A Review of Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield. Jonathon Van Maren. Christian Heritage Press, 2022.
When I first met Ted Byfield he was 67 but the atmosphere in his house in Edmonton, where I lived as a lodger for seven months in 1994-95, was by no means one of “retirement.” He rose at 5:00, grunting as he descended to his home office to auto-dial into a weather service. (This I could hear every morning from my room overhead.) Depending on whether it was -5 or -20 he would add a wool pullover or a parka over his lumberjack shirt, green gardener’s trousers and suspenders, and beat-up runners, and head out into the cold for a fast run of 20 minutes. (I know he ran fast because our paths crossed once when, inspired by his example, I essayed a morning jog. He certainly ran twice as fast as I, at age 24, late of the Magdalene College Boat Club second eight.) This habit I would say was emblematic of a man who knew where he was going and why, and was conscious all the time of how much he had to get done before he got there.
Returning about 5:30 Ted would put on an old campfire coffee pot and saucepan with Red River cereal, empty the dishwasher, and read a thoroughly marked-up New English Bible at the kitchen table. A quarter of an hour later, breakfast eaten and Bible further marked and inwardly digested, he would plop the paperback on top of the fridge and move next door, dried out but unshowered, to join Virginia in the office, where she, his wife since they were 19 years old, was by then already entrenched at her desk across the room from his, smoking and reading or editing.
At a big round table in between they read a pile of dailies, the Journal, Sun, Globe and Mail, etc., circling the potential stories to cover or commend to Alberta Report and B.C. Report staff, maintaining a chuckling repartee — “Gin, whaddya think of this?…” He was at that time turning out two columns per week for the Report, one for the Sun, and another for the Financial Post, plus a series of two-minute radio editorials for CHED which he recorded on mini-cassettes picked up by a courier. He never filed anything that Virginia had not edited first and she was a better editor than he.
While Ted was working one dared not interrupt. Passing the doorway to his office, I once tarried for a half-second and immediately got the menacing peripheral glare (and tip-toed on into the kitchen to make tea for myself). The most striking thing, as many others have said, was the energy, terrifying at times, of the master and prophet that erupted with the raspy charisma of an old-school newsroom editor in the mould (I thought) of J. Jonah Jameson of the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon* — including the way he referred to “the newspaper business” (never the “journalism” of the redundant “J-school”).
* Senator Paula Simons, an AR alumna, saw the resemblance too (or someone pointed it out to her), cf. “An Alberta Report Girl,” Edmonton Journal, Sep. 15, 2011. Van Maren quotes Simons but not the resemblance to the cartoon character.
The confidence and toughness came from genuine faith, daily resolution to live Christian virtues, and long experience living with maximum exertion and consistently trying since the 1950s to guide strays and strangers, sometimes even ex-cons, onto the right path. For Ted, forgiveness and amendment of life could make — because they already had made — the world a better place.
“The real struggle is not the atomic weapons issue, nor the racial question, nor the quest for social improvement,” he wrote in an amusing 1965 apologetic called Just Think, Mr. Berton (a little harder), “It is the slow, vicious, deadly war between good and evil and the battleground is the heart of each man.”*
* Just Think, Mr. Berton (a little harder), Winnipeg: Company of the Cross, 1965, p. 149.
Thus the Byfields happened upon me, for better or for worse, at an Anglican-Catholic parish in Vancouver. They had begun spending their summers on a 42-foot sloop, Credimus, “we believe,” moored in Coal Harbour not far from the B.C. Report. Ted joked that if he had a dinghy he would call it Suspicimus, “we suspect” (not Suspicamus, as appears on p. 211 of this book: suspicio is 3rd conjugation, not 1st).
When Ted found out that I was “working in a used book store” that summer, as he repeated to his wife with mild disparagement, he said: “Listen, you could come and work on this history book we’re doin’,” by then the fifth of a projected 12-volume history of Alberta. “I’d hate to be responsible for dragging anyone into the news business, hehe.” I was about to begin doctoral studies and Ted stepped up his pitch. “Academics find it useful to work in the business for a year or so. It helps with their writing. Listen. You can live with us. We got a big house.”
