Archive for the ‘canadian politics’ Category

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On guns and numbers

August 20, 2010

Sometimes stories don’t make it into the papers. For good reasons.

Photo by Akash_Kurdekar (flickr cc)

Earlier this week, I worked on a story about the gun registry. We received an interesting news release touting an Edmonton police officer whose informal survey showed that 92 per cent of police officers don’t support the registry, running counter to virtually all official policing organizations in the country.

My interview with the officer was enjoyable: a super friendly cop with lots of policing experience (11 years patrolling + 11 years in criminal investigations) and an opinion on gun registration. He acknowledged other perspectives and offered no conspiracy theories. The only problem was his survey — it more closely resembled an online poll than it did representative data. While working on the story mid-afternoon, I was unable to get a voice adequately countering his perspective. We ultimately decided not to run the story, though I thought it might deserve a place here.

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Late last spring, Edmonton police Const. Randy Kuntz decided to test a hunch.

Kuntz, a former patrolling officer who now works in criminal investigations at Edmonton’s southwest division, wondered about how many police officers supported gun registration.

Photo by Colchu (flickr cc)

Kuntz only expected 200 replied, but gathered 2,631 responses from every province and territory in Canada over a fourteen-month period. Roughly 92 per cent – 2,410 – of respondents responded negatively.

Kuntz admits the results are less than rigorous, but says the results match his policing experience.

“It’s about as unscientific as one can get,” said Kuntz. “But pretty soon it started looking like a lot of guys don’t agree with the system, which is contradictory to what the association of chiefs of police are saying.”

The survey results come in the midst of a political debate over the effectiveness of the long-gun registry. On Wednesday, RCMP Chief Supt. Marty Cheliak, a vocal supporter of the registry, was replaced and placed on leave from the national police force. The move to replace Cheliak has drawn widespread criticism, coming just a few weeks before Parliament is set to debate a Conservative private member’s bill to scrap it.

Cheliak was actually slated to appear in Edmonton on Monday at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Conference as one of three presenters on a national firearms strategy. While the session will still take place, Cheliak won’t be there.

The embattled long-gun registry has received overwhelming support from the policing community, including the chiefs of police, the  Canadian Police Association, and the Canadian Association of Police Boards. A joint statement by the organizations released in May notes the database costs only $4.1 million to operate and helps police in investigations and court proceedings. The registry was accessed over four million times last year.

For Kuntz, the timing of the survey results is not so much about the politics but about the effectiveness of the registry on the pavement. Kuntz’s beef is that the registry doesn’t account for the actual location of weapons. A registered gun owner, he says, can legally lend his weapon to anyone with a valid license for the firearm.

Kuntz has only accessed the registry once in his entire career, when someone wanted to donate a gun, and worries about young officers might might gain a false sense of security from the database.

“As far of the actual use it gets, it’s kind of useless,” said Kuntz. “It’s kind of like the TV channel around Christmas where they show burning logs in the fire.”

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An ethical dilemma?

March 12, 2010

It was my first day on the job.

Last March, I had a two-week internship at the Globe and Mail in Vancouver. My first assignment was to zip out to Burnaby to a data security firm.
Days before, 25-year-old Adam Smolcic had allegedly witnessed the shooting of a 58-year-old homeless man by two rookie Vancouver police officers. According to police, the officers shot the man after a confrontation escalated in downtown Vancouver. After being approached by the police, the man pulled out a box-cutting knife and began advancing. After repeated warnings, police had shot the man, who became unresponsive at the scene.

Smolcic claimed he had filmed the incident with his cellphone. His version of the story did not mesh with the official police account. He claimed:

  1. Multiple gunshots (police claimed one).
  2. That the victim “did not make any aggressive movements” towards the officers (police said he advanced).
  3. Shortly after the shooting, Smolcic was allegedly confronted by a police officer who asked to see his phone.
  4. The officer looked at the phone for a minute, pressed some buttons, handed it back and told Smolcic to get lost.
  5. The officer had allegedly erased four minutes of crucial video evidence.

