Friday, April 30, 2010

Canada's evolving military censorship

On September 4, 1942, Canada’s most famous war correspondent, Ross Munro, told a packed rally at the Montreal Forum that Allied commandoes had murdered 150 German prisoners at the height of the Dieppe raid just a few weeks before.
Speaking on a government-sponsored propaganda tour, Munro said Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat’s British commando unit captured a German coastal battery in one of the few successful moments of the raid. “Some of the Germans had been killed in the skirmish but many of them were left,” Munro said told the Montrealers. “Then,” Munro continued, “in an aristocratic tone Lord Lovat said to the remainder, ‘I’m sorry, but we will have to erase you’ and erase them they did.’”
This was murder, even in wartime. Why did Munro, only 28 years old but still one of the sharpest minds among the Canadian reporters stationed in Britain – he was to have scoop after scoop until the last days of the war and went on to a distinguished peacetime career – make the allegation? Killing 150 POWs in cold blood would, if true, be a war crime.
It could have been a defining moment of Canada’s participation in the war, like the modern debate on alleged abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan. Instead, Canada’s press censors and journalists covered up the allegation.
Munro was in a position to know what happened. He had gone into Dieppe and managed to survive the raid, then spent days interviewing the soldiers who had managed to get back to England.
The day after the Forum rally, Canadian military intelligence agents scrambled to shut down coverage of Munro’s claim. Munro later said he could not remember making the statement, which seems rather bizarre considering the details of the Gazette’s quote. Newspapers across the country were warned not to use anything about Lovat’s supposed actions. The editors obeyed, but the Montreal Gazette story was already on the streets of Canada’s largest city and nothing could be done to take it back.
So the Canadian government had good reason to fear German retaliation against the Canadians captured at Dieppe. It came quickly: the Nazis ordered Canadian POWs captured at Dieppe to be chained or handcuffed in retaliation for alleged mistreatment of German POWs. Then Germans held in Canada were chained up in retaliation, sparking a riot at the Bowmanville POW camp west of Toronto that was hit by a news blackout by Canada’s censors.
Canada’s wartime editors were hardly free press crusaders, although, for various reasons, many of them partisan, the Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Tribune, the Montreal Gazette and Montreal’s Le Devoir stood up to Canada’s wartime censors. The rest maintained Canada’s long tradition of talking a good fight about freedom of speech.
Still, the World War II censorship system was benign compared to the one imposed during World War I.
Any second-rate police state would have approved of the Canadian press censorship system in World War I. At first, it was branch operation of the British censorship system, which strangled all real debate about the war and tried to warp public opinion to believe the war was a glorious crusade, not a murderous slaughter of young men led by incompetents.
Canada’s Postmaster General, acting as a deputy of the British Chief Press Censor, could ban any publication that questioned the government’s version of the military situation or suggested the Allies were in any way responsible for causing the war. Nothing could be written that undermined recruiting or might dissuade the Americans from joining the Allies.
The maximum penalty for writing, publishing, circulating or possessing anything banned by the Postmaster General was a fine of $5,000 (about $600,000 in today’s money) and/or five years imprisonment. The owners of the print shop where the material was published faced the same fines and jail terms, and the presses could be seized.
These rules were enshrined in the War Measures Act, passed on August 22, 1914 but made retroactive to August 4, the day that Britain had declared war. Editors of the country’s larger newspapers went to Ottawa to help write the censorship rules. These were printed in a pamphlet and mailed to newspaper offices, publishing firms, advertising and public relations agencies, government departments, police departments, military intelligence officers, and to allied governments.