I drove to Edmonton with fellow recruit Marc Vella from telemarketing, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California whom Ted tapped to work on the book too, in his scarlet 1974 Hornet, a real beater. For several weeks Ted stocked the fridge with Big Rock. This generous provision we did not knowingly abuse, but one day he announced that henceforward it would be “beer,” a no-name brand. We did not take the hint but a few weeks later we were expected to cook dinner twice a week. Virginia would cook twice a week and Ted once (chicken breasts on the barbecue, all winter, “the only thing I know how to cook.”) Next, in the early spring we learned that Virginia had already found a basement flat for us in Old Strathcona.
One became aware that the Byfield hospitality went back a long way, hearing of eccentrics past to whom the Byfields had opened their doors since they lived in Winnipeg in the 1950s. Many of them have found their way into Prairie Lion by Jonathon Van Maren, who first met Ted as an admiring young pro-life activist. The friendship between them, leading to long interviews at Byfield’s house, resembles the searching Millennial finding the mentor Culture Warrior, as in The Fourth Turning (1997) by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The “Power Ranger” at the feet of the “Gray Champion.”
Van Maren is a kindred spirit of some of our readers, a contributor to the European Conservative magazine, and communications director for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform in Calgary. He has a B.A. from Simon Fraser, has written three other books, The Culture War, Believing, and Patriots, and is co-author of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide, and a pro-life speaker.
But in Prairie Lion he transcribes Ted’s account of an Irishman who “wrote an article for a Saturday night magazine” (p. 147). As readers of the DR know there was, from 1887 until 2005, a Canadian general interest magazine called Saturday Night. On p. 119 Van Maren recounts a superb anecdote about a St. John’s boys school encounter at a remote cabin on Lac Laloche, Sask. in 1964 with an old fellow who could remember as a boy when men left to fight with Riel at Batoche in 1885 — which Van Maren says really brought Francis Parkman alive for the boys. Ted admired Parkman’s seven-volume France and England in North America, but it ends in 1763 and Parkman never wrote about Riel.
I must say that the use of “Ginger” throughout the book for Mrs. Byfield is irritating. In my experience few called her Ginger except an itinerant fellow lodger, Janice Tyrrwhit, whom Ted hired to edit the history volumes. To Ted it was always “Gin.” Even if others used some other nickname, if I were to write a biography I would just use “Virginia.”
Ted’s devotion to her was absolute, as Van Maren conveys well. She, gentle-natured but unflappable, could check his ego with a roll of the eyes or a look askance. I will never forget Virginia’s kindness when I introduced my wife to her at the Alberta Report reunion in 2011, immediately taking her aside and making her feel welcome. One saw Ted and Virginia’s camaraderie during one of their 12-hour drives from Edmonton to Vancouver in 1994, with me in a role I suppose similar to the child in the back seat, catching a ride to go home to see my parents.
Before then, Virginia had made the decision to quit smoking. She put on the patch and, to distract herself, drove 5,000 km solo to Nova Scotia where her family (Nairn) was from. It worked. But in Edmonton each night, when we knelt at the round table to say Compline from Common Prayer Canada, he would come close to tears petitioning for her safe return: “I just got this feeling she’s gonna die on this trip,” the worst thing that could happen to him in this life. Eventually she died of cancer, many years later, and Van Maren describes just how I imagine it would be for Ted, the devastated widower already tested by the death of an adult daughter, Philippa, and his second son, Link, who in fact ran the Report when I got there and was quietly his father’s equal in many ways. (Both had cancer but Phip died of burns sustained in the house fire she started by lighting a cigarette next to her oxygen tank. The house, however, was Ted and Virginia’s, and it burned to the ground, destroying everything except a jump drive found in the embers that happened to have his next book on it.) The sign Van Maren saw on Ted’s wall, “Illegitimi Non Carborundum” (supposedly “don’t let the bastards get you down”), was originally in Link’s office at the Report at 17327 106A Ave NW (but Van Maren wasn’t to know that).
Prairie Lion convincingly evokes the Byfield charisma which “propelled all of us continually,” as Steve Hopkins, erstwhile editor of the Report, is quoted. At the office or at home Ted was “an electrifying presence” who “projected energy” and “high standards,” and really made one feel that “we were doing a good thing — almost the best kind of work anyone could do.” That captures Byfield the impresario to a tee.
