Bernard St-Laurent, broadcaster and journalist extraordinaire
Known to friends and listeners alike as ‘Bernie’, he was initiated to politics as a boy listening to Uncle Louis – the Prime Minister- talking politics with his father and grandfather in their Compton general store
“I remember when I was a boy and Uncle Louis was the Prime Minister…..” Bernie St-Laurent has answered one of my first questions – before it was even asked. As a newsman and broadcaster whose specialty is the political arena, Bernie has had a lifelong exposure to politics and politicians. “Uncle Louis” was indeed Louis St-Laurent, Prime Minister of Canada in the 1950s.
“I was born in Compton in the Eastern Townships, and my father and grandfather owned a general store. I can remember people sitting around a pot-bellied stove, drinking Pepsi and talking politics. When Uncle Louis would come to visit, there’d be reporters all over the place – waiting for him while he visited with my grandfather.” Bernie continues, “One of the reporters had a movie camera, and he let me look through it.
It was the first time I’d ever seen the world in black and white – and it was amazing…it’s an image that’s stayed with me.” At a very young age, Bernard St-Laurent had an introduction to the worlds of politics and journalism – experiences that would be prescient later in his life.
After elementary school, Bernie was sent to boarding school, with his mother’s idea that he would eventually go into the priesthood. Bernie didn’t enthusiastically share this view of his career path, and he was kicked out of the boarding school. He was accepted at St. Patrick’s High School in Sherbrooke – the only school that would take him.
After graduating, he applied and was accepted to Ryerson’s journalism program. But Bernie heard about job opportunities at The Sherbrooke Record. “A friend of mine told me that there were these new guys that had purchased the paper. My first interview was with Conrad Black and Peter White, and they hired me. They told me it would be a better experience than Journalism school. I did all sorts of jobs – reporting, selling ads, delivering bundles to the carriers – anything that needed to be done. One time on my way to the courthouse to cover a murder trial, David Radler asked me to drop off some invoices to customers located near the court. Here I was – all pumped up to cover a murder trial – and Radler wanted me to deliver invoices. I realized that I needed get more education if I wanted to do better than I was at The Record.”
After travelling across Canada, in 1975 Bernie found employment as a Social Animator in Gaspé. He recognized that there were no newspapers for the English-speaking population in the Gaspé communities. With his colleague Lynden Bechervaise, the two applied and received a grant to start a weekly paper called SPEC (Social, Political, Economy and Community news.) The paper still exists.
At the same time, Bernie was a founding co-chair of CASA (Committee for Anglophone Social Action) which is also still functioning. The paper was on solid footing by the late summer of 1975, and Bernie decided that it would be useful to have a law degree for their growing business and advocacy group.
“I applied as a mature student to Laval in Quebec City, and I was accepted. I was doing really well… and then came the Teachers’ Strike in September 1976. So there’s no school, and by now I’m married to Patricia Pleszczynska who I had met at Bishop’s and we have a young baby. I’ve got to do something. I got a call from Hubert Bauch, whom I had worked with at The Record. He was now with The Globe & Mail. He hired me as his researcher”.
After the election of the René Lévesque and the Parti Québecois; Quebec City became an overnight news hotspot. There was a huge impetus for news organizations to find people who could report back to audiences in Montreal and the rest of Canada. “Nick Auf der Maur helped me get hired by CJAD, and I opened their first bureau in Quebec City.” Bernie worked for CJAD from January ’77 to 1981. “I faced the choice of going back to law school, or having a ring side seat with history in the making. It wasn’t a hard decision…I was there for Bill 101, Auto Insurance, the Referendum and all the other PQ initiatives that had such a major impact on Quebec – and the rest of Canada.”
In 1981, Bernie was asked to open the CBC Bureau in the Eastern Townships. “During the 1984 federal election I was responsible for all of the off-island ridings in the province”. Once again, Bernie was in the right place at the right time. “I covered the Mulroney and Turner leadership campaigns and the rise of the Conservatives in Quebec.”
