After 4 decades of getting answers for Nova Scotians, Yvonne Colbert retires from CBC
Hall-of-Fame reporter reflects on a 44-year career in journalism
Growing up in the small community of Lower Ohio in Nova Scotia's Shelburne County, Yvonne Colbert found her future written inside a university calendar.
While in high school, she spotted a description of the radio and television arts program at Ryerson University in Toronto.
"I thought, that's what I want to do," she says.
Colbert earned a spot in the program, got her degree and took a job at a Dartmouth radio station. Over the next four decades, Colbert worked her way from cub reporter to one of the most trusted names in journalism in Atlantic Canada. Now, 44 years later, Colbert has filed her final story and is ready to enjoy retirement.
In the early days of her career, Colbert aimed to be a TV anchor. Before long, she was anchoring Live at Five, the ATV newscast that launched in 1982.
"That had been my goal. I wanted to be a TV anchor, and so I was living my dream," she says.
But then her news director, Bill Patrick, called her into his office and said he wanted her to return to reporting on Live at Five and do a segment where people would contact her about their problems and she would solve them.
"I just looked at him. Who would want to listen to people's problems all day? And how am I supposed to solve them?" she says.
"Even though it was taking me away from my dream job, I determined I'm going to do this better than anyone has ever done it. People responded like crazy and it became the most popular part of Live at Five."
Making an impact
Some were consumer advocate stories, and others were "help a person" items. An early win came in the mid-1980s when someone contacted her about a young woman in Minto, N.B., named Susan Kilfillin.
When she was a toddler, Susan had been in a house fire and her own sister had died protecting her. Susan survived, but faced dozens of surgeries. She wore a wig, but it was a bad fit and prone to blowing away.
That's when someone contacted Colbert. She started reporting. Soon, someone agreed to create and donate a custom-fitted wig. Colbert joined Susan for the final fitting.
"She sat in the chair and looked in the mirror and said, 'For the first time in my life, I feel beautiful.' What is more wonderful and rewarding than that? All I did is make a phone call. Other people made it happen," Colbert says.
Colbert's segment, On Your Side, found its focus: stories about regular people struggling, often up against a faceless company or bureaucracy. People would fight for ages to have anyone listen to them, but they were suddenly heard when amplified by Colbert's reporting.
"It's the prospect of publicity and the actual publicity that generally gets organizations or companies or governments to change their mind," she says.
"I didn't have any sort of magic wand, but I'm persistent and dogged and when I felt that someone had been clearly treated unfairly, I would do my best to get answers."
She has a soft spot for the little guy — and specifically a little guy named Charles, who called her when his school playground was destroyed after being deemed unsafe. He wanted her to help him get a new one. "He was the dearest little boy," she says.
People saw the segment and soon his community raised enough money to build a new playground. Her follow-up story featured Charles cutting the ribbon.
She always wondered what had happened to him, until one day when she was teaching at the Nova Scotia Community College, a tall young man tapped her on the shoulder.
"I just squealed and I hugged him," she says. "We had a wonderful chat."
'One person's little problems'
Starting in 2007, Colbert spent six years teaching journalism at NSCC.
"While I loved teaching them and watching them learn, and actually become journalists, another really important part of it was the relationships I built with the students," she says.
After that, she returned to reporting, working for CBC News in Halifax. People continued to email and call her with their struggles and story ideas.
One led her to an 88-year-old woman who stored her ancient flip phone in a kitchen drawer, just for emergencies, and then found out she was being charged a small fortune every month. Colbert produced a story that resonated across Canada and beyond.
"Maybe legally it was right, but morally and ethically it was wrong. And that's what people responded to: her," Colbert says.
"I sat there and cried as she cried at the table. How could you not? It's the stories of people and their feelings and emotions and the difficulties they have to face."
One of her favourite recent stories was about a hardworking young man called Ryan Manning, who'd saved up to buy a home in Salmon River — only to then discover he didn't legally own his fenced-in backyard or deck. She started reporting.
"One person's little problems, but it blew up across the country," she says.
"And he's hopefully living happily ever after."
Colbert hopes to live happily ever after, too. She and her husband, Rick Howe, are moving to their dream home on the South Shore, where they'll surround themselves with the serenity of breaking waves, monarch butterflies and hummingbirds. Colbert plans to spend more time with their two sons, their partners, and their beautiful granddaughter, Brihanna.
"I'm looking forward to focusing on our life and peace and tranquillity,"
Howe, host of his own popular, long-running radio show, is also a broadcasting icon in Atlantic Canada.
"Some people still don't know we're married and are shocked when they learn that," she says. "I always get a giggle out of that."
Colbert and Howe have both lived up to the journalistic standard of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
"We were competitors of sorts. And Rick doesn't like to talk about work. He could have had the best show ever and wouldn't even tell me," she says.
"My stories were always my stories — not that he's going to steal them or anything. It was never an issue for us. We're both newshounds."
As she brings a 44-year Hall of Fame career to a close, Colbert offers some last consumer advice. Before you hire anyone to do anything, she says, search the company online, find the owners and search them too.
"And if you have a problem, be persistent. Don't give up. Always be pleasantly persistent."
She agrees that "pleasantly persistent" could also describe her work.
"Most of the time," she says with a laugh.
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