, and wearing my little, blue, double-breasted jacket and trying to be as appealing as possible and them finally dismissing me with a wave, saying: 'He talks too much, doesn't he? He talks too much.'
"I remember that hurt."
His mother's alcoholism would colour their relationship until her death. Too late, he realized there was more to her troubles than the bottle.
"It suddenly dawned on me that she was bi-polar," he says. "Now I understand what her problem was."
Oliver says his father remains a cipher.
"He's kind of a mystery to me, my father. I have these images, like a badly edited home movie, of things I did with my father but I don't have any sense of him really. I kind of regret that I didn't know him better."
But despite this ill-starred beginning, Oliver escaped his origins. He found a summer position as an announcer at the local CBC radio station, spurning a better-paying job at the pulp mill.
That announcer's gig lead him into CBC news on the Prairies and eventually a management job at CBC headquarters in Toronto. He calls that a disaster.
He leavens his account of the early reporting days with some great reminiscences. His admiration for NDP Tommy Douglas is clear. Oliver rates the feisty prairie preacher as one of the country's greats.
Some of the most entertaining stories, and the most moving writing, involves Oliver's canoe trips down some of the country's most challenging rivers with some of the country's most challenging people, including Pierre Trudeau.
Trudeau the camper is not the Trudeau of Ottawa, yet despite the close quarters of isolated campsites and the camaraderie of the river, Oliver says the former prime minister was as inscrutable in private as he was in public.
He was fearless, however.
On one trip to along the Coppermine River in what is now Nunavut, the travellers came across a group of grizzly bears on the shoreline.
"Trudeau pulled up offshore, leapt from his canoe and trotted toward the big bears that, seeing the former prime minister descending on them, shook themselves and bolted away," Oliver wrote.
The memory still rankles.
"It would be inconceivable to him that, I guess, the bears would ever do him any harm," Oliver remembers. "I really was angry with him because what happens in a situation like that is that others try to help.
"I had this old, powerful pistol and went running up and said: 'That was foolish. You risked the safety of all of us.'
"He said. 'How many bullets you got in the gun?'
"I said, 'Six.'
"He said, "Well, there were only five bears, no problem."
Tales like that are salted through the book.
Oliver also writes of covering the Ottawa scene, of the prime ministers he has known, of his fellow journalists.
But this is no tell-all.
"I decided not to cheapen the book by doing a lot on the personal lives of people in politics, of which I know a lot, because it almost always involves the kind of personal failures, weaknesses, that we're all guilty of," he says.
"Why treat politicians as if somehow they shouldn't be guilty of them? I would have been damaging people's personal lives for no good reason."
He is off-hand about his own, years-long, losing battle against glaucoma which has left him legally blind.
In a half-century of journalism, Oliver has seen many changes. The best? The advent of women into newsrooms. A bad change? The adversarial relationship between journalists and those they cover.
"It seems that reporters now regard building a personal relationship with people in power, in politics or in opposition, is somehow unethical," he says. "I'm with that now myself, "I don't believe it is. I think there's lots of value in it and I think it creates a mutual respect that isn't there any more, either way."
He admits that he may have overdone it in his relationships with the powerful, including Trudeau, former Liberal cabinet minister Allan Rock and legendary Liberal backroomer Eddie Goldenberg.
His own biggest regret?
"I have one huge regret and that is that I didn't get a better education," says Oliver, who didn't quite graduate from high school. "I just envy people so much who went to great schools and got a great education."
That lack of education apparently never stopped the kid from Prince Rupert.
Oliver's Twist. Penguin Group. 352 pages. $34.00.
CTV's Craig Oliver will answer readers' questions during a live chat on CTVNews.ca on November 2 at 1 p.m. ET. Be sure to join in.