Remembering Fil Fraser: Arts icon & AU prof
It with great sadness that Athabasca University (AU) mourns the passing this week of Fil Fraser, a former AU adjunct professor, a distinguished Canadian cultural ambassador, broadcast pioneer, and an influential proponent of social justice and public service.
AU President Neil Fassina paid tribute to Fraser:
“Thank you, Fil, for your wisdom and your grace, and for the culturally rich content you contributed to Canada and to the province of Alberta – and especially for the immeasurable knowledge you imparted to our learners at Athabasca University.
“AU’s warmest thoughts go out to Fil’s family members and cherished loved ones,” said Fassina.
Most recently, Fraser, 86, was inducted into the 2015 Alberta Order of Excellence — one of the many awards he received throughout his lengthy and illustrious career, testament to his outstanding contributions to Canadian artistic life.
At that investiture ceremony, AU History Professor Dr. Frits Pannekoek received the same honour. In an interview with AU Newsroom, Pannekoek said Fraser, a colleague and a friend of his, was revered, everywhere he went.
“He was highly respected. And he was a man of strong opinion. I don’t know of a single Minister, when I was with the provincial government, who didn’t hold him in the highest regard,” said Pannekoek, noting that Fraser was certainly cognizant of his trailblazing-status in film and as Alberta’s cultural ambassador.
“He used his position, his intellectual authority, and the immediate attention he could gain, for the greater good,” says Pannekoek.
Moreover, he used that awareness as a source of strength; his self-reflection helped to buoy him to act in the name of social welfare.
And while he attests to Fraser’s social-political strengths, his larger-than-life humanitarian contributions, both to public life and the Canadian arts landscape, Pannekoek highlights his friend’s passion for post-secondary education — particularly an Athabasca University education.
“Athabasca mattered to him, and he cared strongly in its mission to the under-served,” said Pannekoek, recalling the duo’s long chats together.
“He believed that Athabasca University was achieving something really important. He was a friend more than I think we knew,” Pannekoek explained.
“He was totally, totally fearless when it came to the Arts. He didn’t really care what the risks were as an arts advocate, before it was popular to be one,” Pannekoek said.
“Athabasca mattered to him, and he cared strongly in its mission to the under-served … He believed that Athabasca University was achieving something really important. He was a friend more than I think we knew.”– Dr. Frits Pannekoek, Athabasca University History Professor, and former university president
Interestingly, Fil Fraser’s achievements as a broadcaster, film producer, arts community leader, and consummate humanitarian, are perhaps better known than his legacy in education, posits Karen Wall, an associate professor of Communication Studies at Athabasca University.
She asserts that Fraser was very much an impassioned educator and, according to those with whom he worked, made an indelible mark in his own role as an adjunct professor in her faculty.
“As a resource person and colleague, Fil was a leader and partner in several initiatives, and, as importantly, a generous, thoughtful, and inspired colleague in AU’s Canadian Studies program and its Masters of Arts – Integrated Studies (MA-IS),” said Wall.
“From the early 2000s, Fil developed and taught an AU graduate course titled A Study of Canadian Feature Film — By Canadians, About Canadians, for Canadians — which focused on the study of domestic films in terms of their roles in defining national identity in both English and French Canada,” she added.
Fraser had taught courses at both the Universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan, but had commented, according to Wall, that “his most satisfying teaching experience was with the online program at Athabasca, where enthusiastic student response confirms the impact of his ability to connect with students through electronic media as well as in person.”
Fraser, she adds, was instrumental in extending his film knowledge and education among an Athabasca University team. He subsequently created the digital resource known as Canadian Film Online, which documents the history of Canadian feature filmmaking.
She says he was even “in talks” with AU staff on the changing world of the national broadcasting system — something he was a veritable expert in, having launched his career in media and broadcasting during the 1950s and going on to host TV and radio programs in Alberta into the seventies.
