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Friday, March 6, 2015

Author David Halton visits Pincher Creek

David Halton speaking at Matthew Halton High School
T. Lucas photos

Toni Lucas

Author and journalist David Halton was in Pincher Creek on Thursday, March 5 to showcase his new book “Dispatches from the Front: Matthew Halton, Canada’s Voice at War”. Fittingly, he gave a public presentation at Matthew Halton High School, which was named after his father, after a more intimate reception held at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village (KBPV). He also addressed the students of Matthew Halton High School on Friday, March 6.

Signing books for young readers Cole and Aurora at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village.
David is third cousin to Cole and Aurora.*
*Correction for his name.
The book covers the life of Matthew Halton from his early years in Pincher Creek, to being a husband, father, and world-recognized foreign correspondent. Close to 250 people attended the public presentation and book signing, approximately 35 were at the KBPV event, and the entire student body was at the school presentation. David Halton told fascinating stories about his father's career and life, answered questions at the end, and signed books for a lineup that took up most of the Hawks Nest public space after the public presentation.

Town Councillor Tammy Rubbelke gets her copy signed
David Halton and Town Councillor Doug Thornton
"It's the whole thing, beginning to end, that's whole story," said David about the book. "The whole idea is to awaken interest in a person that a lot of Canadians have forgotten about. I hope the book succeeds in getting people energized and aware of who he was." 

David was only 16 years old when his father passed away at the age of 52, but remembers dignitaries, veterans, and other journalists in the house. "I could sense his intense enthusiasm for his work, and I think some of that wore off on me. Ten years later, I got into journalism myself." Matthew Halton was born in Pincher Creek in 1904. David said "Pincher Creek has always meant a huge amount to my family." Matthew's father worked in town "as the honey-dip man", David told the gently giggling crowd. The term was a polite way of saying he emptied the outhouses. He became known as Shithouse Halton, not the easiest moniker for Matthew to live downwind of. He was teased mercilessly as Shithouse Halton's son.

David Green officiating at David Halton's MHHS event
Having a flair for writing, Matthew pursued journalism. David told of how his father, then a young man, was on a dull, but high profile assignment in 1932 with the Toronto Daily Star. "All the leaders of the Empire were there." The subject of the conference was to discuss ways of salvaging the terrible state of their economies in the middle of the great depression. Matthew was there as a junior cub reporter on a junket to Ottawa to do minor errands for his five more senior colleagues, and perhaps a feature article or two of his own. "They soon realized that the actual agenda for the conference was crashingly boring."  Matthew Halton took the reins of his own destiny and submitted a satirical look at the key players at this 3 week conference identifying each as a character out of 'Alice in Wonderland'. This spiced up what would have been a dry but important article dealing with trade tariffs, elevating it to front page status, with humour. "The managing editor starts to read it, chuckles, turns to the news editor and says 'Print it, front page, byline." The editor and publisher enjoyed the story enough to assign a daily 'Alice in Wonderland' parody piece for every day of the conference. Three weeks later Matthew became the London correspondent. "It was an extraordinarily fast promotion," explained David.

In 1933 Matthew Halton was in pre-Second World War Berlin. "Here he finds himself at the epicentre of what will be the biggest story of the 20th century." In the 1930s Matthew was sending reports from Germany that chronicled prejudice toward Jewish citizens, the training of youth militias, and other concerns about Hitler's rise in power and the political climate of the time. This was taken as 'sensationalism and warmongering' by many of  his colleagues, who were impressed with how Hitler was taking charge, building stability, and a national identity for a Germany struggling to recover from losing the First World War. Halton bore witness and reported on tens of thousands of citizens gathering and shouting 'Sieg Heil', with thousands of S.S. uniformed men parading down the avenue across from Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. David recounted that his father was repelled and fascinated as SS troupes gathered outside of the French embassy and sang a song that translated as 'Victoriously, we will smash France'. Schoolchildren were carrying swastika flags and chanting 'The Jews must be destroyed'. "It was a chilling, and sinister atmosphere," painted by both of the Haltons. Matthew, for the readers of the 1930s, and David, explaining the time and place his father was reporting on.

