My checkered past
Currently I work at the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada's capital.
Ottawa is a beautiful city, and I love working in the political arena. Ottawa is also loathed by many Canadians, who regard it as a centre of convoluted bureaucratic thinking, far removed from the everyday lives of most Canadians. I've learned to love and hate Ottawa. Without a doubt, it is Canada's most bureaucratic and anal retentive city. That's why I choose to live in the tranquility of the Gatineau Hills, and to escape Ottawa whenever possible to the joie de vivre of Montréal, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Toronto, or the down-home rural environment of southern Ontario, where I also have deep roots. At the same time, as the national capital, Ottawa is a showcase for all that is Canadian. It straddles Canada's two major linguistic groups, English and French, and it is home to many interesting museums and cultural events.
My checkered past has taken me along many roads, and it helps to explain my many interests, as well as where I am today.
I was born in Toronto in 1954, and my youth alternated between living in what is now Canada's largest city, and spending time in the countryside near Orangeville, Ontario, where my family roots go back four generations. At age 15, my family spent a year in Europe, and I was bitten by the travel bug. I began hitchhiking around Ireland, and despite the warnings of my parents, I hitched through Northern Ireland at a time (in 1970) when "the troubles" between Catholics and Protestants were escalating. Frequently on getting into a car, I was asked if I was Protestant or Catholic. My usual response was "Canadian." The experience matured me far beyond my 15 years.
Upon returning to Canada in 1970, I considered my time at Toronto's Jarvis Collegiate Institute as little better than a prison term. While fellow students skipped classes to go to the pool hall, I skipped classes to go to the library and immerse myself in National Geographic magazines. When I finished grade 11, I dropped out, ignoring warnings that I was destined to spend the rest of my life doing menial factory work. For several years I alternated between working and travelling. See On the Road for more about my later travels.
In 1975, I decided to return to school as a mature student in the Journalism program at Humber College on the edge of Toronto. I had a world experience that most of my fellow students lacked, and had become quite used to "roughing it." I spent part of the winter of 1975-76 living in an igloo I built in the woods behind the college in order to save on rent. Although my grades were excellent, I still wasn't ready to settle down, and spent another year working in several parts of Canada, including in a mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, followed by an overland trip to India, before returning to finish my Journalism program.
My first newspaper job after graduating in 1980 was at a brand new paper called the Parry Sound Beacon, that went into competition against the old, established Parry Sound North Star. We were a tabloid, and we reported on many court stories and local political "scandals" that the more conservative and staid North Star wouldn't touch for fear of offending the community. Every week, I attended provincial court to watch local petty criminals paraded before a dour judge who lectured them about shoplifting, drunken driving, drug possession, breaking and entering, and a host of other offences. These provided excellent fodder for our "Beacon Briefs," short little items that named names. Occasionally a murder trial or other serious offence provided great interest.
Watching court every week, I got to know many of the local police. I was fascinated by the legal arguments, and sometimes wished I'd become a lawyer. One local lawyer, who specialized in areas other than criminal court, was a fellow called Ernie Eves. Ernie wasn't particularly colourful, and I didn't pay him much notice until he decided to seek the Progressive Conservative provincial nomination to replace the outgoing MPP. In those days, I never would have guessed that Ernie would go on to become Premier of Ontario. Much more colourful was his Liberal opponent in the 1981 election, a broadcaster-environmentalist named Richard Thomas, about whom I'd written several stories. Richard made national news after I did some articles about how he was deliberately challenging Canada's bootlegging laws. He made moonshine that he used as an environmentally friendly fuel in his converted Volvo. He was subsequently charged with bootlegging, but declared victory when the feds decided to drop the case rather than be held to ridicule for prosecuting the tee-totalling environmentalist.
In the election campaign, Eves blandly mouthed Conservative platitudes, while Thomas articulately challenged the status quo with his revolutionary ideas about developing a greener society. The election was like nothing I'd seen before or since. The NDP candidate admitted he didn't have a chance, and asked his voters to support Thomas in order to beat Eves. I covered the cliffhanger election for several radio stations. In the end, Eves won by just six votes, earning him the nickname "Landslide Eves." I have never again underestimated the value of a single vote.
