If John Lefebvre were a Medieval bard, he'd have stories to entertain crowds for years. Six-foot-one with flowing hair, the 66-year-old leans over a mug of steaming coffee like a Canadian version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, as he recounts his kaleidoscopic story from choirboy to multimillionaire to jailbird. It’s a bewildering resume: high school dropout, teen drug dealer, lawyer, cab driver, street busker, tycoon, professional musician.
Today, Lefebvre is a leading philanthropist debunking climate denial, and he's written a jewel of a little book, All’s Well, which ponders the profoundly simple question: ‘What are we doing?’
We're talking in the office of Lefebvre's elegant bed and breakfast, Stonehouse, on British Columbia's Salt Spring Island, where the former internet entrepreneur houses an impressive art collection, as well as guests from around the world. He certainly doesn’t seem to think ‘all’s well’ as he talks about what we're doing to the world. Even less so as he peels back the book's defining impulse — the endless ache he's felt throughout his life. An ache that won't go away no matter how much money he makes or how much he gives away.
So, what's with the title All's Well? Is he joking?
Well, yes. And no. "It’s a bit of a joke," he explains. “You recognize when you get to the very last page of the book and I speak of the universe as being the well of us all… We are the vessels of consciousness in the universe and the universe is the well of us all."
But it’s certainly not a book that fits comfortably on the “spirituality” shelves, much less the New Age section. Lefebvre writes about consciousness, but also about the power of corporations and wealthy shareholders. He writes with horror about Canadian oil companies and mining corporations who cause destruction and deprivation around the world.
"Corporations, as our agents, disregard and perpetrate atrocities, fund local robber barons and poison environments the world over on our behalf to advance our comforts and economies. We have a duty to regulate such behaviour."
It’s a wild ride of a book soaring from poetry to philosophy by way of social critique and global crisis. As paradoxical and indefinable as the man himself.
A choirboy from Calgary
Lefebvre was raised Catholic, and his mother, Louise, had a particular interest in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The eclectic theologian "believed in consulting conscience honestly as the final arbiter in every question," says Lefebvre.
"My mom’s friend Father Pat O’byrne was a social activist in Calgary and I got to know him, he was a very dear friend. My mom’s family would get down on their knees and say the rosary on Sunday before supper. I was a choirboy."
His father, an infantry captain, died in a car accident and his mother raised him, along with his brother and sister, as a single mom. "She worked as an airline agent and then went to university on the veterans affairs benefits from my dad and raised us in elementary and junior high school, then became a teacher and went back for her masters and became a high school guidance counsellor. She had lots of priest friends, but she was irreverent. She’d say, 'Father Roberto, he’s an asshole…' Most of the priests she hung out with were Franciscans."
"My mom had me in the choir and we sang very, very beautiful music when I was a child. We sang in St. Mary’s Cathedral. I sang in the choir from the time I was about seven. Mom listened to great music at home. More than anything else, the ideas that (informed the book) were sprung from my exposure to guys like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Donovan, Jethro Tull, even Ian Anderson, the front man of Jethro Tull band. They encouraged us to take a new look. But it was Bob Dylan singing songs like Hattie Caroll and songs about the overlooked working guy that woke me up."
He considers James Joyce his favourite author and has kept Ulysses on his bedside table since his early 20s. Joyce provides solace in the storms that batter the island through the winter and in those early morning hours when Lefebvre lies awake, reflecting on the past and worrying about the future.
Along with his Catholic upbringing, Lefebvre has been studying Buddhist philosophy since his teens and says he tries to see "everything I do from the perspective of Zen Buddhism." Allan Watts' The Way of Zen, made a big impression but he also regularly consults the I Ching.
“It was given to me two days before I went to prison the first time. For selling LSD [to an undercover cop]. We consulted it to see if I should take it on the lam or surrender." (He surrendered.)
Uncle Sam’s slammer
Lefebvre is most notorious for his run-in with the law. Not that first incident selling acid but a big time run-in with Uncle Sam over online gambling money. He and his business partner, Stephen Lawrence, set up NETeller in the late 90s — an e-transfer system back in the internet’s Wild West days when most people used Western Union and bank wires to send money. At one point, his company actually received a citation from the FBI for helping to catch money launderers, including in 2005, when they caught a man from New York transferring funds into unauthorized accounts.
But his business became the go-to money transfer system for online gambling and American authorities eventually moved in. He was living in Malibu and had just sold a major portion of his stock in the company when FBI agents arrested him on charges of money laundering and racketeering (charges he categorically denies). Lefebvre spent 40 days in jail and paid the U.S. government $5 million in bail and a $40 million forfeiture.
"The most annoying thing about being arrested was I wound up forfeiting most of my fortune and I could have done millions more things," he said. "I always imagined it would be better in my hands than theirs. The full amount we forfeited would have been spent in Iraq by 3 a.m. Monday morning."
After forty days, he was escorted out of prison in New York City. "It was noon on Friday. I walked out of jail in blue pajamas in shackles and past all these hipsters in downtown New York." He distinctly remembers the hipsters politely averting their gaze. "I went from prison to ICE, the immigration enforcement agency," he recalls. "I spent my first day out of prison in detention with about 150 Mexicans and a couple of Muslims. Later, they escorted me to the airport, and I walked into the airport in handcuffs."
Lefebvre used the interruption to focus his life back on music.
