When Jason Pires joined Global News BC as co-anchor of the morning news, it marked a historic milestone in B.C. broadcasting history. Pires had all the credentials for the job. The UVic and BCIT broadcast journalism grad had worked for more than 20 years in the industry, mostly at CTV. Plus, he had won multiple Radio Television Digital News Association awards.
But what made Pires’s appointment at Global so noteworthy was that more than 50 years earlier, his journalist father, Ben, was denied a job in the very same newsroom.
It was linked to Ben’s skin pigmentation. Ben was born in India and according to him, he was told that B.C. was “not ready for a coloured face on TV”.
Jason Pires describes his hiring at Global News BC as a “full-circle moment”.
“My dad shared that story a few times,” Jason tells Pancouver over Zoom. “So, yeah, it was always on the back of my mind.”
Jason’s co-anchor on the morning news, Sonia Sunger, is of South Asian ancestry. Coincidentally, they both grew up in Victoria.
“We just realized the other day—we’re two visible minorities anchoring a major market morning show,” Jason says.
Jason adds that nowadays, “it shouldn’t even be a thing.” In fact, Global News BC has a very diverse staff, including a news director and station manager, Bhupinder S. Hundal, who is of South Asian ancestry.
Moreover, Jason advises young job seekers that people are hired based on their talent, not their skin colour.
“At the end of the day, if you’re good at your job, they’ll hire you,” Jason declares.
Ben Pires covered Ferdinand Marcos campaign
Ben, who lives in Victoria, tells Pancouver on the same Zoom call that he was studying for a master’s degree in mass communications at the University of the Philippines in the 1960s when he was hired by the country’s largest TV network, ABS-CBN.
“I was assigned the department of foreign affairs,” Ben says. “I covered the campaign of President Marcos in 1968.”
He met his future wife, Laila, at the university. They married in April of 1969, a week after she graduated. They decided that they did not want to stay in the Philippines, where she was born. Ben was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), but they didn’t want to move to India, either.
Ben and Laila chose to immigrate to Canada because in 1967, a new Immigration Act included a universal point system in assessing applicants. They were accepted based on, among other things, their education and their ability to speak English.
“Marcos was sort of a factor,” Ben acknowledges, “because if I had stayed in the Philippines, I would have probably ended in jail.”
They landed in Vancouver on October 4, 1969.
“When I first started here, I applied for a job at the television stations in Vancouver,” Ben recalls. “The news director at BCTV, which is now Global, was excited with my résumé.”
The then newsroom boss, Cameron Bell, invited him to an interview.
“But I guess he didn’t realize that because my name was Pires—a Portuguese name—that I was not European,” Ben says.
Father won journalism awards
Ben’s family roots were in the Indian state of Goa, which was once a Portuguese colony. Many of its residents still have Portuguese names.
According to Ben, Bell told him that the audience in B.C. “is not yet ready for a coloured face on TV”.
“I sort of suggested, ‘I don’t have to be on TV. I could work on the desk,’ ” Ben says. “He said ‘No, sometimes you have to be on TV.’
“I can understand his position,” Ben continues, “because at that time, there were very few people from Asian ancestry in Canada. There was a lot of bigotry.”
He shares this story without any rancour, saying that he doesn’t blame Bell for his decision.
“I mean, I liked him,” Ben states. “The way he brought it up, I could understand the situation.”
After this disappointment, Ben applied for jobs in newspapers. Fortunately, the publisher of the Alberni Valley Times, Fred Duncan, hired him. Ben says that things really improved when the paper recruited a great editor by the name of Rollie Rose, who later became mayor of Ladysmith.
“He gave me a lot of leeway in terms of editing,” Ben says. “And then I picked up two MacMillan Bloedel journalism awards when I was at the Alberni Valley Times.”
Because of this recognition, the Canadian Press asked Ben to become its correspondent at the B.C. legislature. He was the first person of non-European ancestry in this position. And this coincided with W.A.C. Bennett’s final year as premier of B.C.
