George H. Valiquette, Pioneer Canadian Newsreel Cinematographer


Above featured Image: Title: Cameraman Valiquette taking movies of Caggie’s model plane. ID Number: HSE-A7-P45-C108. Date: 1927-1928. Source: Ingenium Canada; Rights and Permissions: Public domain CC0.

George H. Valiquette, pioneer Canadian newsreel cinematographer, risked his life to get footage of the flooding Ottawa River in April 1922. At the time he was the cameraman for the Fox newsreel, covering the vicinity of Ottawa, Ontario. Typical of the image of daring newsreel cameramen, he recounted his experiences in dramatic fashion. The Canadian Moving Picture Digest, a trade paper for Canadian motion picture exhibitors, distributors and producers, published his first-person story. He began his account like this:

“I have learned, through long experience in the news reel business, that it is wise for a cameraman to look out each Spring for floods and disasters caused by high water. I was not at all surprised when one of my local tipsters notified me there was a washout on one of our local railroads and that tracks had been displaced and the roadbed washed out. This high water was caused by a terrific wind on the Ottawa River. The trains had to be re-routed and practically the entire system at this terminal was thrown into temporary confusion. This was a good news subject. I packed my camera on my back, and with my tripod also slung over my shoulder I made for the scene of the trouble.”

To get more dramatic footage, he went to Britannia, a riverfront community on the outskirts of Ottawa, Ontario.

“I hired a rowboat and a man to row me out where I could get good pictures of the waves breaking against the shore, and the wharves, and of boats being thrown from their moorings and blown down the river.”

George set up his heavy newsreel camera on a tripod. The force of the waves was too much for the small boat. George managed to crank out only a few feet of film before the boat overturned, sending George and the other man into the water. George managed to hold his camera above the water. Fortunately, the waves had sent the boat and the two men closer to shore. George continued the story:

“I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, and just as I was about to make an attempt to come up and save the camera with the film — although it was obviously a futile effort — I felt the camera taken from my hand and up I came to fill my lungs with fresh air. They tell me the rowboat was smashed against the wharf and broken to splinters. I had been relieved of my camera by a daring young friend who swung down from the wharf on a rope tied around his body. I went out on an assignment and this is what I got — a good picture, and a good drenching.”

The American film production company Fox Film Corporation began its newsreel in 1919. As reported in the Canadian Moving Picture Digest on August 15, 1919, page 33, Winfield R. Sheehan, general manager of Fox Film Corporation, announced the start of Fox News. He boasted that Fox News would present news and special current event film features from all over the world, supplied by motion picture correspondents in Europe, Japan, China, Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippines, Mexico, the West Indies and throughout the United States and Canada.

Two items in the Canadian Moving Picture Digest of October 18, 1919 revealed that the cohort of cameraman available to cover the expanse of Canada was much smaller than Sheehan’s announcement implied. A full-page ad said:

“Now then Canadian Cameramen Attention If you can get the best news and feature novelties for the biggest and best motion picture news weekly in the world If you want to make better money — if you can deliver the goods and can create, invent the unusual, the different, communicate at once with Fox Canadian News Len H. Roos, Editor 120 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario”

An item later in the issue said:

“The Fox Canadian News has a splendidly-equipped laboratory in Toronto for developing and printing the films. Len H. Roos. expert news cameraman, is editor, and has two men to cover news events in Ontario, in addition to himself.”

George H. Valiquette was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 1899 to Joseph Matthias Valiquette, and Agnès Traversy, and baptized under the name Joseph Napoléon Hector Valiquette. He appeared in his parents’ household in the census returns of 1901, 1911, and 1921, as Hector Valiquette.

His obituary published in the Ottawa newspaper, Le Droit, on November 22, 1962, page 3, under the name Georges H. Valiquette, said that he began working as a cameraman for Pathé, and Fox when he was 17 years old. A 1934 report in the Ottawa Citizen said he got his start filming fire engines with a homemade camera.

At the time of the 1921 census, he was enumerated in his parents’ household at 273 Guigues Street, Ottawa. His occupation by that time was cameraman, employed by a film company.

If the obituary is correct, George also supplied news footage to the Pathé newsreel, mostly likely to the Canadian edition founded in 1919 by Montréal film producer Léo Ernest Ouimet. Ouimet began the British-Canadian Pathé News after he got the rights to add Canadian newsreel stories to the American and other international film news in the newsreel. In April 1919, the Canadian Moving Picture Digest reported:

“Mr. L. E. Ouimet of Specialty Film Import has a staff of cameramen working at top speed gathering Canadian topics for the British-Canadian Pathé News: combining events of interest in England, the U.S. and Canada into three releases a week.”

