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Remembering Ted ByfieldRemembering Ted Byfield

Remembering Ted Byfield

Ted Byfield was no quitter and until his passing over the holidays, he was a front-line culture warrior in the journalism, publishing, and Christian education spheres, Jonathon Van Maren writes.

Jonathon Van Maren
7 minute read
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Edward “Ted” Bartlett Byfield passed away in his Edmonton home on December 23, 2021, at the age of 93. For more than a half-century, he was one of Canada’s most significant public Christians, and his life’s work included the founding of a religious order, the formation of several Christian boarding schools for boys, a series of influential newsmagazines, laying the groundwork for a political movement, writing books, and serving as editor on a magnificent 12-volume history of Christianity, The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. His departure leaves a gaping hole that cannot be filled.

I last saw Ted Byfield in July on the weekend of his 93rd birthday. We spent several days together, sitting in his office and outside on the sunny deck of his Edmonton home reading aloud the chapters of his biography that I’ve been working on for several years, the culmination of countless hours of conversation and research. He listened intently, riveted both by his own life and how fast it seemed to have gone; frequently, he would break out into that wonderful, raspy chuckle his friends know so well. When I looked up after reading about his beloved Ginger, he had tears trailing down his face.

Virginia died in 2014—they had been married 65 years and had worked together for a lifetime. When she passed, Ted told me, he wanted to die, too. His wife must have known this. “Her last words to me,” he said, “were: Don’t. You. Quit.” And Ted never did, not for a moment. Until nearly the very end, he was working on new projects (including a book on the fruits of Christianity), pitching new ideas, and offering his encouragement and friendship to others. “Tell me about this ‘podcast’ thing,” he said on one phone call. “Should we be doing something like that?”

Ted Byfield lived through all but 61 of Canada’s 154 years. Born in 1928, his first memories were of riding the streetcars in Toronto, where as a small boy he once spotted the great Canadian railway builder Sir Donald Mann. His childhood was defined by his father’s sporadic employment during the Great Depression—Vernon Byfield was a good enough journalist to get a job at almost any paper, and a prodigious enough drinker to promptly lose it. Ted, his parents, and later his brother John often had to rely on family. His uncle Tommy Church was the renowned mayor of Toronto who served 7 consecutive terms and was skewered in print by Ernest Hemingway before becoming an MP.

The Toronto of Ted’s youth was, he said, an “Anglo-Saxon town” where Queen Victoria’s birthday was a mandatory celebration, his aunt was a member of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and the death of King George V in 1936 brought bitter tears. The abdication of Edward VIII to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson was an event that loomed large in public consciousness—everyone was, Ted said, simply “stunned that the monarchy could possibly get involved in a dirty thing like divorce.” One of the highlights of Ted’s youth came on May 20, 1939, when Vernon managed to get his family into the press gallery over the Speaker’s Chair while King George VI granted Royal Assent to nine bills. “I was ten feet away,” Ted told me. “It was electrifying.”

When World War II arrived, Toronto filled up with uniforms. Ted was, he often said, “not in the War, but of the War” as he was too young to enlist, but he recalled Churchill’s growling radio broadcasts, rationing, young men just slightly older than himself being killed in action overseas, and the obsession boys had with deciding which branch of the armed forces they would join when their time came (Ted wanted the Navy.) There was suddenly an abundance of work, and Ted’s lifelong work ethic was forged as a delivery boy on Toronto’s streets and his first foray into the newspaper business came when he began selling Liberty Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post on the beaches of the Toronto Islands.

Ted was in Toronto for V-E Day—the conductors stopped streetcars and handed out beers—and working a hotel summer job in Atlantic City for V-J Day. He headed to Washington, D.C. where his father was working and got a job as a copyboy for the Washington Post, where he fell in love with journalism. After discovering that the Post required a degree to be a reporter (despite his having landed a frontpage story with the careful coaching of his father), Ted headed back to Canada and got a job with the Ottawa Journal. There he met Virginia Nairns and promptly fell in love. When Ted got a job at the Timmins Free Press in Northern Ontario, he persuaded Ginger to join him and married her between the morning and evening editions in 1949.

