The Town Hall theatre at the University of Toronto is a modern haven of academia. The chairs are plush and comfortable, and the room, though it seats around 200, has an atmosphere that manages to be both intimate and scholarly. The people filling the hall on this Thursday evening in mid-November 1995 come in a range of ages: a small number are under 20, wearing student uniforms of jeans and jackets; most are in their mid-30s and 40s, and among them are a handful of the bearded, academic variety. But there are others too, who are certainly in their 70s.
This eclectic crowd has gathered for the Harold Innis Memorial Lecture. The evening’s subject is “How Business Journalism Took Over the World: The Disappearing Notion of the Common Good.” The speaker is Linda McQuaig.
Journalist, bestselling author, and oft-requested guest speaker, McQuaig takes her place at the microphone and enjoys herself. She’s smart, funny and passionate-a dynamic figure with a runner’s build. To emphasize a point, she cups the air with her hands, or leans forward, one arm stretched full across the lectern. Her voice punctuates her sentences, rising almost to a squeak as it takes off, and then, brought back to earth, becomes deep and assured. Tonight’s audience hears the echoes of its own anxieties, delivered in a direct and entertaining style. Anti-inflation policies, she says, warming to her theme, have been responsible for high unemployment-the highest negation of the public good. Collective goals, she warns, are impossible without the sense of personal value which comes from work.
After 20 years as a journalist, McQuaig has been embraced bv a large community of people who not only need to hear what she has to say, they need to claim her as their own. Their response to McQuaig is spurred by an uncomfortable suspicion that all is not well in Canadian society. She articulates and substantiates their concerns, and in so doing makes a significant contribution to public debate. “I’m reminded of a speech by Jane Kelsey, a professor at the University of Auckland,” says The Toronto Star’s Richard Gwyn. “She’d just written a book critiquing [the debt and deficit cutting in] New Zealand. When the change happened in 1984, it provoked very little opposition. Kelsey said, ‘We had no alternative because all of us on the left or the centre left had spent all the proceeding years talking and thinking only about social policy and foreign policy and we’d become economic illiterates.” But in Canada, says Gwyn,”Linda McQuaig has filled part of that vacuum.”
Hers is the voice of a dissident, somewhat of a rarity in Canadian journalism. For that, she is both applauded and attacked. Throughout, she has continued to pursue her own ideas and interests, to present analyses that have evolved from her convictions.
At the end of her speech, McQuaig takes questions. One young man steps up and thanks her for writing her books on the politics of economic issues.
These books have all become bestsellers-and unlikely ones given their subject matter: Behind Closed Doors (1987) is an examination of the inequities of Canada’s tax system; The Quick and the Dead: Brian Mulroney, Big Business and the Seduction of Canada (1991) exposes the pro-business motive behind the Canada-U.S. free trade deal; The Wealthv Banker’s Wife (1993) presents a strong rationale for the welfare state; and Shooting The Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths (1995) concerns the Bank of Canada’s role in creating the deficit.
The books, says the young man, are a valuable public service, worth far more than what’s commonly dished out by politicians. McQuaig laughs. She’s made uncomfortable by such statements. But the audience applauds its agreement.
At 44, McQuaig is a remarkably complex combination of impassioned and meticulous journalist, articulate author, fiery speaker, and mini-skirted femme fatale. She is also thoroughly unpretentious and quick to give credit when she feels it’s due. A petite blonde with a great big smile that transforms her face, she has an engaging ability to laugh at herself. Ian Austen, freelance journalist and old friend, remembers a time when “it was alleged that in Spanish there was a word, lagarto, which meant both lounge lizard and freelance journalist; McQuaig adopted that for her occupational title.”
While McQuaig can poke fun at her job, she is dead serious about the themes she explores. “What interests me,” she says, “has always been how the elite is using its clout and its influence and its power to make the system favorable to its own interests. It’s a view that everybody implicitly agrees with, but if you use evidence to back that up in a news story, you get all kinds of resistance in the media.” In 1996, at a time when the neoconservative views once considered extreme are now firmly entrenched in the mainstream media, McQuaig is a strong counterforce.
