MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 9 - Journalism in North Bay

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Colin Vezina, long-time journalist at the North Bay Nugget. Handley and Vezina discuss Vezina’s childhood in North Bay, his entrance into the world of journalism and the many remarkable events that he witnessed during his time as reporter and editor of the North Bay Nugget.

Peter Handley:
Welcome to North Bay's Heritage Diary. Listen up, and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. This time we open the diary of our shared past and take a look at the life of Colin Vezina - North Bay native, 30+ years with the nugget in various key roles, longtime volunteer, Rotary Club member. We want to sort of go back in Colin’s memory and talk about North Bay and your memories of growing up here. Were they good memories? I mean you had a fairly good size family.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, there were five of us - five boys and we are all born during the depression, except Michael who was born in 1941. The money was tight, but you’ve probably heard this so many times - with we made our own fun and had a great time. We stayed out until 8 o’clock at night and Mrs. Trussler would blow the whistle in the West End and that meant we all came home.

Peter Handley:
Were your parents strict?

Colin Vezina:
Dad was pretty laid-back. Mother was the Sergeant Major because dad, as locomotive foreman, the demands on him were pretty great at the CPR and the war was on and so he to produce and keep going every locomotive there was this to meet the war effort. So yeah mother pretty well took over running of the house and you did what mother said if you were smart and if you didn't well then you paid the price and of course, me being me, I paid the price a number times until I finally caught on.

Peter Handley:
But that was mother’s rule back then, wasn’t it?

Colin Vezina:
That’s right and if you had a problem you went to mother and in our own mother's case, she was, through no fault of my dad, mother and dad for three or four years because of my dad's commitment. But yeah, that was the role of mother. Mother’s rule was law.

Peter Handley:
What do you remember about the wartime? Do you remember anything?

Colin Vezina:
Oh, I remember a great deal. Sadly, I remember Christmas of 1943. December 22 and the father Humphrey and my uncle Peter came to the door with a telegram to say that my brother Howard wasn't coming home and Bob when my other brothers was on his way overseas and eventually ended up at Normandy and he survived. Howard did not. So the war was a very, very real thing for us. I was a teenager during the second world war and somebody, it seemed, where I grew up in the West End some mother was always getting a telegram that her boy was dead or her boy was missing. There were 13 members in the so-called ‘West End Gang’ of Copeland Street, McIntyre Street, Main Street, Jane Street and11 of them died overseas or heard, or died from wounds or were killed. So two of them came home and one later drowned, and the only one to survive was my brother Bob. So that's what that's just a picture of my memories of the war in North Bay. Then, we were community of 10,000, and we contributed in excess of 10% of our population to the war effort

Peter Handley:
Shortages. Do you remember any?

Colin Vezina:
Oh yeah. We very, very seldom had butter.

Peter Handley:
I was going to say butter. That’s when margarine came in.

Colin Vezina:
I mean you had that horrible margarine that you had to mix up and I mean it looked like gloop and it certainly wasn't popular. But we didn't bananas until the end of the war because the ships were needed from the Caribbean throughout the Atlantic on the Pacific. Sugar. There were rations and I still have a ration coupon from then. Meat was rationed, and even if you had all the money in the world, which you didn't, but even if you did have money and you didn't have the coupons you didn't get sugar, you didn't get meat, you didn't get a lot of dairy products. So yeah, we were rationed. But then when you consider why - it was for the men on the women overseas who were fighting.

Peter Handley:
What you remember most about North Bay during your most impressionable years? Is there anything that sticks in your head about the city itself?

Colin Vezina:
Well, learning to be an adult, I watched the city transcend from a railroad town, mainly the Canadian Pacific some of it Canadian National and a very major part of the course the Ontario Northland. I watched it transcend from a very small, sort of sleepy little city into a city that seemed to burst at the seams right after the war, because the guys were coming home and they needed homes and they needed jobs and of course construction and that type of thing creates jobs. Then the Korean War hit and that changed things all over again. Then Canadian Forces base became a reality from CF Station North Bay to Canadian Forces Base North Bay and Sage and NORAD were built out of Trout Lake or as we frequently call it – the whole. We became the real target of the Russians and anybody else who didn't like the Western World because we were the backup to Colorado Springs. To a degree we remain so as part of the NORAD sector. So, our community began to do pretty well burst at the seams. Tourism took off. Mining took off. Education began with the original forming of the original Nipissing University, which was established at North Bay College Scollard Hall. Slowly things started to happen. I was very fortunate to see that at that point in my life.

