ICG email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-06-15 published
Radio pioneer built network
He founded Ontario's first French-language radio station in 1951 when his local station denied francophones airtime.
By Randy RAY Special to The Globe and Mail Monday, June 16, 2003 - Page R7
He started in business as a butcher, and later was a soldier and a hotelier, but Conrad LAVIGNE's first love was show business. Whether he was operating the television stations in Northern Ontario that became the largest privately owned television broadcast system in the world, appearing at the staid proceedings of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or at conventions, Mr. LAVIGNE often delighted those within earshot with jokes, stories, witty comments -- even singing.
Like the time he sang grace during the annual meeting of the Association for French Language Broadcasters in the 1970s.
"Members of the head table, including myself and Premier Bill DAVIS, walked into the room and stood behind our chairs," recalls Pierre JUNEAU, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission from 1968 to 1975.
"Mr. LAVIGNE, who was chairman of the French-language broadcasters group, began singing grace in French, and with his very strong voice. People felt sort of strange with this."
When he was done, Mr. LAVIGNE looked at Premier DAVIS and quipped: "Well, Mr. Premier, this is to show you that when you are chairman, you can do whatever you like."
J. Lyman POTTS, former vice-president of Standard Broadcasting, remembers the time in the early 1960s when Mr. LAVIGNE appeared before the Board of Broadcast Governors -- predecessor of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission -- in support of a radio or television station licensing application.
At the beginning of his presentation, Mr. LAVIGNE expressed his regrets that Board of Broadcast Governors member Bernard GOULET had died at few days earlier. Then, without skipping a beat, he looked toward the ceiling and said: "If Bernie were here today, I think he would vote for my application."
"It broke up the room," says Mr. POTTS. "If ever a meeting got dull he'd liven things up. It was a joy to find him at meetings. He was a unique personality."
Mr. LAVIGNE, who was born in the small town of Chénéville, Quebec, on November 2, 1916, and raised in Cochrane, Ontario, died in Timmins, Ontario on April 16 following a lengthy battle with emphysema. He was 86.
Friends, family and business associates say Mr. LAVIGNE had show business in his blood in his late teens. On many evenings, the young man who moved to Timmins from Cochrane at age 18 to open a small grocery store and butcher shop with his uncle would act in plays in the hall of a local church. But he didn't get into the entertainment business in a big way until after he helped Canada's war effort, got married and started his life as an entrepreneur in the hotel business.
In 1942, he sold his butcher shop and enlisted in the Canadian infantry. He became a commando training officer while stationed at Vernon, British Columbia, and in 1944 headed overseas. While on a furlough from Vernon he returned to Timmins and married Jeanne CANIE. The couple raised seven children.
Mr. LAVIGNE returned to Canada in 1946 and bought the Prince George Hotel in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, which at the time was a booming gold-mining town. He sold the business in 1950.
He entered the world of media and entertainment by founding CFCL, the first French-language radio station in Ontario in 1951, in what, essentially, was his way of ensuring the area's large French-speaking population had a voice in the North.
Michelle DE COURVILLE NICOL of Ottawa said her father launched the station after a group of francophones that he was part of in Kirkland Lake was told by the manager of an English-language radio station that they would no longer be given regular air time to discuss issues of interest to French people.
"He was very proud of being a francophone," says Ms. DE COURVILLE NICOL. " When he was told that his compatriots would no longer be welcome on the local station he said, 'Oh, ya!' and got the idea of starting a French-language radio station. He moved to Timmins, applied for a licence and got it."
CFCL soon attracted a faithful audience, especially in Northwestern Quebec, where it could be heard more clearly than French stations in Montreal.
In a 1988 interview with Northern Ontario Business, Mr. LAVIGNE remembered the time he hired a relative unknown named Stompin' Tom CONNORS to perform live on CFCL. The radio station was located above a jewellery store and the pounding from Mr. CONNORS's size-11 boots caused china to fall off the shelves in the store below.
Radio was his first love until the mid-1950s when, on a business trip to southern Ontario, he saw his first television broadcast, on WHAM from Rochester, New York He fell for the concept of television and he and an engineer friend drove to Rochester and learned everything they could about the magic medium of television.
Back in Timmins, Mr. LAVIGNE bought a hill in the north end of the town, named it Mont Sacré-Coeur, built a road to the foot of his hill, and began blasting rock and working in earnest to put a television station on the air. By 1956, CFCL-television was a reality.
"There was always the fear of failure because of the sparse population," Mr. LAVIGNE said at the time. "But we had an engineer with us named Roch DEMERS, who later became president of Telemedia, and together we started putting up rebroadcasting stations between 1957 and 1962."
Kapuskasing's rebroadcasting station was the first such facility in Canada, and it added another portion of the sparsely populated northeastern Ontario market to the growing station's network. Eventually, Mr. LAVIGNE built rebroadcasting stations in Chapleau and Moosonee, Ontario and Malartic, Quebec, and by the time expansion was completed, CFCL-television served 1.5 million people. Eventually, he built the station into the world's largest privately owned system.
For many years he appeared on a very popular CFCL program known as the President's Corner, during which he would sit on camera in a comfortable chair and read and respond to letters from viewers.
Between 1962 and 1970, Mr. LAVIGNE's television network entered the world of high technology with its own microwave network. Mr. LAVIGNE had the northeastern Ontario television market virtually all to himself for about 20 years until the Canadian Television Network (CTV) arrived on the scene. He reacted by building new stations in North Bay and Sudbury with a rebroadcasting station in Elliot Lake to serve Manitoulin Island. Expansion continued in 1976 with the purchase of a bankrupt television station in Pembroke, in the Ottawa Valley. Eventually, Mr. LAVIGNE's private network stretched from Moosonee to Ottawa, and from Hearst to Mattagami, Quebec
"When we first started we had the market all to ourselves," he told Northern Ontario Business. "We had 20 hours a week of local programming, and it was beautiful. We gave the North a unified voice. One time, during a forest fire near Chapleau, our messages arranged for accommodations for 1,000 people in Timmins."
Mr. LAVIGNE divested himself of his broadcasting holdings in 1980, primarily because he was refused permission to operate a cable television service in the North. He remained a director of Mid-Canada Television, the network that grew from his little Timmins station in 1956, and was chairman of the board of Northern Telephone Ltd. For a number of years, he served on the board of the National Bank of Canada, and for 10 years served on the board of ICG Utilities (formerly Inter City Gas.)
His life after broadcasting also included 20 years as a property developer in the Timmins area.
"He was always a physically active person," says Ms. DE COURVILLE NICOL. "In the years he was setting up his television stations he would often go out with the engineers. He was not as happy sitting behind his desk."
Mr. LAVIGNE was elected to the Canadian Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1990. His wife died in 1995. He leaves Ms. DE COURVILLE NICOL and six other children, Marc, Andrée, Nicole, Jean-Luc, Pierre and Marie-France.
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