hal johnson body break

Body Break's Hal Johnson trades giving fitness tips for a lesson on racism

Any '90s kid in Canada can recognize the catchy theme song of Body Break, the government-funded PSAs that used to randomly pop up to promote physical fitness on TV screens across the country.

The bits were co-hosted by fitness icons Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod, and taught residents simple tips to stay active and get outside.

And now, decades later, Johnson has another important topic he'd like to talk to Canadians about.

"You think that Body Break was started because of fitness. It was started to combat racism," Johnson says in a recently-released video called "How We Battled Racism."

He then recounts an experience he had while applying for a position as a sports reporter at TSN early on in his career. Though Johnson wowed interviewers with his tape and was immediately hired on, he was told within hours that he wouldn't actually be a fit for the position because the network already had one reporter of colour.

"They didn't want to have two Black reporters," he recalls.

In the nearly five-minute video, Johnson goes on to tell stories of other times he had to face racism in the Canadian media industry in the '80s, including how he was repositioned between other actors in a commercial so as not to be on tape next to a white woman because "God forbid" they seem as if they were together.

After wondering to himself: "How can I change things? How can I make it that we can all live, work, and play together and there won't be this attitude that white, Black, Asian, persons with disabilities, male, female — we all can't be together ?" Body Break was born.

But while the couple shopped their idea around, Johnson was met with the same barriers of systemic racism as before, with TV executives telling him that "we don't think the Canadian public is ready for a black and white couple together," and offering to pick up the program if Johnson was replaced with a white man.

Instead of getting angry, which he easily could have done, Johnson came up with the genius plan to pitch Body Break to ParticipACTION, a federal government program for healthy living.

Over the subsequent years, 65 Body Break episodes were created and the segment became a hit, making Hal and Joanne household names.

"We're happy to have hopefully given health and fitness tips to Canadians for 32 years, but also enlightened you that we all can live, work, and play together regardless of our ability, disability or skin colour," Johnson says in the new footage, a gym in the background. 

And though he expresses appreciation for where his difficult path led him, his experiences still showed him that, as many other public figures of colour have said, racism in Canada is just as present and pervasive as it is in the U.S.

"I had the opportunity to grow up in Canada and go to university and work in the United States. As a Black man, my perspective of both countries is quite different than those of my white friends," Johnson writes in the description of his new video.

"Racism in the U.S. is in your face. It's always present. But in Canada, it's there — but subtle."

In the 24 hours that the video has been up, viewers are already thanking Johnson for sharing his story and speaking out about the topic, especially seeing as audiences had no idea about the unfortunate backstory to the show.

Amid a time when some still seem to think Canada's racism problem isn't as bad as it is south of the border, the voices and stories of people of colour are needed more than ever.

As one Twitter user said, "I really hope that people will listen to Hal Johnson and be like 'Wow systemic racism is a real thing' rather than 'See? If you work hard enough, you can be like Hal Johnson! We don't need to change a thing!'"

Lead photo by

BodyBreak Hal and Joanne


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