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BC Politics

Gone Fishing: Bill Tieleman Bids Farewell to The Tyee

After 14 years of writing about electoral reform, Railgate and a boycott of China, a thank you to this publication and its readers.

Bill Tieleman 6 Mar

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman regularly contributed to The Tyee since its inception and also wrote a weekly column on B.C. politics 24 Hours Vancouver newspaper from 2005 to 2017 that was published by The Tyee in a much longer version from 2009 on. Email Bill at [email protected] see Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

“Once the game is over, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.” ― Italian proverb

This writer has hung up the keyboard and gone fishing.

After serving on The Tyee’s initial editorial advisory board before its inception in 2003 and writing for The Tyee since 2004, with a weekly column since April 2009, it’s time for me to take a break.

I have been writing political columns and reporting for 20 years, starting with an alternative perspective for the National Post in 1998, then four years weekly with the Georgia Straight from 2001 to 2005, followed by 12 1/2 years for the late 24 Hours Vancouver until its untimely demise last November.

But I actually started in the news business way, way back in 1969 - delivering the Vancouver Sun in Abbotsford! And in one of those wonderful twists of fate, I became a Sun reporter back in 1978, working part-time while attending the University of B.C. and writing or editing The Ubyssey student newspaper, where I learned my chops.

To illustrate my true dinosaur status, when I started at The Ubyssey the paper’s classified ads were still set in hot lead at College Printers on Maple Street in Vancouver.

Jumping to the more recent past, The Tyee’s then-editor David Beers made me a generous offer in 2009 when 24 Hours Vancouver started the first of a series of editorial expense cuts, allowing me to keep writing weekly by publishing a longer - sometimes four to six times longer - and more detailed version of my column complete with links to research sources.

But with 24 Hours Vancouver being swapped by Postmedia to TorStar - owners of Metro Vancouver and Toronto Star - and then immediately shut down, it became clear to me that as Bob Dylan once put it:

Come writers and critics/Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide/The chance won’t come again

I have had an amazing chance with The Tyee - to write about anything I please every week for nearly nine years - and so I leave with some reluctance and regret.

But I must admit that not writing up to 2,400 words every single solitary Sunday has removed a significant burden in my life, not to mention made me far more available to my long-suffering family and friends.

At the same time, since I stopped writing weekly I continue to see, hear and read things that absolutely infuriate or fascinate me and think: “I should write about that” - and then realize that I don’t have a column!

And I also have to say that with a New Democrat government in power for the first time since 2001, my already busy strategy and consulting business - my main work since 1998 - has seen more and more clients knocking at the door. That in turn has both increased my workload and complicated my ability to write without restrictions.

Since I believe what Vincent van Gogh said - “Conscience is a man’s compass” - and would not want either The Tyee or my clients to be unfairly criticized for anything I wrote, it also makes life easier to avoid the conflicts that come with a weekly column.

But I leave The Tyee confident that it will do just fine without me as a contributor, continuing to provide great alternative journalism for British Columbia, Canada and the world.

And it’s so important that The Tyee keeps filling a growing need in this era of fake news, shrinking newsrooms, closing newspapers and corporate concentration not only in the media but, for the first time, corporate concentration in advertising.

Facebook and Google ads now control a stunning 63 per cent of global online advertising and 25 per cent of total media advertising revenues.

That also makes your donations to The Tyee more important than ever too. Without generous reader support and the financial backing of supportive organizations, The Tyee would be a fish out of water.

A range of topics

Looking back at my own small contribution to The Tyee’s alternative coverage in planning this final column I was kind of shocked at the range of topics I’ve covered since 2004.

Appropriately enough, my first article was a debate with my friend Andrea Reimer - now a Vancouver city councillor, then-Green Party Vancouver School Board trustee - on proportional representation as the Citizens Assembly was preparing to recommend the single transferrable vote.

And subsequently, I successfully led opposition to the STV in 2005 and 2009, with a surprising ally - Andrea Reimer - joining me in fighting against the STV because she believed it was a terrible electoral system. She still supported proportional representation but with other models offering truer proportionality.

This year I will again be fighting proportional representation in the fall provincial referendum that will ask voters to either retain our current first past the post electoral system or endorse a so far undefined proportional representation model. You may not agree with me - and many Tyee readers vehemently do not on this - but I am completely consistent.

But going back to 2005, by May I had started writing for The Tyee on the longest and most intense and fascinating reporting and analysis of my journalistic career - covering the Basi-Virk/BC Railgate/B.C. Legislature raid case.

In December 2003, Victoria police made an unprecedented raid on the B.C. Legislature, seizing boxes of documents and potential evidence from the offices of Dave Basi and Bob Virk, then ministerial assistants to the B.C. Liberal finance and transportation ministers.

Coincidentally I had already written about Dave Basi and other B.C. Liberal players who were also connected to the federal Liberal Party, and when the raid happened my cellphone started ringing constantly - leading me onto a seven-year journalistic journey, most of which was in The Tyee.

It started with a profile of Erik “Spiderman” Bornman - a key player in the political corruption scandal that enveloped the B.C. Liberals for years - but I wrote much, much more than 100,000 words on the privatization of B.C. Rail that went off the track in the years following.

That’s more than the words in a 400-page book. For some perspective, my alphabetical guide to the key players in the Basi-Virk case, published in The Tyee in 2008 - titled Railgate, A to Z - was over 10,000 words on its own.

So when people asked me if I might write a book on this fascinating case - or anything else - I replied that I already have - with The Tyee.

My Railgate reportage in The Tyee, 24 Hours Vancouver and my own Bill Tieleman blog received very kind kudos from many commentators -from Bill Good to Tom Hawthorn to Sean Holman to Mike Smyth to the late great Rafe Mair.

