The only thing we have to fear… are the fearmongers

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s shooting in Ottawa, here are four brief readings: two from readers, and two from columnists running counter to the national press hysteria.

Longtime Contrarian reader Tim Segulin writes:

Finally the Harper government has the undeniable pretext it has sought for years to spy on the phone and internet communications of innocent citizens without need of judicial oversight.

After shrill charges that those who didn’t agree ‘stood with child pornographers’ and an attempt to install it by exploiting the Rehteah Parsons and Amanda Todd tragedies was foiled by the Supreme Court, now the Harper government can claim that we are in a war to defend our democracy and that real time, ongoing surveillance it the necessary price we pay to protect ourselves against home grown terrorism. The recording and the Homeland Security industries to our south may have special reason to be pleased with the next omnibus bill, rushed once again through Parliament before its contents can be studied.

On the other hand, a Harper-supporting reader thinks the shootings warrant greater police powers:

Nice, theoretical position you have taken on the zealots like this character in Ottawa. I frankly don’t care if he is mentally ill or not (obviously something was not right with him). My concern is simply that our security forces have to be able to detain these folks BEFORE they do something – not just assess it afterwards. If they have the tools now – use them. If not, get them.

This is a clearly a different type of threat than our current laws and practices were predicated on. So far, I think we have been lucky that these folks have focused on soldiers and politicians and haven’t seemed particularly interested in just killing civilians. What happens when a mass attack is planned or conducted against the mass population? What will the look back look like then? We should have, we could have, we might have won’t mean a hill of beans.

I wonder if the hatred for Harper and fear of his motives is clouding the judgement of normally wise folks.

My sense is that rules will be strengthened now to a minor degree allowing these folks to be stopped. Conversely, much more dramatic changes will come after the next attack with mass effect. You should prefer now to later.

Now two journalists I have criticized in the past, both writing for the website First, Andrew Mitrovica:

One man with one gun.

Apparently, that’s all it took for this country to lose its mind last week, dutifully abetted by much of the nation’s media.

History. Context. Perspective. Understanding. Skepticism. Thoughtfulness. Canada’s so-called media and political “elites” abandoned them all. In their stead, we got a week-long diet of chest-thumping patriotic clichés, cheap, meaningless hyperbole and tropes that, taken together, have already manufactured widespread consent for what will surely be another assault on our rights and freedoms engineered by a cynical Conservative government….

Not to be outdone, the telegenic TV anchors rushed to heal our grievously damaged collective psyche without recognizing just how trite and condescending they were being.

Watch this diabetes-inducing performance by Kevin Newman as he tries valiantly to hold the nation together while anchoring CTV National News last Wednesday.

“We have been through one of those days we will never forget. A moment when history pivots. Delivered to us by a man intent on killing. Who walked into the centre of a building that represents our values and opened fire,” Newman said with all the gravitas he could muster.

Watching his polished solemnity I wondered whether Newman was convinced he was standing at a church alter while delivering his maudlin sermon rather than sitting behind a desk in a television studio in suburban Toronto.

But that’s what happens when media outlets reach for almost grotesque hyperbole to describe last week’s tragic, unsettling events, as ‘Canada’s 9/11.’ This irresponsible distortion prompted TV anchormen and women to turn the sentimental empathy meter up to 11 because that’s the hoary role they’re expected and yearn to play at times like these.

Last, Michael Harris:

If there was no connection to ISIL, did the government really need to give the authorities more powers of arrest? Did the government, which had already given CSIS more tools to fight terrorism in 2012, including the power of preventive arrest, really need to add even more extraordinary power to this already extraordinarily powerful agency? How do you lower the threshold for preventive arrest, which already lowers the threshold of basic civil rights protection? How much lowering is enough?

After all, with the huge resources the Harper government has spent on national security since 2006, including an obscenely expensive billion-dollar new home for CSEC, this crude attack was not stopped. As the Manchester Guardian noted, this was a spectacular failure of Canadian intelligence, despite all the additional powers that community has been given by Stephen Harper.

