Legendary broadcaster, author and radio personality Fil Fraser died of heart failure in Edmonton on Sunday, December 3 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. 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.
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.”
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 Katherine personally and intellectually, she said.
Katherine remembered one time when her father was particularly supportive. He was so proud of her for being one of the first students at the University of Alberta to take the women’s studies doctoral program that he offered to help her in any way with her work.
“He was the only one that read my doctoral dissertation, as dense and theoretical as it was, from beginning to end,” Katherine said. “He called me after and said, ‘Dr. Katherine Fraser, this is amazing.’ “
When Katherine’s son was born, she did not hesitate to name him after her father.
Katherine said her son Fil spent a lot of time with his grandfather in the hospital before he died, singing and reading to him.
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.
by Anna Desmarais for the CBC
Fil Fraser’s Broadcast & Journalism Career
Fraser began his career in broadcasting in 1951, when hired at the age of nineteen by Foster Hewitt for his radio station CKFH in Toronto. In 1952, he worked as a radio announcer in Timmins, Ontario for six months before being hired as assistant news editor at CKBB radio in Barrie, where he would become the station’s sports director and play-by-play announcer, calling games for the Barrie Flyers.
In 1955, Fraser moved back to Montreal, where he attended McGill University and hosted an all-night show at CKVL in Verdun. In 1956, he worked as a news editor at CFCF radio, eventually becoming chief writer.
He moved to western Canada in 1958, and initially worked in public relations for Saskatchewan Government Insurance. However, he also remained involved in radio broadcasting, hosting between-period hot stove league discussions on junior hockey broadcasts and sometimes doing play-by-play announcing. In 1960, he founded a newspaper called the Regina Weekly Mirror.
He moved to Edmonton in 1965, where he became program manager and senior producer of the Metropolitan Edmonton Educational Television Association (MEETA), Canada’s first educational television channel, which aired on CBXFT. Fraser subsequently became producer/host of Newsmakers, a weekly public affairs program on ITV Global Edmonton, and then served as president and CEO of VisionTV, Toronto.
Fraser served on the Alberta Task Force on Film and the Federal Task Force on Broadcasting Policy (Caplan/Savageau) and was the Governor of the Canadian Journalism Foundation as well as a member of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists.
Fil Fraser’s Books
Alberta’s Camelot: Culture & Arts in the Lougheed Years (2003)
The Lougheed Conservatives\, led by Peter Lougheed, swept into power in Alberta in 1971. For the next decade and a half, the Lougheed government combined a sophisticated and visionary view of the role of culture in society with the affluence of an oil boom to foster a remarkable artistic renaissance in the province. The Lougheed government committed $75 million for Alberta’s 75th anniversary —a huge proportion of it was for cultural events. Many now beloved cultural organizations in Alberta such as the Edmonton Folk Festival and The Edmonton Fringe Festival and the construction of the Epcor Centre and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary were realized with this infusion of seed money. Fil Fraser, a nationally recognized filmmaker, broadcaster, journalist and social activist, was at the heart of that cultural revolution. In these memoirs, Fraser recalls the unforgettable personalities and amazing achievements that gave rise to Alberta’s Camelot.
Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome (2007)
Running Uphill showcases Harry Jerome’s race upon the treadmill of ‘race,’ where progress against racism is glacial, even for an Olympic sprinter. Fil Fraser explains this pernicious irony, this very Canadian paradox, in masterful, beautiful prose. His humour is a razor; his honesty is a guillotine. In Fraser’s bio, heroic Jerome looms larger than life and too fast for anyone to weight him down with labels. Canadian Sprinter Harry Jerome was the world’s fastest man. He represented Canada in Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan American Games, simultaneously holding world records for both the 100-yard and 100-metre sprints. This is the heroic story of a young Black man who overcame crushing adversity to achieve national acclaim as an athlete and as a champion of human rights.
