Archive for May, 2009

Our love-in with Michelle Jean

When Michelle Jean, the Governor General, had herself photographed eating raw seal meat this week, support for the monarchy probably moved up several notches in Canada.

Phone-in shows like CBC’s Ontario Today brought almost 100 per cent support from callers. Rex Murphy, the mother corp’s resident curmudgeon, launched an on-air love-in by proclaiming her appointment by Paul Martin as the best thing the deposed Liberal PM ever did. A sentiment I have to agree with!

Murphy followed up with a fawning column in Saturday’s Globe and Mail and set aside his Sunday Cross-Country Checkup on CBC Radio (May 31) for a national discussion on Michelle Jean’s performance as G-G.

Madame Jean’s willingness to eat a bit of raw seal meat was meant, of course, as a gesture of support for the beleaguered seal hunt industry. A carefully orchestrated photo opp, no doubt engineered by the Prime Minister’s Office. And a terse response to the European  Union’s ban on commercial seal imports from Canada.

Most callers are cheering Michelle Jean for giving a rare bit of Canadian back-talk against foreign criticism of what is a natural way of life for our Inuit population.

They’re fed up with critics from outfits like PETA, as well as those who have no difficulty eating beef or chicken, or wearing designer leather clothes, but deign to condemn the seal hunt.

Will the wave of adulation for Madame Jean help stem the slow but steady rise in republican sentiment in Canada?

Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, isn’t impressed. He says opinion polls show about 55 per cent favor abolition.

The QueenIt might be a stretch to assume that because we think it’s okay to eat raw seal meat, we all love the Queen. In fact, most Canadians do admire Queen Elizabeth. Robert Hardman’s book A Year With the Queen (Tandem) helps explain this. It’s just that we don’t have the same sense of felicity for Prince Charles. Few see him as a suitable future king. Prince Harry, maybe.

Australians have had a serious discussion of their country’s future linkage with the monarchy. In a referendum a couple of years ago, they voted narrowly to stick with the status quo. Their Governor General thinks the issue will soon be back on the front burner.

Here, support for the monarchy is probably more the result of apathy than affection. Quebec would love to see us cut our last tie with Britain. But most Canadians seem to think the whole issue a bore, something not worth arguing about.

And it does help to distinguish us from the United States!


My new book, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime, explores the life of Joplin and other musicians, writers and artists whose works brought such profound changes to modern culture in the Ragtime Era, the period between the 1890s and the First World War. Check it out here.


Where is Edward Greenspoon?

The sudden departure of Globe and Mail editor-in-chief Edward Greenspoon and his replacement by John Stackhouse is raising all kinds of questions about what’s going on at Canada’s most influential newspaper.

The change came in an abrupt statement carried online and in the newspaper:

“The Globe and Mail has appointed John Stackhouse as its new editor-in-chief, effective today.”

As is usually the case in corporate shake-ups, the departing Greenspoon was given short shrift in the announcement. Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley simply said: “I know you will join me in thanking Ed  and wishing him well as he moves on to new challenges.”

That’s a pretty cavalier way to dismiss the contribution of the man who led The Globe’s successful move into media convergence, marrying the paper’s daily print edition with an impressive, value-added online presence.

The Globe is probably the most online-wise paper in North America, if not the world. It’s managed to use the web as a supplementary platform for the paper by offering reader interface and special features that can only be delivered online.

The latest example is Roy McGregor’s This Country column, which has taken on the form of a combination print column and online blog.

There are rumors that the blow-up came from Greenspoon’s resistance to further cuts in the paper’s editorial budget. I suspect the cleavage goes deeper.

Crawley’s announcement referred to the need for “new skills and different styles of leadership.” It went on to suggest that as the paper’s focus on the web grows, it’s going to have to start charging for access. Makes sense, but surely Greenspoon would not be in disagreement on that point.

While it’s sad to see Greenspoon go, we all wish Stackhouse a productive and successful tenure. He’s been a great foreign correspondent, business editor, and all-round editorial powerhouse.

Timbit NationStackhouse is the author of two books I admire. Out of Poverty (Random House), is his account of the struggle at the local level to rise above bare existence in countries like India and Uganda.

