Dan McLeod, longtime owner/publisher of the Georgia Straight, has been a major cultural force in British Columbia since that periodical was co-founded in 1967. [Also see Pierre Coupey entry]

Born and raised in Vancouver, McLeod received his Honours B.Sc degree in Mathematics from the University of British Columbia where he was influenced by English professor Warren Tallman. Following readings by American poet Charles Duncan in the summer of 1961, a coterie of writers created a private circulation newsletter, Tish, which McLeod edited from approximately 1964 until he and others began the Georgia Straight. Legend has it the joint decision to start a so-called underground newspaper like the Village Voice was made at a party following a poetry reading by Leonard Cohen. McLeod emerged as the prime leader behind the idealistic, naive, frequently irresponsible, consistently cheeky, often insightful, collectively-run initiative because he was most willing to take the brunt of police persecution and unmitigated legal harrassment that ensued.

Continually in the courts, McLeod defied then Mayor Tom Campbell with outrageous cartoons, nudity and radical leftist editorial content (Black Panthers, FLQ, etc.). The newspaper was banned from the streets for several months. Its chief writer in those days was Bob Cummings; superb cartoons were provided by Rand Holmes. A distribution system evolved through 'head shops' all over Western Canada. Many writers used pseudoynms because they were on the dole. The newspaper gained the ire of police by 'outing' some narcotics agents that were sent to infiltrate the thriving hippie community that was centre on Fourth Avenue. The clash between McLeod and Campbell came to a climax when Georgia Straight affiliate Ken Lester orchestrated a Smoke-In in Gastown to protest the illegality of marijuana. A riot occurred when the Vancouver police viciously attacked with their newly acquired riot sticks and riot helmets, injuring many 'hippies' and observers, arresting anyone in their path. The indescriminate attack was officially condemned by a B.C. Supreme Court Justice--much later--when an investigation was held. In the 1970s, the Georgia Straight endured on a shoestring basis, as a giveway, focusing mainly on the Lower Mainland music scene. Its excellent music coverage was chiefly provided by UBC Creative Writing graduate Tom Harrison, who later became a well-respected pop music writer for The Province, and, also Alex Varty, both of whom played in a rock band with graphic artist David Lester and incoming Georgia Straight editor Bob Mercer. Under Mercer's direction, the Georgia Straight gradually became less dependent on music industy ads. Dan McLeod--a fine writer of clear prose--pandered to the Hollywood movie industry by accepting junkets to the openings of films in Los Angeles, usually providing front page coverage in return. Simultaneously, to keep his newspaper afloat, McLeod was publishing the Vancouver Star, a soft-core tabloid that provided sex personals and recycled, plagiarized pornography from sleazy American publications that were acquired on a weekly basis by an employee named Sharkey who travelled across the border to Blaine.

As the movie industry ads beefed up revenues, and as Bob Mercer widened the range of coverage, McLeod experimented with a name change, hoping to gain more acceptance by calling his weekly arts & entertainment newspaper The Vancouver Free Press. It wasn't the first time the Georgia Straight had attempted a radical shift. Women associated with the paper in its hectic infancy took over the publication for a week, claiming--justifiably--that the paper chronically exploited female sexuality for sales and displayed mysogynist tendencies during the era of so-called Free Love. That coup failed. Around that same period McLeod (presumably) secured his legal control of what had been an essentially a collaborative enterprise. Another offshoot had been The Grape, mingling disgruntled Georgia Straight writers with disgruntled Vancouver Sun and Provice scribes. It, too, fell by the wayside. By jettisoning the name Georgia Straight in the 1970s, McLeod hoped to gain more access to a broader range of advertisers and distributors. The name change was short-lived, but orientation towards the 'middle-of-the-road' was the recipe for survival. As well, Mercer's acquisition of some sophisticated local writers--including documentary filmmaker Tom Shandel, media rabble-rouser Ben Metcalf and even anarchist philosopher George Woodcock--slowly changed public attitudes towards the Georgia Straight. As the paper's theatre critic, Alan Twigg edited the Georgia Straight for only one issue, putting Arts Club artistic director Bill Millerd on the cover. McLeod benefited from a major strike at Pacific Press owned by Southam Inc., publishers of both The Vancouver Sun and Province daily newspapers. During the prolonged labour dispute, he showed the extent to which he was willing to pander to controversy in the name of broadmindedness by hiring right wing columnist Doug Collins. Shandel and Twigg promptly resigned in protest. The strike enhanced the viability of the Georgia Straight by allowing sales staff to make contacts with larger advertisers. The former hippie newspaper was soon festooned with full-page colour beer ads.

Dan McLeod proceeded to make a lot of money in the 1980s and 1990s. After years of persecution and penury, few could say he didn't deserve it. The Georgia Straight became slicker and fatter, with increasingly less editorial content in relation to ads. It won awards. By this time Bob Mercer had opted for a paycheque with Pacific Press. The 'golden era' of increased respectability occurred with Ubyssey-trained Charles Campbell at the helm as editor. (The Ubyssey student newspaper at UBC had long been in the unofficial training ground for Province and Vancouver Sun scribes.) Dan McLeod always retained his place atop the masthead as editor-in-chief. In 1997 the newspaper published a jumbled retrospective tribute to its 30 years of endurance, gathering snippets from articles written by its countless contributors, many of whom had become 'names' in society. These included Stan Persky, David Suzuki, Terry Glavin, rocker Sir Bob Geldof, environmental activist Paul Watson and ex-Greenpeacer Bob Hunter. The Georgia Straight: What the Hell Happened? (Douglas & McIntyre 1987) was not an in-depth reflection of the newspaper's significance. The mish-mash was evenly spread over the paper's 30-year history, thereby minimizing the significance of its most volatile and socially influential era. Charles Campbell had been called upon to rescue the project at the eleventh hour while preparing for a brain tumour operation. He got the job done, took a leave-of-absence and recovered from his surgery, only to discover McLeod wanted to retain new editor Beverly Sinclair. Like Mercer before him, Charles Campbell semi-reluctantly opted for the Pacific Press paycheque.

In 1998 Taku Pacific Multimedia produced a documentary on soft-spoken Dan McLeod called The Last Streetfighter: The History of the Georgia Straight. This one-sided documentary air-brushed the past, mostly portraying McLeod as a heroic figure in the name of free speech. McLeod's long history of underpaying writers and his reliance on The Vancouver Star were never considered. Benefitting from the weekly reporting of CBC researcher Charlie Smith, the newspaper's lone 'news' reporter, the Georgia Straight grew in size and respectability after the 1990s. Dan McLeod was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western Magazine Awards Foundation in 2002. Eventually the Georgia Straight became a victim of his own success. Although McLeod had accepted lionization from the Magazine Awards Foundation, he was stunned to receive a tax notice from the provincial government in 2003, issued on the grounds that the Georgia Straight was no longer a newspaper. Its ratio of advertising to editorial had become so skewed in favour of commerce that provincial tax auditors were able to make an argument that the Georgia Straight, for at least four years, had not been worthy of its newspaper exemption from provincial sale tax for printing bills. McLeod cried foul. This was discrimination all over again. Other giveaway newspapers were also rife with ads, many were stuffed with advertising flyers, etc., but the provincial government of Gordon Campbell's Liberal Party, stung by repeated criticism in the Georgia Straight, maintained its tax assessment department operated at arms length. It was McLeod versus Campbell all over again. Dan McLeod proceeded to mount a legal appeal to obviate his overdue tax bill that amounted to $1 million. And the provincial tax department backed down.


The Georgia Straight: What the Hell Happened? (Douglas & McIntyre 1997)

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "Journalism"