t was the worst possible time for Hana Gartner to develop a case of Montezuma’s revenge, but she was determined not to let it slow her down. After covering a story on Mennonite drug smugglers in Mexico for CBC’s the fifth estate, her plan was to make a quick layover in Toronto before flying to Ottawa to interview Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila. The piece was to appear in the premiere episode of her show Contact with Hana Gartner, but first she had to convince the doctors at North York General Hospital, where she had stopped to get checked out between flights, to let her leave. She pleaded with them while shaking physically and fighting bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. Eventually, she convinced them to give her an IV to go. “We get there to do the interview, and I’m having diarrhea all over 24 Sussex Drive,” laughs Gartner. “It really was like a nightmare. In the middle of the interview I’m saying, ‘Excuse me, prime minister.’”
Always a professional, Gartner conducted a compelling interview that made headlines across the country. Earlier in 1991, Frank magazine ran a satirical ad that called for the deflowering of Mulroney’s 17-year-old daughter, Caroline. For the first time, Gartner was able to get Mulroney to talk about how angry he was; in fact, he’d wanted to “do some damage” and considered taking a gun to the editor of Frank. “We ended up getting about a million viewers and it made the papers everywhere,” she says now. “All because we had this one statement.”
But Gartner won’t be interviewing any more prime ministers. Now 62, she’ll have to relearn how to be Hana Gartner, instead of Hana Gartner of CBC. Her success as a journalist was based on hard work and natural talent, especially her skill as an interviewer. But, for 35 years, her job has dominated every aspect of her life and that’s about to change. Though she’s left behind what she does best, Gartner says she has always thrived on fear and the thrill of not knowing what comes next.
A 1982 interview with Donald Lavoie, a hit man from Montreal who later became a police informer, showed just how good an interviewer she is. Tapping into Lavoie’s psyche, she got right to the point. “Well, how did it all end up? You wanted respect, you wanted power,” Gartner pressed. “Now you are a man in jail, afraid of being killed. You are a stool pigeon. What respect do you have?”
No wonder her colleagues are worried about who will replace her. “For someone who’s five foot nothing,” says Bob McKeown, a fellow host at the fifth, “she’s going to leave a massive hole.”
The 1970s and ’80s were a more robust time for investigative broadcast journalism in Canada. Programs such as W5 and the fifth estate, which launched in 1966 and 1975 respectively, were growing in popularity. When Gartner began working on the fifth in 1982, she says, there was a sense of duty that is absent from a lot of investigative journalism today: “We honestly felt that we were doing God’s work.”
Former radio host and long time friend Andy Barrie thinks “networks like CBC are sometimes unable to spend the money they used to on that kind of work.” He says, “I’m not sure that the people coming up behind Hana will be as seasoned by the time they complete their career.”
One of the most compelling stories Gartner covered was also one of her last—a documentary, which won a 2011 Michener Award. The story examined the life of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old woman whose death was thought, by some, to be a suicide. Smith died in an Ontario corrections facility after being held in solitary confinement for most of her prison term. Gartner spent over three years covering the story, asking controversial questions about whether or not law enforcement officials follow their own rules within the confines of prison, but prison workers refused to speak with her. Although she was satisfied with the piece, she remains frustrated with governmental controls on information.
Regardless, Marie Caloz, the show’s senior producer and director on the Smith story, says the doc was a success mostly because of Gartner’s signature interviewing skills. “She has always respected people for whoever they are no matter what kind of situation they’re in, and has always sought to make a connection with them,” says Caloz. “That’s one of the reasons that she’s been able to get people to reveal things about themselves so well.”
That success has come at a price. Gartner and her husband, Bruce Griffin, refused to leave the care of their children to hired help, so he quit his job as a film editor to play Mr. Mom. She can remember a time when she was so seldom at home that her young daughter asked, “Mommy, will you be around for breakfast?” And her kids believed their mother worked at the airport because that’s where she always seemed to be. Now, though, she’s looking forward to spending some time with her husband and children.
But Gartner intends on taking only a short break. Relaxing doesn’t come naturally to her and she doesn’t plan on doing much of it, though she was recently able to enjoy a long awaited Indiana Jones movie marathon with her husband and children. The only problem now, as she says, is “Who the hell is going to want me?” Gartner knows it won’t be an easy task to find something that suits her passions, but hopes to find a position advocating for women and children. “Let’s not call it a retirement,” she says defiantly. “Let’s call it a reinvention.”