A conversation with Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig has been a major influence on where I wish to head as a journalist. She is one of the rare few that conveys a story without candy floss wrapped around each paragraph. The minute I realized this interview would prevail to be distinct from all I have come across was when Linda expressed no interest in a ‘question-answer’ type of interview and preferred to experience our sit down more like a conversation. This replenished all that my old school spirit craved and with a plate of sweet potato fries in front of us, my recorder became nonexistent as if it replaced the complimentary dip.

The start of Linda’s career was established at The Varsity because of the eagerness in assembling left-wing politics.

In 1972, McQuaig had a real taste for how journalism can influence public opinion when the University of Toronto decided that they would close the stacks to undergraduates. Linda and her photographer spent the night in the Robarts Library and wrote about the choice in an off-beat approach to invite attention. The Varsity and student council agreed to make the affair a huge political issue on campus and made a petition that pupils could cut out and place in the campus mail. This led to them receiving thousands in support, which they displayed to the library committee in a dramatic fashion, noted by Linda. The following day, the groups of students raided Simcoe Hall, which drew a surrender by the president Jack Sword. Linda believes situations like this shaped the path she has taken today. “I learned more at The Varsity than I have anywhere else in some way,” she spoke in a joyful tone. “David Frank, who held the position of editor at the time of my entry, taught us the importance of taking critical angles. Through an exercise, he acted out as if we were at a press conference. We learned how to probe and ask tough questions, which the media rarely does.” To McQuaig it’s about holding those in high power positions accountable and providing rich detail for great stories. She would argue any day with those that say media isn’t a vital part in our society, because we need unbreakable journalism more than ever.

After many clippings at The Varsity, Linda took a position at the Toronto Star, which then journalism had countless summer programs because of the main staff being on holidays. McQuaig couldn’t put an exact status quo to her secret to the afterlife of writing for a student newspaper because she feels it was a lot easier back than for future graduates to report and edit.  For me, I considered it amusing by having to explain to Linda the tough process of landing a job in this generation no matter what industry you choose.

The summer following the Toronto Star, Linda ended up at the Globe and Mail where she inhabited for an extensive period. Though it may look like a rapid transition, McQuaig suffered some heat in other ways that writers can still relate to today.

When Linda McQuaig hit the mainstream journalism scene in the mid-70s, she felt fortunate to be at the end of an era in which females were completely marginalized. Linda never exactly felt discrimination due to being a woman, but she did, however, notice narrow-mindedness towards her unorthodox writing approach.

She remembers when she first started at The Globe they had a women’s section that featured recipes and the typical housewife content. There was a story that Linda produced about a daycare chain that was pressing the government to weaken the laws to jam more kids into the program. The chronicle fit so perfectly into the corruption of corporate daycare, but it ended up with all the fluff pieces which Linda recalls some disappointment. But you couldn’t expect this to put a dent on a powerhouse woman, would you?

In 1989, Linda found herself breaking down one of the largest political scandals in Ontario.

To be brief, Patti Starr was a former administrator, novelist, and chair of Ontario Place. Through her role as head of the National Council of Jewish Women Toronto Chapter, she was able to round up illegal contributions as a “fundraiser and supporter” to federal, municipal, and provincial politicians. At the time, McQuaig was trying to get to the bottom of a housing policy issue with the Liberals when she received a lead into a scandal of corruption in the government, which Linda admits it took her long hours to gather information on Starr. When the article was released the Elections Finance Commission and Conflict of Interest Commissioner began investigations. Fast forwarding, Starr was sentenced to 6 month’s in jail but paroled after two months even with a failed attempt at shutting the inquiry down from Premier David Peterson with a lawsuit. Because of the great public inquiry, Linda’s probe piece landed a National Newspaper Award.

McQuaig stated it was thrilling to feel like she impacted a story and not necessarily because she helped put time on another individual.

In Linda’s upcoming book, she brings that same sort of energy arguing privatization and how it is the economic ideology of our time. She tells the stories of some political battles that lead to the creation of interesting public enterprises that were historical in Canada such as the rise of hydro in Ontario and The Canadian National Railways. The reason Linda’s take is so much different is because Canada knows the stories to some extent in a glamourized way of private entrepreneurship, which we didn’t excel at compared to the United States. McQuaig believes that we are selling off heritage, and it’s an important story to observe.

Where do we go from here you ask? In a world that has several issues pulling in many directions as if we are trilingual, Linda hopes editors and media can stop controlling what play they give important stories, which some get buried far into the newspaper.

“In the background, there are other voices that may not have much impact but when they stir up other people, progress can be done,” McQuaig stated. “Even though political activism is frustrating, with a few words there is so much that is said.”

 

Interview and Written by: Sadie Kromm

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