Remembering Fil Fraser, 1932–2017

Posted by on Dec 19, 2017 in Brian's Blog | Comments Off on Remembering Fil Fraser, 1932–2017

Canada’s pioneering black broadcaster, Fil Fraser, died in Edmonton on Dec. 3, 2017 at age 85. My local newspaper, the Calgary Herald, didn’t have the story so I was unaware of his death until The Globe and Mail published an obituary yesterday.

I’m surprised the Herald missed the story. Fraser was a giant in Alberta’s film, television and radio broadcasting world. He was also a leader in the human rights movement, and the author of three bestselling nonfiction books.

I first met him in 1989 when I profiled him for the Herald’s now-defunct Sunday magazine. He had just been appointed head of the Alberta Human Rights Commission and the first thing he did in that capacity was to drop the “chairman” appellation – suggestive of male dominance – and change it to “chief commissioner.” “It’s just a symbol,” he said. “But symbols are important.”

None more important, perhaps, than Fraser himself. He was black, which put him among the one-third of Canadians who belonged to neither of the so-called founding peoples. Like many of the victims who brought complaints to the Human Rights Commission, he knew what discrimination felt like.

Fil Fraser

He liked to tell people his family were black, rich, Protestant and English-speaking in a Montreal community where most people were white, poor, Catholic and French. “Nobody could attack our livelihood because my father was a real estate developer and most of the people who lived around us had brought their property from him. Most of them owed us money. Our livelihood wasn’t threatened, but as kids we often fought our way home from school. It became a game. We all got to be good fighters or fast runners, or both. My emergence as a minor track star in high school was not accidental. It was motivated by fear. You only fought if you couldn’t run.”

The Fraser family – two parents and five sons – were the only blacks in the neighbourhood, then known as Saint-Léonard de Port Maurice, now part of greater Montreal. The rest of Montreal’s black community lived around St. Antoine Street, where the men worked as “redcaps” and train conductors. “My father, for whatever reason, decided we would grow up better and stronger away from that community, which tended to be ghettoized. In hindsight, I think he was right.”

His father, Felix Blache Fraser, came from Trinidad to Canada in the 1920s to become a scholarship student at McGill who eventually chose not to return home to help his country. His mother, Marguerite Wiles, was born on a Canadian ship inbound from Barbados to Montreal. “I suppose that made us as typically Canadian as any family.”

Fil, named Felix after his father, wanted to work in radio from the time he left high school. “I banged on doors until somebody gave me a job: Foster Hewitt at CKFH in Toronto.” In 1952, when he was twenty, he changed his first name to Fil at the request of a radio program director who didn’t think Felix was a suitable name for an announcer.

In Montreal, he had experienced a subtle form of discrimination at restaurants that gave off a “palpable hostility that seeped into your system as you sat at a table, ignored. Nobody asked you to leave or stay out; you were just not served.”

In Regina, where he worked in radio and founded a weekly newspaper, he encountered his first brush with overt racism, in 1963. A real estate company refused to rent him an apartment, saying the firm had a “whites only” policy. “My reaction was not one of anger, fear or shame. Rather, it was a welcome opportunity to say: ‘You can’t do that in this country. Any more.’” Saskatchewan had just passed a fair accommodation law and Fraser’s case was the first to be tried under the new legislation. The realty company was found guilty and fined. Fraser was offered the apartment. “I declined, of course.” During the next several years, Fraser became actively involved in human rights issues.

In 1965, he moved to Edmonton, which he adopted as his hometown and became immersed in the world of films and television as well as broadcasting. As a feature film producer, he was responsible for four major movies with social themes: Why Shoot the Teacher, Marie-Anne, The Hounds of Notre Dame and Latitude 55. He founded what is now the Banff World Media Festival and the Alberta Media Production Industries Association (AMPIA), hosted a top-rated talk show on CJCA, read the supper-hour news on CBC, produced shows for ACCESS television, and had his own program, The Fil Fraser Show, on Edmonton’s ITV.

His bestselling books were Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years, How the Blacks Created Canada, and Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome.

He served as head of the Human Rights Commission for three years. During that time, Fraser publicly called for protection of gays against discrimination even though the provincial government balked at enshrining that protection in law. He was finally vindicated in 2009 when Alberta’s Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act was amended to include sexual orientation as a ground for complaint. “It only took them seventeen years,” he said.

I met him for the second time in September 2004, when he presented me with the inaugural Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award for my book Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn & More. “Brian Brennan has made a remarkable contribution to the literary life of this province,” he said as he handed me the plaque and the cheque.

And I would return the compliment by saying that Fil Fraser made a remarkable contribution to the artistic and social life of this province. “No art, no life,” he said when given the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2015. “Art decorates our lives. Art makes our lives meaningful. Without the arts, life would be plain and uninspiring and unforgiving.”

Too bad the Herald missed out on the opportunity to recognize his contribution.

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