They’ve got a fire burning outside. Our tongues taste the smoke that seeps in through different wall cracks every time the wind shifts… They’re going to hang us.

The year is 1879. In a ramshackle cabin somewhere near Kamloops, Alex Hare endures a siege. He’s haunted by fragmented memories of a murderous rampage. Maybe those crimes are why he’s on the shack’s floor with a few other fugitives, cold, thirsty, wounded, surrounded by enemies among the snowy pines. Or maybe it’s because he and the other young M?tis have darker skin than the white ranchers outside. Maybe the shots, the smoke, the standoff that support the whole structure of this piece of short fiction, are symbolic of tensions between races, between tribes of men who have fought for generations and will fight again.

Whatever the reason, Hare and his friends are in trouble. Their tongues swell from thirst. Vigilantes surround them, taking occasional potshots. Hare’s leg bone is shattered after one of his friends-the one who drew him into the gang in the first place-goes crazy and shoots him while he sleeps. As a reader, you want to hate the character of Alex Hare; he has slit a white rancher’s throat and licked blood from the blade. But the way he explains it, it wasn’t his fault. You almost find yourself feeling sorry for him.

The year is 2001 now, on the other side of the continent. On the surface, the young outlaw Alex Hare hasn’t much in common with Peter Stockland, the 45-year-old author, editor, columnist and former reporter whose short story about Hare, “Brothers,” appeared in 89 Best Canadian Stories. But the two men’s circumstances are remarkably similar. Stockland, also from Kamloops, is holed up on the fifth floor of The Gazette’s grey office tower in downtown Montreal. He’s putting on a brave face knowing his enemies wait outside. He hears their potshots ricochet off his reputation. They won’t forget what he’s done or written. A bedrock social conservative, he sticks out like a M?tis among white ranchers here in Montreal, one of North America’s most liberal cities. With circulation drying up, he’s thirsty for readers. He says it’s nothing, just a scratch, but he’s limping from where his ally-the one who put him in the editor-in-chief’s office at The Gazette-crippled him by selling the newspaper. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him.

Of course, not everybody feels sorry for Peter Stockland. Some complain he got his new job because his libertarian, right-of-centre views were close to those of his former boss, newspaper baron Conrad Black. Then, last summer, Black sold most of his Canadian papers-including The Gazette-to CanWest Global Communications, leaving Stockland at the mercy of a more liberal parent company. His fiercest critics hold little sympathy for a man they describe as a “right-wing asshole,” a “hard-edged ideologue,” a “propagandist.” He faces an especially tough reception in Quebec, where he endures the reputation of being a writer from the West who once called francophone culture “a hoax,” resulting in threats that pressured his family to move briefly.

Even his personality seems at odds with Montreal. A nonsmoker, Stockland could walk into a Harvey’s burger shop in this city and barely read the back-lit menu board through the haze of cigarette smoke. Or, touring his new press plant in the west end, the former columnist, who spouted moral indignation about all varieties of human foibles, might look across the street and notice the Cabaret les Amazones, a strip club that looks like a fast food restaurant-appropriate, since strip shows seem as casually available as hamburgers here. Or, as happened recently, the pink-faced, wide-awake editor-in-chief could stride into a morning meeting with other senior editors who sit bleary-eyed around a table cradling upscale coffees. At first, Stockland’s demeanor suits the newspaper’s reputation as a sober, middle-class broadsheet catering to the city’s upscale Anglo minority: he discusses the day’s stories thoughtfully, asking intelligent questions in his soft, deferential voice. Then he gently reprimands the city editor over a murder story that could have been played bigger-causing a brief pause in the conversation as the other editors remember, yes, their new boss spent most of his career at tabloids. Later, somebody mentions a quirky item in a competing paper about a moviegoer who was so disgusted by a film that he stole it from the projectionist’s booth and unfurled the celluloid in the street. They decide to follow the story with a piece about this and other violent reactions to performances. Leaning forward, his face flushing, Stockland relaxes his quiet, thoughtful persona to reveal a boyish enthusiasm. He tells an anecdote about a comedian who angered an audience member so much that the man climbed on stage and punched the performer in the face. “He just gave it to him!” Stockland chortles, smacking his fist into his palm for emphasis, his thick forearm bulging beneath a rolled-up sleeve. None of the other editors laughs. Their sleeves are neatly ironed and buttoned. Someone takes a sip of coffee. This westerner doesn’t quite fit in. The unspoken question among them is, Where did this guy come from?

