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Author Roy MacGregor meets with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. MacGregor assisted Harper when the former PM was writing a book on the early history of the sport of hockey.courtesy of the Prime Minister’s Office/Handout

Roy MacGregor is the author of nearly 70 books, and a former columnist and feature writer for The Globe and Mail. His latest book is Paper Trails: From the Backwoods to the Front Page, a Life in Stories, from which this essay has been adapted.

In early March, 2012, I received a call from Michael Levine, a lawyer and entertainment agent who was associated with the Westwood Creative Artists agency. Bruce Westwood, his business partner, had long been my agent for books. I had met Michael but did not know him well. I did know of his successes representing writers such as Peter C. Newman, my old boss at Maclean’s.

Michael wanted to know if we could speak with complete confidentiality. “Of course,” I told him, wondering why a secret call was coming in to me.

“I have a client who needs help with his hockey book,” Michael said.

“Interesting. … Who is it?”

“The prime minister.”

As Michael explained, for years prime minister Stephen Harper had “relaxed” by working on a hockey book about the years in which the game transformed from purely amateur to professional. It was an examination of the various hockey organizations of the first decades of the 20th century, groups that were often at drawn swords over where the Canadian game should go. It was intended to be a serious book with in-depth research. The prime minister had even joined the Society of International Hockey Research. He had tentatively titled his project The Forgotten Leafs, in honour of his favourite NHL team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the various early forms the Toronto professionals had taken.

I was intrigued. Stephen Harper had been prime minister since Feb. 6, 2006. His photograph was daily in the papers, his image and voice on every nightly news broadcast – yet he was largely unknown. He was considered the ultimate button-down personality – the press had once made fun of the then-new prime minister for formally shaking hands with his young son, Ben, as the child headed off to school.

The rare times he had let down his guard – at early Press Gallery dinners, for example – he had shown a sense of humour never seen by the public. At a National Arts Centre charity event, his wife, Laureen, had talked her husband into playing the piano and singing. His version of the Beatles’ With a Little Help from My Friends, accompanied by world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, had brought down the house. It was a national shock for pre-legal-cannabis Canada to see the country’s leader admitting, “I get high with a little help from my friends.”

My curiosity got the best of me. Michael already had a publishing deal with a distinguished house, Simon & Schuster Canada, and the publisher, having seen a first draft of the book, was convinced that the author did indeed need “a little help” – whether from a friend or not.

I agreed to meet with the prime minister. Two days later, a special-delivery letter arrived with a CD-ROM of the first draft of the manuscript enclosed, the package marked in large-font boldface “Strictly Private and Confidential.” I read through it, took handwritten notes and thought about what might be done to improve the book. It was ripe with history and research, but rather dry and organized into an often-confusing variety of asides and segments. There was no real narrative arc to propel the reader along. And yet, there was a lot of extremely good material.

The following day, I was called by the Prime Minister’s Office to arrange a time for the PM to meet with me. We would get together later in the week at his office in the Langevin Block, directly across Wellington Street from Parliament Hill. The building is named for Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, a Father of Confederation who was a key proponent of the residential school system that is today, finally, acknowledged as racist and wrong. In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the building would be renamed the rather colourless “Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council,” but it is still called the Langevin Block by all who work on the Hill.

We met mid-morning, before lunch and Question Period. Chief of staff Nigel Wright – a thin, dapper man with “competence” written all over him – was immediately welcoming and friendly. Prime minister Harper, not so much. But he did shake hands, smile and immediately invite me to talk about my early impressions of his book.

It was a diplomatic challenge. Something good had to be said about his work and, indeed, the research was voluminous and impressive. The writing was rather academic but academically passable. The problem was that while he had written a book, he had not told a story. And this would prove a difficult concept to convey.

Not long into our conversation about my concerns, it dawned on me that he was flinching – if not visibly, certainly in demeanour – every time I used the word “narrative.” I had mentioned the lack of a “narrative arc” and had several times stressed the importance of having a strong narrative and sticking to it.

Words have a way of shifting when they land on Parliament Hill. When Joe Clark came to power briefly in 1979, he loved to use the strange word “plethora” to mean a richness of choice, whereas its true meaning is “excessive.” In recent years, the word “robust” has been stuck in virtually every spoken paragraph, its old meaning, “healthy,” now twisted into “good” and “fair” and “lengthy.”

As for “narrative,” its use in Canadian politics has come to mean “spin” and even “lie,” as in “your narrative.” While I was trying to get the prime minister to see his hockey book as a story being told, he was hearing the word “narrative” each time I said it as negative criticism.

From my point of view, the meeting did not seem to go well. I left convinced that the session had been a disaster, as he had not been open to various suggestions. Much to my surprise, a couple of days later he wanted to meet again.

We gathered this time at his second-floor office in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill. I went through security in the basement and took an elevator up, then sat waiting on a bench outside his office until he wrapped up other meetings.

