During the 1957 FEDERAL campaign, an irate western farmer asked C.D. Howe, Liberal minister of trade and commerce, how he was expected to survive with the price of oats as low as it was. When an arrogant Howe tapped the farmer on his belly and told him, “You look pretty well fed,” a young reporter from the Winnipeg Free Press photographed him as he made his point. The reporter also got a front-page story which won him a National Newspaper Award and, some say, played a part in the downfall of the government. “That was 34 years ago,” says Ted Byfield, that Free Press reporter. “Now it’s the Tories’ turn to lose.” And three decades late, he’s still giving his right-wing take on politics and society, exposing the foibles of human nature and pricking the follies of Canadian governments. But now his forum is Alberta Report, Canada’s only weekly regional newsmagazine, if you discount Maclean’s, Canada’s other weekly regional newsmagazine.
Byfield’s vision, journalistic genius and financial machinations created AR 18 years ago and continue to push it to the far edge of insolvency and to rescue it when economic gravity would pull it over the brink. And it’s Byfield’s bellicose rhetoric that has earned the magazine its reputation as the outrageous voice of the outraged West. “I was always aware,” Byfield says, “that in the great western newspaper tradition, proper western papers represented the West before they represented Canada. If we don’t speak up for the West, no one will.” The commingling of regionalism and conservatism superimposed on a Christian base that arouses the ire and scorn of its detractors is the same formula that rallies supporters. AR does not inspire neutrality.
Edward Bartlett Byfield, 62, was raised in the unstable world of newspaper journalism. His father, Vernon Byfield, worked for The Toronto Telegram and The Toronto Star in the 1920s and 1930s. “My dad told me I must never go into the news business,” says Byfield. “Anything, but don’t go into the news business. Of course it was an invitation to do it.” Byfield accepted the invitation, and made it from the Beaches in Toronto to the West Coast via The Washington Post, The Ottawa journal and dailies in northern Ontario, inching ever left across the map of Canada and right on the scale of political ideology. What Byfield did with his 1957 Winnipeg success marked him a maverick and a renegade in his profession-instead of looking east, back to the media mecca of Toronto, he continued his pilgrimage west.
He could now consider his westward migration complete. He lives on a boat in Vancouver where he’s busy with the most recent of his magazines, British Columbia Report -the one which drove the family company, Interwest Publications Inc., into bankruptcy last year.
The AR legend goes back to those Free Press days and the Green Brier Inn, where Byfield, newspaperman, and Frank Wiens, schoolteacher, fellow choristers at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, would lubricate vocal chords and facilitate theories with pints of beer. Wiens remembers discussions, perhaps in the bar, certainly at the church, deploring the fact that church and family were abdicating responsibility to promote traditional moral values, leaving the schools and the media as chief purveyors of influence.. .liberal influence. The solution was clear-the church would have to become directly involved in education and the media to save a world being taken to hell in a hand basket by liberal humanism. Education came first.
Byfield and the Company of the Cross, an Anglican lay order, founded two St. John’s boys schools in the West, one near Winnipeg in 1962, the other near Stony Plain, southwest of Edmonton, in 1968. Byfield left the Free Press to teach in both schools, but it was the one in Alberta that gave him a start on the second part of the problem-a move into the media.
The schools were Spartan, highly disciplined and self-supporting. In Winnipeg, the boys peddled homemade sausages door-to-door to raise money. But in Alberta, an aged printing press and a contract with the Edmonton Real Estate Board to print its thick weekly listings helped pay the bills. Using the same press, the Company put out the first issue 5 of St. John’s Edmonton Report in the fall of 1973, followed by the St.
John’s Calgary Report in 1976. The two became Alberta Report in 1980. Byfield knew the media, how it worked and how to use it. In an address to the Company of the Cross in 1976, Byfield said: “Effective propaganda in the print media must be subtle. It’s the implied life-style, the inferable values, the unsubstantiated moral assumption, that gets through. That’s how the media works in any cause, Christian or anti-Christian. No, we do not have a cross on the cover. What we put on the cover is designed to entice people into the magazine. What matters is not that we look Christian, but that we are Christian.”
Christianity may have been an original concept for a regional newsmagazine, but the format wasn’t. Copying Henry Luce and the early days of Time, Byfield scalped ideas and stories-in whole or in part from the daily papers and other magazines, often without acknowledgement. When AR’s 1988 redesign included a red-bordered cover, Time threatened a lawsuit over infringement of copyright. “We faced them down,” says Byfield. “Every time lawyers sent us a warning, we made it into a press release.” Time gave up and AR eventually settled for a red banner, There were no bylines in the late seventies, another Time policy. Reporting was considered a collective enterprise, not a means of personal gratification. The only signed piece was Byfield’s column. Byfield checked all copy personally before it went to press, ostensibly to edit and tighten, but often what got edited out was replaced by bald Byfield opinion.
Byfield’s weeklies got little competition from the Alberta dailies of the early 1970s. Southam’s Edmonton journal was acknowledged as the worst daily in the country at the time, and the Calgary Herald he described as “the apogean example of vested disinterest.” The Edmonton Sun, when it rose in 1979, he dismissed as “addressing itself to 12year-olds.” Byfield wrote a column in both the Calgary and Edmonton Suns during the early 1980s.