“The only other person who was not of European ancestry in the House at the time was Frank Calder,” Ben points out. “He was the Indigenous MLA from Atlin. So, there was nobody else in the whole building who was brown-coloured.”
Dave Barrett offered a helping hand
In the 1972 election, two NDP candidates of African ancestry, Rosemary Brown and Emery Barnes, were elected from Vancouver.
After a year in the press gallery, the Province newspaper asked Ben to be its legislature correspondent. He accepted the position, but he says that his posting generated resentment in the Vancouver newsroom. Some wondered why Ben should get one of the top beats without rising through the ranks.
“The editor there then decided I should come to Vancouver and sit on the [news] desk,” Ben states. “So, I went over for about six months to sit on the desk. Nobody ever talked to me.”
However, Ben benefited from the intervention of the then premier, Dave Barrett.
“He approached me and he says, ‘Why are you taking all this crap? Just join the government,’ ” Ben recalls.
As a result, Ben became a civil servant and settled permanently in Victoria. A short while later, he was appointed director of communications for the new department of housing, thanks to senior staffer Michael Audain, who went on become a major B.C. developer and art collector.
“He was a great guy,” Ben says. “He interviewed me and gave me the job.”
But after the NDP was defeated in the 1975 election, Ben found himself on the outs with the new Social Credit government headed by Bill Bennett.
“They thought I was an NDPer,” Ben says. “They kept me in my position for about six months. I was doing nothing but sitting at a desk until Grace McCarthy came to my rescue and got me to the ministry of tourism. She was a great minister to work for.”
Ben Pires avoids the term “racism”
Ben remained with the B.C. government for 28 years until he retired in 2002. It included a stint as director of communications for the 1994 Commonweath Games in Victoria.
In a 2020 commentary in the Times-Colonist, Ben wrote about how he deals with discrimination.
“First, I recognize that discrimination has existed since the beginning of humans on Earth,” he stated in the article. “It exists in every country.”
Therefore, he maintained that it cannot be eliminated, but it can be lightened, reduced, and tempered.
He also disclosed that he avoids using the term “racism” because it perpetuates a human construct that people belong to different races. He doesn’t accept this construct.
Ben’s dad had been principal of the Teacher Training Institute at Delhi University, so Ben also lived in Delhi for 10 years. He moved to the Philippines when his father went to work at a UNESCO centre in that country.
“I submitted my DNA to National Geographic’s Genographic Project and found that while I was born in Mumbai, India, only 1.5 per cent of India’s population belong to the same DNA group as mine while 30 per cent in the country of Georgia, 14 per cent in the Island of Sardinia, eight per cent in north central Italy and seven per cent in Turkey were in the same DNA group as me,” Ben revealed in the commentary.
In the Zoom call with Pancouver, Ben says that an MLA once referred to him as an “Indo Canadian” at a public meeting. He takes exception to that term.
“I’m a Canadian,” he says. “I don’t call someone a British Canadian.”
Watch Jason Pires’s first broadcast on Global News BC.
Jason learns importance of words
At this point, Jason jumps back into the conversation and describes his dad as “probably the proudest Canadian”. And Jason feels that this also rubbed off on him when he was growing up.
“He would really stress that words are powerful when you talk to people,” Jason says. “You can really upset someone by not choosing your words carefully.”
For example, Ben taught Jason that “tolerance” is not a good word to use because nobody should ever simply be tolerated. People should be included. In addition, Ben shared with Jason the importance of using his media platform to give back to the community.
“Everyone should be treated how you think they should treat you,” Jason emphasizes. “So, I think for me, that’s the biggest takeaway for our business, especially when you do interviews.”
Ben and Laila can look back with pride at their children’s accomplishments. Jason’s older brother, Karl, is a corporate lawyer. Meanwhile, Jason’s younger sister, Serena, is a family doctor.
For his part, Jason feels blessed to be able to follow in his dad’s footsteps by becoming a journalist.
“He kind of hit a glass ceiling and didn’t get to fulfill everything that he wanted to do in journalism,” Jason says wistfully. “Still, he sacrificed a lot to raise us in a great city, Victoria. He had a great job with the government.”