Remembering Peter Steven

Between the Lines lost one of our stalwart longtime members on December 23, 2023. Peter Steven was a big part of the film distribution wing of one of BTL’s parent organizations—The Development Education Centre (DEC)—and then was BTL’s sales and marketing manager and editorial board co-director from 1998 until 2005 before becoming a full-time professor of film studies at Sheridan College in 2009. During his time at BTL, Peter was in many ways the public face of our outfit at booktables, fairs, and conferences. He organized some memorable book launches, including a very lively and well attended affair for Craig Heron's book Booze in 2003. But Peter was also an author in his own right, and BTL published three of his books: Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics, and Counter-Cinema (1985), Brink of Reality: New Canadian Documentary Film and Video (1993), and The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media (2004, originated by New Internationalist). Pete was a tireless worker and a dedicated partisan of the idea that there could be a democratic and egalitarian publisher that could deliver high quality “books without bosses.” 

Below is a testimonial by his friend and BTL compatriot Richard Swift along with thoughts from several other BTL colleagues, which will give a sense of Pete's contribution and our joint loss. 


For Peter 

It's been a tough year for losing political comrades of influence and inspiration. Two who struck me particularly hard were Toni Negri and David Greaber. Both iconoclasts with a healthy left libertarian streak and lively imaginations. But much more personally and closer to home was Peter Steven, who died just before Christmas after a long and difficult fight with cancer. 

I worked for many years with Peter at Development Education Centre, Full Frame Film and Video, and Between the Lines. He was always a rock, helping keep these organizations on the rails by combining common sense with political principle and with his willingness to do whatever it took from writing grant proposals to taking out the garbage. Oddly, he and I never became close friends until after our joint work experience came to an end. 

Peter always had an eye on expanding the often-too-narrow choir (as in preaching to the choir) that made up the Left's base. As such, he appreciated New Internationalist, the magazine I helped edit for many years, for its commitment (not always successful) to a form of popular Left journalism. Pete took the initial initiative in our friendship, drawing me into writing projects coming from his job at Sheridan College. This all culminated in a research project into the life and times of our mutual friend Errol Sharpe–an intellectual and entrepreneurial pioneer of English Canadian radical publishing. Despite Pete's illness he kept at it and he and I would meet for lunch at Mother's Dumplings on Spadina when I was in town to mull over the project and the fate of our sad and beautiful world. 

Unlike too many on the Left, Peter was not full of himself, glorying in the correctness of his own views. He was thoughtful to the end—a listener as well as a talker. He had a fine understated sense of humour. A ready grin. Not that he couldn't stand his ground. He could and he did. He was fascinated with human communication (both film and writing) and how it could be bent to the service of liberation. He wrote and helped publish books, distributed films, taught, published articles, raised funds, helped maintain a vital network of alternative organizations, got involved in local causes in Parkdale—the Toronto community that he and his lifelong partner Geri called home. It was a full and worthy life of which those who had the good fortune of knowing him will miss greatly. He was the best that can be said about any of us—good company. A life well lived.

Happy Trails Pete,

—Richard Swift


“Pete has been hugely important in my life, as a DEC Films colleague and mentor, and as a friend. Pete led the way quietly, persuasively, and thoughtfully. We worked on distribution, film showings, catalogues, and the daily nitty-gritty of getting social justice films out across the country. It was also wonderful to do documentary workshops together for community organizers. Pete has written culturally and politically critical books on radical film, but it was his carefully crafted piece on DEC Films and our collective work that meant the most to me. Thank you, Pete. I’m so glad and lucky to have worked with you, learned from you, and to have been your friend.” —Ferne Cristall


“When we worked together at DEC in the 1980s, Pete was a political sparkplug that helped keep things going in the right direction—as well as being a personal friend, and a lot of fun.

For me, during difficult times at DEC in the late 1980s he was a kindred spirit. I was lucky enough to work closely with him on his two books for BTL: Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics and Counter-Cinema (1985) (and I’m happy to say I sold it to Praeger in New York), and Brink of Reality: New Canadian Documentary Film and Video (1993). Later I was happy to work with him again when he was on the staff for BTL. For BTL’s 40th anniversary book he sent some lovely passages about time he spent with two authors, Ben Carniol and Jean Swanson. He has written the best thing I’ve seen so far about the inner and outer and especially collective workings of DEC and DEC Films.