But the emotional waters had been whipped up to a frothing cauldron by the media. On the day of Cpl. Cirillo’s murder, there were a barrage of unconfirmed reports of multiple shooters and multiple shooting scenes in Ottawa. The effect was to foster public hysteria. The coverage of the event reached an irresponsible crescendo when it was mentioned on the CBC that this could be Canada’s 9/11. It was then gravely reported by the network that everything had now “changed.” The script could have been written by the Harper PMO.

Both of these articles are worth reading in full.



4 quarters equals…



4Quarters copy

Director Ashley McKenzie and actress Carmen Townsend on the set of “4 Quarters Makes A…”, MacKenzie’s latest short movie, in production this week in Sydney. Carmen plays a karaoke singer in the slice-of-Cape-Breton-life drama about a troubled young woman and a young man who provides a safety net of sorts. Tonight’s filming took place at the Black Diamond lounge.

Collateral damage: Sook-yin Lee is not Jian Ghomeshi


Many online critics of the CBC’s decision to fire Jian Ghomeshi have cited an earlier contretemps between the corporation and DNTO host Sook-yin Lee as having established the precedent that private sexual behavior is irrelevant to on-air employment at the public broadcaster. Here is how one twitter-poster put it:

Sook-yin Lee did porn flicks. She still works for them.

The comparison is inapt, and the details dead wrong.

Notwithstanding the expertly crafted, pre-emptive defense in Ghomeshi’s Facebook post, it seems all but certain that the issue in his firing is not private, non-mainstream sexual tastes, but the level of consent in specific sexual encounters with three women. According to the Toronto Star, his unnamed accusers say he acted without consent; he insists he did not.

Nothing in the Sook-yin controversy involved anything even close to allegations of forced sexual activity. Moreover, the incident concerned only one movie—not flicks, plural—and the film in question was Definitely Not Pornography (or even “a skin flick,” the phrase to which the tweeter cited above retreated when I challenged her mistake).

What actually happened is that in 2003 the CBC threatened to fire Sook-yin after filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell announced he had cast her in Shortbus, a sexually explicit movie eventually released in 2006. Director Francis Ford Coppola, rock musician Michael Stipe, actress Julianne Moore, and artist Yoko Ono protested, as did a sizable slice of DNTO’s audience, whereupon the CBC relented.

I showed Shortbus at the Cape Breton Island Film Series, and it remains one of my favorites among the nearly 300 movies we screened. The comic drama focused on a group of oddballs who patronize a Brooklyn sex salon. It included explicit scenes of apparently unsimulated sex and masturbation, but these were shot from a middle distance, with no porn-like lingering on naughty organs. In a trailer for the film, Mitchell says:

A few years ago, I thought about making a film about love and sex that do0esn’t censor itself in any way.

L'Arche Cape Breton members on vacation in Manhattan

L’Arche Cape Breton members on vacation in Manhattan

In fact, though, the sex in Shortbus seemed more like a device for exploring the loneliness of people who are outcast for whatever reason—non-standard sexual appetites merely being the case in point. The short bus of the title refers to the abbreviated school buses that once conveyed developmentally challenged students to their “special” classes. Roger Ebert called it, “a sweet, tender, playful pleasure,” and as staid an organ as Time Magazine wrote:

Shortbus, a U.S. romantic comedy set in a New York City sex salon, might have been the outrage of the [Cannes] festival, since it contained several no-fooling hard-core sex scenes., but John Cameron Mitchell’s movie brims with so much fun and heartbreak that it upset few people and beguiled many.

A year after Shortbus appeared, a group from L’Arche Cape Breton drove that community’s short bus to Manhattan on a summer vacation trip. During their visit, some members of the group dropped in on a drag show. The female impersonator was so taken with them that she invited them on stage to sing with her, which they did with robust enthusiasm. The drag queen and the developmentally challenged L’Arche core members may be marginalized for completely different reasons, but they recognized the bond they shared as social outcasts.

To me, that understanding is what makes the movie Shortbus so lovely, and I hate to see it subsumed in false analogies to the Ghomeshi case.

