Linden MacIntyre is not going quietly into retirement.
He was in the headlines this week over comments comparing CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge with former colleague Jian Ghomeshi. His last piece for the CBC’s fifth estate aired on Friday and his fourth novel, Punishment, has just published.
Both deal with justice, and with how communities band together to reinforce shared values and shared mythologies. In the case of the fifth estate piece: how an innocent man spent three years behind bars after police pressured witnesses to change their stories. In Punishment, a community holds tight to old assumptions about a former convict in a bid to make their town seem a safer place.
At 71 years old, and with a journalism career that spans 50 years — including 38 at the CBC, the past 24 co-hosting the investigative magazine show — old habits appear to be dying hard for MacIntyre. He’s reminiscing in his publisher’s office about his most memorable investigations
“The Trouble with Evan,” he recounts with some passion, “was a monumental piece of television.” The award-winning investigation, which ran as a special two-hour segment of thefifth estate on the CBC in 1994, focused on the psychological abuse heaped on a boy by his parents, who found him “difficult.”
“We had thousands of reactions to it,” says MacIntyre, including one 27-year-old inmate who wrote and said “somebody has got to help that kid or he is going to end up like me.”
That inmate became part of the inspiration for Punishment. The narrative centres on two men: a former inmate, Dwayne Strickland, and prison guard Tony Breau. The two have much in common. Both were adopted into families in a small Nova Scotia town, St. Ninian. Both ended up in prison, albeit on different sides of the bars.
And both returned to the small town of their youth, each in their own ways becoming part of the “mythology” of the community. As MacIntyre points out, the ties and values that bind a community are often based on myth. Things such as: a small town is safe, you never quite know how adopted kids are going to end up, once a criminal always a criminal.
To make his point, MacIntyre refers back to another real-life story, that of murdered schoolgirl Christine Jessop: “That family moved from Toronto to Queensville, Ontario, because of the mythology that places like Queensville are safer than Toronto. Which is horse manure. Wherever there are people there is danger. Wherever there are people there is comfort and safety. But there is no place that’s safer than another place unless there is nobody else living there.”
It’s a rather bleak view of the human state.
MacIntyre himself grew up in a small, isolated town “where there were very few people my own age,” he says. To keep himself amused “I read a lot of fiction . . . at an early age I developed a fascination with the business of writing. I always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be remarkable to be one of those people who could write a book?’ . . . You create people, you create worlds, you create reality around you. And it never crossed my mind that I could be one of those people because those people came from bigger, more sophisticated places.”
He’s created just that in Punishment, although his characters come back to the simple small town from bigger, more sophisticated places. They’ve already had the big experiences and they’re coming back home, back to where it’s safe.
This allows MacIntrye to explore what safety means and to look at ideas of why we, as individuals and as a society, seek justice, vengeance, punishment, scapegoating.
That need is explored in Punishment when the ex-con Strickland moves back to the community. So does Breau, who takes early retirement from his prison job, and Neil Archie MacDonald, who retires in disgrace from his own police career in Boston. Caddy Stewart, whose granddaughter is found dead at Strickland’s house, provides a catalyst for these issues to collide within the narrative free online credit report.
MacIntyre hearkens back to his childhood again, to a man with parallels to Strickland. His name was Johnny Macfarlane and he was “permanently presumed to be guilty.” His family was big and the children “right out of Dickens” with runny noses, rotten teeth and grinding poverty.
Johnny served a lot of “useful functions,” says MacIntyre, a touch sardonically. “He excused us from looking at ourselves. He excused us from looking at the health of the community . . . if you were hostile to Johnny you could be hostile to his whole pathetic family, and so there was never any sense of what could we do to improve that family and maybe make the place a little safer.”
MacIntyre is a masterful storyteller, in person telling about how his own father spoke Gaelic until he was 9 years old while his grandparents never learned to speak much English. “The interesting thing was my father was about a fourth generation Canadian, but they lived in such isolation that they never really had to use English.” His father worked as a hard rock miner, something MacIntyre himself worked at during the summers, earning money to pay for university.
That talent for storytelling has served MacIntyre well.
He’s won 10 Gemini Awards for his work as well as the 2010 Giller Prize for Canadian fiction for his novel The Bishop’s Man. That book was part of a trilogy that began with 1999’s The Long Stretch and included 2012’s Why Men Lie. He’s also written an award-winning memoir, Causeway: A Passage from Innocence about the building of a causeway between Cape Breton, where he grew up, and mainland Nova Scotia in the 1950s.
It’s a long way in some ways from the setting of Punishment, taking place as it does with the backdrop of Sept. 11 and the hunt for Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction. But in a way it makes perfect sense. The small community becomes a microcosm of the bigger world, provides a contained place, a structure in which to explore how we treat each other.
And to understand how communities deal with disaster; why it is that, when something bad happens “there’s an instant need for understanding and an explanation of why it happened. But also, and overwhelmingly, reassurance that nobody in the family is to blame. Nobody in the community is to blame.”
A real-life example comes up as an attempt at explanation, MacIntrye referring back to another of his experiences, this time when he was covering the conflict in the Middle East.
“I remember talking to these brilliant young Israeli soldiers, very Europeanized, educated, doing their time in the army,” he says. They had been at an “awful massacre,” which MacIntrye says they could have stopped, could have prevented. “Instead they enabled it. I said, ‘How do you justify that? In there, there’s nothing but dead children and old people and you guys stood by and let it happen.’ And this guy . . . a guy you could probably sit down and talk literature or music or whatever with, a very sophisticated person, says, ‘They’re all terrorists. They’re all terrorists.’ You kill a kid, you are killing tomorrow’s terrorist. You kill a woman, you kill the incubator for tomorrow’s terrorist.”
It’s a messy business, life. And perhaps the best we can do is understand. After 50 or so years of journalism, of covering conflict, of seeing people at their worst, MacIntyre has this to say:
“People do bad things for very complicated reasons and it’s incumbent on us to find out what those reasons are so that we can then begin to correct the causes that produced the problem.
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