Archive for November, 2010

Small press vertigo – the big Giller win

November 10, 2010 2 comments

As I watched Bravo TV’s broadcast last night on the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Canadian fiction, I tried to guess the winner among five nominated books that most Canadians — including me — have not yet read.

One of the nice things about the show is the short introductions of the contending books by celebrity presenters, followed by brief video bios of the authors.

I listened carefully to these briefs. I thought I’d most enjoy Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, so I was pulling for this 30-year-old first novel author to win.

By the time we got to Jack Rabinovitch’s presentation of the winning $50,000 check in the last thirty seconds of the show, I was feeling a real sense of shared suspense with each of the nominees.

You can imagine the delight I felt when The Sentimentalists took the big prize.

The story is set in the mythical town of Casablanca, Ontario, where the narrator struggles to understand her relationship with her father, whose life is complicated by the bitter memories he carries from atrocities he witnessed in the Vietnam war.

But it makes me wonder how wise an author is to go with a small press. The Sentimentalists was published by Gaspereau Press, of Kentville, Nova Scotia. It’s the first small press ever to cop the Giller.

That’s great. But it’s been a disappointment to read of the refusal — so far, at any rate — of Gaspereau’s principals to accept much-needed assistance in printing and distributing their prize winner.

When the book’s inclusion on the Giller short list was announced, Gaspereau had cranked out only eight hundred copies on a 1960s offset press. The publisher vowed that anybody who buys a book in Canada will buy a copy that’s come off their press. According to the Gaspereau blog, they ran two proof presses “straight through” the night to print jackets for books being sent to the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

Toronto book store owner Ben McNally, official seller at IFA, says he got 40 copies on the last day.

It’s said that Giller winners usually sell 60,000 to 80,000 copies. You’d think Gaspereau would feel an obligation to their author to make arrangements to meet this kind of demand.

Jack Illingworth, writing in the National Post, thinks Gaspereau is following “a commitment to a thoughtful, rigorous, refined mode of publishing.” He says their lists are “cultural products embodying a few individuals’ ideas of what literature can be.”

There’s clearly a cultural clash here. Writers work hard to produce their books. They want people to read their stories. And among the writers I’ve met, they’d all like to get paid for their effort.

With the exception of Ben McNally, not a single major book seller across Canada has The Sentimentalists on the shelves right now, when interest in the book is at its peak. It is available at Indigo on Kobo, at $9.89. Internationally, William Heinemann, an imprint of Random House, has bought UK and Commonwealth rights outside Canada. No word on a U.S. publisher.

Gary Dunfield, a co-founder of Gaspereau, told Quill & Quire that the publisher won’t be supplying Indigo with the bulk quantities it usually requires. He says:

“The chains want you to send 2,000 to 3,000 copies, and then they’ll return 80% of them.”

Hello, Gary. You’ve got a Giller winner! Congratulations to Ms. Skibsrud. I wish her a productive and lengthy writing life.


Potash and Prosperity – 2 cases where Harper’s got it right

November 4, 2010 Leave a comment

A couple of good things happened in Canada this week. I have to credit the Harper government in both cases.

First came the announcement by Environment Minister Jim Prentice stopping the proposed Prosperity gold and copper mine in the Chilcotin district of British Columbia.

Then we had the decision of the federal government, announced by Industry Minister Tony Clement, to bar the acquisition of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan by the Australian mining giant, BHP Billiton.

I’ve written here previously about the Prosperity mine. It’s said to have offered promise of five billion dollars in jobs and other benefits over the next 20 years. This in an area that’s been hard pressed economically.

But even that’s too high a price to pay to destroy the ecology of this incredibly beautiful and pricelessly pristine region. The idea of draining Fish Lake and using it as a tailing pond was an obscene and despicable concept.

The scheme would have been fought “to the death” by First Nations of the area, according to the local chief.

I first gained an appreciation for the grandeur of the Chilcotin district when I read Rich Hobson’s classic book, Grass Beyond the Mountains.

It tells the two of two young Americans who meander into the Chilcotin country in the 1930s and establish a cattle ranch far beyond the existing ranches of that day. I finally had the opportunity to visit the district just a few years ago. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and we need to keep it that way.

Grass Beyond the Mountain has since become a classic of Canadian pioneering literature, a 20th century counterpart to Susanna Moodie who wrote of the primitive life of early 19th century Upper Canada.

Both decisions of the federal government this week were a little bit unexpected, although it seemed to me that in the case of Potash, Harper & Co. had little or no choice in view of the almost universal opposition the deal ran into in Western Canada.

