Canadian broadcasting legend Valerie Pringle is excited to be hosting a PBS television show for the first time since 2009.
Pringle takes the helm as the new host of the 30-minute interview show Canada Files this weekend. Her debut episode of the program’s fourth season, which sees her speaking with 13 famous and accomplished Canadians, airs March 19 on the U.S. public broadcaster’s Buffalo outlet, WNED.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Pringle’s start in broadcasting at Toronto radio station CFRB while still a university student. In 1984, she left radio to be one of the original hosts of CBC Television’s Midday. Eight years later she jumped to CTV as co-host of Canada AM.
Pringle became one of the most trusted and revered broadcasters in Canada, hosting much of CTV’s special events programming, including the network’s coverage of the 1993 election and 1995’s Quebec referendum, as well as the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
Pringle remained with Canada AM until 2001, then went on to host a travel show called Valerie Pringle Has Left the Building. She also produced documentary specials for Discovery Channel Canada, and hosted the Canadian edition of Antiques Roadshow on CBC.
Since her last project, a documentary on the Great Lakes, fell through in 2009, the Member of the Order of Canada (2006) had shifted gears to the nonprofit sector. She was instrumental in the completion of the Trans Canada Trail as one of the country’s major Canada 150 projects. Local supporters of the Laura Secord Trail will remember Pringle’s involvement in that leg of the bigger route.
Her other passion became advocating for mental health through her position on the board of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Pringle is currently the chair of that board.
“I felt lucky to be working on two things I felt really passionate about,” says Pringle from the historic Niagara-on-the-Lake home she has shared with her husband, Andy, for 15 years. “I didn’t miss broadcasting. I had done some amazing stuff and I had a great run.”
But last March, her friend, veteran Toronto broadcaster Jim Deeks, contacted her. He had created Canada Files and had been hosting it for three years. Deeks wanted to retire and asked Valerie to take his place. At first she was hesitant. But Andy encouraged her to give it a go, and she came around after speaking with a longtime friend and colleague who was a member of the same book club.
“I talked to Jennifer Scott, who I worked with at Midday,” says Pringle. “I needed a producer who was super-organized. She agreed to come onboard, and that helped me make up my mind.“
Pringle sees Canada Files as a throwback to old-school broadcasting.
“A half hour interview with fabulous people,” marvels Pringle in her home office. “This just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s my kind of thing. I don’t like reality TV, or chat-chat TV where everyone is talking over one another.”
She was given complete control of the show. Pringle picks the interviews she wants, chooses her own questions and supervises the editing process.
Her list of guests for the coming weeks is fascinating. It includes musicians and authors, an architect and an actor, a former Governor General, an astronaut, a United Nations chief prosecutor, the former governor of the Bank of Canada and more.
“I just started making lists,” says Pringle about how she chose her subjects. “There were some like Malcolm Gladwell and Martin Short that I tried to get, but they couldn’t do it. Sarah Polley is another one, but once we got to Christmas I thought it would be best to wait until after Oscar season. Maybe next year.”
Most of the episodes were shot in WNED’s condo in Toronto, where the Pringles have a second home. Others were shot on location in Ottawa, Los Angeles and New York City.
Sunday’s first episode features Toronto-born author Louise Penny, who bares her soul to Pringle.
“She talks about her alcoholism, and how she really wanted to end her own life in her early 30s,” Pringle says. “What turned her life around was getting sober and finding the love of her life, who supported her and got her going in her amazing career as a writer.”
Olympic medalist Clara Hughes is just as open and honest in a later episode speaking about her dysfunctional family and her tough childhood.
Pringle was amazed at how historian and Oxford professor Margaret MacMillan was so clear and precise with her answers during their meeting.
“She is so smart, such a great teacher,” Pringle says. “You can tell she’s been teaching for years, she’s so clear in what she says. And (architect) Moshe Safdie was fabulous talking about his frustration with America and the way things are built here, and the success he’s had in Singapore.”
Mark Carney tells Pringle in episode nine how his new role as UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance is even more challenging than his previous jobs as governor of the Bank of Canada and then the Bank of England.
In episode seven Pringle reunites with former Governor General Michaelle Jean, who presented the Windsor native with her Order of Canada and did an event for the Trans Canada Trail.
“She tells this great story about (U.S. President Barack) Obama coming to Canada,” says Pringle. “He came down the stairs from Air Force One and asked her to imagine that the U.S. and Canadian Commanders in Chief, both of African descent, meeting at this time. What a great story.”
Randy Bachman’s book Vinyl Tap Stories sits next to Pringle at her desk. She’s been researching the former member of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s life in preparation for one of two Canada Files episodes that have yet to be shot. The other features Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation and a tireless advocate for Indigenous children in Canada.
Pringle admits she felt a bit nervous returning to the studio to shoot her first interview, which was with astronaut Roberta Bondar, for episode five.
“But it quickly felt so normal,” she laughs. “It’s like Malcolm Gladwell says, about the 10,000 hours. When it came to the research, the interview structure, how I was going to do this, I totally knew how to do this. Once I was sitting in the chair it was such a wonderful feeling.”
Pringle strongly believes in the importance of being prepared, but not so prepared that she doesn’t let the conversation flow naturally.
“It takes a long time and a lot of skill to get that comfortable,” she says. “You need to have a game plan, a structure, you need to know a lot about that person, but you have to let the conversation begin and let it take you where it takes you.”
Case in point — her episode with Eugene Levy (episode six) progresses like a chat in Valerie’s living room. And after almost 50 years of doing this sort of thing, Pringle can still find and express wonder in hearing some of Levy’s fascinating stories.
When it is suggested that Pringle herself is a famous Canadian who may deserve to be a guest on her own program, she sloughs that theory off quickly. And she says she doesn’t often get recognized while out and about in NOTL.
“My days of being recognizable are long over,” she laughs. “I’ve been off daily TV since 2001. Some people might say my voice is sort of familiar, if anything. This is a low-key place, and we love being in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s heavenly.”
PBS will be posting her Canada Files segments on their website and YouTube channel, but Pringle can’t wait to see it broadcast on her television Sunday night.
“I know for many people the only way they’ll see these is to look online,” she admits. “And the fact that they can live on and be accessible is wonderful to me. But there’s nothing like sitting there watching it for the first time.”
Though the mother of three and grandmother of five is thoroughly enjoying her return to television and is looking forward to working on her wishlist for season five, she has no desire to look for other on-air opportunities.
“Canada Files is perfect,” she says. “It’s long interviews with really terrific people, and a chance to really explore these things and get to know them. This kind of thing doesn’t happen on television anymore. The long-form interview on television has gone the way of the dodo. This is exactly what I love to do.”
The first episode of season four of Canada Files airs on PBS Sunday night at 6 p.m.