Musings & assorted writings of a Canadian journalist.
There are no small stories.
Okay, so there are plenty of small stories. Ever seen a newspaper? It’s full of them.
Simple stories have their place. They let people know who/what/when/where, even if they don’t get into the why. A hockey player gets injured, someone is killed on a worksite, a study is undertaken. And sometimes, those small, simple stories fetch bigger, more complex stories.
Every year, Edmonton appoints new citizens to two-year terms on the police commission. As a crime reporter in Dec. 2010, it fell to me to write a brief story about the latest two appointees, Keli Tamaklo and Cathryn Palmer. I thought nothing of it.
Within a week or so, however, I received a tip that Tamaklo had a past he hadn’t disclosed when applying for the job. I followed up and sure enough, found a New Brunswick clipping from the early 1990s. Tamaklo had refused a breathalyzer test. The tipster said there was more. Tamaklo had served as chief financial officer in Atikameg, where we eventually learned his work had come under scrutiny by a government appointed monitor.
I enlisted Elise Stolte, then-aboriginal affairs reporter, to help find sources in Atikameg. We put together a story and arranged an interview with Tamaklo. He had no idea what was coming. It was, needless to say, one of the most fascinating interviews I have ever undertaken. Tamaklo had received a pardon, he told us, and had been caught between different factions in Atikameg.
“I remember the (police) chief very well; they all remember me,” Tamaklo said of the breathalyzer incident. “I was not going to bow down, they were not going to bow down. It was a media case. My story made some news people celebrities, and made their career, and I know that.”
Failing a breathalyzer — especially 17 years ago — shouldn’t disqualify someone like Tamaklo from a position like commissioner. Having been on the wrong side of a conflict with police could even be an asset. But it should have been brought up and discussed.
If Tamaklo didn’t volunteer the information, how come he wasn’t asked? If you’ve applied to volunteer anywhere, you’ve likely been asked about criminal convictions. How come police commissioners weren’t asked that? I couldn’t get a satisfactory answer.
Over the next few months, I discovered that in 2004, a city auditor had recommended investigating potential commissioners. The commission said it would be too much work or too intrusive to perform enhanced security clearances. City council agreed with the commission. Nothing changed.
I’ve watched the police commission ever since I met Keli Tamaklo, who still sits on the board (until the end of the 2012). In the fall of 2011, I learned the city chose to hire a private firm to do its latest round of hirings. The firm will conduct enhanced security checks and will likely do so from now on.
And when I called that firm, they knew my name. I had done something journalists everywhere strive to do: I helped change something.
Police Commissioner’s History Missed. A1. Jan. 29, 2011.
Controversy Follows Commissioner. A4. Jan. 29, 2011.
Commisioner should be checked out. B1. Jan. 30, 2011.
New scrutiny for police commissioners. A1. Oct. 17, 2011.
At the end of 2011, reporters wrote a brief blurb their “favourite” story of 2011. My choice was easy:
It certainly wasn’t a “favourite” in any normal sense.
In May, RCMP’s Project Kare began a search of Henrietta Muir Edwards Park in central Edmonton. They had gotten a tip related to the disappearance of several Edmonton area women of “high risk lifestyles” who had gone missing years earlier.
Just over a week later, Grande Prairie RCMP said “human remains” had been discovered. They wouldn’t say what they found, or what they thought.
The “remains” were, in fact, two skulls discovered by campers near Grande Prairie. Somebody in our newsroom knew the campers, who had made the horrible discovery while investigating an unrelated, suspicious smell (a rotting moose carcass, it turned out). It was awful, but soon became worse.
The skulls didn’t belong to high profile missing couple Lyle and Marie McCann, the RCMP told me, but they wouldn’t say more. Through a little sleuthing, I found out: coincidentally, they were the same remains the RCMP had been looking for in Edmonton just weeks before.
One June afternoon, investigators broke the news to Jo Gunning, father of one of two girls who had gone missing while hitchhiking from West Edmonton Mall in 2005. The other skull had yet to be identified.
Hours later, I called Gunning on the phone. It was one of the hardest conversations of my life. Jo talked about the conversation he had dreaded and the grandson he was now raising. He talked about walking through the park investigators had searched, about having a service at the remote spot near Grande Prairie. I was dumbfounded. Struck by his candor. Moved by his grief.
The next day (my day off), reporter Jeanne Armstrong picked up the next part of the story, talking to Krystall Knott’s aunt. Anyway, here’s my blurb about it that appeared in the New Years Eve journal:
EDMONTON — It began with a rotten moose carcass.