Stockland was raised in a working-class neighbourhood in Kamloops, British Columbia. His father, Eyolf, who died when Stockland was 13, worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Stockland’s cousin, uncle, grandfather and most of their neighbours worked on the railroad. The town’s dominant industries were rail yards, cattle ranches and pulp mills. Stockland retains some folksiness from his blue-collar roots: “That was fair ball,” he’ll say, and he’ll refer to men in his anecdotes as “this guy,” as in, “So this guy climbs up on stage and takes a swing at this comedian guy.” Although Stockland has never belonged to any political party and didn’t vote in the last federal election, his famously conservative views have their roots in this western working town and his solid Anglican upbringing. He still goes to church most Sundays, though he has since converted to his wife’s Catholicism.

But while Kamloops shaped him, he was also much too ambitious to stay. When he appeared on a kids’ television show in Grade 3, the host asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. Stockland said he wanted to be a writer and a reader, and everyone laughed. But it was true. He started his hobby of writing short stories in elementary school. Reading The Vancouver Sun often made him late for his paper route. He once failed an English assignment because he imitated his favourite sportswriter’s style. He learned how to get a reaction with controversial words at age 10, when he and a friend put a sign on the local Elks’ hall urging passersby to “Join Hitler’s Youth,” with a phone number for the RCMP written underneath. His father, who had gone hungry during the Nazi occupation of Norway, scolded him severely.

Rather than take up his father’s trade after high school, he enrolled in the University of British Columbia’s English program, working part-time for a suburban weekly, scraping stories out of soporific council meetings. He spent one semester at a daily paper in Medicine Hat before graduating in 1979 and scoring a job covering city hall at the Vernon Daily News. Two years later he moved back to his hometown and joined the Kamloops Sentinel. There he shared a basement apartment with one of the Sentinel’s half-dozen reporters, Steven Edwards, who became a lasting friend. They had to roll Stockland’s blue Volkswagen van downhill each morning to get the engine going.

The 25-year-old Stockland was already so enthralled by the newspaper business, Edwards says, that he once attended a Halloween party wearing enlarged pages of the Sentinel. The ambitious roommates felt they were headed for great things in the news business. (An accurate premonition: Edwards is now Southam’s United Nations correspondent in New York.) Stockland, never staying at one job for very long, remembers working harder during this period than ever since, scrambling to cover general assignments at understaffed dailies. He was also learning French part-time. After all, he wasn’t going to stay in B.C. forever.

Before leaving his home province, though, he met his future wife, Linda Couture. A Quebecer transplanted to Kamloops by a federal program promoting French, Couture arranged lunch with Stockland hoping he’d write an article about her work. She fell in love with the soft-spoken reporter who was learning her mother tongue and they married in the summer of 1982. (Today, they have two children, Marie-Desneiges, 15, and ?tienne, 13.) They had already moved that spring to Edmonton, where Stockland went to work for Sun Media. He would stay with the punchy tabloid chain for the next 14 years.

Though Stockland speaks quietly, almost demurely, often pausing for thought before opening his mouth, there’s another side to his character. His brashness, the same puckish penchant for stirring up trouble that inspired his “Hitler Youth” sign, helped him thrive at the Sun papers. It also provoked him to try some memorable pranks, like the time in 1985 when he got together with a few fellow reporters at The Edmonton Sun and staged a tongue-in-cheek picket in front of CBC Edmonton studios to protest the cancellation of Robert Homme’s television show for children, The Friendly Giant, waving placards with slogans like “Don’t Let Rusty Get Dusty” and “CBC Committing Homme-cide.”

That brashness, bordering on pugnaciousness, could explain an embarrassing incident after his move to Sun Media’s new Ottawa bureau in 1986, where he served as a reporter and columnist. When a television cameraman jostled him during a scrum in Parliament, Stockland waited until the scrum was breaking up, turned to the cameraman and told him to keep his hands off. The guy pushed him again and walked away across the foyer of the Commons. Stockland followed him and remembers saying, “Put your fucking hands on me again and I’ll drop you right where you’re standing.” According to Stockland, the other journalist turned and raised his hands, so Stockland punched him.

