The dead man was a notorious bully who continually threatened others

On Monday, CBC reporter Phonse Jessome recounted sensational excerpts from what purported to be a confession by one of the fishermen accused of killing Philip Boudreau June 1. He supplemented his reporting with editorial comments that portrayed the killing as an unfathomable escalation of a feud over “fishing territory.”

Based on widely known but lightly reported facts, the escalation is not unfathomable. To portray it as arising out of a “feud” over “territory” is to adopt one side in highly contentious matter.

Tuesday, while reporting a brief court appearance by the accused men, Jessome added more editorial commentary, stressing the trauma experienced by the Boudreau’s family, portraying defense lawyer Joel Pink as “crafty,” and accusing defense lawyer Nash Brogan of “blaming the victim” for comments that, in my view, gave a more accurate account of the backstory than the CBC’s.

Boudreau copy

There’s an odd uncertainty about exactly what documents the CBC possesses or has seen. At various points, CBC newscasters, program hosts, and Jessome himself described the reporter as having “obtained the police file,” “obtained parts of the police file,” “read the police file,” “read parts of the police file,” and even, in one statement by Jessome, as having “read the file several times.”

Throughout his reports, Jessome appears to be describing the statement, not quoting from it, and quotation marks are conspicuously absent from the CBC’s written version of the story.

These discrepancies may amount to nothing more than sloppiness, but the CBC ought to clear them up. Knowing first hand how thoroughly CBC producers and lawyers vet stories like this, I find the circumlocution unusual. There is a big difference between having obtained (and retained a copy of) an entire police file, and having been shown parts of a file selected by someone with an interest in the case.

There’s another problem. Where do you get access to a police file in a murder prosecution? Almost certainly from the police or the prosecutors. Given that the death appears to have grown out of an altercation, police and prosecutors may have trouble getting a second degree murder conviction against any one of the accused, let alone all three*. Whether selected by police, prosecutors, or Jessome, the précis Jessome presented served to buttress a charge of murder, rather than manslaughter, against the man who pulled the trigger, and to implicate the two other crewmen in the most serious elements of the crime.

Any reporter given access to the electrifying documents Jessome saw or obtained would have reported their contents. Still, I wish the CBC had gone beyond its rote caution that the information “has not been admitted into evidence, or tested in court,” and examined the reasons why someone on one side of the case may have wanted this part of the police file to come out now, months before trial.

Throughout his reporting, Jessome adopts the line of the dead man’s family and supporters to misrepresent the killing as a feud arising out of a dispute over “fishing territory.” There is no territory in the lobster fishery. Any fisherman licensed to catch lobster in District 26 District 29 is legally entitled to set traps anywhere around Isle Madame. Informal traditional family fishing berths may be deeply felt, but they have no legal standing.

In any case, Boudreau was not a fisherman, a fact the news media still fails to grasp more than three weeks after the incident. Here’s an online headline from today’s Cape Breton Post:


And from the Halifax Chronicle-Herald:

Chronicle-Herald fisherman

(To their credit, Herald editors apparently caught the error. Later online versions of the story omit the fisherman reference.)

Even if Jessome accepts the local tradition of family-based lobster berths, Boudreau, as a non-fisherman, had no territory to defend by cutting traps. What he did have was a long criminal record for property crimes. The community knew him as a bully who, among other things, frequently threatened to burn down the homes of anyone who crossed him.

For years, Boudreau used a small motorboat to steal lobster from the traps of licensed fishermen, then brazenly sold them by the side of the road in Isle Madame. He took sport in speeding past working fishermen, taunting them by waving lobsters he had just removed from their traps.

This spring, Boudreau escalated his vandalism by cutting the buoy lines from traps of fishermen who allegedly encroached on an area where his brother liked to fish.

In a local store on the night before his death, Boudreau encountered one of the men who would be accused of killing him the next day. He brandished a knife at the fisherman, and used it to demonstrate how he had cut the lobsterman’s traps.

