Canada’s first black broadcaster dead at 85

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A report by Anna Desmarais for the CBC.

Legendary broadcaster, author and radio personality Fil Fraser died of heart failure Sunday at the age of 85.

For five decades, Fraser played an important role in the development of Alberta’s arts and heritage community by supporting local artists, penning works that celebrated multiculturalism and being a strong advocate for social justice.

“He was always an encouraging mentor and a force for good,” his daughter Kathryn Fraser told CBC News.

The Governor General’s office recognized Fraser as Canada’s first black broadcaster when he was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1991.

‘I liked to be heard’

Fraser was born in Montreal to Caribbean parents in 1932. As he was growing up, he had a keen interest in broadcast journalism and worked at his high school radio station to prove that he could make it in the industry.

“I liked to be heard,” Fraser told the Alberta Order of Excellence of his time in high school media.

His broadcast career took him to newsrooms across the country, but it was in Edmonton where Fraser spent the majority of his life.

He moved to the city in 1965 to work with the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission and eventually transitioned into co-anchoring CBC Edmonton’s supper-hour news and ITV’s Fil Fraser Show.

Fraser stayed in the city because he had high hopes for Alberta’s capital.

“He wanted to make it Canada’s Hollywood,” his daughter said.

Fraser made sure to advocate for Edmonton’s arts scene by giving his time to many of the city’s artistic organizations, including the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and the Edmonton International Film Festival.

“No art, no life. Art decorates our lives. Art makes our lives meaningful. Without the arts, life would be plain and uninspiring and unforgiving,” a well-known quote from Fraser reads.

His voice carried him to other roles in social justice advocacy throughout his long career, including a stint as chief commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, where he fought for the rights of the province’s LGBTQ community.

First black broadcaster

Being the country’s first black broadcaster came with its own challenges.

His daughter said Fraser took an interest in radio broadcasting as a young man because he believed it was the only way he could get ahead in media as a black man.

Throughout his career, Fraser penned several books and articles about his experience as a black man growing up in Montreal. His memoir on Canadian multiculturalism, Black Like Me, was published in the 100th edition of Saturday Night magazine.

He also wrote How the Blacks Created Canada, a non-fiction work about the contributions black people made to the country.

“Blacks have played pivotal roles in the creation of Canada but … that history has been virtually invisible to mainstream Canadians,” Fraser wrote in the preamble to his book. “It’s time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of those whose roots in our soil are as deep as anyone else’s.”

Fraser’s daughter said her father always said he experienced “some racism,” but that his career in broadcasting insulated him from “any real hardship.”

A good father

Although Fraser had a full career, he was still able to dedicate time to supporting his wife, Gladys Odegard, and his four children and five stepchildren.

Fraser challenged Kathryn personally and intellectually, she said.

Kathryn remembered one time when her father was particularly supportive. He was so proud of his daughter while she was pursuing her doctoral program at the University of McGill that he offered to help her in any way with her work.

“He was the only one who read my doctoral dissertation, as dense and theoretical as it was, from beginning to end,” Katherine said. “He called me after and said, ‘Dr. Kathryn Fraser, this is amazing.’ ”

When Kathryn’s son was born, she did not hesitate to name him after her father.

Kathryn said her son spent a lot of time with his grandfather in the hospital before he died, singing and reading to him.

Premier offers condolences

Condolences poured out to Fraser’s extended family on social media Monday from professors, intellectuals and members of the media to honour the contributions he made to the province.

“Alberta received a great gift when Fil, born and raised in Montreal, arrived here in 1965,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said in a Facebook statement. “We will continue to be inspired by the life of this great Albertan and his amazing public and artistic legacy.”

Kerrie Long, director of the Edmonton International Film Festival, wrote that long conversations with Fraser made her “want to be a better person.”

Fraser’s legacy will live on through a Canadian film course he developed and taught in his later years at Athabasca University so a new generation of filmmakers and broadcast hopefuls can learn how to succeed in the industry he loved.

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