The censors dealt mainly with two types of news: domestic stories from Canada and pro-German articles from the United States, which was neutral for nearly three years. The government had no worries about coverage from the front. There wasn’t any. The British and French controlled all access to the fighting zone and threatened to shoot any journalists who went near the trenches.
“War correspondence” from France came mostly from Britain’s official “eyewitness” who was, through most of the war, Canadian Max Aiken (Lord Beaverbrook). Aiken was eyewitness to very little. He rarely went near the front, and simply re-wrote press releases drafted by army officers who likely hadn’t seen much action, either.
Censors spent most of their time killing stories that might change public opinion. The war could not be won unless the public gave its full support, and, as the streets filled with crippled men, the newspapers carried pages of casualty lists and the great breakthroughs announced by the army never seemed to change the lines on the map, that support weakened. Enlistment plunged and bond money dried up.
As the disaster dragged on, the Canadian censorship system became increasingly invasive and powerful. An Order in Council (a Canadian cabinet order) passed September 12, 1914, banned any news about troop movements, and, two months later, Cabinet outlawed publications “calculated to be, or that might be, directly or indirectly useful to the enemy, or containing articles bearing on the war and not in accordance with the facts.”
In the spring of 1915, Canada got its own Chief Censor, Ernest J. Chambers, an old Fleet Street reporter and militia officer who served as Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod of the Canadian Senate (the upper house’s head of security). His previous war work involved wiretapping overseas telegraph cables.
Month after month, Chambers tightened the censorship screws. Films and plays fell under censorship. In the last months of the war, the censors began poking through record stores. Just a few weeks before the end of the war, the government banned all printed material in the languages of the enemy powers, which included newspapers in Polish, Ukrainian, and the many other minority languages of Germany’s main ally, the Austrian empire.
No Canadian could publicly criticize the way the army and navy did their work. They, like the people in Britain, were not allowed to advocate a negotiated peace. it. The government, along with most newspaper and magazine owners, flooded propaganda into the marketplace of ideas. Censorship created the illusion that these official ideas were the only version of reality.
People might have expected the censorship to end when the Germans quit. But the Russian Revolution had created a whole new set of villains, and the Communists had some supporters in Canada. At the first post-war cabinet meeting, held on November 13, 1918, federal ministers tried to outlaw seditious talk. They criminalized the printing of anything advocating socialist revolution or criticizing capitalism. It was the only time in Canadian history that the media was officially censored for political ideas in peacetime.
The system survived, with a few tweaks, until December 20, 1919, when all of the Orders in Council dealing with press censorship were repealed.
Chambers didn’t spend his workdays breaking up print shops. Press censorship in World War I operated as a voluntary system, with editors and publishers engaged in self-censorship. Except for the Victoria Week, the Sault Ste. Marie Express, Le Bulletin of Montreal and Quebec City’s La Croix, all of which were banned, editors of commercial newspapers toed the line. They chose to ignore the obvious futility of the war and did not, like the banned Sault Ste. Marie paper, question the sanity of sending more Canadian soldiers to the front.
The government was more subtle in World War II, deliberately seeking out respected journalists to run the press censorship stories. He wanted a voluntary censorship system, based on a very clear set of rules. And he feared the rise of a powerful propagandist, knowing he lacked the charisma to be that person.
Still, when the Allies seemed to be losing the war, military officers and some senior politicians wanted a much tighter censorship system. “In the twilight war everyone had been reasonable and tolerant; as the bad news poured in and the foundations of life were shaken, reason gave way to passion and tolerance to blind fury,” Chief English Press Censor Wilfrid Eggleston, a former Toronto Star reporter, wrote in his memoirs.