As the fog of fear lifts…

Now that the fog of fear and bombast is lifting, here is what we are left with: a single, mentally ill Canadian man approached a ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial Wednesday and shot him dead. The killer then drove and ran the very short distance to Parliament Hill, where rushed past security and was shot dead in a brief gunfight.

The death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a 24-year old army reservist from Hamilton, ON, is particularly sad, as he was a single father. Moreover, any violent disruption of Parliament constitutes an affront to democracy to be resisted with firm resolve.

But then, the 500+ victims of homicides that occur every year in Canada each have their own unique, poignant circumstances. And it is the openness of Parliament, as much as Parliament itself, that we must preserve and protect. As Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers was quoted as telling a young RCMP aspirant:

These grounds belong to all Canadians. I want to see people playing Frisbee on the lawn outside, but ensure everyone inside is secure. It has to be safe, but the people must always feel welcome. This is their Parliament.

In response to the acts of a single, deranged individual, police closed down Parliament, much of downtown Ottawa, and MPs’ offices from coast to coast. A Toronto ceremony to bestow honorary citizenship on Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai was cancelled, as was an Ottawa Senators hockey game. Provincial legislatures remained open, but restricted citizen access. The Nova Scotia Legislature barred visitors for the rest of the week. The responses ranged from necessary through excessive caution to overreaction.

Canada’s parliamentary press corps adopted a tone of exaggerated gravity and portentousness. Political reporters eagerly appropriated freighted police terms like “shooter,” “perp,” “lock-down,” and “take-down”  (much as crime reporters adopt loaded terms like “grow-op” and “trafficked.”) Right wing commentators like Andrew Coyne served as enforcers of moral panic, hectoring any dissenters who had the effrontery to counsel calm and perspective.

The real danger is what we will do now. In Nova Scotia, Premier Stephen McNeil appointed his deputy minister, David Darrow, to head up a committee that will engage a “security expert” to advise on possible measures to make sure government employees “feel safe and secure,” despite scant evidence of any new threat to their safety or security.

Darrow is a personal friend, and a calm, rational civil servant, but the mission he has been charged with is almost certain to lead to bad decisions. “Security experts” can be counted upon to recommend greater security measures in a legislature that already has too many.

Security measures famously operate as a ratchet. They are easy to put in place, difficult to roll back, even when they prove costly, ineffective, and unnecessarily restrictive of important liberties.

Far more ominous is Prime Minister Harper’s promise to “redouble our efforts and those of our national security agencies to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats.” Most took this as a signal Harper will use Wednesday’s terrible events as a pretext to increase Canada’s already excessive surveillance of innocent citizens; introduce preventative detention of those suspected, but not yet charged, with crimes; and restrict freedom of speech online.

Justin Trudeau, by contrast, offered a statesman-like response to the shooting, eloquently invoking Canada’s values.

Losing ourselves to fear and speculation is the intention of those who commit these heinous acts. They mean to shake us. We will remain resolved. They want us to forget ourselves. Instead, we should remember.

We should remember who we are. We are a proud democracy, a welcoming and peaceful nation, and a country of open arms and open hearts. We are a nation of fairness, justice and the rule of law.

His brief statement is worth reading in whole; it displays a rare degree of eloquence and levelheadedness in the face of crisis, and casts doubt on claims he is not ready to be prime minister.

Scott Reid sums up the danger of parliamentary group-think in this excellent Ottawa Citizen column:

The nation’s security apparatus exists to save lives and protect Canadians. But every inch of new ground acquired is taken at the expense of individual liberty. If such trade-offs can be defended as necessary to protect our wider freedoms, then so be it. If not, then they should be rejected. But that evaluation cannot be made properly without political leaders who are strong enough to risk being called weak.

In Canada we arrest people for what they do, not what they might do. And certainly not for who they are. It is the presence of political disagreement that guarantees such core principles are defended. Unlike so many similar times in our past, it appears that we’ll soon witness a bracing example of such disagreement. Thank goodness for that.

Finally, in case you missed it, this over-the-top rant from British comedian Russell Brand aptly skewers the jingoism of the Prime Minister and so much of the media.

