By Jamie Portman and Photos by John Major
Storyteller with True Grit
Quest for Truth-Telling
It could have been the moment when his Cape Breton mother gently steered him away from the idea of entering the priesthood. Or perhaps it was the agonizing decision – after 28 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) – to give up his high-profile job as co-host of The Fifth Estate. Or maybe it was the disbelief he felt the night he won the Giller Prize for his novel, The Bishop’s Man.
If you look at Linden MacIntyre’s life, there are defining snapshots that offer glimpses of the kind of man he is; of the forces that have driven him throughout his 72 years and continue to dominate his late-flowering career as a novelist. But if you want to pinpoint the one experience he would regard as truly seminal, you would probably have to go back to 1982.
“Journalism throws you into places you never planned to be,” Linden explains. He was a correspondent for CBC’s old news program, The Journal, at the time, and he’d learned to always have a bag packed.“At The Journal, you’d go to work in the morning and that night you’d be on a plane going someplace else.”
He regarded himself as “a kind of second-string Middle East correspondent” in those days, providing backup to veteran CBC reporter Ann Medina. Which is why he was in Jordan, doing research and interviews for an upcoming Journal project, when Lebanon exploded into violence.
“I woke up one morning and there was a Telex underneath my door from Toronto. I’m to get to Beirut as fast as possible because the president of Lebanon has just been assassinated.‘We want you to be at the funeral.’”
That was easier said than done.“It was hard to get from Amman, Jordan to Beirut.” Israel might have offered the most reasonable connection “but the Israelis weren’t being helpful at all, so I had to go through Egypt.”
He finally arrived in Beirut in the aftermath of a massacre by members of a Lebanese Christian militia.
“There were these two Palestinian refugee camps . . . really just old people, women and children. And this Phalangist militia moved in and massacred I don’t know how many people. The high number is 3,000; the low close to 2,000.
“I got in with a cameraman — and it was carnage. The worst of it had been buried in mass graves. But there were still bodies here and there and a lot of bodies were buried in rubble and the rubble was still being excavated.”
Linden is sitting in the third-floor office of his Toronto publisher, casually dressed in a battered leather jacket and ancient denims. He might have the aura of an aging suburbanite, were it not for the memories consuming him. And for all his efforts at a composed, matter-of-fact narrative, there’s no concealing the horror he still feels when he talks about the front-end loader that showed up to remove the rubble.
“Every so often it would stop and they’d drag out a charred and bloated corpse.And then there was a splat on my foot, and I looked down, and there was an arm. A little infant’s arm from the elbow to the fingers. Perfect condition — but that’s all there was of it.
“It’s a funny thing.The senses don’t really register empathy at that time. So I watched people pick up that thing reverentially and put it on a stretcher, and then keep digging, looking for the rest of that child. And when they didn’t find anything, I was like, that’s probably the most God awful thing I’ve ever set eyes on. The mangled corpses and the mangled fly-blown bodies around the place — it was obscene.”
How do you explain human behaviour? Both as a journalist and novelist, Linden MacIntyre has been asking himself that question for decades, seeking connections to explain the processes of cause and effect. More specifically, the “morphology of violence” assumed a new urgency for him because of the Lebanon slaughter. And years later it would lead to novels about people who are affected by violence of various kinds. But his Lebanon experience also had him looking backwards to his own childhood in a remote corner of Cape Breton.
In Lebanon, a group of young boys, their faces like masks, had been watching those gruesome, rubble-clearing activities.They gazed at Linden as though he was a creature from another planet,“which I suppose I was. And there was something on those faces that I could never forget.”
Linden felt he was seeing on their faces the imprint of what had happened to that child, its family and probably their family — “a reflection of what’s going on in their heads and hearts.And wherever they go that will go with them, and it will probably migrate through time to their kids.”
Port Hastings is where Linden grew up, and this isolated community on the Strait of Canso — the body of water joining the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence — had a shaping influence on him.
“It’s interesting to be a boy growing up in a very small place in a very small generation,” he muses.“I call us the lonely generation — kids born during World War II when there was a dip in the birth rate.”
The population of Port Hastings hovered around the hundred-mark. “There was a small post office and a store and another store. In my earliest memories, there was a blacksmith, and the blacksmith gave way to an Esso station, which was a sort of emblematic change.”
