My Canada: The expat experience, Part II

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the last of seven parts.

I’ve now lived in Canada much longer than I did in the United States.

Yet, I’m afraid, I will always view Canada from an American perspective.

I know what July 4th is – it’s American Independence Day.

But what is July 1st?

That’s a bit more complicated.

The Fathers of Confederation – John A. Macdonald and 18 other lawyers – spent about three years yakking and hatched a scheme to create something of their own out of the British colonies in North America.

There would be four provinces – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – which they proposed to call the “Kingdom of Canada.”

But that didn’t sit well with the Brits, who were still in charge and would be for another century or so. They came up with the Dominion of Canada, a made-up word with roots in Middle English, which, roughly translated, meant frigid stepchildren.

Since the Brits would still have dominion over Canada, their Parliament passed the British North America Act, which was given royal assent by Queen Victoria on March 29, 1867.

It did not take effect until July 1, 1867 since, as Queen Victoria noted, “Our subjects across the sea prefer to go to the cottage and set off fireworks after the ice melts and the black flies lose their sting.”

July 1 was not proclaimed a statutory holiday, Dominion Day, until 1879, when the governor general, Lord Lorne, the Duke of Argyll, and his wife, Princess Louise, Victoria’s daughter, hosted a wiener roast at Rideau Hall.

By then, there were seven provinces, from the Atlantic to Pacific, breweries were bottling beer from Saint John, N.B.. to Victoria, and Sir John A. had sent the Mounties out to tame the west.

But there were still more beavers in Canada than people, the last spike had yet to be hammered in a transcontinental railroad, and hockey was a new game played by dilettantes at McGill.

When I first moved north of the border in 1973, I figured Canada’s birthday – it was still called Dominion Day – was celebrated on July 1st just to get a three-day beat on the Fourth of July.

I also didn’t understand why Thanksgiving was in October or why Queen Victoria’s birthday was a national holiday.

Or why Canadian kids didn’t get off school on Yom Kippur like I did in New York. Or why I never met a Jew in Vancouver.

Why did Canadians call November 11th Remembrance Day instead of Veterans Day? What’s with the poppies?

And what the hell was Boxing Day?

Why was it the Grey Cup and not the Gray Cup? Why did two of the seven teams in the Canadian Football League have the same name?

I never bought the explanation that one was the Rough Riders, the other the Roughriders. Why did they name teams after Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalry unit, anyway?

Also, if Canada is so damn politically correct, why is there still a football team called the Eskimos? And why is it the Toronto Maple Leafs and not the Maple Leaves?

Why can’t I get an edible pastrami sandwich in this country? And what the hell is a New York steak?

But Canada is my home and I’ve learned a damn sight more about this country than most Canadians.

When I was teaching college journalism in Toronto in the early 2000s, most of my students didn’t know John Diefenbaker from a ’49 Studebaker.

The other day, at a Canadian Tire store near my home in Mississauga, I was greeted by a gabby old clerk and a large banner heralding Canada’s 150th birthday.

While I wanted directions to the aisle where I could find something to clean my computer screen, the clerk had his own agenda.

“Where you from?” he asked, apparently detecting a remnant of my American accent.

“New York, originally,” I replied.

He chuckled. “What do you think of Trump?”

“I’m not amused as you seem to be.”

Driving home, I thought I should have been more polite, more Canadian, changed the subject, maybe asked the old chap why I was taught the War of 1812 was a draw and Canadians say they won.

Or, asked: How about that sesquicentennial, eh?


This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: A country retreat

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the sixth of seven parts.

“We can go anywhere,” I said to the kids, looking at the map of North America on the dining room table, hoping to make it sound like a great adventure.

It was 1995. Daughter Jodie was twelve, Lacey nine.

We’d been living in the same house in Clarkson for a dozen years. I’d been at Canadian Press all that time, and a buyout was in the works.

For weeks, Linda and I had looked at that map and eliminated places we didn’t want to live. We knew we wanted a house in the country, with a view of water – an ocean, a lake – or mountains. Or both.

We decided to stay in Canada, hoping any culture shock would not be as jarring for the kids. We crossed out all of Atlantic Canada because it reminded of us Maine, where people were less welcoming of outsiders.

Quebec was also out. Language. So was southern Ontario, since we wanted a change from the flatland that had long been our home. The Prairies were never considered for the same reason.

British Columbia was eliminated because it was just too groovy.

In the end, we focused on Canmore, Alberta, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Canmore was a fast-growing community on the eastern edge of the Rockies. But, though we truly loved those mountains, it was just far from family.

So, the winner was Thunder Bay. It seemed to be a big enough city – with more than 100,000 people – to provide the creature comforts we required.