The top mandarins, used to life under pressure, hung tough. O. D. Skelton, senior bureaucrat at External Affairs, Ernest Lapointe, the Justice minister, and Mackenzie King, himself a former reporter, backed the censors and rejected demands from lesser ministers and from military officers for tighter censorship of Canadian newspapers and the banning of Isolationist U.S. publications like the Chicago Tribune and The Saturday Evening Post .
Canada could not escape the war. Much more of it arrived on our shores than we learn in the paltry bits of history taught in school. About 300 people drowned, burned or froze to death in submarine attacks within sight of the Canadian (and Newfoundland) shore. Japanese balloon bombs drifted over the West carrying God-knew-what. As hundreds of thousands of Canadian men went off to war, thousands of German POWs were brought into the country and had to be guarded and put to work. Sometimes these prisoners rebelled, although the public never knew.
In Quebec, the French-speaking majority was at odds over whether the war was Canada’s business at all, and many people on both sides of the debate took to the streets to make their views clear to the government. Le Devoir and other nationalists papers opposed Canadian participation in the war, and Quebec City’s L’Evenement Journal carried, in the first weeks of the war, semi-satirical “letters from Adolf Hitler” pleading with Quebeckers to abandon Britain and France.
The federal government used a combination of censorship and judicial review to cover up the military’s failures at Hong Kong. In early 1942, Sir Lyman Duff was appointed a one-man Royal Commission to look into the lack of training and shortage of weapons among the troops that surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas day, 1941. King and Duff were close friends, and King extended his term on the court.
Ontario Conservative leader George Drew was “opposition” counsel on the Duff Commission. He denounced Duff’s secret hearings and the judge’s decision not to force senior generals to testify. When Duff’s report came out, Drew righty criticized it as a whitewash. To circumvent Duff’s powers to jail him for contempt of court, Drew asked King to table in the House of Commons Drew’s 32-page response to the Duff Report. King refused, newspaper editors were warned not to touch Drew’s letter, and the Hong Kong veterans were left to fight for years to put the truth on the record.
After the war, the government decided overt press censorship would no longer work. Instead, it used secrecy and subversion laws against journalists. In World War II, the federal government did not jail any reporters or editors for breaking the censorship or secrecy laws, but in 1970 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa had 17 journalists arrested under the War Measures Act.
And in 1978, the Trudeau government charged Toronto Sun editor Peter Worthington under the Official Secrets Act for publishing the names of 16 Canadians recruited as spies by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police and spy agency.
The federal government has, in fact, chosen to accept some of the recommendations of the last two press censors, Warren Baldwin (who went on to become a Globe and Mail parliamentary correspondent) and Fulgence Charpentier, a prominent francophone journalist.
They argued, in their secret 1946 report on wartime censorship, that information, once it gets into the hands of reporters or the public, can’t be suppressed. Instead of harassing journalists, governments had to do a better job of keeping secrets.
But they also argued that the military, and democracy, function much better when they’re scrutinized by a well-informed press and public. They suggested the government create commissions of military officers and journalists in wartime to vet information to determine if it really poses a threat to the war effort.
Instead, the Harper government has chosen to “redact” information from the files on the Afghan detainee issue before releasing them to opposition Mps and the media. The names and positions of the censors have not been made public. Since the documents are exempt from the federal Access to Information law because they deal with military issues, there’s no right of appeal.
At the same time, the government has hired a former Supreme Court justice to go over the material in secret and decide, as Duff did in 1942, whether the government and the military are at fault on a contentious wartime issue. In censorship, as in war, the battlefields may change but the battles tend to repeat themselves.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coming Soon to a Store Near You

