It’s October 2009 and I’m boarding an Air Canada flight out of Pearson Airport, heading for Quebec City, a business trip to attend an industry conference. I’m smiling as I take my seat because I recognize Ken Ogilvie, the passenger beside me, although he really doesn’t know me. What intrigues me, though, after the plane takes off, is that he sets up a small electronic writing machine on the fold-down tray-table and begins banging away. When I question him, his answer elicits a fact from me that I had yet to share with anyone other than my wife.

“What are you writing?” I ask.

“A novel,” he replies.

I pause for a moment and then say, “Me too.”

When the plane lands we quickly situate ourselves in the hotel and head to the heart of Old Quebec City for the kind of wonderful lunch you expect there, including a bottle of wine (or was it two?) and talk about our novels. The start of a friendship that has grown over the past decade, focused on writing, sure, but expanding to a little travel with our wives (Hilton Head, New York City) and golf (albeit bad golf — the kind the majority of people play but seldom admit). And, of course, discussions on the environment.

That I recognized Ken Ogilvie owed to the fact that previously, as the Marketing Manager at Union Gas, I had been in a couple of large meetings with Pollution Probe, a Non-Government Organization (NGO) and Ken had been the long-time Executive Director. He joined Probe in 1995 after twenty years in the civil service, first with the federal government and then with Manitoba and Ontario. As an engineering student in the ’70s at the University of Waterloo, his last co-op program work placement was with the relatively new federal department, Environment Canada. The work piqued his interest, he enrolled in an Environmental Studies course back at UW in his final year, and was hired full time by Environment Canada upon graduation.

Ken Ogilvie

As Ken tells it, his career enjoyed a great boost while he was working in Winnipeg in the mid-80s under an Executive Exchange program between the federal and provincial governments. Quite frankly, Ken was bored as, he says, was his boss. They had no budget to travel outside of Manitoba and little means to engage colleagues around the country. Then along came the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, better known as the Brundtland Commission, which had as its Canadian member, Maurice Strong. Ken and a colleague in Winnipeg generated a proposal that Canada should support the Brundtland Commission by creating a National Task Force on the Environment and the Economy. The proposal was successful, Ken acted as the secretary to the Secretariat, taking notes and writing the final report. The report became a huge success, with 70,000 copies produced that were sent around the world. All of which helped Ken become one of the leading environmental voices in Canada, at first sending him to Ottawa as the Executive Director of the Canadian Environment Advisory Council. He was still an employee of the federal government but in a separate agency to ensure the Minister could have access to independent advice from experts other than his bureaucrats.

All of that came to an end with a recurring theme in Ken’s twenty year government career. The Progressive Conservatives took power and Don Mazankowski, the Finance Minister in Prime Minister Mulroney’s government, decided to axe seventeen independent advisory councils (after all, what use would a conservative government have with independent advice). Ken watched his job disappear while watching Mazankowski deliver his 1992 budget speech on television.

He wasn’t unemployed long as the Ontario Ministry of the Environment came calling with the election of Bob Rae’s NDP. Of course, if you have the slightest knowledge of Ontario political history, you will see that recurring theme coming down the tracks because, after one term, Rae’s government was replaced by Mike Harris. Premier Harris’s great concern for environmental standards in the province can be easily understood if you take a few minutes and type into your favourite search engine the Walkerton Water Crises (hint: you’ll find that over two thousand people became sick and six people died from drinking tap water — after rampant budget cuts by the Harris government).

Ken worked out a termination package with the Ontario government when Pollution Probe approached him with an offer as the Director of their Clean Air Program. Actually, there was no confirmed funding in the program, the idea being for Ken to find the money. But shortly after joining the staff he was faced with an Executive Director going through a personal crisis and the NGO on the verge of insolvency. Asked by Probe’s Board of Directors to take over, he had two choices: run away or jump feet first into a job that he had no experience in, that of running a non-government organization.

He jumped. And, with the help of the few remaining staff, he saved Pollution Probe.

Until he left Pollution Probe in 2007, he utilized the contacts he’d made starting with the highly successful National Task Force on the Environment and the Economy, to raise money, recruit new people, and re-establish Pollution Probe’s core as an environmental organization driven by science-based policy advocating for practical results. Think: eliminating sulphur in gasoline; stricter vehicle fuel economy standards; closing coal fired electric power generators in Ontario; dealing with mercury levels in lakes and rivers; supporting progressive metal smelter regulations.

By the time I sat beside Ken in that airplane, he’d served on a mind boggling number of boards such as The Pembina Institute, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and the Environment, and a range of advisory councils to provide policy insight, including both federal — Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development — and provincial — Environment Commissioner of Ontario. He also helped found the NGO Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow (QUEST) after being approached by the Canadian Gas Association. The 3rd QUEST conference being our destination in Quebec, with me as Union Gas’s representative in my role at the time dealing with strategic issues of sustainable development, new technology and this minor concern called climate change.

Though none of that, at the time, interested me in my discussion with Ken. I had simple questions: how did this environmental policy leader get into fiction writing? And, by the way, what the hell was he actually writing?