Until 1977, the Reports operated on the same minimalist financial principle as the schools-teachers and editorial staff worked for a-dollar-a-day plus food and lodging. And they did work, sometimes 80-hour work weeks, doing double duty on editorial and production. Teachers and reporters got pulled into the publishing end of things, often rising at 6 a.m. to collate real estate listings. The Edmonton Report staff lived at the school on weekends, commuting to the editorial offices in the city where after particularly long days most of them were-they h;1d the option of “going to the mattresses,” Mafia-style, in two apartments, one for each sex. A couple of years commuting over rough central Alberta roads eventually forced them to move into town, to a communal apartment building.
Reporters in those days were a mixed bunch. Some answered ads Byfield placed in newspapers across Canada, the United States and England: “Wanted: men and women to join Anglican religious order and run printing plant and newsmagazine. Salary: $1 a day plus necessities.” Some just drifted in, many with serious problems. Some worked them out, and some didn’t. There were the ex-convicts, kleptomaniacs and alcoholics. There were experienced journalists who had missed their last deadline elsewhere. Most didn’t stay long.
David Trigueiro is an editorial writer at the Calgary Herald, but in 1975, when he answered a dollar-aday ad, he was a Stanford University graduate living in Vancouver. “Everybody got a chance. Ted never checked references, just accepted everybody at face value. He would work with people who couldn’t write or had no perspective… he never quit on someone who didn’t quit first.” Trigueiro left AR for the Herald in 1979. “I was told before I started that the job was best enjoyed in retrospect.”
Byfield is still a proponent of learning on the job. “There are all kinds of things you can study,” he says, “but not journalism. It’s simply something you do.” Graduates of Byfield’s school of experiential journalism remember his mercurial temperament and newsroom rages that made learning a dangerous occupation. But most agree that AR was an incredibly valuable, if volatile, training ground and that Byfield’s ability with a story was a thing of beauty. Barry Estabrook, now editor of Eating Well magazine, was hired in 1978 as a senior editor at Eamonton Report. He stayed a year. Estabrook describes Byfield as “first and foremost a beat reporter out of the forties and fifties mold,” so driven that he would have a whole cover story redone and built up from scratch to accommodate late-breaking news.
“Ted wasn’t afraid to load a person down to the breaking point,” says Estabrook, “partly because of economics, partly the medium-it was a newsmagazine-and partly his Christian-Calvinist tenet of working.”
Neither of the Reports was ever a place where reporters felt they could make a home. Unskilled staff made for long hours; chronic cash shortages and the constant deadline of two weeklies created stress and insecurity. But Byfield resisted going commercial, figuring that if he went to salaried staff, they might want more of a life than the recruits settled for. By 1977, the dollar-a-day system was creating more problems than it was solving, and the magazines began a switch to salaried staff.
Brian Bergman is remembered by AR alumni as one of the first paid reporters. After graduating from the University of Alberta, Bergman sent his resume to Byfield. “Ted phoned me on a Saturday morning-that should have given me a clue. I started on Monday. We did five or six magazine-length stories a week. I felt I’d given up three long years of my life. Three years is almost a record.” Bergman returned to AR as editor for 1985-86, and is now an associate editor at Maclean’s in Toronto.
Salaried staff improved the quality of the finished product but did little to solve the financial problems that had plagued the magazines for as long as they existed. However, salaries were good and raises came under the most unlikely circumstances. Jack Hanna, a reporter for AR in 1981 and 1982, remembers Byfield giving him a $5,000 raise while standing at a urinal in a bar washroom. “And he followed through,” says Hanna, an Ottawa freelance writer. But the salaries were only good until funds ran out. In 1977, Dunnery Best started as a reporter with Edmonton Report at $200 a week plus expenses. “But,” says Best, assistant managing editor at The Financial Times, “when things were really tight, everybody kept cars idling in the parking lot and the guys would make a mad rush to the bank.” The last dozen or so often didn’t get their money, sometimes not until the middle of the following week.
The debt-ridden magazines were rescued, briefly, by Edmonton entrepreneur Allan Hardy, and amalgamated as Alberta Report. His death in 1980, barely a year after assuming financial management, left Byfield once again pounding on the doors of politicians and businesspeople, hat in hand. This time, brother John Byfield, a California physician, came up with $125,000 (Can) to get the Company of the Cross off the financial hook and put ownership in Byfield hands through the newly formed Interwest Publications Inc. As Alberta Report, the magazine built on its established Christian bias, carving out a market based on conservative regionalism bringing circulation over the 50,000 mark with an estimated readership of 250,000. The energy wars of the late 1970s and early 1980& gave Byfield a cause and AR a visible target for western discontent, and his back-page editorials became a must read not only for Albertans but for many enlightened central Canadians as well.