Liberty and openness in Canada are certain to come under attack in the days and weeks ahead. Canadians who treasure those values should gear up to protect them.

Readers’ thoughts about policing and citizenship

The week’s events got one Contrarian reader thinking about policing:

We have way too many police, and we pay way too much for them. Regardless of what people think, our crime rate is dropping. As I sometimes tell people when I am particularly argumentative, “If your child is not aboriginal or a new immigrant, then she is the safest person who has ever lived.”

So when I get a ticket for failing to stop at a stop sign given by a nice older man in the RCMP, any cost benefit analysis would say: way too much cost for too little benefit.

–  Salary $82,000
–  Car $30,000
–  Admin + something
–  Equipment + something

Anyway, the $150 ticket cost a fortune to give out. An unarmed compliance officer would make so much more fiscal sense. We no longer have police handing out parking tickets because you lose every time one is given out.

And yet, this week I watched brave Mounties and other police run towards not away from danger. Is this the cost I pay for living safe? Sometime a society needs men and women with guns willing to step up and not away.

I work for [an airline]. Pilots are overpaid bus drivers until you are at 35,000 feet  and things go wrong. She is worth every penny if your kid is sitting behind the pilot….

Do we need all these armed people around us?  I think not, but this week a guy  going for coffee was run over, a  soldier standing unarmed sentry duty was murdered, and our parliament was attacked, which means I was attacked. Police stood up and went toward them, and put themselves between the crazies and us.What price freedom and safety? Like many Canadians I am thinking this week.

Another reader was thinking about the costs of citizenship:

The implicit assumption behind the pro-security argument is that no Canadian civilians should die on home soil, because we want to preserve our freedoms. That assumption needs to be challenged. If the choice is civilian casualties or a police state, I’ll take civilian casualties. In this respect, it’s worth noting how many responded to events by running toward trouble not away; the witnesses to the shooting, cops, and the sergeant-at-arms.

My thoughts in the next post.

A felon no more

I received a polite phone call this morning from Chief Electoral Officer Richard Temporale, acknowledging that the Nova Scotia Elections Act would not support a conviction against me on the alleged offence of photographing and tweeting my ballot. In other words, what I did is not against the law. They are dropping the case.

We already suspected as much, because the one-year time limit for laying a charge under the act expired October 5. I am grateful to Jason Cooke, an outstanding young civil litigator at Burchells, who sent Elections Nova Scotia a brief last January, pointing out that the Act did not outlaw my actions.

The support I received from across the political spectrum was inspiring. I am particularly grateful to Premier Stephen McNeil.


Having voted PC, I was not surprise to receive Prime Minister Harper’s support.


Lenore Zann’s robust endorsement was particularly touching.

Zann copy

Even Dana Doiron, elections compliance bulldog, was generous enough to come around in the end.

Doiron copy

Of course, the endorsement I most cherish came from the late, great Joseph Howe.

Joe Howe

Photoshop wizardry courtesy of Peter Barss.

Unreported in Canada: the Globe and Mail’s fight to suppress freedom of the press


You can be forgiven, dear Contrarian reader, for not knowing that a hearing last week in the Ontario Divisional Court sought to determine how far wrongdoers can go to suppress the freedom of those they have wronged to speak about the wrongdoings. And for not knowing that the wrongdoer in the case is Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, or that the person wronged was once its most celebrated columnist, Jan Wong.

You can be forgiven because, in an revelatory display of unanimity, the Canadian news industry has suppressed coverage of the court battle. The sole exception* is a bilious piece of character assassination by National Post columnist Chris Selley, the sort of journalist who makes a fine living comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

The case has a complicated background. Please bear with me. It’s important.

Wong’s days as the darling of Globe newsroom ended on September 16, 2006, when the Montreal-born writer had the effrontery to suggest, in a page-one feature about the recent Dawson College shooting, that racial and linguistic politics exercised by Quebec’s pure laine majority might inform our understanding of that province’s three notorious school shootings (École Polytechnique, Concordia University, and Dawson), all of which were perpetrated by Quebecers of immigrant heritage.