Still, she dislikes labels and is not formally associated with any left-wing organization. “I would come down strongly on the egalitarian side and for a strong public sector. To me, ‘public’ just represents a notion of the common good, that there’s a common sphere that we all have-a community of interests,” she says, summing up her position.
Most of McQuaig’s work is contained within a moral framework that challenges the status quo and presents a case for a perspective that is less represented in the mainstream press. She is one of the few Canadian journalists who is willing to comb through arcane material often considered too dull or too contrary to have real value. Her method and commentary carry on a tradition established in the early 1900s by one of journalism’s first muckrakers, Ida Tarbell. Her lengthy, serialized magazine accounts of the back-door deals that lead to John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly in the burgeoning oil industry were based on years of original research. Tarbell’s expos?s of the systems that enabled the transfer of wealth from the many to the few, like McQuaig’s book-length examinations of the intricacies of government policy and business practice, were hugely popular with the reading public. McQuaig offers a simple description for what she does: “I take a lot of the stuff that’s known to a small group of experts, information that contradicts popular perceptions, and I put it in readable form so ordinary people can have access to it.”
In Shooting the Hippo, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award, she writes: “The anti-deficit campaign has been portrayed as a non-ideological battle against a common foe. We are told, ‘The debt problem has become so extreme that we have no choice but to cut social spending.’ Now, imagine if a media commentator made the following assertion: ‘The debt problem has become so extreme that we have no choice but to raise taxes on the rich….’ Both statements express opinions-opinions about how the resources in our society should be divided up. What is remarkable is how, in the first case, the opinion expressed has become so widely endorsed and often repeated that its bias has become all but invisible.”
McQuaig reworks the dry matter of economics into simmering thrillers. Whether she’s tackling tax policy or free trade, she draws vivid and memorable characters. In Behind Closed Doors, she introduces Mickey Cohen, then president of Paul and Albert Reichmann’s Olympia and York Enterprises and a man who had previously worked in both the Trudeau and Mulroney administrations: “Cohen is the ultimate chief of staff, the loyal servant at the top, dedicated to understanding his master’s wishes and delivering them. He is the trusted knight in the prince’s court, the one chosen to walk within a few paces of his master. To Cohen, Reichmann is simply ‘Paul.'”
The response to the publication of Shooting the Hippo in the spring of 1995 ranged from high praise to damning condemnation. “Some things aren’t worth debating, wrote The Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne, who satirized McQuaig’s writing: “Conventional wisdom has it that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. However, in my iconoclastic new book, Hooting the Dippos, I challenge this self-serving orthodoxy……” Freelance journalist William Watson, writing in Montreal’s The Gazette, called McQuaig’s ideas “mindless, leftist dreck.” Other critics charged her with making too much of “a little learning” and of reducing complex issues into tidy moral arguments that allow for facile solutions.
Maclean’s Anthony Witson-Smith wrote that McQuaig’s theories, “like mood rings, bell-bottoms and pet rocks, have been discarded and discredited for more than a decade.” At the root of the criticism is the belief that McQuaig’s polemics ignore national and global fiscal realities. Report on Business Magazine’s Anne Walmsley wrote, “[McQuaig’s] central argument rests on pick-and-choose facts and unsubstantiated accusations.”
Her supporters, however, are quick to point out that she is a skilled analyst whose ideas are based on the work of highly respected scholars such as Pierre Fortin, president of the Canadian Economics Association, whose economic theory is central to McQuaig’s commentary in Shooting the Hippo. “I myself don’t subscribe to many of her arguments,” savs Gwyn, “but I certainly appreciate that she had the guts and the intelligence to come up with a coherent intellectual criticism.”
Noam Chomsky, American linguist and policy critic, says McQuaig’s role is to make “people question what they have drilled into their heads… indispensable in any society that even pretends to be functioning democracy.” In The Ottawa Citizen, Susan Riley wrote: “McQuaig’s book … [is] powered by ideas that are repudiated or belittled by those who now hold power. Indeed, the ferocity of the attacks [on her] shows how dangerous these ideas are.”
