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Pamela Wallin – Sweet Serendipity

Senator Pamela Wallin shares how to turn adversity to advantage with Isabel Bassett

By: Isabel Bassett | Photography by Lydia Peltz

In 1968, Andy Warhol predicted that, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” The expression captured the fickle nature of  media attention, and is still widely quoted today.

As I headed to Ottawa to interview Senator Pamela Wallin, I couldn’t help but wonder how, in a culture of short-lived, dime-a-dozen celebrity, this formidable personality has remained a prominent fixture of our media landscape for forty years — both as a reporter of the news, and as the subject of it. Obviously she doesn’t fit Warhol’s stereotype — perhaps the appropriate version would be “famous in 15 ways.”

Looking around her senate office, just across the street from Parliament, I learned that besides serving as chancellor of the University of Guelph, and as Chair of the Senate’s National Security and Defence Committee, she is also an Honourary Colonel of the Air Force — and had spent her morning meeting with officers at the Trenton airbase and taking a flight in a Hercules aircraft.

I had to ask, simply, “How did you find your way from the small town of Wadena, Saskatchewan to the Senate of Canada, via journalism — did you have a game plan?” Her answer was equally simple: “No, it was serendipity”.

“It’s the word that guides my life,” she explains. “I was working as a psychologist at a maximum security penitentiary in Saskatchewan when a friend who hosted a show fell ill and asked if I could take a week off and fill in for him. I said ‘Yes’ and when I started, I knew right away that I wanted to work in journalism.”

The Senator’s only plan was to take a chance, and with encouragement from CBC’s Elizabeth Gray, she soon found herself hosting and producing shows for CBC Radio including As It Happens. This lead to a stint writing for the Toronto Star, then to hosting CTV’s Canada AM, and eventually to the posts of Ottawa bureau chief, and chief national correspondent. “You know there are these moments, and you just have to be ready and say ‘Yes’ to them. It’s not as if you just hop from one thing to the next, but there is a natural progression where one thing leads to another.”

But not always smoothly. After 10 years at CTV, Wallin was lured back to the CBC to become the first Canadian woman to co-host the national nightly newscast, Prime Time News, with Peter Mansbridge. The show had some difficulty competing with evening drama shows, and after disagreements with the producers, she was eventually fired, very publicly.

“I called my parents right away so they wouldn’t hear it first on the news. My dad said ‘Sweetheart, are you angry or hurt?’ ‘Mostly angry’, I replied. He told me to keep that ice cold instead of red hot — which meant if I was directing the anger at my former employers rather than using that energy in a calm, directed way to move forward, then it was wasted energy.

“And that’s exactly what I did. I channeled the energy and the anger into creating a company, Pamela Wallin Productions — four months later I was back on air having sold a show to the CBC. In retrospect – not that very moment certainly — it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It is readily apparent that Senator Wallin’s ability to face challenges, to rise above adversity — indeed, to reinvent herself — is the real key to her  continued success. In 2001, while writing her 2nd book, Speaking of Success, she had to undergo surgery for colon cancer. Shortly thereafter, the whole world changed with the events of 9/11, and she found herself in New York with then-Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley organizing the “Canada Loves New York” rally.

The event prompted then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to appoint Wallin as Canada’s Consul General in New York, a post she held for four years. “Upon my return to Canada, Prime Minister Harper asked me to be on an independent panel chaired by John Manley, looking into Canada’s future role in Afghanistan.” Following that, the PM appointed her to the Senate, where she became the first woman to Chair the Senate’s Security and Defence Committee. “The Senate Committee released a report in June calling on the Canadian government to stay in Afghanistan in a training or mentoring role until the job is done. And that possibility is now real. I like to feel I made some contribution.”

Something you automatically sense after only a short time talking with Senator Wallin is her approachability. Even though everything about her appears perfect — from her well-done make-up and hair to the stylish leather jacket she’s wearing — and even though she is extremely articulate, she is someone you feel you can talk to.

So I asked a more personal question about balancing work and private life.

“Young women are sure they can have a full career and family. I wish it were true but I’m not sure it is… I think it’s very difficult,” she laughs. “I don’t have a very good track record,” she says, referring to her failed marriage, “so I can’t really give advice. But I think you’ve got to find somebody who’s comfortable in their own skin so they can deal with whatever you are, and whatever light is shone on you.”

“For me, my work has provided a balance others wouldn’t see because I work 24/7. But my work is also my enjoyment. I love the people I meet, I love the experiences I have — that’s been my choice.”

For Senator Wallin, life in Wadena, the small Saskatchewan town where she grew up in the 1950s, shaped her down-to-earth, friendly, approachable self. As one of Saskatchewan’s six current senators, she keeps in close touch with her home, returning three weekends out of four.

“My success, as I see it, is that I can still go home to Wadena and I am not someone special, aloof or distant: I’m one of them and I’ve made them proud.”

I asked, “What’s next? Are you planning to stay in the Senate until your term expires when you turn 75?”

“I certainly won’t be here that long,” she says. “I sit with people who have been here 30 or 40 years. It’s just too long for me… I’ll give the Senate 8 to 10 years or as long as I think I am making a contribution.”

I asked Senator Wallin what advice she has for women starting a career. “I firmly believe that what you learn in one job prepares you for the next. Stick long enough to learn the job, and make some impact, then use that experience to translate that knowledge to another area… We are all better having gone through something, having learned how to make the compromises to get from A to B,” she explains.

“If you keep saying ‘yes,’ the  world unfolds with such miraculous opportunities.”

Isabel Bassett, former Minister of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation in the Ontario Government and former Chair and CEO TVOntario.