Fighting the good fight, AR was not necessarily “explicitly Christian” but reported and commented with “an implicitly Christian perspective,” knowing they were “on the losing side of the culture wars,” Van Maren writes. The point was not to make money, not even to win, only to fight on, “to preserve a discussion, an awareness,” Link said, “a sort of mutual knowledge between those who are religious and those who are not.”
Van Maren describes the early groups for strays and couples in Winnipeg, introducing them to the choir and the power of Christianity to save lives, including laymen who became Anglican priests. (When one jailbird and prison barber offered to send departing convicts and recovering alcoholics the Byfields’ way, Ted’s only question was “Can they sing?” Just Think, p. 122). Next came the beginning of boys’ weekend activity clubs, which flowered into the first St. John’s Cathedral Boys School and extraordinary journeys by cutter and canoe along lakes, rivers, and portages in the path of voyageurs that showed hundreds of boys the glory of adventure in the wilderness. The Company of the Cross was an apartment-based lay commune that paid $1 a day and produced the St. John’s Edmonton Report and St. John’s Calgary Report, later merged to create Alberta Report.
Some of us growing up in the West welcomed Western Report (as it first appeared in Vancouver in 1983) as Canada’s answer to National Review, just as Byfield was the West’s version of Bill Buckley, standing “athwart history, yelling Stop.” (That was one reason why I readily accepted his job offer in 1994). Buckley, to be sure, had inherited millions and subsidized NR from his own income, whilst Byfield re-mortgaged his middle-class house four times to keep the magazine afloat. Sailing adventures he and WFB had in common, and regular church attendance, but there was no bespoke limousine parked outside 531 Lessard Drive.
The Report was Canada’s answer to National Review, as Byfield was the West’s version of Bill Buckley
Buckley fused Eastern Establishment realism and manners, influencing an “elite and cerebral” readership, with on the other hand brash populist defiance in favour of originalism and democracy.* He said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University. Byfield agreed completely. But of Buckley’s elitism the Byfields shared little apart from intellectual breadth and aristocratic generosity. Next came Alberta in the Twentieth Century, inspired by Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series, which Ted much admired; followed by another massive set, a 12-volume “non-denominational” history called The Christians that he regarded as his life’s greatest work.
* Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times (ISI, 2005), pp. 13-14, the best book about National Review.
When I lived at their house, The Chesterton Review was the favourite publication. Rare was the conversation in which Chesterton was not quoted, or C.S. Lewis, or Dorothy Sayers (her play, “The Man Born to Be King”). The Review was the creation of Father Ian Boyd, a Basilian then based at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, one of the surprising things about it; when the liberals drove Fr. Boyd out of the U. of S. he relocated to New Orange, New Jersey. His sister lived near the Basilica in Edmonton, and he once appeared at Ted’s house one summer day out of the blue: he had bicycled over, and arrived while Ted and Marc Vella and I were at work in the hot sun digging Ted’s “water garden” in the backyard, one of the ways we earned our board, beer, and lodging.
Father Boyd is a key influence absent from Van Maren’s biography, and even Chesterton is little mentioned. I think the reason for this is that Anglicanism and Catholicism had been eclipsed as interests of theirs in the years between when I knew them and when Van Maren began recording Ted’s memories. When I still saw Ted occasionally for lunch, in 1996-97 before I left Edmonton, he and Virginia had become disenchanted with the Traditional Anglican Communion — a major absence from the book if one is to understand what made them tick. The T.A.C. was a splinter from the Anglican Church when the latter began ordaining women to the priesthood in 1975-76 and liberalising in other ways. It was the Byfields’ spiritual home for 20 years, later one of the precursors of the Anglican Ordinariate Rite embedded by Pope Benedict XVI within the Catholic Church. But like Lewis, Ted and Virginia were sceptical of Catholicism. They admired John Paul II’s leadership but sensed that Catholics were “on the same road” as Anglicans to liberal oblivion and empty pews. As Van Maren puts it, “Ted couldn’t make the leap,” (p. 219) and I would add that Virginia was if anything more resistant.
