Veteran Province scribe had nose for hard news and life’s bizarre tales
You meet a lot of characters in the newspaper business. But there was never anybody quite like John Colebourn, who died Sunday from esophageal cancer.
Colebourn, 59, was a legend at The Province, a gifted writer equally adept at hard news and bizarre tabloid stories.
“It’s almost like the more ridiculous the story, the more he enjoyed it,” said assistant city editor Lora Grindlay.
“He told some serious stories, and helped a lot of people in difficult situations. But he had a very keen eye for the ridiculous in life. He loved to laugh, and could really hone in on the bizarre, the ridiculous, the hilarious.”
In hard news mode, Colebourn exposed how the owners of several notorious hotels in the Downtown Eastside owned $130 million worth of real estate, but had left one hotel without heat for two winters.
“That was him at his journalistic best,” said Grindlay.
“People trusted him and talked to him. He wasn’t afraid to go in there. He shook their hands and worked his butt off to help them.”
On the flip side, he won a record 12 Cheesie awards, which Province staff hand out for the cheesiest tabloid stories of the year.
Colebourn’s first Cheesie came for his coverage of the Stanley Cup riot in 1994.
“I’m working at the city desk and I get a call and it’s Johnny,” recounts former Province reporter Ian Austin.
“He says ‘Ian! Ian! It’s Colebourn! You’ve gotta get me out of here! I’m in the back of a paddy wagon!’ He won Le Grand Fromage, the highest honour at the Cheesies, for asking (the cop that arrested him) ‘Hey buddy, what’s your badge number?’ ”
The stories about Colebourn were often so good he told them himself. One of his favourites came from when he was working at the Calgary Sun.
It was Stampede week, and Colebourn had been up all night partying. He reported to work in cut-offs, a T-shirt, cowboy boots and a giant foam cowboy hat.
His editor looked at him and said, “Go home and change, you’ve got to meet the Prime Minister at the airport.”
Instead of going home, Colebourn went straight to the airport. He loved to relate how the eastern media snickered when they spotted him. And how their jaws dropped when Prime Minister John Turner disembarked from his plane, walked up to Colebourn, shook his hand and asked “How are you, John?”
It turned out John Turner was a family friend from Colebourn’s youth in Toronto.
John Victor Colebourn was born in Red Lake, Ont., and grew up in Toronto’s tony High Park neighbourhood. His father was a lawyer, and the family knew Turner from Craigleith, a private ski club north of Collingwood.
Colebourn was an incredible skier, racing with the Southern Ontario Ski Team in his youth.
After studying journalism at Carleton and Ryerson, Colebourn worked for the Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary Suns before joining the Province in 1993.
John Colebourn was arrested at the hockey riot in 1994 following the Vancouver Canucks’ loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers.