Skip navigation

Tuesday October 11, 2011

He helped launch CBC's 'the fifth estate'

Inflamed by injustice, investigative reporter was not afraid to take on the powerful and ask the tough questions

Special to The Globe and Mail

When Ron Haggart died at 84 on Aug. 27 at Toronto Western Hospital, media across Canada lamented the loss of a titan of journalism.

Gruff, forthright, and gutsy, the man who crafted stories for CBC television's flagship current affairs show, the fifth estate, was no stranger to accolades.

"Mr. Haggart has no peer as an investigative journalist," proclaimed the Winnipeg Free Press in June, 1971. It was a watershed year for Haggart. During a riot at Kingston Penitentiary, in which guards were held hostage, Haggart is credited with helping to negotiate the resolution of the crisis. His first-person account of the riot for the Toronto Telegram, detailing the fatal beating of two sex offenders by fellow inmates, won him a National Newspaper award.

That same year, Haggart co-authored Rumours of War with lawyer Aubrey Golden. Unusual at the time for its critical stand, it was a book that questioned the Trudeau government for violating civil liberties during the October crisis of 1970. The proclamation of the War Measures Act, under which hundreds of citizens were arrested and held without trial, was an outrage to Haggart.

"He was totally inflamed by the injustice of it," says Golden. "He would stay up all night writing. In those days we used typewriters and they were pretty noisy. Finally, I had to move out of the small place we were sharing in Montreal and go to a hotel."

Haggart was born on May 11, 1927, in Vancouver, the only child of Bruce and Carrie Haggart. His father, a freight manager at the Canadian Pacific Railway, fostered a life-long love of trains in his son. His mother, Carrie, was a homemaker.

As a child, Haggart exhibited a precocious curiosity about world events, as well as a penchant for letter writing that continued throughout his life. Around age 12, he wrote a letter addressed simply to Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi, India. In the letter he asked, "When you gain your independence, will you be nice to the English?" To his surprise, the letter came to the personal attention of Gandhi, who used it as the basis of one of his regular columns in the Congress party newspaper.

Gandhi replied that if Britons in India accepted the new reality and were loyal citizens of the new state, they would be welcome to stay and contribute to the building of the nation. Although Gandhi didn't mention Haggart by name, the story was picked up by international news services and appeared as a brief item on the front page of The Vancouver Province.

With his youthful foray into political writing behind him, Haggart attended the University of British Columbia, where he edited the UBC paper The Ubyssey.

Val Sears, who went on to write a political column for the Toronto Star, also worked on the paper and became close friends with Haggart. Sears remembers him as being unbowed by authority. "We had a photo of the dean of engineering dancing with a stripper. We were told if we ran it Ron would be fired. So we left a blank space where the picture would be, kept the caption and sent the photo to all the other papers in town, who ran it on page one. That was kind of a triumph."

After university, Haggart spent three years as a print reporter for the Vancouver Sun, where he specialized in writing about political infighting. In the early 1950s he met and married Audrey Faris, who died unexpectedly after giving birth to his first daughter, Kelly. Val Sears, with his wife and two children, moved in with the single dad and, for several years, became an extended family.

Kelly Haggart calls her father a "gannet for information." She adds, "But it was never all about him. Everyone he talked to was made to feel what they had to say was interesting and important." In going through her father's papers, she encountered sheaves of letters to editors, politicians, and industry leaders about injustices. A favourite target was the unforgivable sin of sloppy journalism.

"I was a copy editor at The Globe for seven years and always wondered when I might be ducking for cover myself," she says.

In the early 1950s Haggart moved east, writing and reporting for the next two decades for The Globe, The Toronto Star and the Toronto Telegram. His status as an astute observer of political affairs grew.

In the 60s, Haggart married Dinah Arthur, a journalist he met while working for the Star. His second daughter, Laura, was born in 1969. Arthur remembers her initial sighting of Haggart, a tall man with erect posture, striding through the newsroom, his reputation as a crack journalist preceding him. She thought "wow."

The couple eventually divorced. Arthur retains the enormous respect she had for Haggart professionally, but says, "He wasn't ever meant for family life."

"His life was his work, and he liked to work at night. That was his best time. But he was a loving father to his children. He kept in touch with them all the time."

Laura Haggart recalls her divorced dad taking her out for regular Sunday breakfast when she was 8. They would talk about what was in the newspapers; then he'd take her to play pinball.

After the Telegram folded in 1971, Haggart made the move to television, joining Toronto's fledgling City TV, where he became head of news. He hired Maggie Siggins, a former Telegram reporter, as a city hall reporter. The two moved in together in the mid 1970s. Haggart's third daughter, Carrie-May, was born in 1977.

His partnership with Siggins lasted almost 10 years. "Ron was 15 years older than me; I think that age difference contributed to the breakdown of the relationship," Siggins said. "He certainly believed in women working, but when it came to helping around the house and family life, he came from a different generation."

In 1974 Peter Herrndorf, then head of CBC's Current Affairs, recruited Haggart to work on a fifth anniversary show about the invocation of the War Measures Act called The October Crisis.

Haggart knew the topic well. From there he was invited to become senior producer for a new magazine show that would go beyond the daily news. It was called the fifth estate, a play on the fact that the media is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. Its mandate was to push the boundaries of traditional reporting. Herrndorf says he and Haggart probably disagreed a hundred times, but that Haggart was "fun to disagree with."

"He was feisty and provocative, but he was also very good at working with a team and shaping stories. I found him exceptional."

At the fifth estate, Haggart embodied the "tough but fair," hard-drinking, hard-smoking boss. He mentored a generation of young journalists, providing them with scrupulous editorial guidance. One such journalist was Anton Koschany, now executive producer of CTV's W5.

"Ron had incredible insight. He would send wonderfully crafted memos saying 'This story is really about ... ' "

"For example, I pitched a story on the environmental movement to save Windy Bay, a small corner of the Queen Charlotte Islands that was being logged. Ron thought about it and said, 'Let's focus on the entire Queen Charlotte Islands instead of just this little corner.' That piece, and Ron's judgment, kicked off a debate that led to the creation of the South Moresby national park."

Brian Denike, another journalist working at the fifth estate, recalls Haggart's tenacity. "When he knew he was right he was a bulldog. While in England he thought he'd been overcharged by the London Underground to the tune of 35 pence. He entered into a three-month exchange of correspondence with the head of the Underground that resulted in an apology and a 35p refund."

The fifth estate debuted in September, 1975, and has been on the air ever since, winning more awards than any other Canadian information program. Haggart stayed with the show for 13 years. In a 1983 interview he is quoted as saying, "Don't tell me there's not an audience out there for quality."

A celebration of Ron Haggart's life and career will be held in the Glenn Gould Studio at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre, 250 Front Street West on Wednesday, Oct. 12, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Back to top