Stockland couldn’t stay out of trouble even after he moved to Quebec City as a Sun Media correspondent two years later, where he wrote columns and covered news in the province. In the politically charged atmosphere around Meech Lake, his patriotic westerner’s views were often interpreted as anti-French. A column on November 30, 1989, drew particular criticism: “Quebec’s Culture? Please, I feel an attack of the .44 Magnums coming on. Because the harsh truth is the celebrated Culture of this province is largely a hoax.” A French CBC radio host denounced Stockland’s column and broadcast his address and home phone number. Stockland had just returned home after a week in Montreal covering the massacre of 14 female students by an armed lunatic, so the destructive potential of lone extremists preyed on his mind when his family began receiving threatening calls. He sent his wife and children to stay with some local in-laws for a few days. Stockland says he was only trying, clumsily, to say Quebec has adopted aspects of American culture. He says the severity of the backlash against that column was exaggerated by the overheated atmosphere of Meech Lake. But Robert Fife, Ottawa bureau chief at the time, says he’s never had another writer’s family forced to leave home because of death threats.

Although today Stockland says the family’s return to Ottawa the next summer was unrelated, he couldn’t have been entirely unhappy when Sun Media folded its Quebec bureau and he was transferred back to his old job in the nation’s capital. Stockland moved again in 1994, after being appointed editor of The Calgary Sun, where he continued to write a column. But that single “hoax” column keeps cropping up in certain political and media circles in Montreal when Stockland’s name comes up. It’s burned into memory like a notorious crime. The other troubling episode in the new editor’s history, these Montrealers say, was his part in a regime that cranked the Calgary Herald’s outlook hard to the political right-in the words of Herald columnist Catherine Ford, “shoving our metaphorical nose so far up the Reform Party’s ass we can’t see daylight.” The Herald’s editor-in-chief at the time, Crosbie Cotton, hired Stockland in 1996 from the Sun. When Stockland arrived, Cotton was already trying to correct what he saw as the paper’s drift leftwards away from Calgary attitudes. A common joke before his reforms, Cotton says, was that if Conservative Premier Ralph Klein figured a way to spin lead into gold, the Herald headline would have been “Lead Shortage Looms.”

Cotton gave Stockland a column, widely syndicated through the Southam chain, which he continued to write after becoming editorial page editor in 1999. During these years in Calgary, as he abandoned reporting and focused on opinion writing, Stockland earned a reputation as one of Canada’s most conservative voices. He attacked a Pulitzer Prize-winning play featuring gay men, defended parents’ right to spank their children, scorned the UN’s “social engineers,” denounced abortion and complained about a decision allowing women to bare their breasts in public. He mused that militant right-wing critic Ted Byfield wasn’t critical enough, ridiculed “bourgeois” workers like teachers and journalists who wanted to fight for unions and called human-rights commissions, equity boards and harassment panels “self-sustaining guilt industries.” Liberalism, he wrote, is “debauched” and “poisonous.” It’s not as if Stockland slit a man’s throat and licked the blade, but his attacks on liberal ideas certainly drew fire. Peter Gzowski called him a “right-wing asshole from Alberta.” Andy Marshall, a Herald reporter at the time who later led the local union, says many people muttered about the paper’s tone after Stockland’s arrival. “I thought a kind of nastiness entered the way things were debated.”

The paper’s new outlook was among the many complaints that fueled discontent at the Herald in 1999. More than 100 newsroom workers walked out that November, leaving senior editors like Stockland with only 28 staff. Stockland had long opposed the formation of a union. Even before becoming an editor, he lobbied his colleagues with leaflets and vocal appeals, arguing that the journalists should give management six months to fix what wasn’t working. “He took upon himself the role of company propagandist,” Marshall says.

One day in late December, Stockland was crossing the picket line, driving a minivan out of the Herald’s parking lot. Radio reporter Carol Adams, covering the strike for Calgary’s CKUA, says she saw him gesture at the crowd with the idiomatic finger. Word got around about the insult and Stockland called her, told her she was delusional, swore at her and hung up. (Adams now emphasizes the gesture was out of character for a man she considers a “gentleman.”)