In better times, the village had been a shipping port for coal and gypsum. By the time Linden came along, there was nothing to justify its existence.“The coal shipments had gone someplace else, the gypsum was gone. It was just a dead little village.”
Linden was born in Newfoundland in 1943 while his father was working there.“But when my sister came along, they decided to bring the family back to Cape Breton.” Linden realizes now that he was immersed in a distinctive culture.
“It was a small place; a very traditional place. Full of what you might call characters. Storytelling was very much part of the culture. And the CBC was entering my life: listening to the radio was a popular pastime in those days.”
He speaks of his parents with affection.“My father was literate and articulate, and he could read. He’d never been to school — he’d been sickly as a boy — so he had absolutely no academic credentials for any kind of work. He spoke Gaelic — that was his first language.”
From the age of 16, Linden’s father worked as an itinerant hard-rock miner. “Which meant going wherever he was needed.That’s essentially how he spent his short life, travelling from mining camp to mining camp.”
His mother was a school teacher who wanted to be a full-time mother.“But things were so tough that she would be drafted back into a little school some place just to keep bread on the table.”
Future and Faith
Linden was a good Catholic boy who wanted at one point to become a priest, but it was something he hadn’t really thought through, and it was his devout mother who nudged him back to reality. Linden realizes now he was going through what he calls “an early teen phase” where boys brought up in this culture could easily be drawn to the priesthood as a vocation.When he told his mother he wanted to be a missionary so that he could travel and see the world, she set him straight.
“It would be great if you wanted to be a priest for the reasons that people should want to be priests,” she told him.“But if your motivation is to travel and experience the world, you’d better think of something else.”
Linden always remembered those words during his years as a journalist. And by the time he was a young adult, his faith had lapsed.
“I realized you can only learn so much, and then you have to embrace a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t make any sense.There are a lot of things that defy any reasonable understanding. I just didn’t have the humility or whatever it was that requires a person to make that leap of faith.”
He remains respectful of those able to embrace their faith wholeheartedly.“My mother is now 98 and I have realized that one of the benefits of faith is a certain fearlessness when you face mortality.I used to argue with her until I realized I had no right to undermine the essence of her bravery, so I stopped. She’s definitely rational and finds an enormous amount of comfort in prayer and meditation and religious practise. I could never get to that place.”
But the church of his upbringing continued to cast its shadow. It was there when he wrote The Bishop’s Man, his 2009 Giller-winning novel about a young priest’s questionable role in covering up sexual abuse scandals in Cape Breton. The book came out in the midst of a real-life controversy over the church’s conduct in Newfoundland.“I do believe that the very best of fiction is based on fact…and an awful lot of the factual situations I’ve been involved with just scream out for creative elaboration,” Linden said at the book’s release.
Morally compromised behaviour has always fascinated him both as a journalist and novelist. And Father Duncan MacAskill, the fallible young cleric at the heart of The Bishop’s Man, and also a key character in Linden’s subsequent novel, Why Men Lie, epitomizes these concerns.
“As a young adult, I would drink with young priests who would tell me they had a code of conduct that was largely a facade,”he says. “I realized the whole system of rewards and punishment for the enforcement of moral standards of behaviour is infantile. There has to be a reason for doing the right thing that has nothing to do with hell or heaven. I was much more comfortable with the idea that there was a reasonable basis for morality and ethical behaviour that is far more viable and sustainable than all these commandments.”
Path to Journalism
These considerations sustained Linden during his career as a journalist, especially during his years as co-host of The Fifth Estate, an award-winning CBC television series that has been unflinching in its exposure of wrongdoing. Yet, there’s a certain irony that this career happened at all.
“It wasn’t that I wanted to be a journalist,” he remembers with a smile.“It was just that I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
He was interested in writing. “But a creative writing professor told me I had no particular gift for that.” Other teachers at St. Francis Xavier University thought otherwise, telling him his essays showed genuine flair. One faculty member raised the possibility of journalism as a career for this promising young student, so Linden transferred to an evening journalism program at King’s College in Halifax. He was then offered jobs at both the CBC and Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald.The CBC told him the latter would provide better practical reporting experience, so that’s where he went. And he was so successful that, within a few months, he was working in the Halifax paper’s Ottawa bureau.