Above my head was Frances Anne Hopkins’s famous painting Shooting the Rapids. The waiting would prove fruitful, as the gorgeous 1879 illustration of a voyageur canoe cresting the fast water between Montreal and Lachine would inspire my book Canoe Country: The Making of Canada.

Finally, Nigel invited me in just as the clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters, was leaving after his morning briefing with the prime minister.

“What are you doing here?” Wayne asked, his face puzzled.

“You know each other?” Nigel asked.

Indeed we did, having played beer-league hockey together for two hours every Sunday morning for a decade and more. Wayne and I chatted a bit, he unable to suppress snickers, and then I moved off with Nigel to meet, again, with the prime minister.

This meeting was a total surprise. I expected the prime minister to have digested my earlier comments and have decided to work with me. I would simply keep my use of the word “narrative” to the bare minimum. Instead, the prime minister had a sheet of paper with small notes on it; one by one, he went through my various comments and criticisms and shot several of them down as quickly and effectively as a criminal lawyer.

This time I left wondering why I had been called back only to, essentially, be told how wrong I was about so many things to do with the book. This was clearly the end of any consultation.

The next day Michael Levine called again.

“The prime minister wants to work with you,” he told me. “He really likes what you’ve been telling him.”


“He thinks you can work together just fine.”

And so began several months of working together on the book that, in 2013, would become A Great Game, not The Forgotten Leafs, and would be a national bestseller.

The prime minister certainly loosened up. At one point, when we were passing time before settling down to work on the book, he asked what I had done previously. He seemed surprised to hear that someone he knew as a sportswriter had spent 14 years working on the Hill, writing on politics for Maclean’s, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s again and the Ottawa Citizen.

“I became an economist,” he said, “because I didn’t have enough personality to be an accountant.”

Summer rolled around and one day Ellen and I were invited up to Harrington Lake for lunch. Harrington Lake is Canada’s Camp David, a bucolic retreat high in the Gatineau Hills. There had once been a mill and homes on the site but the area was acquired by the Crown in 1951 with the idea of creating a nature reserve. In 1959, however, those working with prime minister John Diefenbaker thought “Dief” could benefit from his lifelong love of fishing if only there were a quiet retreat, on water, within easy reach of the capital. The remaining 16-room cottage and cabins were refitted for security, with a gatehouse built for the RCMP to control access, and Harrington Lake has now served as a much-treasured escape for 11 prime ministers, including Dief. The current prime minister’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, even added a vegetable garden.

The ride up from Ottawa is by four-lane Quebec Highway 5, then slowly through the village of Old Chelsea and onto a twisting gravel road that wraps around the south shore of Meech Lake, where we passed numerous cottages and two public beaches. It is a road for cautious drivers.

We arrived at the gatehouse, the Mounties on duty asked for our names, checked them against a sheet and waved us through to the parking lot not far from the large, white cottage. We were early for lunch, so were given a tour of the grounds by the Harpers. At lunch, Laureen, Ellen and I shared some wine and the four of us engaged in some idle talk. Laureen then suggested that she and Ellen head out on one of the hiking trails, accompanied, of course, by RCMP officers. That left the prime minister and me with a good couple of hours to work on the book. The Harpers planned to return to 24 Sussex later that day.

We were well into the reworking of chapters when I thought it would be wise to bring up the issue of “narrative” without actually saying the word out loud.

“I’ve been thinking,” I began tentatively, “that one way to make the story more compelling might be to tell large parts of it through a key character.”

I wasn’t thinking of a player, but of an early hockey official named John Ross Robertson. Robertson was a newspaperman, which attracted me; he was founder of the Toronto Telegram, for many years the most powerful newspaper in the Dominion. Large of head and given to wearing his beard in the style of Abraham Lincoln, Robertson was the most powerful official in the early game – heading up the Ontario Hockey Association – and he was virulently against the game turning professional, as so many of the players wished.

But best of all was John Ross Robertson’s backstory. He was a genuine eccentric. He gave generously to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and happily dressed as Santa Claus each Christmas. As a young reporter, he had been imprisoned by Louis Riel during the Red River Rebellion. His hobby was going to the funerals of people he had never known, sometimes as many as five a week, and weeping profusely through the service.

“This guy is in every chapter,” I argued. “You could flesh him out and readers would feel like he was carrying them along on this adventure.”

“There’s a book … ” the prime minister said, almost to himself. He was clearly thinking of something.

“I have a full book on him,” he said, “but it’s not here. It’s in the city.”

Laureen and Ellen were now back from their hike. The prime minister was on the phone, ordering something up.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ll head back early and get that book to you.”

By the time we stepped back outside, there were three large black Chevrolet Suburban SUVs idling at the side of the cottage. The windows of each van were so heavily tinted it was impossible to see inside.

