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This part of our website has been expanded to run important stories that might normally be found behind our paywall, but which we feel will garner wider exposure by appearing in the public area of our site. A major impetus for our making more stories available free of charge was the July 2016 decision by FaceBook to accept articles from BestStory's public area to be included in their Instant Articles newsfeed.
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As for Editor Warren Perley, he too looks forward to writing more long-form stories, as well as background pieces, to appear in BestStory's Notes From The Editor.
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December 23, 2018
Canadian media pundit Conrad Black has been drinking too much Trump brand Kool-Aid
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December 23, 2018
Canadian media pundit Conrad Black has been drinking too much Trump brand Kool-Aid
Editor’s Note: Stan Crock is a distinguished American journalist with a degree from Columbia Law School and a finely-honed bullshit detector. He takes former Canadian media baron Conrad Black to task for his positive comments about the track record of President Donald Trump in an October 2018 National Post column written by Black. Stan’s colorful biography can be found here.
In his National Post column of October 8, 2018, former Canadian publishing magnate Conrad Black wrote this about U.S. President Donald Trump: Most Canadians think Trump “is a buffoon, a bully, and a windbag, and don't confuse them with the facts, such as that he is a very successful president.”
Is Conrad Black a George Orwell pen name? Was Black separated at birth from Trump, receiving some of the same genetic allergy to reality and facts? The opposite of what Black said is true, though without any Orwellian irony. Trump IS a buffoon, a bully, and a windbag. And that’s an understatement. He is a pathetic, petulant, puerile, incompetent, venal and ignorant excuse for a human being and president. The notion that he is a very successful president depends on a definition of success that defies reason.
Black did make one accurate comment: his concession about Trump’s “tendency to unwisely provocative comment.” But that’s about it.
A key point Black tried to make, for example, was that the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was part of Trump’s “war to evict the entire political establishment of both parties.” Trump had some momentum, having won the Republican nomination, the election, and initially control of Congress. Kavanaugh gave him control of the Supreme Court as well.
Black’s use of “war” suggests a plan and strategy. Former Bill Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart similarly opined on CNN that Trump’s attacks on the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts were part of a strategy epitomized in Trump’s inaugural address, in which he painted a dark picture of an America only he could save. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump declared. This all is a justification for a power grab, Lockhart concluded, for if things are going well, there is no need to accrue more power.
Both Black and Lockhart are wrong. Trump lacks the gray matter for a strategy. As Bob Woodward’s book, Fear, documents, national security officials repeatedly tried to explain to Trump that the U.S. trade agreement with South Korea and keeping a missile defense system in South Korea instead of in the U.S. have critical, intertwined security implications for the peninsula, relations with China, and U.S. security. And that our policy prevents World War III. Seniors advisers also explained that trade deficits are not the economic Armageddon Trump thinks they are. No matter how many times they repeated all this, Trump didn’t get it.
International relations often is a five-dimensional chess game, and Trump can’t figure out the next move for tic-tac-toe. He is incapable of a strategy. His actions are what I call GRAPS – “gut reaction at perceived slights.” Trump’s attacks on the Ninth Circuit, calling it a “complete and total disaster,” are not part of a grand scheme, but a below-the-belt, knee-jerk (pun intended) punch at a target that can’t respond. Trump felt attacked by a court ruling that blocked yet another immigration executive order because he overreached. It was not an attack. The court looked at the executive order, as well as the law, and saw the conflict. But Trump perceived it as an attack and responded as he usually does, like a 7-year-old. Trump has a lot of fixed ideas that are not factual and refuses to learn that he is wrong.
Black showed that he, not other Canadians, misunderstands America when he predicted the Kavanaugh fight would enable Trump to “solidify Trump-Republican control of the Congress.” The fight over Kavanaugh backfired and arguably lost Republicans the support of college-educated women in the growing, vote-rich suburbs. That led to a big victory by Democrats in the midterm elections for the House of Representatives on November 6, 2018, and may well have set the stage for Trump’s defeat in 2020. Democrats crushed Republicans in three states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – that were crucial to his success in the 2016 presidential election. And Trump is doing nothing to broaden his appeal.
Black posited that Trump would be “only the third president since the Civil War (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson were the others) to control the Congress and have a Supreme Court in sympathy with his views also….Thus is Trump rewarded for producing four-per-cent economic growth, a full-employment economy, shrinking energy imports, the revival of serious nuclear-arms control, a reduction of illegal immigration, and a Western alliance that isn't just a league of pick-pockets.”
Can someone please give Black a pan to make breakfast with the eggs he has to wipe off his face? Don’t EVER mention Trump in the same breath as FDR and LBJ. Or anyone besides maybe Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Trump no longer controls Congress. And his fact-free, infantile spat with the judiciary could motivate the courts to assert their independence. It takes a lot for a Supreme Court Chief Justice to rebuke the White House, but Trump’s unwise provocative comments managed to do just that.
Even before Trump’s inflammatory remarks, judges appointed by a variety of presidents overturned dozens of administration actions. Trump abandoned a transition operation so his team never learned the missions and operations of government agencies, as Michael Lewis documents in his new book, The Fifth Risk. As a result, his appointees lack basic knowledge of how to govern and provide a justification for their actions, as the law requires. Of course, many of the actions can’t be justified and exceed executive branch authority, violating either the Constitution or statutes. So any judge who hasn’t been lobotomized would block them.
But let’s put aside jibes and rhetoric for a moment and try to confuse Black with facts. Trump’s alleged successes – according to Black in his column – are listed in italic type in the points below. For each of Black’s claims of a Trump success, I explain the reality in plain text immediately after:
- Four percent economic growth: The GDP growth rate in Trump’s first year was 2.3 percent. To be fair, the economy of the first year of an administration reflects the policies of the previous administration, so you shouldn’t count it. So let’s look at 2018. For the first three quarters, GDP growth averaged 3.3 percent, not 4 percent, and not much above the 3.22 percent average since 1947. Not exactly something to crow about. Trump had one quarter of 4 percent growth, then reverted to the mean. And Trump’s refusal to lift a finger about climate change will damage long-term economic prospects, according to his own administration’s report. If you want 4 percent growth, look to the Clinton administration, which had it in five of its eight years. (Historically, growth is faster under Democrats than under Republicans. That Republicans have a reputation for better economic stewardship shows that Republicans have used a Goebbels strategy successfully for a long time.)
- Full employment: Unemployment is at rock bottom, and that’s terrific. (Unemployment was 3.7 percent in October 2018 when Black wrote his column.) Job growth was slightly higher during the first 10 months of 2018 (average of 196,000 monthly) than the first 10 months of 2016 (average 182,000), Obama’s final year. But the labor force participation rate has been below 63 percent for almost all of Trump’s presidency, while it was above that figure for almost all of Obama’s presidency. The drop in labor participation rates inflates the cut in the unemployment rate.
To be sure, growth under Trump was faster than under President Barack Obama. But President George W. Bush saddled Obama with a financial-crisis-induced recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recoveries from financial-crisis recessions are far slower than from run-of-the-mill, business-cycle recessions. And the economy performed better under Obama than the average of recoveries after previous financial-crisis recessions. On average, unemployment in such circumstances rises 7 percentage points over five years, while under Obama, unemployment rose 5.6 points over only two-and-a-half years. Because Obama’s and Trump’s circumstances were so different, comparing growth rates for their administrations would be comparing apples with elephants.
Here’s how that works. Let’s say there are 200 working-age people in the population, 100 of them are working or seeking work (are participating in the labor force), and 90 of them are employed, and 10 are unemployed. That would be a 50 percent labor force participation rate (100 out of 200) and a 10 percent unemployment rate (10 out of 100). Let’s say the next month, the 10 unemployed people get discouraged, stop looking for work, and are out of the labor force. Meanwhile, no new jobs are created. So now 90 out of 200 are participating in the work force, lowering the participation rate to 45 percent. All 90 participants are working, so the unemployment rate plummets to zero without one new job created because the denominator of labor force participation shrank from 100 to 90.
When unemployment hit the Obama administration high of 10 percent in October 2009, labor force participation was about 65 percent. It then started a pretty steady decline, dipping below 63 percent in December 2013, when the unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. Obama benefitted from this lower participation rate as the unemployment rate dipped to 4.7 percent at the end of 2016. Commentators noted that connection. But they don’t make it as often about the benefit Trump gets from that trend. For example, if the labor participation rate now were 65% – roughly 5.4 million more people – and we had the same number of people employed as we do today, the unemployment rate would be 6.9%.
- Shrinking energy imports: The yolk is on Black again. Crude imports in 2017 were higher than they were in 2016, 2015, and 2014, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Imports rose steadily from 2.68 billion barrels in 2014 to 2.89 billion in 2017. Imports of fossil fuels for the first eight months of 2018 came to 16.994 quadrillion BTUs, down from 17.244 in the first eight months of 2017, but up from 16.993 in the first eight months of 2016. So it’s not clear whether energy imports will shrink by year’s end. That depends partly on the strength of the economy. If it doesn’t crater and demand for fuel is strong, imports may not shrink.
- Serious nuclear-arms control: What serious arms control? If Trump had his way and everyone bowed out of the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran would be free to go full-speed ahead with a weapons program with no inspections. North Korea manipulated Trump as it made vague promises, Trump declared mission accomplished, and Pyongyang continued to build new nuclear facilities. Trump threatens to dump the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement with Russia, which eliminated thousands of warheads, so he can build more of them, as Russia is doing. That’s an Orwellian version of arms control if I ever saw one.
Black notably did not mention this issue. Nor did he mention that Trump has proposed nothing to change this undesirable trend, such as a program to bring people back into the labor force (other than the preposterous notion of restoring coal mining jobs).
Another aspect of energy policy, net imports, clearly is heading the wrong way, thanks to Trump’s benighted trade spats. As Oil and Gas Journal reported in September, 2018: “The nation’s overall petroleum trade balance went from net imports of 2.9 million b/d [barrels per day] in June to 4.54 million b/d in August, which is more than a 56% increase in 2 months. ‘Placing constraints on exports of American-made energy works against America’s energy future,’ said API Chief Economist Dean Foreman. ‘While the picture is still a bit muddied, it seems to be getting clearer—the trade war appears to be limiting the US’s access to crude export markets. As we produce more energy here at home, the US needs markets for its products in order for our economy to continue to grow. There’s no question that the 1.6 million b/d increase [of] US petroleum net imports, which undid a full year’s worth progress, is a setback to the US’s goal of energy dominance.’”
