When you step into the soft, warm light of the Bacchus Lounge in Vancouver’s tony Wedgewood Hotel the sense of old-world money is all-pervasive. White tablecloths cover neatly set tables; the burgundy velvet chairs are deep and lush. Servers are properly dressed in crisp, white shirts and black pants. At the well-stocked mahogany bar, lawyers in smart Armani suits sip scotch and speak in quiet voices.
Gary Mason is not a lawyer, but he seems at home in this scene; in fact, he knows the staff by name. Mason is a journalist, the Vancouver-based political columnist for the Globe and Mail, and he likes to think he sticks up for the little guy.
Over lunch, I learn that he is not the stuffy, highbrow sophisticate that first impressions make him out to be, but a down-to-earth family man who talks as easily about his wife of 30 years, and his two adult sons as he does about politics, and his other passion, sports. He has a gracious manner and the character lines around his eyes can only come from years of laughter.
He appears to be a friend to all, even to the server who grinds fresh pepper on his salad, and seems unusually humble for someone who regularly passes judgment on those in high and mighty places.
Mason says he doesn’t think much about his influence as a widely read columnist in one of Canada’s two national newspapers. He sees his role as stimulating public discussion on important issues.
“I just try to write about public policy issues that I find really interesting, and I think are kind of important issues, and zero in on them. And then whatever happens, happens after that,” he says reflectively, leaning back in his chair.
“I don’t really think about influence, or how I impact the politician’s decisions or anything like that.”
But whether he likes to acknowledge it or not, Mason’s writings have had considerable bearing on the course of political events, at both civic and provincial levels. In fact, one of Vancouver’s failed mayoral candidates holds Mason at least partially responsible for his failure to get elected. In 2008, Mason received information about a secret $100 million loan the city was guaranteeing the developer of the Olympic Village on Vancouver’s False Creek waterfront. He wrote a column indicting city councillors, including Peter Ladner, who was running for mayor at the time.
Citizens were outraged, causing a backlash against the Non Partisan Association-dominated council, under whose banner Ladner was seeking the mayor’s chair. Other media jumped on the story, too, and soon after, Ladner lost the election.
Ladner, a former journalist himself, doesn’t blame Mason directly for the subsequent uproar and his defeat, but he recognizes that the columnist’s revelations definitely hurt his chances of becoming mayor.
“I didn’t have a lot of communication with him during the time [of my campaign], but he certainly wrote a lot,” says Ladner. “I thought that he did a great job because he was getting inside stuff that I didn’t even know that somebody was leaking to him. Somebody had picked him as the go-to person for getting information out about this topic. So that gave him a very powerful position and enabled him to write some pretty important columns.
“There’s a lot I could go on about, but if your question is did he write something that had a negative effect? Yes.”
Ladner feels no rancour towards Mason and, in fact, believes he was being fair in doing his job.
“I never faulted Gary. I never thought that he was running off half-cocked or had it in for me or anything like that. I think he was indignant because a lot of people were, including me, about how things had turned out.”
Mason was also critical of the man who was mayor at the time of the loan scandal, Sam Sullivan. Veteran political columnist Vaughn Palmer, who covers provincial politics for the Vancouver Sun, and once Mason’s colleague when the latter was at the Sun, is less circumspect. He credits Mason for “basically destroy[ing] Sam Sullivan’s government in Vancouver.”
Sullivan refuses to give Mason that much credit, believing journalists have
more of an influence than they actually do. He says there were other reasons for his civic government’s collapse.
“I realize [journalists] have to fill space and make it interesting to people,” Sullivan wrote in an e-mail. “At the time, I was trying to get my polls down for political strategic reasons so I probably didn’t notice, and in any case I didn’t often get a chance to read the media articles.
“It may be that journalists have a bit of an inflated view of their impact on things,” Sullivan wrote. “It is possible that vitriolic articles can destabilize political caucuses, but there are usually other issues as well.”
Influence or not, Mason says he tries to avoid attacking people personally. He simply tries to explore the issues and lay them out before the public.
In the 1990s, when Mason was a political reporter at the Sun, his work brought him a Jack Webster award — an honour he shared with Palmer — for reporting on another political scandal, this one involving then-premier Bill Vander Zalm and the potential sale of Expo ’86 lands in Vancouver to a private developer, who happened to be a friend of the premier’s.
But Palmer says the moment that really brought the name “Gary Mason” to everyone’s attention was in 1983, when Mason uncovered a scandal about a secret negotiation between the feisty labour leader Jack Munro and then-premier Bill Bennett. The negotiation took place at Bennett’s house on Lake Okanagan in Kelowna over a weekend and, according to Palmer, he covered it better than anyone else.
“We all knew that had happened, but Gary did a story called ‘Weekend in Kelowna’ . . . a magazine piece where he just went and interviewed all the participants and put together this narrative of what actually happened that weekend.
