Category Archives: columns/editorials

Harper’s in Iqaluit: so what?

Would it matter if, when Stephen Harper arrives in Iqaluit this week, we just didn’t show up to the photo-ops and PR stints so carefully planned and thoughtfully communicated to the media by his communications team? Would he smile to an empty room, shake hands with phantoms?

Most people know his annual trip to the North is a token gesture, a symbolic visit devoid of real significance. So why do we, especially in the media, still scurry to his events like lap dogs? An event needs an audience, and if the media deprived him of that, what would be left?

Photo by Remy Steinegger, courtesy wikicommons.
Photo by Remy Steinegger, courtesy wikicommons.

The media has grown too dependent on communication officials.

Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman published a propaganda model of media in 1988 predicting that, contrary to popular democratic belief, news media is not independent of power centres in society and actually “mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity”. The model is, by now, one of the most well-tested and proven models in all of social science.

The model is set up as a series of filters which potential news has to pass through in order to reach the public. Filters like advertisers and capital investment to create news media. One of the filters is a “sourcing bias”.

The sourcing bias is pretty simple: media rely on communications from governments and companies as an authoritative source of news. The resources of governments and companies are far greater than the resources of the media. Media can save money and time by relying on official communications.

The disparity in resources ensures this is an imbalanced relationship. But the imbalance doesn’t end with a sourcing bias; it only begins to explain how the general public, and the media, are kept at an arm’s length—a long go-go-Gadget arm’s length—from meddling in governmental affairs.

A commentary in the Toronto Star by Gregory Thomas earlier this month revealed that the Conservatives are spending over $260-million on communications personnel this year—for core public services alone—which is $48-million more than when they first came into power. In comparison, that amounts to about 80% of the payroll for the House of Commons. And, as Thomas points out, it’s not like communicating with Parliament Hill has gotten any easier under the Conservatives.

Photo courtesy wikicommons. Graffiti in Toronto on Danforth Ave.
Photo courtesy wikicommons. Graffiti in Toronto on Danforth Ave.

“Canadians are seeing a quarter-billion dollars of their money used against them: not to provide them with information, but rather to delay, conceal and spin the information to enhance the image of the party in power,” Thomas wrote in the Star.

Sourcing bias. Excessive spin doctors. And then there’s that nagging accusation that the Conservatives are muzzling scientists.

An article published last week by Postmedia’s Margaret Munro revealed through an Access to Information request—one of the last tools available to journalists asking meaningful questions—that scientists from the Canadian Ice Service, an arm of Environment Canada, were denied their 2012 wish to hold a “strictly factual” media briefing to reveal how ice had disappeared from the Northwest Passage. Their request to have biannual “Media Tech Briefings” so that Canadian media wouldn’t have to rely on American data which were “missing the Canadian details” didn’t make it through the government’s nine-level approval process that ensures their “communication plan”.

“Communication plan.” How quaint.

A communication plan isn’t about communication at all, at least not in the sense of a dialogue. It means communicating with an agenda. There are no direct answers given, so why bother asking direct questions?

Harper doesn’t think an inquiry into the tragic number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is necessary, for example, because it’s not a “sociological phenomenon”, he said last week while in Whitehorse. “It is crime against innocent people, and it needs to be viewed as such,” Yukon News quoted him as saying.

“No need to fret over the toxic brew that contributes to the many troubles faced by Canada’s aboriginal communities,” Yukon News editor John Thompson wrote in a scathing, impassioned editorial lambasting Harper’s “stupidity”. Thompson listed a few sociological

Photo courtesy wikicommons.
Photo courtesy wikicommons.

aspects that Harper glossed over: high unemployment, substance abuse, overcrowded housing, low education levels and “not to mention the terrible traumas inflicted during residential schools that continue to be passed from one generation to the next.”

More to the point, though, Harper’s not really answering the question: should we have an official inquiry? Instead he’s selling his tough-on-crime shtick. He’s shticking to a communication plan.

Sourcing bias. Excessive spin doctors. Muzzling scientists. Communication shtick.

