Renegade takes on the big guys

In Britain, the wonderfully eccentric magazine, The Oldie, recently picked actress Dame Thora Hird as its Oldie of the Year. Being an Oldie, explained one of the judges — Times columnist Libby Purves — “is a certain state of mind. Oldies are gamey (and) full of flavour.” She might have added opinionated. Perhaps it’s time Canadians had an Oldie of the Year – to encourage and promote the kind of fearless and far-seeing opinion the nation expects from the generation that has climbed the mountaintop.

Right off, I would nominate Walter Stewart. For most of his life, while most commentators have become namby-pamby, while the media as a whole has taken a massive swing to the right, Stewart, 68, has been steadfastly anti-establishment.

The titles of some of his 25 books tell the story: Towers of Gold, Feet of Clay (a 1982 attack on the banking system that is just as timely today), Hard to Swallow (on the food industry), The Golden Fleece (how the stock market steals our money) and, his latest, Dismantling The State, Downsizing to Disaster (in which he explains how corporate Canada has virtually been let off the hook in tax terms).

“D’t kick against the pricks,” was the advice offered in a book I was presented with long ago at Sunday school. Walter Stewart has made a career of kicking against the pricks.

Stewart has changed little since I first met him in Ottawa, where he was working for The Star Weekly, 30 years ago: wiry, with pixie features and even less hair now than then.

For one of Canada’s most persistent curmudgeons, he seems surprisingly happy. So how, I wanted to know, as he led me up to his large office over the garage, did he come by his radical opinions? First, he wanted to show me — a happy moment for any author — his just-completed manuscript, a biography of the Saskatchewan CCF leader, M.J. Coldwell.

“I picked up my politics from my parents,” he explained. Both were CCF supporters and atheists. “I loved my father dearly,” he said. “But he was a peculiar bird.” A great hockey scout, Miller Stewart ran for the CCF.

“He believed property was theft,” said Stewart. “You don’t own property – property owns you!” Walter was at least as stubborn as his father. After three lively years at the University of Toronto, Stewart quit just before final exams. Next morning there was a cab at the door to carry him to the office of The Toronto Telegram where, an editor told him, “There’s 29 minutes to deadline. Can you write us a story about why you quit? And a journalist was born.

Shortly after, he met Joan at Sturgeon Point. She was, she said, shocked when she realized he was the notorious Walter Stewart who had thrown up his chance of a degree over a point of principle. That didn’t stop her marrying him two years later when she was 19.

Stewart admits, “I have spent most of my adult life trying to tell Canadians things they didn’t want to hear.” The banks have been a favorite target and, when Canadians didn’t listen after his first tome, Towers of Gold, he wrote another, in 1997, called Bank Heist.

Equally, he’s disturbed by today’s stock market bubble. “How long can this false prosperity last?” he asks. “Look at the (inflated) Internet stocks. There’s nothing there but air.” He rejoices that, thanks to some of the reforms he’s seen in his lifetime, seniors are enjoying the hard-earned rewards of their work, going off travelling with stickers on their cars: “We’re spending our grandchildren’s inheritance.” It’s a good idea to give money to older Canadians, he said, because for sure they’ll spend it — and in that way stimulate the economy.

Going soft? Not so long as he gets calls every week or so from his cantankerous old friend (and former Trudeau cabinet minister) Eric Kierans bellowing: “Have you seen what they’re up to now!”