When Hal Johnson decided he’d share his story of how the ”Body Break” segment was started to combat racism, he kept the preparation to a minimum.
A 10-minute shoot was all it took to get Johnson’s thoughts on video. No edits, no fancy production, no script.
The result got people’s attention.
Johnson, who co-hosted the popular health and fitness segment with his wife, Joanne McLeod, described in specific detail some of the incidents that occurred before the popular program was launched.
“I thought it would relate and resonate at this time because people are open and ready to listen,” Johnson said. “I thought it might be a good thing to talk about.”
The 4 1/2-minute video, titled “How We Battled Racism,” had Johnson trending on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon. It was up to 108,000 views on YouTube on Wednesday afternoon, some 48 hours after it was posted.
Johnson described being “hired and fired in the same day” by TSN in 1988 and told that network executives wouldn’t be bringing him on because they already had a Black reporter.
He also experienced racism on the set of a commercial shoot at a Toronto racetrack that spring and explained how he was met with resistance when shopping Body Break to Canadian companies because it featured a Black and white couple.
TSN, a division of Bell Media, issued an apology on Tuesday. In a statement, the network called it “a shameful part of our past,” and thanked Johnson ”for sharing his story as a reminder of the impact of racism in Canadian media that continues today.”
“It’s quite overwhelming,” Johnson said Wednesday from Oakville, Ont. “TSN offering an apology, which I didn’t need or really didn’t want. I’m certainly not a victim and I’m certainly not bitter at all to them for the things that happened.”
“Personally it doesn’t mean anything to me but I think symbolically it means something,” he added. “I think it means that companies and corporations are aware of their actions, which is great … I hold no bitterness or ill will.
“In fact, TSN played ‘Body Break’ more than any other television station in Canada.”
Despite dealing with racism and rejection at the time, Johnson remained driven. He wrote a storyboard for the Body Break idea with a goal of trying to change things so that everyone, regardless of gender, colour or ability, could “live, work and play together.”
After being turned down by dozens of companies, McLeod suggested contacting Participaction. The federal government program for healthy living was on board and Body Break was on its way.
The 90-second episodes would eventually become a television fixture for a generation of Canadians.
In all, more than 300 Body Break episodes were produced and 39 half-hour shows aired on the Life Network. Johnson and McLeod also appeared on “The Amazing Race Canada” in 2013.
Johnson, 64, said McLeod produced and uploaded the ”How We Battled Racism” video, which was released as the anti-racism subject remains front and centre in North America and around the world. Massive protests, which started after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25, continue to highlight the urgent need to address injustices and systemic racism in all parts of society.
Johnson, who grew up in Toronto, said he has had a lot of friends reach out to him in recent weeks, some with questions on how best to discuss the issue and others wondering if he might weigh in on the subject.
Johnson decided last Sunday that a video would be a good way to communicate. He only watched the first 10 or 15 seconds of the piece and noted that he seemed happy despite the content matter.
“I just wanted it to be authentic,” he said. “This is me talking to the camera, telling you what happened.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press