Before faxes, computers, the Internet, email, cell phones, texting, Twitter, GPS — and sites like Google, Wikipedia and Wikileaks — investigative reporters found ways to get secret and sometimes damaging government documents.
Those with drive simply got out and made contacts. Only the ‘ace’ reporter went the extra mile and — as we all know — it’s never crowded along that extra mile.
The story you’re about to read is an account of how one of Canada’s leading investigative reporters — a so-called muckraker — rolled the dice and took risks.
In the end, the journalist was rewarded with inside information for a book he was writing about government waste.
We begin in 1977, the year Elvis died. That’ll help date things.
Two men — one in his mid-40‘s, the other mid-20s — were working side by side in a large, empty room at the new Federal Government building in the North York region of Toronto. The 14-story edifice, called the Joseph Sheppard Federal Building, is on the west side of Yonge Street, just north of Sheppard Avenue.
THE TWO KEY PLAYERS
The younger man, Chris, was a ‘CR-4’ office clerk with Transport Canada. The older chap was 46-year-old Walter Stewart. Stewart was not a civil servant; he was anything but. Stewart was a respected news reporter.
The two lived very different lives, but they soon discovered they shared similar values.
Chris was ‘last man standing’ with the Toronto Area Airports Project [TAAP], a group assembled to build an airport at Pickering, just east of Toronto. The new airport was supposed to relieve congestion at Pearson International, located in Toronto’s west-end.
The project collapsed — failed to take off, if you will. One could say — and many did, thanks to the work of reporters such as Stewart who revealed that Canadian taxpayers had been taken for a ride.
Even though Chris received good work appraisals — plus a national award for improving office procedure — he wasn’t liked by some of his bosses. That’s because the young clerk made them nervous. He was a whistle-blower.
Chris had questioned why taxpayers footed the bill for a small motorboat to travel “flooded ditches” at the proposed airport site [essentially flat farmers’ fields]. The boat never made it out to the fields, but it did bob up and down in Toronto Harbour … to be used exclusively by a manager at Transport Canada. That’s bullshit, he thought.
The young man found himself in more hot water when he queried how cocaine ended up in a Transport Canada sedan at Toronto/Downsview Airport. The vehicle was used by the same person who got the free motorboat. Chris came across the information in files in TAAP’s records unit.
Government bureaucrats banished the inquisitive one to the empty room and told him to mind his own business, put in his hours — and apply on other jobs.
And so he did.
It was during this time that a stranger wearing black-rimmed glasses appeared and introduced himself. “Walter Stewart,” he said. The visitor explained he was doing some research but when Chris asked questions, he became somewhat evasive. It was clear Stewart was up to something.
Their desks were side by side in the far corner of the room. The place was barren, save for two old desks, some grey concrete pillars and lots of floor space with newly-laid carpet.
Transport Canada was one of the first tenants in the new building. More departments would soon follow with thousands of workers and all the things they needed: desks, electric IBM typewriters, carbon paper, plants, filing cabinets, binders, forms, forms … and more forms. But for the time being, the whistle blower and the muckraker were all alone.
Chris knew a bit about Walter Stewart through his stories in the Star Weekly [a weekend supplement to the Toronto Star and other major Canadian newspapers]. He also had one of his books: But Not in Canada! Smug Canadian Myths Shattered by Harsh Reality.
Chris liked Walter because there was an ‘edge’ to him; his book effectively kicked the Canadian establishment in the nuts, and that was okay with him.
Day after day, Walter returned to Chris’ “office” to pour through government binders and files. However, Mr. Reporter just wasn’t getting the juicy stuff. Documents stamped “Secret” or “For Minister’s Eyes Only” were hidden in a locked room in the bowels of the building. Few had keys to the room.
GETTING TO KNOW EACH ANOTHER
As time wore on, Chris and Walter shared stories about stuff that meant something: things that made them smile, things that got under their skin, their travels, reporters they respected, families … and some secrets. Walter revealed he was writing a book about federal government waste. Chris, meanwhile, revealed he was ticked off at government waste and corruption. The two hit it off.
Chris admired Walter for his fresh perspective on things — and for his moral courage. He saw Walter as a soldier on the front lines of life, an honest man who put the truth over job security, a fat pension and all that. The clerk got to see that Walter’s loyalty was to his readership, not the media corporations. Simply put, reporter Walter Stewart “didn’t play the game” … and to use a 1960s expression, he didn’t sell out. Sorry for all the cliches … and to think that at the CBC we were told to avoid cliches — “like the plague.”
And so the government clerk sat at his desk, pondering his future. Deep down, the young man realized that he had neither a career nor a future with the Government. He’d applied for several Government jobs, but no one seemed interested …
Chris was disillusioned, especially after a senior manager brought him out for lunch. They walked to a restaurant just south of the government building. The man [whose initials were Wayne Morrison] advised — no, pleaded — for Chris to lay off raising questions about his former supervisor: she was connected to the mob, he claimed. “You have a wife and two young children,” Wayne reminded him. Chris was more than disillusioned. He was stunned.
Chris never did confirm if his old boss was involved with organized crime. But he sure stopped asking questions.
Stewart took an interest in the blue-eyed clerk. Chris then shared that one of those shafted when their land was expropriated to make way for the proposed Pickering airport was none other than Bobby Baun, the legendary defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. On 23 April 1964, Baun had scored a Stanley Cup game winning goal in overtime — while playing with a broken ankle. The inspired Leafs went on to win the Cup that year. When the Maple Leafs and the Stanley Cup are mentioned together, you know it was a long time ago.