For this Wong received a torrent of hate messages, death threats, racist taunts, misogynist abuse, and in one case, a parcel containing actual shit. Quebec politicians and journalists competed to see who among them could scale the most vertiginous heights of dudgeon. They demanded apologies. They demanded demands for apologies from their Ottawa counterparts.

On September 20, the House of Commons obliged by unanimously condemning Wong and the Globe. Unanimously! (“An event so purely Stalinist, I still cannot quite believe it,” wrote the Star’s Heather Mallick.)

The Globe waffled, then caved. Managers ordered Wong to stop giving interviews. Editor Edward Greenspon, who had read her piece before publication, wrote a column expressing regret the offending passage had not been deleted. A expected promotion evaporated.

Abandoned by the Globe, facing a firestorm of abuse, Wong sank into depression. On doctor’s advice, she took time off. The Globe and its insurance company insisted she was faking. The Globe fired her. She sued for wrongful dismissal. The Globe settled, but in a wondrous display of journalistic integrity, insisted details of its capitulation remain secret.

Wong eventually recovered, and wrote a book about the experience. Days before publication, her publisher, Doubleday, got a call from the Globe’s lawyers and, after Wong refused to make massive deletions, dropped the project. (Doubleday insisted legal pressure from the Globe played no role in its decision.) Wong self-published. Out of the Blue became a best-seller, winning rave reviews.

The book included Wong’s disclosure that the Globe had sent her “a fat cheque.”  Arguing this violated the agreement’s confidentiality provision, the Globe persuaded an arbitrator to overturn the settlement and require Wong to return the money. Wong was in divisional court last week seeking to have that decision overturned. She was opposed by the Globe, and, astonishingly, by her former union, Unifor.

Two friends and former Globe colleagues of Wong who attended the trial have provided brief accounts. Faced with the failure of every other news outlet in the country to report on the hearing, they are all we have to go on.*

John King, a former Globe reporter who attended the hearing in support of Wong, summed up the proceedings on his Facebook page:

Jan Wong took her fight for the right to tell the story of her firing to the Divisional Court this week—facing a hostile tag team of lawyers from The Globe and Mail and the Unifor union. The court appeared to see Wong’s argument that the issue was not a simple labour matter to be sorted out in the context of bargaining, but involved her natural justice. If she wins—the court reserved judgment this afternoon—the decision would set a precedent in the cosy world of labour law.

(“Reserved judgment” means the court did not reach a decision; the judges will release their ruling later.)

John Saunders, another former colleague, provided more detail in an email, which I publish with his permission:

As a spectator to the day and a half of argument, I’d like to point out what is at stake for Jan. If she loses, the hit could be more than a quarter of a million dollars, including her entire departure settlement from the Globe and Mail, which the newspaper seeks to take back.

The amount of that settlement, which came out in open court, was about $209,000, representing two years’ salary. It is worth noting that she did not disclose the figure; it would still be secret but for the Globe’s legal campaign against her, a campaign based on the idea that she violated a confidentiality clause when she said she received a fat cheque.

If she loses, she will also face claims for legal costs of $25,000 each from the Globe and her former union, which joined forces to oppose her this week, although the court could reduce those amounts. (She paid them $7,500 apiece in an earlier stage of the fight.) This is not to mention thousands of dollars in expenses run up on her own behalf, even though her lawyers, from the Ottawa office of Borden Ladner Gervais, are working on a pro bono/contingency basis, meaning they charge her nothing for their time but do not object to collecting from the other side if they win.

The lawyers, David Sherriff-Scott and Peter Thompson, needed to persuade the three-judge panel to break new ground in labour arbitration law, authorizing an employee to direct her own defence when her union fails her. It remains to be seen whether they succeeded, but they did a masterful job, it seemed to me, and clearly got an interested hearing from the judges, who could have dismissed the case out of hand. (Their written ruling may be a month or more away.)

There were several strands to the argument, but the main one, as I understood it, was this: The union’s lawyer pursued a conventional and doomed line of defence, ignoring Jan’s pleas and large amounts of spadework done by her lawyers. Specifically, he failed to advance, or perhaps even to understand, a legal principle called equitable relief from forfeiture. That principle, the Ottawa lawyers argued, opens the way to examine such things as the Globe’s conduct (including what they called lies and intimidation aimed at suppressing her book about how the newspaper treated her) and what actual harm, if any, was caused by her disclosure that it paid her off.

