Celebrated political columnist Douglas Fisher dies at 89

Longtime political columnist Douglas Fisher, the former MP dubbed the "dean of the parliamentary press gallery," has died at on the eve of his 90th birthday.
Veteran political columnist and former MP Douglas Fisher has died at the age of 89. ((Courtesy Fisher family))

Longtime political columnist Douglas Fisher, the former CCF and NDP MP dubbed the "dean of the parliamentary press gallery," has died on the eve of his 90th birthday.

Fisher died Friday in Ottawa, according to his family.

"I knew Doug for over 50 years and always enjoyed our time together," former prime minister Brian Mulroney said in a statement to CBC News on Friday. 

He also praised Fisher's "incredible capacity for hard work, his keen appreciation of history and his intelligence. He will be greatly missed. My deepest condolences to his family and children."

NDP Leader Jack Layton hailed Fisher as "an extraordinary contributor" to Canada.

"He was a mind and a spirit in the House of Commons and in the world of journalism that everybody looked up to," Layton told reporters in Ottawa Friday morning.

"He's left a wonderful legacy of thinking about this country and sharing his thoughts with us, putting smiles on our faces sometimes, shaking us out of our complacency [at] other times."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff issued statements praising Fisher.

Harper and said Fisher's "presence and his voice will be missed."

"Doug spent his entire life serving his country in different ways: as a soldier, he served his country as a member of the 12th Manitoba Dragoons; and as a member of Parliament between 1957 and 1965.  Although he left politics in 1965, he remained on Parliament Hill as a political columnist until his retirement in 2006," the prime minister said in a written statement.

Ignatieff called Fisher "a giant of Canadian politics" and a pioneer of the sports community for his role as chairman of Hockey Canada.

"Douglas Fisher was admired by his many colleagues for his incredible work ethic, his keen appreciation of history and his sparkling intelligence," Ignatieff said.

Fisher, who served in the military during the Second World War, held a host of jobs as a young man, including miner, fire ranger and bridge guard. After his studies, he became a teacher and then a member of Parliament. He spent most of his life, however, as a Parliament Hill columnist. ((Courtesy Fisher family))
Fisher, who was born in Sioux Lookout, Ont. on Sept. 19, 1919, and grew up there, served in the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War and received a degree in library science after studies in Toronto. He tried out a host of jobs — including miner, fire ranger, construction worker and bridge guard — before settling on teaching high school in Port Arthur, now part of Thunder Bay, Ont.

However, his life changed dramatically in 1957 after he agreed to be the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation's candidate for his riding and — shockingly — defeated influential and powerful Liberal cabinet minister C.D. Howe, who had been known as the "minister of everything" in the governments of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent.

The unknown high school teacher who scored such a dramatic political upset soon made a name for himself in Ottawa as an active, knowledgeable and outspoken CCF — and later NDP — member of Parliament.

Sideline becomes full-time

At the time, MPs were paid just $10,000, so Fisher, who also had a growing family to support, accepted an offer to take on a sideline as a freelance political columnist for the Toronto Telegram newspaper.

In 1965, he chose to move into journalism full-time — retiring as an MP, but remaining on Parliament Hill as a political columnist. After the Telegram folded in 1971, he joined the upstart Toronto Sun, where he remained a columnist until his retirement in July 2006. He also appeared on television with his show Insight with Doug Fisher and as a commentator on programs including CTV's Question Period.

"After nearly 50 years, I can only say that government has become immense, the Prime Minister’s Office is vastly bigger and more powerful, more attention than ever is paid to party leaders and in particular to the prime minister, and the House of Commons — whose weakness we bemoaned back in my time in it — has withered almost to insignificance," he wrote in his final Toronto Sun column in 2006.

Nevertheless, he concluded: "I am as positive about our country as I was in my 20s, coming home from the war.… In this century there will be as much opportunity as there was a century ago in the opening up of our West, with the promise of a better society to the fore — if we cultivate our politics sensibly."

Fisher was also a pioneer in Canada's sports community, having served as chairman of Hockey Canada and helping to build the sport's reputation.

Fisher is survived by his five sons: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Tobias. Two of them followed him into journalism: Matthew, who is a foreign correspondent for Canwest, and Tobias, the CBC's parliamentary assignment editor.