Archive for August, 2009

A worthless book – but leave it alone

August 30, 2009 Leave a comment

      Update: Saskatchewan Minister Don Morgan has confirmed the province willl seek to recover any money due Colin Thatcher on the publication of his book, Final Appeal: Antomy of a Frame. The goverrnment intends to ask for voluntary payment but will ask the author and publisher why they believe the law does not apply to them.


There’s a dust-up underway in Saskatchewan — with implications for publishers and writers across Canada — over convicted murderer Colin Thatcher’s book about his trials.

Thatcher, who grew up in an influential Saskatchewan family where his father once served as premier, has put out his version of his arrest and conviction for the murder of his ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson.

Final AppealFinal Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame is due in bookstores this week from the Toronto publisher ECW Press.

I haven’t read the book. A reviewer who has, John Gormley of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, writes here that he can’t put his copy down. He says “Thatcher weaves together a masterful tale.” But he doesn’t believe a word of it.

Thatcher argues he’s been framed. And the Saskatchewan government has passed a special law, the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act, to strip him of any profits from the book.

Ironically, Thatcher says he doesn’t care because according to the law, the profits would go to the children of his ex-wife.

The Saskatchewan law is objectionable for several reasons:

  1. It singles out a particular individual. That’s not the way to design legislation that is meant to affect the general welfare.
  2. It has far-reaching clauses, including one that would even recapture the earnings of books authored by criminals “recollecting or expressing thoughts or feelings” about a crime.
  3. It has a chilling effect on freedom of expression — just another form of censorship.

I’m concerned about the law not because of the impact it may have on Thatcher or his profits. I’m concerned for its effect on others, in the future, who may be in quite different situations than Thatcher.

Right now, I’m researching a historical example of a wrongful conviction where the presumed murderer was hanged. Someone else later confessed to the crime. I’ll be using the information in a magazine article and perhaps a book.

Of course, the law wouldn’t affect me. But how about someone who’s been convicted and wants to publish a book that argus their innocence — like Thatcher is doing?  

Considering the number of wrongful convictions that we’ve recorded in Canada, I feel uncomfortable about interfering with one’s right to argue their innocence — even someone as apparently guilty as Thatcher.

Sure, the law doesn’t ban the book outright, it just takes anyway any compensation the author might earn.

When it comes to someone putting down their ideas on paper, and publishing it for the world to judge, that’s exactly what should happen — let the world make its judgment.

Yes, this covers hate literature, too. Just as Thatcher apparently makes a weak case for his innocence, let other purveyors of extreme views be judged by their words. Distasteful words are best fought by reason, not repression.

Erna Paris, the Canadian author of several outstanding books on international affairs, makes the argument against censorship in general in this article in The Globe and Mail.

She deals specifically with the banning of To Kill a Mockingbird (what not, again?). But her approach is more historical.

“The book banners,” she writes, “have always been with us and I’m sorry to say they have no plans to leave.”

The best we can do, she adds, is shore up the courage of those in the front lines. “They don’t need to back down at the slightest hint of dissent.”


The Lion of the Senate

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

The passing of an icon. What more can one say?








Let’s pay kids to go to school

August 25, 2009 Leave a comment

University students will be back in their classes in the coming month and most will be worrying not just about grades, but about how to to pay off their student loans after they graduate.

In our family, we’ve tried to use education savings plans for our late arrivals. Our first generation, however, didn’t have that advantage. Our eldest daughter and her husband largely paid their own way. By the time our youngest daughter was ready, we were either rich enough, or wise enough, to finance her schooling.

Tearing GatesWhat brings this to mind is a new book out in the U.S., Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education (University of California Press).

Canadians like to think that higher education is much more accessible, and more affordable, than in the United States.

But in reading of recent developments affecting the financing of Canada’s top schools, it’s evident that we’re seeing the same core problem of endowment losses from hard-hit contributors, and what author Peter Sacks calls “massive disinvestment” by government.

As a symptom of how hard Canadian universities are fighting for government funding, a consortium of five top schools is demanding they keep the lion’s share of research money. They argue that the leading universities — B.C., Alberta, Montreal, Toronto and McGill — deserve support because of their success in conducting research and turning out postgrad students.

Sounds like a reasonable argument, but it doesn’t go down well with the dozens of smaller Canadian universities. Jack Lightstone, president of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., puts it this way:

Starving people engage in desperate measures. That’s true of starving institutions, too.”

It’s the starvation of higher education that’s at the core of Sacks’ arguments in Tearing Down the Gates. The book the New York Times calls “indignant and informed” reveals a disastrous decline in public funding of American universities.

Sacks cites a typical example: state funding for the University of V irginia has dropped from 30 per cent a quarter-century ago to a mere eight percent today.

In Canada, the Big Five account for just five per cent of student enrollment, but have received one-third of all federal research grants. They’d like to keep it that way.

Politicians like to pay tribute to our universities as the source of future innovation and the only assurance of an educated work force that will  keep Canada competitive in the global information society. Their actions don’t always support their words.

I’ve long held the belief that education is so important that we should not only provide free university to qualified young Canadians, but that we should PAY them to attend.

That’s probably an unrealistic position in an era of government deficits, recession cutbacks and financial meltdowns.

But it’s the only way of ensuring that Canada will hone the skills it needs to compete in the 21st century. And let our young people compensate society by giving a year or two of themselves to public service. Like caring for the aged, doing environmental duty, or assisting the homeless.

With apologies to W.P. Kinsella (Field of Dreams), I say Give to them, and they will give back to us.

The Beasts of Afghanistan

August 23, 2009 1 comment

The slow and difficult process of counting votes is underway in Afghanistan following an election that is said to be a test of the West’s determination to build a viable regime that will be able to fend off future Taliban attacks.

The expected charges of vote-rigging are flying, as reported here. And out in the deserts, thousands more American troops are moving into action. But according to this New York Times dispatch, “something is missing”– help from the Afghan government:

It all raises serious questions about what the American mission is in southern Afghanistan — to secure the area, or to administer it — and about how long Afghans will tolerate foreign troops if they do not begin to see real benefits from their own government soon. American commanders say there is a narrow window to win over local people from the guerrillas.

It’s interesting how different sides in a conflict make different use of the same words. We used to call mujahideen “freedom fighters” when the U.S. was financing them to fight the Russians. Now we call them “rebels” or “insurgents.” We say we’re there as “liberators.”

I was reminded of this watching TV Ontario’s Saturday Night at the Movies: a stark reminder of the bitterness of Afghanistan in a movie called The Beast.

Beastposter1988A 1988 film, The Beast tells the story of a Russian tank crew stranded with their machine in the bleak wilderness of Kandahar during the Soviet-Afghan war.

It is decidely anti-Russian, depicting the terror-crazed tank commander as a sadistic monster willing to kill his own men as well as the enemy. It was filmed in southern California and the actors portraying the mujahideen were all Iraqis. They deliver a stunning performance in a thoroughly believable plot.

Who are the “beasts” in today’s Afghanistan? Obviously, the Taliban would nominate a different casts of players than would we. Canada has lost over 125 people there, but that is miniscule compared to the numbers of deaths the people of Afghanistan have had to endure.

If you haven’t seen The Beast, I suggest visit your video store today to see if you can rent a copy. Watching it won’t change the fact that the Taliban represent an oppressive, primitive force that will do no good for their homeland. But it may remind you that they’re human, too, and grieve for their losses.

How the government makes war on Canadians

August 16, 2009 2 comments

                   Update: (Aug 21) Ms. Mohamud and her lawyers have launched a lawsuit against the Canadian government seeking $2.5 million in damages.

I’ve been trying to concoct in my head a scenario that would explain the outrageous treatment of the Canadian citizen, Suaad Hagi Mohamud, who our government threw in jail when she showed up at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya, expecting to fly home after visiting her sick mother in Kenya.

Ms. Mohamud returned to Toronto Saturday night after enduring months of mistreatment, including a week in a dank prison cell despite the fact she’d committed no crime. Her story is well known in Canada, and her return home is reported here.

I have a lot of trouble trying to understand what went on. I can imagine Ms. Mohamud arriving at the airport that evening in May, having bid her ill mother a tearful goodbye. Her sorrow at leaving her mother is relieved by her joyful anticipation of soon seeing her 12-year-old son back in Toronto.

She presents her passport. Somebody at KLM, mindful of an airline’s responsibility to see that passengers carry proper documentation, becomes suspicious. Ms. Mohamud doesn’t look quite like the picture in the passport. Her lips don’t seem the same. KLM denies her a boarding pass, and calls the Canadian High Commission.

Consular officials apparently interview Ms. Mohamud. According to a news release from the Canadian Muslim Congress, Canada’s vice-consul, Liliane Khadour (described as a Canadian of Egyptian origin) writes to Kenyan authorities:

“…We have carried out conclusive investigations including an interview and have confirmed that the person brought to the Canadian High Commission on suspicion of being an impostor is not the rightful holder of the aforementioned passport.” She then went on to encourage the Kenyan authorities to prosecute Suaad Mohamud “regarding the improper use of the passport by a person other than the rightful holder.

This is where the story loses all credulity. Ms. Mohamud backed up her passport with a driver’s license and other documents. She identified her employer in Toronto and offered to be finger-printed.

What effort did the High Commission make to confirm/deny her story? Did they check to see if the passport in question had been reported stolen? Or to see if the real Ms. Mohamud was back in Toronto?

If they thought the Ms. Mohamud before them was some African imposter, wouldn’t a few questions about Toronto have set aside (or confirmed) their doubts? Where do you shop for groceries? What school does your son attend? A phone number for someone who can vouch for you?

Instead, Canadian officials have a Canadian citizen clapped in jail. Only when desperate family and friends appeal to the media, does the case come to light. Then in comes a legal aid lawyer back in Toronto, Raoul Boulakia. He valiantly takes up her cause. He runs into nothing but government stonewalling. Finally, he arranges a DNA testing which shows Ms. Mohamud is the mother of her Toronto son.

The fiasco unwinds to its ultimate denoeument. Canada asks Kenya to drop the charges. The prosecutor can’t find the letter. At the last minute, it mysteriously shows up. Ms. Mohamud is free to go. She is whisked away in a Canadian government SUV. (It’s okay for Canada to drive gas guzzlers in Africa, apparently.)

As a final insult, Prime Minister Harper uses the case to lecture Canadians on their behavior abroad. Obey foreign laws. The government can’t always rescue you if you get into difficulty. Which conveniently overlooks the fact that it’s Canada, not Ms. Mohamud, who is the author of her difficulty.

On CBC Sunday morning, Mr. Boulakia revels that Ms. Mohamud is seriously ill. Not just tired. Suffering from either pneumonia, tuberculosis, or some tropical disease. All attested to (how deliciously ironic) by a doctor who is an expert in the effects of torture. Any or all of these illnesses she probably contracted in that Kenyan jail. How would you feel if you’d been a passenger on her homebound flight?

Speaking with admirable restraint, Mr. Boulakia refused to be drawn into discussion of possible legal action. Her health comes first, he said. You can be sure there will be a lawsuit, that it will drag on for months if not years, and that in the end Canada will end up paying heavy damages, possibly in the millions.

What a shame Ottawa can’t just own up to the error of its ways, and pay up promptly, without this charade of heavy duty legal maneuvering, all of which will enrich any lawyers retained to defend the indefensible.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Toronto Star columnist, writes today that the case is suspiciously similar to those of a number of Canadians left stranded abroad recently by the Harper government.

Siddiqui agrees that bureaucratic misdeeds lie at the root of Ms. Mohamud’s problems. But, he says, we must not let those wrongs “obscure the systematic damage being inflicted by the Harper government” on our fundamental rights as Canadian citizens.

Is it more than coincidence that this cases follows a number of others where Canada has been less than aggressive in defending the interests of Canadians abroad? Omar Khadr. Marar Arar. Bashir Makhtal. Abousfian Abdelrazik. Or Maziar Bahari, the Canadian journalist detained in Iran.

It’s disturbing to notice that all these cases involve immigrants of color who have become Canadian citizens. Is there a mind-set in government that suggests these people are not really “Canadians”?

This is alarmingly reminiscent of Prime Minister Mulroney’s expression of condolences to India at the time of the Air India crash. He hadn’t seemed to notice that most of the victims were Canadian citizens.

Clearly, Ms. Mohamud’s ordeal is a prima facie case of bureaucratic bungling. Will anyone be held accountable? Will the government – its ministers right up to Mr. Harper — look themselves in the mirror and remind themselves, “a Canadian is a Canadian”?

What makes a Canadian author?

August 15, 2009 Leave a comment

There’s an interesting debate going on in The Globe and Mail about what constitutes a Canadian author — birth, subject matter, association with this country, or whatever.

Ken McGoogan, unquestionably a Canadian author himself — and a good one — kicked off this little tempest with a piece on the fact that a contender for the Mann Booker prize, Ed O’Laughin, is being hailed as a Canadian author despite the fact he’s been out of this country since the age of six.

What’s worse, McGoogan observes, is that O’Laughlin’s book, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, has nothing of Canada in it. He went on:

At that point, the literati begin to agonize – and not for the first time. What makes an author Canadian? Place of birth? Current residence? When does an immigrant author become a Canadian? What happens when a Canadian-born writer turns American? Confusion, angst, disgruntlement: This is what comes of investigating authors instead of books.

A week later, University of Toronto literature prof Andrew Lesk took up his pen to challenge McGoogan.

McGoogan, Lesk notes, is willing to accept Margaret Atwood as a Canadian author — which she indubitably is –even through her epic work The Handmaid’s Tale, is set in the U.S. and has no application to Canada. Yet, Lesk adds, McGoogan rejects works of Canadian-based authors Rohinton Mistry and Brian Moore because neither author was raised here, nor were their books set in Canada.

And Lesk quotes Mavis Gallant, clearly the most gifted of Canadian short story authors — who has spent most of her life in France — “I suppose that a Canadian is someone who has a logical reason to think he is one.”

In a rebuttal, McGoogan says “forget the author and his or her nationality. Does it (the work) manifest a sensibility that is distinctly Canadian? Is it relevant in some unexpected way?”

What we have here are a lot of subjective arguments based on the assumption that Canadian sensibilities are somehow distinct unto themselves. In what way: post-colonial, pride of history, maybe even postnational?

Name just about any country, and you’ll find the same common sensibilities. Commitment to public health? Try France or Switzerland. Social justice? How about Sweden or Holland. Respect for “First Nations” people?” Look at what Denmark is doing in Greenland.

Mocc tedlegraphOne of my favorite authors, W.P. Kinsella, is American-born but has lived in Canada since his youth. The author of Shoeless Joe crafted several books set in rural Alberta. One of his most hilarious, Moccasin Telegraph, is largely forgotten today but it’s worth revisiting for its dazzling political incorrectness. I have no idea whether Kinsella’s a Canadian citizen; I suspect he probably is. But if he’s not legally a Canadian, he’s not a Canadian author.

What I find amusing is that the whole debate has been set off by the choice of contenders for a literary competition that has dealt with this issue in a very simple way. The Mann Booker rules are clear: it’s open to any citizen of a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland.

There it is. Citizenship. One could make the case, perhaps, that landed immigrants to Canada could also qualify. Those are the rules I followed when I managed the Author’s Awards for magazine writing.

Beyond that, there is no logical way one can impose presumptions of “Canadianness” on an author’s work. I just published a non-fiction book about Scott Joplin and the Ragtime era — set almost entirely in the United States — with an American publisher. Does this make me, a Manitoba-born boy, any less of a Canadian author?

Come off it, Ken and Andrew. You’re both on the proverbial slippery slope. A Canadian is a Canadian. What they write about, where the story’s set, and whether it contributes to Canadian values — or, as with a lot of stuff, is literary junk — is really of no merit.

If it’s by a Canadian, it’s Canadian. We’re stuck with it.

At CBC, all that’s old is new again

August 12, 2009 Leave a comment

It is truly the “dog days” of Summer when your TV screen is filled with endless repeats. Repeats that no one really wants to watch anyway, compared to the better uses we can make of our time.

But this Summer, the re-runs are more prolific than ever on CBC-TV. What really hurts is that they come at us during a lousy — cold, wet and rainy — time when our options for diversions are fewer than usual.

The weather’s better around our place this week. But when even The National starts running old news items — as it did this week with a piece on Canadian asbestos exports — I say it’s time to ask what’s going on?

The repeats are even more obvious on CBC Radio. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard endless repeats of Dispatches items, replays of The Debaters, or the endless repetition of features from The Current.

The CBC warned us, back in May, that the network’s $171 million shortfall this year means more repeat programming. As one example, they’ve cut in half the old two-hour noontime call-in shows (surely one of the most economical types of broadcasting) in favor of jamming in more re-runs.

Come August 31, the CBC will expand its supper-time local TV newscasts from 60 to 90 minutes. But listen to this: CBC spokesman Chris Ball cites the increase not as a means of delivering a fuller range of local news, but as “as a way to do things smarter and do things on a cost-effective basis.” Cheaper, in other words.

At the bottom of the CBC’s soul-searching is the conflict between buying high-priced American shows that will draw ad-rich audiences, and of fulfilling what should be its primary role of giving Canadians information and cultural content that supports our uniqueness in the world.

You can see an attempt to do this in the two-part mini series, Iron Road, that began last Sunday night and winds up next Sunday. It’s the melodramatic and not entirely historically accurate story of a Chinese girl who comes to Canada (Gold Mountain) in search of her father, lost during the building of the railway in B.C.

BoyinPictureI watched with a critical eye because I’m just finishing up work on my Young Adult title, The Boy in the Picture. It’s the story of young Edward Mallandaine, the boy whose shining face peers out from the famous picture of the driving of the Last Spike of the CPR.

Part sex drama, part kung fu movie, The Iron Road has some beautiful scenes and well played out vignettes. It’s the first joint Chinese-Canadian film production in 22 years and it’s based on what was originally an opera.

The Iron Road, however, is more fiction than fact. The Canadian Pacific Railway is replaced by the Nickel Railroad, and none of the characters even suggest the real people who recruited six thousand Chinese workers to drive the railway up the Fraser River canyon and across the mountains into Alberta.

Whether a production like this creates an appreciation and understanding for Canada’s heritage is highly arguable. It brings the fact of the railway building to a broad Canadian audience. But it tells us nothing of the struggle than brought it into existence, beyond providing a worthwhile recognition of the ordeal of its Chinese laborers. That’s entertainment!