"Unfortunately, I Enjoy a Fight""Unfortunately, I Enjoy a Fight"

"Unfortunately, I Enjoy a Fight"

Alberta’s great journalist, educator, political warrior sits down with Convivium

Peter Stockland
11 minute read
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CONVIVIUM: In your life, you've pretty much done it all—faith, journalism, politics and now scholarly works. You're not supposed to be able to do that, at least not in Canada.

TED BYFIELD: Well, I guess I broke the rules. What actually happened is that in the 1940s, when I was about 13 or 14, I went to Lakefield School and it was very much my ambition to be in the navy. The war was still on and you had three possible careers: the army, the navy, the air force. There was nothing else. I wanted to be in the navy because they had the best cadet corps.

[Lakefield] was an Anglican boarding school, and what I had never experienced was religion. My father was against the Church, so I didn't know anything about it. The school had chapel services morning and night. I'd never seen anything like it, and I was captivated by it.

To see all these kids, about 110 boys, really living on their own—I mean, they were supervised, but it's not like living at home—saying the Creed… I'd watch these guys and when they came to "I believe in Jesus Christ," all their heads bowed, taking it very seriously.

Every couple of weeks, there'd be a story of someone who'd been at the school being wounded or killed [overseas] so there was a certain grim reality attached to our lives because we knew that's where we were going to go, too. I went to the headmaster, who was one of the best people I ever knew, and I said, "I want to join. What do you do?" And he said, "You have to be baptized." He wrote to my parents asking if I could be baptized, and of course, they didn't give a damn one way or the other. So I was baptized, but when I got out of school, I began to slide way from it, the way people do. I married when I was 20 a reporter I'd known at the Ottawa Journal.

C: You and Virginia were married for 65 years until her death in July. How did the two of you meet?

TB: She was a summer replacement and I was a cub reporter, and I fell deeply in love with her. She went back to the University of Toronto, and I quit my job to be closer to her because I didn't want any of those guys from the university getting her attention. We started a newspaper at the University of Toronto, which we called The Reporter. It was financed by Tory bagmen. They gave us the money to start a Conservative newspaper. She had worked the previous year at another paper at the university that was a communist newspaper. She said her politics didn't run all that deep at the time.

I got a job at the Timmins Press, and she came up for the weekend. We decided we'd need two incomes to get married. The Timmins Press had four reporters; one had already quit, and if another quit, they couldn't put it out. As it happened, the paper's chief advertiser discovered his wife in bed with an editor. The advertiser locked them in the bedroom and began calling everyone in town—the Crown attorney, the chief of police, the fire chief—to tell them what was going on at the Timmins Press. It was a small town, and very quickly the paper's reputation was in tatters. Of course, there was a lot of nervousness about anything that might add to the scandal, so we were told, "You two get married or you're out." My wife always enjoyed telling people that we got married because we had to. In fact, the first child didn't arrive for another year, much to everybody's surprise.

C: You had the classic journalism beginning of that era: the gifted small town star lured away by the bright lights of the big city daily….

TB: Well, not quite. We had tough times for the first few years, but I finally got a job on the Winnipeg Free Press. For a Toronto boy, Winnipeg was like the end of the earth. But I listened to a minister giving a sermon in May 1952, in which he gave a definition of success that hit me like a bullet right between the eyes. He said the better system is to just live for today. Of course, some of tomorrow's affairs are part of today's work, but what he was saying was "Don't live in the future, the day when you're going to have this and when you're going to have that; it's poison." And I realized he was right. I made up my mind that I would just be satisfied with working for the Winnipeg Free Press regardless if it was considered journalistic success or anything else.

At the same time, I joined the choir. I love singing, but all my singing had hitherto been done in bars. This was quite different. I was introduced to the music of Hayden and Handel and Bach. I never realized music could be so beautiful.

The choirmaster eventually said to me, "Could you get any other men in the choir?" because we had about four men in the choir and 14 or 15 women. So I began to try to recruit people in the Free Press newsroom who seemed to think I'd gone insane and become a religious fanatic. Well, I guess I had.

C: You began to bring journalism together with your faith even then?

TB: We created a little cell group of young married people within the parish, and we made it our job to try to bring other people into the faith. As we did this, we realized that people acquired their values from four sources: first the family— a mother saying don't beat up your little brother; then the Church, which reinforced the family; then the school, which reinforced both the family and the Church; and finally the media, meaning literature, movies, music, all these things. That's the last source.

But what had been going on was that the last two—the media and the school&mash;were usurping the authority of the Church and the family. And we decided the Church should re-engage itself in education. It should never have allowed itself to go away from education. The Catholics were absolutely right: they predicted what would happen, and it did. And by that time, even Protestants— the Dutch Reformed Church in Canada —they were starting schools all over the place, conceding, in effect, that the Catholics had been right. And we decided we should also get into the general news media. Not a Church magazine, but covering everything—sports and crime and politics—always on the assumption that the Creeds were true, and therefore we would judge news in that light.

C: And that led to a move even farther west?

TB: The first thing we did was start St. John's schools. We got three of them going, and after 10 to 15 years, the schools started a weekly newsmagazine in Edmonton. With these two things, we connected what we had realized back in the days of the cell group. The trouble is that in Alberta, for example, key subjects such as English and social studies are controlled by the government, which eclipses religion in every way it possibly can. Faith is replaced with the position of the State. So, it's an uphill struggle. And we realized the attacks against Christianity were almost entirely centred in its history, and a really flawed version of its history. All we hear about is the awful Crusades. Well, the Crusades were an attempt to recover by battle what was lost by battle to the Muslims 400 years before. It didn't work, I think, because Christ doesn't support us when we try to substitute armed strength for evangelism, and that's exactly what we were doing. It didn't work and it shouldn't have. But you can see how they got into it. People refer to the Inquisition without really knowing what it was. If you go into these things carefully, you can see there are two sides all the time. One was being taught all the time. The other wasn't. Science was set up as a rival to religion when the origins of science, going back to the 13th century and long before Galileo and Copernicus and so on, were religious. They were Christians themselves. So there wasn't a conflict. Science is a product of the monasteries in the Middle Ages. So, we did go from one thing to another, but with coherence to it.

