It has often been observed that there is a revolving door between politics and journalism. The occurrence of former news hounds in public relations jobs is a common manifestation of that door. I am a bit different. I’ve been through the turnstyle more times than most, finding some fulfillment on both sides and unwilling (or unable) to chose one over the other. This ambivalence started early for me.
As a school kid in Halifax in the early 1960s I had to take civics. Unlike most of my classmates, I enjoyed the subject. At the time, there was a lot of news about The New Party, soon to become the NDP. I thought that was exciting and ended up representing the NDP in model parliament – a major departure for a Starr, King’s County Tories from as far back as I know. There were some Conservatives in the model parliament, but the popular kids were usually Liberals. This reinforced my sense of being the outsider, recently moved in from the county. The NDP seemed a good fit for an outsider.
Getting the journalism bug was an unlikely event, seeing as how I lived in a town with one of the worst daily newspapers in Canada. But on career day we got a pitch from a cool guy who had moved at least once through the revolving door from news to government to PR and I was sold. After a year of general arts at Mount Allison, it was off to Ottawa to take journalism at Carleton. My first day there I needed someone to show me how to feed paper into a typewriter but once that was mastered it was smoother sailing.
It was a time (1966-1968) of great political turmoil – Diefenbaker out, Stanfield in, followed by Trudeau the First. I never did learn to touch type, but Carleton taught me enough to get me recruited as one of a small cadre of Upper Canadian grads hired by the Crosbie interests to work on the St. John’s Daily News. It was a bold attempt by the Crosbies to revive both the Daily News and the fortunes of the Conservative Party, while ushering out the decaying Joey Smallwood regime.
The political goals were more or less achieved, but the Daily News struggled. After a couple of months I moved down the street to the competition, the Evening Telegram. The editors gave me the opportunity to explore the province and practice long-form journalism. But for personal reasons I headed back to Ottawa and a stint at the Ottawa Journal.
The Journal gig was followed in short order by a job with the Canadian Press in Winnipeg. Although I would have preferred Parliament Hill, I settled for the Manitoba capital. For a while it was a dream job. I arrived just a few months after the election – by a slim majority – of the province’s first NDP government. There was lots of political drama with the introduction of public auto insurance over the fierce opposition of a well-established and influential insurance industry. The Ed Schreyer government of Manitoba was an activist one and I took a journalistic interest in some of its initiatives – municipal reorganization, a guaranteed annual income experiment, community health clinics, agricultural supply management, a “stay option” for rural communities.
My reporting on those wonky topics caught the attention of someone in power, leading to my first trip through the revolving door. In 1972 I was hired as a communications advisor with the Manitoba government, a job that soon evolved into telecommunications policy, the result of a federal-provincial jurisdictional fight in which the provinces, led by Quebec, wanted to control the exciting new technology of cable-TV and the feds wanted to grab more control over the telephone industry, parts of which were either owned or regulated by provincial governments.
Manitoba’s objectives were to keep control of its publicly-owned telephone company, maintain low phone rates and keep the ownership of cable hardware separate from provision of the content (much like the Internet operates today).
But when Manitobans elected a right-wing Conservative government in 1977 I decided it was time to go through the revolving door again, landing at CBC Winnipeg. I spent the next six years there, first as a radio producer and then senior producer of the supper hour news and current affairs program, 24 Hours.
There were ups and downs in those jobs, but the very best thing that happened to me was meeting the love of my life, Wendy Lill. She was an aspiring poet and playwright, moving to Winnipeg after time spent as a mental health worker in Kenora, Ontario. She also proved to be a talented researcher, documentary maker and magazine writer. We were married in 1981, the same year that she won an ACTRA award for a radio drama about hockey parents (I was one of those, thanks to my 12-year-old son Julian), and a year before the production of her first stage play, On the Line, about a local strike by immigrant garment factory workers. This was followed in 1983 by The Fighting Days, a smash hit performed across Canada and in the U.S. and U.K. Fighting Days – about the suffragette movement during World War 1 – was named (along with the Glace Bay Miners’ Museum presented in 1997) as one of the Manitoba Theatre Centre’s top 50 productions of all time.
Wendy’s next play, The Occupation of Heather Rose, profiling a white nurse in a northern First Nations community, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Drama in 1985. By that time we were living in the Fredericton and welcoming our first child, Sam. Inspired by Wendy’s go-for-it example I had decided to leave CBC Winnipeg and answer the call to the East that beckons so many Maritime expats. We sold our house and packed what we could in a Vandura and headed back down the road in June, 1984.
Over the next three years we moved around a bit. We lived for 10 months in Antigonish county while I worked in Port Hawkesbury as editor of the weekly Scotia Sun. I then moved back into the bosom the Mother Corp., doing a one-year contract as producer of the CBC radio morning show in Fredericton. All hell was breaking loose in New Brunswick at the time, with Richard Hatfield’s long-time Conservative government in a death spiral brought on by longevity, his personal conduct and a nasty backlash against bilingualism. I wrote a book about it all, Richard Hatfield: the seventeen year saga,” published by Formac in 1987.
By the time the book came out we were back in the Halifax area joined by our second son, Joe, born in May 1987. We soon moved to Dartmouth, to a house on a hill with a great view of the harbor and the downtown Halifax skyline, where we have remained.