- Reduced illegal immigration: Numbers on illegal immigration actually don’t exist. The proxy is arrests at the southern border. That number declined in 2017 to 304,000 from about 400,000 in 2016. But the figure has declined steadily from the 2000 peak of 1.64 million. Under Obama, the number went from about 700,000 to 400,000. It’s not as if reducing illegal immigration is a novel Trump initiative. But the numbers for 2018 actually are heading in the opposite direction. The total of 340,030 apprehensions near the southwest border and individuals deemed “inadmissible” for the first eight months of fiscal year 2018 were 10.8 percent higher than during the first eight months of fiscal year 2017. If Trump cuts funding to Honduras, Guatemala and others countries – thus creating refugees instead of helping the countries address the root causes of emigration – the cross-border numbers will continue to climb.
But oh, I forgot. We can rely on Vladimir Putin’s good faith, which he has demonstrated repeatedly in Crimea, Ukraine, Georgia, elections in the U.S. and elsewhere, while poisoning, shooting, or jailing opponents. But all that aside, Trump surely can use his relationship with Putin to wrest a great deal. Trump proved his mettle in a Russia-U.S. summit meeting in Helsinki on July 16, 2018 when he kissed Putin’s ring and posterior. Maybe that $50 million penthouse Trump supposedly promised Putin will buy some goodwill.
Trump is many things, but serious is not one of them, including as a negotiator. As Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea are finding, there are few world leaders who are easier marks. And he receives nothing in return for giving these countries passes on their murderous behavior. (I guess he is serious in one respect, a serious threat to world order.)
Trade is another area where Trump is a snake oil salesman and chump. Take the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, which Trump touted as a great breakthrough and deal for all three countries. As usual, he utterly lacks credibility. I talked to two American and one Canadian trade experts who all agreed that the new accord, for the most part, merely tweaks parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump regularly trashed. Much remains intact. NAFTA II added some new sections dealing with areas such as data security and the Internet, which were not issues when the original NAFTA took effect in January, 1994. But those needed updates differed little from provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump also trashed. Consistency has not been Pinocchio-in-Chief’s strong point.
If NAFTA is essentially unchanged except for the updates, it is indeed a great deal for all of the countries because the original was – something Trump never would acknowledge because it’s a factual statement. The U.S. especially benefitted. In January 1994, when NAFTA took effect, there were 16.9 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years later, though some jobs indeed moved to Mexico, there had been far more gains, and the number of manufacturing jobs actually increased to 17.6 million. The rise reversed what had been a steady decline since May 1979, when the number hit 19.5 million. That’s not something most Americans, and certainly not Trump, know.
That’s just part of the story. U.S. employment overall grew 21 percent between 1993 and 2007. In the decade after NAFTA took effect, the U.S. economy grew 44 percent, significantly faster than the economies of Mexico and Canada. During that decade, U.S. exports to Mexico and Mexico’s exports under NAFTA grew at similar rates—more than 200 percent. But these figures don’t give the full picture. For example, of every $1 of Mexican manufactured exports that arrived in the United States, 40 cents came from parts and materials made in the U.S. To be sure, in a complex economy, it’s impossible to isolate one cause such as NAFTA for an economic boom, but it’s also impossible to show that NAFTA overall hurt U.S. workers.
So is NAFTA II a great breakthrough that only Trump’s negotiating genius could achieve? Of course not. Aggravating matters, Trump’s illegal tariffs on steel and aluminum (they violate U.S. law) may offset any benefits from NAFTA II. One of my relatives works for a building-management firm that is getting hammered by price increases due to the tariffs. Another friend’s firm uses an aluminum product not made in the U.S. Because of tariffs, the price has sextupled, and the wait time for delivery has more than tripled. His customer: The U.S. government. So Washington and taxpayers are getting screwed.
They are not alone. The Federal Reserve’s December Beige Book, a review of economic activity in the Fed’s 12 districts, said margins were narrowing because input costs rose faster than final goods prices. Most of the Federal Reserve’s 12 districts saw only modest to moderate growth from mid-October through late November 2018, while Dallas and Philadelphia noted slower growth, and St. Louis and Kansas City noted just slight growth. Tariffs were also hurting the agriculture sector. Economic headwinds are starting to blow.
Then there is the trade deal with China. The “incredible” deal Trump struck with Beijing is indeed incredible, but not the way Trump meant. What is not credible is that China will give up its business model – illegal and unethical ways to obtain intellectual property; subsidies to target industries; and the Made in China 2025 vision – for a 90-day delay in tariffs. The stock market realized on December 4, 2018 that Trump was blowing smoke, and that was one reason the market dropped 3 percent that day. If Trump were a tough negotiator, he would have imposed the tariffs to force China to move fast on reforms. Instead, he delayed tariffs while getting nothing substantive in return.
Why? Not because he’s a great negotiator, but because he had to fix a crisis of his own making at home – in effect a huge tax increase for U.S. businesses and consumers. As the effect on my relative’s and friend’s companies ripples through the economy, companies will lay off workers as the 2020 election approaches. Trump had to do something to stem the tide because when he acts impulsively, he simply can’t see the next move until he gets blindsided.
A Western alliance that isn’t just a league of pickpockets: Thanks to Trump, it is fast becoming a Western alliance that just isn’t. Trump has antagonized every one of our traditional major allies while sucking up to our enemies. European leaders now want their own military because the U.S. president no longer is reliable. Characterizing allies as pickpockets might make sense if the U.S. got nothing for its military investments. In fact, no country has benefitted more than the U.S from the post-World War II order, which Washington helped create. No country has seen more prosperity. No country has seen more global cultural and social influence. No country has provided more humanitarian aid to help the world’s most vulnerable. With remarkable speed, Trump has reversed all that progress. The U.S. now is anathema, not an archetype.
Black’s litany of “successes” actually highlights a lot of the ruinous Trump policies. Black also ignores that Trump has undermined every important component of U.S. strength: the FBI, the intelligence community, the military, the Justice Department, the judiciary, the First Amendment, the NATO alliance, free trade, the Federal Reserve Board, and elections. And he ignores the elephant in the room: the Mueller probe. While Trump, indeed, won the Electoral College vote, his legitimacy has been undercut because Russia’s strategic hacking and the hush money Trump paid to avoid disclosure of sexual dalliances before the election suggest he won through fraudulent means. In his National Post column, Black did not even try to defend Trump on these scores, perhaps realizing he couldn’t.
As important as anything else is Pinocchio-in-Chief’s utter evisceration of the concept that what comes out of a president’s mouth is true and important. He is willfully indifferent to the truth and cares only about the impression he leaves of himself – the definition of a bullshit artist. To be sure, not everything that came out of a president’s mouth in the past was true (Richard Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Bill Clinton, to name a few). But for reporters, covering the White House was a solemn and sought-after job because for the most part that was where you could find an accurate exposition of considered strategic policy. In the Trump White House, one finds neither truth nor consideration nor strategy.
Trump has so violated the norms of White House processes that the press corps should acknowledge that by not enabling Trump to dictate the day’s headlines with whatever diversionary tactic he devises. Instead of ceding that power to Trump, editors should exercise news judgment, ignoring fabricated falsehoods and focusing on facts and reality as dispensed by those with a record of accuracy. That may not be what Trump wants the story to be that day. Tough.
Some fundamentals about Trump just won’t change. He demonstrates the profundity of his ignorance when he continues to talk about NATO dues. Countries have pledged to contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to their own defenses, not to NATO. But does that figure make sense? Strategy should determine budget. Budget should not determine strategy. Put the horse first.
What does strategy dictate? We don’t need to worry about Soviet troops streaming through the Fulda Gap as we did during the Cold War. The issue today isn’t how many sorties we need to hit a target, but – thanks to cheap smart bombs – how many targets we can hit with one sortie. That means we don’t need as many military aircraft. Terrorism, cybersecurity, China’s oceanic land grabs, Russian incursions, North Korean nukes, and Iran are the top issues. They don’t require the same level of defense spending as the Cold War did. Is Trump asking what the spending requirements are for future strategic needs? Is he asking why Iceland, with no army, should spend 2 percent of its GDP on military spending? Of course not.
Black ignores one of the most troubling aspects of the Trump presidency, one that has largely gone under the radar: the implications of the yawning budget deficit that his profligate tax cut spawned. The reason it is dangerous is that no one has repealed the business cycle. At some point the long-running economic expansion will peter out. Analysts said that was another contributing factor to the stock market plunge on December 4, 2018 and the market has declined even further since. The sharp drop in new jobs in November, 2018 to 155,000 from 250,000 in October may be another harbinger, though I don’t like making predictions based on a snapshot.
But we can look at history. Expansions since 1854 have averaged 39 months. They have averaged 59 months since 1945. The current expansion has lasted 114 months. The expansion from 1991-2001 lasted 120 months. Both are outliers that bring up the average. (Note the overwhelming majority of these two long expansions were during Democratic presidencies.) The expansion will end. The only question is whether the downturn will be a mild business-cycle downturn or something more dangerous. The latter is possible because Trump is dismembering financial safeguards put into place after the Bush financial collapse. Financiers may be able to play dangerously with other people’s money yet again. Who knows where the danger lies? Underfunded state pension funds? Student debt?
Whatever the reason for the coming downturn, the tax cuts and resulting deficit put the administration in a fiscal box. It has little room to enact a financial stimulus package because of the debt. Compare the situation now with what Obama faced. The budget deficit as a percentage of GDP was 1.1 percent in 2007 and jumped to 3.1 percent in 2008 because of Bush's bank bailout, which was necessary. The 1.1 percent figure was historically low, so it was a good baseline to start with as the government financed a way to crawl out of the recession. With Obama's stimulus package and plummeting revenue because of the recession, the deficit as a percentage of GDP soared to 9.8 percent in 2009, the highest figure since World War II. But that stimulus package was critical to bringing the U.S. and global economies back from the brink.
Today, thanks to the GOP's woeful fiscal irresponsibility, the starting percentage will be 4.6 percent in 2019 and 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That's not assuming a financial debacle. It’s a horrible starting point. And this does not assume much spending to alleviate what former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers aptly called the infrastructure deficit, another national disaster. Are Republicans willing to eat their fiscal-hawk principles with a Republican in the White House? If the past is any indication, they will show they are serious about deficits only when a Democrat is president. So maybe they will add even more fuel to the deficit fire. Any significant stimulus package could force the deficit to reach the double-digit percentage of World War II. This is unforgiveable fiscal mismanagement of the highest order. Why no mention of this, Conrad Black?
To prepare for the inevitable, Congress should quietly rescind some of the backroom deals in the tax cut. Such stealthy revenue increases would replicate Ronald Reagan’s numerous tax increases, which pretty much offset his tax cuts without raising income tax rates. He raised taxes on cigarettes, gas, capital gains, and corporations. He limited tax-advantaged deductions and benefits under pension plans. He taxed high-earners' Social Security benefits and forced the self-employed to pay both sides of the payroll tax instead of just the employee side. He generated revenue by broadening the tax base without raising individual income tax rates. It was a smart ploy to raise revenue, one that most Republicans either forget or simply refuse to acknowledge.
