Frank Touby —
I was shocked to read of Link (Eric Linkord) Byfield’s recent death by cancer. He was Editor-in-Chief of Alberta Report newsmagazine when I spent a summer working there in 1991 in order to decide whether to move to Edmonton from Toronto.
It was a key experience in my long journalism career because that newsmag was a unique top-quality publication quite the equal of Maclean’s and Time.
I had recently returned from Kuwait where I spent some time as a trainee oilfield firefighter working for Mike Miller’s Safety Boss, a Calgary-based oilfield blowout response company.
Miller hired me in order to enable me to write the book Burning Sands about the historic effort to quench over 700 wild wells set alight by Saddam Hussein’s troops during the Desert Storm military campaign. It was Saddam’s last hurrah and there were forecasts that the oilfires could burn for decades, creating pollution that might ruin the earth.
No one had ever seen such a catastrophe-in-the-making as 700 roaring, blazing oilwells.
In order to write the book I needed to be close to the action. I needed to participate to get the feeling of what this historic event was like. And, since I had just been “retired” from my 10-year broadcasting commentary career with Financial Post, which had been taken over by Toronto Sun owners who bought it and shut down my department, I also needed to earn some money. I was 50. That isn’t the best age to get a journalism job when every kid with a j-school diploma is lusting to work.
Miller said that if I could pass the physical, he would pay me a trainee salary and put me to work on a crew so I could cover the story. Canada didn’t tax foreign oilfield earnings in those days. I spent much of my unemployed time in the gym, so passing the physical wasn’t an obstacle.
Under Miller’s brilliant leadership, Safety Boss did in five months more than what the remaining blowout companies (including Red Adair’s) achieved in six.
Using highly mobile municipal fire engines that were ridiculed by the Texas-based companies and their personnel, Miller’s crews were able to continue working even when the desert winds turned against them.
Safety Boss set a world record that will likely stand forever because in just eight months, all 700+ wild wells were “killed” and capped. It took Hussein’s troops many months to set it up and ignite all those wells. Not worth the effort.
After returning to Canada, I learned that Alberta Report was seeking a managing editor so founder Ted Byfield’s son Link could ascend to the publisher’s chair.
I applied and was invited to Edmonton to see whether we would make a good fit. I was dubbed Deputy Managing Editor under Link, though not in the masthead, and started to learn their operation.
I was surrounded by a mishmash of extraordinary talented journalists and writers, mainly church-going Christians, but not necessarily. There were people of all stripes. My atheism wasn’t a liability in the Byfields’ reckoning and they were a strange mix of liberal conservatism. Libertarian, I guess, is the closest to what they were.
But even there it wasn’t run-of-the-mill Libertarianism. It merged with an appreciation of human diversity yet grounded in the culture of Alberta.
At night I would work on Burning Sands. At lunch, often with Link and several writers, he would philosophize and comment about current events.
He understood clearly what his publication’s mandate was and he agreed in every way.
Although I’m an editor, what I really want to work at is being a writer. That was burning a hole in my brain as I handled copy written by others instead of producing it myself.
I asked if I could go out on an assignment and write an article in Alberta Report.
Link had an assignment he would entrust to me: report on a cattleman’s event.
Then he balked. He wasn’t going to withdraw the assignment, but he suddenly realized that he was placing a vegan reporter in a cattleman’s session.
They were worried. Link was stressed out at this and it showed in his demeanour. But he had made the assignment, I had pledged not to let my veganism interfere, so he was going to reluctantly live with this. It was really eating at his mind.
I did find it amusing but I didn’t betray my emotion.
Naturally I returned with a professional report on what had occurred at the cattleman’s session, betraying not a whit of distain for the torment they caused their herds.
Every word was not only scrutinized by Link, but he had some of his writers also review the article for covert PETA sympathies.
I found it hilarious. I think the fact that I did might have triggered a paranoia that I had surreptitiously slipped in some animal rights code that would disgrace the magazine and the staff.
The article went to press and there was nothing further said. Of course.