So on their journey from vestigial Anglicanism to the “one true church” they did not reach Rome but got off at … Moscow, the Orthodox Church in America. This suited Ted’s proclivity for singing and alleviated the need to submit to Papal Infallibility (which they misunderstood). It was a resistance that I suspect had something in common with Lewis: shared roots of an Orange hue. Ted’s uncle, Tommy Church, was mayor of Toronto 1915-21, a Tory M.P. — and ardent Orangeman, a point overlooked by Van Maren.
Nor does he recount Ted’s admiration for Derek Bedson (1920-89), a senior civil servant in Ottawa and Manitoba, friend of George Grant, Tory Jacobite and eventual ex-Anglican who found his way through a breakaway church to Russian Orthodoxy, blazing a trail for the Byfields. Grant told Bedson of his admiration for Byfield for starting the school and commune that ran it, writing in 1962, “Byfield is in the best sense a challenge to people like Sheila and myself” (George Grant: Selected Letters, p. 211).
These are some of the depths of Canadian conservatism, and Byfield’s place in it, unexplored here. (One of the things Red Tories overlook is how Grant’s “sense of the greatness of the U.S.A. has been greatly raised by the presence of this anti-abortion movement,” since “I take abortion to be the great immediate issue of the Western world,” Grant told Bedson in 1986. Letters, p. 359.)
When Ted died many were the ugly comments from people who despised him for calling abortion “barbarism” but what else can it be on a societal level, with 100,000 tiny victims per year. His understanding of marriage was the unchanging Christian one: the union of one man and one woman until death; that sexual acts outside marriage are wrong regardless of sexual orientation, and that, as he perceived in 1980, “what the gay movement wanted was not tolerance, but something considerably beyond that — to be admired for what they were.” Van Maren remarks that “All this, of course, has come to pass.” Certainly for traditionally-minded people it sometimes feels as if the ambient culture now is a kind of Rainbow Empire (what R.R. Reno calls more ominously the “Rainbow Reich”).
It is perhaps unfair to point out absences, but one is the neighbour behind the house, Richard McCallum, who got up at 5:00 daily to exercise (don’t all successful men?) in a private gym, and whose company printed the books; a dining companion who could have told Van Maren anecdotes. A missing transient is Terry Johnson, whose presence Ted relished as the “Maoist” senior editor and who many years after the magazines went bust in 2003 died of a heroin overdose. Other assorted greater or lesser talents are absent such as Ric Dolphin, Joe Woodard, Tom McFeely, Kevin Grace, Nigel Hannaford, and Patrick Donnelly. While Paul Bunner, D’Arcy Jenish, Lorne Gunter, Terry O'Neill, and Ezra Levant are here, at least three of the missing, Jeremy Lott (referred to as “another writer,” p. 145),* Mark Milke, and Kelly Jane Torrance, having made a name for themselves in the U.S., are more deserving than yours truly, mentioned on p. 198. There are great early Charles Lynch anecdotes — but not the fact that in retirement he proofread B.C. Report from cover to cover every week by fax from his house in Creston (as did Link Alberta Report from Rivière Qui Barre). But where is Victor Olivier? The Franco-Manitoban office factotum and obituarist: the last man alive to use Brylcreem, who if you asked how he was doing, would say, “Grade-A Large, thank you,” and warn against drinking “this swill” that passed for office coffee; one of Ted’s longest-serving, most undying loyalists.
* “Byfield Dreams: Who frittered away the once-mighty Alberta Report?” Alberta Views, May 1, 2004.
Jon Van Maren has spent hours conversing with Ted in his late years. He has quoted published reminiscences by the Report’s brightest alumni, among the best by Hopkins, Ken Whyte, Steve Weatherbe, and Colby Cosh. He does seem to have tracked down at least one old friend, Mike Maunder, who took him around some Winnipeg haunts. But the book would have been richer for interviewing some of Ted’s detractors; better yet, more of his friends and protégés; and by better situating Ted in the wider conservative movement including but not limited to how it relates to Western protest, pro-life, and the rise of the Reform Party. RIP Edward Bartlett Byfield, 1928-2021.