Guest Commentary

Courtney Tower

60 Years In The Press Gallery

I came to work on Parliament Hill in 1955, for the first of three sojourns here, and still get a lift every time I walk in the front door. In part it’s the whole idea of the Centre Block – the history, symbolism and beauty.  Other reasons are less profound: I’ve been here so long, and remember the friendships and personalities.

There was C.D. Howe, so contemptuous of Parliament and the Opposition that he’d open up a newspaper and ostentatiously read it during Question Period. And Diefenbaker, who in his histrionics was outrageous and used Parliament for all it was worth, but loved it too. And Trudeau, in whose office I worked for three and-a-half years, till 1976; I left after becoming uncomfortable with new advisors who adopted a weaker version of what we now see as PMO management and restraint of the press.

“I shall always be loyal to you,” Trudeau told me at our last meeting. I never tested the sentiment.

I was born at our farm near Norquay, Sask. in 1932. My father Courtney homesteaded there before it became a province. We had a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and a big battery-powered cabinet radio that played Fibber McGee & Molly and all the disheartening reports on the price of No. 1 Northern Wheat.

Father was a man of few words. He’d left school in Ontario to take up Saskatchewan land with his brothers, then left to fight at Vimy and Passchendaele. He suffered afterwards from the effects of gas attacks in the trenches.

Funny, it’s always the little vignettes that stay with you. I recall the time we’d been to the Red & White store in Norquay when Father noticed the clerk had paid him 2¢ too much in change; he walked back to return the pennies.

And I remember a hot summer day, driving in the 1935 Ford near our place when Father pointed to a relief work gang scrubbing out brush in the ditches: “Do you want to do that or do you want to go to school?” he said.

My mother Hope was a schoolteacher; she was wedded to education. I’d studied Grade 9 and 10 Latin and trigonometry by correspondence in our one-room school – none of which I mastered. But at 17 I took the train from Melville to Ottawa to study journalism at Carleton College. It was my first time on a train; I sat up the whole way.

My introduction to newspapering was at the Financial Times in Montreal. I sat on a stool in this Dickensian office, decoding the stock ticker and doing small rewrites. It was mindless.

Later I worked at the Victoria Daily Colonist, and in the Press Gallery at different times for Maclean’s and Reader’s Digest and TIME magazine. I spent six years with Reuters, on assignment from London to Karachi. They sent me to Saigon in 1964, when the world still refused to acknowledge there was serious fighting underway.

I remember attending the twilight execution of a Vietcong supporter; they took him, dull and unresisting, from an army vehicle to a square in Saigon and shot him. The whole town was sullen all that day leading to the execution; you could feel the pall. It was obvious even then the war couldn’t be won. Air strikes might pound the villages, but you weren’t going to defeat guerrillas that could melt into the bush.

I joined the Prime Minister’s Office in 1973. Trudeau was no ogre to work for; he was courteous always, never abrupt or snide. Peter C. Newman said Trudeau “had a heart like an ice pick”, but that was inaccurate. Trudeau schooled himself to be composed in all circumstances. I subsequently refused book offers. It was not my place to break confidences or profit from experiences I’d had.

I work today in the same Press Gallery where I started 60 years ago. However tenuous it is, I like to be at the fringe, at least, of the political action. That’s the main reason. The extra money is fine, and I love walking through the buildings.

There’s something about this place, there truly is.

(Editor’s note: the author at 83 is the most senior working reporter in the Parliamentary Press Gallery)

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