With a lawyer from the BC Civil Liberties Association, Smolcic had arranged a news conference at the security firm to submit the phone to attempt data recovery.

It was a potentially huge story. On the heels of cellphone footage of the Robert Dziekanski incident, police brutality was firmly implanted in the public mind. The victim was an elderly man with history of alcohol abuse, but not violence. More disturbing than bad judgment, however, was the possibility an officer willfully covered evidence.

It also fell into a category of speculation. The footage was potentially incriminating, and only potentially recoverable, while the source was somewhat dubious.  Smolcic didn’t exactly fit the profile of an ideal witness (that’s him on the right. See his blog here). Although articulate, he was, by his own reckoning,  a “reverend” (no religious affiliation given) and “marijuana activist” whose main source of income “making t-shirts.”

It didn’t completely add up, either. As the Dziekanski case had shown, it might be easier to retain and withhold evidence of wrongdoing rather than damage it. Smolcic’s actions, meanwhile, weren’t in line with what you might expect after such a confrontation. For one, he had jeopardized any recoverable data by using the phone multiple times after the incident. Whether anything was recoverable was pure speculation. I had my doubts.

Shortly after the news conference ended and scrumming began, I found myself in the crossfire in an all-out scream-fest between two local television reporters. One had spoken to Smolcic before, promising to pay for any data recovery fees in exchange for exclusive rights to air the video. The second reporter cried foul over who should get the recovered video, saying they would pay part of the fees for an equal share. The two squawked at each other while leaving the room.

With all the made-for-TV ego and tension still wafting in the room, I deadpanned, “It’s my first day on the job.”

The remaining reporters laughed sympathetically.

The story ended up fizzling. The data recovery process was unsuccessful despite several attempts. Abbotsford Police cleared the officers and recommended public mischief charges against Smolcic. Finally, two samples of surveillance footage were released, contradicting Smolcic’s account and  vindicating the official account.

VPD chief Jim Chu later criticized some media outlets for their lack of “critical analysis” in repeating the accusation, needlessly jeopardizing the already tenuous relationship between the police and the DTES. Whether or not footage was erased will never be known, but Smolcic’s credibility was critically damaged.

It was my first day, but I knew key ethical issues had been raised. The first was news judgment. As Chu later argued, the story was questionable and potentially damaging to the officers and the force as a whole. Herd instinct was evident: most outlets went ahead and reported the explosive allegations.

A second issue was the credibility of the witness. Even if Smolcic’s allegations weren’t exactly beyond scrutiny, how would you indicate that to an audience without unfairly maligning him? I worried about presenting Smolcic as a stereotype. He may have been telling the truth.

In my own article, I tempered the allegations by bumping up counter evidence near the top of the story. I mentioned the dispute in the second paragraph, brought up the police version of events in the third, before finally telling Smolcic’s version as neutrally as possible.

While the police might have been upset, media outlets made the right choice to cover the story. The VPD is very careful to control its image, skilfully channeling information through its communications department. The possibility that excessive force may have been used in this confrontation was certainly worth repeating out of concern for public interest and for the truth (as it was available at the time), and the police were given the chance to respond to the allegations (they declined).

A more pressing ethical issue, however, was the willingness of the local TV stations to pay for exclusive footage. No one had earned an exclusive story and the story depended on public interest. Buying footage didn’t just set a dangerous precedent, it exposed the true motives of much news-gathering: to win viewers at the cost of the public.

This wasn’t your $100 “eyewitness” footage of an accident or a fire, it was potential footage of police wrongdoing. The dubiousness of the source made the issue of paying for news that much more troubling. The reporters weren’t just giving someone the benefit of the doubt without the discipline of verification, they were creating a scenario that encouraged and rewarded spurious allegations.

Thankfully, my second day on the job was uneventful.

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News Seeking: Habitat for Honduras

October 26, 2009

Check out my new post at News Seeking. It’s basically part of a profile piece I wanted to write this summer, but never got the chance.

