In memoriam: Arnold Amber

Accepting challenge was a way of life for the visionary journalist, union activist and humanitarian who passed away at age 77 on Labour Day



When he was hired by the world’s leading news service of the day, to be a Foreign Correspondent, Arnold Amber opted for Africa. Not an easy assignment then or now.

Reuters quickly found their new correspondent was uncommonly bright, quick on his feet and charismatic. These might sound like strange traits in an intellectual introvert, but they were defining characteristics that would influence the course of Arnold’s public and private life.

In no time Arnold became an expert on the politics, economics and social struggles of not one but many countries in Africa. As a reporter Arnold had many gifts: he was persistent, insightful, skeptical but not cynical, and disarmingly witty. Perhaps his biggest gift, and one he was to use to great effect later as an activist and union leader, was his ability to grasp a complex issues and make it seem simple.

Arnold excelled at reporting. It was demanding, creative and, more importantly, meaningful. He learned during his Reuters stint how life-defining democracy was, and how deeply it relied on a free and empowered press. Arnold spent the rest of his life fighting for that principle.

When Arnold returned to Canada he worked for the Toronto Star and then the CBC, then and now the largest journalistic organization in the country. Over time he earned a respected senior position, leading teams that broadcast provincial and federal elections.

The job demanded decisive action and leadership, and Arnold excelled at both. He was so good he was later asked to develop similar teams in countries with fledgling public broadcasters, such as post-Apartheid South Africa. He went on to win three Geminis for his work covering International news.

Meanwhile, away from work, he was becoming an outspoken advocate for the rights of journalists, promoting the need for political access, access to information, supportive legislation, and other tools necessary to do the job properly.  Most working journalists don’t speak out publicly for a variety of reasons, some good, but Arnold felt so strongly about it he couldn’t stay quiet.

To advance this work helping Canadian and international  journalism, he led efforts to start several non-profit advocacy groups. More than 30 years later Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), it’s world-leading Journalists in Distress program, and IFEX, an international secretariat of free expression groups, continue doing respected work helping the profession. For much of this time, Arnold volunteered his time and talents as a president and chief spokesperson at CJFE and as a member of the IFEX council.

While juggling all of this, Arnold was drawn to the working condition problems within the media.  Journalists needed protection in order to take risks, and tackle contentious issues. In his view the best protection was a strong negotiated agreement between the company and a union.

Arnold now took that on. He became the first president of that part of the Canadian Media Guild that represented 5,000 CBC empoyees. He was chief strategist, bargainer, and architect of some of the most progressive union agreements for media workers in Canada. 

Ever the visionary, before he retired Arnold forged a unique arrangement with the powerful union that represents U.S. media workers. Joining the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Canadian arm has given CMG the security it needs to represent members in workplaces across the country. Among his many honours Arnold recieved lifetime achievment awards from CJFE and CMG.

Many mere mortals would have been crushed by all this work. But Arnold did nothing by half measures. He never shirked a call, difficult decision, political fight, or confrontation with management. He wore down opponents with his wit and intelligence and in so doing, inspired a generation of journalists and union activists, CWA Canada president Martin O’Hanlon and myself among them.

He was a unique force and a closet humanitarian. My words not his. He was far too practical and modest to embrace the lofty humanitarian label.  

We are so grateful for the time we had with him. Thanks to Phyllis, his wife and constant companion, and his children Jeanine, Gillian and David for loaning him to us. We are grateful to you too for doing so much extra work at home, allowing Arnold the time to do so much for all of us.

Fare thee well, Arnold. You’d scoff at such sentimental fluff, but the world needs more men and women just like you.

Carmel Smyth is a journalist and former president of the Canadian Media Guild.

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