Wednesday, December 24, 2014

O Night Divine

   Fresh-fallen snow protested beneath the crush of my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard.
   Skuur-eek, skuur-eek.
   The boots ignored the sounds. They moved on, ribbed rubber bottoms and laced high leather tops creating a meandering wake in the ankle deep snow. From each side of the trail, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the backsides of the bungalows, dropped there to rest by an impatient blizzard just passed through. Their crests were indistinguishable against the white stucco walls but nearly reached tufted piles of fluffy snow clinging nervously to windowsills and eaves trough lips.
   The squeaks flew through the still night air, dodging fat flakes that fell heavy and straight onto my cap bill, but occasionally splashing into my face flushed warm from the walk. I could have rode back home from Christmas Eve Mass with the family, but the teenage mind always prefers independence, and it was a chance to visit friends along the way.
   Faint strains of music joined the squeaking as I approached our back fence. I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window. I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys.   Notes and smoke rose together into an icy sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars and the frosty moon the Ojibwe called Minidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon that appears small and cold early in winter.
   I held my breath to hear better and determined that the music was “O Holy Night,” and the notes came from the window in my grandmother’s room. It was open to the cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then and at gatherings cracked a window to thin the smoke. They sang the first verse, and, when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:
   “Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Niiii ... iiight Diii...vine! ...” That’s the part where the notes rise higher and higher until the singer reaches an awesome note.
   The solo voice belonged to my grandmother, and I knew she was hitting that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that crippling rheumatoid arthritis had made her prison for sixteen years. She was unable to walk without assistance and had trouble holding a cigarette between her gnarled fingers.
   The others had stopped singing to listen to her. The second time she hit the high notes at the words “O Night Divine,” a shiver danced on my spine.
When she finished singing “O Holy Night,” the other voices started up again, this time with “Silent Night” and other favourite carols. I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants — my mom, dad, and some neighbours — crowded into the ten-by-ten bedroom that was my grandmother’s world. They sang long into the night, mostly in French because the neighbours were the Gauthiers who seldom spoke English to my grandmother and my mother.
   After the singing ended my mother served tourtière, which I slathered with mustard. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts. I have long forgotten what I got, and it doesn’t matter, because my real gift came many years later: the gift of realization that those high notes were not solely the products of the lungs. They were driven by something stronger than flesh — an unbreakable spirit. They came from strength far beyond anything that a mere body can produce.
(This column was adapted from my book Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering a Secret Past – Dundurn Group 2007)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Propaganda Posing As Journalism

   Canada’s federal government continues to pour millions of taxpayer dollars into one of its most notable successes: blurring the line between journalism and propaganda.
   Public Works Canada is paying $1.25 million for a publicity outfit, which looks like a real news operation, to write and distribute powder puff stories that “inform and educate” Canadians. This is nothing new or unusual. Governments for decades have used our taxes to buy distorted stories that make them look good.
   Usually government departments have staff publicity people to do this. Now there is a trend to contract out flacking to private companies that try to look like genuine news operations.
   One of those companies is News Canada Ltd., which is writing and distributing “news” for Public Works Canada. The company name is part of the illusion that this is a real news agency, which it is not.
   The company president, Shelley Middlebrook, aids the illusion by referencing her company’s work to The Canadian Press (CP), a genuine news service that has been providing professional journalism to print and broadcast media for 100 years.
   Ms. Middlebrook told Blacklock’s Reporter recently that News Canada gives media outlets free stories, paid for and vetted by the federal government, bearing a “News Canada” credit – “just like Canadian Press. . . . We follow Canadian Press-style rules of writing, and articles have to be marked as ‘News Canada’ just like CP.”
   I’m sure Ms. Middlebrook was not trying to indicate that her company is the same type of professional journalism agency as The Canadian Press. No doubt she was just trying to show that her company follows high standards of writing style.
   The government, however, wants the public to think that its bought stories are balanced just like the real journalism produced by real journalists working for real news operations like The Canadian Press. Regrettably, the government is becoming successful at blurring that line between propaganda and journalism because more and more people no longer see the difference.
   Here is the difference:
   A recent government-paid-for “news story” on Aboriginal land claims extolls how “Canada has made a commitment to reconciling relationships with First Nations people . . . . The future looks bright. More win-win solutions are in the works to bring closure and justice for all.”
   At about the same time, the Toronto Globe and Mail produced a major piece of journalism on the suicide of Eddie Snowshoe in a federal prison. The story noted that the suicide rate in federal prisons is seven times higher than in the public at large. This was one of a number of news stories produced by real news operations this year telling how federal government policies and practices are harming, even killing, Canada’s native people.         
   Canadians are doing little to stop the government from using their tax dollars to distribute information that is not balanced and not completely accurate. The more we accept the use of government propaganda, the more we lessen our democracy.

