BodyBreak with Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod was a staple on Canadian television sets in the 1990s, jam-packed with fitness tips and recipes.
But what most Canadians probably don’t know is that the show itself, which aired 65 90-second programs through ParticipACTION in 1991 and still continues on to this day in other forms, was created after Johnson faced a number of racist incidents, including TSN reneging on a job offer because it already had a Black reporter on its roster.
“You think that BodyBreak was started because of fitness? Well, it wasn’t. It was started to combat racism. That was the number one reason that we started BodyBreak, Joanne and I,” Johnson said to kick-off an over-four minute clip posted to the pair’s YouTube page.
The 63-year-old goes on to describe numerous racist incidents he faced as he tried to be a sports reporter, and then subsequently, when he and McLeod first pitched the idea of BodyBreak.
In one incident, Johnson describes being part of a commercial with a white woman and a white man on June 8, 1988. He said that just before they were going to shoot the commercial, he noticed the assistant director go to the director, say something, and then the white guy and woman were asked to switch positions, in order for the man to be in the middle.
“So at lunch, I then talked to the assistant director as we’re in the buffet line and I just tap on the shoulder and ask him, ‘why did you switch the two of us?’ … He said, “Well, the client really didn’t want you next to the white girl because, man, you know, God forbid somebody might think you’re with the white girl.”
Johnson told Global News on Tuesday afternoon that he didn’t get mad because his dad taught him that if he were to get mad, it would make it harder to find a solution.
So instead, Johnson said he thought about how he could change things.
“How can I make that we can all live, work and play together and there won’t be this attitude that white and black and Asian and persons with disabilities and male, female — we all can’t be together?” he said, adding that was when he wrote out a storyboard that would eventually become BodyBreak.
Johnson and McLeod took it to 42 different companies but were turned down by all of them. He said he then went to TSN who loved it and wanted it, however, only if it were led by a white woman and white man. Johnson said the broadcaster did not believe the “Canadian public [was] ready for a Black and white couple together.”
Both he and McLeod went home, where Johnson said he kept asking himself who they could call and pitch to. Eventually, he came up with ParticipACTION.
“The rest was quite literally history,” Johnson said.
If it wasn’t for TSN rejecting him or the racism he faced during that commercial shoot, Johnson said there wouldn’t be a BodyBreak.
“All those little things created BodyBreak,” he said at the end of the video. “And we’re happy to have hopefully given health and fitness tips to Canadians for thirty-two years, but also enlightened you that we all can live, work and play together regardless of our ability, disability or skin color.”
Johnson and McLeod have been married for 25 years and have a daughter together. Both were born in Ontario, with Johnson growing up in Toronto and McLeod growing up in Scarborough.
When asked about what he thinks of the Anti-Black racism movement taking place across the world, stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Johnson said he is “hopeful that people will sit down and they’ll talk to each other.”
He said he’s having discussions with his friends who are cops and who are firefighters and listening to their experiences from their side and they’re listening to his experiences from his side.
“It’s been very rewarding to me to see how much all of this has touched them [people in his life.] It’s all been very promising, very exciting,” he said, adding, “Just listen” when asked about what advice he gives to those who want to help.
Johnson said he felt the time was “right” and that’s why he chose to post the video.
“I knew I had to say something and I didn’t know what to say,” Johnson said. “This quite literally came up last minute and I just did it to camera. I didn’t want it overproduced – no cuts, no edits, just one take to camera — here’s what happened, here’s our journey and hopefully it can help other people.”
TSN issued an apology to Johnson on Tuesday for the racism he faced from the broadcaster, something Johnson said was not necessary, as he holds no “ill will” or “bitterness” toward them at all.
“We apologize to Hal Johnson for the racism he experienced at TSN beginning in 1988, a shameful part of our past, and thank him for sharing his story as a reminder of the impact of racism in Canadian media that continues today,” the statement read in part.
At its height, BodyBreak played 1500-1800 times per week on several Canadian broadcast channels, including TSN, Johnson said.
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