Let me pause here in anticipation of those who may accuse me of justifying the taking of human life. Murder and manslaughter are never justified. The people of Isle Madame are rightly horrified at the events of June 1. I share their horror and dismay, but sugar-coating the events leading up to the crime serves no useful purpose.

Today’s media have a growing appetite for glorifying victims of crime that I find distasteful—and sometimes suspect. Maudlin, one-sided portrayals of the family dynamics in this case do nothing to illuminate the events.

This leads me to my greatest objection to news coverage of the Boudreau murder. Fishermen and others have complained to authorities about Boudreau’s flagrant violations of fisheries law for years. One official told me he believed more than 20 complaints had been lodged with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In one case, Boudreau reportedly told a local fisheries officer he would burn down his house “with you inside,” a threat that goes far beyond fisheries law to violate Criminal Code prohibitions on death threats.

There is a widespread impression on Isle Madame that little, if anything, was done in response to these complaints. At a minimum, the RCMP and DFO owe the public a full account of how they responded. Some residents I’ve spoken with believe an inquiry is in order. Barring an early and satisfactory explanation from the two agencies, I am inclined to agree.

This long history of complaints to law enforcement agencies is unquestionably a story worthy of Phonse Jessome’s investigative talents—a story every news organization in the province has ignored.

* In principle, police and especially prosecutors are supposed to avoid approaching criminal cases with a mindset that equates getting a conviction with winning. They should certainly avoid selective leaks to build public support for their case before trial. The Public Prosecution Service owes Nova Scotians an explanation of this leak.

A video tour of Nova Scotia’s grandest old theatre

Here’s a nice touch: As part of the promotion for the Savoy Theatre’s forthcoming production of Les Misérables (May 24 to 29), the Cape Breton Post and Seaside Communications have put together a video describing the Savoy’s fascinating history and architecture:

The narrator, Steve “Beak” MacDonald, pretty much grew up with the Savoy. His parents, Scotchie and Mary Marsh MacDonald, were major supporters of the theatre when it hosted Rotary Club musicals in the 1960s and ’70s. Actors, musicians, and crew members associated with the productions were often billeted in the MacDonalds’ home on Sydney’s Wentworth Park.

Here’s an image of the theatre entrance from decades gone by:

Savoy Theatre-old-500

Video production by Jason LeFrense and Brandon Ferguson of Seaside. (Disclosure: Seaside is a client and Beak is a friend.)

Retribution north of Smokey — conflicting views

The Cape Breton Post has a thoughtful followup to my post about Victoria Standard publisher Jim Morrow’s refusal to name the members of a police advisory council in Victoria County for fear they might face retribution in the district north of Cape Smokey. Morrow portrayed the area as rife with retributive justice and public fear, and asserted that new houses cannot be insured there because of widespread arson.

The Post noted that accounts of the social fabric in Northern Cape Breton often conflict:

Delilah Delores Dixon and Peter Sheldon MacKinnon, who were recently ordered out of their Bay St. Lawrence Road home under the province’s Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act, were alleged to have been using and selling illegal drugs, and playing host to a group dubbed “Society’s Rejects.”

Now, try to square that image with one painted by Dina Waik and Debb Bertazzon of Toronto in a letter to the editor published on Sept. 4, 2010. The two were trapped in Meat Cove after a torrential rain storm on Aug. 22, 2010 washed out that community’s roads and bridges.

“Allow us to thank the wonderful residents of Meat Cove who helped us in every way and opened their homes to us when we were in need,” ran part of the letter, which depicted how the two tourists were fed, lodged and entertained free of charge.

“We were absolutely inspired by their thoughtfulness, consideration and insistence that our needs be put before their own, despite what they had already lost.”

It’s difficult to square the two images, because one is of a community at its worst due to a few dealing with chronic adversity and the other is of a community at its best in the face of acute adversity.

