Archive for July, 2010

Are you ever coming home, Conrad Black?

July 20, 2010 Leave a comment


Unless someone is a threat to society, I always welcome the release of a felon from prison. We jail too many people, and everyone deserves a second chance. I hold this view despite the scurrilous propaganda of the Harper povernment that tries to convince us we’re endangered by a violent crime wave (we’re not) and that stiffer prison terms will solve the problem, if one exists (they won’t).

So I welcome the news that the former media baron Conrad Black has been released on bail from a Florida prison. Judge Amy St. Eve, who sentenced Black to six and one-half years on fraud and obstruction of justice charges, will not yet allow him to return to Canada. She requires more “certainty” of his financial condition.

Black says he would like to return pending a final resolution of the charges by the U.S. Court of Appeal. “It’s noice this time of year in Toronto.” Although he’s no longer a citizen, having given this up in his pursuit of the British Lordship title he ultimately attained, he still owns the Black family mansion (heavily mortgaged) on the Bridlepath in Toronto.

Mr. Black (forget Lord Black) seems to have emerged from prison a humbled, albeit still determined, man. He’s written of new understandings he gained of his fellow man while serving time in the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex.

He’s found out that inmates are not so different from the rest of us; more often, the victims of family neglect, medical or mental health problems, and plain bad luck.

The biggest question mark hanging over his future remains the obstruction of justice charge, which the Supremes did not touch. However, in finding the government at fault in its prosecution of the “honest services” and other charges, the Court may have undermined the obstruction charge as well.

If the fraud charges are found baseless, doesn’t that also render baseless any alleged obstruction of justice in their connection?

 Conrad Black occupies a unique niche in both publishing and literature. Almost any adjective can — and has been — applied to him: spendthrift, litigious, irascible.  He is also a writer of uncommon facility, a master of words and a maker of phrases. He is as well a dauntless researcher, an erudite judge of policies and men, and an entertaining raconteur. His biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Maurice Duplessis have all earned best seller status.

He’s in the final stages of writing the second installment to his autobiography, The Fight of My Life. McClelland & Stewart hope to publish this fall.

Aside from hearing Conrad Black speak on a couple of occasions, my only direct contact with him came from standing beside him and his wife Barbara Amiel, at a Toronto airport baggage carousel. I had flown in from Israel, as I presume they had. The difference was that they had an Air Canada hostess shepherding their bags for them.

Mr. Black rendered Canadian journalism a great favor in founding The National Post. Among other things, it’s made the Globe and Mail a serious newspaper, a status it did not always possess.

He has always maintained the charges against him are groundless. Now he’s much closer to their total nullification. We hope he will soon be a completely free man, and we wish him well.


Police, the media and the G20 – answers needed

July 11, 2010 Leave a comment

UPDATE: (Aug. 6) A $45 million class action lawsuit was launched today against the Toronto Police and the federal government on behalf of people who allege they were unlawfull detained during the G20 meeting.

At first it seemed likely the G20 security clampdown in Toronto — with its detention of nearly one thousand people — would be allowed to pass unchallenged. Mayor David Miller pronounced himself satisfied with the work of the police and Chief Blair declared his pride in his men. Premier Dalton McGuinty saw no reason for any inquiry into police behavior.

They were supported by the public. A poll showed 80 percent backing for the actions of the police. And why not? We’d seen TV of black-clad vandals smashing store windows and torching police cars. 

Then the fog of confusion began to lift. The media, initially focused on the wave of vandalism that disrupted protest gatherings in Toronto, began to pick up on the eye-witness accounts of the “alternative media.” They came from the army of freelance writers for unofficial media sites and independent blogs. Some carried their own media badges, but to the police these meant nothing. Nor, as it turned out when the police began to arrest mainstream media reporters, did the officially accredited badges mean very much.

Bit by bit, the solid front of police approval began to crumble. The Toronto Police Services Board reversed its position and announced plans for an independent inquiry. The office of the Independent Police Review Director is looking into the complains of five journalists who alleged manhandling and false arrests.

The House of Commons Public Safety Committee called a special sitting — scheduled for this week — to look at the actions of police and how the G20’s $1 billion security tab was spent. The Special Investigations Unit, an arm’s-length police watchdog, is checking into five incidents of serious injury.

Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin is to investigate the handling of the special amendment to the Public Works Protection Act which police used to mislead the public as to their power and authority.

It is highly unlikely any of these inquiries would be underway without the presence during the G20 of “citizen media” — ordinary people with cameras and cell phones who greatly outnumbered the mainstream media, who put themselves into the middle of the demonstrations, and who, in many cases, were beaten up and detained by police.

(One is reminded of the video taken by a “civilian” at the Vancouver Airport of the tasering of Robert Dziekenski.)

Christie Blatchford, the Globe and Mail columnist who has a reputation as a strong advocate for the police and the military, has been highly critical of these “alternative media.” She’s written:

let us not pretend that these folks are working journalists or that they are the equivalent. They aren’t, for the most part.”

But they have the right as citizens to observe life around them and in many cases, as the mainstream media soon learned, their reports were essential to an understanding of what went on along the streets of Toronto two weekends ago.

Steve Paikin of TVO was one of the first to report the behavior of police gathered outside the Novotel Hotel who surrounded a peaceable group and whose arrests included the free-lance reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian. Others witnessed the crackdown on people resting on the lawns of Queen’s Park — the so-called “Free Speech” zone. Some of these incidents were covered by “The Real News”:

It was there that police are alleged to have seized the prosthetic leg of a man on the grounds it was a dangerous weapon. He was held in a wheelchair in a cell at the now infamous Eastern Avenue detention centre for more than 24 hours.

In the end, only a few hundred of the thousand or so detained have been charged, mostly with minor crimes of disturbing the peace.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International are calling for a full-out federal inquiry. As Prime Minister Harper is the architect of the folly of putting the G20 into downtown Toronto, it is highly unlikely such a wide-ranging investigation will ever take place.

Some of the more pertinent questions that need to be answered:

  • What strategy were the police following when they chose to allow vandals to roam unmolested on their downtown window-smashing forays?
  • Why was a crowd of a thousand non-violent people held in police encirclement Sunday night in pouring rain?
  • Why did the police stand by their claim they could arrest people within five metres of the Security fence, when they knew this was not the case?
  • Why did not the Ontario government make a clear public disclosure (instead of an obscure posting on a remote web site) of their amendment to the Public Works Protection Act?

The bigger question that hangs over all this is unlikely to be answered by any of the inquiries that are about to get underway. It is this: Are we witnessing the militarization of Canadian society — the beginning of an era when profligate spending and unchallenged authority is put in the hands of a few, a society where security and order outranks freedom and democracy?

Why did Harper Lee never publish again?

Sunday, July 11, besides being the day of the 2010 World Cup Final, is notable as the 50th anniversary of the publication by J.B. Lippincott & Co. of Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’m at the Toronto Reference Library to hear a panel discuss the enduring literary consequence of that great work. The panel includes the musician/author Dan Hill and the Jamaica-born filmmaker, Clement Virgo, as well as Toronto school trustee Josh Matlow.

All agreed the book is one of the great works of 20th century literature, a truly American novel that could emerge only from the 1930s milieu of the U.S. Deep South, with its ingrained racism, emerging liberalism, and one man courageous enough to make a stand for justice.

We’re all familiar with this coming of age novel of the tomboy Scout, her brother Jem, their friend Dill, their father Atticus Finch, the family maid Calpurnia, and the black victim of a trumped-up rape charge, Tom Robinson.


The book, the panel duly noted, has been translated into forty languages, had sold forty million copies, and continues to sell a million a year.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a book that’s been challenged, and sometimes banned, in dozens of jurisdictions and forbidden inclusion on the curriculum of many American schools, and a few in Canada.

Josh Matlow spoke of the recent challenge in Toronto (from a single parent) who said she was uncomfortable with many scenes, and the use of the word “nigger.” The school board reviewed the book, opted to keep it on the curriculum, but agreed to allow the woman’s child to study another book in its place.

Matlow thinks it was a mistake to permit the substitution.

“Aren’t there truths we want all our children to recognize?” he asked. “Do we not have basic values that everyone should learn?”

As another panelist noted, “You can’t erase history.”

Who can forget the great speech that Atticus made in defending Tom?

It’s one of the great mysteries of 20th century American literature that Harper Lee never published another book. She collaborated on the filming of the movie starring Gregory Peck (who was so impressed with Lee that he named his son Harper). She helped Truman Capote research In Cold Blood. And she wrote much of a second novel, The Long Goodby, and wrote a non-fiction book about an Alabama serial killer, but declined to have either of them published.

She’s still living at 84, but she’s refused to make speeches or give interviews and lives largely the life of a recluse, which raises comparisons with J.D. Salinger.

The panel talked a bit about why Harper Lee never published another book. My theory is that To Kill a Mockingbird reached such a level of perfection that Lee knew she would never be able to match it. She’d poured her whole life into it. It had drained her, psychologically and creatively.

If this be so, she made the right decision. Some authors have only one book in them, no matter how great it might be.

Harper Lee worked as an airlines reservation clerk in New York while she harbored ambitions of being a writer. She opened an envelope one day that contained a check from a benefactor, with a note admonishing her:

You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

Without that help, the panel agreed, it’s unlikely Mockingbird would ever have been written. Pretty good evidence for cultural subsidies.

Harper Lee proved the old writing adage to write about what you know. She’d grown up as a tomboy daughter of a Georgia legislator and lawyer. She’d observed first hand the segregation of her era. She’d been a teen-age friend of neighbor Capote. One can imagine them sharing their ambitions for literary success.

One of the panelists commented that he can’t re-read Mockingbird without hearing the voice of Gregory Peck in the dialogue of Atticus Finch. How true. I think no other book, with the possible exception of Doctor Zhivago, has been so well reflected in its firm rendition.

To Kill a Mockingbird survives because it contains eternal truths, applicable to all societies and to all eras. No wonder it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a 1999 poll by Library Journal.

Fretting about the Media and the G20

I’ve been fretting for the past couple of weeks about the Canadian media’s coverage of the G20 meeting in Toronto, and its aftermath.

I seriously question the reliability of the mainstream media’s (MM) reportage of the policy decisions from the gathering. And I’m troubled by the way the MM covered the street protests and the police behaviour on G20 weekend.

I think it’s not unreasonable to expect journalists to bring some understanding of historic context and political posturing to coverage of such events. In other words, to rev up what Ernest Hemingway called the “bullshit detector.”

I haven’t seen much evidence of that in the G20 coverage.

Most news reports have blithely hailed Prime Minister Harper for the G20’s acceptance of his edicts for ending stimulus programs and getting budgets back into balance.

This is what the National Post had to say on June 28:

The conclusion of the G20 leaders summit here has produced what experts call a “solid win” for the country, as the final communique declared a full assault on budget shortfalls and a preference for Canada-style banking rules that shielded domestic lenders from the worst of the recent financial crisis.
Buried deep in this report — and in the official communique — was the fact that the strategy to cut deficits in half by 2013 would be pretty much left up to individual countries.
In diplomatic talk, the communique declared that “Fiscal consolidation plans will be credible, clearly communicated, differentiated to national circumstances, and focused on measures to foster economic growth.”
In other words, everybody will just carry on as usual. Canada and the U.K. are hell-bent to cut stimulus spending, but the U.S.? Not a chance. Nor Japan, nor many other nations locked into the current downward spiral toward a “double dip recession.”
Is there any connection between the slumping stock market and the failure of the G20 countries to adopt meaningful policies to curb public debt?
I’ve not seen much if any MM examination of this question.
On another level, some in the MM have gone out of their way to denigrate the “citizen journalists” whose reports have played a decisive part in forcing at least four investigations into police behavior at the G20.
This  — and the more contentious question of why vandals were left to roam unmolested to smash windows and burn patrol cars while police arrested a thousand peaceful demonstrators– I’ll leave to another blog.
UPDATE – Today’s Globe carries a realistic piece from Campbell Clark – “Harper’s austerity summit could prove to be his legacy.” Clark asks: “Did he help secure the world’s economic recovery or tip it into depression?”

So you think you can write?

There’s been a fair bit of chatter in writerly circles about the impending launch in Canada of the UK-based writers’ school, the Faber Academy.

Leah McLaren, the Globe and Mail London columnist, has a substantial piece on the old-line British publisher, recounting her experience at a 3-day session of the Faber Academy in Sussex.

Faber announced earlier this year that it will be launching the Faber Academy Toronto in October, offering long and short fiction and poetry courses.

According to McLaren, the line-up’s all fixed:

The Faber Academy Toronto is slated to open this fall with two longer courses. Writing A Novel – taught by Miriam Toews (A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans) and featuring guest appearances by Michael Redhill, Anne Michaels and Margaret Atwood – will start classes in late September. How To Become a Poet – led by Ken Babstock with help from Darren Wershler, Al Moritz and Adam Sol – will start Oct. 11.

Strangely, I’ve not been able to find any registration information online. There’s no mention of the Toronto venture on the Faber Academy web site.

Ms. McLaren is no slouch as a novelist herself, being the author of Continuity Girl (Harper Collins), said to be a hilarious account of the life of a script assistant for a movie company.

In the Globe, she tells us of acerbic remarks by the cast of authors at the course she attended. (It came with tasty lunches, drinks and a tour of homes that belonged to members of the Bloomsbury group.)

Her one-on-one session with her author/instructor Anne Enright was “pleasant enough, if a bit rushed.” There was no talk of the manuscript Ms. McLaren had apparently brought with her. The authors “don’t actually offer criticism on the participants’ work.”

When the CBC posted the news last February of Faber’s arrival in Canada, the item drew some interesting reaction. Here’s one:

Writing classes are very advantageous…for those who collect the money from the suckers who sign up. You can’t teach perseverance, vision and originality, the traits most important to creative writers. These classes and workshops have become cash cows and anyone stupid enough to enroll in these bogus courses is forgetting something Plato said 2500 years ago: we learn by doing.

Having attended the fine Humber Summer School of Writing, and the excellent weekend workshops of Barbara Kyle, I can only say I got my money’s worth every time.

I like to repeat the advice of Guy Vanderheague, my mentor at Humber:

“Write the book you want to write, and hope someone will want to read it.”

But the plethora of writing courses out there does make one wonder – do we have more writers than readers?

Another ‘suspect’ for CSIS

The continuing saga of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and its blabbermouth director, Richard Fadden, grows more interesting by the day.

Fadden stood his ground at a meeting of the House of Commons public safety committee. He could hardly do anything else. Yes, there are provincial cabinet ministers and municipal politicians who are under the influence of a foreign country, presumably China. He’ll tell all to the Prime Minister’s office very soon, he promised.

So here’s another “suspect” who might be worth investigating. Melissa Blake, the mayor of the Alberta oil sands town of Fort McMurray, has accepted an invitation from the U.S. government for a three-week tour of American cities as part of its “International Visitor Leadership Program.”

Mr. Fadden, you might recall, has been especially critical of municipal politicos whom he alleges accepted free trips from the governments of another country.

Should she now expect CSIS to investigate her for possibly falling under the influence of a foreign government?

Just asking.