Linda flew to Thunder Bay and found us a fabulous house in the country, on a bay of Lake Superior, just outside the city. We arrived in late September.

The house was even more spectacular than Linda had described it. The pictures she’d taken had not shown much of the interior, the great open space that included the living room, dining room and kitchen, all windows facing the lake, tree-covered islands and the Sleeping Giant peninsula.

The kids seemed happy, taking the bus from the top of our driveway to the rural schoolhouse that included kindergarten through eighth grade.

Jasper, our second black standard poodle – Yaz lived to thirteen – especially loved our new home, since he was set free whenever he asked to go out, and could wander in the woods or saunter down to the lake for a drink.

Remarkably, he avoided confrontations with the foxes, wolves and moose that out-numbered the people in our neighborhood, though he did alert us one night to a huge black bear consuming a tub full of sunflower seeds I’d left on the deck, near the birdfeeder. Another time, he treed a small bear for entertainment.


I welcomed any diversion from the chore of working on a novel, taking long walks in the woods with Jasper, driving through Sleeping Giant Provincial Park to photograph wildlife, spending many hours splitting wood to heat our home. Very macho. Very Canadian.

Winter arrived on Halloween and lasted until June, when the ice on the lake broke up in a storm one night, throwing huge chunks onto our shore.

Ice on shore

By the next spring, I was taking freelance writing assignments. The most memorable was a magazine piece on an outfit called Blue Loon Adventures, run by a trio of Canadian biologists.

Starting at 5:30 a.m., I spent a morning in the bush with one of them, John Woodcock – yes, that was his real name – capturing and tagging a smorgasbord of birds: warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, vireos, grosbeaks, flickers, and many more of the hundreds of species that migrate to northwestern Ontario.

While the birds fed on bugs, the bugs fed on us. “That’s part of roughing it,” John said with a chuckle. The kid from the Bronx was not amused.

Despite growing to love the wilderness over my many years in Canada, I do not consider discomfort a requirement of being one with nature. Biting bugs – no thanks. Bitter cold – ditto.

My ideal wilderness adventures may begin with a hike up a mountain in the Rockies or along a trail through the rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but they end with a sumptuous dinner in a fine restaurant and a good night’s sleep in a king-sized bed at the Jasper Park Lodge or a five-star Tofino resort.

I want to view bears and moose and elk, not smell like them. And we had that luxury in our house on Lake Superior.

Still, over time, the isolation of the place overrode the scenic beauty. Living in a two-channel universe was no longer a novelty.

Our first winter, we were snowed in for days. One spring, when a beaver dam burst and washed out the Trans-Canada Highway, we were cut off from Thunder Bay – in fact, cross-country traffic had to turn back to Michigan or Minnesota on a detour of hundreds of miles to get around Superior on the U.S. side.

At 12:01 a.m. on my fiftieth birthday – November 19, 1996 – alone in the living room of my rural retreat, I knew it was time go.

By the time Linda and the kids were on the same page, it was the early summer of 1998 and I had taken my first job in television news, with the consigliere of Canadian culture, the CBC.

Tomorrow: The expat experience, Part II


This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: Sleepy Toronto

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the fifth of seven parts.

My advanced studies in all things Canadian really took off after my transfer to Toronto from Montreal in 1976.

I was flying solo again in a UPI bureau, this one a couple of crappy rooms above a Canadian Imperial Back of Commerce branch at the southeast corner of Queen and Yonge streets.

Canadians claim Yonge as the longest street in the world since, north of Toronto, it becomes Highway 11, which runs for 1,178 miles (1,896 kilometres in Canadian) before smacking into the U.S. border at Baudette, Minnesota.

The street is named for Sir George Yonge (1731-1812), a British secretary of war after the American Revolution. Despite the weird spelling, I learned his name, and the street, were pronounced “young.”

My greatest pronunciation challenge in Canada was Newfoundland, until a nice lady at a visitor center on The Rock told me it rhymes with “understand” – so the trick to getting it right is saying “understand, Newfoundland.”

Anyway, I didn’t last much longer at UPI. I was tired of working for a wire service and wanted another crack at a newspaper. (My first reporting job was with the Livermore Herald & News in northern California.)

Pal Joey was then at the Toronto Sun, the first tabloid paper in a major Canadian city. He arranged an interview for me and I started as a city desk reporter on New Year’s Day 1977.

The first time I met Linda she was working as the secretary to the sports editor. She asked me where I was from.

“America,” I replied.

“No you’re not,” she said.

“Yes, I am.”

“There’s no such place.”


“We both come from North America,” she said. “But the country you come from is the United States.”

