Erin Kobayashi
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His Country

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In his daily column for the Globe, his Screech Owl books for kids, his monthly column for Cottage Life and his hardcover memoirs, Roy MacGregor captures the waves and ripples of Canadian Life

“I’ve been in journalism for 30 years and this past spring I had my first story rejected,” Roy MacGregor says in Kelsey’s restaurant in Kanata, the suburb just outside of Ottawa where he lives. The Western Alumni Gazette, the alumni magazine of the University of Western Ontario (where he attended journalism school) requested MacGregor write the back-page column for its 25th anniversary issue. MacGregor declined the offer repeatedly, but the Gazette’s student editor was persistent.

“So I said, ‘Just a minute, pal. Obviously the presumption would be that I’d say great things,’” MacGregor says. “‘The fact of the matter is I hated journalism school and I hated Western. You wouldn’t want that in the magazine?”‘ But it turns out, the editor did and was willing to pay $500.

After two weeks, MacGregor stopped arguing and wrote a column inspired by his own university experience. At Western, he says, he and his classmates “discussed taking legal action against the school on the basis of false advertising, false promises and absolutely failing to live up to their end of the bargain.” He claims most of his instructors were incompetent and gave students assignments to write things like horoscopes for Cosmopolitan. “My best friend at the school, now my brother-in-law, never went to a single class after the first one,” MacGregor recalls. “He wrote the exam and received it back with an A+ and a note saying, ‘Mr. Cox, as I will be retiring this summer, I was wondering if you would be willing to accept the teaching position of this course, since you know it so well.”‘

A week after handing in his column, MacGregor received a letter from the eager editor at the Gazette: the magazine regretfully declined his submission but would gladly pay a kill fee.

“Why didn’t they just listen to me in the first place?!”

Now 55, MacGregor has always had an instinct for what’s going to work in journalism and what isn’t. MacGregor jump-started his career in magazines, writing award-winning pieces for Maclean’s and The Canadian, but with the exception of his Cottage Life column, he’s left magazines behind. “I would like to think I was ahead of the curve in arguing that news magazines were not working and were a failure.” MacGregor says. “Everybody has finally accepted that.”

The folksy writer is now Page 2 columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he churns out 20 inches, five times a week — a burnout workload for most. His column, with the calculated title This Country (reminiscent of Peter Gzowski’s much-loved CBC radio show), is a place where he can write about whatever he wants. What readers will usually find are well-argued pieces about the outdoors, hockey, politics, family life and the little oddities of the everyday.

MacGregor is now back at his house, where the walls are adorned with beautiful, subtle paintings. There are gentle portraits of family members, like his only son, Gordon, as a blond two-year-old and his three daughters, Kerry, Christine and Jocelyn. Then there are the landscape paintings — one depicts a winter scene that looks cosy and warm despite the vast countryside captured — and paintings of lily pads and close-ups of flowers. They’re rendered in both watercolour and acrylic, and ooze unapologetic sentimentality and realism. They’re all credited to the artist Ellen Griffith, MacGregor’s wife, and show an eclectic mix of subject matter and tenderness reminiscent of her husband’s writing.

MacGregor’s current fixation is nature. Not surprising, considering he grew up in Huntsville, on the outskirts of Algonquin Park. His father, Duncan, about whom he wrote the book A Life in the Bush, was a lumber mill worker and taught his children to appreciate the wilderness, small-town values and hockey. MacGregor excelled in athletics but never considered himself a good student. When asked what his strongest subject was in high school, he excuses himself and briskly leaves the room. There is the sound of a filing cabinet opening and the shuffling of papers. He returns a minute later with a yellow, folded cardboard paper. It’s his Grade 12 report card from Huntsville High School. Inside, in green marker, it reveals the 18-year-old MacGregor’s standing in the spring term was 29 in a class of 32. He flunked every subject except English, where his mark was 53 per cent. There is a comment scrawled on the paper: “Slipping badly.”

