The True Grit of Michael Valpy
Through all the fear and loathing, one lonely liberal hangs tough at The Globe and Mail
Two hundred kilometres northwest of Toronto, the century old farms of Grey County are tucked into the lovely rolling hills overlooking Queen’s Valley. This gentle landscape is the view Michael Valpy sees from his farmhouse. For 20 years Valpy, The Globe and Mail’s urban affairs columnist, has fled to this tranquil place as often as he can. Lately though, simmering beneath all the apparent serenity is a battle about increasing land development and the loss of farmland. It’s a battle Valpy has joined.
As the mind flies, Grey County politics would seem vastly distant from the upscale concerns of The Globe and Mai~ but Valpy has frequently used his Citystate column as an arena for his crusade to save the farmland.
Ever since he was a child, Valpy has loved farms. “It’s a Citizen Kane-Rosebud thing,” he says. “I had a toy farm as a child and played with it constantly. It was set up on a PingPong table on top of an unused bathtub in a room my father used as a study. My mother used to force me to play with other children because I’d play with it day after day.”
It came as no surprise, then, that when Valpy took aptitude tests in school they all said he’d likely be a farmer or maybe a psychologist. The psychologist emerges, perhaps, in the social reformer-the Michael Valpy who wants to uncover the human side of every story, who always wants to put faces on statistics.
It’s this quality of caring deeply about people that makes his writing stand apart from others at the Globe these days, now that Thomas Walkom and June Callwood are gone. He’s the last of the left-leaning columnists at the paper and for a time most journalists predicted he wouldn’t last long. Valpy has a habit of going out on limbs, and until recently media watchers were sure that the Globe’s publisher, Roy Megarry, was following with a saw.
But at this writing, the saw seems to have been shelved. Valpy, for the moment, seems secure. Now, after an early morning story meeting at city hall with the Globe’s city bureau, Valpy takes his crusade to preserve the rural landscape on the road. He climbs into a car littered with children’s green crayon drawings, parking tickets and orangestained Popsicle sticks, to drive for three hours through the crisp October air to Owen Sound, the Grey County seat. He’s to speak there to a group of agriculture students about the need to control rural development.
I’m along for the ride. When I asked Valpy if I could spend the day with him at city hall, he said it would be too boring. But would I like to come up to the farm? Of course. On the way he talks about his past problems at the Globe, his time as the paper’s correspondent in Africa, his family and, of course, the status of farmland in Grey County. Once outside the city, he begins to expand on that precarious period at the Globe. “It all seems so long ago and a little irrelevant now,” Valpy reflects as he moves the car north, with a thousand immediate things on his mind: the speaking engagement is at noon; three-year-old son Francis has to be picked up from day-care by six; a column still has to be filed; and I’m trying to pick his brain about an unsettling time in the not too distant past. As he drives he smokes a Rothmans Special Mild and talks of the shakedown that occurred in the private school that was The Globe and Mail. The Globe had gotten new headmasters and the boys were about to be whipped into shape or suspended.
For Valpy it began when he used his column to express a feeling of alienation and to protest the dismissal of Norman Webster as editor in chief on Boxing Day 1988. Valpy wrote that he was shocked because the staff took the sudden dismissal quietly instead of rebelling. “The thing that just infuriated me about the Webster thing was that we were going to lie to our readers about why he was fired. I just found that totally unacceptable.” The lie was a page-three news piece which ran January 6, 1989, saying that Webster was “stepping down to take a sabbatical.” William Thorsell, Webster’s replacement, went on to fire Geoffrey Stevens as managing editor within the month. Many others left, or were asked to, and some thought the pattern was all too clear; those leaving often held political and social views that were incompatible with the conservatism of Megarry and Thorsell.
“Webster and Stevens and I had all grown up at the Globe,” Valpy says. “We’d been around for 20 years and we all saw ourselves as the organic, emotional and intellectual inheritors of what the Globe was-the red Tory, caring conscience and voice of the country.” In hindsight there is some evidence that Valpy regarded Megarry and Thorsell as outsiders who didn’t understand the Globe’s mission. The old boys versus the upstarts. “Ideological differences between people like myself and Thorsell exist and there is no question that others who felt differences like this happen to be people who are left-leaning,” Valpy observes.
When Megarry read Valpy’s column complaining about the treatment of Webster, he went to Shirley Sharzer, then deputy managing editor, and told her Valpy was not to write any more columns about the affair. Sharzer never mentioned the edict to Valpy; he was unaware of it until a Saturday Night article told the tale almost a year later in December 1989. The news saddened him. In all his years at The Globe and Mail he had never been told what to write or what not to write.