She deserved a Bronx cheer for that. Instead, by the end of July, we were living together in the lovely Moore Park neighborhood and were married a year later.

By the time I moved to the Big Smoke, Toronto had surpassed Montreal as Canada’s largest city. But it was still a sleepy, provincial place, where the sidewalks were folded up after business hours and on weekends.

Linda and I had a nice home, a new dog – a black standard poodle we named Yaz – and good friends.

I switched from news reporting to covering baseball, the 1978 Toronto Blue Jays, spending much of that time in U.S. cities from Boston to Anaheim.

And while I had no desire to move back to my native land, by the end of the baseball season I’d soured on the Sun and my wanderlust had returned.

On April 1, 1980, we left Toronto in a new 14-foot Mini Cruiser motorhome I’d bought in New York. The plan, if there was one, was to ramble west across Canada. No final destination. No return date.

My Canadian education on the road trip included:

  • Spending a day with a couple of Ojibway men tapping trees and making maple syrup on Parry Island, Ontario.
  • Spending a night on Manitoulin Island where “howling wolves (were) sending shivers down the spines of townsfolk,” as the Gore Bay Recorder reported. The upshot: A few dead sheep and 150 wolves shot.
  • Hearing news of the failed U.S. operation – eight Americans dead – to free the hostages in Iran. Yet Linda and I were more interested in Yaz chasing three bears up a tree during a hike that day in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.
  • Chatting with the mayor of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, about his old pal, John Diefenbaker, who had died the previous summer.
  • Going to a rodeo, the Ponoka Stampede, near Edmonton.
  • Sitting around a campfire in Jasper National Park with three couples who told us they lived and worked in the oilfields near Fort McMurray, the first time I heard about that growing boom town and the tar sands.
  • Hearing the news that Quebecers had voted “no” in a referendum to separate from Canada. Since we were on the other side of the Rockies, in B.C., its own separate nation, nobody seemed to care one way or the other.
  • Looking for a hermit on the west coast of Vancouver Island and finding a lovely old man named Bill Billing, who told us about growing up in Cornwall, England, and his years as a policeman in Shanghai.
  • Crossing into Washington state and confusing the hell out of the pistol-packing U.S. border guard. American man? Canadian woman? New York plates?Where’s your home?” he asked. “Here,” I said. “Or New York, or Toronto. Take your pick.” He finally waved us through.
  • Stopping at a supermarket in Bellingham, Washington, for groceries, beer and wine. The lady at the checkout asked Linda for ID. Then she asked me. I laughed. She said she was just following orders. Maybe Americans and Canadians aren’t that different.

I know what it is to be an American. But what is the Canadian identity? In my experience, people tend to see themselves first as Newfoundlanders, Maritimers, Quebecers, Ontarians, westerners, northerners.

All, outside the 416 area code, can be united in despising Toronto. And all can come together to cheer an Olympic gold medal in hockey, or mourn a Canadian death on a distant battlefield.

And while Canadians travel with the Maple Leaf on their backpack to proudly proclaim, “we’re not American,” it’s possible to live in this country watching exclusively American TV programs and Hollywood movies, and consuming U.S. news media.

Meanwhile, Linda and I completed our six-month trip by driving down the coast to Los Angeles, visiting the canyons of Arizona and Utah, Yellowstone National Park, crossing the northern states all the way to Maine – and going home to Toronto.

We would go back to Maine and live there briefly, boomerang back to Toronto, move to Clarkson in Mississauga, and have two daughters.

I’d go back to United Press, then Canadian Press, before uprooting my family, venturing into the hinterlands of northwestern Ontario.

Tomorrow: A country retreat

My Canada: Killer cat and hockey pucks

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the fourth of seven parts.

I’ve never read Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes. I didn’t have to. I lived it.

During my two years in Montreal, my home was an apartment on the top floor of a highrise at St. Catherine and Fort, in the Anglo enclave near the Montreal Forum.

I spoke only English to the clerk in the nearby English-language bookstore; to the barman in the Irish pub down the street; to the waiters in the upscale restaurants I frequented; to the people in my office; to the other reporters from the English media.

I had a bonjour-au revoir-s’il vous plait-merci vocabulary, just enough to be polite to the Quebecois, who were starting to get restless during my time in Montreal.

While I initially spent most of my workdays on the editing desk at UPI’s Canadian headquarters in Place Victoria, I did catch one hell of a story during my time in the city.

At about 2 a.m. on January 21, 1975, I was awakened by a call from photo chief Gary Bartlett, who told me to get up, get a cab and meet him at a topless joint called the Gargantua Bar Salon on the north side of the city.