After a short stint as editor in Alliston, Ontario, I landed a job as editor at the Reporter in Stony Plain, Alberta, and moved west in early 1982. One of my first stories was to cover a local rally of a new western separatist party called the Western Canada Concept (WCC). I parked several blocks away and walked, because my car still had Ontario license plates. The WCC was on a high because they had just elected a member, Gordon Kesler, to the legislature in a by-election. In the minutes that followed, I had a crash course in Western Canadian alienation. Though I was previously aware of regional differences, I had no idea the anger that was directed against such icons as official bilingualism, the metric system, the National Energy Program, Pierre Trudeau, secularism, and a host of other "evils" identified with Central Canada and Ottawa. In the 15 years that followed, I came to understand Western alienation, and even had many of my previous assumptions changed, though I've never embraced some of the more extreme Western views.
Stony Plain, just west of Edmonton, was in the Yellowhead constituency of Joe Clark, who had briefly been Prime Minister, but was still the leader of the Tories and the official opposition when I arrived. I tried a number of times to get an interview with him, but his handlers kept me away, and he was rarely in the constituency. In June 1983, I was sent to Ottawa by the newspaper chain I worked for to cover the Tory leadership convention, and I also freelanced for my former paper in Parry Sound. Joe Clark was being challenged as leader by a smooth-talking corporate hatchet man named Brian Mulroney. Trying to cover the local angle, I hung out with the Yellowhead, Wetaskiwin, and Parry Sound-Muskoka delegates to get their views on events as they unfolded. Some of the Clark delegates openly admitted, in the word of one, their "hate" for Mulroney. It had been a dirty leadership campaign, and Clark was seen as having been stabbed in the back by Mulroney. It was, however, the ancient Parry Sound-Muskoka MP Stan Darling who provided me with the best quote about Mulroney: "He looks like he was made in a science lab," said the plain-speaking Darling. "I want to stick a pin in him to see if he bleeds." Of course I had to use that quote! It summed up Mulroney, who was known for changing his shirts several times a day and keeping his blow-dried hair in place while forcing a smarmy smile.
After Clark lost to Mulroney, I was invited to lunch at Stornoway, the official residence of the opposition leader, where I managed a brief interview with Clark. My impression of Clark was that he was essentially decent and well-meaning. Though not stupid, he utterly lacked the strategic vision that is so necessary in politics. His loss to Mulroney resulted from that lack of strategy and his own naiveté. Though Mulroney stabbed him in the back, Clark remained a loyal gentleman, but only a mediocre politician.
Computer Geek Publisher
In 1982, I developed an interest in home computers. I had previously used rudimentary computers, then known as VDTs (video display terminals) in some of my newspaper jobs, though until then typewriters were still the norm at small newspapers. I immediately saw the revolutionary potential for microcomputers, and I took several courses and read books to learn to program in BASIC, and learn a few applications. My first "computer" was a Timex-Sinclair-1000 that had 2K of memory, expandable with a wobbly add-on card to 16K. It had a flat membrane keyboard, was smaller than today's notebook computers, and provided a black and white display on a television. I soon realized the TS-1000 was useless for word processing, and in 1983, on a trip to the U.S., I brought back a new Commodore 64. This computer went on to legendary status, becoming the Volkswagen Beetle of home computers.
Early in 1984, I decided to produce a monthly newsletter for users of the Commodore 64 in my spare time. Known as INPUT, it launched in July that year. I ran it on a shoestring, borrowing $2,000 from the bank, using the equipment of the Stony Plain Reporter, and paying to print it at their press in Leduc. I gave it away free in computer stores and to computer clubs, and I sold advertising to pay for it. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. The computer revolution was taking off, and the C-64 had a devoted following. Soon I was asked to feature articles and ads about other popular home computers -- Apple, Atari, IBM and several others that few people remember. It started as an eight-page tabloid about the C-64. It grew in just over a year to be more than 48 pages in a typical issue, with full-colour covers and a circulation of more than 25,000 across Canada and covering the whole computing phenomenon. At the end of 1984, I left my job at the Reporter, to publish INPUT full time. For several years it was enormously successful, until several imitators came along. At the end of 1991, I sold it to a Vancouver publisher, who kept it going for a year before it folded.
