As It Happens

Hal Johnson on why he spoke out about the racism that compelled him to make Body Break

Canadian fitness icon Hal Johnson says now is the time to have difficult conversations about race.

‘You're going to have roadblocks in life,’ Johnson says, 'But you can overcome them'

Television personality Hal Johnson posted a video this week explaining how racism factored into the creation of the series Body Break. (BodyBreak Hal and Joanne/YouTube)

Canadian fitness icon Hal Johnson says now is the time to have difficult conversations about race.

Johnson released a YouTube video on Monday explaining that his hit TV segment Body Break was created to combat racism and normalize mixed-race relationships.

The health and fitness segment, which Johnson produced and co-hosted with his wife Joanne McLeod, was a staple of Canadian television for three decades. It aired in partnership with ParticipACTION, a partially government-funded organization launched to promote health and fitness. 

In his video, Johnson describes the racism and roadblocks he and McLeod faced in getting Body Break to air.

Johnson spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Tuesday from his home in Oakville Ont., about what prompted him to speak out about Body Break's little-known history. Here is part of their conversation. 

Hal, I know this isn't the first time you have spoken about the racism you encountered while you were creating Body Break. But this video puts it front and centre and spells it out very clearly. Why did you decide you needed to speak out in this way right now?

I was getting a lot of phone calls from my white friends and they were asking me questions and I was just telling them, I said, "You know, it's nice you called. It's nice that you want to help. It's nice that you don't know what to say in terms of, you know, how you can help."

But I said, "Just listen."

And then we started talking about Body Break and then a couple of my friends suggested I should do a little video about that.

I didn't know what to say. I didn't know exactly how to come across. And I thought, you know, let me just talk about how Joanne and I created it and some of the roadblocks. And for people to understand that you're going to have roadblocks in life, whether it be gender, whether it be the colour of your skin or whatever it might be, but you can overcome them and you can fight through them.

One incident [you describe goes] back to when you were shooting a commercial, actually. You were part of a commercial, which led really directly to you writing up a storyboard for Body Break for the first time. What happened in that instance?

There were three of us and we were shooting the commercial. There was myself, there was a white young lady and white guy, and we were cheering and we're at the racetrack.

And then halfway through the shoot ... the assistant director went to the director, said something, and then the gentleman and the lady, they switch positions.

So at lunch, I just happened to ask the guy, "Why did you do that? It was kind of odd." 

And he said, "Well, the client didn't want anyone to mistake that you and her were together."

Growing up, my dad's Black and my mom's white. To me, that's normal. And so and so I thought, how do I make this normal for all Canadians?

I just recently met Joanne about a month earlier than that. And it got me thinking and I wrote out a storyboard that afternoon at lunch. And I came back to my house, and Joanne was going to take me to the airport that day … and I told her the idea and she said, "This is fantastic." 

She's a former Canadian athlete, and so am I, so let's try to channel sport and activity and fitness to show everybody that we can all live, work and play together and in a positive way.

Johnson his wife, Joanne McLeod, co-costed and co-produced the program for three decades. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

This is, of course, in Toronto. So it had you ever encountered anything like that before, this idea that — because your mom and dad are together — did you ever have that kind of racist encounter before in the city?

Well, you know, it's funny. It is racism. I prefer, in some respects, to call it a prejudice. You're prejudging and you're just ignorant of the facts of things. But, yeah, I mean, I've had several incidents.

When you start to date in high school, that's when it starts. Before that, I'm just, you know, one of the guys.

And then when I went to the United States and went to University of Colorado and played ball there and had many incidents of prejudice … being pulled over by the police several times for no reason.

But I hold no ill will towards police officers. It's a very difficult job. I think that there has to be some reform in that and open-minded thinking.

With Body Break, we also looked at gender equality and we wanted to show persons with disabilities. So it wasn't just about skin colour. We're showing that everybody can live, work and play together.

And I hold no ill will to TSN or anyone else for what happened. 

When you went to TSN, what happened when you pitched the show?

They loved the show, but they thought because I'm Black and Joanne's white, that would cause an issue. So they offered what they would pay for each show, but it would have to be a white actor in place of myself.

I left that afternoon and I got home and I looked at the phone. And I say this oftentimes when I'm trying to think what can I do. I looked at the phone and I chanted, "What can I do? Who can I call?"

And I turned to Joanne and I said, "Who does that fitness stuff for the government?"

She said "ParticipACTION." 

And called them, talked to a gentleman named Bob Duck, and within a month or so, we had a contract for a test.

Without ParticipACTION, we would have never been successful. And I hold them in high esteem for what they did for us at the time.

The irony is that TSN became one of the stations that played us the most of any TV station across Canada. They played the heck out of us.

When you say that it's not racism, what you encountered was TSN or with the other commercial, but it is about wanting to protect the racist sensibilities, isn't it? I mean, the idea that there are people out there who are uncomfortable with race and that the commercial aspect of it as well, we can't risk losing profits by insulting those people. Is that right?

Absolutely. Money seems to drive it, and so they were afraid. And so when fear happens, you resort to what's the same. You don't want to go out on a limb.

What's great now is we see commercials with an Asian and a white person, a Black woman and an Asian gentleman. Companies want to think forward and companies want to portray that. And at the time that we were putting [Body Break] on the air, they didn't go that route. They didn't show that. And, you know, it's unfortunate. But things have changed. I'm very, very hopeful. And things are going to get better.

Some people say, "Oh, all the craziness right now that's going on." I think this is fantastic. White people have reached out to me and they want to know. And that's fantastic. Let's have a discussion. Let's talk about it.

What are they asking you?

They want to know, you know, 'Well, what can I do?"

So many friends have said to me — and I joke, I laugh — and they say, "I don't think of you as Black."

And I said, "Well, I certainly think of you as a white Irish guy that's five-foot-seven."

So I say to them all the time, "Here's who I am."

It's like saying to a woman, "Well, you're not a woman. I don't think of you as a woman." Well, if you're a woman, you're a woman, and you want to be thought of in that respect.

So we joke, and I hopefully give them a little education on that for me as a Black person, I want to be thought of as who I am. And I think everybody does.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Edited for length and clarity. 

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