Congress today has to close different loopholes. The good news is that the public doesn't know what's in the recent tax bill so it won't know and object if Congress rescinds some of the benefits. The special interests that pushed the provisions will go berserk. So the question is whether Congress will have grown vertebrae and be able to withstand the inevitable pressure to retain the goodies. I would not bet on it. That means a self-inflicted financial disaster may loom for the U.S. That cannot bode well for Trump. He can’t blame this one on Obama. If the Democrat-led House passes legislation to deal with this and related issues, and the bills die in the Republican Senate, we all will know who the obstructionists are.
Successful Trump presidency? Hooey. In the next two years, barring impeachment, it’s likely to get worse. Trump is in a hole and keeps digging. He doesn’t have the brain power to know that when you are in a hole, the smart thing is to stop digging. From the basic functioning of government to climate change to national security to the economy, the United States will pay an incalculable price for the damage this buffoon and windbag is inflicting.
Editor’s Addendum – Those readers who wish to peruse the October 2018 National Post column by Conrad Black which motivated BestStory.ca contributor Stan Crock to set the Trump record straight can do so by following the link below:
July 23, 2018
With Donald Trump in the White House, the question likely isn’t ‘if’, but rather ‘when’ NAFTA will fail
Editor’s Note: This is Susy Abbondi’s follow-up, detailed analysis of the stalled NAFTA negotiations, 14 months after her first masterful “look" into the NAFTA talks was posted by us on May 17, 2017. Those readers who wish to know what makes Susy so proficient at researching and explaining complicated subjects, such as NAFTA, should check out her biography here.
Donald Trump has always sold himself as a great negotiator, the ultimate problem-solver. But just 18 months into his presidency – by summer 2018 – he had proved himself to be more of a dealbreaker than a dealmaker.
So far, the dealbreaker-in-chief has exited three major treaties – the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Iran nuclear deal. And a fourth deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement, appears to be next on the chopping block, especially in light of Trump’s shenanigans following the G7 Summit at La Malbaie, Quebec on June 7-8, 2018, when he attacked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for saying Canada would not be bullied by punitive tariffs imposed on Canadian steel and aluminum exports to the U.S. Trump said Trudeau’s outspoken position about the U.S.-Canadian trade dispute was going to “cost a lot of money for the people of Canada.”
Trump’s aggressive use of punitive tariffs has now landed him in the midst of a trade war of global proportions. From the outside looking in, it resembles the world of professional wrestling, where the “good guys” take on the “bad guys” in the midst of a grandstanding charade. The only trouble is that the U.S. has decided to start a wrestling match by hurling a folding chair towards the good guys. Perhaps this is not surprising from a president who made a cameo appearance in the World Wrestling Entertainment ring long before he stepped into the Oval Office.
At this point, the question begs to be answered: what happens if – or should we say when – NAFTA fails? It is a question not easily answered, but in this piece I will attempt to explore the biggest underlying issues preventing us from striking a deal, as well as the economic repercussions of a post-NAFTA world.
Is a deal even possible?
Now that NAFTA has come unglued, it has often been said that Canada has less to worry about as compared with Mexico because we have the luxury of falling back on our original bilateral Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA). The agreement seized national attention for the better portion of two years as then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney fought hard for re-election and for the agreement which faced a great deal of opposition, in what became known as the great free-trade election of 1988.
As per diplomatic notes, the CUSFTA was merely suspended when NAFTA was enacted in its place in 1994, and it is said it would come back in force should NAFTA lapse. Of course, there is no reason to believe this agreement is not also going to find itself in Trump’s crosshairs given Trump’s zero sum economic view and perceived hostility towards trade partners.
In short order, Trump has managed to undermine the liberal trading environment that American presidents of both parties worked very hard to foster since the first General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) emerged from the ashes of World War II in 1948, which was the organizational precursor of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The formation of the WTO brought with it a solemn promise for a more rational, predictable and fairer global economic order by reducing barriers and providing a forum for members to work out trade disputes. The system is far from perfect, but it is also far superior than the prospect of reverting to the 1930’s style of high tariff trade conflicts, which ultimately led to the Great Depression. With the way things are going, Canada may not only find itself with no treaty framework, but no WTO rules to fall back on either as the U.S. retreats from its leadership position on the global stage.
Take, take – no give
As Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, put it during a CNBC interview on October 25, 2017, referring to the NAFTA negotiations: “We’re trying to do a difficult thing. We’re asking two countries to give up some privileges that they have enjoyed for 22 years. And we are not in a position to offer anything in return.”
There is a clear rift in philosophy (at least within the Trump-led administration) among the NAFTA partners. While Mexico and Canada have demonstrated their willingness to keep borders open, the U.S. keeps pushing a winner-takes-all agenda, which is seemingly incompatible with the principles of open trade.
Despite the empirical link between freer trade and economic growth, the U.S. strategy is exceptionally self-serving: to strengthen its position by weakening that of its trade partners. The danger is that it does so using arguments and facts that are either outdated or purely manufactured (more on that later).
The U.S. is seeking, among other things, to force a greater percentage of motor-vehicle-parts manufacturers to locate within its borders by strengthening American content rules as a condition of duty-free market access. It is also looking to limit access to the awarding of public procurement projects and to diminish the available recourse for foreign companies in unfair trade practice claims.
There is also the issue of the five-year, uncertainty-inducing sunset clause – akin to an automatic divorce every five years unless all parties to the pact agree to its renewal. Trudeau revealed that he was scheduled to travel to Washington at the end of May 2018 to discuss the trade deal with Trump, until Vice President Mike Pence presented him with an ultimatum: the meeting would only happen if he agreed to the sunset clause.
With no trade deal in sight, matters really began to ratchet up when the White House announced the temporary exemption on steel and aluminum tariffs, originally announced on March 1, 2018 would officially come to an end at the stroke of midnight on May 31, 2018. Tariffs of 25 percent on steel, and 10 percent on aluminum are now in effect on imports from Canada, the European Union, and Mexico.
One of the best-known metaphors for the relationship between Canada and the U.S. is that of a mouse sleeping next to an elephant, as recounted by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau almost half a century ago. Today, his son Justin Trudeau likens Canada to a majestic moose, even-tempered and strong – despite Trump’s volcanic reactions to perceived trade imbalances and the fact that Canada is massively outweighed by the American superpower.
Throughout the NAFTA negotiations, Canada, in an effort to pen a deal, inevitably ceded ground on many points it originally deemed “non-starters”, but it has also played its own game of hardball by filing its most damning complaint to date with the WTO in the midst of the contentious talks.
The 32-page complaint not only cites the age-old softwood lumber dispute between the two countries, as well as the American punitive tariffs on paper and Bombardier jets. It also includes 122 cases where the U.S. imposed duties on a long list of other countries, including China, India, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and the European Union.
The document serves as an example of America’s uncouth approach to trade, including improper application of levy penalties beyond what is acceptable by WTO standards, as well as the retroactive application of improperly calculated tariff rates. There are also accusations of bias – by limiting evidence from uninvolved parties and through a lopsided panel voting system rigged in favor of the U.S.
Washington reacted angrily to the filing, a move American trade czar Robert Lighthizer called a “broad and ill-advised attack on the U.S. trade remedies system.” He went on to say: "Canada's claims are unfounded and could only lower U.S. confidence that Canada is committed to mutually beneficial trade."
Canada appears to be acting as an ambassador for the benefits of trade and fighting the good fight on behalf of the globalized world, making its way to center stage just as the U.S. is turnings its sights inwards. Canada has demonstrated that we do indeed have a backbone – sorry! – and that we will not sign a deal at any cost.
Under friendlier circumstances, the trade grievance could also prove to be an effective negotiating tactic as the case could be dropped in exchange for a side deal on steel and aluminum export limits, softwood lumber, or laxer rules of origin for the auto sector.
But since the application of steel and aluminum tariffs, which Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland has deemed “illegal”, the country has since filed another WTO complaint. That being said, Washington, Ottawa and Mexico City have litigated dozens of cases against one another over nearly a quarter century since the pact has been in place, and none of these disputes has ever escalated to threaten the existence of NAFTA – but there have also never been such high levels of animosity (and insults of a personal nature) between our leaders.
A matter of national defense?
Overall, Trump has taken an unconventional approach in his attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to protect U.S. steelworkers, as the tariffs come under the guise of a national security imperative. By applying Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the president is authorized to restrict imports and impose unlimited tariffs on the grounds of national security. The justification is that a healthy industrial base is crucial to the nation’s military – even if, according to the Pentagon, only 3 percent of U.S. steel production goes towards defense.
Essentially, the Trump administration slapped allies with the most severe economic penalties to date with its tariffs on steel and aluminum. And resorting to calling it a matter of “national security” has added insult to injury given that Canadians have fought side by side with the Americans in every conflict since World War I.
This historic relationship is best exemplified by the Peace Arch, built 100 years after the War of 1812, where Canada (as a British colony) was swept up in the military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. Located at the westernmost point of the world’s longest undefended border between the U.S. and Canada, on the one side the inscription reads “children of a common mother” and on the other “brethren dwelling together in unity”.
Conflict between our two countries, whatever the cause, defies this very concept.
Understandably, to many trade analysts, the administration’s national security narrative looks weak – especially since Trump let it slip in a post-G7 tweet that the steel and aluminum tariffs were actually in response to Canada’s tariffs on dairy (which represent only 0.2 percent of U.S. exports into Canada). Anyhow, whatever the justification, the WTO gives countries broad leeway in defining their national security interests, in which case the governing body of trade could be reluctant to declare Trump’s tariffs a violation of global trade rules.
At this point, the only certainty is that the panel ruling process will be long and drawn out. It could be years before the national security rationale was deemed to be baseless and for the tariffs to be unwound. At which point, the WTO rules allow for compensation up to the value of the exporting country’s lost trade.
According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based non-partisan institution devoted to the study of economic policy, Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs would eliminate an estimated $14.2 billion of foreign product from the American market.
Trade losses to Canada due to these tariffs are estimated to reach $3.2 billion, while the European Union will experience losses to the tune of $3.5 billion (approximately €2.8 billion). Understandably, when faced with the prospect of these tariffs in March 2018, the E.U. was quick to draw up a list of products it would hit with a reciprocal tariff to make up for lost trade – it included cranberries, Kentucky bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. These duties finally came into force on June 24, 2018. Perhaps the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, put it best when he said: “We can also do stupid.”
China on the other hand – the one country that Trump repeatedly berated on the campaign trail and supposedly the main offender in question – is known to overproduce, flood global markets and, therefore, depress prices to the detriment of others. But Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs are not likely to do much to solve that problem, given that of the decrease in American imports, only $689 million of the trade loss is slated to be from China. Thanks to trade barriers, China is only America’s 11th-biggest supplier, accounting for a mere 6 percent of imported steel. That’s because anti-dumping and countervailing duties have already blocked the majority of Chinese steel out of the American market.
The irony is that Trump's linking of trade and national security has targeted more allies than foes. Canada, for example, is the single largest market for U.S. exports – larger than Japan, China, and the U. K. combined. Canada is also America’s No. 1 supplier of metals, while Mexico is the fourth.
According to the Export Development Bank of Canada, 95 percent of Canadian steel exports and 88 percent of aluminum exports in 2017 were sold to the U.S. For the same period, Canadian aluminum producers supplied nearly 50 percent of all aluminum consumed by the U.S. market. In total, Canadian steel and aluminum exports totaled $16.6 billion.
Now the gloves are off – Canada has announced dollar-for-dollar tariffs of its own. By July 1, 2018, Canada commenced charging a surtax on 128 different American imports, ranging from steel to felt tip pens, to yogurt, beer kegs and even ketchup. The idea is that absolutely everything on the list can be replaced with a Canadian equivalent or that of countries other than the U.S. What’s more, all of the items have been strategically chosen to target high profile Republican districts and to grab the attention of Congress.
On the same grounds of national security, the Trump administration has announced another investigation to determine whether automobile imports (including cars, trucks and auto parts) are also a threat. When asked how tariffs on foreign autos could be justified, Trump replied: “It’s very easy. It’s economic. It’s the balance sheet. To have a great military, you need a great balance sheet.”
On July 19, 2018, U.S. automotive manufacturers, car-parts suppliers, car dealers and foreign diplomats lined up to testify at a U.S. Commerce Department hearing in Washington, D.C. looking into Trump’s threatened imposition – once again under the guise of national security concerns – of an additional 25 percent tariff on all autos and automotive-parts imports, including those from Canada supposedly protected by NAFTA. The Commerce Department, led by Wilbur Ross, is charged with recommending to the president whether or not to proceed with those 25 percent tariffs that he has indicated would help American workers.
However, the entire auto sector, including the Big Three of GM, Ford and Chrysler, oppose such a move, saying it would lead to higher prices for consumers, fewer cars being manufactured in America and fewer jobs in the industry.
The Financial Post reported on July 18, 2018 that Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama and Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee had announced plans to introduce legislation opposing Trump’s proposed 25 per cent tariffs on automotive imports. Both warned that the tariffs threatened tens of thousands of jobs in their states.
“Foreign automobiles and auto parts are not a threat to our national security,” Jones was quoted as saying. “But you know what is a threat? A 25 percent tax on the price of these imported goods.”
The Financial Post reported that U.S auto sales reached 17.2 million in 2017 — the fourth-best production year on record – and that U.S. automakers and parts suppliers had added 343,000 jobs since the end of the Great Recession in 2009. The Toronto-based daily went on to quote Mary Lovely, a Syracuse University trade economist, as saying of Trump’s threatened 25 percent tariff on auto imports: “This is really taking it up one gigantic notch. I do think it may be a bridge too far.”
A July 25, 2018 story in The Washington Post quoted President Trump’s senior economic advisers as saying that the president wanted to push forward to impose 25 percent tariffs on close to $200 billion worth of foreign-made automobiles and parts imported annually into the U.S. despite warnings from his own inner circle, Republican leaders and automobile business executives.
Trump is making it clear that he trusts only his own instincts and intuition when it comes to crafting policy, tweeting on July 25, 2018: “Every time I see a weak politician asking to stop Trade talks or the use of Tariffs to counter unfair Tariffs, I wonder, what can they be thinking? Are we just going to continue and let our farmers and country get ripped off?"
If Trump moved ahead with the 25 percent tariffs on autos and auto parts, it would more than quadruple the value of products covered by tariffs, bringing the total to $445 billion worth of goods, compared with $85 billion worth of goods covered by tariffs announced by Trump as of July 2018. It would also decimate the North American auto industry, especially Canadian plants in Ontario, which for the last 24 years have counted on the special status afforded by NAFTA to create a tariff-free, seamless auto production supply chain involving the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
The complaints of most Americans (and, of course, all foreigners) impacted by Trump’s trade wars seem to fall on deaf ears when it comes to the president. His answer to American farmers who say they are losing billions of dollars worth of foreign produce sales due to recently-imposed tariffs was to offer them $12 billion in subsidies starting in September 2018, saying he needs time to win his trade wars with foreign countries.
Trump’s “solution” for farmers did not sit well with his own party. “If tariffs punish farmers, the answer is not welfare for farmers,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote on Twitter, echoing many Republicans. "The answer is remove the tariffs.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) added: “The trade war is cutting the legs out from under farmers and White House’s ‘plan’ is to spend $12 billion on gold crutches. America’s farmers don’t want to be paid to lose — they want to win by feeding the world.”
Knowing that he was losing the support of the GOP with his harsh trade actions, Trump toned down his behaviour at a July 25, 2018 White House meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker whereby he agreed temporarily to hold off on his proposed 25 percent auto tariffs against European cars if Europe would import more American soybeans and liquified natural gas. Of course, nothing was resolved concerning tariffs already put in place by both sides since March 2018 – such as those on steel and aluminum. Those issues would have to be dealt with in talks – which the two men indicated that they aspired to – aimed at signing a bilateral trade deal between the U.S. and the E.U.
Trump engaged in his typical hyperbole, calling the meeting with Juncker a major breakthrough. But the reality is that nothing was signed and no negotiating process or schedule was set up for future trade talks, which typically can take many months or even years to work out details acceptable to all sides in any future pact – well beyond the president’s attention span.
The truth is that while Juncker is the symbolic head of the E.U., any future trade deal would have to be ratified unanimously by the E.U.’s 27 member states in order for its provisions to come into force. Obtaining such unanimous consent from 27 countries is not an easy challenge or one that is resolved quickly. In the meantime, Trump could upset the entire process with its veneer of goodwill with one of his toxic tweets if even one E.U. leader were to make a statement on trade that irked him.
Even as he made a conciliatory gesture towards the E.U. in terms of not imposing any additional tariffs for now, that didn’t change the fact that Trump’s original tariffs against the E.U. are still in place, as are the tariffs he imposed in recent months against many of America’s other trading partners, including Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. He has also complained about unfair trade practices by India, suggesting that the world’s second most populous country could be in line for similar tariff treatment.
What’s in a can of soup?
In a media blitz to justify and generate support for the steel and aluminum tariffs, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce explained during an interview with CNBC on March 2, 2018 that the national security concern, as per the action taken under Section 232, covers broader areas than just the military.
As Wilbur Ross explained, because both the steel and aluminum industries in the U.S. are working well below the capacity utilization that is needed for long-term viability of those industries, they are down to one supplier of the aluminum alloy used in satellites and other aerospace applications. Similarly, there is only one supplier left who can provide the steel alloy needed in the production of armored plates for vehicles used in warfare. As such, the tariffs are simply a means of getting these industries working towards a goal of 80 percent capacity because government contracts alone are not enough to ensure the necessary survival of these paramount businesses.
Defending the tariff decision, Ross asserted that the cost to American consumers from any retaliatory actions would be a small price to pay for the security of maintaining domestic steel and aluminum production.
For example, the Commerce Secretary contends that tariffs on steel would add a paltry 0.5 percent ($175) to the cost of a $35, 000 vehicle when the tariffs are applied to the tonne of steel used in manufacturing a typical car. (We should note that the calculation by Ross appears elementary, as there is a fair deal of waste in the process of production, as well as the use of generally more expensive steel alloys.)
To further illustrate what he called the negligible effect the tariffs would have, he held up a Campbell’s Soup can. “In the can of Campbell’s Soup,” Ross said, “there’s about 2.6 pennies’ worth of steel. So if that goes up by 25 percent, that’s about six-tenths of one cent on the price of a can of Campbell’s Soup...who in the world is going to be too bothered by six-tenths of a cent?”
President Trump’s move to impose tariffs on imported steel is meant to protect an industry that employs about 140, 000 Americans. Yet by raising the price of steel, those same tariffs stand to hurt a far larger group – the 6.5 million who are employed by industries which need to buy the steel.
Tariffs will eventually lead to higher consumer prices, which typically lead to slower economic growth and a reduction in the very type of employment the U.S. is trying to protect. Trade Partnership Worldwide, a consultancy that researches international trade, estimates that the proposed tariffs would create a little more than 33, 000 jobs in the metal industry, while at the same time destroying around 179, 000 metal-dependent jobs. The result is a net negative.
There is, in fact, a lesson to be learnt from the history books of economic policy. In 2002, President George W. Bush attempted to revive a struggling steel industry with the application of punitive tariffs he deemed “temporary safeguards” – although Canada was excluded. Sound familiar?
“This relief will help steelworkers, communities that depend on steel, and the steel industry adjust without harming our economy,” Bush proclaimed in a statement at the time. What actually materialized was essentially the opposite, with steel shortages, production delays, increased costs, and of course, job losses – by some estimates, as many as 200,000. Bush ultimately removed the tariffs.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that Trump’s proposed tariffs could jeopardize economic growth, ultimately leading to a significant increase in Americans forced to survive on cans of more expensive soup.
Revival of the old economy
It is hard to know how the situation will pan out, with far too many moving parts to make a realistic prediction, given amongst other things, the recently passed stimulative tax breaks, and the highly anticipated $1 trillion infrastructure bill to come.
The bigger question, however, is whether the U.S. should really desire to compete in the realm of industrial commodities, as these are the types of businesses that peaked decades ago. The White House nonetheless chooses to defend the “old economy” jobs, but it does so at the expense of value-added manufacturing, the evolution to higher tech and greater- paying jobs. Ironically, similar to the effect of the proposed rules of origin, higher prices for industrial materials could stimulate the desire to move production out of the U.S.
There’s also the matter of productivity: the steel manufacturing business has changed over the years. It may be convenient to pinpoint foreign competition as the culprit for lost jobs – especially given the national security argument for protectionist actions – but the biggest threat to steelworker jobs has actually been technology.
Allan Collard-Wexler of Duke University and Jan De Loecker of Princeton authored a study in 2015 titled, Reallocation and Technology: Evidence from the US Steel Industry. It found that steel jobs vanished principally because of new, extremely efficient mini-mills which produce steel largely from scrap metal.
With no available details at the time, the off-the-cuff tariff announcement made by President Trump sent markets into a tariff tantrum. Understandably, the potential for a wave of protectionism spreading across the globe is a serious matter. It is also tough to see how aluminum used to make beer cans and baseball bats could be considered a national security threat.
At its lowest point, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged over 550 points (nearly 2 percent) after the announcement was made on March 1, 2018. The S&P 500 and the NASDAQ Composite (which is heavily weighted towards tech stocks) both sunk 1.3 percent on the news. As a whole, the U.S. stock market lost more than $600 billion in value over tariffs that would be applied to a mere $40 billion of metal imports. Either stock market participants believe these tariffs will deliver a bigger blow than the White House thinks is possible or this is a matter that reaches far beyond just tariffs – my gut tells me it’s the latter.
