Michael Spencer, Part 3: Accidental Chairman of the CFDC

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Montréal on July, 2010

Fraser.  We have been talking about Canadian war correspondents. Someone was talking recently about doing a film or a documentary on those war correspondents. We had some good ones…  the kind of lives they led and what they contributed to, because this is the time when Canada also came of age in, when we finally began to throw off the shackles of imperial Britain… God save the King, and all that. It was a period when Canada started to act like a real country. And I guess that was one of the major mandates of the National film Board, the invention of Canada, I suppose.

S.  It certainly did a great deal. The National Film Board, in its foundation, and until about the 1960s, was a significant contributor to national unity, to the nation as a whole, particularly because it had those theatrical movies. When you went to the movies in Canada, you saw a damn, good short made by the National Film Board in them every time. And it would tell you about Canada. That was the whole idea. That went very well.

But there was a key moment I recall, when Arthur Irwin was commissioner, which would have been just after the war, I guess. There was a possibility that the Film Board could play a significant role in the CBC, or be affiliated to it, in some respect. The idea would be for the Film Board to produce stuff and that it would be shown on CBC.

F.  That idea has been up and around for a long time and it's still around..

S. Yes.  But the CBC was in the driver's seat and all we could do was make suggestions that we could make a contribution. And there were some very good films, good documentaries we could have had on television. I remember Grant McLean used to make those. Actually, I think we had an hour a week on the CBC which was to be a Film Board presents hour…

F. Yes. The NFB Presents

S.  Yeah,  but we never managed to keep it going. Or they….

F.  Who were some of the  characters who were around in those days?

S.  I certainly think of Donald Brittain for example. I spent a lot of social time with him I really liked that guy. He and I got on very well together.

F.  One of our greats.

S.  And there was Jim Beveridge. Norman McLaren of course and Guy Glover, his friend.  You remember all these people too, Fil.

F.  I'm a little younger, but I've crossed paths with many of them.  Did you have the sense that the time that you are pioneers, that you were doing new things, breaking new ground?

S.  Well, not on the administrative side. But Stuart Legg, and Tom Daly, Ron Weyman,  were producing the information shorts for the theatres. They were very important. Norman was doing his thing in the animation department; that was coming along. And Colin Low and those other guys were coming along. I don't think that they were impressed with the administrative side of the National film Board.

F. That was you!

S. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. There used to be a director of planning and a director of English production. The Director of Planning was Donald Mulholland. The Director of English Production was Grant McLean and the French section was Pierre Juneau.  This was the scene when Guy Roberge arrived.

Suddenly, at that moment, Don Mulholland  passed away. So they had to reorganize things. And I was chosen to be the Director of Planning.  Every unit had to have a plan for how they were going to spend their money and what films they were going to make.  But any suggestion from the Director of Planning about which films should be made was automatically turn down in the minds of all the filmmakers . So the idea of the Director of Planning doing any planning collapsed. So, one year I had nothing to do. This is the happy moment when Guy Roberge came on the scene and said that now was the time to make feature films.  So he told me to go ahead and do it.

Between us, we went to Ottawa, and figured out how to  do the legal side; we drew up the regulations, we had committees drawn from the Department of Finance, from the Department of Trade and Commerce and so on. We have four go’s at that. And we produced paper like you wouldn't believe, Fil. Mountains of paper!  But, at the beginning, Guy told me, “Why don't you just knock off a little memo saying what this is all about: why we need feature films, etc. So I did that, about a page and a half or two pages…

F. Is that document still around?

S. I wonder. I bet it's in the papers of Telefilm now. So, that was what went up to Jack Pickersgill who was the minister. Pickersgill wrote on it, “Seems like a good idea. Let's get a committee going.”  You see, the happy thing was that I didn't have anything else to do.  So, I made my own fun by starting this.. .

So, the committee worked for a year and sent in an interim report.  The government said, “This looks interesting; keep going.” We were consulting with people like Sir John Terry of the National Film Finance Corporation, someone in France.  We eventually grew to know everything about government assistance to the feature film industry.

So we had these reams of paper, right? Finally, I went to the Privy Council office with all the supporting documents and I remember Michael Pittfield saying, “You don't think the ministers are going to read all this stuff, do you?”  So, I got it down to about 25 pages and then the message came back… “Too long!”  So, I cut it down to pretty close to what I had written originally – a little memo.

F. I wish I could see that document.

S.  When I was writing the book, I did look around for it, but I couldn't find it. It would have been a Film Board document, not a CFDC document.

F.  That would've been the first document in Canada’s move to making feature films.

S.  It's probably in the Film Board Archives.

F.  We should try to track it down.  So, talk to me about Judy LaMarsh.

S. I didn't really have too much to do with her; it was mostly Ernie Steele,  who was the deputy minister. But the word came down that she really wasn't very interested in this feature film jazz. Now, we're in 1966. That was when we pretty well got it going. We got Canada's agreement; but the important thing was that we now needed a corporation to be established and to appoint four or five people. So I pushed Ernie, and he pushed Judy;  and she said she really wasn't very interested in all this stuff. And why didn't we wait until after 1967 [Canada's Centennial year].

Finally, in 1968 (Ernie would really know most about that), she said okay and she appointed Georges-Émile Lapalme as Chairman. I think he was chosen because he had been pushing the government for a good cultural appointment, i.e., as Ambassador to Paris, right? So, you can imagine he was a little upset. I think that's the reason they asked me to do it. Ernie said, "I'll give you a memo"; there was another guy in Ernie's office, an Englishman, who said to me, “You can do this.”  So, I had to go and see Mr. Lapalme (in fact, we became very good friends eventually).  It was when I went to see him that I realized he had hoped to be Ambassador to Paris and all he got was Chairman of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, a position that you once held yourself.