How the Blacks Created Canada (2010)
Following a geographic overview of early Black settlement and history in Canada, and highlighting individuals who were trail-blazers and leaders in their pioneering communities, Fraser devotes a chapter to the pivotal role played by the strength of the church. While it is certainly true that “not all Blacks are religious,” in general, the church has played a pivotal role, both as a social and cultural institution, and certainly, the fundamental tenets of Christianity have been a source of solace, community, and hope. After detailing the notable contributions of the Black community of Nova Scotia, the changes in Canadian immigration laws which led to “the Caribbean invasion,” and more recently, the small but steady stream of immigrants from Africa, Fraser provides an overview of Black Canadians the “icons and trail-blazers: movers and shakers in the 21st century”, both those well-known nationally and internationally (Governor-General Michaelle Jean, opera star Measha Brueggergosman) and those who are well-known primarily within the Canadian Black community.
Fil Fraser’s Films
In the ’70s, Fraser formed his own production company and began producing educational films for television; he later branched out and produced four feature films, released from 1977 to 1982. The Fraser oeuvre is marked by a desire for western Canadians to tell our stories for ourselves, a motive that accompanies the birthing of most healthy regional cinemas. The first film was Why Shoot the Teacher?, adapted from Max Braithwaite’s novel of a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Saskatchewan. It did exceptionally well: it screened at Cannes, opened widely in Canada, and was the highest grossing Canadian film of the year.
A pair of biographical features followed about some decidedly western figures: Marie-Anne, about Louis Riel’s grandmother, the first white woman in the West; and Hounds of Notre Dame, about Père Athol Murray, the hard-drinking teacher and hockey coach at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.
The fourth film, Latitude 55º, reunited Fraser with the leads from Marie-Anne as the director and actress in a psychological two-hander about an Alberta arts bureaucrat stuck in a backwoods cabin. It is significant that Fraser et. al. chose to focus on stories that are so uniquely ours; no one else was going to stand up and make a film about Wilcox, or Fort Edmonton. It is by telling our stories for ourselves that we gain a sense of history and our place in it.
In addition to his three feature films, all of which received theatrical and television release and won awards, Fraser has also contributed significantly to the Alberta filmmaking community.
- 1980 – executive producer of Latitude 55
- 1980 – produced The Hounds of Notre Dame
- 1979 – A founder of the Banff International Television Festival
- 1978 – Chaired the first Commonwealth Games Film Festival
- 1977 – produced Marie Anne
- 1976 – produced Why Shoot the Teacher
- 1974 – Fraser organized and chaired the first Alberta Film Festival, now known as the AMPIA Awards, in which his films were later to win several prizes.
Fil Fraser’s Awards
- 2015 – Alberta Order of Excellence
- 2008 – Honorary Degree, D.Litt, University of Alberta.
- 2005 – The Alberta Centennial Medal
- 2005 – Inducted into the Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame.
- 2001 – “The Fil Fraser Lecture Series”, presented annually by The Canadian Association of Black Journalists. The series was created to focus on the important role that cultural and social diversity can and should play in the Canadian media. Fraser delivered the inaugural lecture on September 16, 2001.
- 1999 – The Harry Jerome Award, “For Excellence in the Professions”, presented by the Black Business and Professional Association, Toronto.
- 1995 – The John Ware Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement, presented by the Black Achievement Award Society of Alberta.
- 1994 – Proclaimed Honorary Ambassador of the City of Edmonton by Mayor Jan Reimer.
- 1991 – Inducted as a member of the Order of Canada by His Excellency, Hon. Ramon Hnatyshyn, Governor General of Canada.
- 1990 – The Dave Billington Award, “For his outstanding contribution to the Alberta Motion Picture Industry”, presented by the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association (AMPIA)
- 1989 – The Harambee Award presented for public service by the Harambee Foundation of Canada.
- 1981 – “Inspiration”, an original sculpture by Roy Leadbeater; a special award “Presented to Fil Fraser for his dedication as founder of the Banff Television Festival” by the Banff Television Foundation.
- 1978 – The Alberta Achievement Award, “in Recognition of Excellence in Film Making”, presented by Premier Peter Lougheed.
Having had the pleasure of knowing Fil Fraser, and one of many people who benefited from his encouragement over the years, my heart is broken. My condolences to his son Randall, his wife Gladys, and the rest of his family.