MacGregor repeated Grade 12 — not just to graduate but also to date Griffith, who had moved to Huntsville that year and whose father was the high school chemistry teacher. MacGregor applied for university halfway through Grade 13 but only two universities accepted him, Carleton and Laurentian. He chose the latter because it was where most of his friends were going. “I’m one of those people who does not necessarily go to university to get education, but to get over education, to not be afraid of it,” MacGregor says. “And not be intimidated by people who are lawyers or doctors.” MacGregor studied political science at Laurentian and graduated in 1970. He rode a motorcycle around Europe for several months and then returned to Canada, not knowing what to do. He and a friend decided to apply to Western’s graduate program for journalism.

MacGregor’s negative experience at Western wasn’t enough to convince him to abandon journalism altogether. Recently married and just out of school, he landed his first steady gig at the trade magazine Office Equipment & Methods, where MacGregor says he reviewed “staplers and coded paperclips.” He says standards there were so pathetic they ‘wouldn’t even look at the equipment they reviewed. “Honest to God, you would write a review without ever having tried the product,” MacGregor recalls, “just repeating the press release.”

The building MacGregor worked in housed Maclean’s on the seventh floor, but he worked in the basement. While the young man bitterly wrote about filing cabinets, he dreamed of taking the elevator up to Peter C. Newman’s publication. “We kept getting these plaintive notes coming up from a young man who was desperate to write for Maclean’s and desperate to get out of the trade magazine bullpen,” remembers 40-year magazine veteran Don Obe, who was then associate editor of Maclean’s. Obe encouraged MacGregor to send story ideas to the magazine, and not long after, he landed a freelance position writing small pieces about music. One of his first assignments was a general music column about a new album by The Who. “I vividly remember a fact-checker who is no longer with us,” he says, relaxing on the leather couch in his family room. “Every time I mentioned The Who, [the fact-checker] put the word ‘Guess’ in between, so it appeared in the pages of Maclean’s magazine as The Guess Who that had released Tommy!”

Newman sent the mortified MacGregor a present: letters from angry fans pointing out the error. The editor scrawled “Explain yourself!” on one and fired it off through interoffice mail. In response, MacGregor wrote a depressing reply that said he realized the error ruined his chance to doreal journalism at Maclean’s. Fortunately, Newman saw the unedited proofs and realized that it was a fact-checking error. He called MacGregor to his office and suggested he pitch a feature story on the spot. “Well, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an article about a woman I knew who was engaged to Tom Thomson and how she had inherited all of these paintings,” MacGregor began. He told Newman about the woman he knew through his family. “I had helped clean out her house when she died, and she had all these Tom Thomson paintings. She wouldn’t even put hot water in her house. All her life she had been affected by his death.”

Newman assigned MacGregor to write about the tragic romance (he later wrote Canoe Lake, a novel based on the story). The article, published September 1973, created a sensation. “It really screwed me up,” MacGregor laughs, “because I got onto all types of television shows and got interviewed all around the country. I thought, ‘This is what it’s like to write a magazine article!’ and then it never happened again.” Maclean’s hired him full-time.

In 1975, when Obe left Maclean’s to become the editor of The Canadian, then Canada’s largest circulation magazine, he took MacGregor with him — much to Newman’s dismay. “I took him over as a staff writer,” Obe says. “Because I knew he was on his way to being the best magazine writer in the country.”

MacGregor says it was at The Canadian, a newspaper insert, where he learned the art of non-fiction writing. The magazine gave him the freedom to write concerned, somewhat scoffing and sometimes sentimental profiles about the likes of Bobby Clarke, Margaret Atwood and Ian Tyson. His less than flattering piece on Otto Lang, minister of transport under Pierre Trudeau, got MacGregor sued. The piece chronicled Lang’s embarrassing political foibles, like his assumption that his fired nanny could fly back to Scotland free on a government plane. The piece led the nightly news for two days and caused so much controversy that The Canadian did not appear in Saskatchewan again. “Christ almighty, was I ever scared!” he says.

David Cobb, who was also a staff writer at The Canadian, recognized the young MacGregor’s talent. “If I were a public figure — in sports, politics, the arts — and I had an opportunity to choose a profiler, I would choose Roy,” Cobb says. The first year the National Magazine Awards NMAs) were held, in 1977, MacGregor won two awards for his writing, his reputation growing as a poignant yet unpretentious magazine writer.