We got together when I began my current Peterborough moviegoing history project and not surprisingly he helped me immensely. He has been a great support for what I’m doing. If you look at his No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media (2004), you’ll find it a model of how to write critically, smoothly, and concisely about the subject. It is truly a guide. Needless to say, I will miss his insight, curiosity, laughter, and friendship.” —Rob Clarke


“I will miss Peter greatly. I met Peter some forty years ago, and over that time I came to know him as a very patient and caring person. He engaged with people in a quiet, comforting, supporting way, but don’t get me wrong he was anything but a wuss. When the need arose, he would stand his ground, clearly articulating his position without rancour. I knew him as a dear friend, as an author with whom I worked on a book he published with Fernwood Publishing. I knew him as one who always saw the positive side of things even in the most trying times in the latter days of his life. The last time I spoke with Peter, a short time before his death, I asked him how he was spending his time. He said he was doing a lot of reading. I marvelled at how Peter, knowing that he didn’t have long to live, continued to seek knowledge and continued to try and make sense out of a world that had gone terribly wrong. That was Peter—a real trooper employing his last days seeking more truth and knowledge. Talking with Peter, even in those most trying times left one feeling appreciated and loved. His passing has left a huge void in my life.” —Errol Sharpe


“Pete was an inspiring mentor, intellectual, and dear friend for 20+ years. He offered me an internship in 2000 at Between the Lines when he oversaw marketing and promotions and took a chance on me when no one else would. That incredible learning experience led to my lengthy career with leftie indie book publishers; Peter’s guidance and support has always been instrumental in my life. I have so many terrific memories of Pete, both professionally and personally, and his wonderful, infectious laugh rings in my ears. He was one of a kind. A terrible loss for us all, and for the world.” —Renée Knapp


“I met Peter Steven when I was writing my first book with BTL. It would be wrong to say we became social friends. But we did become something of a two-member mutual admiration society. He was always generous and kind about my work. I found him to be a person with that rare quality: genuine curiosity about what others thought and felt. A good listener and a great, positive advisor. I did read his work on DEC and his No Nonsense book on the media. I envied him for his style: clarity and brevity (not my strengths!). He had a genuine interest in bird’s eye view analysis, complemented by concern for the vulnerable. Peter was a man whose behaviour and work never left one in doubt about whose side he was on. Always the right one. He was cheerful and agreeable and largely unassertive. But he felt deeply about some matters and, when the occasion called for it, he articulated his opinions, politely and firmly. He was the publicity and marketing person at the time our paths crossed at BTL. He was low key and ultra efficient. I loved spending time with him. My fondest wishes go to Geri. His loss is a real one. He will be missed. He will be remembered with deep affection.” —Harry Glasbeek 


“I started working at BTL twenty years ago as an intern, not long after surviving a university labour strike and feeling very disillusioned with academia. Peter hired me after reading my cover letter, which included my academic credentials, but really highlighted my experiences with CUPE 3903 on picket lines and with the flying squad. With a big grin on his face, the first thing Peter said to me when we met for a brief interview was, “Well, I liked your cover letter!” We got on fantastically from there on. 

Peter provided a great example of how to put your left politics into practice while working in a collectively run workplace. Though he had a PhD from Northwestern and was a published author, he never acted like any of the work needed to help collectively run BTL was below him. From schlepping books to bookstores and bookfairs, to cleaning the office, to stuffing envelopes—if there was work to be done, he just got started doing it. He treated interns with the same high respect as he treated authors. Peter had a sharp sense of humour and a wonderful laugh, which always made working with him fun. His attitude towards his work in the BTL collective was one of the big reasons I stayed on after my internship was over. I’ll always be grateful for his mentorship and his friendship.” —Amanda Crocker


“When I became the publicist for BTL people would sometimes say, “You’re the new Pete?” Ha! No one was ever the “new Pete.” For anyone that knew Pete, nothing I write about him is a surprise. We got to work together on a few projects like the LeftWords Festival but mostly we were friends. Pete was kind, highly curious, interested, very well read, and had seen more films than you have (he would never say that of course). He encouraged respectful discussion, enjoyed debate, ideas, and laughter. We talked politics, movements, birds, music, art, film, science. I learned so much from him but mostly I enjoyed our time together immensely. I loved that man and miss him deeply.” —Matt Adams