Paul Tuns, Review:

Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield
by Jonathon Van Maren
(Christian Heritage Press, $19.50, 247 pages)

When Jonathon Van Maren set out to write the biography of Ted Byfield, he was amazed that one had not already been written. As the author notes, if Byfield had floated in the stream of fashionable opinion, he would have been showered with honours including the Order of Canada, but because he was a leading critic of the Sexual Revolution, Big Government, and the Laurentian Elite, his numerous accomplishments and influence on the Canadian media and political landscape have been belittled or ignored.

Prairie Lion benefits from not merely being an intellectual history that explores Byfield’s ideas or a Wikipedia entry of his numerous endeavours, but from the access Van Maren had to the Byfield family including many conversations with the subject himself to provide a complete picture of who Ted Byfield was. There are recollections of Byfield’s childhood in Toronto, entry into journalism, marriage and devotion to Virginia (Ginger), pivot to education including the opening of new Anglican schools, eventual return to journalism with the creation of the Alberta Report and its sister publications born out of publications began at his St. John’s schools in Edmonton and Calgary, and shift to publishing book series on the histories of Alberta and Christianity. Rather than a list of successes and (and some failures – Van Maren notes that it has been said of Byfield that he was a great entrepreneur but lousy businessman), we have a portrait of an actual person.

Van Maren writes that “Ted’s Christianity …was more than lip service” and manifested itself in more than his public positions on sexual morality or other political views. He and Ginger read the Bible and “sought to apply it to their lives in practical ways” including taking “drunks, jailbirds and other riffraff” who had nowhere to go into their home. Byfield told Van Maren, “You can’t read the New Testament and try to apply it without realizing that when God puts people like that in your path, you’re supposed to do something with it.”

Byfield was not only a believer in Christianity, although it suffused everything he did; he knew the value of a classical education and historical perspective, as well as physical fitness and outdoor adventure. He took long, regular walks; he took family and students for hikes and canoeing; he bought a small yacht with dreams of global adventures that ended after his early misadventure from Vancouver to eastern Canada by way of the Caribbean. These stories bring Byfield to life.

What will be of most interest to Interim readers is Byfield’s founding of Alberta Report (eventually the editorship was passed to Ted’s son Link) and the Christian book series. There is no shortage of adventure in these endeavours as Van Maren explains the difficulties Ted Byfield had securing the finances to get these ventures off the ground and keep them running. For a while, Alberta Report writers were paid a dollar-a-day and given room and board, living life more akin to a hippy commune than the epicenter of western conservatism. 

When Ted Byfield created Alberta Report in 1979 out of his St. John’s Edmonton Report and St. John’s Calgary Report – St. John’s were the Anglican schools Byfield founded in Alberta — it was a direct challenge to the chain newspapers and their left-liberal biases. Byfield told Van Maren, “We would exercise the opportunity to point out the moral implications not often mentioned by the daily papers,” with the author adding “by reporting from an implicitly Christian perspective rather than an explicit one, Ted soon began to garner a larger audience.” Byfield said the Report magazines would often explore what the large dailies wrote about but had been poorly covered and then provide “the big picture.” Steve Weatherbe – one of many journalists who gained journalism experience under the Byfields – explains “we presented as a secular newsmagazine … but one which treated religious affairs as very important.”

On a variety of issues, Alberta Report provided a refreshing take, challenging abortion-on-demand, growing secularism, the homosexual agenda, and imperious schools. At a time when the mainstream press was ignoring gay activism, the Report saw it as a threat and reported frequently on the efforts of activists to infiltrate schools and bureaucracies. Van Maren notes that “the pro-life issue was frequently a cover story” and Byfield’s magazine did not shy away from vividly telling the truth.

Weatherbe says Byfield “fought the zeitgeist valiantly and apparently lost,” adding: “There are worse things.” Byfield would disagree, noting that victory has already been won by Christ. Van Maren’s story of Byfield paints him not as some pugilist looking for ideological fights, but a happy warrior sharing his faith in Christ with the world.