For 50 years the St. Albert Gazette and the people of St. Albert have shared an odd relationship that in many ways is akin to a marriage. For better or worse, the newspaper and the community are joined as one.
“St. Albert and the Gazette are inextricably linked,” agreed St. Albert’s city manager Bill Holtby.
“The Gazette plays a huge role in this community and whenever we surveyed the public and asked their primary source of getting information, the response was almost always the Gazette.”
The first Gazettes were published in 1961 by Wim Netelenbos. From the get-go the paper focused on community issues both sad and glad. The first story in the first issue was a historical profile of life-long resident Louise Belcourt nee Rowland. In subsequent issues there were stories about bridge tournaments, school concerts and church bazaars. The stories ran alongside birth, death and wedding announcements and were accompanied by strong editorials that raised questions about every facet of St. Albert life, from the budgetary woes of the town council to youth problems in the community.
A new era
Ernie and Shirley Jamison purchased the St. Albert Gazette in 1966 for $5,000, after a stint as co-owners of the Ponoka Herald.
“My father had the foresight to recognize the potential of this community,” said president and CEO Duff Jamison, as he explained that his father Ernie had known the town of St. Albert as a child because of family trips up to his grandfather’s farm in Athabasca.
Under the Jamisons, Ernie sold the ads while Shirley served as the business manager, the main reporter and the editor.
As the community grew so did the Gazette, and along with it, Shirley’s strength as a writer. Look through those early Jamison-owned Gazettes and you begin to see a transition, as the stories become less opinion-oriented and less essay-like and switch to a reporter-questioning style of writing. Shirley posed key questions to key community members about issues such as day care, the new hospital and the possibility of sex education being taught in the schools.
Not always a love affair
Never shy about stating its political opinions, the Gazette broadened its scope during the early 1970s once Ernie became an MLA.
Though they were often at odds with Gazette editorials over the years, former mayors Paul Chalifoux and Richard Plain credited the Gazette for playing its role as the community newspaper, and often as the body that shaped public opinion.
“All the way through, the St. Albert Gazette was a significant participant,” said Richard Plain as he explained that during his first term as mayor, in the 1970s, when St. Albert was going for city status, the Gazette was against the campaign. Later, in the early 1980s, the Gazette played a huge role in supporting the fight against annexation by the City of Edmonton.
“The Gazette helped rally the troops and joined in the fight with St. Albert’s citizens in saying ‘no thank you’ to the City of Edmonton,” Plain said, adding, “There is no other newspaper like the Gazette in the province of Alberta and that came from Ernie and Shirley.”
Paul Chalifoux agreed, adding that he remembers reading the Sturgeon Gazette as a student in Morinville and used the paper as a tool when he was searching for a house in St. Albert.
One of the most contentious issues during Chalifoux’s tenure on city council was the drawn-out debate about the western bypass road.
“As an active politician for 12 years I didn’t have trouble understanding the Gazette’s editorial position and I would say it was fair, though it was difficult to read the community will sometimes,” Chalifoux said.
“I would say there was balance overall with the reporters writing their take on what was going on. It was not always positive, but it was their analysis. Sometimes I would think: wow, were they at the same meeting I was at?” he added.
Throughout the 1980s the Gazette developed a strong social conscience as it published stories about the need for the St. Albert Food Bank, Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF) and the Help Society.
“Without the Gazette, a lot of the things that are so important in this community wouldn’t have happened and wouldn’t have been developed,” said Stop Abuse in Families founder Ireen Slater.
Slater credited the Gazette for making St. Albert’s citizens aware of issues such as family violence and said the stories also made the community more charitable.
“Those stories in the Gazette also caused businesses and private citizens to step up and make donations to causes such as SAIF and to the food bank,” she said.
But other long-time readers also remember the impact the Gazette had on the cultural and sports community in St. Albert.
“Once the Gazette started its Scene section, we had a section dedicated specifically to the arts and that had an impact,” said former councillor Carol Watamaniuk.
Jim Hole, co-owner of Hole’s Greenhouses, remembered reading the Gazette’s sports pages as a boy. He believes the Gazette’s most lasting legacy may be its impact on the youth in the community.
“The Gazette was always the paper you read if you played basketball or flag football. I remember when I was younger our team was reported on in the paper and that had a huge impact on me as a kid,” Hole said.
“I think young people are influenced when there is a news story that shows them doing well in school, in sports, in the arts or in life. They read that and they want to stay the course. The Gazette has shaped many people in this community,” he added.
Hole applauded the Gazette for never shirking away from tough issues and remembered specifically the time his mother Lois Hole was on the Protestant school board, and said that condom machines had to be available in school washrooms.
“She stood up and said, ‘If I take flak for it, then I take flak, but we have to do this.’ The Gazette never filtered the news, and when it had to in its editorials or its various stories, it forced discussion,” Hole said. “It forced discussion about the issues that affected everyone in the community.”
That leadership role comes with enormous responsibility and provided a challenge that for 50 years Gazette reporters and editors have been proud to take on because they too, are part of the community.
“We are writing history as it happens,” Jamison said.
“The key is to realize the influence the newspaper has and to use it wisely. When a community faces significant issues it’s the newspaper’s responsibility to report on that and sometimes to influence opinion. Our hope, and I believe my parents’ hope, is to make the community better.
“We provided a public forum, we were the sounding board and throughout the past 50 years the people of St. Albert came to the Gazette because it provided them with a voice.”