Classroom helps student recover past, fight future

Ron Robert remembers it well. His career as a journalist was plagued by a feeling of inadequacy, something that nagged and intensified as he worked his way from a local radio-television station in Saskatoon, all the way to the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.

School wasn’t a big thing; the big thing was earning money for the family. I wasn’t aiming for any kind of education. I was just aiming to survive and go through life.

Certainly, he never expected it.

But there he was.

A high school drop-out from a poor Métis family, Robert was briefing Pierre Elliott Trudeau on the political landscape of Canada’s Prairie provinces. Head of the Western Desk, surrounded by politicians and diplomats, Robert was insecure, keenly aware of his scholarly void.

He felt out of place.

And the feeling festered.

More than five decades later, following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Robert has taken it upon himself to fill that void. Today, the 81-year-old is a second-year student at King’s University College, studying Political Science and Disability Studies. His coursework, the conversations with professors and fellow students are more than an effort to keep a self-effacing ailment at bay.

In the classroom, Robert has rediscovered memories of a storied life.

My long-term memory has improved because of Political Science because I lived through all of that. When they mention something like the National Energy Policy, all of a sudden, I remember things I couldn’t remember before.

* * *

He fell into journalism by happenstance. Originally from Halifax, Robert quit school at 15 and hitchhiked from Saskatoon to The Okanagan, joining an older brother in ditches, laying down gas lines in the region. Everybody in the family worked and it was a way to make money.

The trip out West was an arduous adventure; truckers and drunks carried Robert down unpaved, mountainous roads until he could join his brother. Once there, enduring the monotonous, physical labour became a game for the two young men. How neat a ditch could they dig?

Deep in the valleys of south-central British Columbia, the brothers lost touch with family, and six months later, when Robert hitchhiked back home, there was no answer at the door. The family had moved and he was, effectively, homeless.

With one act of kindness, you can change somebody’s life. Mr. Gurnon – I’ll never forget that name, Alzheimer’s or not – arranged for me to go to CFQC-TV to do an interview for a job at the station.

In Saskatoon, Robert was taken in by a friend’s family and it wasn’t long before the father presented a job opportunity to the teenager. At a local radio and television station, his test assignment was writing a 20-second commercial for Penny Matches. Robert got the gig and voiced the commercial. When the station’s news department needed coverage, he was brought in. Robert put his head down, worked hard and rolled with the punches. He took every opportunity offered until the young boy who voiced commercials for a local station grew into a seasoned reporter working for a national chain, covering politics for the Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia legislatures.

I was reading news at 16 and I was stupid as a damn stick. When one of the announcers got sick, it was, ‘Ron, you go do it.’ They eventually put me more and more into the newsroom. I fell in love with the newsroom.

Robert’s career as a political reporter in the Prairies spanned more than two decades. He fondly remembers meeting Tommy Douglas, Canada’s father of Medicare and former premier of Saskatchewan. Robert admired him, a “little guy” who stood his ground when politicians and health-care professionals challenged his vision of publicly funded health insurance. He wishes today’s politicians were cut from the same cloth. Douglas’ 1957 broadcast debate with then Liberal Party candidate Ross Thatcher over government records of Crown corporations leaves Robert with a sense of nostalgia.

Working in Alberta, he came close to being kicked out of the Legislature. He found himself speaking with a disgruntled backbencher who criticized Ernest Manning, the province’s eighth and longest-serving premier. Robert recorded the exchange and put it on air. The next day, in the legislative assembly, Manning demanded an apology from Robert.

I was really taken aback and a little bit scared. The Premier could have banned me from the Legislature.

Unsure how to proceed, Robert approached Liberal leader Mike Maccagno and unwittingly became a pawn in a political game. Maccagno heard the tape, went into the house and during question period, stood up and demanded Manning issue an apology to Robert. The back and forth went on for two weeks and ended with Maccagno bringing Robert’s tape recorder into Legislature, threatening to play the tape if the premier would not apologize. In the end, Manning stood up and apologized to Robert.

Here’s this guy, who is reading and writing the news, and I am the news. That’s gotta be the weirdest feeling in the world.

