I was but a youngster when the anti-seal hunt movement got its start, but my Dad, Ken Meeker, was in full career flight and covering the story as a reporter with CBC Here & Now. He is and will always be Dad, but for now I will call him Ken. Knowing that he is always good for a story – and having already heard some good ones over the supper table – I interviewed Ken about the seal hunt.
He went to the front twice, in 1977 and ’78, when St. Anthony was alive with crowds of protesters, fishermen, DFO types, police, media and a few movie stars as well. He was there when Brigit Bardot showed up, propelling the seal hunt to international headlines, but didn’t see a lot of the French bombshell.
“I saw her when she arrived in St. Anthony, but never got too close to her. They snuck her up to the ice on their own helicopters and had her picture taken with a seal, then brought her back to Blanc Sablon on the Quebec side. The camera crew went over there to cover her news conference but I didn’t bother going – I was busy trying to get my film out of there and back to St. John’s.”
Ken had a closer encounter with actress Pamela Sue Martin, star of the Nancy Drew Mysteries and another famous protester to visit the front. He interviewed the starlet one particularly cold day.
“We were interviewing Pamela Sue down by the waterfront and it was a bright clear day but very cold. I was shooting my own movies of her, and got my footage of sound man Kevin Hanlon blushing as he reached up underneath her sweater to put the microphone on! I always carried these two little airline bottles of rum in my parka pocket. It got me out of jams and came in useful many times. Pamela Sue was obviously very cold so, after the interview was over, I pulled out the little bottle and asked if she would like a drink. She said ‘Oh yes, would I!’ and I got a shot of her sipping down the little airline bottle of rum. She drank it straight.”
These days, such footage would have been a big part of the story. But tabloid TV didn’t exist back then, and Ken was too courteous to use the footage on the air.
But Ken’s most interesting celebrity encounter happened that same year, with two American congressmen – Leo Ryan and James Jeffords – who were in St. Anthony to observe the hunt.
“They arrived in the late afternoon,” Ken said. “I had sent the camera man out to get their arrival on film, and when he came back he said they were beat out. They had been on four different flights just to get there from where they started. When they got to the motel, whatever room they had booked wasn’t ready and I just happened to be walking through the lobby, so I said ‘Hey guys, my room is right there and I’m going down to get supper now, so go in and get yourselves settled down, get sorted out and there’s a bottle of Bacardi on the table, and when your room is ready, fine.’ They said thanks very much and went in. They were still there when I got back after supper. Their room still wasn’t ready for them because the place was really blocked off. So I went in and spent some time talking with them, and they knocked off three quarters of the bottle of Bacardi. Jackie Spiers was there, his Executive Assistant, and she promised to replace the bottle – but they never did.”
Just a few months later, congressman Leo Ryan was in Jonestown, Guyana to investigate Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple religious cult. Ryan’s visit was likely the spark that caused Jones to explode and order the mass suicide and murder of 913 people. Leo Ryan was shot and killed while trying to board his airplane. Jackie Spiers was also shot, but survived by ‘playing dead’.
The protesters were well known for their propaganda, Ken said, but the folks at Fisheries and Oceans were also capable of stretching the truth a little.
“The DFO people told us that as soon as you approach these seals, the mothers would abandon their pups and go down through a hole in the ice. They let us go out on the ice a day before the hunt opened, and I had my camera with me. There was a little seal pup and we were shooting film of this great big mother harp seal. But on the way out there in the helicopter, it was so damn cold and my hands so numb that I dropped the camera on the floor and screwed up my vewfinder. So I could just see shapes but no detail. I was down on my knees shooting this mother harp seal and all of a sudden the guys started yelling ‘Meeker look out’ and here she was coming straight at me. And I got it on film, for a few seconds, before I got the hell out of there. She was huge and she was coming after me. Discretion was the better part of being a good cameraman, believe me!”
One of the most memorable encounters between sealers and protesters happened at the Loon Motel, where protest leader Brian Davies was stationed with a small squadron of helicopters.
“On this day, about 50 or 60 fishermen tried to block Brian Davies from getting to his helicopters. In fact, a couple of them threw snowballs at Davies on the way out. The Mounties were there, and so were two of the American networks, as well as the French, German and other networks. Two Mounties would grab one fishermen and carry him off. The Mounties were mostly from local detachments and knew each other, so when they carried them away they were talking to each other in a friendly way. And the Americans were shaking their heads. Later on, the Americans were telling me that they were waiting for the blood to be spilled. In the States, they said, the truncheons would have been out.”
This blog gives me a great excuse to call my dad at random and get him reminiscing about major stories he has covered, and the people he has interviewed. Stay tuned for more. And if you’d like to watch some fascinating footage from that same Pamela Sue Martin and Leo Ryan trip, visit the CBC archive.