It’s the summer of 1987.
Rich Hansen had just wrapped his Man in Motion World Tour. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were lifting Team Canada to a win over the USSR in the Canada Cup. And Diana, Princess of Wales, was photographed touching a person with AIDS leading to a changed perception of people with HIV and AIDS.
The last moment is significant for the career of André Picard who penned his first article for the Globe and Mail in the summer of ’87 and has continued to write for the national paper for the last 34 years.
“I was born in Ottawa but moved to North Bay in 1967 and lived there right up until I graduated high school,” says Picard who now lives in Montreal.
“I still come back and visit my brother Marc whenever I get the chance or if work finds me somewhere like Sudbury or Pembroke, I’ll often make a little detour and stop in. North Bay is a lovely place to grow up and raise a family.”
Picard says he didn’t leave North Bay with intentions of becoming a journalist who would be renowned for his coverage on health care and Canadian health issues.
“I never had a huge interest in storytelling or in health and medicine, they were both things that I stumbled into,” says Picard.
“I guess, like a lot of young people I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I went off to University (University of Ottawa) to study accounting. My father worked for the government in the tax department and so he encouraged that. While there, I started working for the student newspaper The Fulcrum and that’s how I got involved.”
Picard says he first started writing because of his love of music.
“I started reviewing records, although I know that dates me a bit, but back in the 1970s I was reviewing records and that’s how I started writing for a newspaper and I haven’t stopped writing for a newspaper for the last 47 years.”
He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce and worked for the Canadian University Press, a cooperative with the Canadian Press News Agency with a focus on students' issues as well as teaching that next wave of writers.
“I had that job for a few years. I travelled around to different papers and I taught people basic stuff on how to put a paper together. I also wrote, collected the news, and then shared it among that cooperative. Following that I went back to university to pursue a journalism degree,” says Picard who spent the next few years at Carleton University and did in the summer of 1987, an internship at The Globe and Mail.
“I had always heard that you don’t last too long at one job in this field and for me, it was kind of just luck that I got hired on in the first place,” says Picard.
“I went there as a summer student and we were told we had zero chance of being hired, but it just so happened that a couple of people left and I remember quite distinctly that one person had a heart attack and had to retire and that’s whose job I got at the time, so it was really just a fluke.”
When he started, Picard says he was covering general assignments, but moved into the health beat fairly quickly.
“This was in the early 1980s and right when AIDS was becoming more well-known and it was a big social issue and something, we were especially interested in at the student newspaper level. So I had done some work on it beforehand and while at the Globe and Mail they asked me to go cover some of the protests because there were no drugs at the time to help with AIDS and there were literally thousands of gay men dying, so I was doing a lot of that coverage and that has kind of been the arc of my career. I still cover AIDS quite extensively; I’ve gone to all the International AIDS conferences for the last 40 years,” says Picard.
Picard says a lot of things have to fall into place in order to stay with one subject for so long.
“I think I’ve been lucky to stick with one thing, I work at a paper that still encourages that, we still have 'beats' and a lot of papers don’t have that anymore and a lot of my career comes down to just luck that I was in the right place at the right time and I found a niche that I liked and that my paper liked me covering.”
Picard says he’s watched the entire industry changed from a technological perspective and it's something he has always looked to embrace.
“I’ve always taken the position that with this job you have to be able to adapt. We write the news and so we should be at the forefront of accepting new things. I do a lot of teaching to journalism students now and I always tell them that when I started, the old-timers in the newsroom laughed at me because I had an electric typewriter and they had a real typewriter, so to them I was a wimp,” says Picard.
“And so that’s always stayed in my mind that I can’t be like that, I’m not going to criticize someone for wanting to use that next step in technology and I got interested pretty early on to social media, for better or for worse, but I think it’s part of our job that we should embrace this stuff.”
Part of the job is also receiving feedback and Picard says one thing the internet age has allowed for is the multitude of platforms in which someone can express their anger.
“I started long before the internet and it used to be that people had to sit down and write out a letter and by the time they had finished that they had actually blown off a lot of steam and so they didn’t bother actually sending the letter. Now people can just vent and rage and do it anonymously and it makes for an ugly world. I think I’ve adapted fairly well to social media, I’m very active on Twitter, but it’s a very different world and it can be quite ugly at times.”
However, there is one self-professed old school mentality that Picard does carry with him.
“I write mostly opinion articles now, but I think, because I’m old school, in that I don’t think opinion pieces should just be your opinion,” says Picard.
“They have to have facts and my columns are well researched. What I don’t like is opinion pieces that are just based off the writer’s emotion, ‘we shouldn’t do this because I don’t like it,’ isn’t an argument and it is not going to convince anyone. If I have a position, I back it up with data and I quote experts and I know that’s a bit of an old-fashioned way of doing things but I think that has helped me get that recognition. To me, the greatest compliment I get is when people will write to me and say ‘I disagree with what you said, but I appreciate you made a good argument and you’ve given me something to think about and its fair,’ to me that’s what I aim for is to be fair in all of my opinion pieces.”
That work has earned Picard several distinctions. He is an eight-time nominee for the National Newspaper Awards, Canada’s top journalism prize, winning the award in 2009, as well as a past winner of the prestigious Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service Journalism.
He was also named Canada’s first “Public Health Hero the Canadian Public Health Association, as a “Champion of Mental Health” by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, and received the Queen Elizabeth II, Diamond Jubilee Medal, for his dedication to improving healthcare.
“When you’re on a beat for a long time you learn a lot of the history and you meet a lot of people and get a lot of insights,” says Picard.
“My job as a journalist is just to bring together these ideas for the public and I think a lot of it is just learning the background and I think that once you learn that you can be more analytical and you understand the system and I think I’ve come to know the health system in Canada just about as well as anyone just because I’ve been at it for so long. That longevity just allows you to see stuff differently.”
That viewpoint has helped Picard pen five bestselling books, The Gift of Death – 1995, The Gift of Death (Updated in 1998), 2000 Reasons to Hate the Millennium, Critical Care, and Matters of Life and Death.
“In Canada, you essentially don’t write books to make money so they have to be labours of love, and for me, I only write a book when it’s on a topic that I want to flesh out beyond the paper,” says Picard.
“My most recent book was about long-term care and that came out of Covid-19. We saw this real disaster in Covid and a lot was being written about older people dying in care and I had been writing about long-term care way before the pandemic and I think this is an opportunity to do something a little more in-depth and bring together years’ worth of knowledge and put it down at a time when we are really going to have people’s attention.”
Picard says he always looked for opportunities to jump on the issue while the topic was part of the social consciousness. He says, “It was the same with my first book that came out almost 30 years ago now and it was about tainted blood. I had covered that issue for many years with the paper and at a certain point you say you’ve done enough ‘snapshots’ for the paper that you feel like you can put together the ‘motion picture’, which is the book.”
In addition to writing for the Globe and Mail, Picard is also teaching a new generation of writers and he says the number one message is to follow their passion.
“Follow the things that you have an interest in and latch on to it. And don’t be overly obsessed about finding a career, just get out there and find a job and that’s how you’re going to learn what you like, what you don’t like, and what you’re good at. You will soon learn your strengths. My strength is that I’m really good at summarizing complex issues, in a brief digestible fashion and I learned that early on and I’ve made a whole career out of that. Some people are really good investigative journalists and I’m not; I just don’t have the patience for that, and some people are very good feature writers. So, find your strengths, recognize your weaknesses and adjust.”
Picard says, “You never know where life is going to lead you. Look at me, who would’ve guessed that an accounting student would end up writing about health care for 40 years.”