Reporter John McFadden is a large man in a smaller man's body: five foot something and asthmatic, having taken up smoking at 40 despite a collapsed lung. "People tell me I have an honest face," he says, doing nothing with his eyes or mouth, which, I think, proved the point. McFadden has a rousing laugh like a New Year's Eve party favour: the kind you hold in your hand and spin until it cackles to rest. Sometimes he barks when he speaks, seeming, at times, like a keening hound, and yet other times it's as if his teeth have been filed down, having gnawed through a fractious life in the media. McFadden considers himself both above the mean at which his career has levelled—writing for the NWT's only twice-weekly print newspaper, the Yellowknifer—while acknowledging that he probably deserves to be where he is: working for a small paper in a distant corner of the continent for half of what he made in the big city back home.
McFadden is as close to hard-boiled as anyone at the Yellowknifer, the newspaper with whom I embedded last summer as a way of writing about the North for my next book. In many ways, McFadden was the kind of subject I'd been hoping to find after wandering into the newsroom: a lifer who couldn't help himself. He arrived in town after working, and then not-working, at every level of media in Toronto: fired or excused or laid-off—McFadden used the word "gassed"—from CBC, City TV, the Sun News Network (for whom he was its voice), and television stations around Peterborough. One of the last jobs he had was as the scribbler for the CP24 news crawl. "It was mostly OK," he confessed, "and I only fucked up twice. Once I called 50 Cent "a raper," and another time I wrote: '(Premier) McGuinty calls pit bull ban pubic safety issue.' My bosses asked me, 'What's your excuse this time? I told them: 'That's where they bite you.'"
When McFadden first showed up in Yellowknife, people didn't know what to make of him. He carried a big city sense of journalistic duty to a place smaller than his hometown of Orangeville, Ontario; 20,000 vs 27,000. He gained readers quickly, but made enemies just as fast. It was the RCMP who jumped the line; banning him from news conferences, forcibly removing the writer from the courthouse in an episode that resulted in the Justice department compensating him for torn clothes. But most profoundly, it led to the Mounties challenging McFadden after he criticized the force for refusing to alert the public when sexual predators were released from prison, even though it's a policy that was changed after the reporters' protests.
"The first thing I thought of was the incident with the balcony rapist in Toronto," he told me last year, "and how the police had used the person's release as bait so that he could re-offend and then, later, be arrested for multiple crimes. I thought the public had a right to know when a dangerous offender was on the loose, but they couldn't accept the logic. When I pressed them on this, they didn't like it. They didn't like a reporter telling them what to do."
This was merely a prelude, however, to what happened last July in Yellowknife outside the Black Knight pub, where McFadden was cuffed, thrown in a police cruiser and hauled off to the cells, where he was kept for a number of hours after being charged with obstruction of police, an offence related to pictures he was taking of a van that the police were tearing apart in one of the city's busiest downtown neighbourhoods. McFadden claims that he was not obstructing police procedure, while the cops—three of whom were questioned on the stand a few weeks ago at the beginning of the most sensational trial in Yellowknife in the last decade—insist that he was inside the van, or "breaking the plane," in the words of one of the officers. If the three policemen who testified produced varying accounts of the incident, one thing was consistent: McFadden, who emerged from the Black Knight after midnight to investigate the nature of the police operative (centred around the van's stolen plates and the identification of the vehicle's owner, a very drunk man who immediately complied with the search), was portrayed as a person who was "yelling and screaming" and creating havoc as he approached the van. The presence of the reporter might have been alarming to the constables, but it was one in which most Yellowknifers, by this point, have become familiar. You heard him, and you knew who it was. You either turned around or charged forward, depending on what kind of night you were looking to have.
McFadden writes every story hard, in a gust of life. To the young and unproven staff of the paper— the Yellowknifer has been a breeding ground for many established writers, including Karen K. Ho, Jorge Barrera and Nathan VanderKlippe—his garrulous nature and lack of self-consciousness registers as equal parts unprofessional and enviable. In their eyes, it's confounding that someone so deep into their journalistic life can end up at a place like Yellowknifer, and for writers just starting on their journey, he is both a road map and a puzzle. While most of the young writers are loathe to make waves and end up in the editor's office with the door shut, McFadden creates a wake wherever he moves. Still, if others get wet, no one gets soaked more than him.
After three years in Yellowknife, McFadden emerged as a controversial figure, and folkloric, too, mostly at the expense of the RCMP, whom the Dene (a northern group of First Nations) call ikiwiadi ("he speaks straight"). Because Yellowknife is a young city still figuring out what it is, its most heaving and influential institution with a large work force has weighed the script in their favour. Because of this, and because of the nascence of the community, their role has largely gone unchallenged by the non-Indigenous community (the Dene have raised issues about the police in many instances). Because McFadden arrived from Toronto—and because he'd worked to report hard crime in the veins of a city where emerging news is a staple of the city's social and cultural diet—he treated Yellowknife as if it deserved the same devotion. Some people perceived his work as confrontational and needlessly combative and a nuisance to institutions that had glided across controversy in the north. But he was also affording the city respect; covering it the way he would any other place.
