In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
In March of this year, CBC radio rebroadcast a 40-year-old episode of As It Happens, a nightly news show, which has been running for almost 50 years.
The episode that day aired an interview that took place in March 1977 between the show’s iconic co-host, the late Barbara Frum, and a gunman who had taken 11 people hostage at a Toronto bank.
Frum called the gunman as the situation was unfolding. She kept him calm, asking him what he wanted and why. He even let her speak to a hostage. Later she connected the gunman to a police officer and their conversation was also heard live.
It was a gripping piece of radio orchestrated by a journalist who was known for being incisive, fearless, and fair. Frum was not able to get the gunman to relinquish the hostages that night, but the whole matter was peacefully resolved the next day.
That broadcast was one of Frum’s many legendary interviews that garnered her fans across the country.
From 1971 until 1981, she was the co-host of As It Happens. Her curiosity, her pioneering interviewing style, her empathy and humour made her a household name across Canada.
In 1982, Frum became the founding co-host of The Journal, CBC television’s flagship current affairs show. A year later Frum was the show’s sole host, a job she held until her death from complications of leukemia in 1992.
Frum, nee Barbara Rosberg was born in 1937 in Niagara Falls, N.Y. She was the oldest of Harold Rosberg’s and Florence Hirschowitz Rosberg’s three children.
Frum grew up across the river in Niagara Falls, Ont., where her father owned Rosberg’s Department Store.
She studied history at the University of Toronto. At the age of 19 she married Toronto dentist Murray Frum, who later became a real estate developer. The couple had three children: David, Linda and Matthew.
David, who is based in Washington, D.C., is an author, writer, and well-known Conservative commentator on American politics. He is also a senior editor at the Atlantic.
Linda is also an author and journalist. She has been a Conservative member of the Senate of Canada since 2009.
Matthew, a First Nation-born child was adopted by the Frums. He later reconnected with his birth parents.
After graduating from the University of Toronto, Frum started out as a print journalist, writing for such publications as the Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, and Saturday Night. She joined the CBC in 1971. As It Happens basically consisted of interviews conducted on the phone with newsmakers and other persons of interest.
Frum had many memorable interviews. In 1975 Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, a Charles Manson follower and eco-terrorist, was arrested after a failed assassination attempt on then U.S. president Gerald Ford.
After Fromme’s arrest, Frum had what she described as a very upsetting interview with Fromme’s roommate, Sandra Good.
But there were many conversations with levity as well. Frum interviewed Cookie Monster of Sesame Street fame and she had a memorable phone call with a cabbage farmer in England who was very hard of hearing. His responses to Frum’s questions were apparently so incoherent that by the end of the call she was shouting her questions.
The format of The Journal, an hour-long, news magazine included field reports, short documentaries, public forums, debates, business, sports, and arts and science news, but the centrepiece of the show was Frum’s airtime.
‘Frum was a Canadian original and a national celebrity’
Her interviews with such dignitaries as British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and South African president, Nelson Mandela, and celebrities like Paul McCartney, and Shirley MacLaine attracted many viewers. The nightly program became one of the most popular Canadian television shows.
Frum was a Canadian original and a national celebrity. In fact, Canadian Sesame Street created a Muppet in her image, named Barbara Plum. She was the news anchor of the show, The Notebook.
Frum also had a part in the Canadian animated series, The Racoons. She played a reporter named Barbara LaFrum.
She was often parodied on the television series, CODCO. Actor Greg Malone regularly impersonated her. She and Malone, who appeared in drag as Frum, even presented a Gemini Award together.
Frum was diagnosed with leukemia in 1974, but only a small circle of close family and friends knew about her illness. Consequently her death in 1992 was a big shock to the nation. She was only 54 when she died.
She was such a beloved national figure that her funeral was actually broadcast on CBC television. There were also television and radio retrospectives on her life.
Frum was given many honours during her lifetime and posthumously. She received four Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) Awards, she won the National Press Club of Canada Award for Outstanding Contribution to Canadian Journalism in 1975, and she was named to the Order of Canada in 1979.
When CBC moved into its current broadcasting facility on Front Street, the corporation named the atrium of the building after Frum. Her image was also in the foreground of a Canadian stamp that honoured the CBC in 1999.
A Toronto Public Library branch in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood was named the Barbara Frum Library. Her husband donated funds so that the library at 20 Covington Road could be named in honour of his late wife.