'Courage, my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world.'
— Tommy Douglas

Brian McInnis, 55: Activist followed his conscience

Whistle-blower Brian McInnis revealed CSIS hired neo-Nazi Heritage Front informant

By Leslie Ferenc
Toronto Star

Brian McInnis, 1955-2010
<(Photo: Facebook.)

"He lived what he believed: Every person should do the right thing and each one of us can make a difference."

That's the legacy of Brian McInnis who, guided by his moral compass, walked the walk and even bent rules to right wrongs and make his community — his country — a better place for all. It's how his friend, Susan Teskey, a CBC producer, remembered McInnis as she paid tribute to the former photojournalist, community activist and political organizer, "who always did the right thing."

And for him, that meant proudly flying the Canadian flag from his Leslieville porch every day.

McInnis died of cancer March 20. He was 55.

Describing him as a man of principle who led by example, Teskey said McInnis followed his conscience, taking on the toughest challenges including fighting big government and big business. Among his most public battles took place in the summer of 1994 when McInnis leaked a top-secret document to the Star confirming the Canadian Security Intelligence Service used a mole from the neo-Nazi Heritage Front to spy on the CBC, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Reform Party.

It was a story right out of the pages of a spy thriller and it landed the whistle-blower, who at the time was press secretary to Conservative solicitor general Douglas Lewis, in hot water. McInnis was inadvertently outed by an identification number on the document published by the newspaper. He said he'd leaked the document because he was "disgusted" CSIS had hired white supremacist Grant Bristow — who allegedly helped set up the radical Heritage Front — as an informant. McInnis was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. A conviction would have meant a long jail term.

(Photo: Facebook.)

"It was a very dark time for Brian," Teskey said of the CSIS affair, noting with no whistle-blower legislation in Canada, he had no protection. In September 1994, McInnis described the ordeal to the Star as "living hell."

But his sense of humour often prevailed, said Teskey, referring to a media account in which McInnis joked that a prison sentence wouldn't be a good thing to include on his resumé. The charge was eventually dropped.

"Brian was a hero for his brave and principled stand on this fundamental issue," Teskey said, adding the affair and McInnis's role teach "important lessons about government, democracy and the role of the press in this country."

Despite his treatment during the CSIS controversy, "he never stopped caring," she added. "Brian picked himself up with grace and gusto and never gave up working to make this country better. He never gave up wanting to make a difference."

McInnis also worked tirelessly to help the vulnerable, including women, youth at risk, the disabled and newcomers, said his wife, Minerva Hui, adding he was on the front lines when federal funding cuts threatened the work being done at the Women's Immigration Centre, where she had been a director, and other non-profits in the city. They won that battle. Their efforts also led to the establishment of a parliamentary committee that developed protocol on how government funded grassroots agencies.

More recently, McInnis joined his Leslieville neighbours to block construction of a big-box store in the area. A community activist, he was also co-chair of the Toronto Energy Coalition and worked on political campaigns at all three levels of government.

Jack Layton, leader of the federal NDP, described his old friend as "the sort of fellow who never sought out praise.

"In fact, he always reached out to others to see how he could encourage them to develop and contribute to making the country that we have so wonderful," Layton said in the House of Commons Wednesday.

He also touched on McInnis's early days in Ottawa. "He worked for my father (Robert Layton) when he was chairman of the Progressive Conservative caucus," Layton told MPs. "He worked in the research office of the Conservative party here, trying to build it and make it strong."

Senator Andrée Champagne, also recalled McInnis's years on the Hill. "When I was minister of youth in the (Brian) Mulroney government, Brian was a most joyful member of my Cabinet," the senator wrote in an on-line book of commemoration. "His grin, his sense of humour, his devotion to young Canadians will be remembered by all of us who had the pleasure of working with him."

McInnis also leaves his parents, Howard and Mary McInnis of Montague, P.E.I., sons Luke, Thomas and Adam, and their mother Karna Trentman.

2 April 2010 — Return to cover.