“I’ve already been to a bar tonight,” I said. “Now, I need some sleep.”

“Well, this bar is on fire,” he said, “and we hear there are lots of bodies inside.”

Montreal is not the best place to be outdoors on assignment in the middle of the night in January. When I arrived, it looked like the set of an Ice Age movie – icy stalagmites rising from the pavement, frozen solid in seconds as water sprouted from fire hoses.

The ruins of the building were still smoldering. The scent of burning flesh spiced the wind-chill. The spinning lights of police cars and ambulances added an eerie glow to the scene.

As I stood there with my notebook and fast-frozen pen, the body bags kept coming out.

A couple of hours earlier, the bar manager, a waitress and eleven patrons had been in the Gargantua when a gunman – or gunmen – entered. The manager was shot on the spot.

The waitress and the rest were herded into a six-foot by eight-foot cold-storage room, and locked inside. A jukebox was pushed in front of the door to ensure their imprisonment. Then, the place was set afire.

The bar manager died of the gunshot wound; the other twelve of asphyxiation.

By morning, the police had a suspect, Richard “The Cat” Blass, implicated in a double-murder in the same bar a couple of months earlier.

He was known as The Cat because he had survived several shootouts with police and fellow gangsters, once getting out of a burning hotel room after being shot four times in the head. He’d busted out of prison twice. The media were counting his lives and the number was approaching nine.

The police put their most feared and accomplished detective, Sergeant Albert “Kojak” Lisacek, on the case, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop who hated bad guys and loved the spotlight.

The tabloids called him Kojak because he looked like the Telly Savalas television character, a big man and a sharp dresser, with a shaved head.

I used to run into him in the convenience store off the lobby of my apartment building, where he once walked in on a robbery, drew his gun, scared off the lowlife, chased him into the street and shot him dead.

Three days after the Gargantua massacre, Kojak and his cohorts crashed through the door of a cabin in the Laurentians at 4 a.m. and shot Blass 23 times, just to make sure he was out of lives.

The cops never proved Blass was responsible for the Gargantua. The case was written off, as many other murders were in the city in those days, as a reglement des comptes, an underworld settling of accounts, a synonym for that wonderful French phrase laissez faire, which, roughly translated, means: the hell with work, let’s go to lunch.

Less than a year into my tenure in Montreal, with no more massacres to cover, I managed to con my way into a position as the only fulltime UPI sportswriter in the country, charged mainly with handling the run-up to the ’76 Montreal Olympics.

But I would also do stories on the Expos, cover World Cup skiing at Mont Ste-Anne, the 1975 Canadian Open golf championship at the Royal Montreal Golf Club, a Grand Prix race at Mosport, and Muhammad Ali’s brief stopover at Dorval airport on his way home from the Rumble in the Jungle.

Growing up a sports nut in New York, I loved baseball, basketball and football, in that order. As a kid, the only reason I went to hockey games was because the tickets for the Rangers at Madison Square Garden were cheap – two bucks for a seat in the end balcony.

But covering the 1974-75 Montreal Canadiens turned out to be one of my most memorable experiences as a sportswriter.

Montreal Canadiens

They didn’t win the Stanley Cup in 1975 – they would the next four years – but seemed to be a special collection of great and noble players: Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, and Yvon Cournoyer. I covered their home games in the 1975 playoffs.

For me, the scene in the dressing room after each game at the Montreal Forum was better theater than the play on the ice. Not yet educated in the post-game interview, I had trouble understanding why the reporters were asking players about what had just transpired. Didn’t they watch the game?

On my first visit to the Canadiens’ locker room, I noticed the Anglo reporters only spoke to English-speaking players and the French reporters to their fellow Quebecois.

I found it especially comical that all the English reporters gravitated to Ken Dryden, the self-anointed hockey scholar and lawyer – the Cornell grad had a law degree from McGill – who would expound on the minutiae of goal-tending as if it were a science, not the reflex of sticking out a glove, stick or foot to stop a puck.

Instead of exploring the Zen of Ken, I went to the locker of the great Cournoyer. I waited for the crowd of French-speaking reporters to clear, then moved in and asked him a question, in English. He looked at me like I had descended from Pluto. He wasn’t rude, simply surprised. He answered my questions softly and slowly, as if unsure whether I’d understand his accented English.

“Merci,” I said when we finished.

“You’re welcome,” he said.


This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: Booze and bears

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the third of seven parts.

Early in my time as Vancouver correspondent for UPI, my phone rang in the middle of the night.

“Ken,” said the overnight editor on the Foreign Desk in New York, “there’s a ship going down off the coast of Labrador.”

