Following his last broadcast for Canada’s 150th birthday celebration, Peter Mansbridge will walk away from the role he’s held for 30 years as anchor of The National and effectively say au revoir to his employer of the last half century, The CBC.
Retirement, in the traditional sense of the word, doesn’t quite capture Peter’s path forward as he will continue pursuing objective clarity and creating documentaries on a freelance basis. But on July 2nd, when he rolls out of bed in either his condo in Toronto, his home in Stratford, Ontario or his cabin in Gatineau Hills, Quebec, he will most definitely be a free agent.
“I thought it was important not just for me but for [the CBC],” says Peter. “As it gets closer to the crunch, I’m feeling better and better about it. I’m sure on that morning when I wake up on July 2nd, I’ll think ‘wow that was quite a run.’ I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are going to be parts of it I will miss, but I’m anxious to start fresh with new challenges, which I will do.”
From Bags to Riches
Anyone who’s a fan of Canada’s public broadcaster – and even those who aren’t – knows Peter Mansbridge and his rags-to-riches story. Well, “rags” may be a stretch and “riches” are relative, but starting as a baggage handler in an airport in Manitoba and ending up as the chief correspondent and anchor of *The National* is a charmed story by any standards.
“It was the 1960s and I wasn’t a hippie or druggie… but I was living a pretty carefree life and I wasn’t focused on the future and then suddenly I realized I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I’m having fun, I’m making some money, but there’s no road out of this. I said to myself, ‘you can’t keep letting these opportunities pass you by; you’ve got to work at it and you’ve got to take advantage of it.’ And I did. And it led me on a long, winding road to where I am now.”
A long and winding road indeed; one that led him to the doors – or TV and laptop screens – gracing millions of Canadian homes. Was it fate’s fortune or labour’s legacy that got him there? Peter believes opportunities come along in life, no matter who you are and not necessarily because you deserve them.
“They come along and it’s how you take advantage of them by applying yourself that will help determine where you end up. And I really believe that people do get opportunities and not always when they deserve them.”
It was a different time in 1968 (one millennials can only fantasize about), but the climb to the summit of Canadian news didn’t come without the heft of hard work – and harder choices.
“The hours can be really long… an eight-hour day is not part of this job,” says Peter. “You’re kind of ‘on’ all the time and that can get to you. It costs personal time; it costs family time, so it doesn’t come with all glory, there’s an expense to it, as well. So, I won’t miss that, but it’s a decision I made that the job was really important to me.”
Equally important to him is the need for public broadcasting, especially in a country whose neighbour casts a long and loud shadow.
“I believe very passionately and strongly in the need for public broadcasting, supported by the Canadian people that tells Canadian stories. I would want Canadians to feel the same way and that doesn’t mean rallying around the CBC; it means believe in the need for a public broadcaster and demand more from your public broadcaster than you’re getting, if you think you’re not getting enough.”
“I’m Peter Mansbridge”
The classic sign-on-and-off is as much a part of the Canadian lexicon as the Hip’s “Wheat Kings” and Hewitt’s “he shoots, he scores!” But who is Peter Mansbridge? His charismatic personality and self-effacing sense of humour belie the level of success he’s reached in the realm of Canadian news. Still, Peter’s humility doesn’t diminish his celebrity; it underscores his Canadian-ness.
“I’m just a journalist,” he says. “I really believe that. I mean, because we’re in television, there are times some of us get carried away with some kind of undeserving self-importance. We are journalists, like ALL of our colleagues and I’ve always found it unfair that I’m recognized and my name is recognized when journalists who I consider much better at their profession of journalism in the print world are not recognized that way.”
For Peter, recognition has come in many stripes. They include more than a dozen national awards for excellence in broadcast journalism and a similar number of honorary degrees from universities across the country (the latest from McMaster University for both him and his wife). In 2008, he became an officer of the Order of Canada. In 2009, he was named Chancellor of Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. And, in 2015, he was named as a Member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame. Not to be outdone in his personal life, he’s married to Canadian actor – and celebrity in her own right – Cynthia Dale.
So, while he may be “just a journalist,” Peter Mansbridge is far from an ordinary guy. Sure, he’s a husband, father, grandfather and, ahem, Leafs fan who walks to and from work, selects his own wardrobe and hits the gym regularly to stay fit, but his career lent itself to extraordinary events in extraordinary times. With a front-row view to many of our lifetime’s most historical moments, he’s had the opportunity to witness not only the news as it unfolded, but the people whose lives were forever changed as a result. Of all the brushes he’s had with famous figures and world leaders, it’s the human struggle that impacted – and inspired – him the most.
As a young reporter in the South China Sea, Peter interviewed boat people risking their lives by fleeing North Vietnam in search of a peaceful home for their children. In 2004, he interviewed people whose lives and livelihoods had been devastated by the tsunami in South East Asia. And he’s covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, where people living under conflict faced unimaginable suffering. These are the experiences as a journalist he’ll never forget.
“Those are the ones that actually change you as a human being,” he says. “You may not remember any of their names – and I don’t without looking them up – but you remember their stories.”
Despite the sobering nature of these shattering events, not all the personal stories are negative. Throughout his career, Peter has always been encouraged by those who aim to do better.
“I’m inspired by watching people facing adversity who respond to it in ways that often surprise those of us who want to believe humans can do good things. And often I find that those people are responding not for themselves, but for others. And that’s very inspirational.”