As the U.S. indices sank, the old economy stocks reacted positively to the news because the tariffs charged on steel and aluminum will raise metal prices – and profits – across the board. The iconic United States Steel Corporation rose just shy of 6 percent on the news, and Century Aluminum skyrocketed 14.7 percent.
As the shares of steel and aluminum companies soared, those of America’s industrial manufacturers dropped, as the hike in input prices will inevitably make it harder for them to compete abroad. The likes of General Motors sank nearly 5 percent on the news. As imagined, Canadian producers, such as the Steel Company of Canada (now known as Stelco), got hammered by 7 percent.
The North American sell-off produced a knock-on effect as metals and mining stocks reacted in a similar fashion across the globe. The volatile carnage continued in the days to follow as trade war worries weighed on stocks, as did the resignation of Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, who is an avid advocate of free trade – and potentially the last hope in changing Trump’s mind. As he exited the White House for the last time in early March 2018, markets feared that he may have taken with him the last shred of free trade spirit left in the West Wing.
Since then, market volatility has been on the rise with each rumor, new policy and trade-related tweet. The tariffs and threats have reportedly begun to take a toll as steel and aluminum prices – which are normally steady – have been on the rise and supplies have become scarce.
Automotive rules of origin
Perhaps no industry is more closely intertwined with NAFTA, or has more at stake with a shift in trade policy than the automotive sector. Not only is it both America’s and Canada’s largest manufacturing sector, but it is a major employer in all three member nations, supporting more than 7 million jobs in the U.S. alone. NAFTA also played an essential role, according to the American Automotive Policy Council, in the recovery of the sector after the global financial crisis of 2008.
The crisis slashed the demand for vehicles and pushed two (GM and Chrysler) of the “Big Three” American automakers to the verge of bankruptcy. The Canadian and American governments were forced to bail out the industry to the tune of $85 billion. Since then, total automotive production for the members of the trade pact has nearly doubled from 8.6 million light vehicles in 2009 to 17.9 million in 2016 (of which 12.2 million rolled off U.S. assembly lines), as per the Automotive News publication data center.
Over the years, NAFTA has pushed the auto-manufacturing sector to evolve in flexibility and efficiency. The industry that was once Motor City-centric found the majority of its assembly plants and auto parts suppliers close to the northern border with Canada. Today, as a result of the free movement of parts, the manufacturing footprint has shifted south, closer to Mexico which is not only booming in terms of production, but has emerged as a sales market and export base – thanks in part to its free trade pacts with more than 40 nations.
It is no wonder that one of the biggest hurdles to surmount in the NAFTA negotiations has been one of Washington’s earliest proposals to include the caveat that no vehicle shall be eligible for tariff-free treatment unless 50 percent of its content is manufactured on American soil. In the current agreement, there is no U.S. content requirement, only the stipulation that 62.5 percent of the parts originate from within the trade region. Throughout the negotiations, the U.S. had been pushing for this minimum to reach 85 percent, all in an effort to repatriate jobs and appease Trump supporters.
Given that the U.S. content demand would give the Americans a guaranteed economic advantage over their trading partners, the proposal was categorically rejected by Canada and Mexico. It should also be noted that according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a domestic content rule in a trade agreement was previously ruled to be a violation of WTO rules in a case settled nearly two decades ago.
The current NAFTA rules of origin for autos is already the most stringent in any trade agreement in the world. But in an effort to find middle ground, Canada suggested including the value of intellectual property in the calculation instead of just parts because car companies and parts manufacturers spend millions of dollars on research and development to meet the ever-increasing fuel efficiency and emissions standards. This would inflate the numbers and, hopefully, be less disruptive to the industry.
The U.S. has since gone back to the drawing board, not only building upon Canada’s suggested compromise, but also dropping the antagonistic American origin demand which has been one of the biggest sticking points in the trade talks.
Initially, the U.S. proposal also called for more aggressive traceability (from raw material to finished product) and rigorous enforcement. In other words, the end of tariff-shifting, which is the practice (or coping mechanism – depending on your view) of changing the treatment of a product through the process of substantial transformation. It means that if a non-NAFTA item is further processed by a NAFTA partner, that item is deemed to be “transformed” and, therefore, counted as locally sourced in Canada, Mexico or the U.S. What’s more, the substantial transformation rule has been part of U.S. trade policy since it entered into force with the GATT in 1948.
In an op-ed written by Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, and published in The Washington Postem on September 21, 2017, he makes it abundantly clear that this will be a sticking point in the NAFTA talks. He argues that the current rules of origin, which were intended to limit non-NAFTA content in final goods is flawed, as the percentage of U.S. content in manufactured goods imported from both Canada and Mexico has fallen since the introduction of the trilateral trade pact.
The data Ross cites is from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development between 1995 (the year after NAFTA went into effect) and 2011. He states: “The data is available only until 2011, but there is no reason to think that the situation has improved since then.” In Canada’s case, he contends U.S. content decreased from 21 percent to 15 percent, and it dropped even further in comparison with Mexico, from 26 percent to 16 percent. Given that automobiles account for 27 percent of total U.S. imports from NAFTA trade partners, the content figures for the auto industry follow a similar pattern.
The Commerce Secretary’s argument goes on to say: “This problem is particularly troubling because the previous U.S. share of the content found in imports from Canada and Mexico is largely being absorbed by non-NAFTA trading partners and not by Canada and Mexico themselves…We cannot forget that the point of a free-trade agreement is to advantage those within the agreement – not to help outsiders. Instead, NAFTA has provided entry into a bigger market for outside countries, and the United States is paying the price.”
There is plenty of viable research available which disputes the figures stated by Ross. For example, the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) found that U.S. content in cars manufactured in Mexico has risen from 5 percent prior to NAFTA to hit a record 40 percent in 2014. In the case of Canadian-assembled autos, a Scotiabank Economic Report pegged the U.S. content at nearly 60 percent. A stark difference from the data used in the justification by the U.S. government.
Not surprisingly, Canadian and Mexican negotiators have called the strict rules of origin proposal “wholly unworkable”, but they are not alone in their frustration; the U.S. auto industry was vehemently opposed to Trump’s plan as it could throw a wrench into the gears of the U.S. auto sector. The good news is that after some much needed (and reportedly intense) consultation with the automakers, the Trump administration has adopted a new way of thinking. Not only did they drop the proposal to have 50 percent of the content produced in the country, but they have also scaled back their North American requirements from 85 to 75 percent.
The latest proposal also stipulates that rather than tracing or keeping track of the materials that are not originating within North America to meet the exemption requirements, they would instead adopt an all-or-nothing approach. The idea is to group material inputs into defined categories by content thresholds (ranging from 65 to 75 percent). If the parts in the category meet the content threshold, the total value will be counted as 100 percent, if not, they will simply be counted as having zero originating content.
Sourcing more auto components locally is in theory possible, although there are certain components which cannot be procured from wholly North American sources, such as semiconductors, for example, which make up an ever-increasing portion of modern vehicles.
Moreover, although we have seen that the auto industry is able to adapt and change, it can take an awfully long time, especially when the planning process of a new car ranges between seven to 10 years. Any abrupt changes to the system may result in damaging existing contracts and a diminished viability in existing plant and equipment. It would also hamper the flexibility of automakers to adapt to changes in the global marketplace.
The auto sector as a whole is already contending with several challenges, such as the emergence of autonomous vehicles, the ride-sharing phenomenon and the ever-increasing need to reduce emissions through electrification technologies. It is the cost efficiencies created by NAFTA’s integrated supply chains that have allowed U.S. automakers to remain competitive against the likes of lower-cost Korean and Japanese autos that have flooded the market with their affordable vehicles. Much of this continued success has been thanks to the ability to move certain aspects of production to lower wage Mexico.
Unfortunately, the shift in mindset towards content requirements was accompanied by the notion that would require U.S. automakers to produce in jurisdictions that have a set minimum wage. According to Jude Webber of The Financial Times, “The US is pushing for 40 per cent of light vehicles, and 45 per cent of pickup trucks, to be produced in areas where average wages in the sector are $16” per hour – well beyond those prevailing in Mexico.
The idea is to level the North American playing field, either incentivizing automakers to bring jobs back to the U.S. or otherwise increasing wages in Mexico. Given that labor costs make up about 10 to 15 percent of vehicle production, a sudden increase in wages could have a material effect on already single-digit profit margins.
Whether it is the increased compliance demands of origin tracking systems, the potential for wage increases, or some other aspect of the renegotiated NAFTA that ultimately raises costs for suppliers and manufacturers, the next question then becomes: does it make economic sense to adapt the business to meet the new tariff-eliminating requirements?
Trump believes that his suggested policies are going to be a boon for his country, its workers and the economy, but if the U.S. were to get its way, there would likely be some unintended consequences. Complying with the more stringent rules of origin or added costs is likely to cause producers to make non-optimal procurement decisions – but they can only be pushed so far. We should not forget the beneficial use of NAFTA, or any other trade deal, is certainly a privilege, but not an obligation.
Let me explain: if the resulting cost of compliance surpasses the saving from preferential duty qualification, the producer will simply ignore the rules and opt to pay the applicable WTO Most Favored Nation (MFN) tariffs. In the case of auto parts, it is a mere 2.5 percent, but it can also have a big impact on an already low-margin business in a trade-sensitive sector, such as auto parts.
Because tariffs are a tax on trade flows and not on net production, even a small levy could have a disproportionate impact in NAFTA’s tightly-knit supply chains. Auto parts often cross the border numerous times at different stages of production (estimates reach as high as seven or eight times), which means that the same product will be included in both export and import totals. To give you an idea, in an RBC report published in November 2017, titled Life After NAFTA? it states: “Canadian exports of finished motor vehicles to the U.S. totaled $63 billion last year, though the sector’s direct contribution to GDP was about $8 billion.”
For those manufacturers who elect to pay the tariff, there would be an extra incentive to reduce costs by moving production to a lower-cost zone, such as Asia, for example. For those who choose to remain, there are several options for firms to adjust to squeezed margins – none of which are likely to please the Trump administration – such as replacing workers with robots or moving production abroad.
Finally, limiting the ability of manufacturers to source raw materials globally will not only raise costs, but will produce lower returns for investors, give fewer choices to consumers and render the industry less competitive. According to CAR, the withdrawal from NAFTA could also result in the loss of tens of thousands of U.S. automotive and parts manufacturing jobs. They also noted, “China would become a more dominant player in automotive parts, components, and intermediate goods” should NAFTA collapse.
China, China, China
China – albeit indirectly – may further complicate the NAFTA negotiations, as both Canada and Mexico are participating in the recently rebooted TPP – now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The Asia Pacific trade pact runs counter to Trump’s trade goals – especially in the auto sector. As Trump pushes to shrink the foreign content in duty-exempt vehicles (somewhere in the range of 15 to 25 percent), the TPP allowance is at the other end of the spectrum at 55 percent. The deal will allow for more pieces to be imported from Asia, including from countries not in the deal – like China.