Dave Hubert’s an interesting guy. As I go on to say in the post:

“The former teacher and government employee has helped start many things: the Edmonton chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, the Edmonton recycle program, as well as a variety of education programs at Norquest and Portage colleges, where he spent several years as principal.”

A search through the Edmonton Journal archives revealed a few pieces on the latest thing he was up to through the years, as well as a series of letters to the editor regarding Canadian foreign policy.

Untitled-2You see, Dave likes to take on the belief that unblinking support for the Canadian military is a good thing. When I met with him, he had his latest letter ready to go. He was upset the Canadian army had promoted a former Col., Serge Labbé, to Brigadier General in 2009 (with retroactive pay). Labbé was found exercising poor and inappropriate leadership in the Somalia affair in 1993, where Canadian soldiers tortured and beat a Somali teen to death. While Labbé was not deemed personally responsible, he was excoriated for failing to uphold the rules of engagement.

Hubert’s open letter says the promotion is an attempt to rewrite history, without addressing the causes of the Somali incident:

“The large number of complaints of enlisted personnel indicates that the social pathology that characterized the military at the time of the Somalia debacle persists. Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes and the pathologies that the Somalia Inquiry would have identified had it been permitted to conclude its investigation, the generals stonewalled the Inquiry at every turn. They never learned anything and they never forgot anything. And so the social pathologies persist and the number of complaints of the brave enlisted men and women in uniform multiply.”

Understandably, the archival search for “Dave Hubert” also revealed a series of retorts by Edmontonians perturbed by his unpatriotic words.

But whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to fault Hubert. His incredible humanitarian achievements are matched by a gentle demeanor and an eagerness to live out his faith with integrity and passion.

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OMG, it’s the Jonas Bros!!!

July 4, 2009

Okay, maybe that’s a little bit over the top, but I had the pleasure of covering two arrivals in Edmonton: Michael Ignatieff’s town hall meeting on Tuesday, and the Jonas Bros. concert on Thursday.

All rock stars have groupies, but Iggy’s are definitely of the grey-haired variety. Ignatieff didn’t stray far from his message, btw, which is why we wrote nothing about it.

On Saturday, a 2 year-old girl fell into Edmonton’s Blackmud Creek ravine (with basically a 90 degree drop). The mom went to the edge, saw her baby bleeding and face down in the creek, and jumped down after her. An hour of dramatic rescuing, and both mom and baby were rushed to hospital. Both are doing fine.

Saturday, July 4: Waste gases on rise, energy board says, B.

Saturday, July 4: No jail time for accused ex-cop, B.

Friday, July 3: Girls go wild for boy band, A1.

Thursday, July 2: Celebration of science centre a big blast with a little glitch, B3.

Thursday, July 2: Abandoned Edmonton McDonald’s goes up in flames.

Monday, June 29: Victim left, returned to fatal house party, A6.

Sunday, June 28: Woman, toddler rescued from steep ravine, A7.

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ABC Spells “Trouble” for Ignatieff

December 7, 2008

While last weekend’s ABC (anything but conservative) Coalition talks were, well, coalescing, I told my wife, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

I can’t really claim to have had any sort of prescient foresight, any brilliant interpretation of the constitutional role of the Governor General, or anything of the sort. It was more of a gut feeling.

My thought? There’s no way Michael Ignatieff will go along with it.

Ignatieff in happier times

Ignatieff in happier times

As the Liberal leadership candidate with majority MP backing (50 of 77), not to mention the coolest CV, Iggy had to back this thing or else it was a non-starter. Why would he cede his possible honeymoon period to a nice-but-clearly-a-liability-interim-leader like Stephane Dion? There was just too much to lose, especially with the type of legislation the coalition would be bringing to the table. As one of my profs once said, there’s an inelegance in spending large quantities of money. And with Jack and Gilles up on the hill, there’d be inelegance-a-plenty.