The first book-length study of Canada's World War Two press censorship. What stories did Ottawa cover up? Find out in a few months!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Helena Guergis, Busty Hookers, Coke and Sodomy

I just threw in the latter, simply because it sounded good. I have no proof that she engages in utterly frightening sex acts. Then, no one has any evidence -- real, solid, testable, get-into-court evidence -- that Helena Guergis has ever been near cocaine or what the Toronto Star keeps calling "busty hookers." But for the rest of her life, say another two decades or more of her working years and the forty or fifty years that she can be reasonably expected to live, she will always be saddled with the introductory phrase "disgraced former cabinet minister Helena Guergis."
Helena Guergis seems like a high-maintenance woman without a particularly sharpened intellect. Like many hicks who arrive in Ottawa, the perks of power seem to be her prime motivator. She and her husband strike me as the kind of young sophisticates that haunt the Byward Market in Ottawa and the ski clubs at Blue Mountain, back in Guergis' riding. But it's not against the law to be a vacuous twit. It may hinder your rise in the cabinet, but that's debatable.
Here's what we know:
Guergis' husband got busted for what, if you think about it, were some embarrassing charges involving great personal stupidity. The charges were not a huge surprise: Jaffer was always known as a big-time partier. I figure anyone who drives drunk probably has a problem with alcohol and personal limits. He may also have a coke problem.
And, as a sort of consultant, Jaffer may well have fallen into the company of douchebags, knowingly or not. It becomes harder all the time to know if business people are legit. And even legit business people can live sleazy lives and haunt strip clubs, I suppose. Guergis was not in the car with Jaffer. In fact, the night of the busty hookers and coke bust, she was out of the province.
So we may have a woman who is married to a guy who has drinking and drug problems and may cavort with women described as "busty" and "high-class" hookers, even though there's been a strange absence of innuendo that any sex actually happened. The hookers seem to have hung around with these guys at the bar, which strikes me as a rather poor utilization of the alleged skills of busty, high-price sex workers.
Getting back to Guergis. Maybe, politically, having a sometimes petulant cabinet minister married to a guy with booze and coke issues is not such a good thing for the Fam-Val crowd who really run the Tory party. But throwing her out of the Conservative party and calling in the cops seems pretty strong. I can't imagine how it will go at Guergis' next job interview when she is asked why and how she left her last job.
In fairness, Harper had the right to call in the police and to drop Guergis from cabinet, but he didn't have to throw her to the press dogs, then keep the story alive by refusing to come clean about the allegations against her. He could have done it with some class by saying the government takes accusations seriously enough to investigate them, and, in the interest of maintaining the credibility of cabinet, has asked Guergis to step aside from Cabinet until a quick but thorough investigation is completed.
But then, with Steve it's always about Steve.
Like the busty hookers, Guergis has been ill-used.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Just asking...

Do any of you who watched Question Period today know if they put John Baird on industrial-strength Quaaludes?

Vimy Ridge: The Original Coverage

Stewart Lyon, The Canadian Press

Lyon was the managing editor of the Globe. He was the first Canadian war correspondent in France, arriving in March, 1917. Lyon missed the attack at Vimy Ridge, and no other Allied reporters were on the battlefield.

Canadian Headquarters in France, April 12 (via London) – From the last position held by them on Vimy Ridge the Germans were swept this morning (Thursday) after one of the most fiercely contested engagements in which the Canadians have recently taken part. This morning at 5:30 o’clock during a blinding snowstorm, an assaulting column was dispatched to drive the enemy from the height known as “The Pimple,” occupying a dominating position on the ridge, to the northeast of Souchez. Though wearied by the constant struggle against the enemy and elements the last four days, the men responded splendidly. Swarming up the height, they attacked the enemy garrison, which included troops specially brought up to hold the position, among them the Fifth battalion of the Prussian Grenadier Guards.
The Germans fought under the peremptory orders to hold the position at all costs. The Canadians were not to be denied, however. Over the shell-plowed land and machine gun-fire, they climbed to the summit, and by 7 o’clock the flower of the German army were fleeing to the east and sought shelter in the village of Givenchy. This victory, the second within a week, gives our army absolute command of the entire ridge. Monday’s success opened the way by the capture of Hill 145. That hill is the highest point on the ridge. It had to be secured before the attack on “The Pimple” could be made with any hope of success.
By today’s win on the part of the Canadians, and the victory of the British, who carried Bois en Hache, on the west side of the Souchez River, the entire valley of Souchez is in our hands and we can look down on the enemy’s positions in the plain of Cambrai.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Spy Among Us