On the May long weekend, a group of Grande Prairie campers investigated an odd smell and stumbled upon two human skulls. Over the next two weeks, police and forensic experts zeroed in on the identities of the dead: two teenage girls who had disappeared in February 2005 from West Edmonton Mall, just weeks before 13-year-old Nina Courtepatte was lured from the mall and murdered on a golf course outside the city.
Working the late shift the night of June 9, I couldn’t stop thinking about those 450 kilometres from the mall to the woods.
At about 11 p.m., the phone rang. It was the father of one of the girls, shortly after police told him the news he had expected for six years.
Jo Gunning spoke to me for nearly half an hour. “I thought I was prepared for it,” he said. “But I’m not.”
Neither was I. Never has a story so affected me. Driving home that night, I looked up at a huge, almost-full moon, and vowed to never forget it.
Hard to believe, but it’s actually true if you add up my current 19 months + 19 weeks of internships at Edmonton’s biggest ink-consumer.
There’s a lot of the black stuff under that bridge. Assuming I write an average of 12.5″ of copy a day (or a fairly short story) 240 times a year, the Journal will have printed roughly 100,000 copies of a 960-page book of Wittmeierian observations, split-infinitives, and awkward transitions. That’s a really long, horrible bestseller!
To mark my illustrious cotton anniversary as part of the fifth estate, I’ve been sorting through the stack of print any average newspaper-inkman, -inkwoman, or -inkchild possesses. With the miraculous invention of the “scanner” (into the dustbin, microfiche!), I’ve been slowly converting said ink into tiny ones and zeroes, all while I watch hockey, etc.
Over the next few days (likely weeks, perhaps months), I’ll be updating this sadly neglected site to include a handful of my favourite Edmonton Journal story-lines from these past two years, why I liked ’em, and what I haven’t learned in the process. Off the top of my head, there’ll likely be entries on my homicide analysis (10 year data included), my series on unclaimed balances, and my investigative piece on Edmonton Police Commissioner Keli Tamaklo (with Elise Stolte).
While I’m at it, I’ll hopefully find time to give my corner of cyberspace a little bit of a makeover. Until then, goodnight!
A long time and no posts.
I’ve had the pleasure of covering some interesting stories the last few months, but with other obligations and commitments, I haven’t been keeping up the blogging habit. Tsk.
I hope to return to my semi-regular posts here. And there’s no better occasion than to announce that an audio essay I began writing in the summer during an internship at CBC Tapestry will air on Sunday (2:05 ET; 4:05 MT; 3:05 PT). I recorded it in late summer, and it’s finally airing. Here’s the clip in its entirety. For those who want to hear the entire episode, it’s available as a podcast (about 40 minutes into the episode).
The essay is about being a Bible school graduate.
Back in 1998, I was a depressed 2nd year University of Calgary student with an intense dislike of my choice of study: biological sciences. Having grown up going to church and not really understanding the religious underpinnings of Christianity, I decided to launch myself headlong into the world of faith. In my young thinking, I thought if faith was going to be part of my life, it would be everything in my life.
I wanted to take God as seriously as God deserved. I decided to go (felt led to go) to Moody Bible Institute, an evangelical Bible school in downtown Chicago.
It was a choice I feel some ambivalence about at this point in my life. But it was fulfilling in many ways as well, and opened up an intellectual faith that I knew nothing about. Going to Bible school is not something I usually talk about, and with the prodding of Mary Hynes (who facetiously said, “But you’re so normal!”), I decided to explore the statement: I’m a Bible school graduate.
One of the most interesting things I’ve gotten to do at the Journal is to fly on a mission with STARS air ambulance. As usual, I wrote and wrote and wrote and my editors cut and cut (don’t get me wrong, I’m still happy). Here is the story that was in yesterday’s papers (and another one which was the main feature). Also check out photos from the flight in my Flickr feed on the right, several of which ended up in the paper.
This is the uncut and unedited story (not the one I submitted, but close to it).
If I learned just one lesson from STARS air ambulance mission #19,937, it’s this: adrenalin is overrated.
It’s 2 p.m. on a bright Saturday afternoon and I’m standing in a blue jumpsuit on the tarmac at the Edmonton City Centre Airport. The iconic red STARS 3 helicopter is in front of me, its crew on standby for another mission.
I’ve been given permission to tag along, wherever they go, however white-knuckled the destination.
The sun is already heading westward, but we’re stuck.
