Feisty Senator Jim Munson fills big shoes

Journalist Munson in a shoving match with Pierre Trudeau, circa 1976

By Roger Smith

After 17 years in the Senate, which ended last month when he turned 75, it’s hardly a surprise that the Glebe’s Jim Munson left with a more positive view of the Upper Chamber than he had in his early days on Parliament Hill.

“As a reporter, I didn’t pay much attention to the Senate, it didn’t seem to be much use,” he said as we reminisced just days before he retired. “But I found there are lots of people in the Senate who are doing good things.”

Chosen causes

Munson’s chosen causes were the rights of children and people with disabilities, with a focus on the Special Olympics and autism. He sponsored bills to recognize World Autism Day and worked with the late Rabbi Reuven Bulka, to establish a Kindness Week in Canada. He hired a part-time assistant, Michael Trinque, who has Down syndrome. His main inspiration was his first son Timmy, who was born with Down syndrome and lived only nine months.

“It’s a constant, his spirit is always there,” says Munson, who imagines his son as a Special Olympian had he lived longer. “When I see the face of a Special Olympics athlete, I see the face of Timmy. With that face over my shoulder, it’s a guiding force that has kept moving me.”


The diminutive, five-foot-four Munson, best known to neighbourhood kids as Big Jim and to friends as Jimmy, was officially the senator for Ottawa-Rideau Canal – he often biked or walked to work along the canal from his home on Monkland Avenue. Some may remember him better as a reporter with CTV, hounding politicians, covering wars and revolutions.

“I was totally involved in my work as a reporter,” he says. “I loved the camaraderie, I loved the chase, I loved every minute of it.”

Full disclosure: Jimmy is my close friend, a hockey teammate and golf partner. We did two stints together in Ottawa with posts abroad in between – first, him to London and me to China, then we swapped jobs. During the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, I went back to Beijing to help him out, and we dodged bullets, tanks and undercover thugs together on the night of the massacre. I chirp him about his size and his Senate perks and pension but never question his big heart.

After growing up in northern New Brunswick, the son of a United Church minister, Munson landed his first job at 19 at a private radio station in Yarmouth, N.S. for $36 a week. He eventually worked his way to Ottawa, first in radio, then into television. Along the way, he married his wife Ginette and they had two more boys after Timmy – Jamie, now a journalist, and Claude, a musician.

Journalist Jim Munson reporting from a war zone

In those days, Munson was a long-haired, bearded hell-raiser. What he lacked in height, he made up for in feistiness – that was on display during his famous, on-camera shoving match with Pierre Trudeau. His edge helped him thrive. Munson covered half a dozen federal elections, the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, Tiananmen Square. He reported from trouble spots like Beirut, Northern Ireland, North Korea, Tibet. I will never forget his on-camera at Indira Gandhi’s funeral – as Jim talked into the camera, the outline of Gandhi’s burning body was clearly visible on the funeral pyre just behind him.

In 2001, his 22 years at CTV came to an unceremonious end. My phone rang just after 7 a.m. It was Jim, in tears. Our new boss had summoned him to a downtown hotel room and fired him. No reason given. I rushed to his house to console him, but he was inconsolable.

“I was an emotional mess,” he says. “I’d walk my dog along the canal and say, ‘What did I do wrong? How did this happen to me?’ When it ended so abruptly, I was lost. Without the strength of Ginette and my boys, I don’t know if I would have made it.”

Political life

But Munson caught the eye of Jean Chretien. The “little guy from Shawinigan” had a soft spot for the “little guy from New Brunswick” – in 2002, Munson started work in the Prime Minister’s Office and ended up as director of communications. Going to what journalists call “the dark side” led to what Munson calls “an arena of enlightenment.” Working for Chretien, he says, was “the greatest honour of my life. He gave me back a life I thought I had lost. He gave me purpose.”

As Chretien’s time in office wound down, he offered Munson diplomatic postings in Singapore and the U.S. Each time, he said no because he didn’t want to leave behind his widowed mother. Don’t worry about me he told the prime minister, I’ll be fine. Finally, on their last flight together, Chretien summoned him to the front of the plane and asked, “So Jimmy, how about the Senate?” As Munson recalls, “I said yes before he even finished the question.”

When senators paid final tributes to Munson – “a giant of a man,” one colleague called him – they also praised Ginette, his chief counsel through 54 years of marriage. “I always say jokingly that I’m the eye candy and Ginette’s the brain,” he says. “She grounds me.” The Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance, which they helped to found, has established a new leadership award named after both of them. Ginette will go along as Jim becomes a part-time executive-in-residence at the University of Victoria and a special advisor to the Victoria Forum think tank.

When he was young, some in his father’s congregation whispered that the mischievous Munson kid would never fill his dad’s shoes. Though he never got a university degree, Munson made up for it in journalism and politics. “I got my BA in the PMO,” he jokes, “and my Masters in the Senate.” When he gave his farewell speech, he wore a pair of his late father’s shoes. Two sizes bigger than he usually wears but no question he filled them.

Roger Smith is a retired journalist and copy editor of the Glebe Report.

Senator Jim Munson with his assistant Michael Trinque, who has Down syndrome.
Share this