When asked about the incident, Stockland admits he made the call, but says he was angry at Adams only because he hadn’t made the obscene gesture. In an explanation that’s similar to his account of the earlier skirmish with Quebec nationalists during Meech, he claims to have been misunderstood in an emotionally charged situation. The anecdote was widely repeated, he says, but misrepresented how he felt about the strikers. “I gave a damn about what was happening to those people,” he says, his face turning red. Sounding weary, he repeats his family’s working-class origins and ties with the railroad union: “I’m not anti-union.”

Anti-union or not, Stockland’s performance at the Herald must have appealed to his bosses at Southam, whose management had become more politically conservative since Conrad Black’s Hollinger bought control of the newspaper chain in 1996. Last spring, Stockland got a phone call from Gordon Fisher, Southam’s vice-president, editorial, in Toronto, asking whether he’d be interested in an unnamed, soon-to-be-vacant editor-in-chief’s position. Stockland said yes. It’s widely believed that he was Black’s pick because he had a right-wing westerner’s outlook but experience working in Quebec and fluency in French, unusual qualifications that probably limited the number of candidates. Once again, Stockland moved east.

There’s not going to be any chance for us to ride out of here….

In the story of Alex Hare, he’s trapped in winter woods, surrounded by a posse of ranchers. He smells their cooking fires, hears more wagons arriving as they lay siege to his cabin. He’s vastly outnumbered. On July 25, 2000, a Globe and Mail story predicted an equally unpleasant greeting awaited Peter Stockland in Montreal: “The appointment announced yesterday may raise hackles among some francophone media or nationalist circles.” Indeed, Quebec’s media reacted to Stockland by circling the wagons. Le Soleil, Quebec City’s daily, carried an item the same day referring to his “hoax” comment, and an article appeared the next day in Le Devoir, the upscale Montreal daily, focusing on the same thing. A longer story appeared the following day in La Presse, the larger-circulation Montreal daily, also leading with the “hoax” quote and including descriptions of Stockland’s most extreme right-wing Herald columns. For reactions, the press turned to people like Matthew Hays, associate editor of the weekly Montreal Mirror, who says Stockland’s columns at the Herald showed a hostility toward gay rights (despite one of Stockland’s columns mentioning his gay friend who died of AIDS). For Southam to appoint an editor so unsuited to Montreal, Hays says, the company either lacks a sense of the local market or was sabotaging The Gazette to help Black’s new national daily, the National Post.

But media weren’t the only ones taking shots. Many nationalists were surprised by the appointment, says Robin Philpot, head of communications for a separatist group, the Soci?t? Saint-Jean-Baptiste. His fax machine was busy that week as people sent him Stockland’s clippings. But the clips weren’t necessary: like many politically minded Quebecers, Philpot remembers perfectly what the “hard-edged ideologue” wrote during Meech. Language and cultural issues may have faded from public discussion in the rest of Canada, but Quebec is still a place where an English sign is enough to provoke the firebombing of a coffee shop. Nationalists like Philpot can’t abide a man who questioned Quebec’s distinctiveness. “One would hope Izzy Asper would push him out,” he says.

Philpot is referring to an announcement on July 31-less than a week after Stockland’s appointment was confirmed-that The Gazette would be sold to Izzy Asper’s CanWest Global Communications along with other Southam papers. Stockland was visiting Montreal that day and says he didn’t hear news of the takeover until Gazette managing editor Raymond Brassard called him, asking, “How do you like Izzy Asper?” Stockland shrugs while telling the story, remembering his bafflement. “I said, ‘Well, I met him at an editorial board once.'”

Several months later, Stockland still says the new ownership doesn’t mean much to him. But many believe Black’s surprise announcement hit him like a bullet in the night, crippling any plans he might have had to change the paper. A Gazette writer described the week as a “roller coaster”-whereas some staffers had worried the paper would get more conservative, the writer said, the new ownership could mean a drift in the opposite direction. It’s not impossible to imagine Conrad Black appointing Stockland to affect The Gazette’s ideology, but The Gazette’s subsequent sale to more liberal owners left Stockland without that mandate-especially in a predominately liberal city, with a liberal publisher and a liberal newsroom.

