Phil Adler: the man who made satire respectable

© Bill Keay

Phil Adler – who passed away last week at the age of 74 – was a dogged journalist, a tireless social critic and a committed social justice campaigner. However, he was best known for the ingenious satire he turned to in order to encourage Canadians to care about their public affairs and their democratic institutions.

On November 29, 1988, as the euphoria was still surging through the post-Meech Lake Agreement community, Mr Adler headed up a fresh reminder of the lingering issues dividing these ideas when he gave a speech to a small gathering of critical thinkers. He described how debate about the federal government’s policy on the future of Canadian investment in the Federally owned broadcasting regulator remained “scorched earth” and the days of the Fondation de la Presse de Québec (FNPQ) in the École publique de Montreal as “remnants of an equally fierce debate.” He noted that as people began to see more job security in the country’s health insurance system, the threat of layoffs loomed again “as if our keen political will on the matter weren’t enough.”

He noted the “notable recent split” in CBC’s board of directors, which came after former Canadian Museum of History Director Gordon Adams appointed as his replacement CBC Board of Directors President Wendy Cukier, whom he described as “far from impartial about the independence of the public broadcaster, except in her reporting as an employee of CBC”. Mr Adler concluded his talk by noting how many of these issues had actually been settled by politicians more than 25 years ago in the context of the Meech Lake Accord and its successor, the Canada Political and Budget Agreement. Then, he pointed to a 15-minute item written by him that ran in the Canadian Press’s very next edition. The headline: Pardons for UPA leaders expected; outlook as dark as night.

In a week when the national media was focusing its critical attention on the Trudeau government’s annual report on the EI system, Mr Adler acted as a silent voice of reason in opposition to this politicking, citing as the common characteristics of both the Canada Job Grant and the Canada Jobs Grant, “Huge savings, no recipient satisfaction, no worker benefit, huge cutbacks in government revenue, hollow arguments on the merit of the job programs, and manipulation of controversy by Conservatives in parliament.” After some reporters “kept coming back to me,” the EI system got the honourable mention it deserved but this was not the whole story. Mr Adler noted that he had then also written a column that included a piece entitled “Same Music,” which provides us with a glimpse of the understated wit and clever satire that made him a great Canadian journalist.

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