Leaving Journalism

When I was fifty-six, I left full-time staff journalism and became a freelance writer. By June 2000, after 234 days on the picket line, I had no desire to go back into the Calgary Herald building. I knew I wouldn’t last a week in a non-unionized newsroom run by anti-union managers. 

I had been active as a union organizer and strike leader, so would have been an obvious target for managers eager to push me into early retirement. They had eliminated my previous job as feature obituaries and social history columnist. Any work they assigned me after I went back would not have come with the freedom and independence I enjoyed while documenting the achievements of deceased individuals who intrigued me. 

My reinstated staff position at the Herald would have been “similar” – as per the Labour Relations Code guidelines – in the sense that I would still have been writing stories, and paid the same as before. But working an overnight shift churning out throwaway fluff pieces that might never make it into print? No thanks. One of my striking colleagues, a former editorial page columnist, found herself in this position after she returned to work, and had to hire a lawyer to get her old job back.

I had written some freelance magazine stories while on strike, and also completed two books. This led me to believe I might make it on my own, but I wasn’t sure yet. There’s a big difference between having the security of a regular pay cheque and the uncertainty of having to hustle for every casual assignment. 

Luckily, I had good contacts in the magazine trade, and support from writer friends who had been freelancing for years. Plus, I still had the occasional musical engagement coming my way. Every time my banjo-playing friend Felix Possak sent me an e-mail with the words “new gig” in the subject line, I could count on putting another couple of hundred dollars in my bank account. I played dozens of these gigs with Felix in Alberta until he left in 2002 to live and work in the Okanagan. 

Magazine writing had paid well in the 1970s, when a freelancer could expect to earn a dollar a word or more. That was no longer the case in the late 1990s, when the word rate had dropped to fifty cents and less. As for newspaper freelancing, the word rate there was twenty-five cents and less, so no writer could make a living doing that. The secret to successful freelancing, my friends told me, was to do corporate writing: annual reports, sales proposals, press releases, and so on. There was no glory in this work, but it paid the bills. And there was plenty of it. While other colleagues looked for teaching jobs and other ways to make a living, I sat at my computer and wrote.

Writing books, while personally satisfying, was something I did as a labour of love, not as a way to make money. 

My first book, now published with the title Songs of an Irish Poet: The Mary O’Leary Story, was a short biography of my ancestor, a celebrated Irish-language folk poet of the nineteenth century. The Canada Council gave me a travel grant to launch the book in rural County Cork, where my ancestor had lived and composed her verses. I met many cousins there for the first time, and sold a goodly number of copies. But sales dropped off after I returned to Canada, and the first edition went out of print in a few years. 

My second book, Building a Province: Sixty Alberta Lives, was an anthology of biographical profiles based partly on the columns I had written for the Herald before management locked us out. I went to see the publisher, Fraser Seely of Fifth House, and suggested to him that some of the columns, if properly reconstituted, might deserve to live longer than a single sunrise. 

“Who would want to read this book?” asked Fraser.

“Everybody,” I said without hesitation.

He laughed. “Good luck with that.”

I told Fraser I had written about several national and international figures who might be included in the book. But his managing editor, Charlene Dobmeier, suggested I focus solely on Albertans. “Regional history sells best,” she said. 

We sealed the deal. “How much time do I have to write the book?” I asked. 

“Could you do it in two months?” said Charlene.

Two months? No problem. I was a journalist. Writing to tight deadlines was what I signed up for. 

Fraser and Charlene gave me free rein to choose whatever Albertans I wanted to include in the book. They suggested, however, that I approach each one as if writing about that person for the first time. “We don’t do well with recycled newspaper columns,” they explained.

This wasn’t a problem for me. Reprinting my old columns would have involved obtaining permissions from the Calgary Herald because it held the copyright on everything I wrote for the paper as an employee. Would the Herald have willingly transferred the copyright to me? It might, but only if I had been prepared to pay. I had become persona non grata at the paper for my activities as a union organizer. Any concessions the paper might make would have come at a cost. 

As it turned out, most of the individuals I included in the book were not people I had written about for the Herald. When I told a historian friend, Don Smith, that I was putting together a book about significant Albertans of the past, he suggested several I hadn’t heard of before. 

One was folk historian Victoria Calihoo. She had gone on buffalo hunts with her Métis family when she was a teenager. More importantly, she had written about them, thus leaving a rare first-hand chronology of a traditional Indigenous way of life that had all but disappeared by the time she was in her twenties.

