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John Arnett, former Mirror publisher, dies

July 28, 2020


It is with much sadness that we announce the passing of John Lionel Arnett at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria on the morning of July 22, 2020, at the age of 89.

He is lovingly remembered by Norma, his loving wife of 67 years, sons Christopher (Barbara), and Stephen (Pam) and grandsons John, Carl, and Corey. He is also fondly remembered by his two younger brothers Peter and David and their families in the U.S. and Australia as well as by numerous cousins and family friends in New Zealand.

John was born on March 13, 1931, on the South Island of New Zealand in the old Maori village and whaling centre of Aparima (also called Riverton). The family relocated to Bluff, a well-known South Island port.

Even though he lived most of his life in his beloved adoptive home of British Columbia, he always thought of himself as “a true Kiwi” as a descendant of Ngai Tahu Maori and the first settlers on the South Island.

As part of this heritage, he enjoyed privileged access to the Muttonbird Islands off the south end of New Zealand, where he accompanied his parents and grandparents every fall to harvest and preserve muttonbirds, a Maori delicacy. He fondly recalled his childhood time participating in the traditional harvest.

At the age of 12, he went to Waitaki Boy’s High school in Oamaru, a New Zealand version of an elite British Public school and its attendant hardships, including liberal use of the cane for such heinous offences as speaking in the dorm after lights out.

Upon graduation, he returned to Invercargill, where he began his lifelong career in journalism as a cadet reporter for the Southland Times. His two younger brothers followed his lead and started successful journalism careers. (One them, Peter, received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam war and later achieved world fame in 1991 for his coverage of the opening of the First Gulf War.)

After a short stint as a reporter on the Napier Daily Telegraph, John’s parents chipped in to help pay his fare for a six-week voyage to Britain via the Suez Canal—in those days, the only travel option.

In 1952 he came to Canada, where he worked in Toronto as a copy boy in the central radio newsroom of the CBC.

Anxious to get back into the newspaper business, he soon accepted a job with the St. Catharines Standard, a thriving daily newspaper. He started as a reporter and promoted to city editor at the age of 23.

Assigned to cover a visit by the local YM-YMCA to New York City and the United Nations, he met the love of his life Norma (nee Anderson), who happened to be the tour leader. They were married in Norma’s hometown of Vancouver in 1953.

In 1959, with two young boys, the family drove across to the country to Vancouver, where John began work with the Vancouver Province on the general news beat. On one of his first assignments, he became the last reporter to interview movie star Errol Flynn who was visiting Vancouver to sell his luxury yacht. John covered Flynn’s slightly intoxicated arrival at the Vancouver airport and his departure in a pine box at the Main Street railway station a few days later.

John later took over the education beat at the Vancouver Sun, where he wrote all of the stories on the start-up of Simon Fraser University. In recognition of his stories, the university made him an honorary member of the founding convocation. As he later put it, “Reporters were considered friendly creatures to the establishment in those days.”

As the Sun’s education writer, he travelled all over North America writing on educational developments. His reporting on the growth of the community college movement in California later turned into a booklet that he was told helped spark the community college movement in B.C.

In 1966 he left the newspaper business to work in the public relations department of the James Lovick Advertising Agency, the Social Credit government’s agency of record spending time in the 1967 election travelling with then Premier WAC Bennet helping with media relations for the campaign. Other client’s included the B.C. Liberal Party. Later jobs included a position as assistant director of communications for the Ministry of Education in Victoria under the NDP government of Dave Barret.

In 1975 he was offered the job of press secretary to Premier Bill Bennet and, moving to Victoria, worked with him until the 1979 election.

He accompanied the premier all over B.C. and Canada, including one European trade junket that allowed him to see the inside of No. 10 Downing Street and the Elysee Palace in Paris.

He then worked as a director of corporate communications for B.C. Transit, which included, among other responsibilities, the communications program surrounding then the construction of the first rapid rail transit system (Skytrain) in Vancouver. One of the trains was named, at his behest, Spirit of Sooke.

After buying a waterfront condo in Sooke, he and Norma bought the struggling Sooke Mirror, where he fulfilled a life-long ambition to own his paper.

With hard work (he didn’t draw a salary for two years), he, Norma, and son; Stephen significantly improved and expanded the content and viability of the paper far beyond its earlier incarnations. Anyone who peruses the 10 years of archived hardcopy in the Sooke Region Museum and Archives will find adequate testimony to the craft and skill of an experienced newspaperman.

He wrote a weekly column which he described as a labour of love for the paper, which was so much a part of our lives. He thought of his column “as a verbal cartoon, a tongue in cheek look at local politics meant to entertain as much as inform, though there are some “home truths” hidden among the satire.”

He believed that “politicians must be held accountable for their actions, and sometimes mild ridicule does the trick.”

In addition to the weekly coverage and promotion of community events through the paper, John contributed much to the growth of the Sooke community in other ways.

He was a charter member and later president of the Rotary Club of Sooke and, as the first president of the Sooke Marine Rescue Society, undertook a fund-raising campaign to buy Sooke’s first rescue boat.

Wanting more time to travel and to enjoy their waterfront property on Richview Drive, John and Norma sold the now vibrant Sooke Mirror, one of only two family-owned papers in B.C., in 1992.

With retirement, John and Norma cruised the world and vacationed in Mexico, where because of his friendly and always outgoing nature, John became quickly competent in Spanish.

He was a life long opera fan, accomplished guitar, banjo, and guitar player, and a performer. He could do an authentic Maori haka (Google it) complete with facial and hand gestures designed to throw fear into the foe, be they opposing warriors or rugby teams. He could also bring down the house at the end of a festive evening with an energetic version of The Wild Colonial Boy banged out on any available piano.

John loved the Sooke lifestyle, the fishing, the crabbing, and his home on the bluffs above the Juan de Fuca, probably because it reminded him of his early days on the blustery shores of Foveaux Strait where he was born. Although he dearly loved B.C., his heart, as “a true Kiwi,” was always in New Zealand.

At John’s request, there will be no memorial service, and his ashes will be spread over the waters of his homeland. If you knew him and are so inclined, please raise a glass in his memory. “Home is the sailor, Home from the sea. And the hunter home from the hill.”