Nurse Deb Bowers holds an iPhone and looks ahead while listening to a consult between emergency doctor Mark MacKenzie and Camrose hospital. The option of ground ambulance is weighed, or it may not be as serious as first thought. Or it could be too late. Pilots Alan Baldwin and J. N. Armstrong sit and stand nearby, white helmets ready at their side. I ask advanced life support paramedic Mike Gradidge how long an alert typically lasts.
“Sometimes 20 to 30 minutes,” says Gradidge. “But 5 to 10 minutes, usually.”
In usual time, Bowers announces the verdict: stand down.
“It’s like fishing,” Gradidge says as we walk back to the hanger. “That was the nibble you get before the bite.”
The fact that not every STARS mission is a highway collision, although those happen, is neatly illustrated that day. Inside the hangar, it’s all drama. STARS missions survivors — dubbed Very Important Patients — tell harrowing tales of rescue. Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman, a former emergency physician who put in time with STARS, aptly sums up the critical minutes after a traumatic incident. He calls it “the golden hour of health care.“
An additional helicopter is here from Calgary to ferry media and survivors through Edmonton’s skies. On landing from a seven-minute whirl past the University and Commonwealth Stadium, I learn the crew had just repeated their earlier ritual: pre-alert, dressed and ready to go, but stood down. Another nibble.
An hour later, we finally get a bite: we’re dispatched to Two Hills to pick up an elderly female patient, struck by an autoimmune disease and in need of blood. It’s not Sherman’s golden hour, but the minutes are still precious.
3:57 p.m. Inside the STARS 3 helicopter.
I’m behind pilot Alan Baldwin, sitting in what would be the passenger side in a car. Paramedic Gradidge is just past a ventilator on my right, back-to-back with co-pilot J. N. Armstrong. Gradidge and I both face nurse Bowers, who is scribbling down case notes at the back of the helicopter.
It’s an experienced crew. This is Bower’s main gig — she puts in three shifts a week — rounding out her schedule instructing 4th-year nursing students at the University of Alberta. Gradidge is a part-timer, taking four or five shifts each month in addition to a full-time managerial role with Alberta Health Services.
Like most pilots, Baldwin is full-time, though his co-pilot is actually having some fun moonlighting. When not flying, Armstrong is the head anasthesiologist for the Calgary health region. In a pinch, as has happened 15 to 20 times, he can help thread a breathing tube through a windpipe.
4:07 p.m. Lift off.
The helicopter quivers as we rise. The crew assures me, “it’s normal.”
Our first stop is two kilometres down the road at the Royal Alexandra Hospital to pick up two units of blood for the mission. It’s one of the unsung duties of STARS missions, delivering blood products or essential equipment wherever needed. Approximately every fifth mission, a physician with mission-specific training rides along.
4:17 p.m. Back in the air.
Ten minutes pass while hospital security couriers two units of blood to the hospital roof.
“We were too quick,” says Mike Gradidge. It’s less a slow response by the hospital as it is a speedy flight. Pit stops typically last only a minute or two.
A fluorescent green “handle with care” sticker marks the nondescript white cardboard box: our precious cargo. Bowers places it on the stretcher.
Up in the air, Gradidge and Bowers slip into casual banter, joking about the trials of working together and the joys of raising teens. They’ve been through a lot together in 14 years. Bowers recalls the night when Gradidge was in my seat, his first mission a “rough” self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Gradidge has flown 393 missions since, while Bowers is on her 630th flight.
We pass over Elk Island National Park, where a few trees are still holding onto yellow leaves. Near the end of the flight, Baldwin spots a white cloud and tells us to look south. On closer view, it’s thousands of snow geese heading south for the winter.
4:48 p.m. Land at Two Hills.
Cutbacks in recent years mean Two Hills no longer maintains a hospital airstrip. The field is still pressed into service in extreme cases, but we’re assigned to a nearby airstrip where bails of hay appear to grow as we make our approach.
As the ambulance shuttles us to the hospital, Gradidge and Bowers tell me why they love their job. They tell me that in the early days, STARS paramedics and nurses were volunteers. When they began, workers received an honorarium of about $50 per shift, meaning the STARS crews were initial people who wanted to be there. The wait list to work at STARS has grown with the wages, but the crew is mostly comprised of veterans like Gradidge and Bowers, who have been there for over a decade.
Gradidge says the reasons to fly with STARS are obvious.
“It’s about an experience most people would die to get,” Gradidge says.
Bowers adds that while some of the calls are tragic, it’s amazing to just be there in a supportive role.