“Labrador is closer to you than it is to me,” I said. “For Christ’s sake, look at a map before you wake someone up.”

My Canadian education began right after I accepted the job in Vancouver, when I looked at a map and saw where it was. Since my coverage area extended east to the Ontario border, and north to the Arctic Circle, I decided I should at least learn the geography, something about Canada’s history – which seemed to be mainly about English and French fighting each other, the English always winning, and the French forever pissed off – and its parliamentary form of government, with its Liberals and Tories and the Queen still theoretically in charge.

I spent the first month in Vancouver living at the Ritz hotel – my first Canadian friend was a bartender named Joe – before finding a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from my office.

While I waited with the landlord for the moving truck to arrive, he asked, “Do you have a chesterfield?”

“No,” I replied, “I smoke Marlboro.”

The UPI bureau was two tiny rooms, with a desk, two teletype machines and a couple of filing cabinets. One teletype constantly belched out the news from around the world, the other was for me to punch my stories onto a tape and feed them to the editing desk in Montreal. Since there was little news from western Canada, I did little punching.

On Fridays, I’d fill a bottom file drawer with ice and beer and invite some of the reporters and editors from the Canadian Press bureau next door to join me for happy hour.

Making friends in the community of journalists in Vancouver proved easy. I was a curiosity – the brash New Yorker unleashed among the genteel Canadians in the laid-back Lotus Land of the Left Coast.

On my first trip to Victoria, to cover the provincial government’s Speech from the Throne, I checked into the stately Empress hotel and made a beeline for the Bengal Room, a bar where the waiters dressed like lackeys from Delhi during the good old days of the British raj.

Dominating the room, above a fireplace, was a tiger skin, complete with head and tail.

Sitting below it were a handful of guys – and one woman – drinking beer and laughing too loud. Obviously reporters.

I walked up to them, waited for a break in the conversation, and shouted, “Okay, which one of you sons-of-bitches shot that tiger?”

They sized me up, figured I was one of them, laughed, and introduced themselves. I enjoyed their company, the business our bond, as were the hangovers we took to the legislature the next day.

Planning drinking time in the puritanical British Columbia of the early 1970s became a preoccupation, if not my occupation.

On Sundays, when you could only order a drink with a meal, I would gather with journalist cronies at the Hotel Vancouver for what we called “brunch.” The waiter would place a moldy cheese plate, a prop, on the table and we’d drink until closing time.

The rare sunny day would be passed at the poolside bar at the Bayshore. In the evening, we’d kill bottles of white wine with Dungeness crab at the Cannery, and bottles of red with veal at Mama Mia’s.

Most nights ended at the Vancouver Press Club, a hole-in-the-wall bar just south of the Granville Street Bridge, a short walk from my office in the Pacific Press Building.

I had a wonderful time with a great group of journalists, mainly from the Sun and Province, CP and BCTV. We shared an instant and easy camaraderie, talked the same language, laughed at the same jokes, got turned on by the same things – booze, sex, adrenaline – read the same books and magazines: Esquire, Rolling Stone, everything by Hunter S. Thompson.

My role was the worldly New Yorker, the adventurer just passing through. To burnish my image as a foreign correspondent, I had bought a safari suit – to wear under my genuine U.S. Air Force Artic Parka – a trenchcoat and a couple of turtleneck cashmere sweaters at Bloomingdale’s before I left New York.

I further publicized my pedigree in a story I wrote for UPI, which ran on the op-ed page of the Province. It opened with an editor’s note:

Kenneth M. Becker, United Press International bureau manager in Vancouver since last spring, previously had lived most of his life in New York City, which has one of the highest crime rates in the world. He was never mugged. This is an account of what happened to him during a trip to the wilds of B.C.

I then told of an overnight hike I took with a couple of fellow journalists to a remote lake where we camped overnight – my rum-soaked brain consumed with fear of bears – and the trek back down the mountain to my car in a parking lot off the highway.

Disbelief. It must have been the marauding bears come to the low country. The car was ransacked. All doors open, trunk broken into, battery gone, along with a set of golf clubs, a tennis racket and my baseball glove, a cherished possession from many memorable softball games in Central Park.

Drunk or sober, I thought, man is no match for marauding bears armed with wire coathangers and screwdrivers.

The piece concluded with a tow-truck driver arriving with a new battery.

“New York, huh,” the driver said as he spied the license plates on my immobile Fiat. “I guess this kind of thing ain’t new to you.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s the first time.”

I did come to love the wilderness of the west. I’d drive north on the scenic highway to the dead end of Highway 99 – passing Whistler before it was Whistler – at Pemberton; west across Vancouver Island to Long Beach; east to the Rockies.