The National Energy Policy, imposed in 1980 by the Trudeau Liberals, inspired one of Byfield’s more trenchant attacks on the federal government and Pierre Trudeau, of whom he wrote: “People say that he is indifferent to Western Canada, and this may once have been true. I think it is true no longer. He now hates us, and passionately. It is the hatred of the socialist for the individualist, the cold fear of the highborn for the self-made, the aversion of the theorist for the pragmatist, the derision of the urbanist for the peasant, the disdain of the intellectual for the uncouth, the contempt of the Gaul for the Slav. All these hatreds have helped to dictate the posture of the Trudeau government towards the West, and on Tuesday, the 28th of October, they were paraded before the nation in the form of public policy.” Even now, Byfield gets angry just thinking about it.
By the mid-1980s, Byfield was taking a less active part in the daily operation of the magazine, putting his son Link forward as publisher in 1985 while he continued to write his editorials and work on a book about the struggle between Islam and Christianity. “If I’m accused of nepotism,” says Byfield, “I delightedly plead guilty. The idea of familyowned publications hardly began with us. It means you have to pass the thing on from one generation to another. The alternative is to have Maclean Hunter and Southam own all the industry.” Of Byfield’s six children, five have at one time or another been part of the business. Sons Link and Mike are with AR, Vincent has recently joined the family business and daughters Phillip a Dean and Mary Frances have, in the past, been on the company payroll. Virginia, their mother, is a senior writer at B.C. Report, and there is a general belief that she also has the dubious distinction of being the only one allowed to edit Ted’s copy.
However, militant regionalism became a less marketable commodity as Alberta’s economy improved into the eighties. To broaden the magazine’s readership base-by this time circulation was more than 55,000and keep western advertising dollars from crossing the Red River, Byfield started a sister publication, Western Report, really a Siamese twin. Operating on the assumption of a pan-western view, the new magazine, a reworked version of AR, simply stripped in a new logo, substituted news from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. for Alberta pieces…and waited for the prairie region to rally.
Bad timing. In the spring of 1986, an oil price drop drove the Alberta economy once again into a short, sharp recession.
Circulation for both magazines dropped as expenses continued to rise, and the 3,500 WR subscribers hardly seemed worth the $1,500 to strip in the Western Report flag each month. Satisfying Prairie and B.C. readers and advertisers was proving an impossible task for one magazine; neither region was particularly interested in news of the other. Byfield’s solution, in the fall of 1989, was the creation of British Columbia Report, an attempt to divide the western market into more manageable chunks. Thin financing, however, and failure to get approval for public share offerings, put Interwest Publications Inc., $4 million into debt and into receivership by June of last year.
Reminiscent of the magazine’s early years, when Alberta’s business people and politicians would respond to Byfield’s financial entreaties, the oil industry came to the rescue of the publication that represented their interests. Number 419257 Alberta Inc., represented by Calgary oilmen John Scrymgeour and Donald Graves, put up $1.8 million for the magazine assets, leaving Interwest to disappear into bankruptcy. The name United Western Communications Ltd., has replaced the number, subscriptions have increased to $79 a year from $69 and the Byfields are still calling the editorial shots. They have, however, been virtually excluded from financial management…much to everyone’s relief.
Whether Byfield creates or just rides the wave of economic and political interest in the Canadian West, his editorial shots have consistently put AR on its crest. He credits the magazine with coining the phrase “Triple E Senate” more than a decade ago, and AR’s support of free trade is simply the continuation of traditional Western Canadian interest and reliance on the international economic market. “Ontario is largely a domestic market,” says Byfield. “We’re selling oil, natural gas, forestry and mineral products to the world.” Byfield, a Conservative supporter until 10 years ago, has taken a further step to the political right with his support of Preston Manning’s Reform Party of Canada. Byfield delivered the keynote speech for the Western Assembly, a precursor to the Reform Party, in 1988. “They’re the only hope we have,” Byfield says now. “I think they’re going to sweep the West.” However, AR maintains a critical distance from the party. “You can’t be a practitioner and a commentator on politics.”
But, it’s his ideas outside the political and economic spheres that attract the scorn, and even ridicule, of a large segment of Canadian society in the West and in the East. With views that appear oddly outdated and out of place in a society bent on adapting itself into moral mediocrity, Byfield’s back-page AR editorials, Westview, mark him a true dissenter in a liberal world. He consistently places before his readers the ideologies of unfashionable causes-critiques of the women’s liberation movement, rejection of gay rights and abortion.
Typical of the intellectual response of Toronto-centric liberals is that of Michael Valpy, Globe and Mail columnist, and as much a crusader for fragile causes as Byfield different causes, opposing views. In the December 7, 1990 Globe, Valpy wrote of his reluctance to quote the Byfields, Ted and Link, “for fear of encouraging people to take them seriously.” Valpy saw a curious and coincidental connection between Ted’s editorial of the previous week, supporting the Catholic Church’s rejection of women priests, and the anniversary of the Montreal massacre. Journalists want to be taken seriously, even those in Western Canada. Therefore, much of what makes it out of the West to become part of public discourse in the rest of the country has been sanitized, purged of its redneck, regional idiom to render it acceptable to eastern sensibilities. Byfield has never bothered with the process; he’s always written for a western audience, settling instead for replacing dialect with dialectic. Some readers like the combination, some don’t. But they do read it.