“I want to write novels.”
Ron MacDonald’s surprise at my answer showed only slightly; a smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth.
There was no assessment exam for the Mount Royal College journalism diploma program. Instead, writing samples were submitted along with a copy of your dogwood and a letter explaining your interest. There was also an in-person interview with the head of the department, Ron MacDonald.
MacDonald had asked me why I wanted to be a journalist. I’m not sure why I chose to be honest rather than wax on about the nobility of the profession; the search for truth, holding people in power accountable, keeping the little guy informed, etc. Maybe it was the immediate good vibe I got from him and a certainty I got, that any bullshit would just insult him.
Asked to elaborate, I explained to him that I had noticed that there were many famous novelists whom had been journalists and that it made perfect sense to me, seeing as how journalism taught one how to gather information, how to interview people, how to observe so that your stories would paint a full picture of events and people. MacDonald smiled as I spoke and I sensed there was a novel behind those eyes as well. He was everything a college prof and department head should be: intelligent, caring, honest and so fair that I didn’t want to disappoint him, to abuse his trust.
The coolest thing MacDonald did was NOT tell me that I was (potentially, then) going to be the first Indigenous graduate of the Mount Royal journalism program. Knowing that might have made me feel like a golden goose and take it for granted that they wanted me to do it for that purpose alone, and I would have walked even more of a tightrope than I already did. Instead, he waited until I was done and on my way to my first full-time gig. They were pretty much his last words to me, besides “good luck.”
Before starting the program, I took a few courses at the college, mostly to acquire the typing skills that I would need for the program. My dad had purchased a small, bright red typewriter for me that, while adorable and becoming obsolete, got plenty of use. I would not join the home computer club until the early 90s.
At first, my girlfriend and I stayed with my older sister and her family, who had been living in Calgary for several years. Eventually, we would move into our own apartment just down the street. We were in the Westbrook area of Southwest Calgary and the college was about 10 minutes away by bus.
The college was big, with over 3,000 students and it would get bigger due to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, which required accommodations and food services, some of which were provided by or built near Mount Royal. My favorite addition was the new Student Centre, which had a sports bar and a hall for small concerts and parties – I saw a young man named Jeff Healey perform there, opening for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils!
The core courses in the program were Reporting, Editing, Media Law, and Photography. Print journalism students often shared classes with students in electronic media and public relations (where all good journalists now go to die, albeit in a nicer apartment and car).
The electives I took were Literature, Psychology, and Sociology, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. In what was perhaps my all-time high as a student, I got a 100 per cent mark on an essay in the Literature course. The instructor kept me anonymous as she took up a whole class dissecting my essay, using it as an example to the class on how an essay should be written. It reminded me of Grade Eight, when my high marks surprised the Brainiacs from the other elementary schools but, this time, the reveal was made only after class and to a few students whom I had befriended.
True to form, I came out of the gate strong, making the Dean’s list in my first semester. My GPA fell just short of a repeat the following semester and, as I became more comfortable and made friends (in and out of school), the decline would continue into academic mediocrity in a second year that saw me, as I did in graduating high school, narrowly get through.
But get through the program I did and, along the way, met some wonderful people and had some unforgettable experiences that included working at an Aboriginal newspaper, pissing off the Premier of Alberta, experiencing the Winter Olympics and Calgary Stampede as a reporter and fan, flying in a drunk squadron, and escaping a beat down in a house full of white guys. Oh, Calgary.
NEXT: The Calgary saga continues with my foray into "Indian Journalism"