The next eight years were a little bit challenging. I had a couple of enjoyable gigs at CBC, radio both of which came to a sad end. Maritime Magazine, which showcased journalism from a regional perspective, was reduced from an hour to 30 minutes due to budget cuts and I was let go. I was hired back in 1989 to work on Media File, a national network show of media analysis and criticism. The show was cancelled in 1991 and I turned to freelancing – some for CBC but mainly for magazines, the Halifax Daily News and The Coast. My work was heavy on politics and economics. I was also able to use some of the things learned at Media File to put together a course in Social Criticism, which I taught at NSCAD in the mid-1990s.
Incredibly, Wendy managed to continue writing while raising two little boys. During this period four of her plays were produced by major Canadian theatre companies. Memories of You (1988) was about the relationship between writer Elizabeth Smart and her daughter. Sisters (1989) explored the motivation of the nuns working in the Indian residential school at Shubenacadie while All Fall Down (1993) exposed the moral panic around abuse at day cares. The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum (1995), first produced as a radio drama, was based on the short story by Sheldon Currie. It told the tale of Cape Breton coal miners and their families during the industrial strife of the 1920s. That play and All Fall Down were nominated for the Governor General’s award for drama.
It was also during this period that we became advocates. Our son Sam has Downs Syndrome and would require supports to attend his neighbourhood school. Just as he was about to enter Primary, the school board decided to deal with constrained budgets by cutting services for children with special needs. We needed to speak out against this and so became involved in the Integration Action Group and were soon assuming leadership roles. That advocacy continues even as Sam enters his early 30s. Now our main focus is on supported community living for people with developmental disabilities.
It was partly because of this advocacy work, and the political conditions that created the need for it, that I decided to go through the revolving door again, back into politics. Alexa McDonough NDP, was running for the nationaI leadership of the party. I joined the party and became a delegate to the 1995 leadership convention to support her. I shared her dismay at the sharp move to the right by the Liberals, a development that hit this region particularly hard.
After Alexa won the leadership there were some personnel changes at the provincial NDP, creating an opening for a researcher to help the two-member caucus. Shortly after Robert Chisholm was chosen as Alexa’s replacement to lead the Nova Scotia NDP I became his chief of staff. It was an interesting time. In 1993 Liberals had been elected federally and provincially to replace Tory governments that had been pursuing small “c” conservative policies. In power, the Liberals took things further down that path. There were mass demonstrations against UI cuts and general despair over cuts to health care.
It looked as if the two old-line parties had disappointed a lot of people, but as 1997 rolled around, few thought those disenchanted voters would turn to the NDP. But when the candidate search committee approached Wendy about running for parliament in Dartmouth, we didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Wendy had just finished her latest play (Corker, which would be produced a year later) and was open to a change of pace. With the other parties on the outs, it seemed like hitting the 15% threshold needed to qualify for a campaign expense rebate was an achievable goal . She agreed to stand for the nomination, little expecting that on election day, June 2, 1997. She would join Alexa and six other New Democrats from the Maritimes in the House of Commons.
That was a thrilling day, but it meant a big change in our lives. Wendy would suddenly be spending a lot less time at home and with two young boys (10 and 12) I would be spending a lot more. Thanks to good child care I was able to keep working for the caucus until after the 1998 provincial election but when that was over, my main role was to be Parliamentary Spouse, keeping the home fires burning while Wendy did her job as an MP, in the community and in Ottawa where she was the NDP critic for Disabilities and Arts and Culture. I guess that team effort was successful: in the 2000 federal election Wendy held her seat, with an increased share of the vote, against three strong (male) candidates, including a federal cabinet minister and a former provincial one.
Wendy did not re-offer for the 2004 election to better take care of her health (she had been diagnosed with MS during the 2000 campaign) and her family, including her elderly mother. She did not lose her passion for the issues, however, soon becoming involved with the Ecology Action Centre out of her concern about climate change. She continued her advocacy on behalf of persons with disabilities, serving on the boards of independent living Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Association for Community Living. She also continued writing, based largely on her experience in politics. Her play Chimera, produced in 2007, was a forward-looking drama that sprang out of her participation on the Commons disability sub-committee. The inspiration for her CBC radio drama series, Backbencher is evident from the title. The show ran for two seasons (2009-2010) and won several awards. Her latest play, Messenger is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, and is a condemnation of political foot-dragging on the issue.
I have worked with Wendy on some of these projects and her passions have influenced my other work. My book Power Failure (2011) came about in part because of our joint interest in energy policy. And the idea for Equal as Citizens (2014) began back in 2000 when Wendy asked me to look over some documents prepared by the Nova Scotia government to encourage MPs to get involved in its campaign for fairer distribution of federal transfer payments to the provinces. It struck me that this issue – often dismissed as arcane by politicians and journalists alike – was vitally important to the future of this region and its people.
My ambition when I moved back more than 30 years ago was to explore and write about the history, politics and economics of this province that has been the Starr family home for over 250 years. I have sometimes been sidetracked – life will do that to you. But I see clear sailing in the months and years ahead to write the stories that are important to strengthening the option to stay here for future generations of Nova Scotian families of every vintage.
The journey is well underway with the two books, as well as my blog, started as Nova Scotia Observer in 2014. These efforts also represent my latest (and final) passage through the revolving door between politics and journalism. The journalism will obviously have a point of view informed by my biases, experiences and personal entanglements. But the over-riding mind-set will be to further readers’ understanding of issues by presenting journalism based on evidence and thoughtful analysis.