Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

My Career in Journalism

November 30, 2016

As a new-hire at the Ottawa Journal in the autumn of 1971 I was assigned to the early shift in the newsroom. Behind my desk by 6 a.m., I was responsible for whatever news was breaking cityside that morning, writing it up and getting it to the editor before deadline at eleven. Much to my own surprise I turned out to possess a facility with the idiom. Snowstorms blanketed the city. Traffic accidents snarled the morning commute. Dog bites man. That sort of thing.

It was a winter of extreme weather events. One morning the snow was so deep that it was futile to attempt digging out the car. Assuming this was par for the course in the frozen East – we’d only just moved to the city from the West Coast – my wife and I enveloped ourselves in wool, donned our brand new cross-country equipment and skied through the dark streets to our respective jobs, only to discover we were the only ones who’d bothered to come to work. The locals had had the sense, and the experience, to turn over and go back to sleep. On the plus side, so much bad weather meant that I received many more front-page bylines than a cub reporter would normally expect.

Once the excitement of deadline had passed I spent my day pursuing whatever stories came to hand. Soon enough I discovered that I suffered from a fatal disability for a news reporter: I disliked, even feared, talking to strangers on the telephone. I know now that this is a recognized condition, telephonophobia. Not debilitating enough to justify a misery memoir, perhaps, but it was an inconvenience – possibly a job-threatening one -- and the cause of much anxiety.

Telephonophobia apparently stems from a fear of making a fool of oneself and this sounds about right. You’ve heard of the intrepid reporter? I was the trepid kind. I dreaded having to call someone for information about a story. I was afraid my questions would seem idiotic and the person I was calling would simply hang up. I could not accept that I had any right to be disturbing them with my insistent curiosity. Each phone call was an ordeal. Why should I be asking these questions, just because I was a reporter? I never came up with a rationale that made it any easier to do my work.

Since calling people on the telephone is pretty much the job description for a reporter, it became clear that I was going to have to devise an exit strategy. I decided to enrol at university to do a graduate degree. Initially I told myself that I would return to the newsroom a more educated journalist but I suppose I was actually looking for another line of work. Which I found. The first history course I took I realized that here was a subject I could write about. Exciting events, interesting intellectual challenges and best of all, no need to use the telephone. So I was able to abandon my chair as the resident weather watcher for new challenges.

As the recent Nobel Prize winner wrote, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

November 23, 2016

One of the more unpleasant aspects of getting older is that one keeps losing friends, and culture heroes, along the way.

November has been particularly sad in that regard as two of my favourite artists, Leonard Cohen and William Trevor, passed on. Cohen I'm sure you know about but unless you are a writer, or a reader, of short fiction you may not be familiar with Trevor's work. If that is the case, I urge you to rectify the situation immediately. 

Trevor is known in particular...

November 21, 2016

Lots of years ago I wrote my MA thesis on the history of institutions for the mentally ill in Maritime Canada. At the time the story of the asylum had produced several studies in countries like the UK and US but not very much work had been done here in Canada. I hoped that one day I would return to the subject myself but not every enthusiasm becomes a book and this one didn't.

So I am intrigued by a new online...

November 16, 2016

In 1919, to celebrate its upcoming 250th anniversary, the Hudson's Bay Company sent a filmmaker named Harold Wyckoff into the Canadian northwest to document the fur trade at some of its remote posts. The result was a silent film, "The Romance of the Far Fur Country," released the following year, then forgotten.

A few years ago Winnipeg documentarians Kevin and Chris Nikkel discovered the film in a British archive and made their own movie, "On the Trail of the Far Fur Country," in...

October 18, 2016

In the summer of 1964 a whaling expedition mounted by the Vancouver Aquarium accidently captured a live killer whale near Saturna Island. Subsequently named Moby Doll, the young orca survived for almost three months at two different sites on the Vancouver waterfront.

Now journalist Mark Leiren-Young has written a book about the episode and its impact on public perceptions of the whales. My review of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World appears at the newly-launched...

October 17, 2016


I am a Blue Jays fan and the author of a book about aboriginal stereotypes so perhaps that qualifies me to weigh in on the controversy about the Cleveland baseball team (as broadcasters have taken to calling it, to avoid saying the I word) and its logo.

Frankly I don't understand why this...