Personal Recollections

Peter Worthington on the Order of Canada

Last week, Toronto Sun columnist Mark Bonokoski wrote a fierce piece about the strange continuing refusal of the Order of Canada to my father-in-law, Peter Worthington. Worthington, for those who don't know, is the most storied reporter in Canadian history, winner of four national newspaper awards and founder of the Toronto Sun chain. Worthington's own attitude to awards has always been that of the elder Cato: "I prefer that men should ask why there is no statue of Cato rather than that they ask why there is one." But here's his reply to Bonokoski in his own words, from the March 10 issue of the Toronto Sun:

I’m uncertain how to handle this, or if even I should try, but here goes: Last Sunday Mark Bonokoski wrote a complimentary column that my not having the Order of Canada “is no longer simply an error of omission. This is politically correct bias.”

While I appreciate Bono’s generosity and the sentiment expressed, I also find it embarrassing. Yes, I’ve had a long and exciting career in journalism, but have done nothing that warrants an Order of Canada.That said, most recipients of the Order haven’t done much to earn it either, and far too many get the award for political reasons, or because of their connections.

On a personal level, I’ve received far more benefits from journalism, than the craft has ever gotten from me. For a time, from 1956 to 1971, I attended virtually every international crises as they occurred throughout the world – the tumultuous times of the Cold War and small hot wars.

Looking back, it seems an enormous privilege to have personal memories of, say, the hunger, starvation, cruelty and compassion of the Biafran War. Or to have experienced the anarchy and chaos and humour of the Congo’s independence. Or the nightly assassinations in Algiers, where the Foreign Legion rebelled against the de Gaulle government. Vietnam, Dutch New Guinea, Baghdad, Zimbabwe, et al, had their moments.

This was my life for the first 15 years of Journalism.

A lifetime total of some 30-40 wars, revolutions, coups and crises.Subsequently, the privilege of helping start the Sun(itls) was another phase that provided more emotional rewards – not just starting a paper that expanded into a chain providing jobs for thousands, but in defying the odds and proving critics and cynics wrong.

It’s always more rewarding – and challenging – to swim upstream rather than down. And, again, the privilege of witnessing a civil war in Angola and being there when barefoot armies of Jonas Savimbi routed Cuban and Soviet armour shouldn’t be underestimated.

And being on the spot in Eritrea when rebels, with no aid from anyone, defeated Ethiopia which had largest Soviet-backed military machine in Black Africa. Witnessing the Chinese army’s invasion of India was uniquely memorable.

Surely, such experiences are rewards in themselves?

I often recall the movie The Man Who Would Be King(itls) when the rogue soldiers played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine think they are soon to die, and one remarks to the other that they haven’t done much with their lives, but the experiences they’ve shared more than compensate for their reckless lives.

An adrenalin kick is addictive.

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Again, the privileges bestowed by journalism include interviewing such diverse figures as Albert Schweitzer and Joe Louis; Patrice Lumumba and Alexander Kerensky; Jomo Kenyatta and Louis Armstrong; The Dalai Lama and Clifford Olson. The list is long and varied.

Into this mosaic is the assassination of President John Kennedy, and watching Jack Ruby gun down Lee Harvey Oswald. The trial of Sirhan Sirhan, assassin of Sen. Bobby Kennedy – and the trial of Charlie Manson.

It’s probably true, as Bono writes, that my “career in journalism arguably surpasses” the careers of most journalists. But longevity is hardly a reason for bestowing the Order of Canada, when the career itself rewards the recipient with exceptional memories and makes the world understandable.

Even joining the navy as a teenager in WWII, and later fighting in the Korean war as a soldier, was nothing special at the time. It is what was expected of citizens – something like 10% of the Canadian population was in uniform.

Only today, with WWII and Korean veterans dying off, does it seem special. It is not. When your country calls, there is a duty to answer. Which Canadians did. And still do.

So when the illustrious Bono suggests something is amiss when I’m excluded from the Order of Canada while colleagues are not, he misses the point.

Journalism has blessed me with memories few others have, and at an age when others are put to pasture I’m still at it with the next generation of journalists who, if they are lucky, will have experiences and memories that dwarf such material things as the Order of Canada.