But when the attacks come, McQuaig is well armed and ready to defend herself. She spends hours in interviews and wades through volumes of reports, statistics, documents and history. Tax professor Neil Brooks, one of the experts she’s used in her work, says, “She always insists on seeing the studies herself, and going over them very, very carefully. She continues to push her sources until she understands exactly what they’re saying and what the implications are.”
Her perseverance is combined with a pleasantly vague interview style and the natural stops and starts of her somewhat scattered conversational manner. “She can feign being extremely ill-informed and naive,” savs Ian Austen, “and as the interview progresses, and the subject is drawn in, her debating techniques come to the fore and she closes the trap.”
Friends and colleagues call McQuaig brave, a notion she dismisses as ridiculous. “I don’t want to labeled as a rebel,” she says. “I fundamentally don’t deserve that.” But she can certainly be called somewhat eccentric. While she’s able to distill the essential tenets of economic theory, she can also be amusingly vascillating. “Take McQuaig to a restaurant and, if you’ve been there before, she wants you to order for her,” says Austen chuckling. When the waitress arrives, McQuaig’ll ask,”‘Now this poached chicken, how is it cooked?” or, ‘This baked potato, do you bake it?…”
In the ’70s, she co-owned a house in Toronto’s east end with Tom Walkom, now columnist with The Toronto Star, and three other friends. The house, affectionately dubbed “The Pit”, was home to weekly dinner parties attended by artists, academics and media folk. It was also the location for a parade of oddballs and friends of friends that showed up for gigantic house parties which were, recalls Austen, a “fire marshal’s nightmare.”
McQuaig was probably best known back then for her flamboyant approach to clothes. At parties, says Austen, she would appear in “skimpy, mad things, inevitably in some feline print, and very tiny.” She is unabashedly flirtatious, with a long string of romantic relationships behind her. Most of the men, however, remain good friends. Eight years ago, she met defence lawyer Fred Fedorsen. “We fell in love and decided we wanted to get married and have children,” recalls McQuaig. “We bought a house together after we’d known each other for something like two months?really amazing,” She was devastated when the marriage ended in 1994. But their four-year-old daughter Amy is her joy. That’s evident when McQuaig tells her ‘cute kid’ story. She recalls overhearing Amy talking on her toy phone: “…Yes … yes … I have to go now-I have to make a speech on the deficit.”
In the late ’80s, McQuaig’s collegial sense of burnout made her a central figure in what was called Mellowville, a corner of the The Globe and Mail’s newsroom that was a haven for those reporters who sought an antidote to the paper’s rather stodgy and conservative environment. Mellowville pranks were halted shortly after the gang sent cockroaches housed in tape cassette cases to each of the paper’s national bureaus.
McQuaig could take as good as she gave. The copy on the promotional material for her first book read: “It could start a class war in Canada.” Colleagues from the Mellowville Art Gallery pasted photographs of Stalin, McQuaig and Lenin to the bottom of the promotions. “We festooned the office,” recalls Kirk Makin, the Globe’s justice reporter. “You could do something like that which would, at the very least, embarrass her and maybe even jeopardize her career, and she would never complain.”
In the mid-’80s, McQuaig combined her sense of humour and feminist ideas with a lively, entrepreneurial venture. She tried to duplicate the success of Trivial Pursuit with a board game aimed at a decidedly adult audience. McQuaig describes The Make-Out Game as “a satire on the different ways men and women approach sex.” The explicit graphic design on the board (a women wearing only high heels with legs spread wide) and the titillating rules are the vehicle for a hilarious feminist statement on the contradictory approaches of men and women to sexual negotiations. “My only embarrassment,” says McQuaig, “is that it was a flop.”
McQuaig was born into a comfortable middle-class family in 1951. Both of her parents trained as psychologists. Her father Jack, now semi-retired, established the McQuaig Institute of Executive Development and wrote books on personal development. Her mother, Audrey, gave up her own career to raise three boys and two girls.
