Canadian journalist Roy MacGregor looks at back at ‘a life in stories’ in new memoir

“A life in words,” writes Roy MacGregor, “has been the greatest adventure I could hope for — and more.”

Hailed as one of Canada’s most gifted storytellers, the 75-year-old is the author of more than 50 books on a variety of subjects — all linked by their innate Canadian-ness. Now, he is turning the focus on himself in his new memoir, Paper Trails: From the Backwoods to the Front Page, A Life in Stories.

And what a life it has been! The cover shows MacGregor in his canoe, mid-paddle, looking off into the distance, a suitable visible metaphor for a life spent exploring and writing about those explorations.

“My hobby from childhood on has been canoeing,” he explained. “So, anytime I wanted to get away, I would go into the rivers and lakes of this country and explore.”

MacGregor takes us from his humble beginnings growing up in Huntsville, Ontario, to famous assignments for Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post. But his career was nearly over before it started, all because of a well-meaning copy editor.

“[Maclean’s editor] Peter C. Newman gave me an opportunity to write a column and he suggested I do something about modern Canadian rock music and what state it was in,” he said. “So, I did this column saying all sorts of smart-ass things like, ‘Not since The Who released the rock opera Tommy has there been a surge of creativity in any music, let alone Canadian music.’ And down below I had mentioned, ‘Oh, there still are some Canadian groups around doing good work,’ and I mentioned The Guess Who.”

Unfortunately, the copy editor confused the two and the version of the story that went out referred to The Guess Who and its rock opera Tommy, prompting a stern talking-to from Mr. Newman who thought the mistake was MacGregor’s. But you could say MacGregor stuck to his Guns, Guns, Guns.

“I went down — remember we used to work with carbon paper — I pulled the carbon paper copy, so I went through it. And finally, I saw, I hadn’t made that mistake. I took the carbon paper back, went down through the line. We finally found out what had happened but it sure was a close call.”

MacGregor also devotes a full chapter to Canadian prime ministers he has gotten to know over the years. One story was the time he was asked to help Stephen Harper with a book he was writing about the early days of pro hockey.

“Well, I thought he hated me when he first met me,” MacGregor admitted.

“First of all, I told him, ‘You need to have a narrative,’ which for people who write, that’s the arc of the story. But every time I used that word he seemed to flinch. And I realized that narrative on Parliament Hill, and probably in all politics in Canada, has taken on a twisted sense. It means either my lie or your lie.”

Ultimately, the two worked together quite well, and the result was Harper’s 2013 book A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & the Rise of Professional Hockey.

MacGregor also writes about getting to know Jean Chretien and Justin Trudeau, but his time with Harper makes for the most interesting reading of the three. He does have some choice words for our current prime minister, noting how Canadians are much better at kicking someone out of office than putting someone in it.

“People are tired of Justin, tired of the photo ops, and tired of his government,” he said.

MacGregor worked in what could be called the golden age of Canadian journalism. He takes the reader back to a time of unlimited expense accounts, lovingly written long-form features, and assignments covering the length and breadth of the country.

“We would think nothing of doing the most bizarre thing,” he said. “For example, twice in my career, I rented helicopters — without any permission. I just did. Once, Jeffrey Simpson and I rented a plane so we could fly over the [Alberta] oil sands because we were both up there doing stories on them. Never asked. We went everywhere.”

“Now, as you know in your business, a lot of stations are no longer sending their play-by-play and colour people on the road. They’re having them watch the game on TV, just like with people back home, and then comment from a studio somewhere. I’m sorry, that’s not journalism. That’s not getting a feel for what’s happening. It’s not getting the undercurrents. It’s not getting the gossip. It’s just…sad.”

Read more: The Postmedia Effect: How Vulture Capitalism Is Wrecking Our News 

MacGregor isn’t completely gloomy on the future of journalism, however.

“I’ve decided that rather than whine and complain about digital and fading newspapers — I mean, I’m sitting here in Ottawa where the local newspaper has all but vanished — let’s accept that it’s going to be digital from now on and let’s have some really special places that do quality work, you know, a digital version of the New York Times or the Globe and Mail.”

“Truth matters. It matters more than ever.”

Paper Trails: From the Backwoods to the Front Page, A Life in Stories is published by Penguin Random House Canada.

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