The Saskatchewan mines of Potash Corp.  hold about a third of the world’s known supply of potash, the key ingredient in fertilizer. The world is going to massively need this stuff if a global famine is to be avoided in the next fifty years.

Potash, along with oil and water, has the potential to make Canada the richest country in the world in the 21st century.

Some see the decision as a betrayal of Harper’s pro-business Conservative philosophy. The rejection supposedly imperils Canada’s claim to be open for business. Foreign investors won’t want to come here, according to this argument.

That’s a fallacy.

The Billiton bid was for Potash shares, which would of course have given it ownership of the company. The proceeds would have gone to current shareholders, fewer than half of whom are resident in Canada.

The only Canadian investment that could have come from this deal would have been if Billiton were to back up its share purchase with additional money to expand the business, open new mines, and create more jobs for Canadians. The record of other foreign buyers, such as U.S. Steel (Stelco) and Vale Inc. (Inco and Falconbridge) in this regard, is not good.

The government has made the right decision. It also probably saved a dozen Tory seats in Saskatchewan – most of which might have been picked off by the NDP in the next election. No wonder Jack Layton tried so hard to characterize the Clement announcement as but the prelude to an eventual cave-in.

In the case of the Prosperity mine, Mr. Prentice cited the “scathing” report of an environmental commission that looked at the project. He has since resigned from cabinet, announcing he has accepted a senior position at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). He’ll be missed. Don’t be surprised if you see him back one day in some future Conservative party leadership campaign.

Police lineups, appeal courts and justice

November 1, 2010 Leave a comment

A sizeable crowd of legal types has gathered at Osgoode Hall, the pre-Confederation Gothic building that serves as York County’s courthouse, for the annual book launches of the Osgoode Hall Legal Society. I’m attracted because one of the titles marks Toronto writer Chris Moore’s latest foray into the legal jungles, The British Columbia Court of Appeal: the First hundred Years. 

There’s a bit of coincidence at work here in that a couple of my current writing projects involve crime and punishment. I’ve had to do a good deal of research on arcane aspects of case law (got me talking just like a lawyer) and the appeal process, and how it’s worked throughout Canadian history.

As a native of B.C., I found Chris’ book an opportunity to learn more about famous cases I was either only vaguely aware of, or had forgotten about entirely.

Another coincidence was the release by the B.C. Court of Appeal last week of its findings in the case of Ivan Henry who was locked up for 27 years for a series of rapes of which he was innocent. He’s the longest-serving, wrongly convicted, Canadian. The appeal court’s judgment makes powerful reading on such matters as the unreliability of witness testimony, the willingness of a judge to allow tainted evidence, and the foolishness of trying to represent yourself at trial.

Ivan Henry, now 64, was arrested in 1982 and charged with 10 counts of sexual assault involving eight women. He objected to being put in a police lineup where witnesses might identify him. Police handcuffed him and dragged him into the lineup where an officer held him in a headlock. Three witnesses identified him definitely; during the trial all eight said they recognized Henry from the lineup or from his voice.

Pictures were taken. Henry somehow got hold of one and acting as his own lawyer, entered it as an exhibit. He argued that the picture of himself in the grip of a policeman proved the lineup had been a farce. The police used force, although the law does not require a person to take part in a lineup.

Because of a previous conviction for sexual assault, Henry was jailed indefinitely as a dangerous offender. He spent years studying the law and submitted fifty applications for a review of his case. All were denied, including his request for legal aid so he could have a lawyer prepare a proper appeal. While in jail, his wife, mother and father died. His two daughters grew up without ever seeing him.

It is to the credit of the justice system that when certain information came to light in 2005 during an investigation related to serial killer Robert Picton, a special prosecutor was appointed. After a thorough investigation (and the conviction of another man), Henry was released and his case was referred to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

The appeal court noted that the attacks took place in the dark, the attacker took steps to obscure his face, the police line-up was “flawed and unfair” and much evidence was never disclosed to the defence. The judge erred in telling the jurors they could give weight to  the Crown’s argument that Henry’s objection to the lineup suggested a “consciousness of guilt.”

Released, Henry expressed little rancour over his fate. He spoke of his pride in his grandchildren and added:  “I got a little dog I look after. He is my friend.” The victims, meanwhile, can only wonder where their justice had gone.

My upcoming article, Reasonable Doubt, explores the frequency with which Canadians were wrongfully hanged during the time that Canada had capital punishment. It will appear in the December issue of Canada’s History.

I know a lot of people think our justice system is weak and ineffective in dealing with criminals. I think it’s as important to protect the innocent as to apprehend the guilty.