A. Davidson Dunton (1912-1987)

A. Davidson Dunton

Year Born: 1912

Year Died: 1987

Dunton, A. Davidson (1912-1987)

In his impressive career, Arnold Davidson Dunton traversed many fields in Canada, leaving behind indelible imprints of his accomplishments and philosophies on broadcasting, communication, entertainment, education, culture, access to information and the humanities.

Davey Dunton was born in Montreal on July 4, 1912, and there attended Lower Canada College. Widely traveled in Europe as a student, he attended (but did not graduate from) universities in Britain, France and Germany, returning home with a broad appreciation and knowledge of the liberal arts and a command of four languages.

In 1935, he was hired as a reporter by the Montreal Star. Less than two years later, he was appointed an associate editor. At 26 years of age, Davey was named editor of the Montreal Standard, a weekly publication of the Star which was achieving noteworthy circulation across Canada. On leaving the Standard in 1944, and by this time having garnered a reputation as a wonder boy, he moved to Ottawa to join the Wartime Information Board, where he was appointed general manager,

At the age of 33, as he entered the broadcasting phase of his career, Davey Dunton started at the top – the very top. In 1933, Parliament had decided to nationalize Canadian radio – rejecting the American system of private station ownership and adopting the British concept where the government owned and operated all stations and networks. In Canada, this would mean the eventual replacement of all private stations by the CBC.  Twelve years later, due to a shortage of funding, the Depression and World War II, virtually no progress had been made. Meanwhile, a growing wave of protest against nationalization had developed, but that only strengthened the Government’s determination to pursue its goal. Parliament amended the Canadian Broadcasting Act to vitalize the Board of Governors by making the chairmanship a full-time paid job. On June 16, 1945, the government appointed the man who it felt had the leadership qualities to carry out its resolve for the nationalization of Canadian broadcasting – Arnold Davidson Dunton.

Placed in Mr. Dunton’s hands were the present and future of Canadian broadcasting. He had the power to control the number and location of all stations and what Canadians could hear from them. In the public eye, as Chairman of the CBC Board of Governors,  he personified the CBC and soon became the lightning rod for an on-going barrage of attacks on the issues of nationalized broadcasting, the most contentious of which could only be dealt with by Parliament itself. In his 13 years in office, Mr. Dunton faithfully and steadfastly dedicated himself to the direction, welfare, defence and protection of the CBC while, at the same time, using his authority to keep private broadcasters in a subordinate position.

As Canada entered the second half of the century and with nationalization now relegated to a back burner,  the Government had to face up to the dilemma of devising a plan to bring a coast-to-coast television service to Canadians – uniformly and without undue delay. A special parliamentary committee accepted Mr. Dunton’s opinion that it was impossible for anyone to operate a nation-wide TV network on a commercial basis. At the same time, the Government could not afford to do it – either with or without advertising. As in the case of radio, the Government had to rely on private enterprise in order to form a network to be run by the CBC. At the outset, the public purse funded only 7 CBC stations, but the Board of Governors under Mr. Dunton’s chairmanship went on to license 40 private broadcasters.

The last nail in the coffin of nationalization of Canadian broadcasting was driven by the Diefenbaker government when it initiated and Parliament passed the Broadcasting Act which took effect November 10, 1958. The regulatory power of the CBC was withdrawn and turned over to a new administrative body – the Board of Broadcast Governors.

In July, Davey Dunton had resigned the chairmanship of the CBC Board of Governors and had been appointed President and Vice-Chancellor of Carleton University in Ottawa. – positions he occupied for fourteen years. From 1963 to 1970, he also served as Co-Chairman of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. These two services alone would have made Davidson Dunton’s life uniquely important to Canada. However, as president of Carleton and later (1973-1978) as director of Carleton’s Institute of Canadian Studies, he influenced many thousands of young Canadians and the Ontario university system as a whole.

The recipient of honorary degrees from universities – Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Toronto, Western and Laval – Arnold Davidson Dunton was awarded Canada’s greatest honour when he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada. 

On his death, on February 7, 1987, Keith Spicer, then editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen and who in 1989 was appointed Chairman of the CRTC, wrote – 

       “There are few people whose lives and beliefs make a significant difference to the character and thinking of the country. Davidson Dunton was one of those distinguished few in Canada”

Written by J. Lyman Potts – May, 2007