While out on bail, he sent a demo tape of his music to Anne Murray producer Brian Ahern, who was impressed enough to arrange a recording with legendary studio veterans including Jim Keltner ("the leading session drummer in America" according to Bob Dylan biographer Howard Sounes), Dean Parks (who shared a stage with legends like Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder), Bill Payne, Greg Liesz, James Hutchinson and Patrick Warren.
The injustice he saw in America's justice system is reflected in lyrics he penned for songs including "Wakes and Dreams":
"...Kings and princes here/ Who filled their jails with people they called rabble/ fleeced them blind and ruled by lies and fear/ lined their pockets by the blood of soldiers/ then told grieving mothers to be proud/ While they hid inside their marble castles/ Wakes and dreams gone like so much cloud."
Love earth, love yourselves (climate deniers, not so much)
Throughout All's Well, Lefebvre expresses reverence for the earth and eviscerates the short-sightedness of corporations, especially efforts to shut down the conversation about climate change.
"Our tenure on Earth is inexplicably miraculous, and it is our responsibility to protect it for all and pass it on, not to hog it now for our indefensibly greedy, thoughtless, selfish comfort," he writes.
Lefebvre writes with real admiration for his longtime friend, James Hoggan, an influential figure in public relations, known also for his work with the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Dalai Lama Center. Around 2004, the pair discussed how industry was dominating the climate conversation with its PR tactics, spreading climate denial to sway public opinion against meaningful action to protect the environment.
"I’d spoken with Jim a great deal about what he was doing with Suzuki and the environment and he said, 'Do you know what a blog is? We should do a blog about what we're talking about."
Hoggan recalls a similar version of events: "John and I have talked a lot about how easy it was for fake scientists and astroturf groups to manipulate the mainstream media into covering a debate about climate science that didn't really exist. That's what DeSmogBlog was all about, exposing propaganda and telling the story of how propaganda works. This story wasn't being told by mainstream media and still isn't... once you see the gap between what the science is saying and what all the public is saying, you can't help but get angry."
That conversation led to the founding of DeSmogBlog in 2006, first in the U.S. and later a Canadian site based in Victoria, B.C.. The site famously clashed with the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based conservative think tank funded by oil billionaires David and Charles Koch.
During the early 2000s, industry-funded climate deniers got more and more time on the major media networks (72 per cent of 2013 climate-related stories on Fox News), and DeSmogBlog set out to reverse the trend by exposing the funding and tactics of professional climate deniers while highlighting the scientific consensus that human activity was causing dangerous global warming.
Lefebvre helped brainstorm the slug line: clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science. "There’s sort of a mission statement behind DeSmog. That democracy requires accurate information and an informed electorate... and anybody who screws around with the information is being subversive of democracy.”
In a classic Lefebvrian paradox, the initial conversation between Hoggan and Lefebvre that led to the founding of Desmog took place on Lefebvre's private jet — an irony that soon forced him to take a hard look at his own lifestyle.
"I repented being a jet owner," Lefebvre said. "I got rid of (the jet) long ago and I continued to support the DeSmog group and Suzuki and to appreciate the natural bounty that has befallen us and to consider the responsibilities." Once an owner of multiple homes, he's now settled into one on Salt Spring Island, a community filled with artists with a tradition of welcoming radical outsiders.
His philanthropic gifts range across humanitarian causes and environmental charities. From literacy for women in Iraq to climate work by the David Suzuki Foundation, where he served on the board alongside Hoggan, Miles Richardson, Wade Davis and George Stroumboulopoulos.
Lefebvre is acutely aware of the contradictions he embodies. In his book, he advocates for a more just society, a society in which greed isn’t the dominant incentive. At the peak of his wealth, he was said to be worth $300 million. Lefebvre acknowledges the inherent irony in this, coming from someone who has gained so much from the system.
"I’m just one of us really. I’ve been very very fortunate. One of my greatest fortunes was I didn’t come to money before I was able to understand what it was all about. I was able to pass it on. When I was speaking to the Department of Justice about sentencing later in my life, I didn’t hide anything, (the money) was absolutely where you expected it to be and they thought in fairness they would take into consideration the gifts I had given... at that time in 2011, when I was sentenced, I had been able to demonstrate a little more than $50 million in gifts."
One of the memorable characters in All's Well is the "Prick" — a moniker he readily applies to himself. "My most important credential is that there are those to whom I, too, have been a Prick," he writes early in the book. "But the situation for most Pricks is complicated... for years, I have been a director on behalf of the preeminent ecologist David Suzuki. And I am a co-founder of DeSmogBlog group... So perhaps what follows will help me atone."
The one thing
Throughout the book, Lefebvre has fun with rock-and-roll subtitles like "How Shit Works, Man." But he never strays far from the spiritual interests inherited from his mother who passed away recently at the age of 89. Lefebvre is fully captivated by the miracle of consciousness, and intent on defining the attributes of a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Lefebvre says he ultimately wrote the book for his granddaughter, Ida, so that she could "figure out who this old guy was" and "look at things in a different way."
Vehemently opposed to the corporate values that pervade society today, Lefebvre hopes Ida's generation will move humanity forward in the way people relate to each other and the earth.
"Each one of us is exactly the same, that same miracle persists in every one of us. And it’s high time that we began to treat everyone with that kind of respect. When we do, that’s when we will feel wealthy. No amount of money can make you feel that wealthy."
"Consciousness is a miracle with every breath. More than anything we can ever dream of is available to us in every breath. That’s the one thing."
Author's Note: This story benefited from fact-checking and editing by Jenny Uechi and Chris Hatch