This is a continuing story of a political reporter paying gambling debts to a politician and, even worse, a politician paying gambling debts to the reporter. In today’s frenzied media search for scandal it might rate a front page tabloid screamer: “GAME FIXED? PRIME MINISTER AND REPORTER INVOLVED IN GREY CUP BETTING.”
Forty years ago, it rated only amusement.
It all started in Edmonton in 1964 where I had sojourned briefly as senior political reporter for the Edmonton Journal. I had been dispatched one bitter cold November day to the wilds of Lloydminster where I was to confront Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, in town to deliver a speech, and demand answers on “drug dealer Lucien Rivard.”
Back in Ottawa, Erik Nielsen, Conservative MP for Yukon, was asking questions in Parliament about the organized crime man Rivard who had been jailed to await extradition to the United States. One evening in March, Rivard had been allowed outside to “water the jail’s outdoor ice rink.” He had left the water running and just walked away.
Nielsen was now charging bribery was involved in Rivard’s escape. He was naming highly placed Liberals. The Journal’s intrepid reporter was on the way on the way to root out truth and justice.
I ventured into 14-below Lloydminster, the first reporter to get in the PM’s face since Yukon Erik thundered his Rivard accusations. Lester B’s response to my first questions on “The Rivard Affair” were clear and concise: “Well, as you know, I have been away from Ottawa for a few days and don’t have all the details. When I do I shall no doubt have something to say. But until I do I have a full report it would be unwise to make any comment, wouldn’t it?”
It was Prime Ministerial final. Disappointing for me – even more so for my editor – lusting for the full loaf of scandal we were being offered only honest crumbs.
This was on a Thursday evening just before Prime Minister Pearson returned east for a Saturday kick-off to the 1964 Grey Cup game in Toronto between the BC Lions and the Hamilton Tiger Cats. I wished the PM “a good kick” and asked for a winner. The Pearson grin flashed: “The east of course.”
“A dollar says you’re wrong”, I said. And we shook hands as a Lloydminster posse of suited sycophants gasped at the audacity of a reporter telling the PM he was wrong. They quietly escorted me to the door and I caught the train home stymied on Rivard, but with a happier story to follow.
Saturday came and went. BC won 34-24. In early December, to my great but pleasurable surprise I received a letter from the PM’s office with a cheque for $1 and a note dated December 8, 1964: “Dear Mr. Hume, I would not want you to think that I am not prompt in settling my sporting debts …”
It was the start of a series of high stake ($1) Grey Cup correspondence wagers between Lester B. and yours truly. I offer them here in detail for the first time, the final words on my exclusive expose of gambling press and politician.
By November 1965, I was out of the frozen north and reporting for the Victoria Times. I wrote the PM asking if he was ready to again gamble on the Hamilton-Winnipeg final.
He was and wrote on November 25th:
“Dear Mr. Hume: I have just received your letter and I am glad to take you up on the outcome of the Grey Cup. My dollar is on Hamilton, so be prepared to cut down on your Christmas shopping.”
Hamilton won 22-18. I sent my dollar, a nice new silver one, encased in clear plastic with a note that it could be used as a paperweight or a sharp cornered response to the Opposition. In his generous thank you “Mr. Hume” had become: “Dear Jim: Sharp corners or no, that is a very tempting weapon you sent me in payment of your wager! I shall try to control myself. With your abiding faith in the Lions, perhaps you will win next time. Thank you for the paper weight which I am using as a reminder of my ‘brilliant forecasting’, and for your good wishes which I heartily reciprocate.”
In November 1966, Saskatchewan and Ottawa Roughriders clashed in the Grey Cup in Vancouver. On November 18, he wrote accepting the annual $1 challenge: “Dear Jim it actually seems unfair to accept a bet on what appears to be almost a certainty … However, if you insist I accept your challenge.” Saskatchewan won 29-14. From the PM dated Nov. 30: “Dear Jim: Herewith the amount of my indebtedness to you. It was a great game even if Ottawa didn’t win.”
In 1967, I was traveling at bet-renewal time so we missed a year, which was good thing for me because in 1967 Hamilton beat Saskatchewan 24–1 in Ottawa – and silver dollars encased in plastic cost me around $5 plus postage. Then by Grey Cup time 1968 Lester B. was on his way to retirement from the PM’s office but the east won him a final dollar, this time paid by a $1 certified cheque!
April 19, 1968: “Dear Jim: I have been too long in replying … but you will know how hectic these days have been … I am happy to receive your ‘sporting debt’ of $1 which will augment my now diminished revenue … Thank you for your good wishes and warm regard.”
P. E. Trudeau replaced him. I wrote hoping to continue a tradition – and collect more PM cheques but Pierre didn’t gamble – not with commoners, anyway. There was no reply.
On December 27, 1972, Lester B. Pearson, Nobel Peace Prize winner, President of the 7th Session of the United Nations, the man who introduced social reforms and brought us our Maple Leaf flag, succumbed to cancer.
There hasn’t been a Grey Cup game since 1964 when I haven’t raised a glass to the politician with whom I used to gamble and share the best of east-west, reporter-politician respect and Canadian goodwill.
The 2019 Grey Cup will be no different in memory with happiness at having known and been friends with one of Canada’s great men. His notes and uncashed, personal account, $1 cheques hang framed in my room, the ink fading a little but not yet the memories.