He moved back to Quebec City and was there for the return of Robert Bourassa. He was at Meech Lake the day the deal was reached. It was an exciting time. During the final negotiations, I was literally camping overnight outside the Langevin Block to be near the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Bernie continues; “Then along came the challenge of The Montreal Daily News. It didn’t survive, but I was the only department head not to get fired…”
After The Daily News closed, Bernie was hired as a Monday edition political columnist for The Gazette. “There wasn’t a lot of political writing on Monday, so the column got a lot of attention.” At the same time Bernie was hired to be the Executive Producer for The Weather Network and Météomedia, two new cable television programs that turned out to be very popular.
It paid the bills, but there wasn’t the adrenaline rush of covering breaking news. In 1991 Bernie accepted an invitation to re-join CBC as the assignment editor for the CBC evening television news program Newswatch.
CBC Radio beckoned in 1994, and Bernie took on the job of National Reporter for Radio News. “I knew it was going to be an interesting time. The PQ was back in power in Quebec, and there were rumblings about another referendum which did take place in 1995.” While he would not characterize himself as such – Bernie has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Quebec politics, much of it gained through firsthand experiences.
In 1998 Bernie co-created C’est La Vie, a program that is deliberately non-political.” We felt that it was important for people to know more about the French culture – more than just the politics of Quebec. “We wanted to reflect Francophone culture across the country, exploring arts and culture, sports, science and business.” Included in the 30 minute program is the “Word of the Week” segment with Johanne Blais – which itself has become hugely popular.
In 2003, C’est La Vie won Program of the Year and Best Network Weekly Program. “We used to joke that the program was “highly rated, critically acclaimed, and someday award winning” – we had to change after winning those awards.”
“The show has been a hit since day one – and we just celebrated 10 years. We have 4,000 people who subscribe to the show every week, in addition to our broadcasts.” Bernie continues; “What I find touching is how many schools use the program. We have teachers who use it in elementary, high school and even at the university level! It’s incredible that one program could have such a wide appeal.”
Bernie has appeared as a guest host on a variety of CBC programs, including; The Current, Sounds Like Canada, As It Happens, The House, and Cross Country Check-up. The list is a reflection of some of the best national programming offered by the CBC.
For the past three years Bernie has also been the host of Homerun, aired weekdays from 3:30 to 6pm. It has all the elements of an afternoon show for commuters, including traffic reports, weather and news. It also has an eclectic group of contributors including Jeanette Kelly reporting on the Arts, Norm Belanger on wine, Catherine MacPherson on food, Kelly Rice on classical music, Duke Eatman on popular music and Chuck Regher on business. Bernie is insistent that it would be impossible to put Homerun on the air without the hard work of producer Kim McNairn and researchers Ann Lang and Kalli Anderson. “Each person adds to the personality of the program – We couldn’t fill 2 ½ hours five days a week without them.”
“One of the great aspects of the show is that it changes every day.” The segment titled The Buzz gives him a chance to speak to a variety of people around the city. “We get to find out what people are interested in. I’ll ask them what people are talking about at the café, or store, or wherever our contributors as calling from.”
Bernie is also particularly fond of the Wednesday Houseguest feature, where a Montrealer is invited into talk about themselves, their work, their background and how they came to be where they are now. “I get to spend a couple of hours with some very interesting people and hear some intriguing stories.”
Bernie has been married to his wife Patricia for 32 years. “She’s quite incredible… after the kids were old enough and all in school, Patricia came to work in Quebec City as a researcher in current affairs. She then worked as a producer in Quebec City. Now she she’s is the Regional Director for English radio and television for all of Quebec.”
Last June Bernie noticed what he described as “a strange crustiness on the side of my tongue. My dentist referred my to an ear, nose and throat specialist. After a series of tests, they told me that the growth on my tongue was cancerous. Not good news for someone who makes their living by talking…” Bernie underwent surgery to remove a small portion of his tongue. “Dr. Richard Payne did a remarkable job he saved my career. I have to speak a little more slowly, and it shows a little if I’m tired.”
We’re nearing the end of our interview, the newsroom is quiet and the surrounding studios are empty. While most people have long since left, Bernie has a few items he wants to check on before leaving. This is Bernie’s world, a world he brings to his listeners every afternoon, or as needed during elections, political upheaval, or anytime the national broadcaster needs someone reliable and knowledgeable to make sense of it all for Canadians. “This is Bernard St-Laurent reporting from…..”
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