Shortly after Thorsell took over, he and Valpy met for dinner. Thorsell told Valpy his column was not high on the Globe’s priority list. “We don’t know if we’re going to keep the column,” he said and for the next eight months he kept Valpy guessing. The column had originally been introduced as a way to integrate Valpy back into the paper after his stint in Africa. He had suffered a mild heart attack in May of 1987 while in London, as he was about to return to Zimbabwe. The Toronto column was to be a kind of convalescence before he was sent out again. In his now famous state-of-the-paper memo of August 29, 1988, Megarry had written: “We will eliminate the Michael Valpy column. We only introduced this column to assist in Michael’s recovery. It seems he has fully recovered and is ready for another assignment.”
Despite the uncertainty, Valpy hung in and it finally paid off. By spring of 1990 he sensed a swing in both Megarry’s and Thorsell’s attitudes. “Megarry admits he’s turned 180 degrees in his thinking about the column,” Valpy says. “I don’t think he liked the column because I don’t think he likes picking up the paper and seeing us constantly talking about the problems of our society. He doesn’t like us dumping on the federal Tories as persistently as we do either.”
Thorsell has come around too. “I like Michael a lot,” he told me, “and have every intention of keeping him at the paper as long as he wants to stay. I think his is a good column and it gives real strength to the paper.”
That strength became evident with the Patti Starr/ Ontario Liberals scandal. As the Starr case got bigger and Valpy’s coverage became more important, management’s uneasiness about him came to an end. “I think it was at the point at which Gordon Ashworth [executive director of the premier’s office] resigned and we realized we had the Liberal government on the run for the first time. Patti Starr will never know what impact she had on my career. She confirmed my role at the Globe.”
Before the Starr scandal, Valpy had been looking for another job, just to be safe-not an easy task when you’re being talked about so much. Frank magazine, The Thronto Sun and other media gossip mongers were exaggerating the thinness of the tightrope he had been walking for almost a year. Few seemed to want to put a safety net under his career. He tried The Toronto Star, but management said they didn’t want another columnist from outside. “That mayor may not have been the case; maybe they were just being polite and didn’t want me.”
Valpy couldn’t leave Toronto because he has custody of his son, so his options were limited to the city. He was set for a job at CBC radio and interviewed for a teaching position at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. Ryerson wanted him but at the last minute Valpy changed his mind. “I realized [during the Starr affair] that teaching couldn’t be as much fun as reporting every day.”
Finally, the waters began to calm, and it was about time. The media gossip had been driving him crazy. His rebuttal to it all came in an April 21, 1989, letter to the editor of the Richard Doyle, the Sun. Valpy wrote: “Your columnist Barbara Amiel writes that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Your columnist Christie Blatchford writes that I bore my editors. Your columnist Allan Fotheringham writes that I’m on my bosses’ hit list and am about to be shipped to Winnipeg. You’re trying to tell me something, aren’t you?” To which the editor replied: “Is this a job application?”
During this troubled time at the Globe, Valpy moved into his present city hall office in the press gallery overlooking Nathan Phillips Square. “I decided the best thing to do was to lower my profile.” He hid out there, sort of an exile on his own recognizance, after all the rumors and bad blood. “Tom Walkom’s departure worried and alarmed me and continues to sadden me just enormously,” Valpy says. Walkom was writing a Queen’s Park column some thought was the best column in the paper, but was not getting along with Bill Thorsell and left the Globe in March 1989 to work at the Star. “Tom and I have been close friends for a long time. When my marriage broke up I moved in with him. I had, and still have, enormous difficulty understanding why he was made to feel uncomfortable, not welcome. I really felt bereft of pals when he left.” In the purging of that spring of 1989, 42 people were fired or left. According to Valpy, Fotheringham insists he saved Val py’s job by creating such controversy over his strained relations at the Globe. Frank, too, had a hand in keeping his name alive and well in the media gossip mills. “Obviously, though, Frank no longer sees the need to defend me because their last mention of me said I looked and sounded like Winnie-the-Pooh.” In fact, Valpy more closely resembles the bouncing, trouble-making Tigger.
Valpy began stirring things up early on. In his book Hurly Burly: A Time at The Globe and Mail, Richard Doyle, the paper’s long-standing editor, describes him as a student at the University of British Columbia: “Michael Valpy, a skinny, tousle-haired Vancouverite, majored in causes in his university days. He did his post-graduate work in equality and other outrageous assumptions” Valpy left UBC after two years of working on a general arts degree and briefly considered entering the Anglican priesthood. He comes from a long line of Valpys with names like Charles, Andrew and Francis-all very Anglican names, he says-and at least one was a priest. In the end, it was not holy orders but newspapering that lured Valpy and he went to work for The Vancouver Sun as a reporter in 1961. Later he was night city editor at the short-lived Vancouver Times.