“I spent two years there, got really sick of Ottawa and asked to be moved back,” he says. Back in Halifax, he worked as a copy editor and also covered provincial politics. “I was surprised I was kind of bored.”And he found himself back in Ottawa, this time working for the Financial Times of Canada, and learning much from its legendary editor, Michael Barkway.“For him, clarity of writing was absolutely the Holy Grail of journalism.”
When he returned to Nova Scotia two years later, still in his 20s, he faced unexpected challenges.“My father died. There were personal difficulties: my wife was having nervous breakdowns; there were small children.” He craved what he calls a “real-world life.” He found a haven of sorts when his old paper, the Chronicle-Herald, placed him in charge of a new bureau in Cape Breton.
“I had an office in the house. I was a self-assigning bureau guy. I got caught up being in a community where I thought I belonged and where there were a lot of great stories.”
But over the years, while honing his talents as an investigative reporter, he started getting into trouble with his bosses.
“I had become controversial in a way,” he concedes. His hard-headed features on such controversial subjects as provincial ownership of the steel industry and the break-down of the cold coal industry were ruffling feathers, and this did not sit well with a newspaper that — in Linden’s view — was very much part of the Halifax establishment.
“I had great sources within the provincial government,” he says.“They were important stories. But I was under pressure to get on the team and stop rocking the boat. I was rocking the boat like crazy. I was never given cause. I was just fired for ideological differences.”
It was then that the CBC re-entered his life. He spent a season with the nightly supper-hour program, and then was given his own show — “half an hour, every two weeks, film, investigative documentaries, whatever you want.” The MacIntyre File was the name of the program, and it led to a confrontation with the Nova Scotia government over access to information. The case — MacIntyre versus the Attorney-General of Nova Scotia — went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where Linden and the CBC emerged victorious on the issue of media access to affidavits and documents relating to search warrants. It was a landmark decision, one that set a precedent. But the show took its toll.
“I burned myself in about three years,”Linden says. So he worked as a CBC producer for a time,“and then, bingo. They started this program called The Journal, with Barbara Frum, and they recruited me for that.
“For most of the next 10 years, I was bouncing around. I worked for The Journal for about five years, then went to radio for a couple of years, and then went back to The Journal for a couple more years.”
In 1990, he brought his craggy integrity to The Fifth Estate. There, Linden MacIntyre achieved the highest profile of his career as co-host of the award- winning CBC news magazine.
“The Fifth Estate became a family. I was 24 years in one place.” He laughs incredulously over that fact. But he speaks of that time with enormous warmth and pride.“The Fifth Estate taught me an awful lot of what I’ve taken to fiction — which is how to listen. I had to listen to the way people talk; to reproduce people’s ways of speaking; to learn how to take complicated information and reduce it to simple compact words. That’s something you have to do on television, and it was a never-ending thing; a challenge to tell interesting and complicated stories that nobody else wanted to tell.”
And yes, there were stories that those in positions of power wanted to suppress. The Saskatchewan government threatened the program with criminal charges if it went ahead with a broadcast documenting the malicious prosecution of a Mennonite family for alleged sexual abuse of foster children in their care.
“It wreaked havoc in the family. It was being called the scandal of the century, and the more we dug into it, the more we realized that these kids were completely disturbed children. And instead of being challenged by police and social workers, they had been encouraged to continue telling their stories.”
As The Fifth Estate pursued its investigation, it hit a wall of silence.“The police wouldn’t talk.The social worker wouldn’t talk. The justice department wouldn’t talk.And then when we said we were going with the story anyway,they said they would charge us with criminal libel. We went ahead.”
Linden’s name is associated with many of The Fifth Estate’s best-remembered investigations — ranging from the exoneration of Steven Truscott, who was wrongly convicted of murder at the age of 14, to the politically-charged Airbus affair. But he continues to feel a special sadness about “The Trouble With Evan,” a searing study of an emotionally abused boy.
“It introduced me to a notion about violence that I hadn’t really thought about,” Linden says.“I hadn’t really thought much about verbal and emotional abuse.There was a young guy in that documentary who said something I never forgot. I recall he said that he had been beaten and physically abused by his father, but that didn’t do nearly the damage that the verbal abuse did. When a big person tells you you’re worthless, then he obviously knows something you don’t know.”