But, after about 20 months in Vancouver, the rain and boredom of the news beat finally got to me. I asked for a real foreign assignment, in Europe, where my daughter was.

But all UPI would offer was a one-way ticket to Canadian headquarters in Montreal.

Tomorrow: Killer cat and hockey pucks


This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: Arriving in Lotus Land

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the second of seven parts.

“What is the purpose of your visit to Canada?” asked the border guard.

“I’m moving here,” I said.

“May I see your immigration papers, please.”

I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the only document UPI had given me, a couple of lines typed on company letterhead.

To whom it may concern:

Please be advised that Kenneth Becker is the new bureau manager for United Press International in Vancouver, Canada.

“Where is your work permit?” asked the customs’ man.

“This is all I got,” I said, flapping the letter in his face.

“You’ll have to pull over there,” he said, pointing to a few parking slots beside a small one-story building. “Go inside to talk to an immigration officer.”

It was January 1973. I’d been on the road for a week, driving from New York to Los Angeles, then up the coast to Washington state-B.C. border.

My transfer from New York to Vancouver had come about with remarkable speed. My colleague Emil Sveilis – we’d been pals at UPI-New York – had become Canadian news editor based in Montreal. We’d kept in touch. He ended each conversation with, “When are you coming up to work in Canada?”

I’d laugh and say, “Who the hell wants to live in Canada?”

But when he had called in late November 1972, asking the question again and saying there was an opening in the Vancouver bureau, I replied, “Where’s Vancouver?”

“Near Seattle,” he said.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

Before I left New York, my ex-wife-in-waiting, Anita, bought me a genuine U.S. Air Force Arctic Parka, guaranteed to keep me toasty in temperatures down to 30-below.

I didn’t yet know the weather in Vancouver, year-round, was 58 degrees and drizzling, more like San Francisco than Ice Station Zebra.

At least my Fiat 124 wasn’t packed with snowshoes, ice-fishing gear and big-game-hunting rifles when I pulled up to the Canada Customs’ inspection station in Surrey, B.C., to talk to the immigration officer.

I was pretty steamed, thinking these Canadians had some nerve deciding who could work in their country. I’d visited Canada twice before: once driving to Halifax to see Anita’s aunt and uncle and cousins, another spending a weekend in Montreal. Neither time had anyone questioned my right to enter the country.

But now some snooty Canadian was telling me I couldn’t go to my new job.

“You need a permit to work in Canada,” the immigration officer said.

“Okay,” I said, “give me one.”

“I can’t just write a permit for anybody who drives up to the border,” he said.

“Why not? You let any draft-dodger into the country.”

“Are you evading the draft?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “I’m here to work, as you can see.”

He retreated to an inner office.

Evening dragged into night. I suggested he call my boss in Montreal, who’d confirm my employment. He finally agreed and, after scolding my boss on the phone, wrote me out a work permit, good for one year.

I was traveling with a guy I worked with in New York – the road trip was his vacation – and two American hippie chicks we’d picked up hitchhiking in a rainstorm outside Portland.

The women, who said they were joining a commune in the B.C. mountains, waited in the car throughout my interrogation. They had no trouble crossing the border since they’d lied, saying they were tourists planning to spend only a few days in Canada.

By the time we drove into Vancouver, it was after midnight. The two hitchhikers disappeared into the night when we arrived at my hotel, the Ritz, which failed to live up to its name.

I’d been in Vancouver about three weeks when, one day, in the cafeteria of the Pacific Press Building, I stood dumbstruck at the north-facing picture windows.

“Where the hell did they come from?” I shouted to no one in particular.

I was talking about the mountains. I hadn’t seen them before in the rain and gloom of my new hometown – did not know they were there.

And while I would come to believe Vancouver was the ugliest city in the most beautiful setting in the world, those mountains would always beckon.

Tomorrow: Booze and bears


This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

My Canada: The expat experience

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the first of seven parts.

When people ask me why I came to Canada and why I’ve stayed here this long, I usually say something like:

“I was working for UPI in New York and my first marriage was breaking up and I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, because all my friends and family were in New York and I didn’t want them to think, ‘poor Ken,’ and a pal at UPI was then the Canadian news editor and, when he asked if I wanted to take over the Vancouver bureau, I said, ‘Where’s Vancouver?’

“Anyway, I went to Vancouver, and then transferred to UPI-Montreal and then to Toronto, where I met Linda, who, of course, is Canadian, and we got married and had a couple of kids who are, of course, Canadian – so I just stayed.”

The part I usually leave out is that Linda and I left Canada for a year or so, lived in a small town in Maine. But, when our first child died there, two days after he was born, we packed up and went “home.”

