If Pamela Wallin’s appearance on the drive-home show on Toronto’s 1010 “News Talk” radio Thursday night was any indication, the “Pam of the People” comeback tour needs fine-tuning. News that the suspended senator would co-host the 4-7 p.m. slot, one recently vacated by Toronto mayoral candidate John Tory, seemed a masterstroke with full-circle synchronicity: Wallin began her fabled journalistic career in radio—at CBC News in Regina—in 1974. A call-in show offered the perfect populist platform to end her silence since exiting the Red Chamber in November.
Last people had heard from Wallin last fall, she was defiant, calling Deloitte’s audit process “fundamentally flawed and unfair” and her travel expenses of more than $500,000 reasonable given her role as “an activist senator—one who saw it as her job to advance causes that are important to Canadians.” It also didn’t hurt that the show aired on the eve of a historic ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada on how much power Ottawa has to change the Senate without constitutional amendment.
According to one report, Wallin contacted 1010 program director Mike Bendixen in early April to discuss possible “opportunities.” Of course he was interested. Wallin is an on-air natural, and a sure-fire ratings booster. And all was tickety-boo in first hour, with host Ryan Doyle and Wallin bonding as they tsk-tsked with callers over the outrages du jour–distracted people texting on city streets, road rage, traffic congestion and a new “walk your kids to school” campaign.
Wallin was convivial and jocular, as she rattled off homespun references familiar to those who know her as the scrappy, small-town gal with strong family ties, old-fashioned work ethic, and resilience–growing up in Saskatchewan, reading Nancy Drew, enthusing about returning to “my roots” in radio. She talked about being a “person who loves to work,” of “making the best of what you’ve got.” Life had been a “roller coaster,” she admitted; sometimes it was hard to find “some silver lining.” But she had by spending time with family and friends. “Slowing down a bit is a useful exercise,” Wallin said, then in the next breath: “I’m surprised by how busy I am.” People were clearly thrilled to have her back. “It’s great to hear your voice, Pam,” one caller told her.
The much-promoted “exclusive” Senate scandal interview in hour two was a let-down, however, particularly within a culture primed for tearful redemptive confessionals.
In what was destined to be the headline takeaway, Wallin announced she regretted paying back the full $152,908.77 the Senate audit committee determined she owed. She went against the advice of many, she says, because she wanted to put everything “to rest,” to end “the distraction.” But doing so suggested she was guilty–the “you must be guilty because you paid it back.” As in the past, Wallin maintained she did nothing wrong: her expenses had all been approved before the rules were changed retroactively, she said. Her mistakes were nothing more than bookkeeping “sloppiness.” She didn’t benefit personally; she merely failed to properly allocate expenses to third parties. As she sees it, she owed closer to “$35,000, $38,000.” There were a lot of expenses she didn’t charge for, she added, suggesting that the government of Canada owes her money. Senate business was anything she did, she was told.
“I was more active than some others had been—and it was noticeable because I was a public face.” When Doyle asked why she didn’t resign, she said it was a matter of principle: she was concerned about the future of open democracy. Wallin, who remains under investigation by the RCMP and could potentially face criminal charges, says she’s had no interaction with investigators. When asked what she would say to Stephen Harper, who appointed her to the Senate in 2008, she demurred, though it was clear it would be an earful. There’s no pension money coming her way, Wallin assured the public. Still, she doesn’t want to see the Senate abolished: ” You need a second pair of eyes, sober second thought.”
Wallin has had five months to ruminate on how to recalibrate the Pam Wallin brand, one rooted in a cultivated plucky gal-from-small-town-Wadena mythology. Her downfall— the loss of board appointments, a university chancellorship, people making rude “oinking” noises at airports—isn’t simply the result of not understanding the problem with rarified limo expense claims or partisan politicking. It is more profound: national backlash over having to change collective mindset over someone once believed to exemplify the country’s finest qualities.
Jessie Lorraine, a radio producer with 1010, spelled that out last year when she wrote of feeling betrayed by Wallin, her “perfect role model” —”I feel snookered — almost embarrassed — to have made this woman my inspiration for so much of my life,” she wrote. That opinion likely wasn’t eradicated by the contempt for contemporary journalism Wallin expressed tonight. “The whole game of journalism is much different now,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a better way.” Wallin, who hasn’t been a journalist for more than 20 years, lamented the media’s failure to provide context in writing about her, failing to note she has refused to submit to interviews. She told Doyle that she’d highlight errors in stories and call journalists to alert them. They didn’t care, she said.
Doyle was a gentle interviewer, but honed in on what mattered. He asked Wallin what it felt like to go from someone who was universally beloved to a figure of derision. It was an opportunity for Wallin to connect with the audience, to score points for being human and doing what humans can do. Yet her response was oddly robotic: “It’s frustrating for someone who has spent life in information business,” she said, before talking about responding to angry emails. “People were, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t think you’d write back,” she said Doyle pressed on, asking Wallin what she wanted her legacy to be. “I will quote what my mother and father told me,” she said: “Character trumps genius. You can be the smartest in the world but if not kind and decent, all of the brains are for naught.” She also cited her Senate work spearheading the National Day of Service. “I will go to my grave being proud of that.”
In the third, final hour, with Senate talk mostly over, National Post columnist Christie Blatchford called in to discuss a recent announcement about sex-offender registries. Questions for Wallin were clearly off the table. “It’s nice to hear your voice, Pam,” a muted Blatchford told Wallin. “You’re surviving.” Wallin responded with a rueful laugh: “We’ll see how the bruises are later,” she said, seemingly oblivious to the fact those bruises aren’t hers alone. When and if she does, the Pamela Wallin retribution tour can begin.