Peter Handley:
You went to Scollard?

Colin Vezina:
I did and then I got my dad's permission to go down to the collegiate in the hopes of the playing goal for Major Troy because I had heard that there were looking for goalies and I wasn't one of the brighter bird so I played goal and there wasnt any chance of playing at Scollard because Scollard Hall was a boarding school at the time and well the borders live there and if you went near the pads or anything else there it wasn't good. So I was educated at North Bay College Scollard Hall, and at the Collegiate Institute for my high school and university is another matter.

Peter Handley:
Okay, that's interesting that you had to apply for permission, I would assume to go to what is now Algonquin but NBCI&VS.

Colin Vezina:
Well, as I said, I'm a Roman Catholic by birth and by choice. In those days, there wasn’t any subsidy for secondary schooling. That didn't happen until 1982, I believe it was, when Catholic secondary schools were supported by the province. So parents had to pay to go to Scollard and any other secondary institution. It was sort of unheard you know? ‘You're really mean you're leaving Scollard.’ Well as I said, I took my dad into it and that he sort of looked at me with a jaundiced eye but he went along with it and the that meant too that the taxes for the secondary school went to the public school system. I mean today, you know, you think nothing of it, but in those days, and in the late 40s and early 50s when I was in high school it was sort of frowned upon.

Peter Handley:
Did you want to be a goaltender? Was that your life’s aim at the time?

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, I was intrigued by goalies. You know Bill Dern and Turk Broda Gordon and goalies like that and it was a challenge. In those days you had to be very, very good on your skates. You’re up against guys like Cliff Dunn and Juergen McManus, Red Morgan and Mel Chivers. I mean these guys were good and they played ACT hockey. So, the trust is that nobody in his right mind wanted to play goal. We didn't wear masks and I got smacked enough times, but that's another story for the day. But there was something about it that I found intriguing and the thought of getting the puck in the head didn't occur to me. So I started to play goal and Pep Kelly of course, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs was our coach and he taught me a lot. Yeah, I just I took to it and and each game even in the old beer league in later years - to me, each game was a challenge. You have to look at it as a challenge as a goalie.

Peter Handley:
Did you ever wind up wearing a mask?

Colin Vezina:
In 1964 I got hit pretty badly and Al Griffin stitched me up at St. Joe's and told me that all goaltenders are crazy. I came home and said ‘hello’ to Noreen and it was rather late and Noreen said ‘that's it, you put your pads away until you wear a mask’ and I said ‘well they don't have masks’ and she said ‘you can wear a ball mask, Murty Lazarou wears one in ball as a catcher and that's what you're going’ and she said ‘put your pads away.’

Peter Handley:
Noreen is your wife.

Colin Vezina:
Well I mean, Noreen’s the boss – let’s face it. I was the first goaltender in North be to wear a mask and I was so grateful because something finally dawned on me that I don't have to worry about sticks in the head anymore or pucks in the mouth or pucks over my left eye. I got hit there three times alone and you know you sort of think it would it would occur to somebody in goal that there something wrong with this picture. But as Dr. Mitchell said ‘you goalies, you are different, you know.’ So to answer your question Peter: yeah and it just felt so much better knowing that you weren’t going to get a puck or stick in the head.

Peter Handley:
Okay, just before we going to the nugget business. As a youngster growing up here the Dionne situation - did you notice the tourists coming in?

Colin Vezina:
Oh yeah. When we would go down to Lavase River to Champlain Park to swim because that where most people would swim and you could dive off the diving board because it was about 8 feet deep then. When you would take the bus, Lakeshore Drive (they called it Kennedy Avenue then) was just two lanes and part of it was just like gravel and the cars were just lined up from everywhere. They would rent a cottage. There weren't motels then, they were all cottages to go down to Corbeil to see the see the Dionne quintuplets. And so yeah I remember that. And I remember the license plates from many, many states and all the different colours. They were funny looking compared to ours. So yeah, those were bustling years in Ferris.