“I find it humbling,” Bowers says. “Sometimes it’s closure, just knowing everything was done.”
5:02 p.m. In the patient’s room.
At the hospital, Bowers is quick to talk to the patient, who is conscious, weak, and appreciative.
“Hi, I’m Deb, how are you, sweetie?”
While Gradidge takes the patient’s blood pressure, Bowers swiftly slips a blood sample from her IV and plugs it into a handheld blood metre. Hemoglobin, glucose, and other readings appear on a screen in less than 120 seconds. A staff nurse records the particular cocktail of medication filtering into the saline drip. Case details are relayed, recorded and moments later, the paramedics are lifting the patient onto the stretcher. A small dose of gravol will make the flight less nauseating for the patient. The crew packs up. I’m assigned the job of carrying the patient’s purse.
5:38 p.m. Lift off.
Before prepping the patient to receive the units of blood, Bowers checks on the patient once again. Is she cold?
There’s a discrepancy between reports: the crew calls Two Hills to ensure the medication ratios are correct. Bowers receives confirmation.
As we leave the agrarian community, combine machines create new patterns on the checkerboard landscape, leaving plumes of smoke-like dust as they harvest. But it’s sunny, and Bowers is singing a John Denver tune. “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy….”
5:53 p.m. Another call.
The crew is put on pre-alert once again. Multiple calls happen. If there’s no patient, they may be rerouted to a more urgent call. When there’s already a patient aboard, they’ll stop at hospital first, and if necessary, refuel. Once again, we’re stood down.
5:59 p.m. Back at the Royal Alex.
The stretching carrying our patient is quickly sprung out of the back of the helicopter, down an elevator, and into a hospital room. Bowers relays the critical details to residents, adds a few more assuring words to the elderly woman, before we return to the hangar to debrief,
The mission over and the patient in capable hands, there’s a final chance to ask the crew about the job. The end of shift is time for the crew to fill out charts, to record details and observations for future reference. It takes up to an hour.
Bowers says team closeness is pivotal when they’ve returned from an accident. Joking and laughing throughout the day helps create a “safe place” for when things go badly. During debriefing, there’s time for the crew to talk, sometimes with a critical incident stress debriefing team, but usually just among themselves.
“We come back, we’re charting, the pilots are here because they see things, too,” says Bowers. “The really sad calls, when a child dies, we all go home together, we cry sometimes.”
On those calls, they’ll often stay on scene to support local firefighters and emergency crews, often directly touched by the trauma.
“If something horrific has happened, we’ll shut down the helicopter,” Bowers says. “Some things, there’s no human intervention that will matter, the damage has been done. At that point, we can maybe be a resource for each other.”
Gradidge says that when he began, calls weren’t as frequent. He worked just two shifts a month back then, and remembers a five month stretch in 1997 when he didn’t fly at all. Those days are over, partly because rural hospitals began to see STARS as more than just extreme cases.
“I haven’t been skunked in a long time,” Gradidge says. “One time you brought your skills, now you get your skills at STARS.”
Keeping and building those skills is partly why Gradidge still puts in shifts. No longer a front line paramedic, he gets ample opportunity to keep sharp in this part-time gig. An added benefit is the experience of a completely different type of organization. STARS is “small and quaint,” he says, in an often “huge and bureaucratic” health system. The differences keep him on his toes and make him better at both jobs.
It’s 8 p.m., and I’m ready to head home. But I’m stopped as I’m about to head out the door.
“Do you want to go to another scene?” Bowers asks.
A new crew is on hand, and I quickly grab a jumpsuit and helmet, head to the tarmac and buckle up again. In case I didn’t learn it already, I get one final lesson.
We’re stood down. Adrenalin is overrated.
Twenty-five years before that, there was the Erdos Number.
One of the highlights of my series on unclaimed bank accounts was a little over $2,000 in a Bank of Montreal account right by the University of Calgary. An eager Journal reader, Natasha Schiebelbein, brought this late mathematician’s account to my attention:
At first glance, there was little to connect Erdos and the U of C. He never taught there, never lived in Canada, and was by all accounts, an itinerant. My initial thought was that Erdos had simply visited the U of C for a conference or the like, where a stipend was collected on his behalf. But I was intrigued.
Anyway, the article was a complete pleasure to write and wound up going from an anecdote of a story, to a colossal 30″ long feature (My average story is probably less than half of that).