“You follow us and stick with us,” the prime minister said to us before climbing in a back door of the second dark SUV.

Ellen and I hurried to our rusting 10-year-old vehicle and climbed in. The prime minister’s convoy was already heading out for 24 Sussex. We pulled in behind them.

If the Meech Lake Road was to be driven with respect and caution, that memo clearly hadn’t made it to the Mounties driving the prime minister back to Ottawa. They flew along the gravel road, whipping through tight corners, and exited Gatineau Park before coming to a four-way stop where a left turn would take them through the village and back to Highway 5.

The three Mountie vans had built-in police lights, and the drivers turned them on just as a silver Jeep pulled up on the crossroad. The Mountie vans were signalling that they would be taking the turns together and not, as the traffic act would have it, let the Jeep go through when it was its turn.

“What’ll I do?” I asked Ellen. “We don’t have police lights!”

“You better follow them,” she said.

So I did, cutting off the silver Jeep, which was already coming forward. The Jeep began tailgating us, sending a clear message as the now five-vehicle convoy hurried through the village. We followed the prime minister’s caravan as it took the ramp down onto Highway 5, the Jeep still up my butt.

The highway was mostly empty, it being mid-afternoon. Soon the convoy was hitting 140 kilometres an hour as it flew down from the Gatineau hills toward the Ottawa River. The three dark SUVs began working a much-practised defensive lane-switching pattern designed to thwart any attempted assassination of the Canadian prime minister.

What do I do?” I practically screamed at Ellen. “WhadoIdoooo?

“You better stick with them,” she said. She didn’t seem as freaked out as I was. Obviously, opposites attract.

We switched, too. I hoped it would signal to the silver Jeep – still up my ass! – that we were indeed part of the convoy. If he could see in our non-tinted windows, he would have seen two senior citizens going 140 in a vehicle that probably couldn’t pass a safety check. The Jeep not only stayed right with us, but also did the evasive lane switching right along with the Mounties up front.

Across the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge flew the convoy, turning onto Sussex Drive. It seemed the Mounties were controlling the lights along the way, as at no time did they need to slow down. Nor did they seem interested in slowing down. The Jeep was still with us.

At 24 Sussex, the official residence of the prime minister, the gates were already opening, the Mounties having called ahead that the prime minister was arriving back earlier than expected. The three Mountie SUVs slipped through the gates, then us … then the silver Jeep.

We got out of our car just in time to see yet another Mountie get out of the vehicle that had been chasing our butt.

Upstairs, in the prime minister’s private study, he went to the bookshelf, searched a while, and then plucked out a thin book with a slightly torn cover. It was The Paper Tyrant: John Ross Robertson of the Toronto Telegram, by Ron Poulton, published by Clarke, Irwin in 1971. He held it as if the contents were precious – as they would indeed prove to be.

John Ross Robertson was an inspired choice to carry the book’s … uh … narrative. Stephen Harper, author, worked furiously over the coming months, running chapter after chapter past me. I served as editor, not ghostwriter, as some were saying. He wrote his own book, and he did a damned good job of it.

Ellen and I left the study, book in hand, and headed home with a story some would likely not believe. No matter – it happened pretty much as described.

As did this:

Weeks later, it was late in the evening and the prime minister and I had been working by telephone, he in his 24 Sussex Dr. study, I in my little office in our Kanata home. He had written a chapter on the founding of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and it still needed some work.

As we talked quietly about structural problems, a phone began ringing in the background. It rang and rang and rang. I could tell he was distracted, his mind wandering from the task at hand.

“I’ll have to take that,” he said.

“Sure,” I answered.

“Hang on.”

He set the receiver down, but as we were still connected I could hear him pick up the ringing phone. All I could hear, really, was murmured voices. I could not make anything out, but I did hear the other telephone click down.

The prime minister returned to our call.

“That’s the first time that has ever rung,” he said, still sounding distracted.

“How’s that?”

“It’s the phone … ”

It took a moment for that to sink in. The phone? The one directly connected to the president of the United States and the prime minister of Great Britain? The phone? The one that tells Canada the bombs are on the way?

“What was it?” I asked, gulping for air.

“A wrong number,” he said, chuckling.

We went back to work on the founding of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. We were well into it when the phone in the background began again to ring.




The phone again!

The prime minister sighed. “I’ll have to get that,” he said.

“Of course,” I said, wondering if I should run to my basement, where there is an extension line.

I could hear more murmurs, then a click of the phone hanging up.

This time the click was harder and louder.

The prime minister returned to our call.

“What was it this time?” I asked in a shaky voice.

“Same guy,” he said. “He didn’t believe me.”

Excerpted from Paper Trails: From the Backwoods to the Front Page, A Life in Stories by Roy MacGregor. Copyright ©2023 Roy MacGregor. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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