Peter Handley:
Did you ever go to see them yourself?

Colin Vezina:
No, because you had to take the bus to go there and it cost $0.20 and that was a lot of money back then. I mean you could buy bottle of Coke for a nickel. So, I saw the picture in the Nugget and you know that's enough for me. Later on I did as a reporter. I wrote about them many, many times and I didn't have an opportunity to interview them but I wrote about them and the deaths and the effects here and how the community felt and so on.

Peter Handley:
Okay the Nugget when did that open up as a career choice for you?

Colin Vezina:
When I finished high school, my brother Bob wanted me to consider medicine but all I could think of was seven years of drudgery in University. So, I went to work for the Bell – three or four of us out of Scollard had an opportunity and I never lost my ties with Scollard and I'm still part of the Scollard Old Boys. But, I went to work for Bell and it was dreadfully cold in this February north of Sturgeon Falls and I was up on a pole freezing and I thought there has to be more to life, so I was going to join the Navy and I told my brother Bob and he said ‘well you should try newspaper, you’d do well’ and so to make a long story short, there was an appointment with Mr. Fellman, Mort Fellman who was editor and JF Granger the publisher for one Saturday morning in January. I just wanted to join the Navy, but I had my brother on me and so I went for this appointment and I said, ‘I think I'd like to try it for three months’, and Mr. Fellman said ‘well I think Mr. Granger and I want to talk about this and we’ll let you know in a week or two’ and I said ‘I’m sorry Mr. Fellman but this is Saturday and I leave Sunday night for Labrador.’ I mean Bell isn’t even in Labrador, but it was my way of making a pitch and telling my brother Bob so he’d leave me alone. I later joined the Navy mind you, but so Mr. Fellman and Mr. Granger I think figured well week we gambled on Bob and if the kid brother is anything like him…

Peter Handley:
So they knew him?

Colin Vezina:
Oh yes. Bob worked for the Nugget, I’m sorry. There were three of us who worked for the Nugget and Bob had gone to the Toronto Telegram and at the time was the Night Managing Editor. So, yeah, they knew him quite well and he spotted and mother spotted something in me that I didn't know existed and it was to be a newspaperman, to be journalist. So, Mr. Fellman said, ‘well we’re prepared to offer you $39.50 a week and I mean I was making a lot more than that with the Bell, but I said ‘okay we’ll try it for three months and if you don't like me, that's okay and if I don't like it, that's okay’ and they agreed. So help me Peter, I went nuts and I was single, living at home and I just I worked seven days a week. I thrived on it. I mean I'm a workhorse I'm sort of. The next thing to a workaholic, I guess, but at the end of three months I had the meeting with Mr. Fellman and with Mr. Granger and they said ‘well we'd like you to stay’ and I said ‘well I'd like to stay as well.’ I couldn't type when I started, but I rented a typewriter for two weeks and taught myself to type.

Peter Handley:
The proper way or the two-finger way?

Colin Vezina:
Well you know, sort of a mix. I learned on the ‘Our Father’ and the Address by George VI to the nation when he took over from his brother as the king.

Peter Handley:
But without the stuttering?

Colin Vezina:
Without the stuttering. Yeah, poor King George. But yeah, that's the story.

Peter Handley:
Were you any good in English in school?

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, it was one of my strong subjects. English and composition. I mean, I remember when we were kids in high school, the teacher would give us three or four subjects from which to choose to write 200 words. Well I would close my eyes and point and wherever the pencil ended up that's what I wrote on, but I would write two. So I mean, it just it flowed.

Peter Handley:
Lots of people go through life without discovering that in themselves

Colin Vezina:
This is so true.

Peter Handley:
And you discovered relatively early.

Colin Vezina:
Well, the credit goes to my brother Bob and my mother. I didn't know that, they did. Anyway, when I had an opportunity, it demonstrated itself.

Peter Handley:
Okay, you're in the Nugget. Did you ever feel any sort of awe about what you were doing or did you just so to slide into it? I mean, as a Nugget reporter, you are no doubt meeting also to different people. People of a pretty high echelon and people below. Right?

