From painfully shy girl to nationally celebrated broadcaster
Honorary degree recipient Chantal Hébert shares a lesson in best-laid plans.
By GEOFF McMASTER
(Edmonton) If you’re not yet sure what to do with your life, don’t sweat it, Chantal Hébert told graduating students from the Faculty of Arts and Campus Saint-Jean Wednesday. Plans often don’t work out anyway, she said, so not having one will only save paper. Your life will likely find you.
Though things may not have gone exactly as planned for the celebrated Canadian journalist and recipient of a University of Alberta honorary doctorate, she knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life—become a reporter. She went to university only to “kill time,” she said, because she’d skipped grades in elementary school, had a baby face and felt no editor would take her seriously enough to hire her.
Born in Ottawa and raised in Toronto, the French-Canadian spent three years at York University’s bilingual Glendon College, doing her best to avoid learning English. She is now fluently bilingual, of course, but in those days she was an average student, “who put in as little time as possible in the library.” The essay of which she was most proud—on the question of whether the Liberals and Conservatives are actually the same—came back from her instructor with the comment, “too journalistic.”
“I thought, I really am achieving my goals in university. I will frame this instead of the diploma they will one day give me.”
After graduating with a political science degree, Hébert went on to an outstanding career as a journalist, political commentator and author. A national affairs writer with the Toronto Star and guest columnist for L’actualité, Hébert has become a household name as a weekly participant on the political panel At Issue on CBC's The National, as well as on Les Coulisses du Pouvoir and the Montreal show C’est pas trop tôt! on Radio-Canada.
But before all of that, she was painfully shy when she started her career in Toronto as a reporter for the regional newsroom of Radio-Canada in 1975.
“When I got that first job, which involved writing newscasts between 4 a.m. and noon, I dreaded 9 a.m. when the others showed up, because I was almost too shy to say hi.”
It’s an awkward quality for a journalist. But Hébert told herself she’d be fine, because she’d never end up on radio or in front of a camera anyway—she would work as an editor from behind the scenes.
“I said, from where I will be in the background, I won’t need to phone anyone to ask for a comment about anything. I’d be the orchestra master who arranges what gets covered and how it’s delivered…. It was a hell of a good plan.”
So she applied for a job as assignment editor, and was instead assigned the Ontario legislature at Queen’s Park.
“I discovered over time that more than half of us who cover politics in this country did not have a great calling for it when we started in journalism. We mostly had a great knack for getting our bosses to send us out of the newsroom.”
But whether she initially had a knack or not, Hébert has become one of the most renowned political commentators in the country, bringing unique perspectives and understanding from both sides of Canada’s linguistic divide. In addition to her work at CBC and the Toronto Star, she has served as parliamentary bureau chief for Le Devoir and La Presse.
Her first book, French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date With Quebec, received shortlist honours for the 2008 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. Her second book, The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was, was published in 2014, and in the same year she won a National Magazine Award (gold) for her political column in L’actualité.
After insisting she had no advice to offer the graduands, she did offer one pearl of wisdom: “Do what you love, but also love what you do; they are not always one and the same.” And what Hébert loves most is telling Canadian stories.
“What I do for a living is not to give great lessons on what people should think, but to tell stories. And on the basis of those stories, maybe Canadians get to know more about each other, understand more about each other, and at least are maybe entertained.”