Another forgotten hero was Henry Marshall Tory, founder of the University of Alberta. The province was just three years old in 1908 when Premier Alexander Rutherford invited Tory to create a third-level educational institution in Edmonton as a drawing card for prospective settlers. The fact that most of the settlers might not actually use the new university mattered little to Rutherford. The university was not for them. It was for their children and grandchildren.

A third obscure figure from Alberta history was Richard Gavin Reid, who served the shortest term of any premier, thirteen months. He was the only politician willing to take the job when his predecessor, Premier John Brownlee, resigned after a jury convicted him of seducing a young female government stenographer. The voters subsequently had their say, in 1935, when they dumped Reid and his party, the United Farmers of Alberta, and handed the reins of power to William Aberhart and his previously untested Social Credit party.

To research the stories of these and other previously overlooked Albertans I drew from the resources of Calgary’s Glenbow Library and Archives, a treasure trove of textual records, history books, magazines and photos, curated by such experts as Lindsay Moir, Doug Cass and Jennifer Hamblin, who pointed me in the right direction whenever I needed help.

My editor at Fifth House, Charlene Dobmeier, chose the title for the book, Building a Province. That gave me a governing theme for this disparate selection of short biographies. 

Some were builders in the literal sense of constructing things out of bricks and mortar. Bill Pratt built the facilities for Calgary’s 1988 Winter Olympics. Fred C. Mannix built highways, pipelines and airports. And Jean Hoare built a restaurant in Claresholm that was the finest for miles around.

Others were builders of community. Henry Wise Wood organized a group of farmers into a powerful political party that ruled the province from 1921 until 1935. Betty Mitchell established a network of community theatres throughout southern Alberta, one of which eventually became the professional Theatre Calgary. Eric Harvie created a museum, the Glenbow, that housed the finest collection of western artifacts anywhere. Catherine Barclay helped establish the basis for a national network of youth hostels. “Badger” Bob Johnson built a group of mediocre hockey talents into a National Hockey League team, the Calgary Flames, that won the Stanley Cup in 1989, two years after Johnson left town. And Morris Shumiatcher gave Calgary the white cowboy hat that became an internationally recognized symbol of the city. 

Many of the stories, as I wrote in the introduction, were about people who came to Alberta from other places and, in some manner, helped define their new home. They brought their energies and talents and built a province that still ran on energy, though not necessarily the kind that came gushing out of the ground. Ontario operated in an atmosphere of smug satisfaction. British Columbia was stereotypically (and perhaps unfairly) consigned to mellow oblivion. Alberta was the young province that rolled up its sleeves, worked hard, asked nobody for help, and got the job done. 

I launched Building a Province in the fall of 2000 at Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary. Many of my former Herald colleagues showed up to lend support. An Edmonton Journal columnist, Mike Sadava, called me for a phone interview. “I hear the Herald won’t touch you,” said Mike with a laugh. I wasn’t aware of this, but was not surprised. I couldn’t see the paper giving free publicity to a former striker. 

A fellow striker, Tom Keyser, suffered the same fate. He launched Udderly Art, a book about Calgary’s public display of cow sculptures, at the same time I made my debut with Building a Province. He, too, received no mention in the Herald’s editorial columns. But the paper couldn’t ignore us entirely because it published a weekly list of Calgary’s top-ten bestsellers in its book section. Tom and I entered the list at number one and two respectively, and remained there for several weeks, alternating with one another in the top two spots. 

Several publications, along with the Journal, published reviews and feature stories about Building a Province. They included Alberta Views magazine, the Red Deer Advocate, the Canadian Book Review AnnualFastForward WeeklyAlberta History and Catholic New Times. An additional burst of publicity came from CBC Radio’s Judy Hamill, who invited me to come on her Daybreak Alberta show every Sunday, and talk about a different character in the book. Even Frank magazine, the Ottawa gossip and satire publication, had a comment about it, wondering why the Herald had ignored the book when it “usually toots the horn of all things Calgarian.”

Three months after publication, Building a Province went into a second printing. Charlene had a question for me: “Do you have enough stories to write another book for us?”

She said Building a Province had done well primarily because of bulk sales at Costco stores throughout the province, and she wanted to keep the momentum going. 

“I have lots,” I said. “But please don’t ask me to write it in two months.”