Colin Vezina:
That's right.

Peter Handley:
So, did you feel nervous?

Colin Vezina:
No. I couldn't get over the fact that I could attend so many events and in an indirect way be involved in something where a great many people could not be. I had the opportunity to speak with important people and they were courteous. Mr. Fellman taught us all to ask intelligent questions and to review our subject before we approach the individual and so I was in awe of many, many times. I remember once the late Harold Graham was an inspector and I went up to Temagami on a suspected murder suicide and I spent a couple of days up there. When I came back to North Bay and asked the inspector at the time, Inspector Graham, ‘would you call me if anything happens’ and he said ‘I will’ and he did. I never forgot that and he said ‘you owe me a cigar’ and each time I'd see Inspector Graham, who became Commissioner Graham of the OPP the first thing he say is ‘where’s my cigar’. So that's just an example. When I was introduced to Prime Minister Trudeau, the original. by JJ Bley and you know ordinarily I would not have been, but as editor, I was. So as editor of the paper later on I never lost my respect and I never forgot that I was a journalist. That I was there as a guest doing a job and that's it. I mean I was rubbing shoulders with important people, but I wasn't part of the important people.

Peter Handley:
In other words, if you saw them in the street the next day you didn't have the right to say ‘let's go for breakfast’.

Colin Vezina:
No. It changes a little bit when you become editor because then the responsibility changes. But yeah, I never lost my respect for people who carry the burden of life, whatever that may be.

Peter Handley:
Now, the Grey Owl. Now, I guess Mort knew about it. Britt broke it I guess.

Colin Vezina:
Britt Jessup, in 1937. Grey Owl of course was the Englishman who convinced a great many people that he was native and would dress in the robes and married into the First People. But Britt Jessup got wind of this and Britt Jessup was one of my wonderful teachers in journalism, he was City Editor at the time and the City Editor of a newspaper sits at the right hand of God. But Britt was a wonderful teacher - very demanding but just a really really wonderful guy and an excellent reporter. He got wind of this, and he went up to Temagami and he wrote the story and brought it back and then Eddie Bunyan who was the editor at the time wouldn't let Britt write the story said no. But the publisher of the paper was in Sudbury and there was some strange reason like that great harm would happen if the story were broken and then finally in 1941, the publisher changed and Mort was the editor and the story broke. So, Mort as Editor broke the story, but it was Britt who found and who wrote it.

Peter Handley:
Archie Belaney.

Colin Vezina:
Archie Belaney…

Peter Handley:
That would have put North Bay on the map just by osmosis sort of thing.

Colin Vezina:
Well it did. Not only did it add to the, the mystique, if you will, of the Dionne quintuplets. But to most people I mean this is 1941, so they say Temagami and people say ‘where’s that’ and they they’d say ‘well, it’s near North Bay’ so automatically it’s North Bay. So yeah it did, it added to it. Just another story about North Bay. There are so many of them. Captain of the Clouds - when it was made here on Trout Lake and James Cagney was the main attraction. He was the pilot and whatnot. There are just there so many stories about this city that just take forever to talk about.

Peter Handley:
There was a cast that stayed at the Empire Hotel.

James Cagney. Alan Hale. Yeah, Captain of the Clouds.

Peter Handley:
Was it Cagney that supposedly threw money to someone? I heard that story but don’t know what happened.

Colin Vezina:
No, what happened was or the story that Britt Jessup told me was that there was a waiter or bellboy and Cagney had ordered some sparkling water so he brought it up there and he figured he'd get a dollar tip and I mean a dime in those days was normal. So, James Cagney gave them a quarter and the guy looked at James Cagney and he said ‘that's all?’ and only Cagney could tell him to get out of there. He is lucky that he didn't take the quarter and put a dime on the plate, but that's, the story: ‘is that all?’. So, for years, James Cagney and Alan Hale and the whole gang spoke so well of North Bay and the reception they got. In particular at Camp Champlain. That's where the film was shot.

Peter Handley:
Where is Camp Champlain?

Colin Vezina:
Just on the Peninsula Road on Trout Lake right at what they call the ‘Narrows’ and then you turn right and that's Camp Champlain right there on the main lake.