In 1965 he returned to Toronto-where he was born and had lived until his parents moved to BC after World War Two work for the Globe. He stayed for 10 years, first as a reporter and feature writer, later as a member of the editorial board, before taking a year off to join the Company of Young Canadians-a “domestic peace corps.” The CYC further stimulated his social conscience and had an enormous intellectual influence on him. He became more committed than ever to solving the problems facing Canadians at the time.
For a period in the sixties he covered the hippie drug scene in Toronto’s Yorkville district for The Globe and Mail and saw how the police can treat people in discriminatory ways: those who had money and property were shown respect; those who didn’t-the kids of the Yorkville subculture weren’t. He witnessed a severe public health problem in which some doctors didn’t want to treat the hippies. Close friend and lawyer Clayton Ruby met Valpy during this time. He says Valpy has always had a deep understanding of what goes on under the surface of society. “Whether it’s Yorkville or South Africa, he is a man who hates prejudice and wants to find out what makes people do what they do.”
Valpy returned to Vancouver after the CYC to rejoin the Sun, first on its editorial board, then in Ottawa to write a political column for three years. In 1981, the Globe invited him back to write its national affairs column after Geoffrey Stevens was appointed national editor. Valpy says there must be a Trivial Pursuit question about who wrote the prestigious editorial-page column between Geoffrey Stevens and Jeffrey Simpson. From May 1, 1981, to November 30, 1983, (he remembers the dates vividly) he did. “I was intimidated by the Globe’s audience. It terrified me.” He was afraid to go to the Sparks Street Mall for fear of running into critics. “It was probably the only prolonged unhappy period of my journalistic career.”
He recalls a lunch with Joe Clark during this time: “He was going on about what was wrong with all the Ottawa columnists, and he dismembered every columnist in turn. I said he’d left one out and he said, ‘Oh yes, you. I can’t believe the Globe gives you that space to write the things you do.'” Valpy admits that he wrote about everything but Ottawa, even about his cats. And he’s still passionate about pets. He brought home two from Africa: a dog named Chuma and a cat left behind by neighbors. “It took four weeks but I lured him into the house.” He named him Cat and when the animal died last summer it was the first time Francis had witnessed death. Valpy buried Cat between two Norwegian spruce trees on the farm and explained to Francis that Cat’s immortal soul had undoubtedly gone back to Zimbabwe. Francis now equates Zimbabwe with heaven. “I heard him explain to a friend the other day that when you die you first go to God and then you go to Zimbabwe.”
Francis is the sixth Francis in the last eight generations. Valpy refuses to talk about Francis’ mother, Jo Anne Ambridge, who is no longer in his life. Nor does he talk about his marriage (1970-74) to Amanda Ferguson, chief librarian at the Globe. Their daughter Leslie is 18. He adores his two children. “I’m terribly in love with my son and my daughter is quite wonderful. I’d rather spend time with her than with a lot of my friends.”
Valpy’s only other immediate family (his parents are dead) is his older brother David whom he describes as a “millionaire businessman living in Vancouver.” Valpy says their family was “strongly Tory monarchist British imperialist-quite right wing.”
It was with this eclectic background-a mixture of Tory conservatism and street radicalism-that Valpy left to be the Globe’s Africa correspondent in 1984. He was there for four years-a period of re-education and physical stress. Because there was no time for a full advance briefing, he arrived in Harare, Zimbabwe, virtually uninformed about the situation or the history of southern Africa. Marq de Villiers, a native of South Africa and editor of Toronto Life, thought Valpy’s early coverage was weak. “I remember reading his dispatches consistently and thinking he was missing the point. He had a set of preconceptions that took a long time for him to clear away about how politics should work in places that weren’t Canadian.”
Valpy admits to his early mistakes in Africa. His opinions and philosophy changed as he accumulated experience with the South African system. De Villiers says Valpy understood the black side of the equation before he understood the white side. “Once he did get that perspective, I thought he did some very good work.” Valpy lived in a little house in a mixed race area of Harare with no swimming pool, unlike other correspondents who were living in large houses with staffs of servants. His reasons were practical-he had the only telex line. Even the Canadian high commission staff used his telex. “Actually it was a quasi-diplomatic post,” he says. Diplomats often stayed with him and he took them along on his tours.
Valpy sees himself doing Citystate for another two years at least; he will be SO then. “Writing a column is really a tripartite process in that the column has to be in tune with the readers, editors and with me, and you can’t ignore any of those focal points. The first thing I do when I pick up the paper is read the front page and then turn to the letters page to see if anyone’s written in about the column. It’s that intense desire to stay popular,” he says-the same desire that’s making him nervous now about the speech to the agriculture students.