Model in Cosmo
One of the stories I sometimes tell people is that I once modeled for the American magazine Cosmopolitan. This assertion usually draws groans of disbelief -- my fashion sense is arguably only a few notches better than Michael Moore's. Strictly speaking, it's true though. I'm on page 118 of the June 1984 issue of Cosmo. It all started when I visited my sister Patty and her husband, Peter Livingston, in Boulder, Colorado the summer before. Peter had published several books previously, but was developing a reputation as a literary agent. He was working on a humour book called Livingston's Field Guide to North American Males. It was a book that categorized North American males by species like a bird watching guide: the Hunk, the Jock, the Slob, the Redneck, the Viking, etc. The smooth-talking Peter enlisted many of his friends and acquaintances to pose for photographs as species for the book. Sometimes, when driving around Boulder, he would spot a likely specimen and talk complete strangers into appearing in the book. I was at first flattered at being asked to appear in his book, until I learned I would not be a hunk or stud, but rather the lowly "Good ol' Boy" -- distinguished by his "round face, round stomach, ruddy complexion and red nose." I got dressed up with a checkered shirt, and trucker cap with the name of a supply company on it. Suddenly Peter spotted a repair van, screeched to a stop, and asked the driver if we could borrow his truck. I was posed leaning out the window, and was told to give a nice, wide "shit-eating grin." That picture of me as the Good ol' Boy appeared in the book published by Doubleday, and was subsequently excerpted as an article, with my picture, in Cosmo.
Back to School
My sale of INPUT in 1991 was linked to my decision to go back to school -- this time to obtain a university degree. I began by doing several university courses by correspondence through Athabasca University and University of Waterloo, studying part-time, while continuing to sell advertising for the new owners of INPUT. By fall of 1992, I began taking classes at University of Alberta. My specialization was in political science and history, and my interest in Latin America deepened. I took courses in Latin American history and politics, and studied Spanish, which I already knew somewhat from my earlier travels. I decided to spend the summer of 1993 in Guatemala and Mexico learning Spanish intensively. For seven weeks, I studied at a school in Antigua, Guatemala, where I was alone with a teacher seven hours a day drilling verbs and conversing in Spanish. At night I stayed in the home of a middle class Guatemalan family, continuing the conversation around the dinner table. Then I studied in my room, often reading Spanish newspaper stories about the unfolding political events in Guatemala, where a coup d'état was underway. Studying a language so intensively is mentally and physically exhausting, but I learned a lot very quickly. Though my Spanish is still far from perfect, I attained a comfort level that has been much harder to achieve in French.
After combining credits from six universities, I was able to graduate from Athabasca University in 1995 with credits equivalent to a BA in Political Science. I then spent the school year of 1995-96 living in residence at Carleton University in Ottawa and pursuing an MA in Political Economy. In my undergraduate studies, I became disillusioned with the econometric modeling that often passes for economics today. I understood quickly that no computer models can hope to explain the economy in a vacuum without understanding the political factors and the interactions of people and institutions. To some of the more extreme economists today, Economics has become like a religion as an end in itself. Politics is seen as an unwelcome distortion of the economy. Rather than adapting economics to explain politics, such neo-classical economists wish away politics instead, arguing for a laissez-faire society in which political institutions play little or no part. Individual consumers are viewed as being all-knowing in making the best market choices, but completely incapable of making the best political choices.
Rejecting this approach, I sought to understand the economy through a historical understanding of the way people and institutions interact. I soon became equally disillusioned with the Marxist thinking that tends to dominate this approach in the universities. While Marxists are sometimes right in their observations of social inequality, they are worse at explaining it, and they are absolutely useless at prescribing solutions. I found myself more and more rejecting ideological approaches of both the left and right, and looking instead to pragmatic explanations and solutions. Society is a like a constantly moving pendulum, and when it swings too far in either direction, it goes all out of whack. Yet it must keep moving if it is not to stagnate.
After completing my courses in spring of 1996, all that remained was to do a major research essay. Initially I planned to write about electronic money, and how it is changing global society. Although I did considerable research, the technology was changing so fast that I felt I was following a moving target, and couldn't get a handle on the big picture. Work interfered with my studies, and in the end I decided to switch topics and write about the historical influences on modern Mexico, a very different topic, but more in tune with my interest in Latin America. I finally got my MA in 1998.