A New Chapter
In 2014, Linden startled the media world when he announced his decision to retire from the CBC. The action was triggered by his growing unhappiness with CBC senior management and what he sees as growing government hostility towards Canada’s publicly- owned broadcasting system. But he also hoped his retirement might help save some jobs.
“I decided to leave because the entire corporation was being dismantled — and being dismantled by stealth,” he says bluntly.“I got the word that they were going to take away 657 jobs and then maybe another thousand over the next year or two. And when they take away jobs from The Fifth Estate, they take away the best and the brightest, the most energetic people with the greatest potential.”
He was conscious of being one of the program’s high-priced hosts. He reasoned that if he removed himself, he might save some jobs.“And that is how it happened.”
By this time, Linden was building a parallel career as a successful author. There had been two non-fiction books, but most significantly, there had been a trilogy of novels — The Long Stretch, The Bishop’s Man and Why Men Lie — rooted in his home province. But these works were also linked to his horrific memories of the Lebanon massacres and the burning need to write about the nature of violence.
“Some years later I realized I would never get this on a television show; never get it on a radio program; never get it in print in the conventional media,” he says. It became something he needed to write a novel about, and the result was The Long Stretch.
“I didn’t want to write a book about the morphology of violence. I didn’t want to do a psychological book because I’m not qualified. I wanted to write a novel about people who are affected by violence.”
He found a premise for what would be a critically-acclaimed first novel. “Two guys come back from World War II completely changed by what they saw and participated in. They never talk about it, lead completely dysfunctional lives and preside over dysfunctional families.”
Linden had become an old hand at receiving awards.After all, his 24 years with The Fifth Estate had led to four Geminis. But never in his wildest dreams had he expected to win the Scotiabank Giller Prize for The Bishop’s Man. He laughs now about how ill- prepared he was the night of the ceremony. He went expecting to be applauding the victory of one of his competitors.
“It was such a shock. The only emotion I can recall was confusion. I was pleasantly surprised to be on the short list, but all the money was on Annabel Lyon and Anne Michaels. I went for the party.”
His present wife, Carol Off, who hosts CBC Radio’s As It Happens, had a hunch that Linden might be wrong, and she urged him to be prepared.
“I remember my wife saying to me at the table: ‘You’d better back off on the single malts for a bit. There’s a mathematical chance you could win.’And I said: ‘Are you kidding?’ I had absolutely no expectation.”
So when his name was called out, he was incredulous.“I had to be pushed by my wife.‘You’ve got to get up there,’ she told me.”
Linden’s latest novel is Punishment, published by Random House to enthusiastic reviews in the autumn of 2014. Dealing with issues of justice and vengeance in a village traumatized by a tragic death, it focuses on three troubled individuals. One is Dwayne Strickland, an ex-con who has returned to his hometown only to be charged in the suspicious death of a teenage girl. The second is Tony Breau, who has also returned home following a traumatic experience at Kingston penitentiary where he served as a corrections officer. The two have known each other in Kingston and Tony’s innate sense of justice is now being challenged by the community’s growing anger and need for retribution.The third character is Neil MacDonald, an embittered ex-cop, forced to retire from the Boston police force and a now volatile presence in a community hell-bent on vengeance.
Linden concedes there are no white knights in Punishment. Instead “three people who consider themselves morally indestructible will be reduced down to the very fundamentals of their ability to survive the world they have created for themselves.”
But Punishment has also delivered a portrait of a community on the verge of administering vigilante justice.
“Well, we are all potentially part of a mob,”Linden points out.“Two things keep us from becoming part of a mob. One is our values and civility, our socialization. The other is the absence of a catalyst, such as what happens in this community where a bad thing happens. This raises questions about the mythology of a small place.The book challenges that mythology, its certainties.”
This is not a man going quietly into the night. And even as he enjoys a late-flowering career as a novelist, he remains troubled about the future of public broadcasting and the corporation he served for 38 years.
Linden remains a journalist at heart, and he remains passionate about this aspect of the CBC’s fragile mandate. He believes journalism to be a public service — and he fears for it. But he adds that he fears for all forms of public service.
“We pay lip service to public service, whether we’re talking about the RCMP or the Canadian Army or the CBC. Agencies that are charged with oversight of public power have been stripped.These services are being starved for funds. Soldiers are being sent out at the same time military budgets are either being abused or chopped and the CBC is being killed.”