Sunday, October 07, 2007

A sad good bye

I just got wind of the news that must be circling all over Canada now: The Western Standard, published out of Calgary, is closing up shop. Permanently.

I can barely believe it. I was, as some of you might know, one of the first batch of interns the magazine accepted way back in the Summer of 2003 or 2004 (I can't quite remember).

Unlike every other magazine in Canada and the U.S., the Western Standard didn't have an internal hierarchy. They didn't play favourites with stories, or with personalities (well, maybe they did play favourites with Mark Steyn, but wouldn't you? Wouldn't anybody?). If you had a great story, they'd publish it. If the story was bound to raise the roof, they'd just go the extra mile to fact check it, to ensure that it was exactly right, and to run with it giving the writer the quiet confidence of knowing that they would stand by your story. The WS really did take responsibility, as a team, for anything that may have been written in their pages (the facts, anyway, if not always the viewpoint).

That's how I managed to get a cover story published as an intern. My piece on Dr. Chaoulli's Supreme Court challenge wasn't a slam-dunk. I mentioned the story to Kevin Libin, the then-ed-in-chief, and suggested that it might be worth a big write-up. I remember he just sort of scowled at me and asked me whether the good doctor had any hope in hell of winning. I said I didn't think so. So Kevin asked me what possible angle the story might have--why was it newsworthy to talk about a Supreme Court case that was going to fail?

Take a step back for a moment with me. I don't remember exactly where I got news of the story from initially. It could have been Mike Cust, who would send me strange story ideas about two or three times a week (having people like Mike send you ideas is just about the best way to make your life easier as a reporter). I may have come across the story myself. Or, quite possibly, someone at the Fraser Institute may have pointed me in that direction. Or, less likely than Cust, but more likely than the Fraser Institute, it might have been my good friend Karen Selick who suggested it as a possible story.

However it came by my e-desk, I had heard of the challenge. I started digging. I checked all of the major newspapers and magazines. Not a word. Not even the mention that such a court case was on the SC docket. Nothing. Pure silence.

I called a couple of lawyers. Most of them told me, one after the other, that Chaoulli had no chance. No hope. That the Court accepted this case just to shut Chaoulli down, and to make it crystal clear that the Canadian government had every right to meddle in health care affairs, and to restrict and regulate according to the democratic decisions of Parliament.

But then I happened upon Dr. Brian Day. He was then the head of the Cambie Surgery Centre, a private hospital in British Columbia, and currently serves as the President of the Canadian Medical Association. He had status as an official intervenor. He insisted that Chaoulli wasn't just going to sway one or two justices, he told me, in no uncertain terms, that Chaoulli was going to win. He told me he would be willing to bet big money on it. He told me that, unless you were in the court room, watching the way the justices undressed and expressed subtly-hidden anger at the arguments of the government lawyers, you would think that Chaoulli had no chance. He was in the court room, however, on more than one occassion. And he told me that his impressions were clear, and forceful: The Court will side with Chaoulli.

My talk with Day happened after I chatted with Libin. I spoke with Libin after chatting with some Fraser Institute people, and a couple of lawyers. None of them were optimistic about Chaoulli's chances, so that's what I told Libin.

Libin asked what the point of my story would be. I told him that, even if Chaoulli loses, this is still a big story. A Supreme Court challenge to Canada's national identity (if the polls were to be trusted). A Supreme Court challenge to the biggest talking-point of Trudeaupian Canada. Damn it! It is still worth writing about!

Libin was unmoved. "Find me someone who thinks he has a chance in hell, and then we can have another chat."

I did better than that. I found Dr. Day, and asked him to give me some other names with credibility who would feel the same way. After all, if Day was so sure Chaoulli was going to win, surely his opinion will be shared by at least a lawyer or four. He suggested a few people, but the only name that really caught my attention was Osgoode Hall's Professor Patrick Moynahan. When I spoke with him, he also insisted that Chaoulli's chances were very good.

I returned to Libin, armed with some credible people who were willing to make an incredible claim: That Chaoulli had more than a chance in hell, that betting odds should be, if not in his favour, then at least good enough to be worth a bet.

What followed was an excruciating process of gathering material, putting it together, double-checking and triple-checking the facts, and filling in holes that Libin insisted I fill. A lot was left out of the story. A lot of good quotes, a lot of interesting information, and a lot of stuff that I really wanted in. But Libin had a nose for a good story. He impressed me every day, even while infuriating me with what I considered to be nit-picky nonsense. In the end, he was right about 90 per cent of it (I still insist that I was write about 10 per cent of the time when we disagreed about something).

Working at The Standard was journalism school. That's what I considered it. That is something to lament the passing of right there--no other place in Canada would take you in, give you a chance, and let you write a cover story if you've got something worth while to present to the readers.

That cover story, by the way, was the biggest story that I had in the magazine. But I still look back at the crazy assortment of stories they let me write--from those bureaucrats who literally count beans in cans of British baked beans, to Emery's offer of free pot and growing materials for farmers financially hit by mad cow disease--and think that they were worthwhile, strange, and worthy of making public. No other newspaper or magazine in the country ran with the kinds of stories The Standard ran with. And that, too, is something to lament the passing of.

I should point one thing out. If you want evidence of the kind of comraderie The Standard evoked, consider this: Even months and years after having been a part of the official masthead, I still talked about The Standard in terms of "we." When on the phone with Libin, or Doll, or Steel, I would still say "we ought to run with this story" or "we should do so-and-so." I still felt like I was a part of the magazine, in spite of not getting a paycheck from them. And that's saying a lot.

Here's to The Standard. I will miss it. Dearly.


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