Holding politicians' feet to the fire

by Sheldon Gordon

“This is Power & Politics, and you are where you need to be,” intones Evan Solomon, BA’90, MA’92, each weekday as he welcomes TV viewers to CBC News Network’s two-hour political talkfest from the nation’s capital. As it happens, this is also where Solomon needs to be – at least for now.

The McGill alumnus, now a youthful-looking 45, has always flourished as a marketer of ideas, whether he was founding a magazine on Internet culture, writing a best-selling novel, co-editing non-fiction anthologies or hosting high-brow cultural programs. Yet he seems right at home with the argie-bargie of Canadian politics. “I don’t dismiss it all as silly talking points,” he says cheerfully.

Since debuting Power & Politics in 2009, Solomon has become the CBC’s go-to broadcaster for political discourse. As if preparing for his daily TV role weren’t workload enough, he has also anchored The House, CBC Radio’s Saturday morning serving of Canadian politics, since September 2011.

“What’s refreshing about Ottawa,” he says, “is that you can talk about ideas without feeling embarrassed. Moving to Ottawa has given me a real understanding of the depth of policy work that’s done here. It’s not just about my having a front-row seat; there’s a real responsibility to ask questions that matter to citizens.”

Indeed, CBC ads promoting Power & Politics emphasize that Solomon “holds politicians’ feet to the fire.” So is it frustrating when some politicians answer him with evasions? “I don’t begrudge them that,” says Solomon. “The sailor doesn’t get mad at the direction of the wind.”

With his edgy interviewing style, Solomon has repeatedly challenged the Harper government’s plan to buy the F-35 fighter aircraft. “I’m not taking sole credit [for the government’s climb-down from the decision], but I’m proud of the detailed work we did. I’m agnostic about the choice of plane, but religious about the process, which wasn’t transparent.”

The Toronto-born Solomon certainly wasn’t agnostic about his choice of university. He earned a BA and an MA from McGill jointly in English literature and religious studies. “I went to McGill because it was open to a multi-disciplinary approach,” he recalls. “I was interested in the interplay between cultural narratives and religious and political ideas.” It was there that he and fellow student Andrew Heintzman, BA’89, MA’92, formed a friendship that led to future collaborations.

“We had three ideas of what we wanted to do,” says Solomon. “We wanted to get into politics; to develop a business idea for green products; and to start a magazine.” First came the magazine, when the pair founded Shift in 1992. Originally an arts and literary publication, it evolved to encompass technology and Internet culture. Shift was the first magazine on the web, says Solomon, and the first to attract Internet advertising. It earned him a reputation as a savant of the Digital Age.

But in 1999, he left his post as editor-in-chief to write full-time. “I didn't want to sort of have my cultural perch and just grow old at Shift,” he told an interviewer. “I wanted to tell different stories…” So he wrote Crossing the Distance, a novel about two brothers, both fleeing police investigations of separate murders, who meet up at a Georgian Bay cottage. The novel sold 10,000 copies and went into paperback. (Two works of fiction he has written since have languished, which he calls a “sore point.”)

Solomon also developed his broadcasting persona in the nineties. He and Heintzman hosted Shift Television on a community cable channel. CBC Newsworld producers spotted Solomon and auditioned him for the host’s role on Futureworld, a show about technology and ideas that ran 48 episodes and won a Gemini. He then hosted Newsworld’s Hot Type, a show about print culture.

Solomon teamed with Heintzman again to co-edit two non-fiction anthologies. The first was Fueling the Future: How the Battle Over Energy is Changing Everything (2004), followed by Feeding the Future: From Fat to Famine, How to Solve the World's Food Crisis. (2005).

For the rest of the decade, Solomon co-anchored CBC-TV’s Sunday night national newscast. Reporting from across the country and abroad, he covered the Asian tsunami, piracy in the Persian Gulf and a succession of federal elections.

These days, Solomon focuses on his role as a “tough, but fair” interrogator of politicians. “My job is accountability,” he says. “My job is to get unvarnished answers, to counter spin, and to ask the questions at the heart of the political debates affecting us all. Our goal is to be the arena where decision makers come to explain their choices, ideas and actions.”

He is already looking forward to the next federal election in 2015 – especially to the role that Quebec will play in determining its outcome. Will NDP leader Tom Mulcair, BCL'76, LLB'77, be able to build on the party’s amazing breakthrough in the last election? Will the Bloc Québécois reemerge? How will Justin Trudeau, BA'94, fare as Liberal leader? Can Stephen Harper reinvigorate a government that will have been in power for nine years?

Solomon clearly enjoys his work. “My political itch is getting scratched pretty profoundly in Ottawa.” But when reminded of his McGill-era aspiration to enter politics himself, he replies, “I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future. I’m open.”

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