Singing the same old song

Bob Wakeham
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My earliest introduction to the quandary in which some Newfoundland journalists are placed when covering Quebec’s immoral stubbornness on  Churchill Falls power occurred during what would now be considered unusual interviewing circumstances.

It was the kind of conversation that could rarely, if ever, take place in this day and age, a starchier time when security officers and a phalanx of public relations flacks have to be confronted before a reporter can have a private word with the premier.

Back then, in the mid-’70s, I could scoot down the corridor outside the legislative chambers and wait for an MHA to emerge for a smoke or a pee break, and ask him (just about all the members were “hims” in that era) to go back inside and see if the premier (or whichever cabinet minister I happened to be pursuing) could spare a few minutes.

And  occasionally, when trying to get the attention of Frank Moores, who was never stuck on formalities, I would simply whisper through one of the legislative entrances.

“Pssst, Premier. Pssst, Premier. Have ya got a sec?”

It was neither a historical moment in Newfoundland journalism, I’ll grant you, nor an illustration of interviewing etiquette appropriate for a group of pimply-faced, fledging journalists taking a Reporting 101 class.  

Not enthralled 

More times than not, Moores, perpetually bored as hell by the House of Assembly proceedings, had his head down, often doodling on a piece of paper, and remained oblivious to my whimpering request.  

Then it was time to pull out all the stops, to engage the personal touch, an even more informal approach. 

“Frank, yo Frank,” came the cry from the corridor, louder this time.

Lazed into action

So on this particular afternoon of Quebec edification, Moores rose lazily from his desk, almost in slow motion, and moved to where I crouched in the hallway, trying, with impossible odds, to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

The premier’s eyes were slightly glazed, as they usually were, either from listening to endless hours of boring debate, or from the liquid lunch he was prone to having (always an opportune time for an interview because his tongue was always looser, and more capable of delivering an inflammatory quote or two).

And this day he delivered.

When I asked about reports he had threatened to shut down Churchill Falls power smack dab in the midst of the Olympics that were to be held in 1976 in Montreal, his message was blunt: if Quebec continued to play hardball on Churchill Falls, the Newfoundland government would “pull the plug” on the hydro site, and the Olympics would take place “by candlelight.”

I can’t recall the flavour of the piece I wrote that evening for The Telegram, but I do know I was thinking: damn right. Shut ’er down. If that mean-spirited bunch of French Canadians won’t do the right thing on Churchill Falls, stick it to ’em.

I can’t recall the flavour of the piece I wrote that evening for The Telegram, but I do know I was thinking: damn right. Shut ’er down. If that mean-spirited bunch of French Canadians won’t do the right thing on Churchill Falls, stick it to ’em.  

Not exactly the type of thought process recommended for any self-respecting journalist, especially knowing that the rhetoric, and similar (and unsuccessful) attempts at intimidation used by every premier since, has been — and continues to be — a godsend for Newfoundland politicians, capable of placing a leader in the good graces of the population in a flash.

Nearly four decades later, the anger (some might call it the bluster) remains active and well.

And I still find myself in a fix.  

Tried and true

So when Danny Williams lets Quebec have it square in the noggin for putting up still more obstacles to the Lower Churchill development, or continuing with its entrenchment on that disgraceful Upper Churchill contract, the Newfoundland sector of my skull calls for applause, while the journalistic neurons demand I let everyone know that the premier’s stance will play well in every nook and cranny of the province, that he’s abundantly aware that the we-against-them form of politicking will provide another feather in his cap of popularity.

So I invariably walk a fine line, praising on one hand strong talk aimed at Quebec’s intransigence, and, on the other, reminding those who might want to read or listen that there is always, inevitably, a political agenda at play, as well.

Having my cake and eating it too, some might say. Or let them — the Quebecers, that is — eat cake, or whatever, and by candlelight, Frank Moores might have suggested. 

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by e-mail at

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Montreal

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Recent comments

  • W McLean
    September 12, 2010 - 15:53

    Polly, the anti-Quebec demogoguery (about which francophones in the province have been remarkably quiet) ramped up right about the time that the anti-federalist demagoguery, at least from the Premier's own mouth, suddenly went into hibernation. The two phenomena are related.

  • Eugene from Town
    September 12, 2010 - 12:20

    Bob, many of us share your conundrum: applauding any abuse heaped on the federal darlings in Quebec while understanding this rhetoric will only serve to buttress any politico's position in the eyes of average N&Ler's. It is, however, time to end the bluster, surely Messr Williams couldn't have hoped to win any litigation through the clever use of the harangue when in private practice; using it in public office makes our premier come off as the sook he's turning out to be. Approval ratings remain high, though - stoopid N&Lers.

  • Polly Pickford
    September 12, 2010 - 11:21

    "TIT FOR TAT" ...... If it wasn't about the LC , Williams would have to invent something ,so,Quebec and Charest are doing him a big favour . Next time Williams is in Quebec , he'll probally take Jean out to lunch ...... Politicians .... more trouble than they are any good .