SUSPICIONS … AND A BOND
At some point, the bureaucrats became suspicious of the researcher. One obedient civil servant — in polite terms, a ladder climber — approached Chris and quietly asked if Stewart was ‘establishment.’ “He is,” he assured her. Even so, she asked Chris to keep an eye on him.
He sure did. The disgruntled clerk immediately shared all this with Walter. “Establishment?” the reporter said, mocking the term, “You betcha … establishment all the way!!” Chris shot back, “Walter, you should get the Order of Canada!” Their chuckling echoed throughout the empty room.
There wasn’t always laughter, however. One day Walter looked over at the clerk and asked, “Why the hell are you here? …” The response was that he wanted ‘job security.’ “Well,” Walter shot back, opening his arms to the empty room before them, “… there’s your job security …”
His frankness hit Chris between the eyes. On his ride home on the subway that evening, the civil servant thought about what Walter had said. In fact, he thought about it a lot. It would soon propel him to an entirely different career.
THE BIG DAY
Then it happened. Out of the blue, Chris turned and said to Walter, “Come with me …” The two walked down several flights of stairs — to the basement. Neither man spoke a word; the only sound was their footsteps echoing off the concrete walls.
Glancing over his shoulder, Chris slipped a key into a door. He pushed on the heavy door, flicked on a light to his right and the two walked inside. The closing door made a distinct clicking sound that signalled the place was all theirs.
They were safe. Or were they?
Chris announced, “Here’s your goldmine, Walter … go for it. You’ve got 30 minutes.” Stewart began pulling boxes from the shelves and opening them up. He was some excited, like a Frenchman in a whorehouse with a credit card. “Holy shit!” he blurted, “look at this!”, pointing to memos that proved the bureaucrats had lied to him. “Man, look at all this stuff … !!”
Chris asked Walter to put everything he wanted in separate boxes and leave them on the shelves. When the treasure hunt ended, the light was turned off. The door opened and the two men peered out, like kids sneaking out of their room early Christmas morning to check out the presents. The coast was clear. Chris and Walter made their way back up the stairs.
It didn’t look like they’d been spotted.
Walter returned to his research, which had now come alive, and Chris went back to killing time. Every now and then, Walter would turn and say, “Wow! …”
GAME DAY … UNEXPECTED PLAYERS
The next step was for the clerk to get the boxes to the reporter. Walter said he’d be in touch with a date, time and place.
Chris got the call at home.
Next day, the clerk again walked down into the basement — this time alone — and put several boxes into the trunk of a Transport Canada sedan, hoping it was not the one Ms. Coke-head had used. A nervous Chris looked around and closed the trunk.
All systems were go. No one had seen him — or so it seemed.
Chris drove up the ramp, only to catch a government vehicle in his rear-view mirror, right on his bumper. At first he thought nothing of it. Cars drove out of the government building all the time.
But this was different. When Chris got out in traffic and changed lanes, so did the other guy. Chris switched lanes again; same thing. He was being tailed. Son of a bitch! This was worrisome; the young clerk was in possession of government documents. If caught, he’d have some explaining to do.
Chris then decided to loop around the block. No luck; the government worker stayed right on his tail. There was now no doubt he was being followed. His heart was pounding. He began to pray.
The clerk then stepped on the gas and zig-zagged through traffic, speeding north on Yonge Street until he reached his destination: a small strip mall north of Toronto where a nervous Walter Stewart was pacing outside his car. The car following him wasn’t able to keep up. “What took you?” Walter asked. Chris explained that he’d been followed for a while. “Christ!”, he exclaimed, “let’s get this in my car fast. I’m getting out of here!” The two unloaded the boxes, shook hands and Walter sped off. To hell with coffee.
‘OATH OF SECRECY’
Chris returned to the office, praying all the way back that he wouldn’t be called into a meeting to explain what he had been up to.
Apparently there is a God. There were no meetings, although in a month or so someone did say to Chris, without explanation, that he could be in trouble if he divulged government secrets, pointing out he’d signed an oath of secrecy. “Never did,” Chris shot back, “… and I was never finger-printed, either.” Correct. Believe it or not, the government screws up from time to time.
Walter went through the secret documents with a fine tooth comb and when he was done, he burned them. The black smoke billowing from Walter’s cottage chimney signalled that a devil of a book was on the way.
Chris had enough of Walter’s words bouncing around in his head [“well, there’s your job security …”], and so he eventually left the federal civil service for a private job in Western Canada. While settling into his new job, he was technically on holidays — so still a clerk on the government payroll. And while on holidays, the government gave him a pay raise. Walter would have been proud.
Paper Juggernaut – Big Government Gone Mad was released in 1979. One reviewer called it a fine example of investigative journalism.
Walter and Chris kept in touch, for a while. Chris would call Walter at his home in Toronto, later reaching him at his new work place in Ottawa: FP News Services, at 165 Sparks Street. After FP bit the dust, Chris reached Walter at his cottage.Investigative reporter Walter Stewart is now a bit of a distant memory to Chris. What’s lodged in his memory bank for good however are fond recollections of two men sharing stories and laughing in a federal building in Ontario; a quiet walk down a stairwell … and a heart-pounding car race on Yonge Street.
Chris also treasures a keepsake — a hardcover book from Walter. His 200-page exposé arrived unexpectedly in the mail one day in 1979. The book contains a lot of words but the most precious — at least to the former government clerk — is this hand-written message from the author:
Walter Stewart died from cancer on 15 September, 2004. He was 73. The headline in the Globe and Mail said it all: ‘He was Canada’s conscience.’
Cover Photo Credit: Joan Stewart. Chris supplied the other images.