Telling Papa’s story

Grandson makes film about Don Jamieson’s life

Tara Bradbury
Published on October 29, 2011

Though he was just three years old when his “Papa” died, Joshua Jamieson grew up familiar with his grandfather, Don Jamieson. He knew he was a well-known broadcaster and politician and had heard vague stories about him meeting the queen, but was never quite clear on some of the tinier details — like, for example, that the declaration of Canada’s 200-mile fishing limit had been signed on the kitchen table on which he had been eating dinner his entire life.

It was when Joshua, armed with a diploma in performance and communications media from MUN, became a filmmaker that he discovered he had the perfect tool to allow him to delve deeper into his grandfather’s life and the impact he had in this province and abroad.

“I started to realize that he was a charismatic and influential person, not only in Newfoundland, but on an international stage, and I wanted to preserve that before it died off,” Joshua explained. “Then it became more about how politics and politicians have evolved and the idea of starting a dialogue about apathy and democracy. An extension of why I wanted to make the film ties into the stories I had heard while growing up; those stories let me shape who I thought my grandfather was in terms of where his values were, and were a few I wanted to ensure I included because I thought they were so important.”

Three years ago, Joshua started work on “Just Himself: The Don Jamieson Story,” a documentary about his grandfather that spans his early years as a broadcaster and his time in Ottawa as the MP for Burin-Burgeo.

The film, now completed, screened at MUN last August, and will have its first airing on NTV — the station which Jamieson co-founded — Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Don Jamieson first got involved in politics during Newfoundland’s Confederation debate, campaigning for a union with the United States instead, but his original career was in broadcasting.

In 1951, he established CJON-TV (now NTV) with Geoff Stirling, hosting the nightly news. He went on to become president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in 1961, a position he kept for four years.

After getting a taste for politics during Newfoundland’s Confederation debate, Jamieson was first elected to the Burin-Burgeo riding in a byelection in 1966.

Upon re-election two years later, he was appointed minister of defence production by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and over the following few years served as minister of transport, minister of regional economic expansion and secretary of state for external affairs.

Jamieson left federal politics in 1979 and won the leadership of the provincial Liberal party going into an election against Brian Peckford and the Tories.

He lost, and resigned as Liberal leader the next year.

He was appointed Canada’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom in 1982, and was the Canadian representative to the United Nations.

Jamieson died in 1986.

Narrated by former premier Brian Tobin, Joshua’s documentary features interviews with politicians and former politicians such as Paul Martin, Joe Clark, Mike Duffy, John Crosbie and Scott Simms, political scientist Chris Dunn, and broadcasters like Jim Furlong and Gerry Phelan, all presenting a side of “Papa” that Joshua had never really known about previously.

“I had heard the politically-related stories, but didn’t know to what extent he was involved,” Joshua said. “I heard nothing that led to me being disappointed or threw me for a loop, but I did hear some things that came out of nowhere. For instance, I learned he had to deal with Soviet spies. It was known that there was some undercover spy work going on, and the group had been passing notes rolled up in Coke cans and cigarette packs. My grandfather brought that to the forefront and he got 13 or 14 of them deported. These were people with wives and families who had been established in Canada for a while. It was one of the biggest intelligence operations that was shattered and one of the biggest groups to be deported.”

Another story, shared by Duffy, saw Jamieson advising Trudeau on his media dealings.

“Turns out, while many thought (Trudeau) was so outward and comfortable with himself, he, in fact, wasn’t and didn’t enjoy being in the media spotlight,” Joshua said. “He actually moved his cabinet meetings to the Privy Council Chambers in the East Block so that he could avoid scrums, which occurred in the Centre Block. When this decision was made, it was my grandfather who went up and said, ‘Look, Mr. Prime Minister, we cannot just avoid the media. If we do, our stories won’t get out there, and people and our supporters won’t know what’s being done. We have to put our policies in the window like the shoemaker,’ and Trudeau replied, ‘Well, you do the selling.’”

Also featured in the film are a number of Jamieson’s friends, his brothers Bas and Colin Jamieson, and all four of his children: Donna Jamieson Sittmann, Heather Jamie­son, Roger Jamieson and Joshua’s mother, Debby Jamieson Winters.

It was their stories that Joshua had the hardest time editing, deciding what to use and what to cut.

“There came a point when I had to ask myself what I was interested in and what the public was interested in, if I was being Family Joshua or Filmmaker Joshua,” he explained.

Joshua’s family members’ stories often corroborated what he had heard from his grandfather’s colleagues, but gave a more intimate point of view.

For example, Joshua was aware of the time Trudeau and his wife stayed at his grandfather’s home in Swift Current while in the province for a youth conference.

He learned from those close to him how affronted his grandmother, Barbara, was when the Trudeaus chose a bedroom to stay in and instead of picking the one she had made up for them, chose the one with the “reject sheets.”

The making of the film was contingent on the family’s willingness to participate, Joshua said.

“I decided from the get-go if I didn’t have the support of my extended family, I would abandon it or shift the whole focus,” he said. “If they weren’t willing to go on camera and share the stories I had heard of my whole life, I wouldn’t have the film I wanted to make.”

One of the common themes woven through the film is Jamieson’s love of Newfoundland and his desire to do well by the people of the province, and this was made clear by both his colleagues and his family members, Joshua said.

Joshua has a broadcasting contract with NTV that will see “Just Himself: The Don Jamieson Story” aired six times over the next three years.

He’s hoping to interest other networks in the film, and is planning for a DVD launch.

In the meantime, he has submitted the documentary to a number of film festivals across the continent.

Updates and more information about the film are available online at