When Stockland arrived in Montreal, he soon discovered that French media and nationalists weren’t the only ones waiting for him among the snowy pines. The newsroom was also skeptical about him. “There was some pretty understandable trepidation that this guy was going to come in from the west and work from the top down,” Stockland says. One of the most vocal Gazette staffers was reporter Alexander Norris, who makes no secret of his antipathy toward Conrad Black. Norris has pictures of the rotund newspaper owner tacked outside his cubicle. He even obliquely criticized Southam’s management in his acceptance speech after winning a National Newspaper Award last year. He’s so famously outspoken that half a dozen Gazette insiders offer his name when asked about newsroom reaction to Stockland: I won’t speak for the record, they say, but maybe Alex will talk to you.

When Norris does talk, his only request is that the article mustn’t suggest he’s speaking only for himself. Then he describes Stockland’s appointment with precisely the same phrase others used: “It’s a strange fit,” he says. “This is one of the most liberal cities in North America, and Conrad Black has given us someone from the far-right fringes of Alberta public opinion.”

Norris views Stockland as another part of The Gazette’s shift to the right under Black’s ownership, which began, he says, when former editor-in-chief Joan Fraser was forced out and replaced with the more conservative Alan Allnut, then continued when right-wingers Peter Hadekel and Brian Kappler were named editorial page editor and city editor respectively. He believes appointing Stockland was Black’s last attempt to influence The Gazette before it was sold to CanWest. “Appointing someone like Stockland is like stacking the Senate when you’re defeated,” he says. The barrage of bad press about the appointment wasn’t good for The Gazette, he continues, though Stockland was an easy target. “There seems to be such a record of intemperate, ill-thought-out, intolerant, offensive things he’s written.”

But Stockland faces other challenges, too. The Gazette is thirsty for readers. NADbank figures for adult weekday readership dropped more than 16 per cent in the last five years, with lighter losses on Saturdays but an even steeper slide on Sundays. The Gazette’s old unilingual readership dwindles every year in Montreal, replaced by a new category of reader: the allophone, typically a multilingual child of immigrant parents who doesn’t identify with either side of the language wars. But Montreal’s increasing bilingualism and multilingualism undermine the paper’s traditional monopoly on English-only readers, since more English speakers feel comfortable reading French. In the daily fight for news, The Gazette faces an uphill battle: its medium-sized readership means it can afford only a medium-sized staff to cover a big city. Another difficulty for Stockland, who always saw himself as a writer, is the budgeting and paperwork for his 180 employees. When asked about budgeting, he chuckles, shakes his head and says, “I have the unique ability to take my own head off and stuff it up my ass.” In a more serious moment, he reflects that the logistics of running a newspaper are more complicated than he’d imagined. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that rumours circulate, suggesting the new editor-in-chief might not last long.

Our tongues are swelling and turning black from thirst… We clawed open a chink in a wall, scraped snow onto our fingers, pulled our hands back inside before their bullets hit.

In Stockland’s story, it doesn’t look as if Alex Hare will last much longer. He can’t walk. His friends have run low on ammunition. He takes a lump of charcoal, scribbles a plea for leniency on a scrap of paper and sends it to the ranchers outside. But it’s unlikely his message will persuade anyone. Hare is pathetic, but he doesn’t inspire sympathy. In a Globe review of the book, where Stockland’s story was rated the worst in a collection that included stories by gifted writers like Alice Munro and Steven Heighton, the reviewer concluded: “We never really become involved enough to care.”

In this story of Stockland, the opposite is true. Several weeks after the volley of critical articles by Quebec reporters-who only spoke to Stockland by phone-a writer named Marie-Andr?e Amiot interviewed him at The Gazette for a French media journal, Le 30. Entering his spacious office, she might have noticed his bookshelf stocked with just the kind of conservative tracts she expected to see, by the likes of George W. Bush, Neil Bissoondath, Ted Byfield and William D. Gairdner. But then, surprisingly, tucked in beside Ezra Levant’s Youthquake, there’s the screenplay for Atom Egoyan’s dark, obsessive, sensual film Exotica-suggesting subtler tones in Stockland’s personality. And there’s the man himself, smiling, taking a visitor’s coat and gesturing disarmingly at a chair. His choirboy face and gentle, fluent French are at odds with the image of a man who inspired what Amiot calls “horror and distress” in the Gazette newsroom. She wrote, “One cannot help but ask oneself, Where is the monster?”

