Community & Current Events

Peter Mansbridge on his unconventional start in journalism

By: Jill Buchner

Photography by John Hryniuk Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by John Hryniuk

Community & Current Events

Peter Mansbridge on his unconventional start in journalism

By: Jill Buchner
It's hard to picture Peter Mansbridge as a kid, dodging his homework and dressing in T-shirts instead of ties. But the CBC News chief correspondent is first to admit that he hasn't always been the model of intellectual enlightenment.

"I was a very average student," says Peter, who attended high school in Ottawa. "I spent more time looking outside the window than inside the classroom." Without the marks for university, his education ended after Grade 12. He went on to join the navy but admits he didn't apply himself there, either. He withdrew from the seven-year program after only two years, choosing to leave with an honorary discharge.

"I was sort of lost at sea," he says. "I didn't want to come back home, because it was such an admission of failure, so I bounced around Western Canada for a while." He landed a job with a small airline that took him to Winnipeg and Brandon, MB; Prince Albert, SK; and finally Churchill, MB, where he worked a variety of jobs, from gassing airplanes to collecting tickets. 
"I was 19 and carefree and enjoying the world."

How Peter Mansbridge ended up at the CBC

One day in 1968 while on cargo duty, he was asked to announce a flight over the PA system. "It was something like, ‘TransAir Flight 106 for Thompson, Winnipeg now ready for boarding,'" he recalls. As the passengers filed toward the door, one walked straight toward Peter. "You've got a really good voice. Have you ever thought about being in radio?" asked the man. "I thought he was joking," says Peter. "I had never thought about broadcasting; it never even crossed my mind."

That man, the manager of Churchill's CBC Northern Service station, wanted to hire Peter for a late-night radio show. He took the job. "Frankly, if I had said no, he would have offered it to the next person he heard. He just needed somebody to fill a role." But as it turned out, Peter was the perfect fit.

"At that point in my life, I'd had all these opportunities that I had not handled well, whether it was school, the possibility of going to university, the navy. Then I was in this, and I actually really enjoyed it."

It was Peter who took the inititave to start the station's first newscast shortly after he was hired. Current events had always been a big part of his family life. "I was fascinated by news and grew up in a family where we talked about current events all the time." From that job in Churchill, he gradually moved up the ranks at CBC.

Today, Peter Mansbridge is the authority for keeping Canadians informed about national and international issues. We have come to trust that soothing, steadfastly serious baritone to deliver news on everything from politics to natural disasters.

Classroom vs real-world learning
While it's hard to get over the irony that it was his voice, not his education or skill, that landed him such an important job, Peter says he owes a lot to real-world learning, constant discussion and curiosity. "That's what journalism is all about. You ask questions, challenge assumptions, tell people what you've learned," he says. Though he gets strange looks when he tells journalism students his unique story, he stands by the belief that formal education is only part of the equation.  

"Education is extremely important. On the other hand, life experience is important as well," he says. Some of Peter's early lessons came from moving around the world, thanks to having a military father, who also stressed that success in life depended on finishing school.

Peter and his wife, actor Cynthia Dale, make a concerted effort to create opportunities for their 15-year-old son, Will, to gain life experience. They include him on educational trips and encourage him to participate in extracurriculars. "We ensure that our son has the best possible schooling but, at the same time, also ensure that he has the best possible life experience."

Though Peter left school years ago, in the past two decades he has been granted a number of honorary degrees and a chancellorship at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. He takes pride in events like convocation and the annual Mansbridge Summit, a daylong learning experience that includes panel discussions, interviews and debate on a student-chosen topic.

Peter Mansbridge on the future of journalism

As a journalist, Peter loves constantly learning about the world. While he's had the opportunity to interview major politicians and religious leaders, the most eye-opening lessons come from ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

"I was in Berlin when the wall came down, witnessing the emotions of families and friends being united for the first time in 30 years," he says. "I covered the exodus of the boat people from Vietnam in the late 1970s. I covered the effects of the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2005. When you cover droughts, famines, you meet the people most affected by the horrors of those situations. That isn't just a great story to tell; it is something that fundamentally affects you and changes you as a human being."

Peter has been sharing those stories with Canadians for the past 46 years. As he nears retirement, journalism is in a precarious position. Though he hopes momentous stories will always be told and challenging questions will always be asked, he doesn't know what the future holds for news media. But he does know one thing to be true: "We never know enough. We're never familiar enough with our own institutions and the challenges that face our country. And we never know enough about the world." 

We spoke to space commander Chris Hadfield on why he calls Canada home and what's next for him.
This story was originally titled "Life Student" in the September 2014 issue.
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Community & Current Events

Peter Mansbridge on his unconventional start in journalism