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From dancing to deadlines

From dancing to deadlines

She once aspired to be a professional dancer, but today Nancy Wilson is one of Canada’s best-known newscasters. Was this a misstep or careful choreography?

Alumni spotlight 1970s

Nancy Wilson

As the anchor of CBC News: Today, veteran broadcaster Nancy Wilson, Arts’73, is one of Canadian television’s most familiar faces. She has hosted the midday newscast on the Newsworld channel since September 2001, along the way interviewing a Who’s-Who of Canadian politics, countless well-known entertainers, and such international figures as Prince Philip, Mikhail Gorbachev, François Mitterand, Helmut Kohl, and Jacques Chirac. 

Nancy became a “political junkie” when she took a Canadian politics course during her student years at Queen’s. Besides attending lectures by political scientist George Perlin, she had tutorials with economist (and former Queen’s principal) David Smith, LLD’94, and Tom Axworthy, MA’71, PhD’79. “I was bitten by the bug thanks to them,” she recalls.

However, after taking a non-credit course in dance in her final year at Queen’s, the Dunrobin, Ontario native spent nine months with a semi-pro dance troupe in Vancouver. That was long enough for her to conclude a career as a dancer might not be a wise choice after all. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” she explains. However she did begin thinking about the possibilities of a media career. Says Nancy, “I came round to thinking maybe I should knock on the doors of local newsrooms and ask if there were openings for enthusiastic pups.”

One dignitary who left Nancy steaming mad was Prince Philip …

With no media training or experience, Nancy found most news executives were unreceptive. There was one sympathetic radio news director, though, and he pointed her toward an entry-level job in northern B.C. “He said, ‘Terrace’. I thought he said Paris,” she laughs at the recollection, “and I told him my bags were packed.”

So north she went, joining a hybrid TV-radio station where there was a classic “you-do-everything” learning environment.

Nancy’s year in Terrace yielded the first sound-bites in a broadcasting career that has now spanned more than three decades. She went on to work as a reporter, host and anchor for such major news shows as CTV’s Canada AM, CJOH News in her native Ottawa, and as the Parliament Hill bureau of Global News.

She joined the CBC in 1989 when producer Mark Starowicz recruited her for the network’s documentary unit. Her work on CBC-TV’s nightly program The Journal included in-depth documentary segments on such topics as the origins of the Mohawk Warrior Society and on Medicare.

Accompanied by her husband (whom she has since divorced) and six-year-old daughter, Caitlin, in 1991 Nancy moved to Calgary. There she joined Newsworld as the anchor of its prime-time flagship program, This Country. “I thought of it as an adventure, professionally and life-wise,” she says. 

Following a two-year stay in Alberta that included plenty of skiing, Nancy returned to Toronto, where she has hosted a succession of programs for Newsworld. Asked to choose her “most exciting broadcasting experience” to date, Nancy picks the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, when Simon Whitfield won the triathlon – Canada’s first gold medal.

Her favourite political interviews have been with former Reform Party leader Preston Manning – “You may not agree with everything he says, but he was an incredibly intelligent, thoughtful politician” – and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom she talked when he visited Calgary in 1992. “He was interesting to meet, but because we had to talk through an interpreter, it was harder to develop a rapport with him.”

Prince Philip was one dignitary who left Nancy steaming mad when he appeared on Canada A.M. in 1987 to promote one of his pet causes, the World Wildlife Federation. “He slapped my soundman’s hand when he went to pin the microphone on his tie. Then he was numbingly boring, refusing to give a straightforward answer to even the most innocuous question.” The interview done, His Royal Highness said, “I hope that was okay?” Nancy retorted, “You must be joking!”

She finds her toughest assignments are anchoring the reporting of “a disaster in the making”, such as 9/11 or last December’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. “Professionally, it’s hugely demanding, because you’re never quite sure what’s coming next,” she says. 

None of this is quite what she had in mind as a career during her student days at Queen’s or during her brief stint as a would-be dancer. But she’s not complaining about where life has taken her. Says Nancy, “I’m endlessly intrigued with being part of a venture that has such a rapid-response capacity to cover the news.”

[Queen's Alumni Review 2009-2 cover]