A report published by the Office of the Chief Economist at Global Affairs Canada, titled Economic impact of Canada’s participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership concludes that the “liberalization of Canada’s trade with other new FTA partners will displace imports from existing FTA partner countries in Canada”. As such, American imports into Canada are expected to fall to the tune of $3.3 billion, led by a decline in automotive parts.
In percentage terms, the decline which amounts to nearly 1.2 percent of a $278 billion U.S. import market (of which $58 billion was in vehicles for 2016) may not be significant, but it may be enough to leave a sour taste and give this protectionist administration all the more reason to be inflexible in its demands. Especially now that China is also in Trump’s aggressive line-of-trade fire and matters on that front have escalated beyond the initial 25 percent tariffs imposed by the president on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports as of July 6, 2018. Not surprisingly, there was swift retribution from Beijing.
All told, there is the potential for $450 billion in tariffs, covering nearly 90 percent of the goods China sends to the U.S. The issue is that the U.S., in turn, does not send as many goods back to China, leaving China short-changed in its revenge. The fear among American businessmen is – and it had already begun by July 2018 – that this would lead China to adopt other tactics for revenge, such as calls for a boycott of U. S imports and the imposition of additional bureaucratic measures, such as increased paperwork and delays for American goods trying to clear Chinese customs.
There is no doubt that China has failed to live up to its WTO commitments, but America’s position with that country would be much stronger if it were able to present a united front, with the support of Europe, Mexico and Canada. Instead Trump has picked trade fights with his allies, which in turn has driven them to explore closer relations with Beijing.
As reported by The Associated Press on June 21, 2018: “John Murphy, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, estimates that $75 billion in U.S. products will be subject to new foreign tariffs by the end of the first week of July.” And these figures are expected to keep climbing.
We are already beginning to see the impact of retaliatory trade barriers on business decisions with the latest announcement on June 25, 2018 from America’s iconic motorcycle manufacturer, Harley-Davidson. As a consequence of retaliatory tariffs set by the European Union, the Milwaukee-based company has decided that it will shift some of its production oversees in an effort to circumvent the applicable tariffs which have reportedly jumped to 31 percent from 6 percent for motorcycles imported from the U.S. In the case of Harley’s premium bike prices, this adds approximately $2, 200 to the price of the average motorcycle sold on European soil. In response, Trump threatened that moving production abroad would “be the beginning of the end.”
In 2017, the company sold nearly 40, 000 motorcycles in the E.U. (about 17 percent of worldwide sales). For the time being, the company is expected to eat the added expense of the tariffs in an effort not to alienate buyers and to avoid permanent damage to the market. If sales remain at a similar level to last year, the tariffs are expected to cost the company between $90 and $100 million a year – a major hit to the bottom line. Harley reported that it could take up to 18 months to effectuate the change in production.
In the meantime, Trump has continued to tweet about the company saying, “Surprised that Harley-Davidson, of all companies, would be the first to wave the White Flag. I fought hard for them and ultimately they will not pay tariffs selling into the E. U…Taxes just a Harley excuse – be patient!” The president seems confident in his assertion of victory, but companies which exist for the benefit of their shareholders do not have the luxury of waiting around, nor did they enlist for the trade battle they find themselves in.
Of course, Trump famously believes that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” despite the fact that casualties are now starting to roll in from the battlefield. Senators on both sides of the isle have begun to take notice and are raising their concerns as companies such as Kraft-Heinz contemplate returning their ketchup production to Canada to avoid retaliatory tariffs.
Pulling out of NAFTA
Does Trump really have the authority to pull out of the trade pact? Experts offer up mixed opinions: for the time being, there is no clear answer.
From the time Trump made his way onto the political scene in June 2015, we have heard him utter threats many times about a NAFTA termination. He has always talked about the pact’s demise, as if he could pull the plug as easily as he tweets his famously inflammatory remarks.
With no deal in sight, a hot debate has since ensued amongst legal scholars as to a president’s powers and whether he could withdraw without being authorized by statute.
The U.S. Constitution is based upon separations of power: in essence, after the president gives notice to Congress of negotiation intent, Congress is consulted throughout the process and is liable to review the draft agreement and its accompanying legislation. When the agreement is finalized, it is Congress which ultimately rejects or approves it. If approved, the president has the authority to sign the trade agreement and make it official.
To bridge this division of the president’s executive powers and Congress’s power over trade, Congress passed the Trade Priorities and Accountability Act in 2015. In essence, Congress lends its power to the president who works under a new set of rules known as fast-track legislation. Under this scenario, Congress can merely approve or deny international trade agreements, but it cannot amend them or subject them to filibuster.
Interestingly, the act is silent on the matter of withdrawal or termination. Similarly, the U.S. NAFTA Implementation Act gives the president the power to make a proclamation on the implementation of the pact, but it does not grant him the power to revoke it.
If no deal can be reached and Trump ultimately decides to pull the plug, he would need to sign an executive order with the intention of withdrawal, at which point the countdown would officially begin. Once the six months was up, another executive order would be needed to make the exodus official.
Many regulatory and legislative experts argue that the second executive order would not suffice, given that Congress ratified and implemented the agreement in the first place. Trump may very well need Congress to repeal the enacting legislation, but there is no guarantee the measure would pass because there are many supporters of NAFTA on each end of the political spectrum.
Also, since the negotiations began, Canada has turned the charm offensive into high gear by enlisting the help of Canadian ministers and consular officials in a grassroots effort to generate support for the trade deal – these meetings have continued despite the apparent stall in the official talks. By pushing the merits of NAFTA to local businesspeople, chambers of commerce, farmers, union leaders, as well as local and state legislators, the hope is to persuade Congress to block a move to kill NAFTA. But congressional opposition may not be enough to save the day.
It could be quite possible for Trump to go over the head of Congress – but it could also turn into a sticky situation. Lawmakers could, in turn, try to stop Trump on constitutional grounds. This would be uncharted legal territory: no court has ruled on a comparable matter because the only trade deal the U.S. has ever terminated was in 1866 – before the formation of Canada.
In the meantime, so long as the litigation was tied up in the U.S. court system, the trade pact would remain in force. We would in theory be spared – at least temporarily – the short-term economic shock and post-NAFTA adaptation period. Trump would normally also require the authorization of Congress to apply new tariffs to any imported goods and services – which he avoided with the steel and aluminum tariffs by citing national security concerns. It is a pattern we have seen continue with his threats on imported vehicles.
In Canada’s fallback case, in regards to the suspension of the original CUSFTA, CBC News reported on June 9, 2018 that according to international trade lawyer Mark Warner: “It's entirely plausible that Canada and the U.S. would disagree about whether the earlier deal would remain suspended or automatically brought back into force. And that dispute could well end up in international court.”
However the matter turned out, trade partners would be left in limbo – what has come to be known as a “Zombie NAFTA” state. Economic uncertainty would become the new normal as we lumbered along, each step slow and arduous, dealing with the thickening of the border, interrupted supply chains and investment insecurity.
Life without NAFTA
Withdrawal from NAFTA (and the FTA) – whether authorized or not – would subject trade among the three countries to most favoured nation rates, as set by the WTO. This would render the divorce more manageable, provided the U.S. continued to respect its WTO commitments, although this would seem unlikely given the recent behavior of the administration.
At this point, experts are hesitant to make any ambitious economic predictions because there are far too many unknowns involved. But all agree that while the end of NAFTA would certainly reduce short-term economic growth, it would not be a disaster of colossal proportions for Canada. In other words, the divorce would hurt a little, but eventually we would get over it.
RBC’s November 2017 research report aptly titled, Life After NAFTA? predicts that a 4 percent across-the-board increase in tariffs between Canada and the U.S. – roughly the equivalent of reverting from NAFTA to WTO tariff rates – could reduce Canadian GDP growth by about 1 percent over five to 10 years, which would mean between a 0.1 and a 0.2 percent decrease per year. These figures may seem trivial to some, but the RBC report says “it adds up to a substantial amount of foregone production potential – about $20 billion (in today’s dollars) of annual output over time.”
On a brighter note, only “a minority of the half million Canadians working in highly trade-sensitive sectors would be most affected.” The auto manufacturing and auto parts industries are chief among those at risk. It is also expected that the province of Ontario, which is heavily skewed towards the auto sector, would bear the brunt of the pain.
Even industries not reliant on trade could experience second-hand effects, such as the diminished support of retail and construction businesses from the rise in unemployment of autoworkers.
In response to NAFTA’s collapse, the Canadian dollar would be expected to swoon in an effort to offset the increased cost of Canadian exports and render them more competitive. The mere suggestion of Trump’s intent to withdraw has put pressure on the dollar, as have the steel and aluminum tariffs. Similarly, we have seen it bounce back when government officials successfully provide reassurance as to the future of the pact – sending the loonie on a temperamental roller-coaster ride.
Corporations that have integrated operations and supply chains scattered across the NAFTA free trade zone, such as General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Magna International, could see their share prices suffer. We have already had a taste of the market’s reaction to the proposed steel and aluminum tariffs amid fears of a trade war.
As we have already seen, we can expect a rise in market volatility, especially in the near term, which would weigh on business and consumer confidence, hampering growth even further. Interest rates would also experience downward pressure, as investors would be likely to abandon the stock market in search of safer assets.
The loss of NAFTA would also mean the loss of a bi-national panel review dispute settlement mechanism, which would mean ongoing battles such as that with softwood lumber would be relinquished to the U.S. court system. Canada would also become more vulnerable to non-tariff barriers, such as creating customs delays via additional shipment inspections, the need for additional licensing requirements, or simply the imposition of quotas.
Without tariff-free access to the U.S. market and in the face of uncertainty, the business investment equation changes significantly. Investors and foreign companies alike would not only face more costs, but inherently more risk. All the more reason to think twice before investing.
With that being said, a world without a Canada–U.S. trade agreement would not stop trade between our two countries. In fact, the majority of the world does business with the U.S. without any bilateral trade agreement, including Japan, the European Union, and, of course, China. There would be an inescapable adjustment period, but in the end, Canadian trade would recover.
Perhaps the biggest threat remains to Canadians who find themselves living in the U.S. under TN (Trade NAFTA) visas. It is a unique immigration category in that it was not created by domestic law, but rather through NAFTA itself.
It boils down to a list of 63 occupations (although it is in need of a modernizing facelift to include digital-era jobs), which liberally allows educated professionals to work and live in America. Unlike any other work visas, TNs are granted instantly at the border, and there is no limit on how many times the three-year work permits can be renewed.