In this pioneering era, it was difficult for film cameramen to earn their living by newsreel footage alone, particularly since payment for the freelancers depended on whether the footage was actually used. They often also worked as still photographers and found work on documentaries, travelogues and other film projects. This was especially true in Canada because the Canadian versions of newsreels were mostly composed of international stories, supplemented by one or two Canadian stories an issue. Although various attempts were made to establish a wholly Canadian-made newsreel with 100-percent Canadian content, they could not compete in a film industry dominated by American production, distribution and exhibition.

In 1922, George Valiquette landed a prestigious role as the official cinematographer for the Canadian Government’s expedition to the Arctic. His role was to document the expedition in motion pictures and still photography. On December 2, 1922 the Canadian Moving Picture Digest reported his return:

“George H. Valiquette, Fox news representative in the Ottawa district, returned recently to Ottawa after having served as the official cinematographer with the Canadian government’s Arctic Expedition of 1922.”

“In the summer of 1922 an expedition was sent into these arctic regions for the purpose of survey, scientific research, and the establishment of police posts, customs houses and post offices at various points. This film, which is the first of a series, deals with the voyage from Quebec to Baffin Island.” Quebec to Baffin Island (Frontiers of the North series, PART I). Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. Cinematographer George Valiquette. Taken from the films subtitles. Frame enlargement source: Library & Archives Canada.

He also was the expedition cameraman in 1923 and left Québec City with the expedition crew in July of that year. While on the Arctic trip in 1923 he showed his 1922 expedition footage to local inhabitants. He also showed them films of various Canadian cities.

After his government contract ended in February 1924, he was off on another adventure, as reported by the Canadian Moving Picture Digest on March 8, 1924:

“George H. Valiquette of Ottawa, for a number of years the official Fox camera man in the Canadian capital, has been detailed as the official motion picture photographer for the Canadian section of the round-the-world flight which will be attempted shortly by British aviators.”

His role was to sail on the minesweeper HMCS Thievpal, as it travelled along the route from Vancouver, north to Alaska, across the Bering Sea to the coast of Siberia, and then to Yokahama, Japan. The ship’s role was to deliver fuel and other supplies in advance, at stops where the plane was scheduled to land. Valiquette’s role was to film locations along the route.

The flight crew, Squadron Leader, Archibald Stuart-MacLaren, Flying Officer (I saw an extra space and a comma here) William Noble Plenderlith, and Sergeant W. H. Andrews, the flight engineer, took off from England on March 25, 1924. The itinerary was west over Europe, across the Aegean Sea to the Persian Gulf, over India and Burma, then to Hong Kong and Japan, then to Alaska, across Canada and over the Atlantic Ocean back to England.

The expedition was delayed by a failed takeoff in Burma in May 1924 and ended prematurely with a crash-landing into the Bering Sea on August 4, 1924. This delayed the seagoing advance crew. George Valiquette, who had planned to be on the 1924 Canadian government Arctic expedition, was unable to make it back to Canada on time to board the ship in Québec, so the government hired cameraman Roy Tash instead. The Thievpal brought Valiquette, the pilots and other expedition members back to Vancouver. Two photographs dated August 20, 1924 show Valiquette with his camera on the ship’s deck when it returned to Vancouver. At least he got paid for the duration, and the expedition supplied him with camera equipment.

The attempts by the Department of the Interior to hire Valiquette for the 1924 expedition are documented in a file about George Valiquette’s contracts in the records of the Department of the Interior, Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch.

George Valiquette was back with the Canadian Arctic Expedition in 1925, on a six-month contract at a salary of $200 a month. On July 4, 1925, Valiquette wrote a letter, asking for a raise in salary to $275 a month. He was aboard the ship anchored off Islet, Québec at that time, just before it sailed for the Arctic.

Valiquette argued that he should get paid more, given that he had the experience of two previous Arctic expeditions, he had heard that Roy Tash, his replacement in 1924, got paid in the neighbourhood of $300 a month and he wanted to be compensated for the use of his own camera, which got “severe shaking” during the first two voyages. Valiquette also described how much he got paid for the newsreel stories he shot for the Fox newsreel. Fox paid him one dollar per foot for pictures used in the Canadian edition and two dollars a foot for stories used in the international edition. He sold the news stories he filmed in Ottawa and surrounding area for approximately $50 to $75 each. He received approximately $125 for one story used in the international edition. He encloses a memo from Fox showing the $40 it paid him for forty feet of footage of a religious procession. It took Valiquette about 30 minutes to make it and he sold it for about $60. During one month, Valiquette asserted, he was able to shoot as many as seven newsreel stories. Memos in his file from departmental officials predictably state that since the salary had already been agreed to, no raise was forthcoming.