McFadden's first job in Yellowknife was as an announcer/reporter at the Moose, then called CJCD. "I led two newscasts with a story about how the RCMP refused to give information to the public about a two-year-old boy who had been run over and killed by a pickup truck at a Kam Lake industrial yard," he said. "This was despite the fact that an RCMP officer had given a quote to the CBC. I called the cops and asked them to confirm what was in the CBC's story but they wouldn't, so I announced that the police were continuing to withhold important information from Yellowknifers. It was the Tuesday after the long weekend. I was grumpy, tired and probably a little hungover. Less than a week later, I was let go."
After the Moose, McFadden was hired by the Yellowknifer. If his profile grew, so did his entanglements with the police. "We get a lot of young cops here straight out of school," he told me, "and a lot who landed in the shit wherever they were. I knew that something was wrong about a month after I got here. I was at an inquest into the fatal shooting of an Inuit woman, Karen Lander, which was as much a case of suicide-by-cop as anything I've seen. There were a lot of things that freaked me out, but the main one was that the cops fired several bullets through the neighbour's windows, as well as shooting her several times. Four hours into the standoff, they never told the neighbours, not once: 'You know, you might wanna slip out the back door.' They didn't have an ambulance waiting, either. It was abysmal."
No police were ever charged or disciplined in the shooting and McFadden claims that even though there there were six recommendations in the Karen Lander report, the lead cop boasted of never having read it. Because violent crime and suicide-by-cop persisted after the incident, the cycle widened rather than closed, and very few lessons were learned from the tragic nature of the day.
If McFadden's open criticism of the RCMP had crossed the cops' radar, his reporting on the incident involving the sexual predator sent the dials wildly spinning. McFadden discovered that a man named Bobby Zoe had been released from prison prior to his second sexual assault charge, and that the cops hadn't alerted the public. When McFadden brought this to the cops' attention, they said that they didn't want to alarm the public.
"My headline in the Yellowknifer was 'RCMP Fail to Warn Public About Sex Assaults.' If you warn people and that drives someone underground, well, that's the cops' problem. Besides, there's no such thing as underground up here so there's even less reason not to release his name. You either fly out or drive out. They can find you. When I pressed them on this, they didn't like it one bit. They didn't like a reporter telling them what to do."
Bobby Zoe allegedly reoffended—the same crime for which he'd been arrested: breaking into an apartment and sexually assaulting a woman two weeks later—and the RCMP looked culpable in the assault of one of their citizens. "Listen, nobody likes to be called out," said McFadden. "I get that. But two weeks later the cops held a news conference announcing that they were changing their policies so that this kind of thing would never happen again. I felt good that I was maybe the sole reason why this policy had changed. The two policy changes were that they would make it known to the public whenever a potentially dangerous offender got out of jail (the North Slavey Correctional Centre or NSCC) and that they would tell the public, right when it happens, whenever sexual assault is committed. I left the announcement feeling strong and good that I'd helped them make that change."
Even though his writing helped affect change in Yellowknife, people entrenched in society—especially RCMP society, an enormous component of the town—started the usual whispers: McFadden was a loose cannon; a vengeful writer; a drunk; and unprofessional in his behaviour. One writer told me that, even after the changes to RCMP policy, "his treatment at the hand of the cops was all McFadden could talk about. And, in a way, it's all he still talks about."
At the trial, both the Crown and the defence asked the RCMP policemen—Constables Watson, Hipolito, and Sales—to describe McFadden's levels of intoxication on the night of his arrest. One out of three of them described McFadden as being "very intoxicated," while another suggested that while he thought the reporter was drunk, it was nothing compared to what the police generally encounter on the streets of Yellowknife, a major Canadian city with claims to having the most bars per capita and a legendary tavern, the Gold Range, that's reputed for having sold the most beer of any establishment in Canada in the 1980s. One officer described almost daily run-ins with intoxicated Yellowknifers, and if this was, perhaps, stretching the truth, it's true that if you aren't drinking in the Territories' short summertime window, you're in the minority. In the half-dozen times I've visited, I've barely escaped with my liver. That the cops claim to have been either threatened or surprised by a drunk, or drinking, person around midnight in the mid-summer seems implausible. That they cuffed and jailed him seems like no mere coincidence.
Because police have rarely bother arresting people solely for public intoxication, the case boiled down to whether McFadden had obstructed their investigation (they produced no yellow tape to mark their boundary) thereby opening up a Pandora's box about what the parameters were regarding a reporters' right to cover a police operative, and whether the cops had the right to throw a writer in jail if they refused to comply, no matter the extent, or seriousness, of the operative (McFadden's lawyer seemed to be trying to prove the inconsequence of the investigation, and the clumsiness by which it was handled). In the opening day of the trial, there was a greater number of Yellowknife media in the court than in any other recent trial. Some believed that a symbol greater than McFadden was being tried, and that more than a single voice would be silenced if the RCMP prevailed.
The trial lasted one day, and was adjourned until September. In the time after he was charged and before the beginning of the trail, McFadden won two national community newspaper awards for his work, and FREE MCFADDEN T-shirts have appeared for sale. Last year, while all of this was going down, I accompanied McFadden on a Great Slave Lake houseboat prowl, our night stretching into the deep evening hours. Finally, back in town, we stumbled up the Franklin Avenue hill to Harley's, hoping to arrive for last call. Outside, two young smoking women turned to McFadden, recognizing him almost immediately. "Hey man, you're our hero," one of them said, embracing the maligned and complicated reporter.
For a moment, his life was as it should be.
Dave Bidini is a musician and author of a dozen books. Follow him on Twitter.