It’s noon when we arrive at the Owen Sound Holiday Inn and there are many pickups in the parking lot. Valpy’s light blue Toyota Tercel looks slightly out of place, especially with its “I love Soweto” bumper sticker.
Inside the Holiday Inn the decor is standard issue. The mauve-pink hallway seems out of place here in the heartland. A buffet table greets Valpy and he grabs a drab looking sandwich-white bread, butter, slices of supermarket salami. He asks to be given a few moments to read over his notes, have a smoke, go to the bathroom. “I don’t like speaking in public,” he had told me earlier. “I’d rather talk to strange groups like the Prayer Book Society, which I often do. The Book of Common Prayer is a beautiful book, you know.”
After Valpy’s smoke break, we descend to a dingy basement conference room called the St. Vincent. At the head table Valpy is flanked by three other speakers: an artist, a farmer, and former township reeve Bill Murdoch, now an MPP. A representative of the environment ministry acts as moderator. Valpy is asked to speak first. He stays seated, ignoring the lectem, and talks quickly, his face reddening. He runs his fingers through his untamed hair as he reads from his notes, and what he has to say he says passionately. A clipping of his column from the Friday before about Grey is being circulated surreptitiously among the 25 people gathered.
Grey County leads the province in the number of land severances granted each year. These are small sales of farmland and require municipal approval. Where they occur, houses spring up along the roads: many are Mediterranean inspired, adorned with plaster owls, eagles and lions; they look alien among the silos and Massey Fergusons. When Valpy first confronted Bill Murdoch about the high rate of severances, Murdoch graciously told him to sell his farm and move if he didn’t like it. Bad move.
In Grey, the attitude toward Valpy is a combination of apprehension and admiration. People know who he is and read his column probably more than anyone else outside Toronto, and Valpy takes pride in this. “You have the feeling that if Toronto takes notice there is a kind of delicious tingling to the fact that the problems of Grey County are being fought out in The Globe and Mail,” he says. Although he’s been a member of the community for 20 years, Valpy is still considered somewhat of an outsider, and some clearly resented him as an intruder. Garbage has been dumped on his property and he takes the precaution of not keeping a mailbox with his name on it out by the road, as is the rural custom: “Although you could just ask the woman at the post office and she could tell you where I live.”
This trip to Owen Sound on a work day demonstrates Valpy’s commitment to the things he cares about. A liberal who wants to do what is right and good, whether it’s fighting development on Ontario’s rural landscape or championing the 105,000 Torontonians who depend on food banks, he is the self-appointed defender of the underdog. In the case of Grey County, though, the underdogs are very close to home. Is his crusade self-serving? Does Valpy have to justify using his Citystate column to write about Grey County? He pauses and smirks, “No, I don’t think so, increasingly now that Megarry lives on a farm himself. It doesn’t bother me one bit because it’s a major issue and I’ve never had such prolonged mail on a single issue.” The problem of destroying our rural landscape is country-wide, he points out. “It’s a Globe and Mail issue because it’s our upscale professional readers who own rural properties and it’s an issue that calls in planning and environmental protection and urban-suburban development. If my property values were threatened I suppose it would be a problem, but it’s working in the opposite way. I bought the farm for $20,000 and the last time I had it appraised it was over $300,000.”
When the meeting at the Holiday Inn is finished, Valpy feels he may have wasted his time. The audience seemed unresponsive. But as we head toward the farm his spirits pick up. He hates Toronto’s noise and congestion and would like to get out. During the week he lives in the Dundas-Dovercourt area in the second storey of a house, but he has a keen desire to live on the farm full-time. “The dream was, when I came back from Africa I was going to quit the Globe and do magazine pieces and books. It never came off though.”
It’s now three o’clock and we’re at the farmhouse checking to make sure the water pipes haven’t frozen. He’s eager to show me through the house-decor casual rustic. A hand pump that doesn’t work but clearly has nostalgic value adorns the kitchen. Upstairs an old upright Underwood sir-” on a desk facing northwest toward the view. Valpy’s commitment to the farm is clear. He has spent $3,000 just to keep the old barn in good repair. He rents his hundred acres to a neighboring farmer who uses the land for pasture and to grow some gram.
By now it’s getting late. Valpy still has to pick up Francis from day-care and decides there isn’t time for a column today. He calls his editor and explains the predicament. Next day’s paper says, “Michael Valpy is on assignment.”
On the trip back to Toronto, we pass a farm with an orange tractor sitting in the front yard. Valpy swerves a little staring at it. “Gee, I’m dying to buy a tractor,” he says. You can almost see a flashback to the toy farm set. “Just to push some dirt around or something. I’m not sure what else’
Jennifer Brown was a Senior Editor for the Spring 1991 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.