Just as we have blended supply chains, businesses with operations on either side of the border need the mobility of labor in the name of innovation and efficiency. According to The Financial Post (December 29, 2017), the “U.S. issued 14, 768 NAFTA professional visas (TN visas) to Canadians and Mexicans in 2016.” And over 56, 000 were issued in the last five years – although the split remains unclear.
If NAFTA were to be no longer, it would be expected that this immigration category would disappear alongside it. It is unclear what would happen to those living in the U.S. – would they be sent home immediately because they are stealing good American jobs? Would they be allowed to stay until the expiry of their TN visas? Or would they be given an arbitrary amount of days to gather their things and leave? …Is that a marriage proposal I hear?!?
Similarly, E-2 investor visas are only available to citizens of countries with which the U.S. has trade agreements. These visa-holders are creators of jobs in the U.S., and should they be forced to leave, their expulsion could end up needlessly damaging the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. government, between 2007 and 2016 over 20, 400 such visas were granted to investors and their families.
Perhaps from this perspective, there is a silver lining for Canada. It may not only reverse the “brain drain”, but it could entice companies to open local Canadian offices. And if that’s not enough, Canadian companies could turn their sights to Europe to fill the void with the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which mimics NAFTA in terms of professional labor mobility.
Winners and losers
Whether we like it or not, Canada is now being forced to contemplate life without a free-trade agreement with its most prominent trading partner. U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer has said in the past that if three-way NAFTA negotiations fall through “we are prepared to move on a bilateral basis.”
In fact, on July 18, 2018, Trump announced that his administration was having “very good” trade talks with newly-elected Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and that the U.S. might strike a bilateral trade deal first with Mexico in the near future and then try to do a separate deal with Canada at a later date.
Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal said on the same day that he planned to travel to Washington for bilateral trade talks on July 26, 2018, and would later meet with Canadian officials. At the same time, he told reporters that the three countries were scheduled to resume NAFTA negotiations at some point in the future.
When asked whether trilateral and separate Canadian trade talks were off the table, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on July 18, 2018: “We’re continuing both of those tracks. We see a lot of progress on the conversations with Mexico, and if we could make a bilateral deal with them, we’re certainly very happy to do that. But again, we’re continuing both conversations, both tracks.”
Bilateral – rather than trilateral – trade deals could change the playing field because Canada’s situation is significantly different than Mexico’s. Not only were the Canadian and U.S. economies integrated long before NAFTA, but our trade is fairly balanced. Despite Trump’s often-heard claim that the U.S. has a major deficit with Canada – usually citing a $17 billion figure. Of course, Trump does have a point if you only include the trade of goods and exclude the trade of services from the equation!
On March 15, 2018 Trump defended his trade deficit stance by tweeting: “We do have a Trade Deficit with Canada, as we do with almost all countries (some of them massive). P. M. Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn’t like saying that Canada has a Surplus vs. the U.S. (negotiating), but they do...they almost all do...and that’s how I know!”
Most recently, Trump’s figures have been escalating. In an attention-grabbing June 10, 2018 tweet he said: “According to a Canada release, they make almost 100 Billion Dollars in Trade with U.S. (guess they were bragging and got caught!). Minimum is 17B.”
Turns out that this maximum of $100 billion deficit is a figure which has been promoted by the U.S. trade representative based on a misunderstanding of the data provided by Statistics Canada. The erroneous use of data stems from the fact that Canada reports its figures differently and includes the re-export of goods from third countries in its calculation of a merchandise trade deficit, which amounts to $98 billion. So, for example, if a washing machine from China on its way to the United States makes a pit stop at Vancouver’s port along the way, the U.S. not only counts that in its deficit with China, but it also counts the same machine as part of the trade deficit with Canada.
Canada, of course, includes a notice to the users of this raw data, but the U.S. is clearly willing to distort the truth to make its point and generate support for the cause. The Washington Post fact checked the President’s statement and gave it four Pinocchios! It is a worrisome state of affairs when you are trying to negotiate with a country that has little respect for the facts, no sense of fair play, and no apparent interest in how they are perceived on the world stage.
As for the presence of a trade deficit or surplus, most respectable economists would agree that it is not an appropriate measure to judge the success of a trade relationship, but the American president nonetheless views these figures as key evidence of which country is “winning” or “losing”.
The notion that trade is only favorable when exports equal imports, is not only unlikely, but it is terribly misguided. First, countries of varying populations and economic means cannot be expected to match the buying power of the U.S. Second, it does not take into account the benefits derived from the imports of raw materials, intermediate goods or capital equipment, which in turn can churn out products and create additional jobs.
America is a consumption-based society, which has always been able to expend more than it produces and it has done so every year since 1976. That is, in fact, an enviable position to be in. It also means that America owes money to the rest of the world in the form of bonds – think of it like a cheap line of credit. If the U.S. does not make good use of it, that’s America’s problem, not the trading system’s.
It is also worth noting that because the U.S. dollar is a world reserve currency, there is an added factor of demand constantly propping up the exchange rate. A strong dollar also makes imports cheaper – naturally deficits ensue. Under different circumstances, the value of the American dollar would have likely diminished a long time ago, rendering U. S exports cheaper and helping to reduce the deficit.
Trump may very well think the U.S. is on the losing end of trade with Canada. However, the Office of the United States Trade Representative confirms that “the U.S. goods and services trade surplus with Canada was $12.5 billion in 2016.” Overall, Canada is, by far, America’s best customer and the most important export market for 35 American states. Hopefully logic and truth will prevail one day, and our being on the losing end of trade with the U.S. will work in our favor to keep the gates of free-trade open between our two countries should we need to renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement.
If the U.S. decides to remove itself from the pact, NAFTA could live on between Canada and Mexico. Under Article 2205, the treaty itself provides: “If a Party withdraws, the Agreement shall remain in force for the remaining Parties.” There are many complex relationships at stake, but the big question is whether continuing the terms of the trade pact without the participation of its largest member makes any sense.
Granted, Mexico has made progress to ensure the safety of foreign direct investment, in large part thanks to NAFTA. It has also improved its infrastructure and enhanced legal transparency. The lower labor costs have also allowed numerous Canadian companies to compete more effectively. But there is no telling what will happen to the Mexican economy if NAFTA is left with only two amigos.
In the meantime, Canada has been busy looking elsewhere for trade partners as part of an ongoing mission to expand trading opportunities across the globe. Progress to date includes CETA, which came into force on September 21, 2017. The agreement not only eliminates tariffs between Canada and the E.U., but it opens substantial opportunities in the European government procurement sector.
Canada also recently signed CPTPP, but the issue is that all of these other trade pacts are not in the same league as NAFTA. For the time being, Canada trades more with the border state of Michigan than the European Union. And Canada’s two-way trade with the Asia-Pacific region is less than $170 billion – only a quarter of its trade with the U.S.
Canada has turned its sights on South America with the recently launched free trade talks with the Mercosur bloc of nations – which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia – which it is in the process of joining. (Venezuela’s membership is understandably suspended.) Mercosur is the next largest trade bloc in the hemisphere after NAFTA and is an area of untapped potential.
Trade in Canadian auto parts for example – one of the areas where we do, in fact, have a surplus with the U.S. – could benefit from diversification, given the uncertainty in the NAFTA auto sector. The two powerhouses of Brazil and Argentina would be a welcome alternative, but as it stands Canadian auto parts are currently subject to a hurtful 35 percent tariff in Mercosur nations.
But even the 2.6 million vehicles produced in Argentina and Brazil in 2017 pales in comparison with the over 12 million vehicles built in America during the same period.
Ironically, if NAFTA fails and Mercosur succeeds, Canada may find itself in free trade deals with almost every other American nation, except its original trade partner – the United States of America.
Going back in time
On the first day of March 2018, a telling report called the 2018 Trade Policy Agenda and 2017 Annual Report of the President of the United States on the Trade Agreements Program was released by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
It revealed that Trump’s trade agenda rests on principles espoused by George Washington, who served as America’s first president from 1789 to 1797. Washington said that when it comes to trade “there can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate upon, real favors from nation to nation.” He also cautioned that trade agreements should be “temporary” and “abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate.”
Trump’s terrifying tariffs for the sake of economic independence are the perfect embodiment of this 200-plus-year-ago mentality. It is also the opposite of everything today’s rules-based system stands for.
Aside from the existential risk to the world economy expected to ensue from Trump’s antiquated protectionist policies and unfolding trade war, the greatest long-term injury from this fiasco is likely to be to America’s reputation. Only time will tell if it can ever recover…
February 19, 2018
The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism
Editor’s Note: When I heard that my former colleague Ken Becker had published a memoir of his life in journalism, I wasted no time contacting him and asking for permission to post an excerpt on BestStory.ca.
During my years as Montreal bureau chief for United Press Canada (a sister service of UPI) between 1983 and 1985, I dealt frequently with Ken, who mostly ran the day-to-day operation at our Toronto headquarters.
Ken was the principal go-to “slot man” who edited the copy that we journalists in bureaus across Canada sent to him – usually under extreme deadline pressure – before putting it out on the wire to media clients around the world.
The only thing I knew about Ken was that he was a veteran editor who didn’t talk much and worked real fast to shoot our stories out on the wire to beat the competition at Canadian Press. The extent of a typical conversation was when he answered the phone with his New York bark of “Becker”, followed by the words, “Good job, buddy!” after we had finished our brief discussion about the breaking story being edited by him.
So I read with great relish all the details of his colorful career and personal life in The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism. In the book, he writes about stumbling into the news business as a 19-year-old copyboy at the New York Times in 1966 and landing his first job as a reporter at a newspaper in northern California in 1968.
He tells readers that his skills as a journalist only started to take shape in 1970 after he joined United Press International in New York under the influence of – and with – legendary editor Lucien Carr, a muse to such Beat Generation writers as Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg.
From UPI-New York, Ken was transferred to Canada at a time when he was also dealing with a split from his Swiss wife, Anita, who was living in Bern with their young daughter, Kate. After about 20 months as Vancouver correspondent, Ken moved to UPI’s Canadian headquarters in Montreal in September 1974. That’s where we pick up the story with the following exclusive excerpt from Chapter 10 of Ken Becker’s book, The ExPat Files.
— Chapter 10 —
TRICKY DICK AND TRUDEAU
On the editing desk in Montreal, doing my best Lucien Carr imitation, I handled copy from reporters in the other Canadian bureaus: Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. I’d done some editing in New York and found it made me a better writer – seeing the flaws in the copy of others helped me spot the holes and rough patches in my own stories.
But I still craved the glory of the byline, getting out of the office and back in the street. I did get to cover a couple of front-page stories in Montreal. One involved a fugitive murderer named Richard Blass; the other the prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, and his wife Margaret.
