In his heyday as founder and editor-in-chief of the feisty, ultra-conservative Alberta Report newsmagazine, Ted Byfield was famous for his newsroom rants and rages. As deadlines approached, he would pace the floor, railing at editors to get their copy in on time. In other fits of pique, Byfield has been known to rip telephones from walls and warn reporters that he would "ram his fist up the ass" of the next one who failed to take decent photographs of interview subjects. In recent years, though, colleagues and friends have noticed a distinct change in Byfield's demeanour. Now 70 and marking the 25th anniversary of his Edmonton-based magazine, Byfield regretfully acknowledges that he has indeed mellowed. "As you get older, you don't have the same energy to get mad," he says with the chesty laugh that is a Byfield trademark. "Besides, you've seen that most of the things you got mad about didn't matter anyway. They probably would have been resolved better if you hadn't blown up."
Mellowed, perhaps, but Byfield remains a salty-tongued, hard-drinking yet devout Christian who displays a drive and tenacity lacking in many people half his age. At a time of life when he might reasonably be planning the next pleasure cruise, Byfield is instead riding off in many directions with new projects that promise to keep him occupied well into the next millennium. Starting this spring, he hopes to raise about $5 million by selling shares in the Alberta Report on the public stock exchanges. If the money materializes, he intends to bankroll another edition of the magazine, in Ontario, as well as a 40-volume book series on the history of Christianity, which he will edit and help to write. He will also continue to pen two columns a week for his own magazines and another for the Sun newspaper chain. Could it be, he is asked, that he wants to keep so busy that God will let him hang around a bit longer? Byfield does not dismiss the notion. "You try to negotiate with Him," he says, laughing again, "but, you know, He's really unreasonable."
By any standard, the Toronto-born Byfield has enjoyed a remarkable career. It began at age 17, when he joined his parents, who had moved to Washington, and got a job as a copy boy at The Washington Post. Byfield recalls it fondly as an era when almost everyone in the newsroom smoked and liquor bottles graced many an editor's desk. He got his first big break after reading an account of a Brooklyn, N.Y., bus driver who, at the end of his shift, just kept on driving the vehicle to Florida, where he eventually gave himself up. When reporters wanted to know why he did it, the driver simply replied: "Ask the guys at the bus depot; they'll understand." Intrigued, Byfield went down to the Washington bus station and did just that. "The drivers all said, 'It's because of the assholes who ride buses,' and then went into all their beefs about passengers, which were actually quite funny," recalls Byfield. The story ran on page 1, something Byfield still describes as "the biggest thrill of my life."
Byfield returned to Canada in 1948, where he worked at the Ottawa Journal and the Timmins Daily Press before heading west in 1952 to join the Winnipeg Free Press. He quickly earned a reputation as a talented and aggressive reporter who, among other exploits, once crawled into an air-conditioning duct to eavesdrop on a secret Winnipeg city council meeting and get the scoop on a scam involving civic funds.
About the same time they moved west, Ted and his wife, Virginia - a fellow reporter whom he married in 1949 and with whom he has raised six children - began to read and be influenced by a number of Christian writers, including C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. The son of a nominally Anglican mother and a father who was an avowed atheist, Byfield took to religion as he does to most things - with great gusto. Along with other parishioners at Winnipeg's St. John's Cathedral, he helped found a private school for boys. In 1962, he left journalism to become a history teacher at the school; six years later, he moved to Edmonton to develop a second St. John's school.
In 1973, Byfield struck upon a way to combine his love of the news business with his desire to proselytize. He launched the Saint John's Edmonton Report, a regional weekly newsmagazine modelled on the format of Time. The result was a curious mix of the pious and the profane. The magazine rarely missed an opportunity to rail against homosexuals, abortionists, human rights commissions and the public education system. But it also displayed an unholy fascination with prostitution and particularly sordid murder cases. A sister publication began in Calgary in 1977, and the two were merged into Alberta Report in 1979. A later attempt to launch a regional magazine for all four western provinces failed and was scrapped in favour of retaining the Alberta Report and launching the B.C. Report, which first appeared in 1989.
