Interview by Maria Assaf
What publications have you written for?
In the order I did it, it was the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, National Post, then Globe and Mail and National Post.
So the Star was pretty early in your career …
Yes, I learned my lesson early.
Where was your first job and how did you get it?
It was at the Globe and Mail. I was going to school, I was in my second year of journalism and I think they were looking for copy editors, so I applied and I was terrible at it, but in those days newspapers were nice to students and actually hired them and paid them. So I worked there part-time as a copy editor, then when I finished school I went to a full-time job as a reporter. By third year, I was writing columns occasionally for the Globe. They used to have a column on the side of each section, so whenever that person was on holiday, they took submissions.
Tell me about your stance at the Globe.
I was the sports columnist for the Globe and Mail. It involved a lot of travel, I was away for half of the year. I covered sports in Canada and the U.S. I was one of maybe six women in North America who were doing this. It was a pretty lonely kind of job, because there weren’t a lot of us women around. I was tired, so I changed jobs and I went to the Star where I went back to reporting — general assignment.
How did you end up working at the Sun?
I dreamed up a job at the sun, I wanted to write a humour column in the lifestyle section and I approached the boss and told him my idea and he said, “Well, write me five or six and we’ll see how it looks,” so I did it and he hired me. I did that for five or six years. Then I got bored with that so I wanted to get back to news, so in 1988 I went into writing news columns. I was there for 13 years. I spent five or six years at the Post and then I went back to the Sun.
Why did you leave the Post?
The Post had been sold and . . . the funding, one; and two: [they fired the] editors of the papers who were the ones who had hired me and I was loyal to them.
So why did you quit the Globe and go back to the Post recently?
Because I couldn’t stand it anymore, it was too tight-ass.
Did you ever do an internship?
There were no internships at the time. There were jobs. There were a couple of internships probably at magazines, but they were paid. Nobody was expected to work for free. Nobody should work for free.
How did your experience as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan contribute to your journalism career?
I don’t know about for my reporting career but it was a phenomenal experience. It was terrifying and rewarding; it was the best thing I’ve ever done in my whole career. I really enjoyed it. I was there four times, each time about five or six weeks.
What inspired your book?
The book is about Canadian soldiers. Which was the interest I had, I mean I like Afghanistan, but that wasn’t why I went there. I was interested in explaining Canadians about their own military, so I spent all my time with Canadian soldiers and that’s what the book is about. I think the army was a misunderstood and a not very much appreciated institution in Canada, so that’s why I did it.
Did you have that feeling before you went there or once you arrived?
After my first trip. By then I had met some soldiers and realized how well-educated and intelligent and funny and engaging they were and I thought, Jesus, that’s not what people think of when they think of the military. And plus it was just fascinating.
Would you ever go back and cover an event like this?
Yes absolutely, in a minute, in a heartbeat. If Canada were to go to Mali, or somewhere similar, I would absolutely volunteer to go.
What was the most useful thing you learned in school?
I think the best thing about Ryerson when I went there is that it gave me an opportunity to practice what I knew I wanted to do. It had real newspapers and you could work for them. I never thought of it as a university, if I had gotten one more credit I could have gotten a degree, but I didn’t give a shit about that and I still don’t so to me it was a practical place to practice being a reporter. Some of my classes were terrifically useful. You get over the fear and the lack of confidence that you have when you’re young and all those things, plus it was tremendous fun, I had a great time there. I got a diploma; I didn’t get a degree, because I didn’t want to stay in school that long.
What was your favourite class?
Probably just the reporting class. You learned old-school reporting techniques like spelling names right. Now that must seem archaic, but it’s a terrific thing to know how to do. It’s kind of basic, you know, you can become a stylist, but if you get the facts wrong… and that’s specially important with the web, because everyone has an opinion, everyone has a blog, everybody has a whatever, fuck I can’t stand it, but very few people are telling you what, when, where, why and you can do that, even as a columnist, you should do that.
Why did you choose to become a journalist?
It’s sort of in my family DNA, my grandfather was a journalist, my uncle was a journalist, though I wasn’t terribly conscious of that when I was a teenager. Writing was always the one thing I really liked to do. I’m nosy, so I like to know things first. When I was 15, I had my own little newspaper that I gave out at the hockey rink where I worked. I didn’t even know it was journalism, I just knew that was what I really wanted to do. I ran it on a copy machine. I wrote everything on it, it was the best! No editors! It is the dream, hahaha.
How has journalism changed in your view since you started in the career compared to now?
The business is obviously very different, but the core principles, in my practice of journalism at least haven’t changed. Try and be right, fair, interesting to people, try to make them read it because otherwise there is no fucking point. When you’re wrong admit it, correct it.
It’s easy to be silly. It’s a relief for me. I really enjoyed. Before I used to write the Sun columns in 30 minutes, now I can’t write a fucking line in 30 minutes.
Did your style change depending on which paper you worked at?
Not really, I know the perception is that Sun readers are not smart, but I found I wrote the same way there as I wrote at the Globe, and people didn’t have trouble understanding me, I mean, it’s not that I’m a terribly sophisticated writer, but nonetheless I didn’t dumb my writing down to suit the Sun, I didn’t have to jack it up to meet the incredibly intellectual demands of the Globe and Mail readership, you know, fuck you Globe and Mail reader. I think people who read newspapers are generally well-informed, smart and that doesn’t change depending on what paper you read. When I worked at the Sun, it was a much better newspaper in my opinion than it is now. Not because I worked there, but it had a much larger staff. They concentrated in the same things, crime, courts, but they did it better, you know, they didn’t do it in such black-and-white terms. It wasn’t so strident. Now it’s a bit of a cartoon, but in those days it wasn’t. It was a different ownership.
You don’t hear much about the Sun at Ryerson…
They never did talk about it. Even when the Sun was a very good newspaper, and it was very good. It broke all kinds of stories. Ryerson even banned it once, I think, when I was still there, which is fucking outrageous, frankly. Instructors never used it in class, except as an example of maybe what not to do and I’m sure it’s exactly the same. And I’m a pretty good graduate from Ryerson, I’ve had lots of jobs, I’ve done well.
But it wasn’t until I had been out of school for 20 years that they asked me to come back. And I knew why, it was because I worked for the Sun. I was embarrassing to Ryerson, I believe. That’s not the same now, I’ve been asked to go back many times.