“Gary was the one who had the initiative to go and interview all the players and get a really vivid account of what had happened. And it was sort of the first time people noticed his name and went, ‘Hey, this guy has got a lot of promise as a political writer.’”
During his 19 years at the Vancouver Sun, Mason also had a long run as a sports editor and columnist, a job that gave him a lot of freedom as a self-proclaimed “obsessed sports dad” to attend his sons’ hockey games. He never missed a game except when when he was travelling for work. Mason’s wife of 30 years, Barbara Gunn, a fellow journalist whom he met and started dating in journalism school, says her husband may have an impressive journalistic history, but his most important legacy is his two sons.
“He has been tremendously involved in the life of his kids from the time they were born,” she says. “He’s always been there to support them and to listen to them in every way.”
Gunn worked as reporter and editor at The Canadian Press, and later, staying home with her young sons, wrote a weekly column for a community newspaper. She currently edits the Homes section for both the Vancouver Sun and The Province. She says despite their busy schedules the two see a lot of each other and have a relatively simple home life together, loving nothing more on a rainy night than playing Scrabble in front of their fireplace. They also like to take trips to Seattle to watch baseball games (they are Mariners fans), and Mason is currently learning how to sail, something he’s always wanted to do.
“We like to go for walks and bike rides,” says Gunn. “We recently started to do more travelling than we’ve ever done before. Our sons are semi-launched—they’re both still away at university, one finishing up his masters and one just starting law school.”
Being married to a another journalist makes for a unique household dynamic, she adds. She reads every one of his columns, and they have regular discussions about his work. Gunn agrees with most of what he has to say, but not always. Mason considers her an asset in that way because she offers another perspective on his work.
Mason’s start was not nearly so promising. In fact, he was forced to do a stint cleaning toilets before actually becoming a journalist. When he graduated from journalism school at Langara College in 1982, a year after his wife, there was economic turmoil and few jobs to be had. He struggled doing freelance work, mostly for Vancouver Magazine, for two years while working one day a week at the Canadian Press.
But he didn’t go into journalism thinking about the money. Like many others his age, he was a child of the Watergate era in the early 1970s, thinking of journalism as “the great equalizer, in terms of power.
“You know you’re still young, and you’re optimistic and you don’t really get down about things,” he says. “But there were days, sitting in my apartment, opening another rejection letter . . . and there’s seemingly no opening on the horizon in terms of the economy turning around, and you just think ‘Oh God, when am I going to get a break?’ That’s what I was looking for, was a break,” says Mason, dipping a piece of artisan bread into his mulligatawny soup.
“And, you know, eventually I got one.”
He spent several years struggling while his wife’s career took off, and says he was just “meat and potatoes compared to her” in those days. The break he was looking for did come in 1984 when the Victoria Times Colonist hired him. In an act of support for her husband, Gunn left her career of five years at CP to relocate to Victoria. Gunn said it wasn’t so much a sacrifice for her to leave her career because she wanted to try freelance writing, which, in the end, didn’t pan out as well as she expected.
“It was hard for me at the beginning. I think I had misconceptions about freelancing and I never realized how difficult it was to go from having a steady income to just bits and pieces here and there. [It] was very difficult.”
Mason was at the Times Colonist for two years before he was recruited by the Vancouver Sun to work out of the Victoria bureau, covering provincial politics. He was there for several years and when the opportunity came to move into the paper’s sports department he jumped at it. He now sees a distinct connection between writing about sports and writing about politics. Both involve money and policies and personalities. Both are combative.
Mason is making a point of not getting involved in another recent controversy, involving former Vancouver 2010 Olympics chief John Furlong, whose biography — Patriot Hearts: Inside the Games that Changed the Country — Mason co-wrote. Last winter Furlong was accused in a widely read Georgia Straight story of physically and mentally abusing aboriginal students he taught at an elementary school in Burns Lake more than 40 years ago. The article, written by freelance journalist Laura Robinson, was titled “John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake,” and contained statements from many of Furlong’s former students.
Mason says Furlong told him nothing about his time in Burns Lake while researching the biography, and is distancing himself from the incident even though he regrets Furlong’s reputation being destroyed by the accusations. “Some of the stuff, I just never would have done it as a journalist,” he says.
Mason’s empathetic nature, and his identification with the ordinary person no doubt helps him feret out information. People open up. Even after talking with him for only a couple of hours, it seems natural to trust this man.
When lunch ends, Mason discreetly slips our server his credit card and we walk out together on the way to his downtown office. In the harsh light of mid-afternoon, the wind blows through his neatly-styled hair, mostly white. He somehow looks smaller than he did before. In an instant, he is that regular guy—one who sometimes struggles and makes mistakes, one just trying to get along, like everyone else. The moment ends, and a sparkle of humour lights up his eyes as he asks me where the kids in journalism school party these days.