Stevie Cameron is an acclaimed investigative journalist and author. Here she discusses her 1994 book On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years.
Describe the genesis of On the Take. How did you come to write about greed and crime in the Mulroney era?
It was a long process that began in 1983 when I was a summer intern at Southam News and broke my first big political story – the wealth of last-minute patronage appointments for Liberals organized by Pierre Trudeau as he left office, appointments put in place by his successor, John Turner. This led to Mulroney’s “You had an option, sir!” – his famous retort to Turner’s lame “I had no option” excuse during the 1984 leaders’ debate.
Researching these appointments taught me how the patronage system worked and after that I routinely reported on Mulroney’s even more egregious appointments of his cronies to hundreds of boards and commission jobs – topped by the appointments of almost all the members of the PC Canada Fund (the party’s top fundraising executives) to the board of Air Canada, which was still owned by the Canadian government but which Mulroney intended to privatize.
Along with the appointments came the federal contracts given out to cronies, business associates and party supporters by every government ministry, but most especially, from Public Works, where mobsters and even a Mafia hit man had astonishing influence.
Then there were all the lifestyles issues – hairdressers, decorators, chefs and more, who took me inside the extravagance of the Prime Minister’s personal life and told me who paid for it.
It wasn’t till Mulroney left office, however, that I was able to persuade others to talk, to connect the dots, to lay out the behind-the-scenes stories and to realize I did indeed have a book.
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
It took a year to research, even with the help of two wonderful associates, Rod Macdonell and Andrew McIntosh, who were then working as investigative reporters for the Montreal Gazette. It took another year to write. The major challenge was not, as I had expected, the reluctance of people to share information, or even in finding the paper trails I needed. The major challenge was the continuing threat of lawsuits from many quarters.
Were there any books that influenced you in your approach?
Yes: A Canadian Tragedy, Maggie Siggins’ stunning account of the Colin Thatcher murder case in Saskatchewan. It’s as much a book about politics and corruption as it is about the violent murder of a long-abused wife. But more than that, this book showed me that you could write about politics with as much drama and style as any good novel. It showed me the power of pure story-telling -- of simple readability -- that became my goal in On the Take and all my books.
Tell us a little about how you chose the title On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Era.
The title was easy: these were the central topics of my research. There was plenty of crime and a record number of Tory politicians, lobbyists and their associates under police investigation, charged or convicted; the system of contracts and appointments was utterly corrupt; the greed was extraordinary and blatant. Just one example of this last area of research will suffice: When the Mulroneys moved from Stornoway to 24 Sussex Drive there was one moving van. When they left, there were seventy-two vans and trucks and their goods were stored in two huge warehouses, one in Ottawa and one in Montreal, until their new Montreal house was ready.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
Just before the publication date there was an interesting event: Burglars broke into the offices of our design team and stole the hard drives off their computers to obtain the manuscript. Fortunately, the team had anticipated this possibility and had backups and the book had already been printed. Someone also broke into my publisher’s office around the same time.
We expected immediate writs threatening lawsuits for libel and there were none. Instead there were people lined up outside bookstores waiting for the doors to open and the first printing was gone in days; it took weeks to get more from the printers. It became the best-selling non-fiction title in Canada in 1994 and 1995
Did anyone get upset about what you had written? Did you hear from any of the main players in your book?
The Mulroney gang wasn’t happy although many senior Tories -- people who had been proud to be Conservatives and were horrified by the Mulroney government, many of whom helped me, including the former Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen -- called to congratulate me.
Did On the Take change the trajectory of your career? In what way?
It was my second book (Ottawa Inside Out was my first) and it helped me to decide that writing books was what I wanted to do full-time. People warned me I would never again have as successful a book and they were right – in terms of sales, at least -- but I have no regrets about moving to full-time work in books.
What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?
There are plenty of interesting books and I enjoy them, but few dangerous books. It’s not that reporters don’t have the stories or want to tell them, it’s that publishers cannot afford to defend themselves against legal action. I know many talented, brave writers who cannot get contracts or have had contracts cancelled because of concerns about lawsuits. In my case, I was lucky with On the Take because I had publishers willing to risk everything to get the book out – even so, Rod, Andrew and I were unable to get libel insurance and were personally liable along with our publishers.
It is this threat of lawsuits that has the potential to kill or neuter the best political books. I speak from experience. By the time I wrote The Last Amigo, the book I worked on with the CBC’s Harvey Cashore, the Airbus story was toxic and dangerous. My publisher’s company was now owned by a different firm and there was less tolerance for legal threats. We had to pull our punches and we lost valuable information. Over time, much of the important information did come out but it is still largely a confusing story for most Canadians. It should not be. The Oliphant inquiry was far too limited in scope; the preceding House of Commons committee hearings, while well-meant, were uninformed.
What areas should be written about more? The desperate state of access to information requests, with government stonewalling. Reporters are doing a great job of explaining cuts to organizations the Harper government dislikes, but I’d like to see deeper investigations of both contracts and cuts.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favorite book and why? Are there any other books written in the last 25 years that you would suggest people read?
I can’t give you just one book on the shortlist. My top choices are Harperland by Lawrence Martin; John A: The Man Who Made Us, by Richard Gwyn; Trudeau and our Times by Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson and One-Eyed Kings by Ron Graham.
As for books published in the last twenty-five years, there are too many, but some favourites include Juggernaut by Susan Delacourt; Citizen of the World and Just Watch Me by John English; The Player: The Life and Times of Dalton Camp by Geoffrey Stevens; Canada: A Portrait in Letters, by Charlotte Gray; The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada by Marci McDonald; and Arrival City: The Final Migration and our Next World by Doug Saunders.
What are you working on now?
I’m just off a nine-year period of working on two books on the Robert Pickton murder case in British Columbia (The Pickton File and On the Farm) and my publishers at Knopf and I are still trying to decide what comes next.
Throughout Brian Mulroney’s decade in power, the Canadian public had suspected corruption, and one year after Mulroney left office, Stevie Cameron confirmed and detailed the shocking stories in this meticulously researched journalistic account. On the Take established Cameron as one of Canada’s top investigative reporters and ultimately helped lead to the demise of the Progressive Conservative Party. A page-turner that exposes the shady ways in which Ottawa operated during Mulroney’s years in power, On the Take is a cautionary tale about the misuse of power and public money for personal gain. It colours Canadians perceptions of politicians as corrupt and self-serving, even seventeen years later.