Getting to know the real Craig Oliver
Published Friday, November 4, 2011 4:20PM EDT
Even casual news viewers will recognize CTV's chief political correspondent when he appears this week on W5. Craig Oliver's commentaries out of Ottawa bring novel insights and crackle with enthusiasm and good humour. He's a man who takes his work seriously, but never himself.
You'll appreciate that as he sketches the outlines of his life for us from a recently released memoir, "Oliver's Twist: The Life and Times of an Unapologetic Newshound."
Craig and I have been colleagues and friends for 46 years. Gradually, over time, he began telling me about his dysfunctional childhood and the hardships he endured. His father was a bootlegger and a gambler who had a more-than-adequate thirst for the product he peddled. His mother also drank heavily and Craig's earliest memories are of acting as mediator between the two when the small dwelling they occupied in Prince Rupert, B.C. would shake with raucous argument. Craig came down from the attic where he lived, got between them, and would plead that they call off the fight, often to no avail.
Eventually, the inevitable happened: His parents split up and the 12-year-old was left to fend for himself when his father, who had custody of him, simply wasn't up to the task of rearing a boy. Craig became the 1940s and ‘50s version of the "street kid" and made fast friends among the motley collection of drifters, drunks and scam artists who live under the radar of good working folk. There was also the typical "hooker with a heart of gold" among the passersby, who made sure the young Craig was pointed in the right direction and watched out for him.
He emerged from those times with no bitterness -- "No time for that," he says. And most important, he grew up with the understanding that he was on his own in life, he had to make his own way in the world and there wasn't going to be money or influence, or even much good early advice to push him along.
Books and listening to the radio were his main interests, so it seemed the perfect match when Craig found his way into radio in his hometown. "Cousin Craig" became a popular voice on the Prince Rupert radio station, CFPR. He had found his niche and began his remarkable ascent to the top rungs of Canadian broadcasting.
Along the way, the path is covered with colourful stories – from the time Craig sang the National Anthem to open the broadcast day on the Prince Rupert radio station, to the coverage of the critical medicare debate in Saskatchewan in the 1960s. There, he met former NDP leader Tommy Douglas and had early and hilarious encounters with another Prairie icon, the larger-than-life Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker.
Craig has a cupboard full of stories and opinions on the high profile political leaders of the last 40 years. He tells us about his long and complicated relationship with Pierre Trudeau, a leader of whom he said:"I probably got too close," especially after Trudeau joined Craig and fellow canoeists for annual trips into the Arctic. He assesses Brian Mulroney, regales us with stories of his on-again, off-again relationship with Jean Chretien, a prime minister Craig came to admire -- and one of the few politicians his mother ever thought was worth a moment of her attention. And he gives us his take on these times of Stephen Harper and what the Conservatives may have in mind for Canada.
Many viewers will be surprised to know that Craig has laboured under a disability for several years. We'll hear more about that and marvel, I'm sure, at how this bright, optimistic man has kept his zest for life intact, how he has lived everyday to the fullest and enjoys the companionship of good friends.
I feel fortunate to be able to count myself among that special group. Craig and I both come from poor families with problems that went beyond a lack of available money. Our bond grew even stronger over the last several years when we were able to take holidays together and go horseback riding in the Rocky Mountains around Kananaskis, Alta. In the clear mountain air we spoke of life, friendship and the glories of this wonderful country.
Neither of us is ready to ride off into the sunset quite yet, and as Craig said on the trail: '"We've had great lives, Lloyd, we've been so lucky – there should be no regrets and no apologies."