Hiking the historic Gold Rush Trail and Chilkoot Pass in the Yukon; making the first modern descents of seven Arctic rivers, including the Ruggles on Ellesmere Island; paddling the wild and then-untouched Nahanni River in British Columbia- this may read like the bucket list of an outdoors adrenaline junkie but it’s actually a rather brief listing of the many adventures chronicled by Craig Oliver in his memoir, Oliver’s Twist: The Life and Times of an Unapologetic Newshound.
In it, the CTV chief political correspondent weaves a tapestry of personal intrigue and scandal as he takes the reader through his illustrious 54-year career covering politics and all of the cunning creatures that go along with it. Oliver, the only child of two alcoholics, got his start in the rough-and-tumble northern town of Prince Rupert, B.C., working at the local CBC-affiliate radio station.
With no previous journalism experience, his fledgling career could have come to an abrupt halt at numerous points, like when he mistakenly announced TBA, or ‘to-be-announced’ radio advertising spots on the show line-up, as popular programming that listeners shouldn’t miss. Or when he and the team, bored during a slow shift, decided to test whether anyone was listening to the station by shouting “f***” while live on air. Luckily for him, there really was no one listening that day- a far stretch from the millions of Canadians who now tune in to Canada AM and Question Period every week. Both are shows he launched or, in the case of Question Period, re-launched after the show’s suspension from 1996 to 2001.
Oliver makes no secret of the ethical challenges he has encountered throughout his career. His memoir revels the reader with details of the ‘hot room,’ a then-crowded, smokey room on the third floor of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block where the reporters worked.
“We had a blind pig, an illegal bar, and when the filing was done for the day, the cry went out for Scotch and beer, which gallery staffers hurried to us at twenty-five cents a pop,” Oliver writes. “It was a zoo of a place. Here the rise and fall of politicians was decided and agreed upon, or so we believed. There were critical opinions freely exchanged, occasional trysts in the back room, and now and then fist-fights between competing newspapermen.”
After moving to Ottawa to cover politics in 1974, he developed a close personal relationship with the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. They, along with others, made regular journeys into the Canadian wilderness to paddle the most rugged and testing rivers they could find. Given the current political climate, perhaps it’s fitting that the now-veteran purveyor of Parliament Hill has such a passion for all things wild and combative.
Oliver’s paddling companions have included the who’s who of Canadian politics: Robert Fowler, then a rising star in the Foreign Affairs Department who would later survive kidnapping by al-Qaeda while in Niger; Eddie Goldenberg, an advisor to Jean Chretien; Peter Stollery, then MP for Toronto-Spadina and later a senator; and Ted Johnson, executive assistant to Prime Minister Trudeau at the time. The well-written intimacy of these relations eventually led to Oliver’s exile in Washington, D.C., for nearly a decade in what he describes as “a period of political delousing.”
Readers will laugh as he describes tales of being accidentally invited to a private dinner with Ronald and Nancy Reagan and discovering that he has no latent fingerprints. But what Oliver really does best is bring the fascinating personal details out of the many political landscapes he covers.
Readers likely never knew that Tommy Douglas, forefather of Canadian medicare, used to have Oliver signal him when the cameramen needed to change film during his speeches so that reporters wouldn’t miss any important moments. They probably also didn’t know that Oliver nearly missed the birth of his son, Murray, in 1967 while running between the hospital and live coverage of the Conservative convention that elected Walter Weir as premier of Manitoba.
For many, such a heavily-public career can be hard to relate to. Oliver tempers this in the best possible way- by blending the scintillating and scandalous details readers want to see with intensely personal moments of reflection and contemplation that tug at the heartstrings. His honest insight and passionate storytelling makes for one heck of a read, one that this writer could not put down. Anyone with an interest in Canadian politics and media, or who just enjoys a fast-paced, intriguing read, owes it to themselves to read Oliver’s Twist.