C: Yet in the era in which we live, these things are supposed to be discrete. They're supposed to be separated. There isn't supposed to be a convivial conversation between them. You're not supposed to mix journalism and politics, for example. You're not supposed to mix journalism and faith. And yet your life is a witness to the benefits of doing just that.

TB: I might have been unfair, but when people would interview me and ask, "What's your religion?" I'd give my best answer and say, "Now what's your religion?" And there was always this kind of shocked response: "Mine?" Everybody puts their questions on the basis of what they know to be fact, and presumably, to ask that question, they have some religion themselves. They'd always refuse to discuss it, as if they didn't have religious faith, though the assumption was that I should.

C: Don't you find, though, that the holders of many of the orthodoxies of the day are as fastidious about the correctness of what they believe as the most white-knuckled rural parson was generations ago? You can picture them sitting stiffly upright on hard wooden pews, images of rectitude no different from their ancestors. I was talking to an editor I know who was excoriated by a reader for using the word "homosexual"— in a very positive context—because the word "homosexual" is now deemed homophobic. It is simply not to be used anymore according to the new pinch-nosed parsons of the age.

TB: What's even worse is that when you ask the basis of a belief, it will almost always come down to science. Now, science can demonstrate a lot of things. It can show how things work. What it can't say is how things should work. The statement "X should not have happened" is one that science can't make. So where do these values come from? If you don't have some kind of authority above society itself, then whoever is strongest rules. Might is right. That's the situation we're rapidly getting into; but might, at this point, is expressed by the leaders of the majority, or some of them— academe to some degree, different interest groups and so on. I've heard so many politicians say, "That happened because the Supreme Court did it and they forced us into it." The politicians have the power to overrule the Supreme Court— something they never so much as mention.

C: We're also told that faith, as a driver of political beliefs, must be kept out of politics but also out of journalism, out of the life of the intellect, out of the whole range of public conversation. Yet faith is a necessary part of curiosity about all of life. It's certainly a necessary part of journalism.

TB: Oh, yes. Most reporters bring a whole bag of assumptions to every interview, and how many really examine them? How many ask "Where'd this come from?" beyond the simplistic "Well, everybody believes that…." But that's not just a fault of journalism. I think the school system engenders it. I wrote a booklet on how that happened. If you read John Dewey, writing in the first half of the 20th century, you can see why the schools are going the way they're going. It was an expression of his philosophy. Most of the people carrying out that philosophy have never read him, but he laid down a bunch of assumptions that have simply been absorbed as self-evident direction, and that's the way we go. There were just ludicrous things. He was against any kind of authority, at any level. He didn't like history because history spoke with authority on the past. He tried to discredit history and say it is just opinion. That's crazy.

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You can say as historical fact, for example, that Martin Luther King was killed. You can say "Martin Luther King was assassinated." True. But if you say "Martin Luther King was a martyr…," wait a minute, that is in question. The other two aren't. But because you can question the statement "Martin Luther King is a martyr," they extend that to cover the other two, which is ridiculous. The one thing we haven't yet been able to subjectivize is the multiplication table, because five times five is always going to equal 25 no matter what you feel or what I feel.

C: That's Orwell's 1984: There are things that will always be true no matter what the reigning ideology says.

TB: Except maybe in Alberta. Here, they're trying to develop the idea that you create out of your own head the multiplication table, and even it is subjective. It was tried in Manitoba a few years ago with absolutely catastrophic results, and now they're trying it here in Alberta.

C: In the movement through these various parts of your life, did you ever just wake up in the morning and think maybe that sermon you heard in Winnipeg all those years ago was wrong, that maybe it would have been easier not to be on the opposite side of all these questions from the spirit of the day? Did you ever feel like saying, "You know what, folks? I don't care. I don't want to argue anymore?"

TB: I wish I could say that, but unfortunately, I can't. I enjoy a fight so much that the temptation is all in the other direction. My joy in life has been saying, "If I were to write this, so-and-so would get so mad he'd go right through the clouds." I haven't been able to achieve despair yet.

C: In a career with so many facets…

TB: Christianity is a career, and it can be applied almost anywhere.

C: But did you never reach the point where you said, "You know, I'm a really smart guy. I could make a lot of money in the financial industry. Why don't I just go and do that?"

TB: I've never suffered for the want of anything. I have a great capacity to self-deceive. When my wife and I planned this Christian history project, I had an idea that we would get a boat, put it on the Mediterranean and visit all the places that we were writing about. So we bought a sail boat in Vancouver, and I called it Credimus, which means "we believe," and we sailed it around the continent to near Halifax. We were going to cross the Atlantic with it when I got into some financial problems with the magazine [Alberta Report], so we had to leave it there. My wife said to me, "Has it occurred to you that Credimus was misnamed?" I said no. She said, "Well, it was. It really should have been called Volo." I said, "What the hell does that mean?" She said, "It means ‘I want.'"

So, I can say I owned a yacht and sailed it around. I can't say I was living in austerity. Somebody once called C.S. Lewis an ascetic, to which Tolkien said, "Two beers so far today and it's not even noon. Some ascetic."

C: You've lived a good life…

TB: I never lacked for money, though it seems it was very often someone else's money.

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