Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Activist-journalist's destiny a far cry from the prediction she made as a teenager

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 8, 2008


Last week, Jody Paterson hauled downtown her journalism class for a tour led by a homeless man.

One of the university students asked how to interview a street person.

“Don't assume I'm stupid,” the guide said. “Don't assume I don't have skills. Don't assume I don't come from your world.”

Lesson learned.

Ms. Paterson wants to end homelessness. She wants prostitutes to enjoy the benefits of a safe work site.

Her suggestion that reporters abandon their guise as disinterested observers will be the subject of the second annual Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecture tonight at the University of Victoria. The former Times-Colonist managing editor is spending a term teaching a writing course at the university as part of the program.

Four years ago, disgruntled by journalism after a labour dispute, she answered a classified advertisement in her newspaper and wound up the executive director of a non-profit advocacy group for sex-trade workers.

These days, she is helping to establish a co-operative brothel from which profits will be used to finance social causes.

Her weekly column in the Victoria Times Colonist describes a city not to be found in tourist guides. Ms. Paterson is the city's June Callwood, calling on considerable literary talent to introduce her readers to people who might otherwise remain invisible.

She was born in Saskatoon, Sask., to a nurse and an air-force firefighter. When she was five, the family moved to Courtenay on Vancouver Island. She did well at school. Married at 17, she attended her high-school graduation ceremony in the final days of her pregnancy. She filled out a prediction about her destiny, to be opened at a future reunion.

The times were good in the Comox Valley in the mid-1970s. Her husband was a mill worker in Campbell River. They went from a cabin on the beach in Royston to owning a modest home and a car. The young bride continued her piano studies, eventually being certified as a piano teacher by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

At 24, the marriage ended. She decided she needed a quick college degree. The shortest program she could find was an eight-month course in communications media at Cariboo College (now Thompson Rivers University) in Kamloops. She liked music. She could become a disk jockey. The students aired a radio program, produced a newspaper, scribbled advertising copy. She showed a flair for daily journalism.

After graduation, she sold freelance articles to the Kamloops Daily Sentinel on cattle and knapweed and wood stoves and any other subject that might interest a rancher. She produced so much copy in four months that the newspaper hired her as a cost-saving measure. It was cheaper to pay her by the day than by the inch.

A job offer from the Victoria Times Colonist brought her back to Vancouver Island. She rose from health reporter to city editor to managing editor. She was a rare woman to be in such a high position at a daily newspaper in Canada, and was undoubtedly the only one of either gender to have done so while sporting a nose stud.

She gave up her management perch to write a column. She showed a rare gift for writing about her own life without being narcissistic, of finding greater truths while writing about her extended family.

“Racism really shaped my mother's life,” she said. “She thought it would shape mine, as well.” It did not. “I was pretty diluted, so no one knew what I was at all.”

No one has ever correctly guessed her ethnic heritage, although she was once accosted on the street by a homeless man who pronounced, “I see before me a Chinese philosopher.” For the record, she is a Chinese-Romanian-Scottish Canadian.

Her grandfather paid a $50 head tax to enter this land in the late 19th century. Her mother told her of attending a wartime dance with a white boyfriend in Moose Jaw, Sask. The proprietor tried to force her to leave. Her older brothers worked for the railway all their lives, but were allowed to join the union only in the 1950s.

Some years back, Ms. Paterson attended the 20th-anniversary reunion of her graduating class at Georges P. Vanier Secondary in Courtenay.

She had forgotten the prediction for her life she made all those years ago.

The 1974 Jody thought the 1994 Jody would be a housewife.

She was city editor of a major metropolitan daily. She could only laugh.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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