MacGregor stayed at The Canadian until1978, then jumped between Maclean’s and Walter Stewart’s Today, another newspaper-insert magazine. He now considers a Maclean’s piece, “Rumbles from the North,” his breakaway from shallow celebrity stories. He focused the piece on the Crees’ battle against the largest hydroelectric project in North America. The infant son of Chief Billy Diamond, then Grand Chief of the Cree Council, had suffered brain damage and nearly died as a result of open cesspools of waste, on land used bv the government for resource projects. Once the article appeared, the Crees got immediate attention in the House of Commons, and the government initiated a $61.5 million program to correct water sewage, sanitation and poor housing conditions on the Cree reserves.

It may have been a breakthrough story for him, but MacGregor thinks the time for that kind of writing has passed. He gets up from his leather couch and walks over to the window. “The hardest thing to say, really, and it will hurt some people, is that was a long time ago,” MacGregor says, choosing his words carefully. “That type of work isn’t done anymore. And it’s not going to be done anymore. And we all have to move on to different things. They were great, wonderful magazines, and I treasure every moment of being there, but I’m not nostalgic for it.”

MacGregor believes there are two new layers above the newspaper — 24-hour news channels and the Internet- that have forced publications to become more reflective and analytical, roles previously reserved for traditional magazines. The growing sophistication of print can clearly be seen over the last 15 years, when circulation was down and newspapers began producing style and feature sections to attract younger readership. “Newspapers knew that they had to produce something nearing magazine quality every day,” says Greg Boyd Bell, assistant city editor at the Toronto Star and media columnist for the The Hamilton Spectator. “So the kind and range of stories, including longer pieces, that you might see once a week if you looked at a newspaper 20 years ago, now you’re seeing every day.”

Twenty years ago, MacGregor landed his first newspaper job as a columnist for the Toronto Star, where he became deeply concerned and paranoid. He wanted to focus on daily columns, not on long articles reminiscent of his magazine writings. “They took away one of my columns and had me doing more features on Sundays, so I was doing two columns a week and features. It made me less effective as a columnist,” he says. “I thought they were trying to turn me into a feature writer.”

After two years he jumped ship back to Maclean’s to be its Ottawa editor. He now regrets the move, as it made him totally disenchanted with news magazines. It was his worst year in journalism. “I probably would have been fired,” he says. “I was in far too much disagreement with them. It was a very, very unhappy place. Writing was not being allowed. It was over-edited, hyper-edited, kind of Maclean’s-ish.”

In 1986, MacGregor moved to the Ottawa Citizen, where he was given a general column, and he has been in the newspaper business ever since. “Newspapers are the daily news magazines now,” he often chants. He finds himself attracted to the daily rush and believes that coverage of events like 9/11 in a weekly news magazine is “like reading about the Second World War.”

Boyd Bell disagrees. “I don’t buy that at all,” he says. “You go to magazines for writing that is crafted, that has a standard of excellence you don’t find in daily newspapers no matter how hard they try. Yeah, the Internet is more timely, but people sure as hell aren’t reading Roy MacGregor to find out what happened 30 seconds ago.”

Despite his success as a full-time magazine writer (four NMAs, along with many shared awards and nominations), MacGregor looks back on those years as slow-paced and lazy compared to his newspaper career. “I wrote 16 articles a year. The rate I work now, I could easily produce one of those magazine pieces in a week, maybe two.”

Some might argue the quick pace of newspapers doesn’t allow MacGregor to refine his writing. “Because he’s such a talented writer and has such an active mind,” says Jim Travers, his former editor at the Citizen, “he takes on a tremendous amount. The rush of writing for a daily probably doesn’t give him enough time to fully develop the ideas and the quiet, carefully formed sentiment that he builds around his characters.”

MacGregor claims he’s still able to write rich, detailed prose — not in magazines but in books such as A Lift in the Bush, Escape: In Search of the Natural Soul of Canada and The Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey. However, he’s probably best known for his Screech Owls books: hockey-themed mystery novels for eight- to 12-year-olds. “I’m famous in Grade 5,” he jokes. And although he’s written 13 other books, including bestsellers, MacGregor still feels like an outsider in literary and academic circles. Once, on a book promotion tour, another writer asked him, “Does it ever bother you that there is a sports writer with the same name?”

