A Caribbean-Canadian Video Pioneer: Fil Fraser
“I’ve been a broadcaster since I went to work for Foster Hewitt’s CKFH in Toronto when I was still a teen-ager. I’m still connected as a director of Denham Jolly’s Flow 93.5 radio station in Toronto. Along the way I’ve done everything there was to do in front of and behind the microphones and cameras, from anchoring the CBC TV Edmonton supper hour to being CEO of a national television network.”
Since growing up in a French Canadian neighbourhood in east end Montreal I’ve always lived and worked in the mainstream (i.e. white) world. Being Black was rarely an issue in my career. There were only two occasions on which I faced overt racism, and I didn’t know about the first until long after it happened. I was working at CKBB, a radio station in Barrie, Ontario in the 1950s as the Sports Director and Assistant News Editor, doing the play-by-play for the Barrie Flyers hockey games. Apparently one of the sponsors didn’t like the idea of a “Black boy” doing his commercials and told Ralph Snelgrove, who owned the station, to get rid of me. It was years later, when I was being inducted into the quarter century club of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, that Snelgrove told me about the incident. He told the sponsor to take his business elsewhere – and never mentioned it to me.
I was in Saskatchewan in the early 1960s, publishing the Regina Weekly Mirror, when a landlord refused to rent an apartment to me because of my colour. I called up the province’s attorney general, who had just passed a fair accommodation practices act and told him about it. The case was the first to be prosecuted by the legislation. The company offered me an apartment, which I declined.
All of this is to say that when I grew up in east end Montreal, where maudit négre sounded like one work, and fighting my way home from school was a regular occurrence, I learned coping skills that allowed me, as I grew up, to be quite comfortable in mainstream society. In a long career in broadcasting, journalism, human rights and movie making, no one ever told me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.
This fact has perplexed me for years. Was I just lucky? Was my career the product of tokenism? Did I just not see the racism that was all around me? It’s possible that all of the above were factors in my life. But I have always been keenly aware of the subtle racism than animates so much of Canadian society, and I have very good radar to detect it. When I saw racism in my own life, I simply refused to tolerate what I perceived and volubly identified as ignorance on the part of the perpetrators. At the same time I was angered by the racism faced by other members of the Black community, and, as a journalist and later as Chief Commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, spoke out against it. My essay on being Black in Canada appeared in the 100th Anniversary issue of Saturday night magazine in 1987. Regular columns in a number of daily newspapers, including the Toronto Star, frequently addressed this issue.
So when I started making movies in the early 1970s I made them in mainstream Canada. That’s where the money and the audiences were. I was not aware of anyone making Black oriented films at the time. But now, as I watch the burgeoning careers of Claire Prieto, Clement Virgo, Frances-Anne Solomon, Charles Officer, and others, I wish I were 30 or 40 years younger and could get into the game. But making movies requires the energy, the stamina and the bull headedness of youth.
So now I write books. The first was a mainstream effort, chronicling the extraordinary period in Alberta when Peter Lougheed’s government provided more funding for the arts than, with the possible exception of Quebec, any other province. The second, a biography of Harry Jerome, went a long way to connecting me to the country’s modern Black community. The third has put me right into the middle of it.
How the Blacks Created Canada is part of a series being produced by my publishers that tells the stories of how various ethnic groups contributed to the development of the country. How the English, Scots, French and Italians Created Canada are already in print. Another author is writing about the Chinese and other volumes are in the works.
The stories of Black achievement that I have discovered are remarkably uplifting; from how Blacks saved British Columbia for Canada to how Josiah Henson became a friend of the Archbishop of Canterbury and dined with the Queen to how the Oliver/White family has, for generations, shown the way to success in Nova Scotia to how one of the best editorial cartoonists in the country is the great grandson of former slaves who moved from Oklahoma to homestead near Maidstone, Saskatchewan in 1908, the Black contribution to Canadian life has not been told.