Read My Minden News column @

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Wake Up and Cut the Taxes

   Ontario has a new plan to help it avoid bankruptcy. It is going to crack down on contraband cigarettes.
   The folks who run the province have announced their hope to bring in an additional $700 million in taxes by going after the underground economy, which includes the huge untaxed cigarette trade. In some parts of the province almost 50 per cent of cigarettes smoked are contraband.
   So the government plans to pour more money into enforcement to collect more taxes which will presumably help reduce the $12.5 billion budget deficit projected for fiscal 2014-15. Good luck with that, folks!
   Governments have been fighting contraband, with poor success,  since the first tax schemes were invented. Contraband trade develops when taxes are increased to the point that people can’t afford to pay them. 
   Governments and stop smoking groups insist that constantly upping tobacco taxes forces people to stop smoking. They are wrong and they refuse to accept their own statistics that show they are wrong.
   Ontario has more layers of contraband tobacco enforcement than Mama Rosa’s Mile High Lasagna. It keeps adding to them, at more and more cost. Yet the only significant reduction in contraband tobacco in the last 25 years has been through cutting tobacco taxes.
   In the early 1990s the contraband tobacco trade grew so large and so violent along the St. Lawrence River that the federal government and some provinces were forced to slash tobacco taxes. Ontario cut its cigarette excise tax by 67 per cent, Quebec by 71 per cent.
   With those cuts, legal cigarette sales increased by 50 per cent. Seizures of untaxed cigarettes plunged by more than 90 per cent. 
   So how much did cutting taxes increase the smoking rate as predicted by politicians and anti-smoking groups?
   In 1985, roughly 35 per cent of Canadians smoked. By the early 1990s when contraband flooded the country, only 30 per cent smoked. The smoking rate declined even more after the 1990s tax cut. In fact the decline was greater than in the years following 2002 when taxes were raised to previous levels and beyond.
   Today, the smoking rate among Canadians is well below 20 per cent.
   Ontario should not spend more tax dollars on police and revenue agents to stop addicted senior citizens driving away from a smoke shack with a carton of untaxed cigarettes. Higher taxes and more enforcement don’t significantly lower smoking rates. People kick the habit through education and programs designed to fight addiction.
   Ontario is two-faced when it comes to cigarettes. It is addicted to tobacco taxation. No matter how much politicians talk about a Smoke-Free Ontario, they can’t live without cigarette taxes.
   In 2011, Ontario took in $1.16 billion in tobacco taxes. The same year governments across Canada raked in $7.5 billion in tobacco taxation.
   Slowly reducing tobacco taxes will help wean governments from their addiction and prepare them for the day when no one smokes and all that tobacco revenue is gone.
   More on this subject is available in Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America’s Tobacco Industry

See My Minden Times column -

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Canada's Unfortunate Personality Trait

November is a month in which we talk much about freedom, and the sacrifices made to ensure we keep it. Canadians are so thankful for the freedoms we do have, but there remains one area in which freedom is sadly lacking: Freedom of Information.
   Withholding information, or not sharing it fully, has become a Canadian personality trait. Two recent examples illustrate this.
   When Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the national war memorial, then stormed the Parliament buildings, the public learned his name from American news media. Our law enforcement bosses withheld his name despite knowing it almost from the beginning of the rampage.
   Americans are more forthcoming with information the public should know. Reporters in the U.S. got Zehaf-Bibeau’s name from the FBI. The FBI knew the name because the RCMP called them and asked if they had any information on this guy as a terrorist.
   Our law enforcement officials had no reason not to tell us the shooter’s name and did so only after American news reports named him.
   Earlier this month when Canadian fighter planes made their first strike against ISIS in Iraq, the military brass refused to give details of the mission. The strike took place Sunday and the military waited until Tuesday to say what happened. In the meantime, Canadians learned from the U.S. military that our planes had destroyed a Jeep and some bulldozers.
   That information produced smirks in many quarters: Canada goes to war and takes out a Jeep and some bulldozers! Typically Canadian!
   The mission, we learned later, was an important one. ISIS was using the construction equipment to divert water from the Euphrates River in an effort to flood areas and force civilians and Iraqi military to use mined roads.
   Our military bosses should have released the results of the mission quickly instead of sitting on them. Then Canadians would have had full information on what their pilots achieved instead of the sketchy American-supplied information that made the mission look like a bit of a joke.
   Those are two relatively minor examples. However, every day our governments and others withhold or slant information important to Canadians. 
    Canadian government folks always get it backwards when discussing public news releases. Reasons for not releasing information always come first. The reasons for releasing information come last. It should be the other way around.