Early Internet adopter
I began using online communication back in 1983, when I first became a member of CompuServe, an online service that was in many ways a forerunner of the Web. In those days, I accessed it through a slow 300 bps modem that attached to my Commodore 64. It was text only, and there wasn't even a local dial-up number in Edmonton. You had to access it through an expensive packet-switched Datapac network. For that reason, most computer hobbyists interacted through local bulletin boards, or BBSes, that were typically a computer a local person's basement connected to a single phone line. More often than not, callers to the popular ones encountered busy signals. Part of INPUT's popularity was that it listed these BBS numbers. We exchanged e-mails, downloaded software, and posted messages to online discussions. From these early days I could see the potential for computer communication to become a rival to traditional mass media, and I began thinking about crude models of how this might work. One early example I looked at was the Canadian development of a system called Telidon.
Although I had used these cruder forms of online communication for many years, including earlier incarnations of the Internet, the Web didn't really come of age until around 1993, although it was invented a few years earlier. In 1994, I began learning about HTML, the mark-up language in which the Web is based, and began experimenting with crude websites. Though it was initially text based, around 1993-4, an increasing number of websites were using graphics and other forms of multimedia such as sound. I had great difficulty obtaining anything other than low-wage employment when I finished my university courses in 1996. I decided to start a new business providing a Web-based Guide to Edmonton, which I called E-View. Although the guide attracted many visitors, and I got a few web development jobs as a result, it was never a commercial success. In 1996, many of the small businesses I hoped to reach were still skeptical about the need for a website -- though this changed drastically soon afterwards, with everybody and their dogs developing sites. Also, my own graphic design skills were underdeveloped, and I lacked the money to hire outside designers. Nonetheless, the E-View Guide to Edmonton continues today as the Canajun Guide to Edmonton, and I later added guides to Ottawa and Canada.
Career in Politics
I had only been running E-View for a few months, while also working for a market research company, when I landed a summer job working in the constituency office Hugh MacDonald, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Edmonton Gold Bar, who was first elected in March 1997 to replace the retiring Bettie Hewes. There I gained valuable experience into how an elected representative's office works. In the June 1997 federal election, I worked on the campaign of MP David Kilgour. I had long admired Kilgour's understanding of Western alienation, and his principled stand against the hated Mulroney government, that led to his expulsion from the Tories in 1990 and subsequent crossing to the Liberals. Kilgour was one of just two federal Alberta Liberals to survive the 1997 election, and this led to his appointment as Secretary of State (Latin America & Africa).
With my background in his constituency, and my knowledge of communications, politics, and Latin America, I seemed like a good fit to work with him in his new portfolio. I moved to Ottawa, and began working with Kilgour as his Latin American Policy Advisor in September 1997. Kilgour valued the fact that in my 15 years in Alberta, I'd learned to understand the West -- an understanding lacking among most Ottawa officials. At the same time, my knowledge of Spanish and Latin America were well suited to his portfolio -- his knowledge of both was rudimentary.
As policy advisor, I accompanied Kilgour on several official trips to Central and South America, including two that focused on the international drug problem. One haunting memory of those trips was talking to several children in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who lived on the streets and were addicted to shoe repair glue. I experienced some friction in my position with the Foreign Affairs bureaucracy, particularly when I thought Canada should have taken a stronger position in condemning the massacres of indigenous people in Mexico's Chiapas by paramilitaries associated with the then-ruling and thoroughly corrupt PRI government. Subsequently, I moved to Kilgour's Parliament Hill office to become his Western Assistant, and I took over responsibility for communication with his Edmonton constituency.
After three and a half years working for Kilgour, I took a job as Executive Assistant to MP Murray Calder, who represented the area around Orangeville, Ontario, where my family has its roots and some of my earliest memories were shaped. I worked for Calder until his unfortunate defeat in the June 28, 2004 general election.
Meanwhile, I continue to pursue my life-long interest in photography, an interest that is reflected on these pages. I'm divorced after being married throughout the 1990s. My wonderful and talented girlfriend is Ottawa-area artist Victoria Alexander.
Last revised March 10, 2010