Fourteen months ago, I decided that I would retire at the end of 2017. Not long afterwards, I began to wonder what I would say in my final column.
I’ve worked at this magazine for more than 30 years; that adds up to something like 350 issues. Not easy to sum it up in 625 words. Ideas for my swan song came and went. Nothing seemed right.
I was still floundering as the deadline loomed for this issue, my last. Then, as has happened so many times with this magazine, good fortune came calling. I got an email from Toronto writer Catherine Gordon with the subject line “Bernie Sanders.”
In October, we published Gordon’s account of her recent struggle with breast cancer — a struggle eerily paralleled by her sister in California. Both women were treated successfully, but, as Gordon wrote, that’s where the similarities ended. Her sister’s private insurer got a bill for $450,000. Gordon discovered that the same treatment would have cost Ontario’s government-run health-care system about $47,000. Even with insurance, Gordon’s sister was out of pocket about $23,000; for Gordon, it was more like $750. The meter began ticking for her sister from the moment she was diagnosed. That included being pressed for a cheque as she was about to have surgery. Gordon’s conclusion: “Canada’s health-care system is simply more humane.”
Gordon’s article appeared shortly after former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his bid to bring Canadian-style universal health coverage to the United States. In her email to me, Gordon wrote that Sanders’ staff had contacted her to say they’d seen her article and wondered if she would tell her story on camera. It would help Sanders promote his bill and maybe dispel some of the fear-mongering about the Canadian system that distorts the health-care debate in the United States.
In late October, a video crew arrived at Gordon’s home. Sanders himself flew to Toronto to tour hospitals and speak to patients and staff. Armed with testimonies, he and his team returned to Washington to continue the battle. You can find a link to Sanders’ video featuring Gordon, as well as our behind-the-scenes footage, at ucobserver.org.
I’m delighted that Gordon, through her article, has been able to turn a serious health issue into something positive. And I’ll be honest: I’m glad for myself too. Thirty years ago, I was drawn to The Observer because it was a mission-driven magazine committed to fostering a healthier and more just world. As editor and publisher for the past 11 years, I’ve had the privilege of broadening the scope of the magazine while holding fast to those principles — and to do so in the company of extraordinary colleagues to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude.
Catherine Gordon’s story was shaped by the values that inform just about everything we print in The Observer. We still speak to a mainly United Church audience, but it’s extremely gratifying when people outside our immediate sphere see merit in what we do — doubly so when people like Bernie Sanders reach out in common cause.
I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off. So thank you, Catherine, and the countless other writers who pour their hearts into these pages. Thank you, Bernie, for noticing. And most of all, thanks to all of you readers who’ve invited me into your homes these many years.
• Next month, Jocelyn Bell, the new editor and CEO of The Observer, will be writing in this space. Jocelyn has been the magazine’s managing editor since 2006 and has been a key part of the magazine’s evolution over the past several years. Her professionalism, vision and energy make her the right person to lead The Observer in these times, and I am confident she will find the job as rewarding as I have.
This column first appeared in The Observer’s December 2017 issue with the title “Observations.”