“Linda was a rough and tumble kid with a yen to win,” says Audrey, who has kept all of the trophies her second-eldest child won in the school’s annual 100-yard dash. “She was much more willing to try things” than her older brother, who was constantly challenged to keep up with her. At age 7 she published the DeVere Weekly, a one-page newspaper named after the quiet north Toronto street on which the family lived. The last issue was published when McQuaig was 9; its focus was the birth of her sister Wendy. “The morning [after the birth] I got a neighbourhood teenager to type it, and I raced out and delivered it that afternoon,” laughs McQuaig.
That discipline and determination spilled into the family dynamic. She describes her father as politically conservative, but with a strong sense of social justice. Consequently, she adds, “Everybody [in the family] had a strong position on things. We all absorbed this incredible interest in politics.” Fervent dinner table discussion centred on social and political issues-great grounding for the presidency of the debating society at Branksome Hall, a private school for girls she attended from 1963 to 1970.
Branksome was an environment that challenged and supported McQuaig, and she graduated with the Governor General’s medal for academic achievement. Gene Allen, a producer with CBC’s Witness documentary series, recalls meeting McQuaig at Bishop Ridley College when the boarding-school boys debated the Branksome girls. Allen recalls a girl with a disposition to challenge authority, to ask questions. McQuaig was “exotic,” smiles Allen, “She was really smart and funny-could tear up anybody in debate.” She was a sexy intellectual.
“I always felt very frustrated by the role of girls,” recalls McQuaig. When she discovered Simone DeBeauvoir at age 14, she was struck by the concept that gender does not determine fate. Along with the notion that women could directly pursue their own goals came what McQuaig describes as an absolutely crucial lesson. “The social institutions in our lives are not a reflection of human nature,” she says, “they’re a reflection of social creating …. Once you see that, you’re free to challenge the institutions that dominate our lives.”
McQuaig took that philosophy with her to the University of Toronto, where she first became involved in journalism. Her friend, Tom Walkom, was a couple of years ahead of her and worked on The Varsity, one of the university’s student papers. “She’s always been moved by injustice, by a sense of fairness,” he says. Once angered, or intrigued, McQuaig worked hard to get the story.
In 1971 she took off her second year of studies to work as co-editor with Walkom on The Varsity. “In those days,” says McQuaig, “there was a real tradition of political activism. We were interested in all those political issues, but at the same time we were interested in journalistic integrity. If we had a vision, it was to make a really good newspaper.”
As a reporter, McQuaig recognized the value of storytelling. She searched for ways to bring a strong narrative to her stories, unwilling to act simply as observer and recorder. The Varsity staff’s decision to accept recruiting advertisements from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a strip club prompted two first-hand stories. “Rather than censor such ads, they should be printed, but at the same time examined, first-hand, and exposed for what they are really selling,” wrote the editors. McQuaig and three other reporters responded to an ad for topless dancers. She vividly remembers her audition, dancing to The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and then giving Varsity readers a vivid taste of how the women felt, stripped to the waist, dancing on stage for an indifferent audience: “Kill, kick, spit, God, no longer nervous, just angry. Fuck, I hate it …. I hate them for watching me.” It was, she says, the sort of journalism where, “you’re trying to bring stories to life by going out and getting right into them.”
Her strong story sense landed her a full-time job at the Globe in 1974, where she had already proved herself as a summer student who could get front-page stories. One of her early sucesses was a refugee deportation story trial that concerned a Uruguayan who feared he’d be tortured if returned to his homeland. At the time, the Canadian government believed the ruling regime tolerated political dissent. In her story, McQuaig pointed out otherwise and learned a double-barreled lesson: “Never trust what officials tell you,” and “When people throw sources at you, check the source.”
While daily reporting can be gratifying, it does have constraints, and so in 1976, McQuaig left the Globe. Her intention was to pursue a PhD in history, but she went instead to Paris to recover from the emotional aftermath of a too complicated love-life. While there, she learned French and wrote a novel (a semi-autobiographical tale of a woman journalist in Paris who has an affair with an Arab worker). It was never published, “because,” she laughs, “I’m sure it was no good.”