They went to the electric chair in alphabetical order: Haupt, Heinck, Kerling, Neubauer, Quirin and Thiel, six German spies and saboteurs who were dropped from U-boats on Long Island and in Florida. The two colleagues who ratted them out sat pensively in another cellblock of the Washington City Jail.
It had happened so quickly. In June, 1942, they had come ashore and, within days, had been betrayed. In July, they were tried by a special military commission, (the last time such a court was used until the trials of suspected al Qeada terrorists at Guantanamo). They were found guilty August 1 and, within five days, President Franklin Roosevelt had chosen the place, method and time of their execution.
On August 8, it had taken just over an hour to kill them in the Washington jail’s electric chair in America’s largest mass execution of the 20th century. Roosevelt chose the electric chair because of its horrors. The British might shoot Nazi spies in exotic and romantic places like the Tower of London, but the President wanted the deaths of the Operation Pastorius spies to deter any other Nazis who might come ashore on the Atlantic seaboard.
The story of the six executions filled the front pages of newspapers throughout the Allied nations. In Ottawa, they certainly had an avid reader: Alfred Langbein, the most interesting guest at Ottawa’s Grand Hotel.
Langbein had landed on the New Brunswick coast a month before the Operation Pastorius spies arrived. To this day, his mission is vague. He claimed to have been sent to Halifax or Montreal to watch for convoys and report ship departures so U-boats could position themselves. Supposedly, he decided not to spy, to simply lie low in Canada for the duration.
Yet, of all the places in Canada he could go on the thick bankroll he’d been given by Germany’s Abwehr spy agency, he chose the Grand Hotel, a long-gone rookery on the west side of the Market. The Chateau Laurier is the only hotel closer to Parliament Hill, but even Nazi Germany had some budget constraints.
So what was Albert Langbein doing in Ottawa for more than two years while he lived at centre of Canada’s wartime capital, camped out in a room over a busy beer parlor favored by politicians and military officers? We may never know because, it seems, no one has ever asked.
Langbein’s adventure began April 25, 1942 when Amelung von Varendorff, captain of U-213 had a secret agent come aboard his U-boat in sub pens at Lorient, France. Off the coast of Portugal, U-213 stalked a British convoy but, before von Varendorff could get his torpedoes off, he was attacked by a British destroyer. The sub’s crew raced forward to weigh down the U-boat’s nose as it crash-dove to 200 metres.
Ten depth charges went off, close enough to make the lights flicker and the hull shake. Several of the sailors, most of them fishermen from the Baltic Sea, began to cry and sob. The sub’s tough first officer tried to talk them back to their senses while the captain lay silently on his bunk, his automatic pistol at his side.
The rest of the trip was tedious. The sub fought the Bay of Fundy’s and emerged May 12 near St. Martin’s, New Brunswick. Just after midnight, the sub surfaced, popped the hatches prepared a dinghy for launch.
Langbein left with a Lt. Kueltz and two sailors who helped haul Langbein and his gear cross the boulder-strewn beach and scale the 80 metre bluff along the shore. By 7:30, the dinghy arrived back at the sub and U-213 disappeared. Six weeks later, U-213 was sunk off the Azores by three British warships firing depth charges. The captain and his 50 crew members died.
The man they left behind was born on April 6, 1903 in Graefenthal, Thuringia, Germany. His father, Willy, worked as an insurance broker, but Alfred liked to travel. First, he went to Shanghai and found a job as a special constable on the Shanghai police force. He returned to Germany in 1926.
Things were grim in Germany. His father’s firm was failing. In 1928, Langbein sailed for Halifax. He took a train across Canada to find a family in Pearce, Alberta that he had met on the ship. In Alberta, he found a job as a surveyor, then went to Northern Manitoba to work as a railway laborer. Langbein had been caught in a cat house in Flin Flon, but never got into serious trouble.
He wandered to Ontario, where he worked briefly as a freelance writer. Langbein arrived home just as Hitler took power.
Through the rest of the Depression, Langbein ran a small factory in Germany, then supervised construction of four kilometers of an autobahn – jobs that have a whiff of Party patronage. By the beginning of the war he was married with a daughter (a son had died soon after birth) and he was waiting for his army call-up papers to arrive in the mail.
Instead, Langbein got a phone call from an old school friend, Oscar Homann, who invited him to Hannover to talk business with a mysterious stranger, Dr. Nicolaus Bensmann, a former patent agent for a U.S. oil company operating in Romania. After a few formalities, Langbein was packed off to “The Nest,” the spy training school in Bremen that also taught sabotage to Abwehr agents.
Langbein turned down one assignment, parachuting into England to scout airfields and anti-aircraft gun emplacements, saying his German-Canadian accent would betray him. Then, his spymasters planned to set him up in a fishing boat operated by Belgian collaborators that would scout the English coast. This plan was foiled when British planes sank the fishing boat in Flushing, Holland.
A spying expedition with Bensmann in Romania was also a failure. Instead of spying, Bensmann spent most of the time trying to collect money owed to his American employers.
