Last spring, eight people were kneeling on the chancel steps at the front of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Toronto. Heads bent, eyes closed, they listened as the minister delivered the service of ordination, admitting them to the congregation’s elders. One of the eight was writer and journalist Stevie Cameron. Shaking slightly from kneeling-years of playing sports have left the 52-year-old Cameron with weak knees-she watched the minister touch each of the elders-elect with his right hand, explaining not only the importance of faith, but of humility. Elders should be humble; feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy are proof the eight are indeed worthy of the honour. Cameron needed help to stand up when the short service ended and the hymns started. Kneeling for so long had made her dizzy. She joined her husband, David, at their regular place in the church, close to the back. At a small reception after the service, Cameron seemed tired as she spoke cheerfully to people milling around big tables heaped with tiny, crustless sandwiches and bowls of jellied salads. She talked distractedly about a speaking engagement the next night for a PEN benefit and having to make the red-eye flight to Halifax after that. She was defending herself in a libel suit, ironically, not for her latest book, On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years, but for an article she had written nearly five years earlier in The Globe and Mail. When she was congratulated on her appointment as an elder, she shook her head and said quietly, “But why me? I’m not good enough for this.”

Cameron can be humble about her accomplishments, like the work she’s done for the past four years feeding and sheltering homeless people through a program she and a friend helped organize at her church. She is usually gentle with her characterizations (even of people who aren’t as delicate when they describe her), tempering each barb with a compliment; and she’s stingy with her expletives, sometimes choosing a cute euphemism over a more colloquial expression. (“I promised myself in ’87 I’d never do another decorating story,” she says, referring to her Globe expose on the scope of the Mulroneys’ renovations at 24 Sussex. “They always get me in deep poo.”) But her Presbyterian politeness fades to black when Cameron is confronted with a cover-up, a conflict of interest or an instance of corruption. And she’s not as gentle when responding to the accusations of her critics. “He’s a perfectly nice guy,” she says of conservative Report on Business columnist Terence Corcoran, one of the latest to hurl accusations of inaccuracy at Cameron’s research. “He’s a shitty reporter, though.”

Cameron admits criticism does affect her. “I’m just the kid from high school who wants everyone to like her,” she says. And a lot of people do. Even though he believes that she made mistakes in her book, Allan Fotheringham has written that Cameron “just possibly surpasses John Sawatsky as the finest investigative reporter in the land.” In a Globe review of On the Take, former managing editor Clark Davey concluded that “Conservatives who read this book will weep for their party. Other Canadians must weep for their country.”

But there are still those who dismiss her work as gossip and innuendo. In a review of On the Take published in his magazine, Saturday Night, Conrad Black described Cameron as an “inelegant, hectoring writer, endlessly patting herself on the head for original revelations of no significance” and wondered where she got off making her accusations. It’s a question Cameron has asked herself, one that led her back to church as an active member after a 25-year hiatus, but in the end her “capacity for sustained moral outrage,” as Richard Gwyn put it in a Toronto Star review of On The Take, compelled her to tell the story. In a letter to the editor published in Maclean’s in 1989, Cameron described herself as a “run-of-the-mill equal-opportunity offender; not anti-Tory, just anti-sleaze.” It’s that morality and Presbyterian conscience that make Cameron a confusing combination: vicious in print and benign in person.

To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.

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RRJ in Review