Matthew Fisher, who has died aged 66, was a Canadian war correspondent from a bygone era, a globetrotting solo reporter of no fixed address who witnessed the greatest and most dire news events of the last half century, from the fall of communism through the campaigns against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
He died of liver failure after a short illness in Ottawa on Saturday, according to his brother, Tobias Fisher.
He had a knack, something between coincidence and luck, for being in the right place at the right time, from a journalist’s perspective. He was on vacation in Los Angeles in 1989 when freeways collapsed in an earthquake, and on vacation in India in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. He was in Washington, in a hotel near the Pentagon, when it was hit by a plane in the 9/11 terror attack. He covered his first war by accident as a teenager when fighting erupted in Mozambique’s war of independence in 1973, while he was nearby writing about safaris.
“The coincidences are almost too much, but he had this knack for being where the action was,” Tobias said.
He was also a professional, experienced not just in getting there, but in being first and well-prepared, as when he was in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
“Matt wanted to be where the action was. But he wasn’t foolhardy. He was very careful and very calculating about where he went, how he went,” Tobias said.
He joined the Globe and Mail in 1984, and was posted to Moscow in time to cover the fall of Eastern European Communism. He reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and the funeral of Yasser Arafat. In the 2003 Iraq War, he embedded with American Marines, was surrounded by Iraqi forces and saved by a massive aerial defence, before reporting from inside the ruined lair of Saddam Hussein’s secret police. He covered Princess Diana’s funeral in London in 1997, and a week later was in Calcutta for Mother Teresa’s funeral.
Fisher worked for the National Post, the Postmedia newspapers, the predecessor Canwest News Service, Sun Media, and others. He had lately joined the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and was looking forward to contesting the nomination process for Conservative Party of Canada candidate in Kanata-Carleton.
Fisher was famous for living out of a suitcase, staying in whichever hotel, motel, warship or army camp was closest to the action. He would plan his years ahead based on where the Canadian Forces were deployed, often showing up at major international news events as if by some strategic foreknowledge.
The Canadian Forces tweeted at the news of his death: “He went everywhere to tell the story.” Other prominient voices also took to social media to express their condolences. Bob Rae called him a “fearless journalist” on Twitter, and former prime minister Stephen Harper tweeted “Laureen and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Canadian journalist Matthew Fisher. A great writer with a passion for covering complex international issues, his voice will be missed.”
Olympics were also a focus of his reporting, especially the far flung ones, which are covered by Canadian newspapers much as wars are, often by the same people, who regarded Fisher as a legendary exemplar. An appreciation by journalist Geoffrey P. Johnston called him “the Last War Correspondent.”
Fisher reported from 170 countries (there are fewer than 200 in all) and 20 major conflicts. His final report in the National Post in 2017, was about violence in the Philippines, sent from from Iligan City, then under martial law. He observed that “there has long been a sense of dread that the savage urban war might at any moment spill over into a broader conflict.”
One day he was here, the next day he was there, always in his notably mismatched casual attire, often with a Montreal Canadiens cap, or a fur hat, unless circumstances required a helmet. Retired CBC correspondent Terry Milewski called Fisher “the man who’d been everywhere.”
Fisher’s stories would arrive in the various newsrooms he served at strange hours, on some other time zone. This created an allure among homebound reporters and editors, many of whom never met Fisher face to face, but knew his copy well, with those impossibly remote datelines, newsroom lingo for the place where a story is reported, stamped at the top.
Exotic ones are a point of professional pride, and few reporters collected more. Fisher had filed from aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and the HMCS Montreal, from Al Udeid and Kuwait City, Leeds and Karachi, Jerusalem and Ramallah, Jakarta and the North Pole. He once interviewed a kidnapper on a park bench in Caracas.
His brother Tobias said he asked a few weeks ago what was Matthew’s scariest moment?
“Being shot at, many times, many places,” was the answer.
Matthew and Tobias are two of five brothers. Their parents were veterans, which contributed to Fisher’s pride and affection for the Canadian Forces.
His father was the late Doug Fisher, MP for Port Arthur in the late 1950s and 60s, a librarian famous for defeating the Liberal “Minister of Everything” C.D. Howe, and later a political columnist with the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Sun, known as the dean of the parliamentary press gallery.
His late mother Barbara joined the Navy and served overseas in London as a coder/decoder for the convoys that crossed the Atlantic during World War II. In Canada, she worked as a librarian and English language teacher, and was involved in her husband’s political work.
He never married and had no children, but had some long-term relationships and remained especially close to all his family, Tobias said. He described Matthew’s life as lonely almost by professional necessity.
“He saw more horror than most soldiers, most paramedics, and I can’t say it didn’t affect him, but he didn’t let on that it affected him,” Tobias said.
Illness cut short Fisher’s political ambitions. “I want to join Erin O’Toole’s team to take down Justin Trudeau’s corrupt, entitled and incompetent government,” Fisher said in a press release last year for his campaign. “Like all of you, I am fed up with the scandals and embarrassments that constantly surround and engulf the prime minister.”
His campaign boasted the endorsement of retired Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, who was removed as vice chief of defence staff of Canada in 2017 over a breach of trust charge that was later dropped, and Norman fully exonerated and compensated, in an embarrassment for the Trudeau government.
Tobias was unable to confirm the truth of a National Post legend about Fisher being called up on vacation and sent urgently to Israel for an audience with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he only had beach attire with him, so his last-minute solution was to have a suit made, rather than show up in shorts. But Tobias said it sounds about right. His brother was a problem solver.
“Virtually any story you tell about Matthew is going to be true,” he said. “He was extraordinary.”