Roméo Dallaire and the woman who held Corporal Nathan Cirillo’s hand — Carol Off on her most memorable interviews

By her count, veteran journalist Carol Off has conducted more than 25,000 interviews as a CBC foreign correspondent and as host of CBC Radio One’s “As It Happens,” which she has hosted since 2006. Her last show is Feb. 25. The Star spoke to Off about the art of interviewing and her thoughts on the state of journalism.

Who are the most enjoyable people to interview?

People who are able to tell a story, whether it’s about them or somebody else, or their role in something. It sounds simple, but it’s astonishing at times how people get tangled up. I try to guide them, but sometimes they just get lost in the weeds really fast. You can almost (see) it geographically. When I interview people in the United Kingdom, they are so good at telling stories. You ask a question, they answer it and they leave it with a cliffhanger, and then you say, ‘Well, what happened?’

If you interview an American, invariably they blurt out the entire thing as quickly as they can. I think it’s because people get trained by their own media. In the UK, they have a media tradition of storytelling. In the United States, it’s all sound bytes and they think they’ve got to cram the entire story into the first minute. I often stop with Americans and say, ‘OK, just so you know, you’re talking to Canadian radio. You’re allowed to finish your sentence.’

Canadians have to be coaxed out. They’re reluctant, they tend to not think they’ve got anything to say that’s interesting or useful. Once you’ve convinced them… and coaxed them out, they’re pretty good storytellers.

What are some of your most memorable interviews?

I’ve had several interviews with Roméo Dallaire. (Dallaire was the Canadian general who led United Nations troops in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide that took more than 800,000 lives. He is the author of several books and served in the Senate for nine years.) He’s so thoughtful, an amazing person to talk to, and he’s so generous with his own deepest experiences, and yet he takes the interviews always some place you didn’t expect. He’s extraordinary.

I think the interview that will stay with me the rest of my life is with Barbara Winters, who is the woman who just happened to be walking to work past the Cenotaph the day Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot. (In October 2014, Cirillo, a member of Hamilton’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was on ceremonial guard duty at Ottawa’s National War Memorial when he was gunned down by a man who was subsequently killed by Parliament Hill security personnel.)

She was one of the first people there. People who knew first aid were attending him. Well, she held his hand from her and talked to him. She told him over and over again, ‘You are loved, you must know you are loved; what you are doing for your country is so wonderful.’ And she just kept on talking to him as he died. I asked her ‘Why those words?’ And she said, ‘Because if it was my son who was dying, I would want someone to be holding his hand saying that.’

Of course, there’s all the interviews with people who do extraordinary things. There was a woman who knit sweaters for her chickens because they were cold, and a guy who came back to his hotel room and found it full of seagulls because he’d left a package of sausages on his desk from him.

And one of my favorites of all time was an interview with a grandpa who was told by his wife to go and pick up their grandson from school. And he did, he picked up the boy and brought him home, and put him in the living room in front of the TV and gave him a snack, and his wife said to him, ‘Who is that boy?’ Mayhem dream.

What are your thoughts on the state of journalism?

We’re led to believe and understand that we’re in a crisis of people not having trust in the mainstream media. I don’t know. But what I saw in Ottawa (during the blockade) this past three weeks was so revealing. What you saw was people who arrived by the thousands into the center of Ottawa, and a lot of journalists went down to try and talk to them, to ask, ‘What are you here for? Why are you here?’ and a large number of them refused to talk to the media. Or, in many cases, they would agree to it and someone would come along and say, ‘No, don’t talk to them, they’ll get it wrong, they’ll distort your message.’ They were told not to trust us. I heard that from a lot of other journalists as well.

What struck me is that here you have all these people, they have the eyes and ears of the world, this was an international story, they had captured the attention of the world. And yet very few of them got to say what they wanted to say, not because of us (media) but because they felt either they couldn’t trust us or they were told not to trust us.

And what happened then is that it opened up this space that was taken then by very few groups, some of them extremist, who claimed to speak for them. I suspect large numbers of the people in that protest in Ottawa would not have agreed with the things that (protest leaders) Pat King and Tamara Lich were saying. But they had surrendered their space, the stage that they had created, to these other people. They had an extraordinary opportunity to tell the world what was bothering them and… they went away without having been heard. It was a huge missed opportunity on their part.

There is an effort (in the mainstream media) to reach out and to hear what other people have to say. I think the media is evolving rapidly; the Toronto Star is, the CBC is, we’re trying to include a larger perspective. We recognize that we don’t have a broad enough perspective, and we’re not listening to a broad enough spectrum of society, and we’re changing that.

I think (the era of fake news) has shaken up our industry. I think that the fact-checking and rigor always was there, but it has really stepped up in the Trump years. I think all the big media organizations, like the Toronto Star, the CBC and the New York Times… I think it woke all of us about how absolutely clear we have to be with all our facts. Because, if there is all of that fake news and fake information out there, and we’re saying ‘They’re fake and we’re not,’ we have to be absolutely certain of every single thing we say.

It was a wake-up and I think… I’ve seen a tremendous resurgence of that rigor that I think was just beginning to get a bit slipshod.


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