Before he became a spy novelist and award-winning screenwriter, Ian Adams developed a reputation for investigative reporting of the most dogged kind; he never willingly backed away from a fight, or cause, that he believed in. One central question always served as his compass: “Who will profit?”
An encyclopedic knowledge of intelligence operations led him down polished corridors into the shadowy worlds of espionage, backroom deals and corruption. Socially and politically many things enraged him, however, nothing stirred his writerly ire like the heartbreak of the dispossessed. After a lifelong fight against injustices, Mr. Adams died of a stroke on Nov. 7 in Peterborough, Ont. He was 84.
As a journalist Mr. Adams was one of the earliest to puncture Canada’s image as a benign country that treated its Indigenous peoples with respect. Not everyone was pleased. In 1967, as a reporter for Maclean’s magazine, Mr. Adams told the story of Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who ran away from a residential school in Northern Ontario. In a doomed attempt to reach his father, some 650 kilometres (400 miles) away, the skinny child dressed in thin cotton clothing collapsed beside a CNR track, where he died, hungry and cold.
Mr. Adams was in Kenora at the time, documenting tensions between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, when he came across two brief paragraphs in a local paper about an unnamed Indigenous boy found dead beside the railroad tracks. Mr. Adams covered the inquest into the Wenjack tragedy and set out to prick the country’s conscience.
Under the heading The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack, he wrote, “It’s not so unusual that Indian children run away from the residential schools they are sent to. They do it all the time, and they lose their fingers and toes to frostbite. Sometimes they lose a leg or an arm trying to climb aboard freight trains. Occasionally, one of them dies. And perhaps because they are Indians, no one seems to care very much. So this, then, is the story of how a little boy met a terrible and lonely death, of the handful of people who became involved, and of a town that hardly noticed.”
Mr. Adams’s prose tended to be as lean and powerful as his judo-toned, weight-lifting physique. Shortly after publication of the Charlie Wenjack story, Mr. Adams received a letter from the CEO of Maclean-Hunter publishing saying he didn’t think Mr. Adams’s kind of writing (disturbing to the status quo) belonged in a magazine. As a result of the letter, and numerous complaints from readers, Mr. Adams quit the magazine to pursue a freelance career. He once said he felt he had wasted his life telling people stuff they didn’t want to hear; however, it never stopped him. He turned to fiction as a means of disguised truth-telling, but even there, trouble found him.
The dramatic circumstances of Mr. Adams’s birth on July 22, 1937, in Tanzania, Africa, could have been torn from a page in one of his novels or screenplays: Family lore has it that his pregnant mother, Lillian Adams (née O’Darling), singlehandedly canoed across a narrow stretch of Africa’s Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania in order to ensure that her baby, christened Ian Samuel Adams, would be a British citizen. Ian’s father, Richard Adams, an Irish lay missionary, stayed behind in the Belgian Congo where he and Lillian had been assisting at a medical outpost. As the Second World War began, while still living in Africa, both of Ian’s parents joined the British Army; his mother as one of its earliest female ambulance drivers, his father as an engineer.
Three-year-old Ian was sent away to boarding schools, where his athleticism saved him from a culture of bullying. He rarely saw his parents, even after the war ended, and never forgave them for abandoning him. Even though it was common for Britons to send their children away to school, Ian was exceptionally young for such a separation. In light of their missionary work, he judged his parents’ hurtful absence to be hypocritical, and came to believe organized religion was a form of mental illness. The experience also made him want to speak up for those without a voice.
His parents eventually immigrated to North America but Ian chose to cross the ocean alone. By his late teens, he was living independently in Winnipeg, where he attended the first year of a fine arts program at the University of Manitoba.
There he met Shirley Simmons, another arts student, whom he would eventually marry. They had one son, Shane. The marriage lasted a few brief years.
A second marriage, to Jane Murdoch, a CBC employee in Montreal, where Mr. Adams was freelance writing, lasted two decades. It, too, produced a son, Riley.
