As It Happens

6 times Carol Off held someone's feet to the fire

Carol Off can be a compassionate interviewer. She can also be playful and funny. But when the moment calls for it, the veteran broadcaster is downright dogged.

Off, who is stepping down as host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, doggedly holds people in power to account

Carol Off, seen here in her office, has often used her position as host of CBC Radio's As It Happens to hold people in positions of power to account. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Carol Off can be a compassionate interviewer. She can also be playful and funny. But when the moment calls for it, the veteran broadcaster is downright dogged.

Off is stepping down this month as the host of As It Happens, CBC Radio's flagship evening current affairs program, after 16 years. 

Here's a look back at some of the times she's held people in power to account. 

A former police chief cashes in on medical marijuana 

Julian Fantino, left, former Toronto police chief and Conservative veterans affairs minister, cuts the ribbon for medical cannabis clinic with his business partner, former RCMP deputy commissioner Raf Soucca, right. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

In November 2017, Julian Fantino cut the ribbon for his new medical marijuana business.

Canada was in the process of legalizing cannabis, something Fantino — a former Conservative cabinet minister and Toronto police chief — had vehemently opposed. 

Off pressed him to explain the apparent change of heart.

"You have to separate out the whole issue of legalization from what I'm involved in right now. I'm involved in the medical aspect that helps people greatly," he said.

"But this isn't volunteer work you're doing," Off noted. "This is a company that you will make money from. So how will you capitalize on the legalization of marijuana?"

Can I put to you that you've had your change of heart since you saw a business opportunity for yourself?- Carol Off to Julian Fantino

Fantino insisted he was not capitalizing on anything. Off then pressed him on his former role enforcing anti-drug laws.

"As chief of police in Toronto, you were very strict about drugs," she said. "You put people in jail. There are young people who are in jail because of people like you. You don't see any contradiction between your past life as chief of police?" 

"Not at all," he said. "What I did in law enforcement, I ascribed and I followed my oath of office, the laws of the land, my duty and responsibility; I did it faithfully and accountably."

Fantino dodged Off's repeated questions about whether he supported mandatory minimum sentences for pot possession when he was a cabinet minister. 

"Can I put to you that you've had your change of heart since you saw a business opportunity for yourself?" Off asked.

"We are involved with very ethical and honourable people, financed totally by family and friends, who believe, as we do, in the benefits of medical cannabis to help people suffering from various ailments and trying to lessen the dependency on opiates, which are a tragedy in this country," Fantino replied.

"But you do expect to make money from this?" Off asked.

"There's investors who have put their trust in us and we owe them a return if there is a return available," Fantino conceded.

Heritage minister defends anti-Conservative union on journalism panel

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez defended his government's decision to put a union that campaigned against the Conservative Party on a panel that doles out funding to media outlets. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Off didn't let Liberal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez off the hook in 2019 when his government appointed a union that had actively campaigned against its rivals to a panel that determines which news organizations are eligible for government funding.

Unifor, which represents thousands of Canadian journalists, campaigned against then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer during the previous federal election. 

"I'm sure you've seen their publicity: 'The resistance: Welcome to Andrew Scheer's worst nightmare.' If you want to have a panel that appears to be unbiased, how does that help you?" Off asked the minister.

Rodriguez replied: "This is Andrew Scheer's opinion, and …

"Excuse me. No, no," Off interjected. "This is not Andrew Scheer's opinion. I'm looking at a picture put out. This is Unifor Canada's picture."

"We're talking about professionals," Rodriguez said, "which is the case of all the groups there are on this [panel]."

Off repeated her question about whether the panel could be considered biased. 

"You keep repeating the same thing," Rodriguez lamented.

"Because I'm not getting a very good answer from you," Off said.

Off interviews Conrad Black about interviewing Rob Ford

Former media baron Conrad Black, right, faced criticism for not pushing harder when he interviewed late Toronto mayor Rob Ford in 2013. (Brett Gundlock, Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

When Rob Ford appeared on Conrad Black's TV show, Conversations with Conrad, in 2013, it was widely derided as a softball interview.

But Off's interview about it with Black was anything but.

Black allowed the late Toronto mayor to make several unfounded claims during their TV segment, including a false allegation that Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale had taken pictures of his children in his backyard.

"When a guy's taking pictures of little kids, I don't want to say that word, but you start thinking you know, what's this guy all about," Ford told Black.

