Remembering Peter Desbarats

Peter DesbaratsIn February, the FIMS community mourned Peter Desbarats, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, and Officer of the Order of Canada, who died on Tuesday, February 11.

“Peter not only was a fine journalist, but he actually had quite an impact on the community here and so yes, I think there are a lot of people with a heavy heart today,” Michael Nolan, Professor Emeritus and former colleague, told CBC Radio on February 12.

Desbarats is survived by his wife, Hazel; children, Michelle, Lissa, Sharon, Brynne, Shasta, Nicholas, Jane, Jennifer, Jane and Jonathan; and 11 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Gabrielle.

Desbarats was Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Western from 1981 to 1997. Nolan remembers it as a challenge that Desbarats was able to rise to and meet head on.

“Being a Dean at a university is a difficult thing and he did it as well as anybody could do it,” he said.

Prior to joining Western, Desbarats worked as a print and television journalist for 30 years, primarily covering politics. Before entering academia, his last media positions were as national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star and Ottawa Bureau Chief and co-anchor for Global Television.

During the final years of his appointment at Western, Desbarats was seconded to serve as one of three commissioners of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia. This inquiry was appointed by the Canadian government to investigate misconduct by Canadian soldiers in Somalia in 1992-93. The experience formed the basis for Desbarats' book Somalia Cover-Up – A Commissioner's Journal (1997).

He wrote extensively about life and politics in Quebec earlier in his career, including the books The State of Quebec (1967) and the best-selling Rene, A Canadian in Search of a Country (1976). Nolan remembered him as someone who was able to bridge the gap between English and French-speaking Canada.

“He did a great job of communicating between, and could communicate to the English what was going on in Quebec. This was a very important time to have a journalist like that,” he said.

Desbarats authored a number of research reports for federal inquiries examining aspects of media and communications and is cited frequently in the media as an authority on Canadian journalism. He also authored the journalism text Guide to Canadian News Media (1996).

In addition to his work as a journalist, Desbarats published widely in a variety of genres, including children's books, plays, and political analysis. His most recent plays, the political comedies Her Worship (2002) and The Practical Joke (2005), were produced on the McManus Stage of the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

Desbarats was a Director of the Canadian Journalism Foundation, was the founding Chair of its annual Excellence Award, and served on its adjudication committee. He was also a director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and in 2006 was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.  

Desbarats returned to the Journalism Program at FIMS in 2007 as the CanWest Global Fellow in Media, and taught the course "Media and Politics.”

Nolan, who described his former colleague as “first class,” said he thinks Desbarats would be proud of his career.

“He made, I think, a very worthwhile contribution to Canadian journalism. He died at 80, and he would have no apologizes I don't think for his career, because he had a good one,” he said.

The funeral was held in London on February 14. Peter will be sadly missed, but fondly remembered, by all his friends and former colleagues at Western.