After the expedition was back in Ottawa, Valiquette remained on contract until December. He was juggling Fox News assignments while remaining on hand in case his advice was needed when his Arctic footage was edited into a test print. The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau began work on Valiquette’s footage in November and promised that the test print would soon be ready for projection. That said, the bureau’s director, Ray S. Peck, did not think George Valiquette’s assistance was needed and that his contract need not be extended. Correspondence in Valiquette’s file indicates that the contracts for the expedition cameramen also lasted for some months after the 1923 and 1924 expeditions were back from the Arctic. In December 1925 Valiquette asked for his final payment since his contract ended on December 17. In his letter he referred to his ongoing work for Fox News and apologized for having had to leave town on a Great Lakes trip, a trip apparently on Fox newsreel business.

His file contains no references to any Canadian Government film work for the Department of the Interior in 1926 and only a letter to him in 1927, from George Mackenzie, officer in charge of the Arctic expedition. Mackenzie wanted advice on the purchase of a small motion picture camera.

Newspaper coverage and trade papers such as Canadian Moving Picture Digest are among the few sources for tracing the work of Canadian newsreel cameramen. Their work gets credited in some of the various lists of footage created by the newsreel companies, such as dope sheets and their library index cards, but the newspapers, company indexes and trade papers are by no means comprehensive. Library and Archives Canada’s motion picture collection includes examples of Valiquette’s work on expeditions to northern Canada and some of his newsreel work. The newsreel companies’ own dope sheets and index cards are the main source of production credit information, and since such sources are rare and not comprehensive, much of the work of the newsreel cameramen goes uncredited. The same applies for newspaper photographers, since newspapers did not always give their staff or freelance photographers a credit line when publishing photos.

As a member of Ottawa’s francophone community, George Valiquette’s activities received mention in the area’s French-language daily newspaper, Le Droit. On February 15, 1926, it reported that he had filmed the two sets of twins born to a Mr. Gubrum, a resident of Hull, Québec, just across the river from Ottawa. On February 24, 1926 it reported that Valiquette, Fox News cameramen, gave the visiting Earl of Craven and Lady Craven a tour of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau offices and showed them some Arctic films.

On June 2, 1927, George Valiquette got footage for Fox News of the crash-landing of an American plane in Ottawa. William Lane captured the scene for the Pathé newsreel. On June 21, 1927, Le Droit published a photo by Valiquette of a religious ceremony held in downtown Ottawa. 

He headed back to Canada’s north in July 1927. Le Droit published a photo of him wearing a parka and standing beside a motion picture camera, as he was just about to leave to film the Hudson aerial expedition. The purpose of the expedition was to do an aerial survey of the Hudson Strait in order to assess navigation and ice conditions. George Valiquette took motion picture footage and still photos about ice conditions, fauna, the local population and the pilots at work. The photographic record also included Valiquette photographing a model of a Fokker Universal aircraft at Base C. This image is on the website of Library and Archives Canada.

(Hudson Strait Expedition). Movie camera in position to photograph model of Fokker ‘Universal’ aircraft at Base ‘C’. Date(s): 1928. Place: Wakeham Bay, Quebec. Credit: Library and Archives Canada/PA-055660 Restrictions on use: Nil Copyright: Expired.

After this, Valiquette went back to his newsreel work, at first working for Fox News and then for the Universal newsreel. He filmed typical newsreel fare such as two men at the start of their attempt to canoe across Canada; a 12- year-old yo-yo expert; a swimming race through Ottawa River rapids; dog races on Ottawa’s frozen Rideau Canal; a big show put on by the Army and Navy in Ottawa; the demolition of a large smokestack; an Ontario man who performed feats of strength with his steel hands; and the arrival of British long-distance pilot in Ottawa after his flight from London, England. Oddball stories about the natural world continued to be a mainstay for the newsreels. In 1936, Valiquette, working for the Universal newsreel, and Ross Beesley of Associated Screen News, filmed an invasion of caterpillars in Sudbury.

By the 1940s, Valiquette’s career, as documented in photo credits in Le Droit and the Ottawa Citizen, was as a still photographer of local news. This included high school sports, visits by foreign officials and official ceremonies such as the opening of Parliament.

When Valiquette died in Ottawa on November 21, 1962, Jean-Charles D’Aoust, who wrote a sports column for Le Droit, paid tribute to Valiquette’s noteworthy career as a motion picture cameraman. He said that Valiquette fell victim to the introduction of motion picture sound technology, so he had to focus on being a newspaper photographer. That explains Valiquette’s dwindling newsreel credits in the 1930s.

Filming motion pictures with sound was more cumbersome and expensive, a burden to a freelancer who depended on selling footage to the newsreel companies. It was one thing to film a newsreel story about a smokestack being demolished or an invasion of caterpillars – the newsreels added voiceover narration and music to that type of story. It was another to try to cover official events with a silent camera, and not be able to get the audio of a speech or other location sound. A freelance newsreel cameraman working as a stringer for the big newsreel companies could no longer compete with cameramen who worked for bigger companies such as Associated Screen News.

© Rosemary Bergeron 2022

Rosemary Bergeron

Rosemary Bergeron is a retired archivist who specialized in Canadian film and broadcasting at Library and Archives Canada.

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