There are over 70 short anecdotes in Peter Mansbridge's new memoir 'Off The Record'--stories from the illustrious newsman's 50-plus years in the business, most spent behind the anchor desk of the CBC's flagship nightly news broadcast, The National. The tales are fascinating, from covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, to walking the beaches of Normandy with Tom Brokaw and talking with Canadian prime ministers from John Diefenbaker to Justin Trudeau. Of the country's 23 PMs, Mansbridge has shaken hands with eleven of them--an impressive tally.
But the British-born Mansbridge shares moments of humour and heart too, like snagging a 24-hour suit in South Korea, hunting for a cure for baldness in China, locking eyes with Lady Diana as she headed to her carriage to marry Prince Charles, and watching aghast (along with colleague Brian Williams, but saying nothing to the TV audience), as doves released at the opening of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 flew straight into the cauldron flame and were incinerated.
"After the success of Extraordinary Canadians, I had several offers to do a memoir, but I knew I wasn't going to write about my personal life," said Mansbridge on the phone from his Stratford, Ontario home. True to his word, the 73-year-old writes almost nothing about his previous marriages and children, though he dedicates the book to his three grandchildren, and mentions his two Winnipeg-based daughters Pamela and Jennifer, and son Will, whom he shares with wife of 23 years, actress Cynthia Dale.
Spending much of the pandemic in his backyard weaving book pages from a life of vignettes, Mansbridge starts with reminiscences about his Ontario childhood. The family came to Ottawa by way of Britain and Malaya, Southeast Asia, where Peter's father Stanley Mansbridge worked with the British Foreign Service after being a navigator on some 50 missions with the Royal Air Force during World War II. Peter's grandfather Harry was likewise a war hero, serving with Canada's PPCLI and injured at Vimy Ridge in 1917.
"There were always lively debates around the dinner table about current events with my sister Wendy, me and my parents. I think that's where my curiosity about people and the bigger world started," Mansbridge recalled.
There are countless 'pinch me' moments in his life, Mansbridge acknowledges, ones he could've never predicted when he was plucked from nowhere, discovered while announcing plane departures in Churchill, Manitoba in 1968 by a radio executive who liked the sound of his voice and offered him work at the radio station in town.
"My whole life has been a highlight," he laughed. "I didn't have a productive youth. It was a fluke how I started on this path, but with a lot of hard work and a fascination with asking questions, it kept moving me along."
The high school dropout who did a short, unsuccessful stint in the Canadian Navy before finding himself loading bags in a Northern Manitoba airport, says his mother would've been gobsmacked to see him become an Officer of the Order of Canada, (she died before he received it in 2009), just as she was speechless when Mansbridge arranged for his parents to be at a Victoria reception for Queen Elizabeth on her 1994 visit there.
"My mother wasn't a monarchist, but was excited to be at the event. When she turned around to see Queen Elizabeth beside her, asking if she was from Victoria, my mother froze. She was awestruck. Getting no reply, the Queen wandered off. I never heard my mother criticize the Queen again."
Mansbridge recounts behind-the-scenes moments with politicians and celebrities--from Obama to the Pope, and Ringo to Margaret Thatcher--even an unplanned meeting with Pope Francis the night before he was elected Pontiff. In Rome for the Papal Conclave, Mansbridge and crew members were walking back from supper when they came upon then-Cardinal Bergoglio.
"We talked on the street corner for a while, and none of us thought he was in the running to become Pope," Mansbridge remembers. "But when we said our goodbyes, he said 'pray for me'. That did get us wondering."
Meeting Pope John Paul II was unplanned too. "Cynthia and I were on honeymoon in Rome in 1998 when someone from the Canadian Embassy got wind we were there. Before we knew it, we were before His Holiness, receiving a papal blessing," he said. "And I'm not even Catholic."
Saying "there's something about me and airports" is an understatement for the man with a passion for military history, aircraft and flying. In addition to chance meetings in various world airports that led to friendships (and one that became an introduction to the Arctic), Mansbridge recounts stories of exhilarating treks to the Canadian north on a Twin Otter, or in the Afghan mountains aboard a C-130 Hercules.
"I keep mementos above the fireplace in my home office: matching Charles and Diana thimble sets from the Royal Wedding, a piece of the Berlin Wall, rocks from Vimy and the Great Wall of China; even a 3D replica of a toothbrush I uncovered in the far north when we were doing a story on the Franklin Expedition," he said.
As busy as ever
Though he retired as chief correspondent for CBC News on Canada Day in 2017, Mansbridge says he's as busy as he's ever been. There's the daily podcast 'The Bridge', broadcast from his home studios, and time spent restoring a Scottish farmhouse on the shores of the North Sea. Asked if golf is involved, he laughs. "Oh yeah. But we've built a studio too, so I can do the podcast from there as well."
Along with preparing an upcoming CBC documentary on the Arctic, the not-so-retired Mansbridge continues with occasional speeches for university commencements, journalism student groups and others who want to hear stories from an extraordinary life: his take on climate change, Indigenous issues (like having clean drinking water, inspired by his friendship with Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie) and the meaning of being a Canadian (it's that we CARE, he says). And then there's the matter of why he didn't take that multi-million dollar offer in 1988 to anchor the CBS morning news in the U.S.?
In the book, Mansbridge says it was never really about the money; he simply loved the CBC. Although, Knowlton Nash stepping away so Mansbridge could take the anchor chair at The National really tipped the scales, he adds. A truly Canadian moment.
Footnote: by the time he left The National 30 years on, Mansbridge was earning pretty much the same salary he had been offered to jump to CBS, so it all worked out well, he says. Indeed.
Everyday people most memorable
"These stories--some funny, some emotional--say something about journalism, and about me," he reflected. "I've been so lucky. I've met fascinating people; famous and not so famous. But it's everyday people that have always stayed with me: like the little girl in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami who pointed to a Canadian flag on my field jacket and said in broken English: 'Ca-na-da good'.
A book photo shows Mansbridge jumping from a rock high in the Gatineau Hills, to the water below, something he does at his cottage every year, on his birthday. "I'm a believer in hope, not in despair," Mansbridge ended. "I believe we can keep striving for an even better Canada, and I believe someday, perhaps long after my time, we will find it."