In further mixed messages,. the Post said Johnny Buchanan, municipal councillor for the area, refused to speak with the paper on the record about the arson problem. Given the long history of arson, I wondered whether more sophisticated policing was in order. Already in place, says the Post:

The Post learned Wednesday that the Ingonish Beach RCMP detachment’s allotment of five officers has been augmented by four Mounties brought in specifically to investigate arsons. Seemingly, once those files are cleared up, the four will leave. But the root problem will remain. Police can’t be everywhere a ne’er-do-well flicks a lighter, but a permanently bolstered force would help.

For its part, Information Morning Cape Breton, first to take note of the concern, had a reporter in the area Wednesday, and plans to follow up on the story tomorrow.

More on that Sydney Harbor silt plume

The Cape Breton Post’s Chris Shannon has a thorough and detailed account of Environment Canada’s failure to monitor or control rampant siltation from the Sydney Harbor dredging boondoggle project (first reported here).

In among the buck-passing and not-my-department quotes lies this gem:

The federal environmental screening assessment report is supposed to be posted online. But a check of each of the departments’ websites didn’t turn up the report.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said the screening report couldn’t be found on its agency’s website either since it doesn’t conduct that type of environmental assessment.

“It’s really the responsible authorities that are responsible for the mitigation measures, the follow-up programs, and that would all be detailed in the screening report,” Lucille Jamault said.

Did Ms. Jamault really say the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has no responsibility to provide access to environmental assessments? Did she say it with a straight face?

The real problem here is the politicization of Environment Canada. Projects should not be subject to varying standards of environmental assessment, monitoring, and control simply because they are popular or politically useful to the government in power.

Herald vs. coyotes

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim is the title of a 1980 compendium of unintended double-entendre headlines collected by the Columbia Journalism Review. It illustrates the power of tiny punctuation flubs — in this case, a missing hyphen — to radically alter meaning. Readers also have to chuckle in wonderment over how small a town must be for the local newspaper to deem dog bites newsworthy.

When the dog is a coyote, however, and the person bitten is a 16-year-old girl in a National Park where a 19-year-old woman was killed by coyotes 10 months ago, there’s no doubt about newsworthiness. Still, consider how differently two daily newspapers reported the story:

Coyote bites sleeping teen in head,” was the Cape Breton Post‘s accurate but subdued headline.

INGONISH — A teenage girl was bitten by a coyote early Monday morning in the same national park in Cape Breton where a woman was killed by the animals last year.

Coyote attacks girl in Highlands,” screamed the Halifax Chronicle-Herald in a headline that spanned the top of page one.

A second vicious coyote attack on a visitor at Cape Breton Highlands National Park prompted park wardens to start setting traps early Monday morning.

Source: Halifax Chronicle-Herald
Source: Halifax Chronicle-Herald

A photo of a sinister, prowling coyote illustrated the Herald story, together with a graphic showing a second coyote posing triumphantly astride a map of the Cape Breton Highlands. Lines connected the posing coyote to the sites of the two incidents, which took place 40 kilometres apart, separated by the least hospitable terrain in the Maritimes.

The two stories, both written by competent, journeymen reporters, agreed on the relatively benign facts of the case — a couple of bites to the back of the head, requiring a few stitches at outpatients. The Post’s overall treatment of the event was consistent with these facts. The Herald, by contrast, contrived to hype the story and frighten readers with lurid adjectives, illustrations, and headlines. I’m curious to know whether the unwarranted “vicious” was composed by the reporter, or added later by the desk.

The Herald has long had an outsized appetite for bad news from Cape Breton. Whether staff reductions have contributed to its recent drift into sensationalism (see examples here, here, here, and here) is a topic for another day. For now, it’s enough to point out the striking differences in the two papers’ treatment of a coyote bite.

Hat tip: SP.

CBC weather panic — feedback

After hectoring us for five days about Bill, a hurricane that was actually a tropical storm, the media took an only slightly more restrained approach to Danny, a weak tropical storm that actually appears to be a half-day rain shower. CBC still wrung its hands for much of the week, but didn’t cancel regular programs. Many contrarian readers responded to the hype, starting after the jump with CW.

Continue reading CBC weather panic — feedback