That meant editors trimmed down some copy I was sad to see go:
- Microsoft board member Maria Klawe, a former Edmontonian and president of Harvey Mudd College, spoke about Erdos as “everybody’s favourite weird uncle.”
- Discussion of Erdos-Bacon numbers and “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” actually derived from the Erdos Number phenomenon.
So here, uncut and unedited, is the bottom half of the story:
It’s been nearly three decades since Guy’s last shared paper with Erdos, though he penned a pair of tributes when his friend died. Now approaching 94, Guy has since slowed down, though he still maintains office hours, grad students, researches interests, and speaking engagements.
Collaborations with Erdos remain a badge of honour in the world of mathematics, where one’s “Erdos Number” — akin to the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” — signifies closeness of collaborations. Erdos himself was a 0, while Guy, Graham, and select few hundred are 1s, their co-authors are 2s, and so on. According to Oakland University researchers, the average mathematician has a Erdos Number of 4.65.
The idea of linking Bacon’s co-stars was actually derived from Erdos Numbers, later spawning the bizarre “Erdos-Bacon Number,” calculated by adding the two scales together.
The Erdos Number is a dangerous lure, says Graham, since scholars may be tempted to pen a paper based on a fuzzy decades-old conversation.
It’s been 14 years since his death, but Graham says the publications and collaborations are still coming.
“It didn’t stop him, it only slowed him down a little,” said Graham. “I think he just published one or two papers last year.”
No spectre of doubt clouds former Edmontonian Maria Klawe’s Erdos Number. The Microsoft board member and president of the prestigious Harvey Mudd College couldn’t resist lending a few minutes in her hectic schedule to speak about “everybody’s favourite weird uncle.”
“One of the wonderful about the mathematical community is that he was like their child,” said Klawe. “They embraced him, and loved him and took care of him and admired him.”
A star-struck Klawe first met Erdos as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta, where she went on to complete a PhD. She earned her Erdos Number through a graph theory paper examining a problem Erdos once posed in an Australian taxi cab. Klawe frequently gets requests to co-author papers — from aspiring students to the founder of Netflix — to land an Erdos Number of 2.
Apart from his unusual lifestyle, Erdos was also known for posing math problems with corresponding bounties. Cheques ranged from a few dollars to $25,000, proportionate to the difficulty of the problem. Guy, for instance, once won $5.
One of Graham’s ongoing duties has been to dole out cheques whenever a riddle is cracked. In the fascinating 1993 documentary, N is a Number, Erdos is a silhouette at Graham’s shoulder, signing blank cheques for future claimants. In 1998, Graham and his mathematician wife Fan Chung co-authored Erdos on Graphs, a compendium of approximately 100 unsolved problems posed in Erdos lectures. Only two have been solved in a dozen years.
“As Erdos liked to say, if you hoped to earn a living by solving his problems, you’d be paid way below minimum wage,” Graham said.
Graham initially suggested the unclaimed bank account could be put toward the unsolved problems. But faced with the paperwork necessary for the claim, the money may be as difficult to grasp as one of Erdos quandaries. Not only did Erdos leave no heirs, he was not one to bother with the paper work of a will. His Wikipedia entry, which declares Graham “the (informal) administrator of solutions,” is probably insufficient for Bank of Canada criteria.
Like so many other unclaimed accounts, then, the money will most likely remain in the Bank of Canada database, a sizable bounty for an unsolvable problem, and a century-long record of a truly unique human being.
When I started at The Journal in July, I was handed a bit of a fluff story assignment: the Bank of Canada’s unclaimed balances.
It’s an old story that gets told from time to time, sort of like the annual counterfeit Taber corn stories. What happens to bank accounts that become inactive? The short answer is that after 10 years, they’re transferred to the government, which has a website where you can search for your name.
Our job was to take Edmonton specific data and turn it into a searchable database on our website (with big teasers — how much of $7 million is yours), and to see if we could find some of the people who were missing money.
What were their stories?
In truth, they ended up being far more interesting stories than I thought.
Data journalist Lucas Timmons worked on the database and I handled the interviewing and writing of most of the stories. We worked on it alongside whatever else was going on, gradually setting up interviews and collecting little tidbits to put into a story. It ended up being a three part piece that ran the weekend of September 11-13:
We also got quite the response. Dozens of phone calls and emails poured in, and I began working on a follow-up story. And then two. And now, three. Some of these other stories are even better than the original… There should be an extensive piece either later this week or next weekend.
In the midst of it all, I was asked onto the Rob Breakenridge show on QR77 and 630 CHED. Here’s me trying not to sound nervous.