In the early years, Byfield's magazines, like the schools, were operated by a lay order of the Anglican Church. All employees earned $1 per day, plus living expenses, and were housed in a communal apartment block where they attended morning and evening chapel services. They all worked excessively, none more so than Byfield, who once fell asleep over his beer at an Edmonton tavern after working 72 hours straight. The waiter asked him to leave, saying he would give the place a bad name.
Unable to attract enough qualified journalists, Byfield eventually moved the magazines onto a more commercial footing and started paying regular wages. The advent of Alberta Report coincided with the province's energy wars against Ottawa, and Byfield soon became the guru of regional discontent, even toying at times with western separatism. Circulation flourished, peaking at a weekly average of 53,277 in Alberta in early 1985.
In recent years, though, Byfield's magazines have become less regional and, if anything, even more conservative. Mainstream sections on the arts and sports were dropped in favour of more ideologically driven pieces on social trends and the family. Circulation in Alberta declined to an average of 34,903 for the first six months of 1998 - a 34-per-cent drop from 1985 (Maclean's circulation within Alberta also declined during that period, but at a slower rate of 11 per cent, to 53,174 from 60,099). Byfield says Alberta's recession of the late-1980s forced the magazine to write increasingly to the true believers willing to pay for it. The risk, he acknowledges, is ending up "preaching to the converted."
For all of that, the survival of the publication for 25 years is testament to the resolve of its founder. He is a man of fascinating contradictions. A fierce foe of gay rights, Byfield has, over the years, befriended homosexuals and given them senior positions at his magazines. Famous for lending a helping hand to people down on their luck, he can also be remarkably ruthless about firing or relocating staffers. Stephen Hopkins, who served for 14 years as a reporter, editor and editor-in-chief at Alberta Report, and who counts himself among Byfield's admirers, ticks off a list of seemingly conflicting adjectives to describe his former boss. On the one hand, says Hopkins, Byfield is "imaginative, compassionate, generous and charming." On the other, he can be "autocratic, sarcastic, manipulative and stubborn."
Whatever his idiosyncrasies, Byfield remains a force to reckon with in the West. In his back-page magazine columns (recently collected in a volume entitled The Book of Ted: Epistles from an Unrepentant Redneck), he proved an early champion of causes that have since become much more mainstream - including balanced budgets, back-to-basics education and tougher sentences for young criminals. He played a critical role in creating and promoting the Reform party, and delivered the keynote address at its founding convention in 1987. He also supports the current drive to unite the right - but only if social conservatives like himself can win policy concessions on causes such as the rights of the unborn.
Over the past decade, Byfield has gradually relinquished the day-to-day editing and publishing duties of his magazines to his 47-year-old son, Link, freeing himself to take on new challenges. For relaxation, he spends one afternoon each week walking for five hours straight - usually in the direction of his favourite Edmonton tavern. One thing he has no intention of doing is retiring. "What the hell would be the point?" he barks. "What would I do?" For Ted Byfield, work is all play.
A BLACK-AND-WHITE WORLD
In Ted Byfield's written world, there are no shades of grey - just bold assertions of right and wrong, good and evil. A sampling of opinions from his columns over the past 25 years:
"If adultery or homosexuality is wrong in the sight of God, then all the task forces in Christendom aren't going to make it right. If God is timeless and changeless, then human conduct considered wrong in the eighth century is just as wrong in the twentieth." - April 4, 1980
"The sordid spectacle of uncontrollable crime - the daily routine of rape, murder, burglary, mugging, armed robbery and assault - evidence a simple fact: our system of benevolent criminal justice does not work. It is, in fact, a disaster." - July 6, 1987
"We do not think government is a good thing. We do not believe government on anything like the present scale is even a necessary thing. We believe government, or what it has turned into, to be an actively evil thing." - Dec. 20, 1993
Source: The Book of Ted: Epistles From an Unrepentant Redneck (Keystone Press, 1998)
Maclean's January 25, 1999