Link Byfield: good friend, good Catholic, good paddler
Even before my old friend Link Byfield died in hospital after a short, painful battle with cancer, he was being called a Western Canadian iconoclast, and, interestingly, a Western Canadian icon, which I guess is what happens to iconoclasts if they keep at it long enough (see Ernest and Preston Manning, T.C. Douglas, John Diefenbaker and Peter Lougheed).
Several of these legendary figures had very strong religious convictions, so it is worth relating that for the last 25 years my wife Jayne and I would always meet Link and his wife Joanne at their parish church in Riviere Qui Barre. There, Link could be spotted in the last pew on the left, leading the choir with his booming bass.
After Mass we would transfer to his acreage west of town and spend a relaxed midday over a big lunch discussing his four kids, Catholic and Alberta politics, the magazines sequentially named the Alberta Report, Western Report, and finally, just, The Report.
But I first got to know Link, who was 18 or 19, in 1972 paddling down Lake Winnipeg side-by-side at the stern of two, 22-ft., wood and canvas canoes crewed by four or five high school boys, and in company with four more crews and canoes from St. John’s School of Alberta, all led by Link’s father, Ted Byfield, co-founder of the school and its twin in Manitoba.
As we paddled down the featureless, windswept and sun-flattened shoreline we passed the time with parodying a fundamentalist radio talk show and teasing our crews with the vision of chocolate bars. The experience left me with a lasting impression of a good-spirited, even-tempered, generous-hearted, and quietly humorous young man. Moreover, he kept his unwieldy canoe on course and up to speed.
Link strayed somewhat after that, into the drug culture, long hair etc., but in 1981 he answered his father’s call again. By then, Ted Byfield had left the St. John’s Schools to start the St. John’s Edmonton Report, a weekly newsmagazine with a purpose as unlikely as its name: staffed by members of a lay Anglican community of married and single people just as the schools were, the magazine would take on the secular culture just as the schools had taken on the secular education establishment. It would cover the full range of news—arts, sports, the economy, politics, education—and religion, but from an orthodox Christian perspective.
By the time he returned, the Alberta Report’s own unique mix of relentless deadlines, chaotic finances, devout but insubordinate Christianity, and Western rights advocacy was well established. By then it had also abandoned the original model of a religious society living communally under vows and was paying people enough to start families.
As the agriculture reporter, Link quickly made the magazine (or magazines since it came out in several regional editions) a focal voice for the growing resistance to decades of collectivist and protectionist policies exemplified by the Crow Rate and the Wheat Pool, which I won’t try to explain.
He also quickly wooed and won Joanne Hatton, a fiery, outspoken staffer from Ontario who always claimed to be shocked, shocked that she had come to work for a bunch of Christians, but whose own family history was interwoven with that of Madonna House, the Catholic residential community at Combermere, Ontario established by a mid-century champion of the poor, Catherine Doherty.
Soon Link and Joanne were having children and getting them baptized Catholic in Riviere-Qui-Barre, so along the line Link had moved from nominal Anglican to actual Catholic.
As Link rose through the ranks to eventual leadership of the magazine, it continued to serve as a lightning rod for political disaffection. As the Alberta Report had backed Premier Peter Lougheed in his fight with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau over control of the province’s energy assets in the 1970s, so Ted Byfield mid-wived the Reform Party into being in the late 1980s and the magazine’s readers turned into instant members.
But as his father transferred his energy to the huge project, completed only two years ago, of creating a 12-volume popular history of Christianity, Link took over as publisher of the magazine. It helped the Reform Party transform itself from a regional populist movement into a national party (destroying the Progressive Conservatives in the process).
The magazine, with Link as publisher, did the same thing, and became a national, conservative news magazine, but with less success. The problem was that, apart from a period in the 1980s when the province’s oil wealth flowed freely into the magazine’s advertising revenues, it had never been financially successful. Going regional, and then going national, did not solve its problems.
Nor did it help with the accounts receivable that, under Link, the magazine became more trenchantly conservative, more unabashedly pro-life as that cause became more forlorn, more unrepentantly opposed to homosexuality as proponents of sexual deviance and anal sex became more successful at presenting themselves as latter-day Martin Luther King Jrs. Frequent fundraising campaigns that turned subscribers into shareholders and then donors kept the magazine afloat, in its final form as The Report, until 2003.
University of Calgary historian Ted Morton, a former Alberta cabinet minister, credits the Alberta Report with birthing the Reform Party and so saving political conservatism in Canada from being hijacked by its progressive wing. Thanks in part to the Alberta Report, in Morton’s view, Canada became under the Reform-driven Conservative government of Stephen Harper one of the most fiscally solid industrial democracies. Left out of Morton’s account was the fact that many Christians within Reform ranks had to park their faith at the entrance to the House of Commons.
While the Reformers were slowly conquering Ottawa, Link Byfield, after leading a conservative think tank for several years, got together with others alarmed at the fiscal irresponsibility of the provincial Progressive Conservative government to form the Wildrose Party in 2007. After a slow start it won 34 percent of the vote and 17 seats in the 2012 election, though Link failed to win election in his home riding.
He then resumed full-time editorial chores, launching with his father a web-based newsmagazine called TheChristians.com, that has, so far, failed to catch on in a market crowded with conservative sites. As an editor, he was always a pleasure to work for.
Last year he learned he had an advanced cancer in his esophagus and only two years at most to live. Eschewing chemotherapy, he carefully researched alternative treatments and opted for one involving mega-dosing on enzymes and vitamins but in the end could not stomach the heavy and unremitting regime of pill-taking.
Instead, in his last days, he rested, met with family, took painkillers and had, to his own surprise, a series of mystical religious experiences, which might, he wryly conceded, have a lot to do with the painkillers.
In an interview with the National Post, Joanne Byfield observed that too much was being made of her husband’s politics, which was, in the reporter’s words, “‘ironic’ considering that was likely the least important aspect of his career.” But that, of course, is the subtext of the whole Byfield adventure as well as the story of conservatism in Canada. The magazines were popular when they championed Western rights but made those who liked their oil politics exceedingly uncomfortable with their frank espousal of Christianity and its unfashionable opposition to sexual immorality.
Sadly, Link lived just long enough to see most of the Wildrose caucus abandon the party that elected it and cross the floor of the Alberta legislature behind leader Danielle Smith to join the government.
Though bitterly critical, he understood the politics behind it: the party faithful, many of them conservative Christians, had rejected Smith’s plea for a gay-friendly declaration by the party that she felt was necessary to win the election. Still, Link advised her, “Treat the gays fairly, but treat us social conservatives fairly too. Just treat everyone fairly.” Smith, however, found the tension too great, and decided the party’s hidden Christian roots were a liability.
I was out of province for Link’s political life, so I remember more what Joanne remembers, a good husband and father, a good friend, a strong paddler, a staunch believer.