The Abwehr had a new plan: a U-boat drop in Canada, bury his equipment, get to Halifax or Montreal where British convoys assembled, find a job and blend in for about three months, then return to the landing place to get his radio. After three months, the Germans would listen for his signal every night at 11 p.m. German summer time. If Langbein did not retrieve his radio, he could write letters in invisible ink and send them to mail drops in neutral Switzerland and Portugal.
Langbein christened the mission “Operation Gretl” after his wife.
U-213’s was crew led to believe he was a reporter in Germany’s elite Propaganda Kompany. Langbein was given his fake ID and $7500 in US $50 bills, the same type used on Operation Pastorius. The spy realized with some horror that the wartime registration card, vital for employment, was made out to A.B. Haskins, Young Street, Toronto. Langbein knew Toronto’s main street had been spelled wrong, and he was sure someone would catch him because of it.
After the sub left, Langbein slept for a few hours. Then he traipsed through bogs to St. Martins, New Brunswick, where be bought a razor and some soap. The spy managed to hitch a ride to St. John in a lumber truck. He told the driver he had a cold, and spoke in hoarse whispers to disguise his strong German accent.
His biggest challenge was cashing those American $50 bills. He spent much of the next two years shopping, looking for stores that would accept large-denomination bills. Usually, he let them keep the 10 per cent exchange.
Arriving in Montreal by train, the spy checked into a rooming house where he had stayed in a decade before. On June 18, while the eight Operation Pastorius spies were still free in the States, Langbein went to a store to buy a couple of pipes. The owner couldn’t make change for the $50 bill Langbein offered, but a furtive little man grabbed him by the shirt sleeves and pulled him down St. Catherine Street and into a house on a side street. It was a bordello. The madam said she could get change.
Langbein, no stranger to Canadian whore houses, later said he stayed long enough to collect his change and have a beer, but he didn’t drink it fast enough to avoid a police raid. The cops booked him as a “found-in” under the name A.B. Haskins – his lack of real ID and strong German accent obviously of little concern to the vice cops – and eventually let him go on $50 bail, the Canadian change from his American $50.
When he got back to his rooming house, he packed his stuff and caught the first train to Ottawa. The spy claimed he flagged a cab at the Ottawa train station (now the Government Conference Centre, right across from the Chateau Laurier) and asked the driver to take him to a good hotel.
If Langbein told the truth, the cabbie drove him about a block, to the Grand Hotel on Sussex, about where the Rideau Street Chapters store now has its parking lot. There, Langbein made himself at home.
The hotel was a watering hole for politicians, civil servants and the hundreds of soldiers rolling through the city at any given time. It is exactly the place you’d expect a spy to set up shop.
Yet, for more than a year, in a city that was the headquarters of the RCMP and Canada’s military intelligence, the 40-year-old stranger with a heavy German accent and a seemingly never-ending supply of American $50 bills held court within shouting distance of Parliament and a five-minute walk from the military’s headquarters on Cartier Square (now the site of Ottawa’s city hall).
“The night after I arrived in Ottawa, I seriously considered surrendering myself to the RCMP or any other suitable authority and spent considerable time consulting the phone book to decide the most suitable authority to approach,” Langbein later told Canadian intelligence agents. Instead, he adapted to life in Ottawa and made an interesting group of friends.
Langbein bought a ping-pong table from a store on Rideau Street because one of his Air Force friends liked the game. So did Langbein: he had learned ping-pong from a friend in the Abwehr. He made friends with some of the hotel staff. Two of them had girlfriends who worked as secretaries for Naval Intelligence.
During his first six months in Ottawa, the spy left the hotel at 9 o’clock every morning and returned about five in the afternoon. “I would put in the day as best I could, taking long walks, going to picture shows and taking in any sporting events that might be in progress.”
Eddie Sabourin, a cook in the hotel, was his best friend. Through him, the spy became part of a group of young people who liked to party at the Grand Hotel. On summer weekend, they took short drives to Constance Bay and Buckingham to picnic and drink beer. Langbein usually picked up most of the tab.
Yet Langbein’s friends seemed to be of little interest to the spy’s interrogators. At least once, a friend had taken him into the Naval Intelligence offices in Temporary Building 8 at the Experimental Farm. Still, month after month went by without Langbein raising suspicion from the dozens of army, navy and airforce officers, the politicians and political staffers, and the war bureaucrats who drank with him at the Grand Hotel. His biggest problem was homesickness.
There was just one close call. In the early summer of 1943, while riding home from a Hull bar in a cab with “Bea”, the sister-in-law of the owner of the Grand Hotel, and her soldier boyfriend, Bea’s friend was a soldier. He looked at Langbein and said “I think you’re a spy.” When the drunken soldier left the cab in Hull to look for a cop, Langbein talked Bea and the cabbie into heading for Ottawa. Presumably, the Hull police paid no attention to the soldier’s accurate suspicions.
Once he got back to the Grand Hotel, Langbein avoided Bea and started looking for a new place to live. With some help from a waiter in the Grand’s beer parlor, he found a place to live in Lowertown.

