If a year in politics is a century, as the saying goes, then Craig Oliver is immortal.
His 55–year journalism career, ongoing to this day, has seen everything from Margaret Trudeau blowing marijuana smoke into a reporter’s face to covering the Meech Lake Accord to 911 to dealing with Harper’s control of the media.
He chronicles all in his memoir, Oliver’s Twist: The Life and Times of an Unapologetic Newshound, which he began writing 15 years ago.
“It’s a story about how anyone can rise above a difficult start and recover if you’re determined to do it,” he says.
A natural storyteller with many stories to tell, Oliver covers everything from elections to war to romance to journalism to foreign relations, only leaving out some highly anticipated photos to decorate the middle of the book.
Growing up the only son of alcoholic parents in Prince Rupert, Oliver learned early on lessons that would later help him in his work as CTV’s chief parliamentary correspondent. Through being transferred to one broken foster home after another, he learned to look out for himself and to judge people with cold logic, by their actions rather than their words.
Having seen his share of abuse and depression and after his bootlegging father went to jail, Oliver headed to Saskatchewan where he found employment doing the only thing that felt natural: knowing other peoples’ business and asking often rude questions.
At 18, Oliver became the youngest CBC radio staff announcer in the country. With no post-secondary schooling, he got by with his natural curiosity and understanding of newsworthiness.
Now a star of Canadian television news, Oliver was in the business long before the medium’s introduction. The technology transfixed him and he set out to cover politics for CBC TV in Regina in the 1960s. This landed him reporting on the CCF in its rise to power, helping shape his political philosophy for years to come.
From there, he followed the natural course for an up-and-coming broadcaster and headed for Toronto, where he joined CTV and helped introduce Canada AM.
While Oliver toured with some of world’s most elite journalists and politicians, it’s clear in his recounting of grueling details of war that he paid his dues to get there. As a foreign correspondent, he was sent to such tumultuous countries as El Salvador, Nicaragua and Argentina. Here, where risk and resilience defined his time chasing stories while dodging bullets and bombs, tough lessons were learned.
“When people cannot settle their differences: they kill each other. The last man standing wins. One simply did what was necessary to survive.”
It’s clear this hardened perspective helped in his later successes as CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief and in the United States where he was the network’s Washington correspondent for nine years.
Oliver’s time at the White House served as a chance to distance himself from the dangerously tight relationship he had with Pierre Trudeau during his years in office. Oliver admits to having covered some events with less than professional detachment, including the late prime minister’s resignation and funeral. Oliver’s obvious and overt praise in the book for his canoe partner and friend makes it understandable that he often got criticized for unfair coverage.
While Oliver admits there is a line that can be crossed, he makes no apologies for knowing many politicians backstage.
“The benefits are there for a reporter in terms of context, in terms of understanding things,” he says. “Competitively, if I want to get an interview with a minister and it’s someone I know well, I can call them up because I have a personal relationship with them. It’s a very powerful edge on my work.”
Oliver’s time in the States proved to not be such a terrible price to pay for escaping the Canadian political scene.
In one charming anecdote, Oliver recounts being wined and dined by former president Ronald Reagan and his wife only later to realize he was the wrong Craig Oliver to be invited.
Readers are offered somewhat of a break from political tales in Oliver’s many recounts of his canoeing expeditions. The founder of the Rideau Canal and Arctic Canoe Club, Oliver participated in 30 rigorous northern adventures over 30 years, all while being legally blind.
He writes about his horseback riding summers in Alberta that got both Oliver and colleague Lloyd Robertson away from the halls of Centre Block, and still does.
Coming from dysfunctional families and experiencing hard times growing up, both men “learned to look to the future rather than regret the past. After such a start, we agreed, life could only get better, and it did.”
Oliver says while on the surface the book is about politics, it is really about life and survival.
“In the voyage down the rivers and meandering tributaries of our lives, we cannot hope to change the end, yet we can control the journey.”
And what a journey it’s been.