How an American muckraker became one of the most powerful journalists in Halifax.
By Zane Woodford
Tim Bousquet is one of the most influential reporters in Atlantic Canada. He single-handedly brought down the mayor of Halifax, and he’s uncovered scandals here and in the United States.
When he speaks, Halifax listens.
The 49-year-old reporter for The Coast is opinionated and not afraid to say what’s on his mind. To his followers, he’s a godsend. To those who disagree, he’s a blowhard American who came to Halifax just to tell everyone what they’re doing wrong.
“He’s pretty blunt and to the point, but he does his homework.”
– Dawn Sloane, former councillor [/pullquote]
He has clear ideas of what he’d like the city to do. And he dishes out harsh criticism when he thinks politicians, developers and business people have bad ideas.
Though his attacks can sting, former councillor Dawn Sloane says “a lot of people take it to heart, and they shouldn’t. He’s pretty blunt and to the point, but he does his homework. He’s a journalist, let’s put it that way.”
Christine LaPado-Breglia met Bousquet before he became a journalist. The pair met, she says, in the late 1980s, while working in the faculty mail room at California State University’s Chico campus, and soon formed a romantic relationship.
“He had a strong sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice,” says LaPado-Breglia. “He just increasingly started going out into the community and (making) his feeling of how the world should be more public. He was a real muckraker.”
The young Tim Bousquet wasn’t just a muckraker. He also ran for city council.
The KJR contacted Bousquet repeatedly, asking for an interview. He declined. To one email he replied, “I’d urge you off this. I’m not very interesting, outside of my work (I hope)…I suggest you take a topical issue…and run with that.”
Nothing to see here, folks…
Bousquet grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the largest naval base in the world. Coincidentally, Norfolk became Halifax’s sister city in 2006 – the same year Bousquet began writing for the Coast. Norfolk is a port city of about a hundred thousand fewer people than Halifax – another navy town with a big harbour.
Bousquet’s father is a career military man – a high-ranking marine. “His father was very strict, and very harsh,” said LaPado-Breglia. “(Tim) learned to fight authority very early on because of how his father was. I’m convinced of that.”
Bousquet’s mother, Nan, says her son was an excellent student, but “he didn’t quite like to obey the rules all the time.” She says he tried out a few post-secondary schools close to home, but decided to go west. We chatted for five minutes, and then Nan and her husband Arthur decided that before answering any more of the KJR’s questions, they should have their son’s blessing.
Bousquet left Virginia in his mid-twenties to study history at Chico State. “He loved history, and he loved politics,” said LaPado-Breglia. “He was very well read and really smart.”
In 1990 Bousquet was elected president of the Associated Students of Chico, the student union at Chico State. LaPado-Breglia said the position had historically been held by “jocks and frat boys.” Unlike them, Bousquet shook things up.
“He was unlike any other AS president,” she said. “He used the post to get all sorts of things done, to get people stirred up.” One change, especially LaPado-Breglia remembers: Bousquet used his position to get bus service for students.
Tom Gascoyne, editor of the Chico News and Review, says Bousquet only held the presidential post for one semester. Then he dropped out of school – and never went back.
Bousquet (@Tim_Bousquet) jumped on the Twitter bandwagon in 2009 – he’s now the sixth most followed tweep in Halifax. He tweets his research and his take on each day’s events in chunks of 140 characters. When Bousquet is at an event or a council meeting, his 5,000 followers are treated to a humorous play-by-play.
Speaking at a seminar in 2012, he said it’s all about engaging your audience. People want to converse with a reporter like a friend; they want to be able to ask a question and get a response. Bousquet’s Twitter philosophy is effective – not just for journalists, but for businesses and politicians too.
Former councillor Sloane finds his live-tweeting of often mundane council meetings insightful and funny. She likes how Bousquet “takes it with a light side”.
But not everyone thinks he’s fair.
Councillor Bill Karsten thinks Bousquet “mocks the process.” Earlier this year, Karsten emailed Bousquet following a council meeting, saying he’d had “about enough of your twisted lies and shit”. Karsten has a problem with the way Bousquet tweets a mix of direct quotes from councillors and his own interpretations. Bousquet is very clear in tweeting – at the beginning of each meeting – that anything in quotation marks is a direct quote, and everything else is his own editorializing.
That disclaimer isn’t good enough for Karsten. “What I have an issue with is someone tweeting something that is totally inaccurate, totally false, was a fabrication of the facts, if you will, and then disguising it under a story that was written a year and a half ago.”
Former councillor Steve Streatch says Bousquet “unfairly characterizes some of the debate and comments taking place in City Hall.” Streatch says Bousquet’s tweeting makes councillors’ jobs harder. “Every member of council is elected by the people that send them there for a reason. We all do our best and sometimes it’s not easy. But when you have to feel like you’re constantly at the mercy of reporters who want to misconstrue your comments, or insinuate that you’re saying something disingenuous, then it becomes very difficult.”
Bousquet’s Twitter followers have no sympathy for the councillors. Tom Lathigee (@1_Car_Guy) says he used to cover Halifax city council for local radio stations and CTV Atlantic. Now he follows Bousquet’s tweets, and believes, “He’s extraordinarily kind to them.” Lathigee thinks councillors’ comments deserve “more harsh interpretations.”