The trainee period where I was scrutinized as M.E. in waiting went well. I quickly grew to admire both Link and his dad, Ted, for their profound respect for human rights and justice.
It was also very much like Link to refuse chemotherapy, as it’s reported he did. It would have cost taxpayers $100 000, he said, and the treatment wouldn’t have cured him of the cancer.
Link was honest about his past, including his youthful days dealing pot and being a libertine of whatever sorts one could be in Alberta back then.
As the summer wore on I had to decide whether I could live in Edmonton. In many ways the city reminded me of Toronto. It was more progressive than the rest of Alberta and the magazine itself also had a progressive bone it its conservative spine.
So, would I buy a house, pack up Paulette who was still in our Toronto townhouse and make the move? The magazine itself was a journalism coup. A job at Maclean’s would have been better for me psychically, but that wasn’t in the offing and professionally they were absolutely equal in quality.
On the other hand, Alberta Report is in Edmonton and I decided to return to the city I absolutely love, to the home I also love.
I had arrived in Edmonton by train. Once there, naturally, I bought a car. In this case, a used Ford Fairlane that served me well throughout my time out west.
I decided to drive it back to Toronto.
Before I departed on that 4-day drive, Link took me to lunch and afterward passed me a little package. In it were four nicely rolled joints to, as he phrased it, “keep your spirits up.”
A neighbour a few blocks over bought the Fairlane and I saw it on our streets for a number of years afterward.
I wrote some freelance magazine articles for a while but the tax-free oil money and my Alberta Report earnings were diminishing and we needed a steady stream of funds.
No jobs were in the offing in Toronto journalism. So, eventually, on our dining room table Paulette and I printed out our articles from a laser printer, trimmed them, waxed their backs and rolled them onto a pressed-board printer’s flat.
We drove the flats over to Centra Web on Eastern Avenue, took the printed copies to the post office and mailed those 12 000 newspapers as the first edition of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Community Bulletin.
It just had to work! We had spent all our money on this gamble. And it did work. It was spectacularly successful and money from advertiser rolled in.
Later, of course, it grew into other neighbourhoods and became The Bulletin you know today.
The newspaper business is more challenging today and less lucrative as the Internet takes precedence among many news consumers. But we still mail 50 000 copies and plan to do more in other areas of Downtown Toronto because print will never be dead.
But our online publications are growing exponentially to include RSS feeds and daily summaries about Downtown neighbourhoods and businesses.
My experience at Alberta Report with Link and many of his writers had another influence on me that I didn’t realize until I returned home.
Journalism is a very secular environment. It was at Alberta Report where I actually interacted with people who went to church. They were smart, well-intentioned and humane.
Something resonated in me that had been buried in my “devout” atheism.
It started with my sneaking around at St. James’ Cathedral and attending mass conducted by a woman priest. I was sneaking around because I didn’t want Paulette to know what kind of craziness was going on in my head.
I was afraid she’d think I’m nuts and leave me.
I confided to my mother in Miami, Kathleen, that I was going to an “Episcopalian” mass.
“Why don’t you go back to high test?” she asked. She meant the Roman Catholic Church in which I had grown up and which I rejected in high school.
I did. I finally had to confess to Paulette what had happened to me and was afraid she’d think me nuts and that might mean the end of our 12-year relationship where we had dated from the same bedroom.
It was on that same day when we were pasting together the first edition of the Community Bulletin that we were also to appear at St. Michael’s Cathedral to be married.
It was after that wedding mass when we drove our flats to the printer.
I didn’t think about my Alberta Report days much after that venture began. Occasionally I would read about Link’s political forays in Alberta with the Wild Rose Party which he co-founded. Its political positions were very Alberta Report-esque and sublimely Link-ish.
Those days seem so long ago. Then, at 63, he dies and goes out with an ethical statement about why he won’t take chemotherapy.
I’m confident Link Byfield passed on in what Catholics call a State of Grace, forgiven of his sins and shortcomings, welcomed into the loving state we call “heaven.”