Stackhouse turned his attention back to Canada in Timbit Nation: A Hitchhiker’s View of Canada (Vintage Canada). Part travelogue and part national pulse-taking, it was published in 2004 and in many ways, foretold the loss of jobs and incomes that Canadians are experiencing today.

By coincidence or not, Greenspoon’s departure is simply the latest of a depressing list of editorial leave-takings from North America’s top dailies. The Globe is at least the 17th major daily to make a change at the top in the past three years. The list includes the likes of USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

Greenspoon’s departure is more evidence of the crisis confronting the news media. At a time when readership is dwindling due to the Internet, advertising revenues have fallen off the cliff because of the recession.

The Globe’s been less affected that most. Its circulation has stood up, especially in comparison to its would-be competitor, The National Post.

Much of the improvement in The Globe in recent years can be laid at the doorstep of The Post. If Conrad Black ever made a positive contribution to Canadian journalism, it was in  providing a competitor that forced The Globe to step up from its lethargic, holier-than-thou attitude of pre-Post days.

These are hard days for the media, television as well as print. Switching editors is not exactly like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Media watchers will be keen to see if Stackhouse is able to deliver on Crawley’s promise of “new skills and different styles of leadership.”


My new book, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime, explores the life of Joplin and other musicians, writers and artists whose works brought such profound changes to modern culture in the Ragtime Era, the period between the 1890s and the First World War. Check it out here.

Mavericks in our midst

I’m at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary for the opening event of this year’s meeting of the Writers’ Union of Canada. The Glenbow is a magnificent repository of Western regional culture. It has over a million artifacts and 28,000 works of art.

The attraction this evening is Mavericks, which we’re told is the first ever museum exhibition based on a book.

MavericksThe book is Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta (Penguin Canada) by the Calgary novelist Aritha van Herk. She’s tracked down some of the most colorful and influential figures that have made this idiosyncratic province — for better or for worse — what it is today.

The Glenbow has cleverly designed exhibits depicting many of the characters in the book and the forces that they grappled with in building Alberta.

My favorite mavericks include Bob Edwards, the legendary editor of the Calgary Eye Opener that went out of business with his death in the early 1920s. Bob liked a drink. He once said, “Everyone has their favorite bird. Mine is the bat.”

His preferred target was the Canadian Pacific Railway. After reporting a series of train wrecks, he published a picture of the railway’s president under the heading, “Another CPR Wreck.”

Another favorite of mine from the Maverick cast of characters is Sam Steele, the Northwest Mountie who fired one of the last shots in the Northwest Rebellion, helped police the building of the CPR, kept law and order in the Yukon, and led a Canadian cavalry contingent in the Boer War.

A placard on Steele carries his famous quote reminding his troops that there is no countrry in the world that is superior to Canada. His remark reflected the jingoistic nationalism of the time. I often think it also expressed a sentiment that is even more valid today.

Great  KafrioioSpeaking of the Boer War, I was delighted that Ms van Herk shared the stage with Fred Stenson, author of another wonderful book, The Great Karoo (Doubleday Canada). It’s the story of a group of Alberta cowhands who see duty in the South African war.

Stinson brilliantly captures both the horse-wise culture of the cowhands and the incredible arrogance and incompetence of their British commanders. I’m halfway through and enjoying every page.

A distinguished First Nations elder rounded out last night’s panel.

Today, we’re talking about such writerly issues as the ways in which the Internet is impacting the reading, writing and selling of books. More on this later.


My new book, Scott Joplin and the Age of  Ragtime (McFarland) explores Joplin’s life and that of other musicians, writers and artists who brought profound changes to modern culture in the Ragtime Era, the years between the 1890s and  World War I. Check it out here or here. 

What makes great kid lit?

I’ve just spent several fascinating hours reviewing more than 30 submissions to the Writers’ Union of Canada annual children’s story writing competition.

The winner gets $1,500 and the top three entries will be submitted to publishers.

As a first-round judge, my job was to pick out five or more entries worthy of further consideration by a final judging panel.

I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of all the stories. I was faced with difficult choices which reminded me again  of what a crap shoot it is for a writer to get her work published.

I ended up selecting seven stories — five fiction, one poem and one non-fiction work, for the next round of judging.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by mentioning some of the plot lines.

There was a well-told tale of the long necked women of Burma, the usual barnyard creatures piece, one on the flight of the Silver Dart at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, and a piece that brought me tears of reminisence about a boy who is taken by his father every year to cut down a Christmas tree. After his father dies. he continues the tradition with his children.

The stories got me to thinking about what makes a good children’s story. For one thing, they have to be imaginative enough that a parent doesn’t mind reading them over and over again.

This was certainly true of the great kid lit that I remember reading to my children. Anything by Dr. Seuss, especially The Cat in the Hat, and the classic, The Man Who Wouldn’t Wash His Dishes, by Phyllis Krasilovsky.

Man Who DidntThis poor guy lets his dishes pile up night after night until he finally puts them out in the rain. They all get washed, and thereafter he resolves to do his dishes faithfully every night. My daughter Brenda loved this book and I read it to her time after time.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I recall one unhappy example: Alice in Wonderland. It gave me nightmares, and I don’t think I ever finished it. Today, of course, there’s Harry Potter.

The Canadian author Marie-Louise Gay, who has won major awards for her children’s stories, says kid lit has to be able to appeal to “incredibly brilliant, curious and observant people.”

English author Fiona Smith, at The Crafty Writer, says it’s not hard to tell a good children’s story:

Is it fun to read? Is the plot well constructed with a good beginning, middle and end? Are the characters engaging and realistic? Does the plot line deal with emotional issues without being too soppy? Does it dare to be daring?

Great children’s literature can be controversial as well as entertaining. Deborah Ellis, the Canadian who has written widely for children about the Middle East, got into hot water with her Three Wishes. In it, she tells the stories of Israeli and Palestinian children buffeted by war and strife.

Young readers deserve to be exposed to this taste of reality.

On the fun side, I’m looking forward to the October release of Spike Jonezs’ movie, Where the Wild Things Are. It’s based on that great book by Maurice Sandak. Max, a disobedient little boy sent to bed without his supper, creates his own world — a forest inhabited by ferocious wild creatures that crown Max as their ruler.

A small confession: My interest in children’s stories has been stimulated by the fact that I’m writing a Young Adult book (for readers over 12) on the exploits of one Edward Mallandaine. He’s the B.C. boy in the famous picture of the driving of the Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Who was he, where did he come from, and what happened to him?

You’ll have to read the book!

Crime, the author, and the law

A couple of things have got me thinking about authors and crime, and how the two fit together so naturally in a literary sense. 

A promo on TV this week for a showing of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s remarkable book about the slaying of a Kansas farm family, reminded me of the power of this genre of story telling. Capote’s book, as you’ll know, is regarded as having created a new literary style, the non-fiction novel.

In Cold Blood

I re-read the book recently and found it even more compelling than on my first go-round. The movie, which I’ve never seen, probably tells the tale in an even more harrowing fashion. It was filmed using the actual crime scenes – the house where the murders occurred, the store when the two killers bought their weapons, even some of the people who served on the jury are cast in their real life roles.

The other event that got me on this topic was the passage by the Saskatchewan legislature of its new law to prevent criminals from benefitting financially from their crimes, either by writing books, or selling memorabilia.

It’s aimed at diverting any profits Colin Thatcher might earn from his book, Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame, to be published by ECW Press, Toronto.

Thatcher stands convicted of arranging the murder of his ex-wife JoAnne Wilson. He served 22 years before being paroled in 2006. He still maintains his innocence, which accounts for the title of his book.

The Saskatchewan law, the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act, sailed through the Legislature in just eight days. Its stated purpose “is to prevent persons convicted of, or charged with, a designated crime from financially exploiting the notoriety of their crimes.” Proceeds would be diverted to victims of crime.

Jack Davidson, ECW publisher, thinks the law may not apply to Thatcher’s book because it refers specifically to “the recounting of a crime.” Thatcher’s book deals not directly with the crime but with his legal struggle after his arrest.

I haven’t been able to find anything about the Thatcher book on the ECW web site. Surprising — you’d think they’d post a statement on the issue.

The Saskatchewan law is the latest in a long series of “Son of Sam” laws, dating back to a New York state law of the 1970s after the “Son of Sam” murders committed by David Burkowitz. The U.S. Supreme Court found that law unconstitutional in 1991 on the grounds that it was “overinclusive.” 

