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Peter Mansbridge reflects on nearly 50 years at CBC News

As he prepares to sign off as chief correspondent and anchor of The National, Peter Mansbridge sat down with Heather Hiscox to talk about his personal and professional journey through a half-century at the CBC, and what the future might hold.

He tells CBC's Heather Hiscox stories from the beginning of his career continue to resonate

As Peter Mansbridge retires after nearly 50 years with the CBC, The National looks back at his career from his first days in radio to his 29-year run as chief correspondent of CBC News and anchor of The National. 17:27

Peter Mansbridge, like thousands of Canadians every year, has spent his final days at work before semi-retirement reflecting with admitted mixed emotions on his departure while saying "so long for now" to colleagues.

But unlike all but the lucky few, packing up his office has involved memories that literally span the globe.

He's amassed a collection that includes a piece of the Berlin Wall, sand from Normandy, a rug from Afghanistan, rocks from Vimy Ridge and tokens from Dieppe and the Great Wall of China.

"I've always been a big history buff and being able to reach out and touch history, especially to places you've been, that mean something special, it's a nice feeling not just to me but my son is big on those kind of things, too," Mansbridge told Heather Hiscox in an interview for CBC News Network.

Mansbridge will officially sign off from his role as chief correspondent and anchor of The National on Saturday, presiding over Canada Day coverage one more time, beginning at 10 a.m. ET from Parliament Hill to mark the country's 150th birthday. It will cap off a special week for Mansbridge and wife Cynthia Dale, with son Will having graduated from high school on Thursday.

The retiring anchor reflects on how much he's seen over the course of anchoring The National for 3 decades. 0:35

After a half-century as a CBC journalist, it may seem like it was his destiny. But Mansbridge's career origin story is now legendary. After attending high school and a stint in the Canadian navy, Mansbridge was working for Transair in Churchill, Man., when a producer named Gaston Charpentier heard his voice over the public address system. A radio job was offered, reportedly for $250 per month.

"Immediately I knew two things — one, I loved doing this, and two, 'I'm not going to screw this up.'"

'A story comes full circle'

The seriousness of the job, with its occasional requirement to be a witness to tragedy, was soon illustrated while reporting in a local Indigenous community.

"I remember the first time covering a fire in Churchill and they were bringing bodies out and I'd never seen anything like that and so, that image is still on my mind and I get flashes back every time I hear a story about a fire," he said.

Mansbridge was first posted in northern Manitoba for CBC Radio's news service before moving to Winnipeg as a radio reporter in 1971, joining the network television news division the following year.

While he spent much of his time domestically in posts in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ottawa, there were foreign assignments as well, with the fall of Saigon and the related flood of refugees from Vietnam in 1975 leaving an indelible mark.

The retiring news anchor remembers a conversation with a woman at a refugee camp, a story that eventually came 'full circle' for him. 2:24

Mansbridge was among a select group of foreign correspondents to witness the throngs of people leaving by boat through the South China Sea. The experience still resonates when he meets the adults who were those young refugee arrivals to Canada, most recently this month in Hamilton when he received an honorary degree from McMaster University.

"When you see in their eyes their excitement about what they've accomplished [in Canada], you trace it back to what you saw in the eyes of their parents or grandparents, about why they were doing this. So for me, when that happens it's like a story comes full circle," he says.

After a top parliamentary role and regular stints substituting as a CBC anchor, Mansbridge was wooed for a prominent role at CBS in late 1987. The potential opportunity led to a series of feverish days in which Knowlton Nash moved up his planned departure as anchor for The National, CBC strengthened its long-term commitment to Mansbridge, and he in turn left more money on the table in the U.S. to tell Canadian stories.

The retiring news anchor explains why it's important to witness things 'you don't want to have to see.' 0:47

Nash gave him advice that he listened to, but which he said only truly resonated over time. Being "the face of CBC," as it were, involves being drawn into conversations off the job from Canadians who want to share their opinions of the CBC and its news coverage, good and bad.

"It's a great job to have, you get access to interviews and to information that you often don't get if you're not in that job, but you also are a focus of criticism, some of it justified, some of it nothing to do with you," he said.

'An incredible team'

Mansbridge officially took the chair for The National on May 2, 1988. It was a heady year, which included the momentous free-trade federal election, a U.S. election, major developments in the Air India bombing investigation and two huge sports stories — the trade of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles and Ben Johnson's positive doping test after winning the signature sprinting event at the Seoul Olympics.

Headlines have come and gone but Mansbridge has been the stalwart, holding the fort from the Toronto studio and on location across Canada and internationally, from Afghanistan, Israel, Sri Lanka and across Europe.

All told in his career, there have been 14 federal elections covered, eight Olympic ceremonies and about 15,000 interviews, from political and business leaders, entertainers and athletes and everyday Canadians with stories to tell.

Mansbridge as a host and The National as a show have been honoured with several Gemini and Canadian Screen Awards, and he was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2008.

"You know I'm lucky that I work with an incredible team of people — those who are up front and close to me and those who are distant in the sense that they are in the field," he said. "They're the great storytellers we have."

The retiring news anchor talks about the attacks on media and why 'a good part of our industry' could collapse. 0:31

After spending time with family, Mansbridge hopes to pilot some yet to be determined CBC projects, and he's mulling over opportunities outside of broadcasting. He's got a lunch date set soon with former CTV and CBC anchor Lloyd Robertson for tips on transitioning out of the regular anchorman routine.

But some things can't be unlearned.

"It won't matter where I am or what I am doing, but there's going to be a part of me that will look up when a fire engine goes by or a police car or there's a bulletin on air."

Watch the full interview here: 

Peter Mansbridge's full interview with Heather Hiscox 23:07

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