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Photo: Courtesy of Peter Mansbridge

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Peter Mansbridge Discusses His New Memoir, ‘Off the Record’

In his long-awaited memoir, journalism icon Peter Mansbridge tells behind-the-scenes stories from five decades in the news business / BY Kim Honey / October 15th, 2021


Peter Mansbridge’s sprawling career is hard to sum up, but, without aggrandizement, the famed CBC anchor and chief correspondent was Canada’s main witness to world events for three decades.

It’s been more than half a century since Mansbridge’s dulcet voice caught the ear of a CBC manager who heard the 19-year-old ticket agent announce a flight over the PA system at the airport in Churchill, Man., and hired him on the spot.

Mansbridge
Mansbridge says this is the only known picture of him behind the mic at CHFC, the CBC Northern Service radio station in Fort Churchill, Man., where he started off hosting a two-hour music show between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Photo: Courtesy of U of T Archives

 

That story is one of 74 short chapters  in the veteran broadcaster’s long-anticipated memoir, Off the Record. The book is a news junkie’s dream for its stories behind the news stories. My favourites: The downdraft from Prince Charles’s helicopter whisked the notes off Mansbridge’s lap just before he went on air; he drew foreign assignments out of a hat with Mike Duffy and Joe Schlesinger; and a “retired American Airlines pilot” he interviewed on The National after 9/11 turned out to be a fake.

Peter Mansbridge

 

Since the ’80s, publishers have been coaxing Mansbridge, 73, to write his autobiography. “I’d always felt that I’d rather write about other people than about myself,” he says in a phone interview from his Toronto condo, a day before he flew to the Arctic to work on a CBC documentary. With three offers on the table, “I chose the one that was not really a memoir. … For the most part, it’s not a detailed look at my life.”

You’ve been warned. The book mentions he got married in Churchill and had his first child there, but doesn’t name his first wife. There’s one reference to his second wife, Wendy Mesley, when she introduces him to Quebec political pundit Chantal Hébert. There is a chapter about his elopement to P.E.I. with actress Cynthia Dale in 1998 and  how Pope John Paul II blessed the union on their honeymoon in Rome. He thanks daughters, Pamela and Jennifer, and son, Will, in the acknowledgements, and that’s pretty much it.

“I’m friends with all these people who have been a part of my life, and part of the way of keeping that friendship is by not going through personal details,” Mansbridge says firmly.

 

Mansbridge
The first of 11 prime ministers the future journalist met was John Diefenbaker, after Mansbridge  and his  sister, Wendy, were chosen to star in a 1958 NFB production called “Michael and Mary Visit the Parliament Buildings.” In 1974, Diefebaker signed the picture for him.  Photo: Courtesy of Peter Mansbridge

 

On the record, his grandfather, Harry Mansbridge, was a member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who was wounded on Vimy Ridge in 1917. His father, Stanley, born in England, was a highly decorated RAF pilot who flew more than 50 missions during the Second World War.

After the war, Stanley, who became a bureaucrat with the British Foreign Service, moved his wife, Brenda, Peter and his older sister, Wendy, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There, they lived a charmed, ex-pat life until things got dicey with Communist insurgents fighting British rule. Mansbridge’s parents decided to move to Ottawa, where his father got a job with the Canadian civil service, and his younger brother, Paul, was born in 1959, the same year they became Canadian citizens.

When he dropped out of Glebe Collegiate in Ottawa, Mansbridge joined the navy because he liked the uniforms; he dreamed of being a pilot and they had planes. Less than a year later, he took an honourable discharge after they pulled him from flight training and said he had to go to sea. The Churchill job with a regional airline called Transair was next, and the rest is journalism history.

Mansbridge
Mansbridge sensed a change in the war in Afghanistan in 2006, where he  broadcast The National live for the second time. The week before, Captain Trevor Greene had been attacked with an axe, Mansbridge noticed patrols were tenser and even kids in the villages turned their backs on Canadian soldiers. Photo: Mark Harrison

 

There was that time in 1988 when CBS News offered Mansbridge, then 39, a three-year contract “totalling in the millions” when he was making about $150,000 a year at the CBC. Then Knowlton Nash graciously retired so Mansbridge could take his chair on The National and the chief correspondent title. In the book, he says it was never about the money, but notes that, when he retired in 2017, he “reached roughly the same salary” he had turned down 30 years before.

Mansbridge
Mansbridge’s February 2008 meeting with Barack Obama was only 12 minutes long, but it was the first time the CBC had landed a private, one-on-one interview with a sitting U.S. president. Photo: Leslie Stojsic

 

Over his stellar career, Mansbridge has interviewed 11 of the country’s 23 prime minsters; witnessed the Queen and Pierre Trudeau repatriate the Constitution in 1982; watched the Berlin Wall fall in 1989; interviewed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s deputy minister on the brink of the 2003 U.S. invasion; talked to the Taliban in 2006; and questioned U.S. President Barack Obama after his 2009 inauguration, among other highlights.

The journalist also writes about big, thorny issues like Indigenous rights, climate change and diversity in the CBC, and one of his favourite weighty subjects is, “What is a Canadian?” After decades as our public envoy, he has an answer. “A Canadians cares,” he writes. The same could be said about the man who, when offered fame and fortune in the U.S., decided to stay in his adopted homeland, in a profession he passionately defends as “a pillar of democracy.”

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