Matthew wrote 30 comprehensive pieces that later became known as 'The German Series', while continuing to experience a lot of derision from his colleagues with his supposed jaundiced perception of Adolf Hitler. "He was very alone in taking this stand, in sounding the alarm about Nazi Germany at this time."

As a WWII foreign war correspondent for the CBC, Halton became “The voice of Canada at war.” His voice, speaking of what was happening on foreign soil, was a touchstone for many Canadians hungry for news and understanding. David Halton admitted that his father's flair, and that of many of the journalists during the war, made them "cheerleaders for the Allied cause", rather than offering a dispassionate and unbiased points of view. Even so, Matthew Halton was considered to be one of the top five war corespondents for WWII.

David Halton admitted there were surprises in store for him when he started to research the book. He found out that his father had a torrid four day romance with a beautiful female french foreign resistance fighter who had a way with silk shirts and machine guns. He found out about this while conducting research in historical archives. An odd place to discover a whole new dynamic to your family history.

David Halton and plaque at Matthew Halton School commemorating his father
The plaque outside of  Matthew Halton's namesake school in Pincher Creek bears a quote from him:  'Idealism is the only realism'.  David was asked about this. "He was a very idealistic man," he said. He cautioned that he did not know exactly what his father was thinking at the time. "I think in some degree that 'idealism is the only realism' was a call to people to aspire to their better ideas."

David Halton is a well respected journalist in his own right. He also worked for CBC as a foreign correspondent, in Paris, Moscow, London, and Washington, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. David was the CBC’s chief political correspondent in Ottawa during the 1980s. "I have had a wonderful career." He talked about the changes that have occurred in journalism since his father's day, when a 'hot' story would be telegraphed in, and less urgent stories would be mailed. The immediacy of up to the minute reporting wasn't common because it was prohibitively expensive. "You did a more analytical style of journalism. Now the emphasis is on immediacy." 

"A reporter's prime duty is to bear witness, to talk to people, to provide content."  He explained that in the present a journalist is under pressure not only to write the story accurately and portray it well and fully, but also to provide content for websites and social media.  "In that sense, I think there is a downside. The internet has drained resources from newspapers, from television, and from radio." 

"There are now two thirds fewer Canadian foreign correspondents than there were 20 years ago.  When you think on it, Canadian correspondents should be our eyes and ears on the world."

David said that he could have written this book 20 or 30 years ago and it would have been a best seller. One of the reasons he chose to put it out now was that his father's name is fading into history. That is true in that the name Matthew Halton was once known in most Canadian homes, and now the young journalists that David gives classes to are not always familiar with it.  Pincher Creek obviously remembers its famous son, and the large and enthusiastic turnout at David Halton's public event testifies to that.

Postscript: David Halton demonstrated a good sense of humour and a generosity of spirit, being willing to pose with a hockey jersey once he knew that Pincher Creek was in the running for the Kraft Hockeyville contest. He laughed, agreed, and said "I love hockey." He allowed a photo opportunity facilitated by Donna Elliott, who brought one of her more treasured jerseys, a Calgary Flames jersey signed by Lanny MacDonald.

Donna Elliott and David Halton with Flames jersey signed by Lanny McDonald

KBPV Curator Farley S. Wuth presented David with a copy of the recently revised Pincher Creek area history 'Prairie Grass to Mountain Pass'

Canyon School teacher Cody Johnson with copies of Matthew and David Halton's books
Farley S. Wuth and David Halton
Melissa and Russ Friesen get their copy signed as KBPV's Pauline Breeze looks on

MD Councillor Fred Schoening gets his copy signed

Richard and Steven Brown get their copy signed
David Halton and Town Councillor Wayne Elliott

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