My Minden Times column:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Will Viewing Carmen Start Me Smoking?

   I planned on watching The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Carmen, being broadcast at movie houses next month, but now I’m worried. Will watching it make me start smoking?
   The Western Australia Opera Company believes so. It has banned performances of Carmen because the opera is set in and around a cigarette factory in Seville, Spain. The characters in the opera smoke cigarettes.
   The head of the opera company said she is concerned about the health and well-being of the performers, stage hands and others. However, she also said the performers would not have been smoking real cigarettes.
Opera: Tempting Our Morals?
   The real reason for not staging the opera is money. Fear of losing it. Carmen was banned after the opera company signed a sponsorship contract with a government health agency. The contract is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and the agency believes that depictions of smoking are not a good thing.
   Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the opera company's ban is "political correctness gone crazy."
   It is not known what opera will be staged in place of Carmen. The choices are limited if the opera company and the health agency sponsor are concerned about guarding the morals of audiences.
   Surely they will have to ban Macbeth because it promotes murder. Madam Butterfly is out because its heroine commits suicide. La Traviata and The Merry Widow shouldn’t be staged because they surely would persuade people to drink alcohol. And, what about Rigoletto in which the leacherous duke’s kidnapping of a young lady leads to murder?
   I think I'll skip Carmen at the movie theatre and see one of those Terminator movies instead.
(My Minden Times weekly column is at:

Monday, October 6, 2014

Good News for Journalism

What a shocker! But a very pleasant one.

Postmedia’s purchase of Sun Media’s English language newspapers is the best news the Canadian news industry has had in the last two to three decades.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s the Canadian newspaper industry suffered the appearance of newspaper owners and operators who had no business being in the game. They were bad for the business, people who did not understand, or refused to accept, the traditional principles and practices of newspapering.

What followed were years of turmoil, downsizing and diminishment of good journalism. Editors, who for the most part were dedicated to doing a public good, were told what to do and how to do it by newcomers interested only in boosting profits.

Postmedia has emerged from the turmoil as a company with solid business sense, plus a dedication to building new platforms on which to deliver good journalism. Sun Media was a good idea when it was formed by a group of intrepid journalists. Then it was bought by Quebecor and since then has not done much to improve, or even sustain, good journalism.

Postmedia has a strong core of journalism leaders. Some of the best that I have ever known.

The company says it will operate the Sun papers in major markets where it has competing newspapers. There will be some public screaming about media monopolization, but ignore that. The bottom line is that the Postmedia deal creates the possibility of better journalism in an industry that has been struggling to find its way through the Information Revolution.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Governments Addicted to Tobacco Money

   Mounting evidence shows that governments need radical new thinking to stop the contraband cigarette industry. The latest evidence comes from New York City where the city health department reports that the number of adult smokers has risen to 16.1 per cent from 14 per cent in the last three years. That is the highest percentage since 2007.
   Taxes on a pack of cigarettes in New York City now total close to $7. The price for a legal pack of cigarettes in the city is $10.50 to $12. Contraband packs cost about $5.
A new U.S. Tax Foundation study shows that 57 per cent of cigarettes smoked in the State of New York are contraband.
   The studies join stacks of others illustrating how contraband cigarette trafficking, one of the world’s most extensive and profitable industries, continues to foil extensive efforts to reduce smoking rates.
   Governments and anti-smoking groups refuse to accept that the most effective weapon against contraband tobacco is lowering tobacco taxes. They say that lower tobacco taxes encourage smoking. Perhaps, but no one has tested the question of whether taxes can be lowered to reduce contraband while at the same time instituting programs that will help ensure a continuing decline in smoking.
   Governments won’t reduce tobacco taxes because they are addicted to the revenue. In the U.S., federal and state taxes on tobacco bring in $35.3 billion a year. In Canada, the annual tax take is roughly $7 billion, not including sales taxes on tobacco.
   Contraband tobacco not only encourages smoking but the futile law enforcement fight against it costs huge amounts of money.
   New York City is just a recent example of the folly of high tobacco taxes. Contraband tobacco is in your neighbourhood, making it cheaper for people to smoke while building new criminal organizations. Governments need to try new approaches but addiction to the taxes and the constant shouting of narrowly focussed anti-smoking groups ties them to the same old thinking.
   More on contraband and the history of tobacco can be found in Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America's Tobacco Industry. (Dundurn Press)