Peter Handley:
If I said give me one story that you had a hand in or that you remember the most.

Colin Vezina:
Oh boy. There are so many.

Peter Handley:
Give me two or three then.

Colin Vezina:
Well, there was this young girl who wanted to swim across Lake Nipissing in 1956. Goulet was her name. That was almost unheard of then, but she took it on and she had to swim over to the islands and then swim back again. I was on the boat with Marion Hollows and about a mile from shore, she just she collapsed and I happen to be on the boat and I was young and strong and I picked her up out of the water and into the boat. About a week after that, when she was all rested up, she came to the nugget and she looked at me and I thought, ‘what the world did I do?’ and she said thank you for picking her up out of the water. What I remember about that swim was her determination and I mean this was a very, very cold night. I was wearing an Old Navy parka and she was in the water. I think of the pipeline blast of this is 1962, July and we have to recall that as the headquarters here for Northern NORAD, we were the target for the Russians.

Peter Handley:
It was up at the golf course wasn’t it?

Colin Vezina:
It was, right off number eight or seven.Like many, many families we had a little shelter in our basement underneath the slab that forms a step. We had rations there in case the bomb was dropped. That was what we lived with here in North Bay. A lot of people don't know that because we were a primary target and at 1:35 in the morning the city lit up. We were convinced that we were attacked by the Russians and I mean there were heart attacks in St. Joe's, the civic and the emergency wards were swamped with nervous conditions, heart attacks and strokes. I mean people were buying it. So, I remember going up there. I was city editor at the time and the OPP wouldn’t let's go up the Airport Road and what he said was ‘if you went up the back road, I'm not over there am I?’. I mean this is the cooperation we had between the Nugget and the OPP so up we went. We could only get so close to this thing, and I mean it was like hell itself. Whatever hell is like. I think the Barry Building. I had just come back to North Bay from Chrysler and I was a reporter again before I worked my way up the line. Wednesday, January 8 oh Wednesday, January 8 1975 it was at 3:29pm. I remember that. We went down there as closely as we could. There was a dentist whose name escapes me at the moment, wandering up the street and he was all full of blood, and I took him in it and I sat him down them and took my coat off and I mean, it was absolutely horrible. There was a change of shift at the time. In those days, city police were in the City Hall where the Thompson Building is now and the shifts were eight hours and so the 4 to 12 shift was coming on and the eight to four shift was ending, which meant that there were about 14 to 15 maybe 16 police officers who all responded to this. It was right across the street and blew it a couple of windows out of the police headquarters as well. Later on I was there and I remember assisting as a young reporter. I don't talk about it very much, but I saw an enormous amount of terrible, terrible stuff and I won't go into it here, but the sight of a mangled body was well beyond alarming me any longer. I can remember assisting the police in recovering one body in particular in one of the rooms. That kind of thing stays in your in your head and from time to time when I walk by or drive-by that site I sometimes think of that. That was a story we didn't need. I immediately thought of Ken Barry and but as it turns out Ken used to take Wednesday afternoons off and work Saturdays and it dawned on me, but his co-doctor Cobean was killed. He was one of the eight killed. So those are just some of the stories that I that I remember.

Peter Handley:
Do you think you developed a shell, a protective shell?

Colin Vezina:
You spend enough time with the police, Peter and you don't lose your empathy, you don't lose your sympathy, you don't lose your heart but you just you have to accept it. I didn't see a whole lot of really, really bad stuff in the Navy, but you know you always see a certain amount. I guess you do sort of build up a shell and, to be blunt, you can only see so much blood and guts and bodies that have been blown apart and crushed, burned, and everything else and you finally just deal with it. You just you deal with it. It was once someone and you respect that.

Peter Handley:
We’ve been talking to Colin Vezina about his life in the city of North Bay and were going to get him back and talk about politics because he's got a ream of stories about different politics and politicians in the city of North Bay.

Thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions are put together by the Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community and we shouldn’t let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when flip another page of the diary of our shared past with Colin Vezina. You can reach us at Peter.Carello@cityofNorthBay.ca. Production - Kealey Ducharme, Pete Handley, speaking