When the Ottawa Senators started in 1992-93, MacGregor was asked if he wanted to cover them exclusively for the Citizen. This made him a lot happier than his first job there, covering Parliament Hill, a place he thinks is overrated and over-reported. He covered sports and special events like the Stanley Cup and the Olympics, finally winning a National Newspaper Award for his sports writing (he’s been nominated eight times). “The sports world is far more kind than the columnists’ world,” he says. “Sports people will actually help each other out. Sure, I want to be first, and I want to be the best, but it’s much more like family.”

Since writing the best-selling Home Game in 1989 (with former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden), MacGregor has gained a solid reputation as a sports writer, even though he had previously only dabbled in it now and then. He feels, “if you don’t understand hockey, you don’t understand Canada.”

It was something of a surprise, then, when MacGregor left the comforts of his Citizen job to be a general columnist at the newly created National Post. “It has been the greatest thing that has happened in Canadian journalism in my lifetime,” MacGregor says of the Post. “It doesn’t matter what you think of it. It has been the greatest thing. It just made things blossom. Good for business.”

Although he considers himself a “left-wing loony,” he felt a great sense of belonging at the conservative Post and thought he’d stay there a long time, despite the crazy requests the newspaper would sometimes make of him. He recalls being at his cottage at around 5 p.m. and receiving a typical, random request. This time they wanted a piece on the demise of Canadian Airlines. “I’d have to do a 1,500 word piece on a subject that I had never written about and never before given a friggin’ thought!” MacGregor says. The story required heavy research and he was on a punishing two-hour deadline. But by 7 p.m., MacGregor fired his copy off to his grateful editors.

However, in late summer 2002, MacGregor felt uneasy about the staff layoffs at the Post and “bailed” on them, joining his fourth newspaper, the Globe. He had been courted by its editors twice before, and this time new chief Ed Greenspon offered MacGregor the highly coveted Page 2 slot. The two came to the loose agreement that he would write five columns a week focusing on the country. “Eddie Greenspon at the Globe thinks that my column is the Peter Gzowski of print,” MacGregor says. An admitted sentimentalist, he is aware of the image he projects. “I could see that coming,” he says of the “Captain Canada” tag people slap on him. But he believes nobody is around to carry the torch after Gzowski as the next iconic Canadian journalist.

Oddly, MacGregor’s first assignment was out of the country, travelling across middle America on the first anniversary of 9/11, telling stories about his journey from the memorial in Oklahoma City to Ground Zero in New York.

Story ideas for MacGregor are obvious when he’s on the road, but at home he has to generate the majority of ideas for This Country. He says the main difference between the Post and the Globe is the latter’s editors give its columnists a lot of freedom — too much for his liking. “I hardly talk to them at all,” he says. “We used to talk at the Post. It was always talk, and then the agreement for the idea tends to filter down from the top. The Globe leaves you alone and you fill your own space. I’ve actually been encouraging them to try to go up the middle a bit more.”

If he’s not travelling for This Country to places like Newfoundland or Saskatoon, MacGregor usually wakes up at 6 a.m. and searches the Internet for inspiration. “Every day I wake up in a cold sweat, in a fetal position, crying like a little baby,” MacGregor says, smiling. “And I’m ready to go.”

He says he never has a back-up column — a pretty risky move for someone writing articles five times a week. “Fundamentally, at the core of journalism is insecurity,” he says. “There’s a psychological affliction, particular to journalists, this feeling that you are going to be found out … that someone is going to put his arm around you, take you aside and say, ‘Roy, we can’t figure out how you did it, we admire you hugely for pulling it off, but we’re on to you now. Basically, if you agree to go away quietly we won’t make a big fuss, but if you don’t agree to go quietly, we’re going to fire your ass!”‘

“If you didn’t have that desperate need for approval and recognition you wouldn’t work as hard as you do,” says MacGregor. “Insecurity is a tool in journalism — a feeling of inadequacy, a need for approval. Journalism school is a huge litter of puppies racing around for a pat on the head. It’s like a separate race of basket cases.”

But MacGregor has no regrets. “I couldn’t recommend a better life.”

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