When Off asked Black why he didn't challenge Ford's claims, Black said he "took the mayor's word for it," adding: "It's not my duty to debate with the mayor."

Off explained that police had investigated the mayor's allegations and found them to be unsubstantiated. 

"I think it's a bit much for you to expect me to know that," Black said. "I haven't made a study of every aspect of the mayor's controversy. I was, in fact, when that was going, on a trip around the world."

Off noted repeatedly that Black, a published author, is known for his extensive research.

"Would you stop harping on that?" Black said. "Yes, I do a lot of research. I'm writing the history of Canada right now and with thousands of footnotes. I know a lot about research."

Still, he insisted that fact checking and editing an interview is not his role as host. 

"You're passing the buck," Off said.

"No, I'm not passing the buck," Black retorted.

Dale later launched a libel suit against Ford for his comments, which resulted in an official apology from the mayor.

Immigration minister hangs up 

Former Conservative MP Chris Alexander hung up on CBC host Carol Off during an interview about Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In June 2014, then-immigration minister Chris Alexander, facing a series of tough questions about how many Syrian refugees had made it into the country, hung up on host Off, insisting he was late for question period.

"You must tell me please before you go, how many of the 200 government-sponsored refugees that you've committed to bring to Canada are here in Canada now?" Off asked.

"Why is that the only question that interests you?" the minister replied.

"Because you won't answer it," Off said.

This exchange continued back and forth like that for awhile, until Alexander finally said: "I'll phone you back and talk to you more about it, but I find your line of questioning…"

And the line went dead.

Following the abrupt end to the interview, As It Happens tweeted that it was the first time a Canadian minister hung up on the show. Alexander then sent a tweet of his own, saying it was the first time a journalist had made him late to question period.

He later called back into the studio to continue the interview.

Priest defends lack of apology for residential schools

WARNING: This section contains distressing details.

Father Thomas Rosica defended the Pope's lack of apology over the Catholic church's role in residential schools. (CBC)

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report on Canada's residential schools, it included 95 calls to action

No. 58 called for the Pope to apologize for the Catholic church's role in running the schools, where attendance was forced, Indigenous cultures were suppressed, and abuse, neglect and death were widespread. 

So far, the Vatican has not answered the call.

In March 2018, Off asked Canadian priest Thomas Rosica why the Pope hasn't stepped up. 

"There are some in the government and elsewhere who would think: Get the Pope over here just to apologize, [say] I'm sorry, have a photo opportunity and move on. Unfortunately, that's not the way it goes," said Rosica, CEO of the Salt & Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto.

"Any group can request anything."

"It's not a group," Off replied. "This is the First Nations."

Off noted that the Canadian government has apologized for residential schools, and that the Pope has apologized for sexual abuse by clergy members in Ireland and the church's role in the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that Pope Francis or his successor will come to Canada and first on the agenda, the high priority of visits, will be the First Nations people. The Pope is extremely close to Indigenous people," Rosica said, before adding: "And no government tells the Pope what to say."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports. A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Chrystia Freeland defends Justin Trudeau's leadership

During the 2019 federal election, Chrystia Freeland defended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's record. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

By the time Justin Trudeau was seeking his second term as prime minister, he had already racked up his fair share of scandals and broken promises. 

So when then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland appeared on As It Happens during the October 2019 federal election, Off questioned her about the Liberal government's SNC Lavalin scandalfailure to enact electoral reform, and more.

Off pushed Freeland on her government's climate change record and the Liberal government's decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline.

"Your government was the party that was going to be Canada's green prime minister, green government," Off said. "Yet, here we are four years later [and] every Canadian now owns a pipeline."

Freeland attempted to shift the conversation to the Liberal's carbon tax, but Off stayed on point.

"[There are] people, especially young people, who put a lot of faith in your party, in the Liberals, believing that you're going to do things differently, that this was going to be the climate change government, and then you turned them into pipeline owners. I mean, can you appreciate how young people feel betrayed?"

Freeland conceded that she understands why "some people have real difficulties with that decision," but insisted that if Canada must use fossil fuels for the time being, they should be Canadian fossil fuels. 

Tune in to Carol Off's last show as host of CBC Radio's As It Happens on Monday, Feb. 28, at 6:30 p.m. (7 p.m. in Newfoundland) on CBC Radio 1, or stream it on CBC Listen.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now