It was an interminable sermon, everyone agreed. And then a scream. It’s 1988 and Pierre Trudeau has returned to Parliament Hill to dissuade a Senate committee from backing the Meech Lake Accord. He speaks ever deliberately, ever persuasively-and almost entirely in English. But a cry cuts short the spiel in the high-ceilinged room. Michel Vastel barks, “En Français! En Français!

The wide-eyed senators look up to the balcony as security guards arrive and drag the offender out.

Rewind six years: A group of shivering journalists wait outside a government building where the cabinet is meeting. Aides have promised Trudeau will speak to them, but the prime minister walks right past the pack. Vastel fires a question at Trudeau’s back. Silence. He shoots another, this time fuming. The PM spins abruptly to see the reporter’s searing glare and outstretched middle finger. Up swings Trudeau’s famous finger. Then Vastel’s-this time higher. And so forth.

There was only one Vastel. He rarely used his first name. He didn’t need to. Conversations with premiers and prime ministers would start with a Hello, it’s Vastel calling …” and it was enough. The journalist, author and commentator was like a French version of Lieutenant Columbo, the rumpled one-name TV detective played by Peter Falk. Both were short, awkward investigators in dishevelled suits and trench coats, fidgeting and fumbling with their many pockets, and always smoking. (Vastel often kept two soft packs of Camels in his pants pockets.) They pestered people with their endless, seemingly random questioning, as they followed the true story well after others had accepted another version.

Like Columbo, Vastel saw what others didn’t. Small details yielded exclusives. Passing comments helped form theories. And it all took shape at his chaotic desk, a permanent cloud of smoke hanging over the journalist’s hunched body. He had to replace several keyboards over the years, as the ash-covered keys eventually buckled under his jabbing middle fingers. “Everyone wondered who his source was,” says Carole Beaulieu, Vastel’s editor at L’actualité. “A lot of times he didn’t have one. He just put things together.”

Politicians and other journalists dubbed this the “Vastelization” of information. “He’d see meaning in all of these different little bits and he would conclude something where other journalists would be too careful to,” remembers Beaulieu. He wouldn’t hesitate to predict resignations, elections and policy announcements. His hypotheses, patterns drawn from various impressions and conversations, were sometimes impressively prescient-or else completely wrong. Colleagues concocted a formula: take a Vastel story, subtract the VAT, or Vastel Added Tax, and that was probably what really happened.

But there was no mistaking Vastel’s passion for politics. “He was an extraordinarily hard worker,” says former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. “We used to call him Vastel Inc.” If he wasn’t on the front page of the newspaper, he was on TV, the radio or in a magazine-or all of them at once. Gilbert Lavoie, former editor-in-chief of Le Droit and Le Soleil, says Vastel’s ubiquity made him part of the political process. “He was not just a journalist,” says Lavoie. “He was a political actor.” When Vastel died of throat cancer last year at 68, the country didn’t just lose another great journalist-it lost someone who went from reporting politics to shaping it.

Michel Vastel emigrated from France in 1970 after determining Canada would be the great place his home country wasn’t. He never forgave France for sending him to fight in Algeria for two years. Shortly after his arrival in Montreal, Vastel saw The Battle of Algiers, a movie banned back home. After two hours of watching what he’d gone through 10 years earlier, he stood outside the cinema on busy St. Catherine Street and cried. Decades later, when the memory was distant enough, he finally wrote about the constant fear and the nights spent on guard duty, where he’d wake to a sergeant’s gun barrel sliding along his cheek. The piece, which ran in L’actualité, was a favourite among colleagues and earned him a gold at the 2004 National Magazine Awards.

To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
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