People & Places

Spies, law school, and the Taylor Prize: A trip through the Mark Bourrie archives

Earlier this week, OM contributing editor Mark Bourrie won the prestigious Taylor Prize, a national award recognizing excellence in literary non-fiction writing (and one that comes with a nice cash award). We’d been largely watching his success from the sidelines, knowing his storytelling brilliance — especially in the realms of history and politics — and were thrilled to see him recognized for Bush Runner, The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson.

Truth be told, it wasn’t a surprise. As an editor of his work, and someone who has shared lunch and coffee and stories with the guy, it’s clear he’s a great writer — an entertaining person who finds the guts of a tale and weaves a scene like no one else. Perhaps the recognition was surprising; I was just joking a photographer that, in Ottawa, we don’t like to brag. But in the spirit of recognizing greatness, and this week’s win by Bourrie, we’re sharing a few pieces from our archives.

The web archives go back to his political columns covering the 2011 federal election, when he assessed people like Jack Layton, and calculated John Baird’s chances in Ottawa West-Nepean in an insightful post titled Will John Baird be outraged that he doesn’t have a lock on Ottawa West-Nepean?:

“Baird is an odd political creature, and I’ve never been sure whether the guy’s schtick is for real or is a put-on. Baird is the master of on-demand outrage, which is a fine thing for a member of the Opposition but seems strange coming from the Cabinet benches. Yet Baird has been a minister in both the Ontario and national governments, and, by anything resembling an unbiased account, he’s been a fairly good one.”

Always full of bold ideas, in a 2012 post Bourrie suggested the feds save money by scrapping the National Capital Commission.

And when Mad Men brought out nostalgia for the 1960s, this post entertained us with memories of the Rideau Club and the National Press Club:

“I suspect Mad Men’s producers have pretty much nailed the zeitgeist on the early 1960s ad trade. Certainly, Ottawa, in those years, floated on booze. Our changing attitudes toward liquor have changed the way Ottawa works. Before it burned down just over 30 years ago, the Rideau Club, which was at the corner of Wellington and Metcalfe, was the scene of boozy lunches and liquor-soaked afternoons where the political and media elite swapped stories.

Just down the street, the National Press Club, on the second floor of the Press Building across from the West Block, was a sort of no-man’s-land where the rules required everyone to keep their mouths shut about what went on inside.”

He even spent two years with Xinhua, a Chinese media agency. Approached at a dinner party with the promise of a full-time journalism gig, Bourrie signed on, but was wary throughout the experience. In this 2012 article, he recalls some experiences behind the scenes, including covering a visit by the Dalai Lama:

“If Xinhua would not carry any journalism on the Dalai Lama’s visit, we were there under false pretences, pretending to be journalists but acting as government agents. “We were allowed to be there as journalists,” I wrote to Zhang in an email that I sent later that morning. “We were not working as journalists. We were, by your description, gathering intelligence for China.”

This illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia accompanied the story Ex Files: A behind-the-scenes account of years in the employ of Xinhua

Meanwhile, he was writing lots of books. In this review, Paul Gessell described Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know as “tough”, painting Harper as “ruthlessly attacking and even silencing journalists, scientists, judges, environmentalists, and intellectuals in a drive to remake Canada, rewrite our history, and keep the Conservatives in power. It is one of the most damning books ever written about a sitting prime minister.”

Then he surprised us by going back to school, to become a lawyer. In this essay, he wrote:

“As for going back to school, it was hard. Law school is like high school but with less beer and pot. When you’re older than most of the profs and can feel your brain calcifying in class, when you can physically feel it becoming harder to recall names and facts, it is very challenging. Maybe the hardest challenge is not to come across as Chevy Chase’s character on the television show Community. Being a white, middle-aged, straight, physically able anglophone puts me in the situation where I have to not visibly wince when I hear people trashing “old white men.”

With Bush Runner, Bourrie has added another layer to an impressive, interesting bio, one that deserves a book of its own one day.