After a failed attempt at launching his own newspaper in Ansonville, Ted headed West. He became one of the top reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press, renowned for getting the story, no matter what. He won the National Newspaper Award in 1957, got to know John G. Diefenbaker, and was soon a rising journalistic star. But fatefully, he fell in with Christians, converted to Christianity, and joined the St. John’s Cathedral in the north end of Winnipeg where he sang in the choir and recruited other men to join him. Cell groups formed to discuss Christianity and the works of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. It was Sayers’ work on education that launched the Byfields on their next great adventure—the founding first of a weekend classical school and outdoor program based out of the Cathedral, and then a boarding school for boys in Selkirk in 1958.

For several years, the Byfields lived at the St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ School, where Ted taught history and helped oversee the outdoor program. This included epic treks across Canada along the old voyageur routes, where the boys packed on muscle, traversed brutal rapids and worse portages, and still had enough breath to bellow semi-ancient canoeing songs. In 1964, after conquering the Methy Portage, Ted and his crew came across the massive, hardened ruts on the path made generations before by the famous two-wheeled Red River carts—and camping on the west shore of Lac Laloche, they met an old Metis man who remembered the men of the area leaving, 79 years before, to fight at Batoche with Louis Riel. Sitting beneath the stars around a fire, the wide-eyed boys brushed the edge of history.

Ted’s second act as a public Christian returned him to journalism in 1973, when he launched a newsmagazine called the St. John’s Edmonton Report out of the new Albertan branch of the boys’ school. The magazine rapidly outgrew the schools and Ted went on his own, with a series of magazines across Western Canada covering stories that the rest of the media ignored. The most well-known, Alberta Report, channelled the discontent that rose during the years of the first Trudeau and the National Energy Policy, with Ted coining the phrase “The West Wants In,” throwing his lot in with Preston Manning and the Reform Party, and becoming the de facto voice of the movement that would eventually lead to Stephen Harper’s 2011 majority government.

Ted’s magazines were the voice of both a region and a religion (even if there was occasional confusion as to which was which)—while Alberta Report and her sister publications were not explicitly Christian, Ted and his team simply “covered the news as if Christianity were true.” Ted reported on each new stage of the sexual revolution and laid out the agenda of the cultural revolutionaries in black and white, while giving the counter-revolutionaries in the pro-life movement and parental rights movements their due. Christian education, as always, remained a passion, and Ted’s magazines—which his son Link eventually took over—were staunch defenders of private education and stern opponents of anyone who infringed on the integrity of the family.

Along the way, he lost a lot of money—despite the magazines having, at one point, a circulation of 60,000. There were many reasons for this. Ted was constantly expanding and, as he told me once, his inability to manage money was the great flaw of his great career. Additionally, the Christian audience in Canada began to shrink, making it more difficult to serve a wide audience. Despite this, Ted said, he never did anything for money. He did things because he thought they needed to be done—money was incidental. Anyone who knew him knows he meant this. After retiring from management of the magazine, he launched two great book projects on his two great loves—a history of Alberta (which Jason Kenney lauded in his remembrance of Ted) and his magnificent 12-volume history of Christianity. It was important, he said, to remind Christians of their own stories—and who better to tell them than journalists?

Despite spending decades reporting on the decline of the country he loved and the loss of faith across the West, Ted Byfield remained almost relentlessly optimistic until the end. He often said that he felt things were about to change; that the battles that had been lost could still be won. His insistent faith on these points was unconvincing but infectious, and his tireless work ethic was a rebuke to all. I only knew him for a decade—most of those at his funeral last week had been his friends for decades. But even the lion in winter is still a lion, as the old proverb goes, and it was a great privilege to know Ted Byfield and call him my friend.

As Ken Whyte, a long-time friend and colleague of Ted’s, put it: “He was a great man and a true original, perhaps the only Canadian to sustain a politically important periodical outside Ontario [and] Quebec.” And he did that while remaining an outspoken and unapologetic public Christian—one of the only ones Canada has ever had. We will not see his likes again.

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash.com


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