What I learned from Ken was that he hadn’t tried his hand at writing fiction until his late forties. His first attempt at a science fiction/fantasy book started as a way to divert his mind from the 24/7 demands of running Pollution Probe. As a boy, most of the novels he read were Sci-Fi, his favourite authors being Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. The only time he could find to work on the first book, while still at Pollution Probe, was in the morning, and eventually he turned away from it after getting about half way through.

Ken and Elizabeth

Ken’s work load lightened after he left Pollution Probe to become a private consultant. Influenced by life-partner Elizabeth’s deep affinity for mystery books, he took another stab at writing, but this time in the crime/mystery genre. I remember early on in our friendship when I asked him about it he replied, “Well, honestly, I read a number of crime and mystery books and said to myself, ‘I can do that’.” Which, in fact, he could, though by taking a detailed, feedback-driven revisionist approach that I can only imagine came from his years and years of getting policy documents “just right”. For seven years I watched firsthand as Ken wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote the book he was working on during that plane trip. A novel I must have read two or three times at various draft stages and provided feedback along with, I’m guessing, ten other people. Eventually, what emerged was the first of a planned mystery/thriller trilogy featuring Constable Rebecca Bradley and a giant young man named Hound. Her Dark Path, Ken’s first book, was published in 2017 by Joffe Books in the UK, and the second of the trilogy, Hound, in early 2019. Ken has since parted, amicably, with that publisher but is diligently working on finishing the trilogy and taking a run at self-publishing. So, for fans of his work, know this: the third novel opens in Hound’s birthplace of London, England, and new characters and detailed plots abound! And if you haven’t read the first two books of his trilogy, well now you have time to catch up — see Ken’s website to order books.

Ken and Ed at a bar (what a surprise!). Daufuskie Island near Hilton Head, South Carolina

I don’t know if Ken’s passion for writing fiction will ever be honoured the way his illustrious career in working to protect the environment has been. In the last decade he has been conferred two Honorary Doctorates. One from his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Waterloo, with an Honorary Doctor of Environmental Studies and the second, an Honorary Doctor of Laws, from Thompson Rivers University, British Columbia. Beyond those honours, Ken has something more important — lasting friendships of the many people he has met throughout his life. One of my great little pleasures is attending an ongoing pub night in mid-town Toronto simply called Wings Night. A Ken Ogilvie creation, held kinda on a monthly basis (Ken describes it as wholly ad hoc), where a variety of women and men, young and not-so-young, gather for beer (or club soda) and chicken wings (or salad), and talk environmental issues in ways sometimes specific and sometimes general; sometimes optimistic and sometimes cynical.

A cast of characters that I like to refer to unoriginally as the “usual suspects” including a former environmental reporter and former Ontario environment commissioner; university teachers; Ontario minister of energy, or environment, professionals, past and present; university students, undergrad and post-grad alike; chairs of various environment boards regarding water, air or land; the previous and the current executive director of Pollution Probe; a former chief energy conservation officer; environmental entrepreneurs with businesses focused on clean energy and energy efficiency; and even the odd writer of fiction; the list goes on and on. A cast of characters all sharing a friendship, recent or decades-old, with Ken Ogilvie. People who have benefited from his expertise, his mentorship, his leadership, his friendship.

When I was contemplating what to write regarding the ongoing success, and actual feeling of need for this ad hoc gathering, I reached out to a semi-regular — he lives up north and thus has to travel a long way to attend — member of Wings Night, former Environment Commissioner of Ontario, Gord Miller. Gord’s response to me was as good a summation as I could hope for: “Ken is a master of collaborative leadership. He has the ability to recognize the interests, needs and abilities of many diverse players and bring them out of their silos to work together. That is very helpful to all and explains the decades old success of Wings Night.” The professional becomes personal; the work relationship becomes friendship.

I can attest to that because I have seen reflected in his passion for writing that which illuminates Ken’s basic decency and friendship. As I’ve stated several times, our friendship began with the fact we were both working on novels. During the time Ken took to finish his first, I had completed mine, called Son of Jack Nasty, which is yet unpublished, and written my second, Fair. When Ken got the good news from Joffe Books that they would publish his novel, I was still waiting on word from the query letters I had sent out. Ken and I met at one of our favourite spots for lunch, Grazie Ristorante on Yonge Street, so that I could congratulate him in person. In what should have been his moment to bask in the warm light of success, what were Ken’s first words to me? These: “Now we’ve got to get you published!” Despite his passion and hard work that had brought success, in the place where so many other’s egos reign, Ken’s position was to concern himself with me, where I was at that time on my personal journey.

There are many ways, I suppose, to define decency and friendship but I can’t think of any better than those of Ken Ogilvie.

In writing Ken’s story and interviewing so many people, including Pollution Probe’s current Executive Director, Chris Hilkene, it became obvious to me that I needed to go back in time and write about the inception of Probe, and come present and write about Chris. So, the next Profile will be about Pollution Probe, who just celebrated their 50th anniversary, and following that a focus on Chris.

I hope you come back.