Chance may favour the prepared mind, but if you are Paula Simons, Edmonton’s preeminent journalist and a 2018 Alumni Honour Award recipient, serendipity is no match for an active and dogged pursuit of knowledge. For Simons, it has been a lifelong journey.
Simons grew up valuing knowledge for its own sake, describing herself as a ‘bookworm kid’ who followed her intellectual curiosity wherever it led. Born and raised in Edmonton, the daughter and sister of lawyers, Simon’s early life was animated by lively dinner table discussions that occasionally veered into heated debate.
“My grandfather was raised in a very Jewish Orthodox household and rebelled very vehemently against it,” explains Simons. “He was a leftist, came to Canada via the States and thought that the Soviet Union was a triumph. My maternal grandmother, who grew up under Stalin and left Russia after the war, was considerably less enamored with the Soviet experiment. So my childhood was filled with them yelling at each other across the table about the virtues of Marxism.”
No wonder that she became a member of the Alberta Debate and Speech Association, and to this day, still serves as a judge from time to time.
A straight A student, Simons intended to take a history degree at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts followed by law school. It was in her blood, after all, and a lifetime of structured debate had prepared her for the courtroom. But Greg Hollingshead, her “brilliant” first year English instructor, wouldn’t have it. “You’re a writer! You must write,” he said to Simons, who then joined the honours English program.
She didn’t look back, and spent the next three years basking in what she describes as “a very rich bouillabaisse of intellectual exploration,” naming professors like Hollingshead, Juliet McMaster, Patricia Demers and in particular, Henry Kreisel, among her mentors.
“I loved it,” she says. “I’m a bit Hermione Granger and a little bit Rachel Berry – I seized and squeezed it out like a lemon, and I got an extraordinary education.”
As graduation loomed, Simons believed that a life in academia awaited her, but an encounter with political reporter Don Braid on a local Access television program Point of View piqued an interest in journalism as a potential career – in spite of writing only one article, a theatre review, for the student newspaper The Gateway.
“One minute I was looking at SSHRC applications to do a master’s degree in English and the next I was applying to journalism school!” says Simons. But even while pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at Stanford University, Simons was not convinced that the fourth estate was her calling. After several months as a post-graduate fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, she came back to Edmonton in the winter of ‘88, and struggled in Alberta’s downturned economy.
It was while working as a freelance copy editor at Alberta Report that Simons had her first real taste of the journalist’s life. On New Year’s Eve 1988, a prominent local lawyer Maurice Sychuk murdered his wife Claudia. Arriving for her copy editing shift, Simons noted that there were no reporters around and offered to lead an investigation. They agreed.
“For the first time, I was out knocking on doors, phoning friends who had had Sychuk as a law professor, asking the neighbours what they thought of him,” she says. “Degree or no degree, it’s not the same as getting in there and pursing the answers and trying to explain why something happened. That was when being a journalist went from being a dalliance to a vocation, in the middle of covering that first story.”
After 17 months with Alberta Report, and six years as a producer at CBC Radio in Edmonton and Toronto, Simons joined the Edmonton Journal in 1995 as a senior reporter. In 2001, she became the city columnist, garnering numerous local, national and international accolades for her editorials, political reporting and advocacy. In May 2017, she was honoured by UNESCO and the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom for her commitment to a free press, and a year later, she was recognized with a National Newspaper Award Citation for Merit, one of six in her career, for a series of reports on Serenity, a Cree girl who was abused and died after being placed in kinship care.
For the most part Simons is self-assigning, deftly moving from social justice issues and policy flaws with the local and provincial governments to investigative reports about Alberta’s BSE crisis, where she proudly learned to say bovine spongiform encephalopathy without batting an eye. More than a decade ago her relentless campaign to save the old Bay building from destruction successfully turned the conversation in favour of its preservation.
“Every time I go by Enterprise Square I say, ‘YES, you are not a parkade!’” exclaims Simons. “Sometimes you get that immediate satisfaction, and something gets fixed. But many of the things I write about can’t be fixed in that way, so it’s nice to take those little wins.”
Her education came full circle when, in 2000, she met Nigerian author Wole Soyinka following his speaking engagement at the University of Alberta. Simons had written a paper about Soyinka as part of her honours thesis, and had been a fan ever since.
“One of the great, great joys of my life was when the University of Alberta brought Soyinka here to give a lecture and I wrote a column about it and I fangirled about what a great writer he was and if people didn’t know his work they should discover it,” she says. “And as a result, the university invited me to come to the banquet which was held in conjunction with his speech and I got to sit next to him! Other people want to meet Justin Bieber, I wanted to meet Wole Soyinka!”
The latitude to write about whatever interests her is a luxury she does not take for granted, but her greatest subject is the city where she has lived for most of her life. The city she shares with her husband, daughter and Portuguese Water Dog, Issa. The local theatre she loves and the streets she explores on bike as she winds her way to work along 102 Avenue’s ‘Oliverbahn’. And most of all, the people she talks to every day who are living extraordinary lives or dealing with extraordinary obstacles. This is her beat.
“I love Edmonton,” she says. “There is the satisfaction of the writer, when the words go on the page in a way that you can say, that is a good piece of nonfiction writing. But there is an entirely different kind of satisfaction that comes from doing a piece that maybe makes the city a better place. Edmonton contains multitudes, and the story of this place fascinates me. As a chronicler of Edmonton, as a columnist, in order to paint the portrait of this city, you need a lot of colours in your paint box.”
The life of a journalist is not for everyone, but Simons says it has been a career that has somehow played both to her strengths but perhaps even more so to her weaknesses.
“This is a great job for someone with my character flaws,” she laughs. “I am overly nosy about things that are none of my business. I am oppositional and marginally defiant, and I am not very good with authority. I always laugh when people say there should be more civility in the Legislature or in the Commons. People shouldn’t be bullies, but I like heckling! I don’t want people to be cowed into acquiescence. If you can’t vigorously debate something, if you can’t have the thesis and the antithesis and the synthesis, how do you advance? I want to see the clash of ideas.”
“My friend John Milton said, ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue’, so get in the dust and heat – and seek the debate!”
Paula Simons received a BA (Hons) in English, with a minor in French and Comparative Literature in 1986.
The University of Alberta will be recognizing the 2018 Alumni Award recipients at a ceremony on Monday, September 24. To register for this event, click here.
Know another inspiring UAlberta grad? Nominate them for a 2019 Alumni Award. Deadline is Dec 15, 2018. Visit uab.ca/AlumniAwards