In 1996, I took a job as Press Secretary for Dave Johnson, MPP. He had just been appointed Government House Leader, a responsibility he added to his portfolio as he was also the Chair of Management Board (now Treasury Board).
Dave’s first week as House Leader was incredibly chaotic and tumultuous, as the elected Speaker of the House, Al McLean, was accused of sexual harassment by one of his female staff.
The outrage and overwhelming media attention this story attracted, just as the House was returning under the already-hugely controversial Mike Harris government, can hardly be understated. It was a circus. Calls for the Speaker’s resignation were deafening.
This was the second or third day of my new job, my first job inside of government, and I was seriously questioning whether I made the correct decision in shuttering my business to take this position.
Staff in the House Leader’s Office were frantically scrambling to find a precedent for the situation somewhere, anywhere, in any Commonwealth democracy on the planet: the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa….anywhere. This exact situation had never occurred, and Ontario was indeed “setting precedent” in any decision made.
The day Parliament returned, Dave Johnson’s first official day as House Leader, I was standing in the hallway outside the House doors. It was jam packed with media, cameras, lights, producers, reporters, photographers. Standing off to the side at the edge of the scrum, notepad and pen in hand, was Christie Blatchford. A little star-struck, I approached and extended my hand.
“Christie,” I said, “I am one of your biggest fans. I am so honoured to meet you. Are you following this story?”
“I broke this story,” Christie sighed sadly. “The female staffer who accused McLean of harassment called me first. I wrote the initial article.”
She spoke without the slightest trace of triumph or ego. The fact that she had “broken” one of the biggest stories yet about a member of the reviled Harris government seemed not to matter one whit; the fact that the Speaker did in fact resign his position in disgrace brought her no joy.
She did not fight her way to the front of the scrum, elbow aside less senior reporters. If she had, out of respect for the fact that it was “her” story, her media colleagues would have waited for her to ask the first question before they began shouting theirs. In fact, she didn’t plunge into the scrum at all. She continued to stand unobtrusively off to the side, until Dave finished giving his comments and answering questions for the assembled press gallery.
Then, when he was done and the cameras were lowered and the lights went off, he stepped over to where Christie was standing. They spoke for a few minutes in a calm and civilized manner, the quietest moment I recall seeing all day. As a former East York mayor, councillor, and Metro councillor before he was elected to Ontario’s Parliament, Dave Johnson would have held Christie Blatchford in the highest esteem. They were birds of a feather actually, both dedicated, professional, respectful, committed to service.
It’s impossible to summarize Christie Blatchford’s significance in the world of journalism, justice, politics, and Canadian life.
These words stand out for me:
“She called me first.”
Trustworthy, brilliant, always there when it mattered – Canada turned to Christie first. I wonder who we will turn to now?