* * *

The diagnosis didn’t come as a surprise.

Robert is one of four siblings in his family to be diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s or non-specified dementia. He watched his siblings deteriorate but was in denial about his own health – that is until a callously delivered diagnosis came following a series of tests.

That doctor simply said, ‘Ron, you’ve got Alzheimer’s. They’re going to take away your driver’s licence.’

That was it.

There was no direction, recommendation or suggestion to a patient newly diagnosed with an ailment that has no cure and no means of halting its progression. Robert decided to take matters into his own hands.

I love learning. I had that bucket wish well before buckets were around. I just wanted to go to university. When I got Alzheimer’s, intuitively, I thought of university. Make your memory work.

Robert researched ways he could fight the disease. He has never believed in just accepting something. You can change the things you try to change.

First, he tried learning languages. It wasn’t enough.

He needed a challenge and enrolled at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. The campus was small and comfortable for Robert, who at 80, with Alzheimer’s, was unable to drive, likely to lose his way. In his Political Science class, he went from a D at the start of the semester to an A on the final exam.

All those years I was in the Prime Minister’s office, I had that nagging thing about not being equal to the people I am working with. I had to compensate and work like hell to catch up to them. When this diagnosis came to me, I thought, school would likely be great – I wanted to be tested.

* * *

With Selkirk News more than five decades ago, he landed in Ottawa, tasked with covering the House of Commons for the West. On two occasions, he interviewed Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, accusing him of being preoccupied with Quebec and alienating the West, so when he received a personal call from the Prime Minister’s office, he didn’t exactly expect a job offer. Trudeau wanted Robert to fill a vacancy on the Western Desk.

When we would sit down to do the briefing, I was so cotton-picking nervous. I was briefing the Prime Minister who was so well-educated and I wasn’t. I had to really scramble. He knew more about it already than I did.

Robert remembers working with Trudeau who took the intrepid reporter under his wing and provided nothing but encouragement and support. To him, the Prime Minister felt like an uncle, one who flew his father to the Grey Cup, opting to spend time with him instead of a political entourage once there.

On more than one occasion, Trudeau took Robert to Washington, D.C., where he met former U.S. President Gerald Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Robert sat next to the latter for an hour outside the Oval Office but cannot remember a word exchanged – not because of a memory lapse, but because of Kissinger’s mumbling way of speaking.

From the Office of the Prime Minister, Robert went into the federal government as a senior communications officer. Then, he started a small consulting business. With his wife, a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, he would eventually establish the Canadian Aboriginal Festival and the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. Robert also spent time as a consultant for the Historica Foundation of Canada where he was a key advisor on Indigenous history. He was among those consulted on the Jacques Cartier ‘Kanata’ Heritage Minute produced by the foundation.

As I went through my career, I always had this nagging feeling, this inadequacy I had, which was a lack of education, because I was working with a lot of educated people at the time. I always thought I would have loved to go to university.

* * *

Now at King’s, he is thriving, and it’s not just the academic environment. The social atmosphere and a welcoming campus community has helped Robert establish sound footing for his studies and his health. With the help of academic advisors, his Political Science classes have been complemented with Disability Studies, shining a light on his own experience and limitations Alzheimer’s patients face every day.

As a result, Robert has become an advocate for those living with the disease. He has proposed studies in which he is the subject, asking researchers to measure the effect of learning on his cognitive function. Robert wants to see more patients involved in research, providing input on recommendations on how to live better with Alzheimer’s.

I am diminished because of Alzheimer’s; I am not incapacitated. Why aren’t they including us in research?

He walks anywhere from 5 km to 15 km a day. He’s more anxious. More emotional. The disease has left him more susceptible to tears, often at unexpected times. Buses scare him; he’s not always certain he will get to where he needs to go. But once on campus, with fellow students, Robert is confident.

What I’m really keen on is getting the young people more involved. I’d love to get the campus going in a more visible way. I feel dementia is everybody’s business. The young people sitting around here will have something in their families or themselves. Too many times we do these public service things and it’s so broad; we have to direct it to a personal level.