No one knows whether any of this would change the outcome of the case, but Jan should be allowed to give it a shot, they said. One way the court could fix things, they submitted, would be to order a hearing before a new arbitrator in which she would be defended by a lawyer of her choice at the union’s expense. Or it could simply quash to existing order that she repay the Globe.

You can hear more about the background to Wong’s case in this interview by Jesse Brown on his Canadaland podcast, which provides badly needed critical coverage of Canadian media.

– –

* It’s possible I have missed some news accounts, but Selley’s screed is the only story that shows up in a Google News search. If readers point me to others, I will place links here.


Surf’s up at Louisbourg

Barry Morrison went out to look at the surf along the Lighthouse Point Trail, Louisbourg.






Off the deep end with the RNC

Remember when the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary strolled about their daily rounds with no sidearms? It’s not that long ago. Until June 14, 1998, the RNC required members on normal duty to keep firearms locked in the trunks of their cruisers, deploying them only with permission from the chief.

What a difference 16 years makes. Take a gander at the latest RNC recruitment video, released just this month.

Writing in the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent, Jon Parsons decried the paramilitary fantasy evoked by the video:

This video, and the recruitment campaign of which it is a part, dangerously speaks to a particular kind of potential recruit.

The heroic, militaristic drumbeat, the culmination of the action in the forced penetration-insertion of a heavily armed tactical unit, the glorification of assault rifles and militaristic gear of different kinds, the constant “kerssshhhh” of the radios: the video is very much like a montage from a first-person-shooter video game or a scene in a badly written action movie. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to see the video is macho as hell.

Who does this recruitment video appeal to? Well, it appeals to dominators and sadists. It appeals to those who want to have power over others. It appeals to young men that get an erection from being in a position of authority. Enough said about that….

[T]he video does not have a single frame of a police officer talking to a citizen, and only one brief clip with citizens in the background at all. There is no interaction between the officers and the community – they only talk to each other, and even that limited communication is mediated by the radio or other forms of technology.

An anonymous video editor has already produced a satyrical critique, mashing up the recruitment video with the province’s sensuous tourism ads:

It’s sad to see a force that once policed on the basis of respect and community connectedness turn so swiftly to an approach so tone deaf to Newfoundland society. But as Parsons points out, the RNC approach reflects a North American trend toward militarization of local police forces (as previously by Contrarian discussed here and here).

The Atlantic this week gathered a staggering collection of 15 YouTube videos in which taser-happy police zap citizens (including one 10-year-old boy) with potentially lethal force for trivial violations. Parsons again:

[I]mmersion in the police point of view… is partly the reason police are given such free reign in society. But although citizens spend a good deal of time identifying with and trying to understand the police, do the police spend as much time identifying with and trying to understand the citizenry?

Less and less, it seems.

H/T: Emmy Alcorn

The Katydid’s ears are in its knees


My son Joshua, who took this photo of a katydid near Halifax’s Frog Pond (part of The Dingle Park in Armdale) on October 12, writes:

Notice the pits in this creature’s front legs, which are its sound detection organs. They are situated as far apart as possible for females to better determine the direction of the mating call of males. Roald Dahl described this phenomenon is in James and the Giant Peach, when the Old Green Grasshopper tells James of his cousin, whose ears are on her legs.


I’m sure there’s a political metaphor lurking in this somatic curiosity, but I’ll just turn matters over to Dahl:

“You mean you didn’t know that either?” the
Centipede said scornfully.
“You’re joking,” James said. “Nobody could possibly
have his ears in his legs.”
“Why not?”
“Because…because its ridiculous, that’s why.”
“You know what I think is ridiculous?” the Centipede
said, grinning away as usual. “I don’t mean to be rude,
but I think it is ridiculous to have ears on the sides of
one’s head. It certainly looks ridiculous. You ought to
take a peek in the mirror some day and see for

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