Shane and Riley Adams remember their father as an accomplished painter who once dreamed art would be his livelihood. Although he continued painting as a hobby, of necessity, as a young man, he took a variety of odd jobs to pay the rent.
His interest in visual images eventually led to employment in the darkroom at the Winnipeg Free Press. He soon graduated to being a photographer on the police beat and began writing copy.
“He had a natural drive to expose wrongs and address injustices,” Riley Adams said. “He recognized the power of the images he was taking and the words he was writing. It fired his ambition in that direction.”
Shane Adams added, “He never editorialized. He just gave the reader fact after fact in an unadorned way leading them to an inescapable conclusion.”
As a freelancer, Ian Adams covered international stories such as the Vietnam War and the 1973 coup d’état by dictator Augusto Pinochet that overthrew the Allende government in Chile.
During the mayhem, politically left-leaning Chileans were desperately trying to get out of the country, flooding into the Canadian embassy seeking help.
Reporting on the situation for The Globe and Mail, Mr. Adams boldly published the names of two members of an RCMP security team responsible for checking applications from those Chileans wishing to emigrate. The RCMP officers, he wrote, were in regular contact with officials at the U.S. embassy. “I think my dad had grounds to suspect that the names of so-called ‘dissidents’ were making their way back to Pinochet’s police during a time when he had evidence that many such people were being tortured. He was proud of the story and angry about it, too,” Riley Adams said.
Mr. Adams firmly believed that intelligence organizations are secret governments, more powerful than elected ones. It was not a position that endeared him in all journalistic circles but it was a perfect platform from which to become a novelist.
First, he wrote two non-fiction books about poverty, then, in 1978, published a novel, S: Portrait of a Spy, that led to a highly unusual court case in which he was sued for libel over a fictional character. A former RCMP intelligence officer claimed the central character, a traitor, had been modelled after him. Both had asthma, bad handwriting and wore similar clothing.
The publisher stopped distribution of the book, even though 12,000 copies had been sold, and film rights were cancelled. Human-rights lawyer Paul Copeland defended Mr. Adams but the court decided in favour of the plaintiff. The decision came as a bit of a shock.
“Clearly the fact it’s a novel isn’t a sufficient defence,” Mr. Copeland said. “One of the arguments there is that you should do your fictionalizing a little better.”
The writing community rallied around Mr. Adams with a fundraiser to help cover his costs. He was doubtless grateful but at the same time unrepentant.
“I think a journalist should write about what is going on in society; a novelist should raise questions about why it’s going on,” Mr. Adams told The Globe’s Ian Brown in an interview. “The law seems to be saying that novelists shouldn’t have any right to make judgments about what is going on around them. What’s next? You can’t make a movie about pollution or write a song about oppressive employers? Separating truth from fiction and fiction from truth may only narrow our understanding of both.”
Mr. Adams went on to write several more novels as well as scripts for television that he co-wrote with son Riley Adams. Christopher Plummer starred in one production; Michael Moriarty in another. Mr. Adams’s 1999 novel-turned-screenplay Agent of Influence won several international awards and a Gemini.
In 2016, Mr. Adams was pleasantly surprised to learn that, based on his Maclean’s article, Gord Downie, singer for the Tragically Hip, had taken an interest in Chanie Wenjack and created The Secret Path, a graphic novel, video and 10-song album designed to raise awareness about the cruelty of residential schools.
At the end of a concert at Massey Hall, Mr. Downie invited Mr. Adams onstage, where he received an unexpected standing ovation. The Wenjack family were in the audience.
Once, during a retrospective interview with the CBC, Mr. Adams had said, “I remember looking down at the dead body of Charlie way back then and promising I would do everything I could so that his name would not be forgotten.”
Mr. Adams was a man of his word, and much saddened by the recent discovery of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of Canada’s residential schools.
Mr. Adams leaves Catherine Keenan, his late-life partner of 22 years; sons Shane and Riley Adams; granddaughter, Poppy; and grandson, Polaris.