Black Canadian Profile: Fil Fraser
Fil Fraser is a broadcaster, journalist, biographer, television program director, human rights activist and a radio, television and feature film producer. His career has spanned over half a century. He is the first Black Canadian broadcaster. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1991 for his contributions to Canadian broadcasting and journalism. He is currently based out of Edmonton.
Born to Caribbean parents in a French Canadian community in the East End of Montreal in 1932. Fraser experienced racism as a child growing up. He was called a maudit négre and often had to fight his way home from school. However, he believes that he learned coping skills that allowed him to feel comfortable within in mainstream (white) Canadian society.
Fraser began his career in Canadian broadcasting as a teenager when he hosted the afteroon teen program Club 800 on Radio CJAD. He went on to work for Foster Hewitt’s CKFH in Toronto in 1951. He later worked in radio in Timmins and Barrie, Ontario.
In 1958, Fraser headed west. He moved to Regina in 1958, and worked in public relations in both government and private sectors before founding and publishing, in 1960, the Regina Weekly Mirror, which chronicled the introduction of Medicare by the Tommy Douglas Government. Between 1963 and 1969, Fraser began working in the field of public education on the issue of addictions. He was the Director of Education at the Saskatchewan Bureau on Alcoholism, and in 1965, he moved to Edmonton to work in the same capacity with the Division of Alcoholism of the Alberta Department of Health, now known as the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC).
But Fraser continued to work in media. In 1969, he became the program director of Canada’s first educational television station, the Metropolitan Edmonton Educational Television Association (MEETA), forerunner of Alberta’s ACCESS TV NETWORK, which went on the air in March, 1970. He was the “co-anchor” for CBC Edmonton’s supper hour news and public affairs program from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, Fraser got to host his own show, the Fil Fraser Show, on ITV Television. During that same year, he founded the Alberta Film Festival, now known as the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association (AMPIA) awards. he same period, he formed his own production company and wrote, produced and directed several educational films for television. After founding his own production company and writing, directing and producing several educational films for television, Fraser produced one of Canada’s most successful feature films, Why Shoot the Teacher? starring Bud Cort (Harold and Maude). In 1979, Fraser founded the Banff International Television Festival.
Fraser rarely experienced racism in his career. As he explains:
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.
However, Fraser has fought against racism within Canadian society. He was appointed in August 1987, to the Canadian Multiculturalism Council by the then Honourable David Crombie, and was Chair of the Council’s media committee. On behalf of the Federal Minister for Multiculturalism, the Honourable Gerry Weiner, Fraser organized and chaired a National Forum on Broadcasting and Multiculturalism, “Reflections in the Electronic Mirror”, which took place in Toronto in May, 1988. Fraser served as the Chief Commissionar of the Alberta Human Rights Commission from 1989 to 2002. As he writes:
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.
In 1990, Fraser was appointed to sit as a member on The Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, a Federal Royal Commission also known as the “Spicer” Commission, named after its chairperson, Keith Spicer. Established on the advice of then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the commission was a response to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. Its goal was to discuss the future of Canada in the face of linguistic and regional divisions with Canadian citizens across the country in town-hall style meetings. The commission’s report was released in June 1991. Some of the reports recommendations influenced the subsequent Charlottetown Accord. Also in 1991, Fraser was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada by the then Govenor General of Canada, Ramon Hnatyshyn.
From 1995 to 2000, Fraser was President and Chief Executive Officer of Vision TV, a multifaith, multicultural cable channel. In 2001, Fraser gave the inaugural lecture of “The Fil Fraser Lecture Series”, presented annually by The Canadian Association of Black Journalists. The series was created to focus on the important role that cultural and social diversity can and should play in the Canadian media. Fraser was also director for a time at CBC Newsworld and Telefilm Canada.
Fraser was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University or Alberta in 2007. Fraser currently teaches a graduate course on film policy at Athabasca University, Canada’s pioneering distance learning institution.
Fraser is also a prolific writer. His books include:
How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)
Across the country and throughout time, Blacks have played pivotal roles in the unfolding of Canadian history. Woven into the fabric of the country itself, they have made serious contributions to this great nation.
In the early 1600s, African navigator Mathieu De Costa used his knowledge of Mi’kmaq languages to enable communication between the Europeans and Aboriginals. Arriving in 1605, he was the first Black to come to what would become Canada.
Over two centuries later, Sir James Douglas recruited 800 former American slaves and freemen to settle in Victoria, BC, where they staved off the threat from an America that would gobble up land and stretch up the west coast from California to Alaska.
Josiah Henson escaped half a lifetime of slavery and came to Dresden, Ontario through the underground railway. He established a highly successful business, met Queen Victoria, had dinner with the prime minister and became friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also an unofficial ambassador for Canada.
And, more currently, Blacks have made great strides in Canadian sports, entertainment and politics, as well as business, academia, the judiciary and a broad range of public service. So take a seat and discover the surprising and satisfying history that is finally making it in the mainstream.
Running Uphill: the Fast, Short Life of Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)
Harry Jerome was among the greatest runners the world has ever seen. He battled serious injuries, racism and periodically a hostile domestic press as he smashed numerous world records and represented Canada at the Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan-American Games through the 1960s. Running Uphill: The Short, Fast Life of Harry Jerome is the first biography ever published of this important Canadian, who stands as a genuine hero for Canada’s Black community.
Fraser has also written a memoir about Alberta in the 1970s entitled Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)
This memoir is a personal view of an extraordinary period in the life of Alberta, and of a time in my own life that still astonishes me. When I look back through the lens of the political and economic realities of the early twenty-first century, it is hard for me to believe that for a decade and a half, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the government of Alberta supported culture in ways unmatched, with the possible exception of Quebec, anywhere, anytime in Canada. Premier Peter Lougheed, with the active encouragement of his wife Jeanne, supported the arts with strongly positive attitudes and with generous, well-placed funding. The government treated culture as if it really mattered. And, in the proc-ess, it changed the way that many Albertans, myself included, saw themselves and their communities.
According to Fraser, the role of the writer is effective communication. He writes that:
“We communicate more and more in cliches, which mean different things to different people and nothing to a lot of people. We need to find a new way to communicate across gender, the ethnic, cultural and age divides that separate us. That is the role of the writer.
Fil Fraser’s Website
The Participation of Aboriginals and Other Cultural Minorities in Cultural Development by Fil Fraser (1994 Article available online)
Fil Fraser: Alberta Culture Vignette (Video available online)
Books by Fil Fraser:
How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)
Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)
Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)