Laurier Lapierre, whose sudden death at eighty-three was announced in Ottawa on Monday, was a passionate Canadian of great charm and conviction who had remarkable careers as broadcaster, historian and, late in life, politician. In 2001, Jean Chrétien appointed him to the Senate where he fought for many noble causes.
Canadians of a certain age remember him as the eloquent and outspoken – and delightfully French – co-host of This Hour Has Seven Days (1964-1966), the CBC’s historic public affairs program that was out-rated only by Hockey Night in Canada. The job had first been offered to Pierre Trudeau, then a professor of law at the University of Montreal, who was vaguely considering running for election. After all, René Lévesque had made a reputation as a broadcaster before making a splash in politics. Negotiations collapsed. Trudeau eventually succeeded in politics anyway, in 1968. In December 1965 he, together with Larry Zolf, interviewed Lévesque as a freelancer for Seven Days.
Lapierre’s origins were the precise opposite of Trudeau’s patrician Montreal background. Lapierre came from Quebec’s rural slums. In a strange and indirect way that was the source of his success.
He was born in Mégantic in the Eastern Townships in 1929, and grew up in the depth of the Depression. His earliest memory was the arrival of bailiffs to take away everything they had, even the beds. His father, whose education had ended in grade three, lost his ice-cream business. Later, he became a lumberjack, but could not hold a job because he drank. His mother was a maid and a cook. It was she who held the family together. She even managed to board the five children at a convent in Disraeli, near Thetford Mines, for twenty-five dollars a month each. He stayed there until he had finished Grade Six.
The nuns took the view that that unless the boys learned English they would never amount to anything. So at thirteen he went to St. Patrick’s Academy in Sherbrooke. (He had never been in Montreal, eighty miles away.) Laurier had been to mass every day and decided to become a missionary priest in a religious order. He was not particularly anxious to spread the faith but he was determined to get away.
But what religious order to apply to? He had a good friend, a priest. Laurier put the names of three religious orders into a hat. The priest put the hat into a chalice. Both of them went to church together and knelt down at the high altar. The priest prayed to the Holy Ghost Veni Creator Spiritus. Laurier picked the winner out of the chalice: the Congregation of St. Paul in Baltimore. There, and in a Novitiate in New Jersey, he spent four happy years. The world opened up for him. He discovered he had a mind. He read hundreds of books and learned Latin, Greek and German. He was also taught to become an orator in English. For hours, he listened to Laurence Olivier playing Henry V.
After he had also learned to speak educated French – up to then he had only spoken joual – he presented himself to the producers of Radio Canada in Montreal in the hope of becoming a broadcaster. They rejected him. He had spent many years in the U.S. and his accent no longer conformed to the language spoken by other Quebec broadcasters. No doubt there were other reasons why he did not stay and preferred the English-speaking world. For one thing, he never had any sympathy for Quebec nationalism. He proceeded to study history at the University of Toronto and in 1959 received his PhD. During the two years of Seven Days, he was teaching Quebec history at McGill and commuted every weekend for the Sunday show.
The accent that became his trademark was distinctive and different from that of other French Canadians speaking English. His phenomenal success was not only due to his boyish good looks, his upbeat personality and his genuine belief in the goodness of man, but also to his being French without sounding like a French Canadian.
Source: Inside Seven Days by Eric Koch (1986)