Yet, after all these years, I still think of myself as an American, an expat, an outsider. I’ve never lost my American attitude, which is really my New York attitude, which has always set me apart.

My first year in this country, in 1973, I was invited to spend Christmas with the family of my best friend in Canada, Joey Slinger.

I flew from Vancouver to Toronto, where Joey and I caught the train to his hometown of Guelph. When we arrived at the railway station, we were immediately confronted by a couple of cops.

What have you got in the bag?” one barked at Joey, who had stuffed Christmas gifts into a large black trash bag.

“Why do you want to know?” I barked back.

The cops looked at me like I’d pissed on their brogues. “We’re asking the questions here,” one said.

“No, you’re not,” I said, “not until you tell us what this is about.”

After a brief staring match, the cop said: “Well, you two guys fit the description of a couple of suspects who robbed a Canadian Tire store.”

I threw a puzzled look at the cops and pointed to the bag. “Does it look like we’ve got a tire in there?”

Joey broke up, the cops eventually gave up, and Joey explained to me that Canadian Tire didn’t sell only tires.

Several years later, in 1980, in his humor column in the Toronto Star, Joey wrote about his friend – me – who he called the Bronx Bomber:

The Bronx Bomber, an American, from the Bronx, has, thanks to his Constitution and perhaps genetically imprinted, a clear sense of citizens’ rights, particularly his own …

I have been with the Bomber when he sent three – three! – steaks back to the kitchen, while I sat in embarrassment at the table trying to gnaw the ungnawable.

“If I am going to pay for a steak,” he explained to the manager after the third strike, “I want a steak that Carl Yastrzemski could not smack out of the ballpark with an easy swing.” The Bomber then announced that we would dine elsewhere and that the restaurant could pay for the bottle of wine we had drunk while these indignities were being heaped upon our plates. The restaurant, to my everlasting surprise, paid and we marched out free, gratis; the Bomber vindicated, me mortified.

In this regard, if you ask my wife and children, I have not mellowed with age. But this is not a good time to be an American with attitude.

The creep in the White House appears to have given Canadians – and others around the world – license to flex their anti-American reflexes.

When the Child in Chief sulked away from the Paris Agreement a couple of weeks ago, among all the understandable and reasoned criticism, I spotted this from a friend of a friend on Facebook: Most Americans are not worldly or educated.

This comment, though obviously ignorant, still pissed me off. I wanted to shout back at the unknown woman, presumably Canadian:

Have you traveled to every province in Canada, plus the Northwest Territories, as I have? Visited every major city and hundreds of small towns, from Cow Head, Newfoundland, to The Pas, Manitoba, to Tofino, B.C.?

Could you ace a Canadian history and politics quiz, like the one I designed for my first-year journalism students at a Toronto college, many of whom knew next to nothing about their country?

Canadians love to point to that quote from Bono in 2003, and repeated by Obama in 2016: “The world needs more Canada.”

But, what does it mean?

To me, it means a generally peaceful, civil society where I can go to the doctor and not get a bill. I appreciate Canada’s people, its history and, especially, its geography.

I’d rather be Rocky Mountain high in Alberta than Colorado.

You can seamlessly substitute Canada for America in the opening lines of America the Beautiful:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

In 1976, for the U.S. Bicentennial, Canada gave the United States the gift of a book titled Between Friends, a collection of more than 200 spectacular photographs taken along our shared border, from the Yukon and Alaska to New Brunswick and Maine.

That June, I interviewed Lorraine Monk, who edited the book, as head of the photography division of the National Film Board of Canada.

It was an enjoyable conversation. She inscribed my copy: For Ken Becker, who understood what the book was all about.

I did. I still do.

Tomorrow: Arriving in Lotus Land


This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

The rest of the story

There’s a backstory to my account of the day I could have walked away with millions of dollars worth of paintings from the Phillips Collection, a story I told here a couple of weeks ago with a version published in today’s Washington Post.

I wrote that I was visiting Washington with my first wife, Anita, back on that Memorial Day weekend in 1972.

But I didn’t mention that I was working in New York for UPI at the time, or that we were staying with a couple of colleagues.

One of them was Tom Corpora, perhaps the most intimidating person I ever worked with in all my years as a reporter and editor.

Corpora, a native Californian, was a very cool dude who had earned his stripes as a UPI war correspondent in Vietnam.

I was in my early twenties when I started at UPI-New York in 1970. Corpora was probably a few years older.

I was a rookie in the business, and looked up to the real pros in the newsroom, such as Lucien Carr, who was always kind in providing guidance and friendship.

And while I desperately wanted Corpora’s approval, I never got it.