It’s a question on many staffers’ lips. Like Amiot, they’re noticing aspects of him that weren’t included in press reports. They see him walking around the newsroom and talking with reporters, a habit that would have been out of character for his more bureaucratic predecessor. He seems open to new ideas, they admit, and he makes bold editorial decisions. Before his arrival, The Gazette might not have given its whole front page to the text of Justin Trudeau’s eulogy for his father-including the French passages, no less. And the photos of Karla Homolka enjoying herself in prison-a scoop that resulted in Homolka’s transfer to a stricter facility-might not have hit the front page with quite the same impact, boosting single-copy sales and attracting national attention. Indeed, the Homolka item ran with a heavy, black headline that read “Karla’s Prison Party,” but tabloid veteran Stockland had wanted something even stronger: “Cakes in Jail,” or “Killer in a Cocktail Dress.” Reporter Bill Marsden says the paper is long overdue for someone that gutsy in the editor-in-chief’s office. “A lot of people here are screaming about the fact that he’s a right-wing fanatic, or some religious freak or God knows what, some Catholic nut-case. But I don’t care. What I care about is, is he a good journalist?”

But journalism wasn’t the only factor in Stockland’s boldest decision so far. In a deft managerial move, he posted a memo in November announcing city editor Brian Kappler would leave the department to become a political editor in the new year. Stockland says his only reason for relocating Kappler was because he’d be well-suited to a column on national issues. In an email, a Gazette writer warned that giving space to Kappler’s “Fraser Institute/libertarian/Newt Gingrich views” could make the paper more conservative.

But to judge by the effect of the memo on Stockland’s staff, he could have scribbled it with a lump of charcoal on scrap paper. Many reporters disliked Kappler, and Stockland had heard their feelings in meetings he’d held with newsroom staff during the summer. Whether or not it was his intention, ousting Kappler made Stockland more popular. A group of staffers held an impromptu celebration the next night at a pub on Avenue Duluth in the Plateau Mont-Royal entertainment district. The party was well attended, recalls Alex Norris. “It’s the happiest I’ve seen The Gazette staff in years.” Although he remains skeptical, even Norris says this decision changed his view of Stockland. Enunciating each word to make sure he’s correctly quoted, he says, “I can only praise this bold move.” In fact, Norris says he wouldn’t have spoken about his misgivings at all if he’d been asked for an interview after the announcement about Kappler.

Stockland says he’s pleasantly surprised he’s won over many of his staff. He has been saying since he arrived that he isn’t interested in imposing a political agenda, that he hopes to transcend divisive squabbles. He likes to talk about ways of escaping the journalistic “conflict model.” One of his favourite projects at the Herald, he says, was a series of profiles of regular people. He once wrote a short review of a Chinese restaurant and didn’t think much about it until he returned to find the article taped to the restaurant’s door and people reading it, laughing. This is good journalism, he says. We don’t have to write about fights. In other words, it doesn’t have to be about tribes of men who fought for generations and will fight again. The middle-aged Peter Stockland seems to have outgrown his old persona as a feisty cameraman-puncher, spoiling for a fight. What separates him from his bloodthirsty fugitive is his supernatural ability to limp out of that cabin into the snowy woods, throw his rifle aside and talk to those who surround him. It looks impossible; surely they’ll shoot him. But instead, he seems to win their respect.

Sometime after the snow melts in spring, after this magazine hits newsstands, a redesigned Gazette is expected to start rolling off the presses at a new, $63-million production facility on Rue St-Jacques in the city’s west end. The plant isn’t much to look at now, just brick and aluminum siding plunked down in an empty lot choked with weeds and young sumac trees. Not much is being said about the redesign, either, which has been in the works for a year. But executives at the paper promise it will be livelier and more compelling. Each issue will get more colour pages and more colourful content. Perhaps most importantly for a publication that is losing readers, it will get a fresh start.

In the end, that’s what will decide the fate of Peter Stockland in Montreal. If he can make this new Gazette work, his staff may forget that he’s a tabloid man at a broadsheet paper. They’ll forget he’s a right-wing columnist transplanted into the top job at a liberal newsroom. His “hoax” comment will fade into history. It’s happening already, although he’s not out of the woods yet.