Canada’s unofficial languages

March 30th, 2007
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I was fortunate that my father gave me an interesting book on Canadian political journalism for Christmas, Charles Lynch’s autobiography “You Can’t Print That”. Lynch, a veteran journalist and former parliamentary press gallery president, was a fixture in Ottawa until the early 1990’s. He died in 1994.

Lynch’s varied career – from WWII and foreign correspondent to the Hill – makes for fascinating reading, and I’ll be excerpting some of my favourite parts of the book over the next few weeks. One of his memorable anecdotes involves a crusty old journalist he knew in Halifax before the war. I found it so amusing, I’ve repeated it a few times myself, but not nearly doing justice to Lynch himself. So for the readers’ benefit, here it is in its entirety:

“One of the three reporters (at the Halifax Herald) was a fellow named Bob Steck who, like many reporters in those days, was known to have a drink in him from time to time. That’s the way we used to describe it ‘having a drink in you’…

What finally got Steck fired was an assignment to cover a speech being made by Premier Angus L. Macdonald at the auditorium of the School for the Blind. Steck got himself well primed before going to the auditorium, and the meeting was in progress when he arrived and took a seat at the back of the hall, not wanting to appear conspicuous. He strained to catch the premier’s words, but although the famous voice carried clearly, Steck couldn’t get the meaning of what was being said.

Spotting a vacant seat halfway towards the front, he moved forward and cocked his ear, but still couldn’t make sense of what he was hearing. Finally, he went right up to the front of the hall, mounted the steps leading to the platform, and leaned over the table to a man who was sitting beside the podium – where the premier, the flow of his oratory broken, stood silent, eying the intruder. In what Steck thought was a whisper, he hissed ‘I’m from the Herald, and I can’t understand a goddam word the premier is saying. What the hell is he talking about?’

What the assignment slip had neglected to tell Steck was that this was a meeting of the Gaelic Society of Nova Scotia and that Angus L. was speaking entirely in the ancient tongue. In the shocked silence that followed, the premier’s aide looked around and saw that there was a doorway at the back of the stage. He grabbed Steck, frog-marched him to the door, opened it and thrust him inside, slamming the door behind him amid applause from the audience.”

Clearly, the journalist Steck pre-dated the type of cultural sensitivity we value today. The meeting ended when Steck found his way up to the organ loft and locked himself in. An expert player, he literally pulled out all the stops in an endless rendition of “God Save the King” until the hall emptied. Now THAT was a firing offence.


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