A couple of times I went for drinks with him after work. The more he drank, the more he ripped me apart, saying I wouldn’t know a story if I tripped over one and couldn’t write it worth a damn anyway.

But I did learn one important lesson from him – that every good story told could be a story written.

When Anita and I got back from our adventure at the Phillips Collection, I told Corpora what happened.

“Did you call it in?” he asked.

“Sure, I told you, I called Mrs. Phillips.”

He shook his head in disgust. Corpora had a habit of jiggling his leg when he was agitated. He was jiggling furiously.

“No” he snapped, dressing me down with his hard, hooded eyes, “I mean did you write a story and call it in to UPI?”

“No,” I said, “I never thought of that.”

“Big surprise,” he sneered.

I don’t think I ever saw Corpora again. Or talked to him again.

I looked for him online a few years back. Not to get in touch. Just curious what he was up to.

He and his Japanese-born wife owned a winery in Virginia.


Then, in 2015, I learned that Tom died.

I couldn’t find an obit then. Can’t find one now.

And while his UPI byline appeared in papers around the world, there is little trace of him or his work to be found.

But, as I’ve said, he made a strong impression on this kid during the brief time we worked together.

And, as any reader of this space knows, I’ve learned to turn many of my memorable experiences into copy.

It only took 45 years to write about the Phillips Collection caper.


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

On celebrity memoirs

The most interesting thing I learned from reading about Jonathan Goldsmith’s just-published memoir, Stay Interesting: I Don’t Always Tell Stories About My Life, But When I Do, They’re True and Amazing, is that he’s a short, Jewish kid from the Bronx.

Otherwise, as I gathered from today’s New York Post headline – The Most Interesting Man in the World: I ‘f—ked them all’ – the book is about a failed actor and Hollywood parasite who claims to have bedded a lot of famous women, most of whom are now conveniently dead.

It reminded me of the dilemma I faced when I was writing about books and authors for the Canadian Press in the 1990s.

I understood that CP’s client-newspapers ate up stories of celebrity gossip, but I found these “authors” particularly distasteful and the content of their tales more slanderous than scandalous.

The worst was another failed actor, named Richard Selzer, born in Brooklyn, who recreated himself as the fashion maven Mr. Blackwell.

I interviewed him in the dimly lighted Library bar of the Royal York hotel in Toronto in 1995. He sipped a bloody mary and played the part of the anguished Hollywood queen bee. I gulped down a beer and wrapped up the interview as quickly as possible.

I considered not writing a story, then tried to convey my disgust in the lead:

TORONTO (CP) – Shovel some more dirt on the graves of four Hollywood legends.

A new book says Tyrone Power and Cesar Romero were bedmates, as were Cary Grant and Randolph Scott.

And the author, American fashion critic Mr. Blackwell says he slept with all of them.

“I’m amazed,” Blackwell tells an interviewer who expresses no prior knowledge of these show-biz couplings. “I thought it was well known.”

The 73-year-old creator of the yearly 10-worst-dressed-women list  — wearing a diamond stickpin in the lapel of his dark blazer and another gem in his left earlobe – says he considers From Rags to Bitches his epitaph.

I wanted everyone to know I was more than some jerk who got up once a year, crawled out from under a rock, said 10 acerbic things about 10 women who more than deserved it – because that’s not much of a legacy. I have left them a story of survival.”

I regretted writing the story as soon as it hit the wire. I felt more like a pornographer than a reporter, an accomplice in outing three beloved actors – and Cesar Romero – in an abysmal book after they were dead.

About a month later, in another hotel bar in Toronto, I sat down with Wolfman Jack, born Robert Smith in Brooklyn.

(Why did book publicists always arrange my interviews in bars? And, no, I didn’t only interview people born in New York – like me.)

“Just call me Wolf, man,” the legendary disc jockey said when we were introduced, before the conversation got going, with him chain-smoking unfiltered Camels and slurping espresso.

His book was titled Have Mercy: Confession of the Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. But, again, as with such tales by minor celebrities, it was a 362-page press release spiced with payback to ex-friends and enemies.

And, when skimming the book, I found more sex and drugs than rock ‘n’ roll: Ike Turner getting a blowjob while playing piano in a rehearsal hall; rehashed tabloid trash about David Bowie cruising for young girls at Hollywood High, Wolfman snorting coke with John Lennon.

At the end of the interview, he wrote in my copy of his book: To Ken Baby, A man who knows. Yes, you’re the best. Your friend always, Wolfman.

Our “friendship” didn’t last long. A couple of days later, the 57-year-old Wolfman dropped dead of a heart attack at his home in North Carolina.


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.