Just for the exercise, what could Harper be addressing, instead of being wooshed from one venue to the next, handled by handlers whose soft hands see Jergens five times a day and cotton swabs for their cuticles? Just for the exercise…

John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club had some good suggestions in an editorial last week for Troy Media.

He wants to know why the National Energy Board is considering relaxing safety measures it adopted after the Verizon catastrophe in applications it’s currently reviewing from Chevron and Imperial Oil. “Will the PM be talking about drilling safety on this trip through the North?” Bennett asked.

He also wants to know why the scientists from Canadian Ice Service aren’t allowed, as scientists, to inform the public of scientific facts, as scientists.

I’m new to the North and have much to learn about reality and complexity of life up here. There’s a million real questions I imagine people would love to put to Mr. Harper that I don’t know about yet. But Harper’s shtick—shucks, that I’ve seen since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

If only, Kids in the Hall.

 

 

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Passing Through: a hodgepodge of seniors

Valemount sees its fair share of transient people.  Contractors from different industries who live in nearby communities, international tourists, Canadians making a ritualistic cross-country trek, cyclists, bikers—people from all walks of life and every corner of the globe it seems.  In this column The Goat presents a sketch of our short-term guests, observed and written by a transient himself—RMG intern Thomas Rohner. 

 

“All you see on public transit are students and old people, we’re the ones that can’t afford to drive,” an older lady, in her 60s, said to the bartender as she was paying her bill. She was part of a group of three ladies passing through the Valley, all seniors. It was impossible not to think of the movie Steel Magnolias watching these three women.

The one who spoke was the bumbling, good-natured sort. She had accidentally sent her fork flying across the patio, and her steak knife clattering onto the cobblestones during dinner, giggling at every turn. She fumbled and dropped change while paying her bill.

One of the ladies she was with—the only one wearing makeup—was the first to enter the bar and had said to the bartender, “I’ll have a glass of wine please. I’d like to be inebriated.” The other two ladies deserted her after their meal. When she was by herself, this lady said to the bartender, “I’d like you to pour yourself a glass of wine now and sit with me on the patio. I’d like some intelligent conversation, please.”

The third lady seemed to be the prudent and responsible one among the three. “I”ll come and wake you up tomorrow, Clair. We have to be on the road bright and early,” she had said to the sweet and bumbling lady during dinner. The three ladies were traveling from Edmonton to an acreage outside Kelowna for a three-week getaway. From the sounds of conversation over dinner, they were on a shoe-string budget.

When the one lady, wearing the make-up and fond of wine, came in to pay her bill, she fumbled for her glasses and with her wallet looking for money.  “I can’t count right now, you make me kind of dizzy,” she said to the bartender. “How lucky for you, you get to schmooze with people all day.”

**

An older man, with a faint Irish accent, sat at the bar talking to the bartender. He was on a business trip, from Edmonton-area to Prince George, and had taken his wife and their grandson along.

“Man, he’s a weird kid,” the man said to the bartender. “All he wants to do is play on his phone or iPad. Look around you, I say, it’s beautiful out here. We went to the pool, and he wasn’t having any fun there either. He couldn’t wait to leave to get back to his games. Now he just wants to sit by himself and eat. Pizza bread, that’s all he wants. What a weird kid. I can’t get through to him. He makes me nervous.”

He told the bartender of immigrating from Ireland four or five decades ago, of his struggles to find work, and his eventual settling near Edmonton. He recalled his days in Ireland working as a bartender.

“I used to work weddings at our local club, working until early in the morning. I was young then, maybe 18 or 19. But finally one day my mother had enough. I’d come home, inebriated, guests feeding me drinks, and fell asleep with my leg draped out the window. I could’ve fallen out of that window, my mother said, and she boxed me on the ear. Ha! Ha! That was the end of that job. I could’ve fallen out that window, it’s true.”

**

A white-haired couple sat with a woman, presumably their daughter in her late 30s. They were travelling from Alberta to Kamloops. They had just sold their acreage where they had raised their family and lived for the past thirty years.

“Just this morning we sold it,” the older lady said to the bartender. “It’s gone, just like that, we sold it.” She laughed nervously but with bright eyes.

