Prairie Girl

A Memoir
By Pamela Wallin
Random House, 256 pp.

Pamela Wallin presides over the premier interview venue on national television: the CBC Newsworld program that carries her name. She has written a memoir. This is the story of the life and work of Pamela Wallin, as told to Pamela Wallin.

What does she have to say for herself, Canadian TV’s best-known interlocutor? Surely the first question that pops to mind is, “Why?” Why, at the age of 45, would one feel compelled to set down an account of one’s life? To crow? To get even? To spill the beans?

None of the above. Rendered without guile or artifice, Wallin’s memoir is addressed to those viewers for whom she is a familiar personality, and who are benignly curious about who she is and what she’s really like. Why has she written her autobiography? Because she’s on television.

Chatty and relaxed, the book is a lot like television. In its arc from small-town beginnings to big-city klieg lights, it reads like one of those celebrity profiles on A&E’s Biography, complete with the price of stardom and the pain of setback before concluding on a triumphal note.

Wallin grew up in Wadena, Sask., where Dad was a hospital technician, Mum a teacher. Her family still lives there, and she co-owns the beauty parlour on Main Street with her sister Bonnie. She is at pains to stress that her upbringing was not, as it might seem in the retelling, picture-perfect, but it still comes across like a season of Happy Days, except with reefers. By the age of 16, she was living in Moose Jaw and going steady with the local equivalent of the Fonz. It was 1968, pot was freely available and, yes, Pamela Wallin inhaled.

Marijuana even played a part in setting her on the track to journalism. Her bad-boy boyfriend got busted for possession and sentenced to a year in jail. Wallin, an undergraduate in Regina, visited him every weekend. Her encounters with the prison system and an awakening activism made her think she might pursue a career in social work. She helped to found a campus women’s centre and open a community health centre for women. Fresh out of university, she landed a job in Prince Albert as a “community development worker.”

Almost immediately, the CBC came calling. As a student activist, Wallin had appeared as a radio guest perhaps a half-dozen times. In 1974, on the strength of those performances and little else, the noonday show in Regina asked if she could spare a month or so to fill in for an ailing host. She took the gig. She was good at it. Another journalism junkie was hooked.

Within a year, on a trip to Ottawa, she made a point of accidentally bumping into Elizabeth Gray, a nationally known journalist and role model (“brash, aggressive . . . daunting . . . funny, warm . . . dedicated”) who had just become the morning host for CBC Radio Ottawa. Over drinks, Wallin talked her way into a job as story editor on the show.

It was her introduction to covering national politics, and she loved it. Through Elizabeth and John Gray, she met a smart set with genuine smarts: the Ostrys, the Gotliebs, the Gwyns. By 1977, she moved to Toronto to join the buoyant crew of As it Happens, a talented bunch of then-young Turks.

The host, of course, was Barbara Frum (“intelligent, engaging . . . tenacious”), and the fact that Wallin fed her briefing notes all those years ago links the two interviewers across the decades, but there was no conscious passing of the torch. One gathers from Wallin’s account that she was too junior to know Frum well.

The next rung on the ladder was to get back to the political show in Ottawa. She badgered Toronto Star national editor Lou Clancy (“a beer drinker . . . a man of few words”) into offering her a job in the Parliamentary bureau, albeit after a brief stint on the Star overnight desk so that she could learn to write for print.

Covering federal politics for the Star, she started to show up on CTV’s political pundit roundup, Question Period. That led her to Canada AM and CTV News. She covered the Falklands war from Buenos Aires, where she got roughed up by an Argentine mob and formed a liaison with her cameraman, whom she later married. In 1988, as CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief, she asked Liberal leader John Turner in a gingerly, roundabout way whether he had a drinking problem. At the time — oh, how innocent we were a decade ago — the question was seen as scandalous.

Four years later, Barbara Frum died and the CBC redesigned its main network newshour. Wallin was recruited as co-anchor alongside Peter Mansbridge. By then her marriage was in its final unhappy stages, but the unhappiness would seep into her professional life. From the start, nothing went right. She chafed at the CBC’s corporate culture, she rubbed people the wrong way. By 1995, she had been dumped. From that low ebb, and with the aid of friends and supporters, she picked herself up, pitched an idea for an independently produced interview program to CBC Newsworld, and set about building Pamela Wallin, the TV program, into the success it has become. Pamela Wallin the person isn’t doing too badly either: confident, happy and with a new romantic attachment.

It’s an upbeat yarn, the type of book that might be profitably read for inspiration by young people contemplating a career in journalism. Having said that, one wouldn’t want them to get the idea that this is a model of how to write one’s life story, or any story. Remember when Lou Clancy parked her at the Star overnight desk so that she could learn how to write? Apparently it didn’t take. The painful fact is that Wallin, who makes a fine living coaxing stories out of other people, is herself a leaden storyteller.

The book is all tell, no show. The remarkable people she worked alongside never come alive; they lie inert on the page, reduced to strings of adjectives. Clancy, Bill Fox, Marjorie Nichols, Don Cameron — who are, or were, these central figures in Wallin’s life? It is as though she assumes her readers will be as familiar with them as she is. But the celebrity of even the most prominent journalists rarely extends beyond the fraternity of their colleagues, and expires almost as soon as they hang up their bylines. Even the biggest names are here today, gone tomorrow.

And that is the story of Pamela Wallin thus far. She’s here

  • Globe and Mail November 7, 1998