Daphne Bramham: Four decades as a journalist, a lifetime of stories

Daphne Bramham: Four decades as a journalist, a lifetime of stories

Daphne Bramham says a long goodbye after 46 years as a journalist during massive change in the industry

Article content

A summer intern and fresh out of journalism school, I was more interested in the future than the dying days of “hot type”, but the old desker insisted.

He took me to The Globe and Mail’s basement where typesetters sat with buckets of hot lead at their feet, re-creating journalists’ words that were placed in wooden frames so that plates could be made and slapped on the press.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

A few weeks later, that era ended. Computers replaced the old Underwoods, and a new media era began.

My own new era begins Monday. The old one ended Friday — my last day at The Vancouver Sun — when I dropped off my laptop and cellphone in an empty newsroom vacated during the pandemic and permanently closed earlier this year.

When I started at The Sun newsroom in January 1989, it buzzed with close to 200 people putting out multiple editions of the paper. The competition Province was its own fiefdom, not to be entered by the likes of us.

Change was happening everywhere, and we were on the frontlines covering it.

Among the first major projects I worked on was in 1992. My former colleague Gordon Hamilton and I documented in a series titled “The Death of the Middle Class” how environmental concerns and technological changes were decimating jobs in the resource industries.

We were naively unaware of what was to come. Our own industry was about to be disrupted by the nascent internet start-up called Google.

In the late-1990s, the Pacific Newspaper Group opened its new $150-million press, capable of printing 300,000 daily copies of The Sun,  which often ran to 160 pages. Advertisers were desperate to attract readers’ business. That not only meant full-page ads, but wide-open pages for stories, and money to send writers and photographers off for days, weeks and sometimes even months to dig up the content to fill them.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

There was money for cartoonists, graphic artists, and the often-unheralded legion of “deskers” — copy editors, layout guys, and headline writers — to showcase the work.

It was a wonderful time to be a journalist.

I arrived at The Sun having learned some important basics at my hometown paper, the Regina Leader-Post, and The Canadian Press.

• Few things are more effective at teaching the ripple effects of news than having your mother ostracized by her bridge club. It happened after I wrote about exorbitant salaries paid to Crown corporation executives, including the husband of one of her friends.

Fortunately, mom’s banishment was brief.

• Rather than the brief career stop at The Sun that I’d intended, I never left. There were too many stories to tell. But looking back, it seems not much has changed.

In 1989, my stories were mostly about the rental housing shortage, gas pipelines, the effect that the flight of people and capital ahead of the handover of Hong Kong to China was having on the city, and racism. By 1990, the shortage of health-care workers was added to the list.

Advertisement 4

Article content

But as Vancouver opened to the world, The Sun’s editors opened the world for their readers, sending me and other journalists to Asia and Europe.

daphne bramham
After more than four decades in journalism, Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham is retiring. Friday, July 28, 2023 is her last day of work at the Vancouver daily newspaper, where she is pictured. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

When the British flag was lowered at the Hong Kong Convention Centre on June 30, 1997, I was there. Like so many others, I unconsciously held my breath as the clock ticked to one minute past midnight before the Chinese flag was slowly raised on July 1. People’s optimism that nothing would change ended when Hong Kong’s puppet government began its relentless dismantling of the rule of law that has included recent bounties placed on self-exiled democracy advocates.

People in Taiwan always feared the worst. When I was there in late June 1997, they were bracing for invasion. This May, I returned to a much-changed Taipei. With Chinese planes testing the island state’s boundaries daily, the Taiwanese government continues to ramp up preparations for an imminent invasion.

I went to India twice to cover elections. But there is one story that I never wrote: A local Rotary Club member sneaked me into the Bombay children’s jail. He wanted to show me how India treated the orphaned and abandoned children forced to fend for themselves as beggars, thieves and prostitutes.

Advertisement 5

Article content

In that British-era prison, children as young as five and six, and many suffering from HIV/AIDS, slept on concrete slabs under thin blankets. Their only education was some rudimentary job-training provided by the Rotary Club. I had to promise never to write about it because it would have put those programs at risk. But I’ve never forgotten it.

When Neil Reynolds was editor-in-chief more than two decades ago, he freed me. He gave me a column and asked me to write two interesting stories a week, unless I needed more time to do research or travel. I was to write to the length that the story deserved.

A few weeks later, Neil asked me to fill in for him at a dinner party in Toronto at the home of Seagram heiress Brenda Bronfman. Neil said the next day’s conference she was sponsoring on the factory farming of animals was optional. Of course, I didn’t take him at his word.

Fortunately, it was fascinating. The resulting series was a finalist for an international animal rights award. But rescuing animals was more Neil’s passion than mine.

However, having embraced advocacy, I chose protecting kids.

Advertisement 6

Article content

It led me into the world of the fundamentalist Mormons in Utah and Bountiful, B.C. Polygamy was being practised with impunity to an extreme almost unique in the world, with leaders like Winston Blackmore and his more than 20 wives, and 125-plus children.

A book, nearly 300 columns, a Constitutional reference case, a federal tax case, and two Canadian criminal trials later, it’s mostly ended here.

But it’s not gone.

Child exploitation led me to the international hot-bed of sex tourism, Cambodia’s Svay Pak, where pedophiles once trawled for children as young as four, to profile Canadian predators such as the notorious Christopher Neil, who was at the top of Interpol’s most wanted list.

But the focus was on the children’s saviours like Brian McConaghy, founder of Ratanak International and a former RCMP civilian forensics expert whose work was essential to the conviction of Vancouver serial killer Robert Pickton. Now retired, McConaghy continues to help Canadian law enforcement identify sex tourists in Cambodia.

There have been so many stories — 4,100-plus — and a few that will be left untold.

Advertisement 7

Article content

I am grateful to the editors who gave me opportunities to report from 15 countries, including Portugal to see whether its solution to the addiction crisis had lessons for Canada.

They sent me cruising through the Northwest Passage and to Antarctica.

I have tried to be readers’ eyes and ears. I also hope that sometimes I delighted you with stories about things you didn’t know you wanted to know.

To all of you who have alerted me to stories that deserved coverage or helped with research, many thanks. To those who disagreed with my opinions and have respectfully and thoughtfully shared counter arguments, you taught me a lot.

And to those who sent anguished pleas after being so beaten down by unresponsive and complicated bureaucracies and, literally, by abusive partners that a journalist was your desperate, last resort, I was humbled by your trust that I could help.

But it’s infuriating that government and corporate systems are so convoluted or broken that citizens in crisis have nowhere else to turn.

That needs to change.

I’ve loved almost every minute of my 46 years as a journalist. Now, it’s time for new adventures and different kinds of storytelling.


Support our journalism: Our in-depth journalism is possible thanks to the support of our subscribers. For just $3.50 per week, you can get unlimited, ad-lite access to The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post and 13 other Canadian news sites. Support us by subscribing today: The Vancouver Sun | The Province.

Article content


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation

Advertisement 1

Related posts