“We had a few head of cattle, a few crops,” the man explained to the barkeep.

“But they were nice people we sold it to, weren’t they? A nice young family.”

“And now we’re going to live in Kamloops.”

“If we like it,” the wife reminded her husband. “We’ll spend a few months there, and if we don’t like it, we can always go back home.”

I wondered what she meant, since their acreage had already been sold. But it amazed me that this couple, in their 60s or 70s, were willing to relocate, to begin a whole new experience at this stage of their lives.

“Ya, if we don’t like it, we’ll go back,” the husband said.

Passing Through: a man, a journey and a flood

Valemount sees its fair share of transient people.  Contractors from different industries who live in nearby communities, international tourists, Canadians making a ritualistic cross-country trek, cyclists, bikers—people from all walks of life and every corner of the globe it seems.  In this column The Goat presents a sketch of our short-term guests, observed and written by a transient himself—RMG intern Thomas Rohner. 

A man, a journey, and a flood

“The highway to Banff was closed, eh?  They wouldn’t let anybody through.”

A man, probably in his late 50s, sat at the bar drinking spiced rum. His leathery face and paunched nose suggested his health had seen better days. But he was amicable and his eyes betrayed a lively curiosity and interest in the world they perceived.

“And the Saddle Dome, well that’s ruined. All the way up to the 14th row was under water. They wanted to replace it already, it’s old, but now they’ve got no choice.”

Paul was travelling from Calgary to Vancouver to visit his son, a trip that just happened to coincide with the worst flooding Calgary has seen in decades.

“I don’t know what they’re gonna do about the Stampede. You know how much money they’re gonna lose? Billions probably. They have massive grounds, tents as big as this building I bet, and real western stars, cowboys, top stars come out. They’re gonna lose a ton of money.”

“I bought tickets,” he said, as an after thought. “Are they gonna refund my ticket if it’s cancelled?” passing through pic2

Our conversation was interrupted by another man roughly Paul’s age.  “He’s a happy fellow,” this new patron said, nodding towards Paul, then sauntered over to him and had a five minute conversation that began with the exclamation, “My name is Paul too!”

When our conversation resumed, I told him that I was interning at The Goat and in school for journalism.

“That’s something I bet I would’ve liked doing,” Paul said. “That’s something, if you like doing it, you can just do it forever, can’t you? If you’ve got your hunch, you just dig and dig to find your story, stick to your story. I can see a man being really happy doing that. A lot of sacrifices, I bet. But we need people like you to keep them straight and honest, because without that, without journalists hounding them, they won’t be.” I gathered Paul was referring to politicians and business moguls and anyone who’s accrued substantial power.

“Lookit all the stuff that’s come out in the States, about the phone taps and stuff. They know exactly what you’re doing, where you are, if you’re sitting at a computer, what you’re buying. I was listening to the radio just the other night, and they had this guy on who nailed it, who said it just right. Eventually they want to make it so that you can’t do nothing, buy a house or a car or get a job or anything, without having some chip scanned in your hand or your neck or some place.  And it’s already started, you bet.” Paul raised his eyebrows above the frame of his spectacles in incredulity.

“But that’s great, we need journalists to watch out for us like that. We need open-minded people, because they’re sure not open minded.”

Paul works as a security guard for an information database in Calgary, a building filled with servers with clients from all over the world.

“You wouldn’t believe the information in that building, it’s just a normal-looking building. My nephew, he’s a security guard in Toronto at a college, and you should’ve heard him when I told him how much money I make. He couldn’t believe it,” Paul chuckled.

Paul told me of another nephew of his, in his 40s. “He’s always in school, he’s in school now to learn some…systems…” Paul trailed off. “But he’s an artist…you know, well… no, ya, he’s an artist.” It seemed his nephew had struggled to have the right to be called an artist. “He spent time on Vancouver Island with the Natives, learning some of their crafts, he was really interested in that.”