Always eager for a challenge, McQuaig’s adventurous spirit compelled her to try different forms of journalism and to travel. In 1977, she joined CBC radio’s As It Happens as a story producer. Co-worker Pamela Wallin, now host of her own CBC Newsworld show, recalls McQuaig as someone “with a sharp focus of what was important in the world.” Once intrigued, adds Wallin, McQuaig would “dissect and explain and expose.”
In 1979, McQuaig went to Iran as a freelancer to report on the Khomeini revolution. She filed stories for the CBC, the Globe and Maclean’s. In 1982, she took time away from her job at Maclean’s to go to Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank. As well as reporting on the war, she also wrote on the media’s coverage of the West Bank and the Palestinians. One of those pieces appeared in THIS Magazine, one of Canada’s few contrary left-wing mediums. The article lead to Noam Chomsky, whom she introduced to Maclean’s readers in 1982. Along with some of Chomsky’s earlier work, she’d read Manufacturing Consent, an analysis of the propagandist nature of the U.S. mass media, and had been immediately engaged by his ideas.
McQuaig joined Maclean’s as a senior writer in 1981. Her most controversial story was a February 1983 investigation into Canadian financier Conrad Black’s attempted take-over bid of Hanna Mining. Co-written with Ian Austen, then assistant business editor, it was her first major investigative piece on Canada’s elite. (Much later, in a 1989 Toronto Sun column, Black obviously still felt the sting. He called her “a weedy and not very bright leftist reporter.”)
But far more significant for McQuaig was an article she’d read by tax professor Neil Brooks. After interviewing him, she came away convinced she’d met “a brilliant guy who understood every nuance in the system, and who is a deeply progressive person.” The resulting story, which appeared on May 2, 1983, was the first piece that articulated the ideas that would become a recurring theme in her work, Under the title “Canada’s tax system: Is it fair?” McQuaig wrote a provocative analysis of how tax breaks favoured the rich. “While there are more than 100 tax breaks open to all Canadian taxpayers,” she wrote, “their benefits go overwhelmingly to the wealthy.”
In January 1984, McQuaig returned to the Globe, where, under managing editor Geoffrey Stevens, she was granted a great deal of latitude. Though she was hired as a political reporter, she continued to pursue tax stories. “My theory,” says Stevens, “is that if you have a reporter who has a nose for a certain kind of story and can do a good job, give them their head. You couldn’t have six people on staff all trying to write tax stories, but in fact, Linda was the only one out chasing a lot of those stories and she’s very good at it.” McQuaig flourished in that environment. One front-page story, which described how 239 wealthy Canadians escaped paying taxes, had a direct influence on public policy. In the 1984 federal election leader’s debate, the New Democratic Party’s Ed Broadbent challenged Conservative leader Brian Mulroney with McQuaig’s figures, causing Mulroney to promise, and later implement, a minimum income tax.
In the fall of 1988, after a year’s leave of absence to write her first book, Behind Closed Doors, McQuaig was back at the Globe, keeping a sharp eye on tax stories. The Mulroney government’s Goods and Services Tax was still in the planning stages at the time, but McQuaig was on it quickly. In the weeks leading up to the November 21 federal election, her GST stories had begun to generate wide media attention. Midway through the campaign she was abruptly removed from the tax beat. The GST was threatening to divert attention from what was otherwise a single-issue campaign, focused on free trade. The independence McQuaig had enjoyed was gone.
She does not know who gave the order to remove her from the tax stories, but the message was clear enough. “I certainly realized at that point that the Globe was not pleased with certain things I was doing,” says McQuaig, “I was really, really, disappointed.”
Certainly the paper had reached the end of an era: within three months, William Thorsell would replace Norman Webster as editor-in-chief, managing editor Stevens would leave under disagreeable circumstances in January 1989, and publisher A. Roy Megarry would continue to steer the Globe into a more conservative future. The paper no longer had room for reporters who constantly tested its flexibility.
“She’s like a dog with a rag,” says Kirk Makin, “and if they won’t run a story, she gets a new angle. She’s just tenacious when she thinks that there’s something that has to be said.”
