by Anita Grace
In a rich voice that once reached households across the country, Peter Downie retraced the path that led from a successful national broadcasting career to a university classroom in his native Montreal.
"I've been out of daily radio and television for a few years, and I think this just came along at the right time," said Downie of his new job in the Journalism Department. "My intention is to help students embark on a career with a broader knowledge than simply knowing how to write a good sentence or how to deliver something on camera."
After 25 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, working both in radio and TV, Peter Downie brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to his students.
As host of CBC TV's Man Alive and Midday in the 1980s and early '90s, and of network radio programs such as Tapestry, Morningside, and As It Happens, Downie had a long and fruitful career, but he became increasingly disillusioned and dropped out of the public eye in 1996.
He knew the point had come to leave television when he had to interview an old woman with a debilitating disease who had fought for, and lost, the right to starve herself.
"I went the day before to meet her, and we just hit it off," he recalled. "She was a remarkable woman, and in the interview, I said, 'I know you've just met me, but I really like you,' and she said, 'Well, I like you, too.' And I said, 'I don't want you to die.' It was a very touching moment. And she just sort of paused and said, 'Ah, you'll get over it!' And then she laughed."
Then, for the sake of the cameras, he had to stage the conversation again, so the camera could film the host. "And it wasn't that I couldn't do it. It's that I did it too well. When I got home that night, I thought, I'm acting now. I just wasn't comfortable with that."
Despite his disillusionment, Downie remains optimistic about the field itself. "I think journalism is a noble profession. It is essentially story-telling, and it's searching for the truth." He plans not only to instruct his students in the necessary skills, but also to teach them that "it is possible to still keep your head up high and be an ethical journalist."
Since 1996, Downie has been an editor at the Chronicle, the weekly newspaper in Pointe-Claire, freelanced on radio, and written a couple of books. His latest is Fresh Air: Private Thoughts of a Public Broadcaster.
Downie admits he found his new role as a teacher intimidating at first, but "it's good to scare yourself," he said with a laugh. "The way that you keep challenging your own values and your own belief system is to expose yourself to new situations, to challenge yourself."
His students are impressed. "It's amazing to have him in our environment," said his teaching assistant, Paris Mansouri. "He makes sure everyone is learning and enjoying it at the same time."