New York, and other states, have since passed more specific laws designed to meet First Amendment tests.

Ask the men and women who write about crime — either fiction or non-fiction – and I’m sure you’ll get a mixed reaction to these laws.

(I think it’s a bit ironic that Canada’s legendary hangman, Arthur Ellis, is memoralized by having his name on the awards given out  by the Crime Writers of Canada.)

Most people will probably agree that the idea of a convicted criminal profiting from his crimes offends the moral standards of society. 

But well-meaning measures too often have unintended consequences. They can be used to reach out and take in a far wider range of cases than lawmakers ever intended. For that reason, I’m against laws of this type.

The Canadian Side of Automotive History

Neil Reynolds has a marvellous column in The Globe and Mail on the Canadian part in the history of General Motors. It helps one realize how much this country’s past has been bound up in making cars. Read it here.

Writing history – and watching Mulroney

I’m a little late mentioning this, but The Beaver magazine, the magazine of Canadian history, published in Winnipeg, has been named Magazine of the Year at the first-ever Manitoba Magazine Awards.

I blushingly claim a small degree of credit for this. My article, The Boy in the Picture, copped the award for best editorial presentation. The article was about young Edward Mallandaine, the 18-year-old lad who got himself in the famous photograph of the driving of the Last Spike. That event marked the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway back in 1885.

When Mallandaine was a very old man, and I was a very young boy, I had the privilege of knowing him. He was the reeve (mayor) of my hometown of Creston, B.C.

I’m putting together a Young Adult book about his youthful adventures.












Another Beaver winner was my friend Christopher Moore who was recognized for the best regular column.

Chris is one of the writers for a book The Beaver and Harper Collins Publishers will publish later this year, 100 Photos that Changed Canada.


There’s no doubt that Brian Mulroney is a strong candidate for the unlikely title of most detested Prime Minister in Canadian history.

His current ordeal, where he’s facing tough questioning at the Oliphant Inquiry probing his business relationship with German-Canadian lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, is also, however, showcasing some endearing qualities.

It’s remembered that no Prime Minister had a more loyal Caucus that Mulroney (1984-1991). He inherited a fractious bunch of MPs after ousting Joe Clark, but by blarney and bluster, he won them all over.

Listening to his testimony on CBC Newsworld, I was struck by his facile use of colloquialisms.

In one circumstance, he commented that he’d be there “in a New York minute.” In another, about the honeymoon period of his relationship with Schreiber, he had him bouncing around “like an Energizer Bunny non-stop” while lobbying the government for an arms manufacturing plant.

For all the pressure he’s under, Mulroney is still able to show flashes of the easy-going personality that helped him cut such a wide swath in Canadian politics.

Fiasco on Parliament Hill

Consider these problems that demand the attention of Canadian lawmakers:

  1. The Great Recession — the impending collapse of General Motors and the deepening trough of economic malaise around the world
  2. The Tamil protests in Toronto that verge on civil violence and which the authorities seem powerless to resolve
  3. The wave of gun killings and gang violence that has scarred the streets of Vancouver and Toronto.

And what were Ottawa’s politicians focussed on this week? A dispute between an MP and her family’s servants, carrying all the soap opera elements of high comedy, tears, and doubtful protests of people who think they’ve been badly treated.

The media have covered the testimony before the House of Commons Immigration Committee of Ruby Dhalla, the Brampton MP, and her accusers, Magdalene Gordo and Richelyn Tongson. There’s no need for me to repeat any of it.

So what have we learned? Essentially nothing. The care-givers in the Dhalla household told their stories, but could provide no independent support for their complaints. Ms. Dhalla forecefully rebutted their testimony. If anything, she may have been too forceful. It would not have hurt her to have shown empathy for the obvious distress of the care-givers.

The Committee hearing was all bread and circus.  If there’s been any violation of federal laws governing immigant care-givers, or of provincial laws setting out pay, hours and working conditions, it is up to the responsible authorities to take action.

Controversies of this type do not belong on the agendas of House of Commons committees.

Let’s hope this fiasco on Parliament Hill has put an end to the matter. Eventually, the voters of Brampton Springdale will register their own judgement — the one that counts.