Bousquet went to Minnesota for a year, Gascoyne says, and then came back to Chico and got a job driving a cab. In 1994 he ran – unsuccessfully – for Chico city council. Bousquet finished fifth in a field of nine, receiving 4,152 votes; the first place finisher scored 6,692. Two years later, in 1996, Bousquet got a job writing a column in the Chico News and Review.
He was running a store called Campus News, selling coffee, cigarettes and newspapers. After writing the column for the News and Review, Bousquet got comfortable writing the news. He wanted to branch out on his own, so he started the Chico Examiner.
It started out as a one-page, one-man show. Bousquet was the publisher, editor, sales manager, and wrote most of the stories. He’d stay up late into the night, writing on university computers, laying the paper out in the local Kinko’s.
Eventually Bousquet gave up Campus News and put all of his time into the weekly Examiner. He had some subscribers, and a few stores sold the paper for 50 cents, and later for 75 cents. By 2001, Bousquet had almost 1,300 subscribers at $30 a year.
Gascoyne remembers Bousquet as “a little rough around the edges” – but a hard worker. “I didn’t always agree with Tim’s take on stories,” Gascoyne said in an email. “But looking back now, when doing research on local issues, I find that he did break a lot of stories and made a lot of people uncomfortable if not downright angry. And if they deserve it, then it’s a job well done.”
Bousquet does have a knack for making people angry, and this talent can land him in legal trouble. Threats of defamation lawsuits didn’t faze Bousquet in Chico. He dared people to sue him, taunted them even. In an open letter to his readers and the lawyers threatening to sue him for defamation on behalf of Chico State in 1999, he asked, “Are they going to repo my ten-speed? Put a lien on my laptop?”
In 2002, Bousquet shut down the Examiner. In a letter to readers he said, “I’m overwhelmed time-wise, I’m overwhelmed with work, and I’m overwhelmed financially.” He got married and skipped town – moving up the highway to Ashland, Oregon.
After working at a few papers around the United States, Bousquet came to Halifax at the end of 2004. He began writing an environmental issues column, Sustainable City, for The Coast in 2006. The next year, he became a news contributor and then, quickly, news editor.
With a full-time staff of 16 and a circulation of 24,000, The Coast is no one-man operation. Libel allegations still come up, and Bousquet can’t be so cavalier about them. Because of him, The Coast has published at least two massive apologies.
The most recent one came when Bousquet wrote about Halifax federal Liberal candidate Dr. Stan Kutcher in 2011. The story was about Kutcher’s involvement in a research study into a controversial drug used to treat depression in teens. The Coast quickly took down the article, replacing it with an apology.
This was about two weeks before the May 2011 federal election. Whether the article had any effect on Kutcher’s bid is hard to say. The riding has been an NDP stronghold since 1997, and Megan Leslie won re-election handily. Kutcher wasn’t available for comment.
Another major incident happened a year before. The Coast published an online article about Corporate Research Associates pollster Don Mills, who had conducted a public opinion poll on the proposed convention centre. The article quoted a press release from the Save the View Coalition – a Halifax group trying to stop the construction of buildings that would further obstruct the view from Citadel Hill. The press release contained an accusation that questioned the reliability of the poll.
The article came as a surprise to Mills. “He did not check his facts… He listened to a special interest group, who had a specific point of view, who misinformed him about what the nature of the question was, and he ran with it without verifying it. We basically got him to apologize for doing bad journalism.”
The Coast pulled the article and ran an apology, admitting that the allegations were “simply incorrect.”
Peter Kelly became mayor in 2000, running on a campaign of accountability and change. By the time Bousquet started writing for The Coast six years later, Kelly was already on track to a complicated mess. There was real corruption at City Hall: a concert spending scandal, countless in camera meetings, the Occupy eviction. Then there was the Mary Thibeault story, Bousquet’s magnum opus.
Most Haligonians are familiar with the story. In short, a 91-year-old widow died and named Kelly – her long-time friend – the executor of her will. He was responsible for getting the estate in order, and then distributing each heir’s inheritance of Thibeault’s wealth – about $500,000 in total. Kelly didn’t get around to it for seven years. Bousquet found out about Kelly’s mismanagement of the estate when some of the heirs took legal action, and began a thorough investigation.
It took eleven months of trolling court documents and bank transactions, and hunting down heirs – some of whom didn’t even know they had money coming. The story was printed in February 2012, creating a media firestorm.
Many Coast readers wrote letters to congratulate Bousquet on a job well done. Not everyone was happy. Dr. Paul Bennett (@educhatter) – an education consultant and news commentator – tweeted “stomping on a politically dead mayor evokes sympathy when it goes that far. It’s overkill.”
It’s rare that a journalist at a free alternative-weekly like The Coast can muster the power to take out a city’s mayor. Officially, Kelly stepped down to take time out for his family. But the fatal blow was dealt by Bousquet. He apologized on local talk radio for creating an uneventful 2012 mayoral race.
Kelly hasn’t fully commented on Bousquet’s story. He let his lawyer do the talking after it broke, and spent his last eight months in office virtually silent.
Just before leaving office, through his secretary Kelly declined KJR requests for an interview. “The mayor,” she said, “doesn’t criticize others in public.”