Laurier LaPierre, ex-senator and broadcaster, dies at 83

Retired senator Laurier LaPierre, who co-hosted CBC Television's influential and controversial current affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days in the 1960s, has died at age 83.

LaPierre co-hosted CBC's This Hour Has Seven Days in 1960s

Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien speaks to CBC guest host Steve Rukavina about the man he appointed to the Senate, Laurier Lapierre.

Retired senator Laurier LaPierre, who co-hosted CBC Television's influential and controversial current affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days in the 1960s, has died at age 83.

Outspoken about social issues and an expert in constitutional affairs, LaPierre was a McGill University professor, author and broadcaster before being appointed to the Senate in 2001 by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He served until his mandatory retirement at age 75 in 2004.

Laurier LaPierre was a passionate and controversial co-host of CBC Television's mid-1960s current affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days. LaPierre, an Officer of the Order of Canada and a retired senator, is dead at age 83. (Dale Barnes/CBC Still Photo Collection)

Born in Lac Megantic, Que., on Nov. 21, 1929, LaPierre received a PhD in history from the University of Toronto.

He came to national prominence on This Hour Has Seven Days, the weekly news and current affairs program that aired on CBC Television from October 1964 to May 1966. LaPierre and co-hosts Patrick Watson, John Drainie and Dinah Christie mixed news, interviews, documentaries, commentary and satire in an innovative program that often raised the ire of critics and even CBC brass.

LaPierre was known to bring passion and emotion to the program, which often rubbed politicians and critics the wrong way.

His reaction to an interview with the mother of Stephen Truscott, the 14-year-old boy sentenced to life in prison for the murder of an Ontario girl in a case whose seeming rush to judgment split the country and renewed debate about the death penalty, was widely seen as hastening the cancellation of the program.

Following the interview with Doris Truscott, LaPierre wiped tears from his eyes while noting a bill to abolish the death penalty was before Parliament. He was harshly criticized in the media, and CBC president Alphonse Ouimet called his reaction "unprofessional."

Less than three weeks later, Watson and LaPierre learned their contracts would not be renewed. Viewers wrote letters and picketed the CBC offices, and a parliamentary committee was even struck, but the program was finished. 

'Some of the best times I ever had on camera were spent with Laurier.'—This Hour Has Seven Days co-host Patrick Watson

LaPierre's great collaborator was his co-host Patrick Watson, who spoke to Carol Off of CBC Radio's As it Happens in an interview Monday. "There were people in CBC management who were profoundly offended by that, but the audience loved it — they felt they were looking at a human being."

As it Happens played an interview LaPierre once did with Liberal cabinet minister Otto Lang that ended with LaPierre telling Lang that he was ashamed of him, and Lang replying, "I'm not proud of you either."

"There was this extraordinary combination of the serious journalist and historian, and the playful challenger of conventionality and stuffiness, and he was able to range though both in a single interview with extraordinary skill and grace," Watson said.

Watson would go on to become chair of the CBC, and stayed for a time in LaPierre's house in Ottawa. Watson said, "After a few weeks he [LaPierre] said, 'I think you should be giving parties, but I will organize them." For the next few years, Watson said, LaPierre would organize a "fabulous, well-nourished" party for him every two weeks."

Watson continued, "Some of the best times I ever had on camera were spent with Laurier."

Active on gay and lesbian issues

LaPierre ran federally for the New Democratic Party in the 1968 election in the Quebec riding of Lachine, but was defeated. He returned to a career in broadcasting and writing. He was active on gay and lesbian issues and came out himself during an event on Parliament Hill in March 1988.

One of his close friends in the Senate was fellow Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette. "I think he was a pioneer with regard to human rights and gay rights. It was unconventional at the time he was speaking about it … at that time it was quite courageous," she said.

LaPierre, seen prior to his Senate swearing-in ceremony on Parliament Hill, Sept. 18, 2001, served from 2001 until his retirement in 2004. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

She and LaPierre were both federalists, Hervieux-Payette said, and that drew them together. "French-speaking people from Quebec — even though he was now living in Ottawa — we're a lot more committed to a strong Canada than our English-speaking colleagues; we have to make up our mind which side we are on."

CBC documentary producer Mark Starowicz knew LaPierre when he was a student at McGill, and LaPierre a professor. "He was a real wall-buster," Starowicz said, a breaker of the two solitudes. Starowicz related that LaPierre would tell the English not to be an island in French Canada, and the French not to be a fortress.

Another friend was then Liberal House leader Don Boudria. LaPierre, Boudria and former MP and leadership candidate Sheila Copps were all close because of their affiliation with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during the time Chrétien and Paul Martin were jousting about who would head the party.

Boudria spoke of how LaPierre introduced Copps at the Liberal leadership convention, where she would win only 10 per cent of the vote against Paul Martin. "Copps had a small coterie of supporters — everyone was afraid of Paul Martin, but I stood up for her, and Laurier even more so. "

"It's hard to imagine Laurier LaPierre as not being alive — it seemed like he was there forever," said Boudria. He added that up to a year ago, LaPierre was still going at "Laurier speed," but that lately he had started to appear frail.

'He was a wonderful man'

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae issued a statement about LaPierre Monday: "Like so many, I first came to know Laurier through his passionate appearances on This Hour Has Seven Days. As time went on, we became friends and colleagues. His humour, his deep sense of irony, his love of country and his joy in its history — all these convey only some of his passion and warmth. He was a wonderful man and will be missed by his countless friends and admirers."

Former CBC host Don Newman, who was a good friend of LaPierre's, said, "He was very emotional, good hearted and generous. Sad, he loved Christmas and for a number of years he and [partner] Harvey [Slack] entertained lavishly with a Christmas dinner that rounded up all their friends that had no immediate family in the area."

Newman added that LaPierre's lavish Christmas decorations were legendary in Ottawa; at one Christmas dinner LaPierre had to unplug some of the lights so that the stove would have enough power to finish cooking the turkey.

Former CBC executive Richard Stursberg came to know LaPierre when the retired senator was chair of the board of Telefilm, and they became good friends. On Monday, Stursberg said in an email to CBC, "He was a great patriot. He believed in the importance of Canada and its amazing culture throughout his entire professional life. He lived for one thing and one thing only: to remind us all who we are and to celebrate our absolute uniqueness in the vastness of the world. He was a great guy and I am devastated that he is gone."

LaPierre received the Order of Canada in 1994.

Lapierre, who was once married and had two sons, is also survived by his partner, Harvey Slack.

With files from CBC Digital Archives