“I think Linda sort of outgrew The Globe and Mail,” says Stevens. “She was doing stories which required a fair commitment from management and from her editors, and required a willingness on the part of the paper to tackle subjects which weren’t always popular with some of their more influential readers or advertisers. I think it got to a point where, basically, that support wasn’t there.”
McQuaig left the Globe in the spring of 1990-she had asked for another year’s leave of absence to write her second book, The Quick and the Dead, but the paper offered her less than three months. “I’ve found that every place in the media there’s always a fair bit of restraint in terms of the subjects you’re encouraged to pursue,” she says, “whereas [when] you write a book, the freedom is just phenomenal. It’s very satisfying to be able to gather all the information you can and write it up in the way that you think is most effective and truthful,”
Linda McQuaig is busy nowadays. She has begun work on another book and has been out promoting the paperback edition of Shooting the Hippo, launched in March. She still writes occasionally for Eye (a Toronto-based entertainment weekly owned by The Toronto Star) because she is drawn to its irreverent editorial style, and enjoys its “off-the-wall sense of humour.” She files a weekly two-minute commentary for CBC’s Infotape, a freelance news service that is distributed to morning shows across the country, and packs in as many speaking engagements as she can handle. She handles the bookings herself-an agent would eat into the fees-and the income subsidizes her writing. As her own agent, she’s also free to speak to groups who have little or no money to pay her.
People come to hear her speak because they have read, or have heard about, her books. Duncan Cameron, editor of The Canadian Forum, points to the precariousness of her position: “She’s very vulnerable in the sense that she has to produce a title that’s worthy of notice every three or four years at the most …. She’s doing all this fine work, but she’s in a small market with a Canadian subject.” Cameron, who is also president of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-wing think tank based in Ottawa, says McQuaig’s work is read and cited in political circles. It “puts the pressure on them, turns the heat up,” he says. Charlotte Gray, former political columnist for Saturday Night magazine, disagrees. She believes McQuaig’s ideas have little influence in Ottawa. “She challenges the prevailing wisdom in Canada, but the prevailing wisdom is ironclad convention in Ottawa. I don’t know that she has influence on anyone in power.”
The ideas McQuaig reveals are not original, but they’re rarely heard and that’s why people are anxious to read her books and hear her speak. “I do pride myself on being a good reporter,” she says, “The fact that I’ve been able to develop a political or philosophical point of view is, to me, icing on the cake. The main thing is to get the facts out.”
Two months after her town hall appearance, McQuaig is back on the U of T campus. It’s a blustery January night, and at the Hart House Theatre, people are lined along the length of the stonewalled hallway and up the stairs almost to the front door. The theatre seats 459, and the doorkeepers have warned that it’s almost full. Around the entrance there is a gauntlet of people selling papers named the Socialist Worker or The Militant. The anticipatory chatter of the crowd is punctuated by the occasional chant of “stop the Harris cuts.”
At the front of the line a man is selling buttons for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. McQuaig arrives with five minutes to spare for her speaking engagement. Moving quickly along the side of the line-up, head dipped, she stops and buys a button. Her $2 contribution made, she hurries into the hall unrecognized. Moments later, those in the line-up (as many as 200) are told the hall is full. The predominantly left-wing student crowd disperses slowly, frustrated and disappointed.
McQuaig is increasingly attacked at such gatherings-for not going far enough, for not offering prescriptions for action. The politically turbulent times have placed McQuaig in the peculiar position of having to defend herself not only against the charges from the right, but increasingly against those from the left who think that she should do even more to fix what they perceive as Canada’s problems. The information that drives debate is no longer enough.
“I do get criticized because I’m not activist enough,” says McQuaig of the people who tell her, “‘Your books don’t go far enough … this is no good to us in the labour movement, you never take it to the next step.'” While McQuaig appreciates their frustrations, she’s not about to be swayed. “I’m just a journalist. And I get criticized for that a lot. But I’m quite adamant about that. I don’t want to be more than a journalist.”