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Tuesday December 18, 2012

Passionate co-host of legendary program put politicians in the hot seat

Tears cost him his job, but This Hour Has Seven Days launched CBC into the big leagues

Laurier LaPierre, the passionate co-host of the legendary 1960s program This Hour Has Seven Days, who later became a Liberal senator, has died. He was 83.

The tear in his eye during an interview led to his firing, but his tenure at This Hour Has Seven Days nonetheless made him, and co-host Patrick Watson, lasting icons. The show, which featured interviews that made politicians visibly uncomfortable, was a seminal venture in Canadian TV - but one that, many still believe, was never repeated with the same verve.

Gregarious, social and erudite, LaPierre's passion marked his many careers, as an academic, broadcaster, biographer, and, in his 70s, as a late-in-life politician.

In the Senate, he delved into cultural issues, notably, but also bluntly criticized supporters of Paul Martin, then a Liberal cabinet minister, for efforts to oust prime minister Jean Chrétien, and, controversially, sent a letter blasting a Christian who cited the Bible to oppose hate-speech laws to protect gays.

"He's an original, who had his ideas," said Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette, a colleague in the upper house. "He didn't sugar-coat his opinions on anything."

LaPierre's sudden death was confirmed on Monday. He leaves his long-time partner, Harvey Slack.

"From academia and journalism to his tireless advocacy for bilingualism, the arts and gay rights, Laurier was an exceptional Canadian who touched the lives of many," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said in a statement.

It was being touched by emotion that famously led to LaPierre's firing from the CBC, and the end of This Hour. In an interview with the mother of Stephen Truscott, a 14-year-old facing a death sentence for murder, he wiped tears from his eyes while noting a bill to abolish the death penalty was before Parliament. The CBC's president cited it as evidence he was unprofessional, and the show was soon cancelled.

But it had made its mark. "This put CBC television into the major leagues," said Ian Morrison, spokesman for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. "It was an exciting thing to watch - fearless, gutsy."

A twist of fate led to LaPierre's career in broadcasting in the first place. Watson, seeking a new co-host for This Hour's predecessor show, Inquiry, travelled to Montreal in an attempt to recruit Pierre Trudeau, but when rebuffed, met a McGill history professor recommended by a colleague - LaPierre - for a drink. LaPierre joined the show a week later.

When This Hour was born, LaPierre was at its centre. Watson and LaPierre began grilling politicians in Hot Seat interviews - and the CBC, fielding complaints from Parliament Hill, told them to "cool it a bit."

"It was the first time the CBC had institutionally supported a journalistic show that laid aside the old criteria of being polite and deferential and, after a great deal of fighting, let us go after it," Watson said on Monday.

Born in 1929 in Lac Megantic, Que., LaPierre pursued an academic career, teaching and writing intertwined with broadcasting. He was a passionate defender of Canada, and bilingualism. He wrote, among other books, a biography of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

His foray into electoral politics, a 1968 run for the New Democratic Party, didn't succeed. But he returned to the political world in 2001, when Chrétien appointed him to the Senate. He was an advocate for public broadcasting, and a close follower of cultural issues in Parliament. LaPierre, who came out publicly as a gay man at a Parliament Hill rally in the 1980s, was also a defender of a gay rights issues.

The passion, it seemed, was always part of his character, one that was mixed with what colleagues described as a "joyous" approach to life. In recent years, at Ottawa public debates organized by The Walrus magazine, he invariably took to the microphone to express his umbrage at provocative topics like "Art is irrelevant to daily life," taking over the question period with unstoppable speeches.

"Generally, a rip-roaring speech, thundering and clutching his heart, as Laurier does," said Walrus co-publisher Shelley Ambrose. "He was a dear, dear man, and one of a kind."

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