“His most satisfying teaching experience was with the online program at Athabasca, where enthusiastic student response confirms the impact of his ability to connect with students through electronic media as well as in person.”– Dr. Karen Wall, associate professor, Communications Studies, Athabasca University
That, combined with his expertise commandeering indie Canadian film productions rightly rendered him legendary status, some 50 years later when, in 2000, he was inducted into Canada’s Broadcast Hall of Fame, alongside notable Canuck broadcast-and- media artists, Don Cherry, Vicky Gabereau, Harvey Kirck, and Ian Tyson, among others.
In later years, Fraser was also the president and vice-president of the Canadian Communications Foundation, a website dedicated to providing the history of Canadian film and broadcasting — “an invaluable resource for students as well as the interested public,” said Wall.
Early arts adopter
Born ‘Felix Fraser’ in 1932, in Montreal, but having spent his later years out west, notably in Regina and Edmonton, his career especially took off in this region.
In 1960, Fraser founded the publication the Regina Weekly Mirror. Less than a decade later, he was in Edmonton leading the Metropolitan Edmonton Educational Television Association (which later became that province’s ACCESS Network).
He also organized and chaired the first Alberta Film Festival in 1974 and, in 1979, he founded the Banff International Television Festival, which continues today as the Banff World Media Festival.
And he was the president and CEO of the Vision TV network, between 1995 and 2000.
As a writer, Fraser penned numerous novels and works of non-fiction, including the best-selling 2003 memoir, Alberta’s Camelot – Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years; the 2007 biography of Olympian Harry Jerome, entitled, Running Uphill – the Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome, (reprised by the National Film Board); and How the Blacks Created Canada
Moving pictures on the prairie
But it was Fraser’s film works that really put his artistic brilliance on a grand and global pedestal.
Between 1977 and 1982, he produced four feature films, each centring around a Canadian prairie backdrop and accompanying historic tropes – from Louis Riel to Athol Murray.
“The Fraser oeuvre is marked by a desire for western Canadians to tell our stories for ourselves, a motive that accompanies the birthing of most healthy regional cinemas,” wrote Metro Cinema , in an article timed around the Edmonton International Film Festival’s successive screenings, in 2006, of Fraser’s four renowned films.
The article, entitled ‘Why Shoot the Picture? The Films of Fil Fraser,’ was a nod to Fraser’s film of the similar title, Why Shoot the Teacher? (1977), based on Canadian author Max Braithwaite’s classic novel.
The film screened at Cannes and was said to be “the highest-grossing Canadian film of the year.”
Another film, Hounds of Notre Dame, depicted the life of Pere Athol Murray, “the hard-drinking teacher and hockey coach at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.”
“It is significant that Fraser et. al. chose to focus on stories that are so uniquely ours; no one else was going to stand up and make a film about Wilcox, or Fort Edmonton,” the article continued.
“It is by telling our stories for ourselves that we gain a sense of history and our place in it.”
In 1991, Fraser was inducted into the Order of Canada — cited as Canada’s first black broadcaster by the Governor General’s office.
“The Fraser oeuvre is marked by a desire for western Canadians to tell our stories for ourselves…It is by telling our stories for ourselves that we gain a sense of history and our place in it.”– excerpted from an article in Metro Cinema, Edmonton, 2006
Fil Fraser: Epitome of grace
No stranger to mixing social justice and public service with the arts, between 1989 and 1992, he was the Chief Commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, where he was a champion for LGBTQ rights in the province and, in 2005 earned a spot on the board of Telefilm Canada.
In 2005, Fraser was inducted into the Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame, and in 2012, to mark its centennial celebrations, the Calgary Stampede recognized Fraser as one of the 100 most influential Albertans of the century.
Hearkening back to that auspicious day of Wednesday, October 14, 2015, when Fraser and Pannekoek were simultaneously invested into the Alberta Order of Excellence (AOE), Pannekoek fondly recalls his former colleague’s uncanny flair for the theatrical, on full and glorious display, for all to see.
“He was wheel-chair-bound at the AOE ceremony and he made the most spectacular exit,” said Pannekok.
“The curtains parted as he exited out. He may have been sick at the time, but he exited with incredible ‘Fil flair,’ in his chair. He had to leave a bit on the early side, but when he did, he departed with theatrical grace.
He had theatrical grace till the very end.”