Despite being delayed by the flood—“I could’ve sworn there was a turn off to Highway 1 around here,” Paul said—he planned to be in Vancouver the following night. “I’ll leave when I wake up, I guess.” He reached for yet another napkin and wetnap, finished with his plate of honey garlic wings. “These wings were great, but I hate sticky, icky things.”

Passing through: a column of transients

Disclaimer: this sketch is a composite of a number of conversations. While I’ve endeavoured to replicate the conversations as faithfully as possible, any information contained within should be perceived as anecdotal, and not factual.

 

 

Contract workers, mostly from Alberta or BC, often stay in Valemount for weeks at a time, part of an environmental assessment team employed by some of the biggest companies in the country. I had the chance to interact with one such team recently, a group of about 15-20 people. There were a lot of Native men in the group, but also a few Caucasians and even some women. They would spend all day working outdoors, in the field, and then relax in the evenings, comfortably dining and drinking after a hard day’s work. A sense of self-contentment and good-natured ease defined this group.

 

“My day was great, it was better than great,” a youthful middle-aged man sitting at a bar says.

“I get to count birds and amphibians all day.  Man, it was beautiful. I love what I do, spending all day out in nature. Even if it rains a bit like today.”

“This pipeline, it’s not gonna follow the last one, you know. This time they’re being real careful. I helped lay down the last one too, but that one it was like a fish, eh, or a bird, or a cat, the path of least resistance, they just went straight ahead. But this time they’re being real careful, good to the environment.  We go out there and we find the birds, and if they’ve got a nest somewhere, well the pipeline will go around them, eh, these oil companies are being real careful now.

“I used to be on the other side, a real environmentalist, you know.  I studied biology, I loved nature, I even saved some creeks back home, eh. That’s where I like to stay, close to home, I never liked going too far from home.  I know these lands, so I used to be a real pain in their ass… but now, well, they figured I’m an ASS-et, eh, HA! HA! HA!

“You know I can see the whole thing now, the whole 360 degree perspective. What the oil companies tell you, what they don’t tell you, the leaks and accidents they don’t want nobody to find out about, and what the environmentalists say and fight for too.

 

“But with these companies, if you get hurt on the job, eh—I’ve been hurt on the job—they come to you real quiet, and they say, how do you want to do this? We want this to be kept real quiet, so they throw some money at you, and it’s a lot of money, and on paper it says you’ve clocked in and out though you’ve never been there. Man it’s a lot of money.  And you want to get back out onto the job, because that’s when you get the most money, especially if you get time and a half or double time. I’ve worked 17-hour shifts before, you know. And imagine being a teenager, right out of high school, you’ve never had to flip burgers or nothing, and they give you $36 an hour and say rake this gravel here, or something, of course you’re gonna do it.

“It’s so beautiful out there, and it’s so funny, if you think about it, what you’re doing it for, eh? It’s backwards and dirty, but man it’s a lot of money.  I paid off my house already, and three trucks. Ha! Ha!  I got two boys at home, one’s sixteen, and he just got his L license and he wants a truck of course.”

Smoking with another crew member later the same night, a chain smoker, older, wearing big wire-framed glasses, a gentle and passive demeanour:

“This one time we were building a pipe and we saw a squirrel that lived in this tree.  Right where the pipe was supposed to go. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do. So the men, they thought about it, and they said we should dig the whole tree up and just put it over there. That way the pipe could go straight.”

He chuckles and shakes his head from side to side.

“Do you think that’s crazy, or smart?” I asked.

“Well, for the animal, I guess it’s good. But I don’t know, I can’t say. I bet the squirrel knows.  But I don’t know.” He shrugs his shoulders like these things are beyond him.

Two Caucasian girls, members of the group, young, blond, pretty, with idealistic naivety, sweet, unassuming, innocent, constantly smiling, giggling; mostly they kept their distance from the rest of the team, and brought their work with them to the bar.  I imagine they were the greenwashers, giving the oil bonanza a gentle, human face, a white, smiling, superficial veneer, too sweet and unassuming to be reproached.  Environmental rehabilitators. Nature lovers.

 

Illustration by Katherine Beeson. Copy right Katherine Beeson.
Illustration by Katherine Beeson. Copy right Katherine Beeson.