(For the rest of this story, see the April, 2010 issue of Ottawa magazine

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Helena Guergis, She Be Dead

At least politically. And in a week that was a real news drought, there were many happy faces in the Press Gallery when Helena's pretty little neck was laid upon the block. It sure beat covering the 93d anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and send-off of the last WWI vet, a guy who never actually left England for the European continent. (He had enough class and good sense to realize the last real fighting vets died a while ago).
No matter. Next week we'll see just one or two more days of the Helena Guergis wake as reporters speculate on just what evil generated the photogenic minister's political gutting. Then everyone will move on, wondering, say, about the PM's new pick for GG, Iggy's poll results, or the latest plan for Senate reform. Maybe some more highway maintenance announcements will come out. Pundits will claim Tory MPs are benefiting, while neglecting to mention that most highways are in Tory ridings while most streets are in Liberal constituencies, places where infrastructure "stimulus" money is spent on subways and other stuff.
Right now, Ottawa is in a deadlock. Most Hill reporters are more concerned about the future of their own jobs than the state of their country. The big stories are being broken outside the city by reporters like the Toronto Star's Kevin Donovan. In Ottawa, skeletal news bureaus can barely do the basics, hampered by the Harper government's media freeze-out and an effective news blackout in the entire civil service. Parliamentary debate has been replaced by posturing.
This is not good for democracy. And it's a poor way to run a country.

Friday, April 09, 2010


Oh, how do you deal with Miss Huronia?
Having grown up in, lived in, and covered Huronia for the Globe and the Star more than a decade, I can see how this has happened. People in that area, especially those who hold political office, have come to expect the perks of Third World-style government and there's a hefty feeling of entitlement among the "quality." Quite literally a dumping ground for all of Toronto's chemical and human effluvia, the place is run by real estate agents, sub-dividers, soil-strippers, condo builders and other vermin. It's the kind of place that's good for tourism for a week or two, but you don't get to know how things work.
Helena Guergis is politically dead in the water, but she has a great future in Huronia, perhaps replacing one of her cousins as warden of Simcoe County. She could use her parliamentary severance to become one of the trust-funders who swan around Collingwood pretending to have meaningful careers. I won't be surprised to see her mug on a real estate sign. "Above the Crowd" indeed.
This might be a really good time to ask what we expect of cabinet ministers. Are they hired for looks? Gender? Geographic representation? Because maybe, just maybe, the running of the government of Canada should be in the hands of people who are smart and competent. Some of them might be ugly. Some might talk funny. I think we should be able to live with that.