And I was most proud that almost everyone in that case - from the RCMP to the prosecutors and defence lawyers to key B.C Liberal players - all talked to me about it, on and off the record. I made clear that I would correct any factual errors and promptly apologize, and did, which encouraged more confidential conversations.

A break-in that failed

But that coverage also gained me another kind of compliment: the December 2007 break-in and trashing of my office, where a very specific and unmistakable calling card was left by the perpetrator or perpetrators.

A copy of a fictionalized book about the police raid on the B.C. Legislature titled “The Raid” was left purposefully on top of broken acoustic tiles by whoever came in through the ceiling from the empty office next door, which was accessed after an attempt to pry open my door failed.

Rather than intimidate me, the break-in only intensified my coverage and unintentionally heightened my public profile, giving me more contacts and access to information that those who were involved in Railgate didn’t want me to have.

That break-in was a prelude to another attempt to intimidate my reporting and commentary. In April 2008 I wrote a 24 Hours Vancouver column prior to the Beijing Olympics suggesting that rather than boycott the games over the Chinese military dictatorship’s repression of Tibet and gross violations of human rights, we should simply boycott China and its products instead.

What came next was three death threats sent by email from a live address that the Vancouver Police Department eventually discovered originated in China.

“I can kill you. you are wait!!!!!!!! (sic). I am in CKNW, I am normal Chinese. I must kill you and your family. Kill you! you clean your neck (sic), enjoy your last day, just wait, you will pay for this!” the threats read.

I also received thousands of emails - some very polite but others extremely obscene - attacking my position, in what appeared to be a coordinated effort by some forces who wanted me to back off.

But with the strong backing of The Tyee and 24 Hours Vancouver, I instead turned up the heat, writing many columns since then criticizing the continuing and sadly, recently increasing human rights violations by the Chinese government.

Fortunately, we live in Canada and have the protections of the rule of law in a democracy that, while definitely not perfect, provides not only the protections of our legal system but also a civil society that tolerates dissent.

And that’s a good thing because I have laid some serious wood on a lot of individuals and organizations over my long Tyee tenure.

Looking back, I think my Tyee columns can be categorized into just a few areas: my perceived malfeasance of the B.C. Liberal governments of former premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark; the Basi-Virk case; and everything else, which cut a wide swath through a lot of territory.

There is no true way to measure the impact or reach of a single column, but certainly one of the most well-read and circulated was about British Columbia’s unbelievable giveaway of water to multinational water bottling company Nestle in 2015.

I pointedly pointed out that Nestle was paying the province a startling $2.25 per million litres of fresh, clean groundwater - about the price a consumer pays for a single 500 millilitre bottle of water.

That column went literally viral with 13,888 direct Facebook shares from The Tyee.

I have also been honoured with regularly making The Tyee’s “Top Catches” over several years of writing here - whether that be most read, most commented or most engaging - and I thank my readers for enjoying or more likely being infuriated with what I wrote about.

The Tyee was also instrumental in the fight against the Harmonized Sales Tax starting in 2009. I was strategist for Fight HST, the grassroots group I formed with former B.C. Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm and former Unity Party leader Chris Delaney and others.

My Tyee columns excoriating the HST in the over two years between the announcement of the hated tax in 2009 by Gordon Campbell and its extinguishment vote in 2011 were a small measure of balance to the millions spent by the B.C. Liberal government and big business HST backers.

I’ve also written a lot on pit bulls, which I firmly believe should be banned because of the incredible deadly danger they present to the public - from children and the elderly to other pets - and I sadly fear that until a horrendous death finally galvanizes politicians to act, pit bulls and their belligerent supporters will roam freely.

Thanks to Dave and the team

Every writer of any merit owes a large measure of their success to their editors, and I have been truly blessed in that regard.

Foremost among them is my uncredited but essential editor: my wife Shirley Ross, who has patiently and diligently first edited almost all my Tyee columns, offering good advice, catching typos and keeping me out of trouble on many occasions when my enthusiasm didn’t match my evidence.

My friend Dave Beers has not only been a great editor but a key supporter of my writing and someone who has encouraged me throughout my columnist career, both before I started at The Tyee and after Dave left as an editor in more recent times.

Dave is owed a huge debt of gratitude not only by myself and every other Tyee writer but by Tyee readers as well for creating this fabulous publication that has succeeded against all odds thanks to his dogged determination and grit with grace.

As Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe put it: “A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.”

That is Dave Beers’s legacy at The Tyee.

It is truly hard to imagine what B.C. political coverage would have looked like without The Tyee not only breaking stories and providing alternative opinion but pushing other media to follow news and events they would otherwise have ignored.

I also have to thank Tyee editor Robyn Smith for carrying on Dave’s tradition after serving her editorial apprenticeship under his guidance. Robyn, currently on maternity leave, has been great to work with and I know will continue to grow The Tyee and guide it through difficult times.

Paul Willcocks has been my immediate editor for the past few years and Sarah Berman before that - I am indebted to them for their patient and purposeful editing. Acting Tyee editor Barry Link, filling in for Robyn, has been gracious in the short time he has been at the helm while I fired verbal cannons. And all other Tyee editors and writers over the years have been unfailingly helpful and supportive. They have been a joy to work with.

I’m so proud to have been involved with creating and nurturing The Tyee since its almost immaculate conception, and I will continue to help in any way I can to keep it flourishing.

And I’ve always tried to follow Samuel Johnson’s instructions to all writers: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

So my deep thanks to all Tyee readers for reading my writing, for your many kind and generous words of praise over the years and for supporting this great treasure of journalism.  [Tyee]

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