'BodyBreak''s Hal Johnson: Racist Encounters Lead To Iconic Series' Creation

The health and fitness PSAs are well-loved by Canadians, but almost didn't happen.

To this day, the words, “Stay fit and have fun!” accompanied by a catchy tune can induce instant Canadian nostalgia for those who watched BodyBreak, the beloved ’90s fitness PSAs starring national treasures Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod.

While the show’s signature light-hearted approach to healthy living scored big with viewers, Johnson recently opened up on the couple’s YouTube channel about its more sombre origins: it turns out combating racism was the fitness show’s main goal when the couple created it in 1988.

Before the decade that gave us his iconic show (as well as Dunkaroos and Degrassi reruns), Johnson scored a dream job, as a sports reporter at TSN. However, he was fired hours after getting the good news.

“The higher-ups said that because I’m Black and ... because they already have a Black reporter, they don’t want to have two Black reporters,” he recalled.

Watch the video above to hear about what Johnson had to say about this and other racist run-ins with people in power.

Johnson and McLeod decided to challenge racist attitudes and perceptions about couples of different races, by building in acceptance from the show’s early planning stages.

They were turned down by 42 companies, before TSN once again got involved. The outlet expressed interest is airing the series. However, there was a catch; they wanted a white man to star instead of Johnson.

“We don’t think the Canadian public is ready for a Black and white couple together,” a TSN executive told Johnson.

That stung the pair, who have previously spoken out about racism on their website.

“The rejections that hurt Hal and I the most were those in which people expressed a concern about the image of a Black-Irish man and Italian-German woman interacting as equal partners,” McLeod wrote. “They said Canadians would not accept interracial hosts.”

The rejection inspired the couple to reach out to the government-funded organization, ParticpACTION. It signed them on for six successful episodes, which eventually spawned the full syndicated series.

“It turns out that Canadians have been far more accepting when it comes to matters of race than those early doubters gave them credit for,” McLeod stated.

The couple continue to enjoy successful careers as fitness experts and event speakers, with the show living on as online vlogs. Their latest videos partner with the Canadian Frailty Network to help older Canadians regain muscle strength.

“Without TSN [leading] me to go that route, without the racism they displayed, without the racism of that client ... all those little things created ‘BodyBreak,’” he said.

A day after Johnson’s video was posted, TSN released a public apology to the media personality and shared that they would be part of a diversity task force with Bell Media in order to address the outlet’s lack of diversity.

“We apologize to Hal Johnson for the racism he experienced at TSN, beginning in 1988, a shameful part of our past,” the statement read, going on to thank him for sharing his experiences “as a reminder of the impact of racism in Canadian media that continues today.”

Black people in Canadian media continue to face barriers

The uphill struggle Johnson faced is something Black Canadians in the media industry continue to face every day.

Journalists have shared their anti-Black experiences on Twitter, including TSN anchor Kayla Grey, one of the few Black women who are on-air talent in Canada. Last week, many stood by her after keynote speaker Tim McClure tried to make her apologize for not allowing a white colleague’s use of the N-word in a blog post slide. She made a statement of solidarity with Johnson in a series of tweets.

Even emerging journalists have encountered early roadblocks: Journalism schools from around the country, notably Ryerson University and Carleton University, have been taken to task by their students for incidents of anti-Black racism, as well as the lack of support available for Black students and faculty. (Full disclosure: the author is a Ryerson journalism school graduate.)

There’s plenty of work to be done to prevent anyone from going through what Johnson and other Black Canadians have. Public accountability — such as Johnson’s candid video — has been proven to be a tool for change.

For example, writer Desmond Cole and other Canadian journalists are behind an open letter calling CBC’s Wendy Mesley to take responsibility after making a remark using an anti-Black term.

Younger generations are also taking part in actions that will pave the way for inclusive futures. After a petition by Ryerson students Tiffany Mongu, Breanna Xavier-Carter, Rosemary Akpan and Sara Jabakhanji garnered over 3,000 signatures, the university announced they would start a new course: “Reporting on Race: The Black community in the Media.”

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