Even in grade 12 I was looking for a job, and I told the guidance counselor mostly I wanted to travel. He said, oh then you should be an air stewardess. And I went, I don’t think so. I didn’t say I want to be a waitress in the air.
I knew I wasn’t a good waitress. And then I went to Europe for a year and I did waitress my way across Europe. And I wrote everyday. I wrote my parents everyday. They kept all the letters for me. And I’d write to all my friends. I wrote 300-some odd letters and I was gone for 290 days. I’d just sit in cafes and describe what I saw and I loved it.
And then when I worked in a hotel in London as the breakfast server, there were Australian journalists staying there. They were really nice young guys. And I would chat with them in the morning, and they would always talk about covering the British Parliament, and I thought, oh this is so cool. One day they said, ‘What do you want to do? What’s with you?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to be a journalist but I think I’m too shy.’ They said, ‘You’re 18 years old, you’re travelling around Europe, you’re sitting here talking to us. You’re not too shy.’
So they really encouraged me! And they told me about Carleton! Australian journalists told me about Carleton! My own guidance counselor in Canada couldn’t tell me about Carleton. He said, ‘oh I don’t know where to study journalism.’ So I wrote my Mom and said hey I think Carleton has a good journalism program and I think I might like to go there, and she had been so afraid I’d never come back from Europe, that she’d lost me forever to being a hitchhiking hippie, that she applied for me. She forged my signature and applied for me. So when I was in Greece I went to pick up my mail in Athens and there was a note from my mother that said, you’ve been accepted at Carleton, get your ass back here! So I hitchhiked back to Germany and worked for two months as a short-order cook at the Canadian Armed Forces base cause I didn’t have enough money for a flight home.
On getting her first real reporting job
A lot of it is luck, you know, luck of timing. Your first job you got often just because you walked in at the right time when they needed somebody.
I traveled in South America for nine months and then came back and needed a job. My first bureau chief asked me, Why are you here? Give me two reasons you want this job. And I said well A) I’m broke and I need a job. And B) I’m from Saskatchewan, came to Ontario to go to Carleton and then I went to South America and now I want a start fresh. And he said ‘I don’t have a job for you but I know where you can get one.’ He told me to go to the Canadian Press and when I got to Toronto they knew I was coming, gave me a spelling test, and said you’re hired. That afternoon!
You know, I was lucky. I came through at a time when there were opportunities. Women were just breaking in. We were breaking brand new ground. Women were a new thing at Canadian Press Ottawa. There were opportunities, and I had a journalism degree, which helped a lot in those days. Guys could get jobs without degrees but we needed degrees to be considered as women.
… and turning down the Globe and Mail
I also saw someone at the Globe and Mail who said, ‘What makes you think I would see you? Someone who quit their job in Saskatchewan and moved to Ontario with no job! I can hire someone from the Star tomorrow who knows Toronto inside and out!’
And I said, ‘Well, I thought maybe you’d like to meet someone who knows how to take a risk.’ After that he warmed up a little bit, but not much. He said he wouldn’t hire me and I was irresponsible for doing that. And then years later after I’d been hired by Southam he became my biggest fan. I was like, you bastard! You could’ve had me! And the Globe tried to hire me later, and I said no.
On freelancing across South America in the 1970s
I traveled to Chile, Bolivia, and Peru on my own. I wrote about Canadians down there whenever I met a Canadian. I didn’t make much money but I made a little bit. I sent my stories by mail, and wrote them on my typewriter. I sent the negatives with a note saying ‘My name is Norma Greenaway, here’s a story I think you might be interested in. If you wish to pay me please send a cheque to my mother in Saskatoon.’ And when I got back I had $800 my mother had collected for me. But I was going hell or high water.
You seem familiar, yet somehow strange–are you by any chance Canadian?
On reporting from Washington, Jerusalem, and Cairo
I have to say I loved living and reporting from Washington, D.C. There’s always a story, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s just cherry picking your way through stories, and there’s always a good Canadian angle. And I loved living in Washington. It was great. I was there for nine years.
But reporting from the Middle East was so interesting and so challenging and everyday you woke up and said, I’m so lucky to be here. You wake up with your heart in your throat, cause you never know what’s coming. That was true in Washington as well, it’s like, what am I going to have to learn about today that I didn’t know yesterday? Or with the Middle East it was like, where is there going to be trouble today and how fast will I be able to get there, and when will I be able to file my story? Cause technology wasn’t what it is today. We had very old-fashioned computers, there were no nice cell phones, we had satellite phones that we borrowed and bought time on. So it was a lot different. Now it’s a lot easier in some ways but it’s harder because it’s a 24/7 schedule. At least sometimes then, the paper’s deadline had passed and you’d have two or three hours before you had to worry about it again. And now you have to be filing video and pictures too. They expect fewer people to do a lot more. I was lucky to be there when I got to be a true newspaper print reporter. It’s hard work, it’s challenging work, but it’s such interesting work. You do kind of go, wow, when am I ever going to get the chance to do this again? I traveled to Syria before it was a mess. When I was there it was an interesting police state as opposed to a death trap. I got to visit a lot of beautiful places and meet very interesting people, because that’s what journalism gives you a license to do, right. Talk to people that you wouldn’t normally talk to or would be too shy to talk to. If you’re a journalist, you have to. And in the Middle East it really is a sad story every day. It could be depressing. So the challenge was finding a new way of telling a very old story, which is that there is not going to be peace anytime soon in the Middle East, and that the violence is cyclical. Sometimes you just think, how can I write about another bus bombing? What can I say that’s going to be different? But you know, it’s always different people, you interview different people, you try to emphasize something different this time, instead of going to the hospital you go to the actual scene and describe that, or talk to neighbours. Or whatever, you just try to find a slightly new way of writing about it. And then the interesting stories are about the culture, if you actually get a chance, because you’re always so busy.
On the most fun she had reporting (and it wasn’t where you’d expect)
The most fun I had once was covering a radio show in Syria, and this was the police state Syria, under the old Assad, the father. So it was pretty repressed, and you had to work through fixers [a fixer is a local who translates, drives, or sets up interviews for international journalists] who were government-appointed so you knew they were kind of your minder. But finally, through a friend of mine, I heard about a radio show that apparently everyone was laughing at, and it was apparently very satirical and funny and so maybe we could get a good translator who would take us to a taping. So we did! And it was so much fun! Because then you could write about Syria for people in Canada and say, hey guess what? They have a sense of humour, they have a satirical radio show that has veiled references to the regime,so they had to be very careful about how they did it. But I wasn’t that careful about how I wrote it. And they’d poke fun at Mubarak in the old days, of course not by name, but you knew it was him. So it was fun to kind of get to the point. That kind of thing is really fun but you don’t get to do it often enough. There’s always a crisis, and it’s never where you are, so you have to get there.
… and how sometimes the most challenging stories are the ones here at home
Some of the most challenging stories were right here in Ottawa, because you’re always trying to break stories and get a little bit ahead of the news. For me it was social policy so I’d always be asking, what are they going to do about childcare? What are they going to do about tax breaks for families? So those were the challenges here because it became this sort of orchestrated leak thing that started happening and if you weren’t on the list for their preferred leak person, it was harder. So I used to actually pride myself on getting stories that they hadn’t leaked. You knew they weren’t going to leak that or they didn’t want that particular story out, so I was very proud when I got some of those. Because those weren’t being dropped into my lap just because I worked on social policy or because someone liked me that day, no, I broke something.