Remembering Alan Mirabelli

Al MacKay

Where does one begin in remembering Alan Mirabelli and the Vanier Institute of the Family?

The request from Nora Spinks to put together a few words about Alan’s contribution to the Vanier Institute seemed simple at the time. But as the thoughts began circling, it became clear this was a much bigger request, because the man in question was a complex combination of many things to those who knew him: friend, colleague, mentor, author, lecturer, advocate, administrator, teacher, storyteller, craftsman, artist, father, grandfather, community builder,  inspirer, the conscience of a nation in regard to families and a dignified man during his life, especially so in the manner of his leaving it.

Alan was a complex combination of many things to those who knew him.

Alan was as much at home making sense of multi-faceted societal issues to MPs at a parliamentary committee as he was in his workshop, turning a perfect leg for a mahogany side table, or out in the field, creating incredible photographic art with his camera. He was a Renaissance man for his generation.

How does one cover that scope of a person? Perhaps by focusing on just one issue, about which many may be unaware.

I first encountered Alan not directly through the Institute, but in my role dealing with the issue of violence on television on behalf of the Canadian television industry. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was considerable public controversy about increased violence in Canada, in the wake of the Montreal Massacre of 14 young women at École Polytechnique. Many wondered if there was a connection with how violence was depicted in television programs, and whether too much violent programming was being broadcast. CRTC Chair Keith Spicer commissioned studies and held public consultations. There were also parliamentary hearings and reports. Two major conferences were convened and it was during those where I encountered Alan.

For me as the point person for the broadcasting industry at these various events, it was very much like heading into the lion’s den. There were many voices calling for increased government control over what was aired, and for programming to be more “Anne of Green Gables” than hard-edged dramas. As the debate evolved, Alan emerged as one of the most reasonable voices to be heard.

At the time he was involved as a representative of the Vanier Institute at the Alliance for Children and Television, which championed programming for children, and so he had a good understanding of the issues. Because of the solid reputation that he and Bob Glossop had created for the Vanier Institute, his words carried considerable weight and were carefully listened to.

Alan’s view was that this issue was less about the content of television programs, rather it was more about how much – and what kind of – television children were watching, and how parents needed to be very involved in their children’s viewing, especially the younger ones.

Where some speakers at these conferences had called for any depictions of violence to be excised, even from news programs, Alan said it was vitally important for parents to be watching with their children to explain what they were seeing and provide context, no matter what type of program was being viewed. He sympathized but disagreed with parents who used TV as just a convenient babysitter, by not monitoring or caring what channels/programming their children were watching, either on television stations or via rental tapes on a VCR.

Alan’s calm and clearly articulated arguments had a considerable effect on the tenor of discussions at these major events, and helped move the conversation away from censorship (which would have been problematic on a wide range of levels) toward what responsibilities the industry ought to assume in terms of helping families make informed decisions on what types of programming children should be watching, and urging parents to be cautious about how much television their children were viewing.

I made sure to introduce myself and told him how much I appreciated his reasoned approach. I asked to stay in touch and be open to my seeking his counsel as the process unfolded over the coming months. As the industry moved to create a strong Code to deal with the issue, which would include scheduling parameters, a program rating system, the use of viewer advisories and on-screen icons as well as V-chip technology, his advice was exceedingly useful. It was not that he was easy on the industry – he challenged many of our assumptions and constantly asked how what we were doing would benefit stressed parents who wanted the best for their children.

It was his persistent refrain – to governments at all levels, community groups and civic organizations, and individual Canadians: what are you doing to make life better for Canadian families? Are you looking at your policies and your programs through a family lens? It was a constant theme as he spent years travelling the country, giving speeches, making presentations and explaining family issues to journalists.

Alan challenged many of our assumptions and constantly asked how what we were doing would benefit stressed parents who wanted the best for their children.

If one is looking for a legacy, it can be found in the unique pairing of the different yet complementary strengths of Alan Mirabelli and Bob Glossop. They nurtured an independent organization, created its impeccable reputation both at home and internationally by producing highly relevant policy research, and ensured it was financially strong enough to thrive during difficult economic times that saw many other social policy organizations shutter their doors.

Some months after I had left the local Ottawa television station and was changing careers, Alan called to ask if I would be interested in becoming a Vanier Board member. It was a challenging time for me, and to be sought after by an organization of such stature as the Vanier Institute meant a great deal.

My some 10 years of involvement with the Institute moved from Board member to Treasurer, to President, and then later, as the Interim Executive Director assisting with leadership transitions after both Alan and Bob had retired.

Alan and my family stayed in touch after I left the Institute – he was the recipient of many jars of my wife’s preserves and pasta sauce, which he enjoyed with relish and lauded at every possible opportunity. And he dropped in for tea from time to time when he was in town for an appointment or meeting. He felt very much at home at our table, especially when our now-adult children were there.

Alan used to say he somehow managed to have the right type of President he needed at any particular time. My response was that the Vanier Institute, what it stood for, what it accomplished and what it taught me, was very much what I needed at that point in my life and my career. For that and for his enduring friendship, I am and will always be incredibly grateful to Alan Mirabelli.

Godspeed, my friend.

Al MacKay

Al MacKay is a former Board member, President and interim Executive Director of the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Published on January 10, 2018

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