But suppose it worked. Maybe Dion would perform tremendously (and on Monday, it looked like he might). The May 2 Liberal leadership race might begin to look like a mistake. Even in the best case scenario, Ignatieff would inherit the PMO at the convention. But if Ignatieff was living in Canada for the past 25 years, he’d know that Canadian politics aren’t very nice to Prime Ministers who inherit the job (Mr. Ignatieff, since you were away, please check the Wikipedia entries for Paul Martin, Kim Campbell, and John Turner).

But Ignatieff went ahead and signed the coalition papers. And now the wheels have fallen off the wagon, Dion is looking more like Stockwell Day than the future Prime Minister.

Presuming Ignatieff is the next Liberal leader (really, who else?), I can’t see how he isn’t going to be severely wounded in the next federal election. By lending his signature to the coalition, however reluctant he may have been, Ignatieff won’t be able to amble up the rhetorical high road.

Harper is already there, turning his own blunder into a prospective majority (and shoring up his lagging western support to boot). I’m still not quite sure how he managed it. Maybe it’s because the majority of Canadians hate at least one of the coalition’s triumvirate (plus the suddenly silent Senator Elizabeth May). If Canadian elections are about the least of five evils, then maybe the evils add up!

No prescience needed for my last thought either: Ignatieff will need to execute some skillful Harperesque maneuvering to get out of this one. A speedy leadership convention won’t make it any easier.

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Article Gets Mention on PBS’s Mediashift Site

December 1, 2008

First it was CBC, now it’s PBS!

Alfred Hermida mentions my recent Thunderbird article in his article, “J-Students Take Multiplatform Approach to City Politics.” Hermida’s article is featured on PBS’s Mediashift website, which examines the move to digital media.

Alfred Hermida is my professor in what we at “J-School” call “iJournalism,” which is shorthand for integrated or multiplatform journalism (we’re very fond of abbreviations). Hermida is UBC J-School’s expert on all things technological, and runs a celebrated blog on media and technology, reportr.net.

Okay, it’s not the best reference. I’m in there as a sort-of throwback to the resilience of “plain old text.”

But I’m not going to shun fame when it finds me.

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Repeal Section 13 and Revitalize Press Councils says Richard Moon

November 24, 2008

While Richard Moon’s #1 recommendation is “that section 13 of the CHRA be repealed,” he also says regional press councils should order newpapers to print material favourable to “unfairly represented” groups, in a report released this morning.

Moon, a University of Windsor law professor, was hired in June by the Canadian Human Rights Commission to write a report on how best to address internet hate speech, with particular attention to Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Section 13, which deals with hate speech, has come under public scrutiny in the past year for its vagueness and its apparent abuses by CHRC staff.

Moon’s report is unlikely to quell the controversy.

While recommending the removal of Section 13 and the prosecution of hate speech in criminal courts, Moon offers an alternative recommendation in case the first one is not heeded. Under this second recommendation, Moon says Section 13(1) should be emended to rule out all but the most extreme cases of hate speech, and that authorial intent and the truth defense should be included in the consideration. This would mean that actions intended to challenge the CHRA, such as the reprinting of Rev. Steve Boisson’s letter by bloggers challenging the CHRC, would not be subject to hate speech accusations. Moon’s second recommendation also stipulates that the CHRC should have the exclusive right to investigate Section 13 cases, removing the possibilities of systemic abuse at the hands of a few individuals, as well as the burden on individual complainants.

What might create even more controversy is Moon’s third recommendation, which seeks to “revitalize the provincial/regional press councils” and “ensure that identifiable groups in the community are able to pursue complaints that they have been unfairly represented in the mainstream print media.”

The idea that regional press councils could dictate editorial content of mainstream media is unlikely to win over avid free speechers such as Ezra Levant, who says the idea reflects belief in a “weird command and control universe, where everyone reads the MSM [mainstream media].” Other journalists, such as Ryerson journalism professor John Miller, welcome the recommendation but express doubt that the press will actually invigorate press councils.