Fuelling Fascination and Pursuing Passions
As the studio lights dim on his current role, Peter looks to the future with anticipation, driven by an intrinsic desire to make sense of this life. In reality, he could snowbird his way to a tropical locale, put his feet up, and bask in the afterglow of past accolades. But that cozy, contemplative existence holds no appeal.
“I’m fascinated by what goes on around me. I love asking questions and trying to understand why things happen. And trying to share whatever knowledge I can pick up with others who are equally fascinated by what goes on around them. And that motivation never stops because every day there’s something new. We want more information and journalists play an important role in that process. So, I’m motivated by interesting things that happen or the unexplained or stories that happen that don’t appear to have any answers as to why they happen. Those challenges motivate me as they do most journalists.”
As his priorities start shifting, the personal side of Peter’s life comes into sharper relief. The scales of balance are tipping in a new direction.
“I’m fascinated by the role we all play in carrying on the life of our planet. I’m fascinated by children and grandchildren [he has three of each]. I will spend a lot more time with them than I have in the past because of this job. I’m motivated by enjoying life with my wife; I’m amazed at her talents on stage and on screen and in the recording studio. I’m motivated by all those things. I don’t get bored easily; I find too many interesting things around me, whether it’s on the personal side or the professional side.”
As a freelance journalist, Peter will set his own pace and decide on the projects he’d like to tackle. During his down time, a list of priorities topped by quality time with the family also makes room for golf, reading (he is an insatiable reader of non-fiction) and travel, which remains a passion despite having been all over the world.
“In this business, you travel to a lot of places, but it doesn’t mean you get to see them. When you’re working, filing for deadline and working 12-hour days, you don’t get time to look around,” he says. “I don’t want to make it sound as though it was all hardship, but I would hope that I could keep travelling for some time yet to enjoy the country. I’ve probably seen more of Canada than 95 per cent of Canadians, but I never tire of it and I’m looking forward to seeing more.”
His post-CBC work won’t stop there. With a wealth of both professional and life experience under his belt, Peter will also continue to mentor young people, which he believes is a responsibility – and an opportunity to stay engaged.
“I have young people come to me all the time asking me things based on my experiences and they are not checking out – sort of spending time with the old guy in the corner – they actually want to learn and they actually appreciate that we have things to say. And you don’t have to be the chief correspondent of a news organization to be that person. Anyone who has lived a life of experience can offer others nuggets of that experience to help them.”
Passing on life lessons to the younger generation accentuates another key objective for the future. Peter is quick to affirm the importance of feeding his own appetite for learning.
“I want my mind to always be challenged by the things that are happening around me and I want to learn and understand more, whether that’s through work or simply through life; I think it’s part of ensuring a healthy period of senior years that you’re constantly challenging yourself to learn more.”
Staying at the Leading Edge
When a news anchor comes into our homes each night, he or she gains trust and establishes a relationship with viewers. More than a talking head, a handsome smile and an unmistakable voice, Peter has delivered the news about our country and beyond with a measured, thoughtful and compassionate demeanor. Since he announced his departure last September, Canadians have expressed their thanks and offered him well wishes daily.
“I appreciate very much the opportunities I’ve been given, both by the CBC and, really, by the Canadian people in supporting their public broadcaster and it’s been a fantastic job. I’m comfortable with how hard I’ve worked and things I’ve done well and other things I wished I’d done better, but I think we can get carried away with the place that people who are simply journalists have in the country. I’ve been lucky to be part of the group that has told the story of Canada for the last half century… but I’ve just been there to watch, I haven’t been there to be a part of that story; I’ve just been watching it and telling it.”
As his relationship with the CBC changes, the question now becomes how the public broadcaster will move on without Peter Mansbridge at the helm of their flagship program. They must also deal with changes in the way news is consumed. Most young people, Peter notes, don’t watch TV anymore. They get their media fix via smart phones and tablets, whenever and wherever they want it. Those who package and deliver the news must contend with that tectonic demographic shift.
“The new National, as we tend to call it, is going to be very different than what I do and I’ve called for it. I’ve pushed for new critical thinking with the way we do stuff and it’s all a result of the era of digital,” says Peter. “The world is totally different than it was when I started and even two years ago, even a year ago. And God knows what it’s going to look like a year from now. So we, at the CBC, have to be at the leading edge of that change, not at the trailing edge of it. And I think we will be.”
Moving on and moving forward. Staying at the leading edge. That’s where Canadians will find their most revered and beloved news anchor in the months and years ahead. And that should come as no surprise.
He’s Peter Mansbridge after all.
Snapshot with Peter Mansbridge
If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give him?
“Assume that you know a lot less than you think you do.”
Who or what has influenced you the most?
“Reading has influenced me more than anything else.”
What does courage mean to you?
“Courage is one of the central ingredients needed to overcome adversity.”
What does success mean to you?
“Success is something you work hard to achieve, but don’t forget to share it with those who helped get you there.”
“If there was one person I would have wanted to interview, it would have been Churchill because he’s kind of my hero, as he is for many people. He had such a remarkable life. He had so many ups and downs and yet he always came back, recovered and inspired. He’s an amazing figure, not without fault, not without many faults, but a remarkable person who I would have thoroughly enjoyed spending a few hours talking to.”