I had covered Trudeau several times when I was in Vancouver. I’d jumped on his campaign plane when he came west during the 1974 election, and also went along for the ride during a state visit by King Hussein of Jordan. The king had piloted his personal jetliner to the annual air show in Abbotsford, east of Vancouver, where he and his third wife, Queen Alia, hooked up with the Trudeaus. That evening, I sat in the bar of the Hotel Vancouver with the rest of the press corps while the middle-aged king and his young wife, and the middle-aged prime minister and his young wife, were upstairs in a suite, doing god knows what.
I was focused, however, on the TV in the bar, watching Richard Nixon live from the Oval Office. “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office.”
“Good fucking riddance, you slimy piece of shit,” I screamed at the screen. “I hope you wind up in Attica, you crypto-Nazi scumsucker – see how you like it taking it up the ass from some crazed three-hundred-pound junkie biker flying on smack.”
I’d read all of Hunter Thompson’s pieces in Rolling Stone and, if I didn’t have the freedom to write the words, I certainly could echo them in a crowded hotel bar in British Columbia.
My fellow reporters knew I was an American. I never hid it, never would, though I had been quick to lose the rougher edges of my New York accent. When confronted with anti-Americanism, I often told my Canadian friends that their only identity as a country was not being American.
I also brought to Canada a First Amendment attitude that the press was free to stick its nose into just about anybody’s business, especially those in power. That’s what led to my confrontation with Trudeau in the fall of 1974.
I was in the bureau when one of our reporters in Ottawa called with a tip that Margaret Trudeau was in the psychiatric wing of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and that her husband was on his way to visit her.
I had witnessed Margaret on the campaign trail that summer, doing her best Nellie Forbush imitation. I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love with a wonderful guy. It was kind of sweet and sickening at the same time, this twenty-something standing at the podium in some small-town hockey arena asking people to vote for her man.
Personally, I found it a bit creepy that this good-looking young woman – younger than me – was sleeping with a guy my father’s age. Their first two sons – Justin and Sacha – had been born on Christmas Day, twice giving the politician a nice front-page story on a slow news day.
I had covered Trudeau enough that he knew me. During the campaign, he would good-naturedly tease me about my habit of wearing my glasses on top of my head. So, when he arrived at the Royal Victoria Hospital with his two-man security detail – they stayed in the car – he knew the one guy waiting for him was a reporter.
“What are you doing here?” he snapped.
“How’s your wife doing?” I responded.
“How would that be your business?”
“You’re here and not working. That’s the country’s business.”
He offered one of his best harrumphs, followed by a shrug of dismissal, all shoulders and arms and hands, palms up, as if to say, You’re not worth acknowledging.
I followed him into the hospital lobby. “If you’re here and not in Ottawa, you’re not doing the country’s business. The job the people pay you to do. The people have a right to know how you spend their time.”
“Fuck off,” the prime minister of Canada said.
“Is your wife seeing a psychiatrist?” My best comeback. He was approaching a bank of elevators. I kept pace. “How can you make important decisions when you have other things on your mind. Maybe you should step down until your wife’s better. Don’t you think the public has a right to know what’s going on?”
This may have been the post-Watergate period in the United States, where the press was puffed up with its own importance and not taking any crap from politicians. But Canadians did things differently, tended to believe public figures were entitled to their private lives.
Trudeau disappeared in an elevator. I retreated to the street.
His two security guys were leaning against their plain blue sedan. The RCMP didn’t constantly shield the prime minister in the same way the Secret Service did the U.S. president. I’d seen these two Mounties before and they seemed to know me. One gave me a wink. The other a nod.
I found a payphone. Called the desk and filed a bulletin advisory on the UPI wire, alerting all media that Trudeau was at the hospital. This was my reply to Trudeau’s arrogance and expletive. I’d make sure every reporter and camera crew in Montreal got to the hospital before the prime minister could slip away, that he’d be forced to run the gauntlet when he left.
Two hours later, as was often the case, Trudeau surprised me. He and his wife emerged from the hospital and went for a little stroll while reporters shouted questions and cameras clicked and whirred.
Then he surprised me again. He guided Margaret to a scenic spot on the sidewalk, a lovely backdrop of just-turning leaves on a perfect Indian summer day, and nodded toward his wife, indicating she was ready to take questions.
How are you feeling? a radio reporter asked.
“I’ve been in the hospital for the past ten days,” she said in nearly a whisper, “under psychiatric care for severe emotional stress.”
What do you ask next? Did you suffer a breakdown? How nuts are you?
She looked very pale and seriously stoned. The prime minister had offered up a sedated and wounded kitten. Any question we’d ask would seem like blood dripping from the mouth of a jackal.
“I think I’m all right and on my way to recovery,” Margaret added. “Thank you all for your concern and I hope you’ll leave me alone for a while.”
When the microphones moved toward the prime minister, he snapped, “it’s her press conference,” before the Mounties moved in, on cue, and escorted the couple back into the hospital.
I had to hand it to Trudeau. Trapped in the hospital, he’d figured out an exit strategy that would leave him smelling like the rose he always wore in his lapel.
Poor Margaret, suffering the stress of public life. Poor Pierre, all alone to run a country and a home with two little boys. That’s the impression that would be formed that day, and it would stick for a while, even as their marriage came apart. I would be back on Maggie’s trail a few years later, after she partied with the Rolling Stones and ran away from home.
Montreal was a pretty good news town. Though it was being surpassed by Toronto as Canada’s most populous city and financial center, it was the capital of organized crime, Italian Mafia and French gangs. Which provided the other big story for me in Montreal.
Richard Blass was the most-wanted man in Canada. He was known as The Cat, because he had survived several shootouts with police and fellow gangsters, once getting out of a burning hotel room after being shot four times. He’d escaped from prison – twice. The media were counting his lives and the number was approaching nine.
At about 2 a.m. on January 21, 1975, I was awakened by a call from UPI-Montreal photo chief Gary Bartlett, who told me to get up, get a cab and meet him at a topless joint called the Gargantua on the north side of the city.
“I’ve already been to a bar tonight,” I said. “Now, I need some sleep.”
“Well, this bar is on fire,” he said, “and we hear there are lots of bodies inside.”
Montreal is not the most comfortable place to be on assignment in the middle of the night in January. When I arrived, it looked like a scene from the Ice Age, icy stalagmites rising from the pavement, frozen solid in seconds as water sprouted from fire hoses. The ruins of the building were still smoldering, the now familiar scent of roasted human flesh – after covering that airline crash at JFK – spicing the wind-chill. The spinning lights of police cars and ambulances added an eerie glow to the scene. As I stood there with my notebook and fast-frozen pen, the body bags kept coming out.
A couple of hours earlier, shortly after midnight, the bar manager, a waitress and eleven patrons had been in the Gargantua when a gunman – or gunmen – entered.
The manager was shot on the spot. The waitress and the rest were herded into a six-foot by eight-foot cold-storage room, and locked inside. A jukebox was pushed in front of the door to ensure their imprisonment. Then, the place was set afire. The bar manager died of the gunshot wound, the other twelve of asphyxiation.
Back in the office, I banged out a lead comparing the Gargantua to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – worse, since thirteen were dead in Montreal and a measly seven in Chicago in 1929 – playing to UPI clients in the United States.
Later in the day, I added that police suspected Blass, who had busted out of prison three months earlier and implicated in a double-murder in the same bar.
After his escape, Blass taunted the cops by sending them photos of himself and “press releases” to the media, bragging he’d never be caught. That was enough to put Montreal’s most feared and accomplished detective, Sergeant Albert Lisacek, on the case.
Lisacek had the reputation as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop who hated bad guys and loved the media – the tabloids called him Kojak, because he looked like the Telly Savalas television character, a big man and a sharp dresser, with a shaved head.
I used to run into him in the convenience store off the lobby of my apartment building, where he once walked in on a robbery, drew his gun, scared off the lowlife, chased him into the street and shot him dead.
Lisacek was the natural choice to hunt down Richard Blass – which he did, three days after the Gargantua massacre. He and his cohorts, armed with submachine guns, found Blass in a cabin in the Laurentian Mountains, busted down the door at 4 a.m. and shot Blass twenty-three times, just to make sure he was out of lives. I wasn’t at the scene, but wrote the story, with the lead: Kojak killed the Cat this morning.
The cops never proved Blass was responsible for the Gargantua massacre. The case was written off as many other murders were in the city in those days, as a reglement des comptes, an underworld settling of accounts, a synonym for that wonderful French phrase laissez faire, which, roughly translated, means: the hell with work, let’s go to lunch.
Though I enjoyed such walks on the wild side of Montreal, there weren’t enough of them to keep my juices flowing. And I wasn’t getting enough time off the desk.
I decided the only way to get out of the office was to carve a niche for myself. With the 1976 Montreal Olympics coming, sports seemed to be the ticket.
I had already been writing stories about the serious construction delays on the main Olympic stadium and other venues. The labor unions in Quebec had a reputation for being confrontational and greedy. Both traits were coming into play on Olympic projects. Costs kept climbing as construction slowed down, all of which was big news in Canada and elsewhere.
Also, UPI needed better coverage of the city’s two big league teams, baseball’s Expos and hockey’s Canadiens. Without a fulltime sportswriter in Canada, the games were left to stringers, journalistic hobbyists who were mainly interested in a free pass to the press box. They were not capable of covering big events or writing features.
I volunteered to take on the chore. My colleagues in the sports department in New York were all for it and, with their support, UPI signed off on the new position of a fulltime Canadian sportswriter based in Montreal. Me.
I had a lifetime of experience following sports, from early childhood in New York with three baseball teams, my Brooklyn Dodgers, the rival New York Giants and hated Yankees. I’d been a passionate fan of the New York’s football Giants of Frank Gifford and Y.A. Tittle, the basketball Knicks with Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Bill Bradley, and even the hockey Rangers of the Andy Bathgate era.
But my first love was baseball, going to games with my dad, once a star pitcher for his high school team and a legend on the city’s sandlots. Before I was ten years old I’d seen Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium, Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds, and Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field.
But I never wanted to be a sportswriter. Too much serious stuff to report. My only sports-related assignment at UPI in New York had been covering Jackie Robinson’s funeral.
On October 27, 1972 I went to Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was a perfect fall day. World Series weather. Bright sun, just a hint of a chill.
Ten days before he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-three, Robinson, his hair white, nearly blind, had thrown out the ceremonial first pitch in the first game of the World Series between the audacious Oakland A’s and the slugging Cincinnati Reds.
The celebrity mourners gathered that Friday morning in their Sunday suits, mostly middle-aged men looking like they were attending a banquet for an old-timers game.
I spotted Pee Wee Reese, the former Dodger captain from Kentucky who had befriended Robinson early on and helped him through the storm of breaking baseball’s color barrier. Reese was standing outside the grand entrance to the church, being interviewed by Howard Cosell.
Roger Kahn, who chronicled Robinson’s struggle in The Boys of Summer, was nearby, chatting quietly with another of Robinson’s old teammates, Don Newcombe.
My press pass got me inside this VIP enclave, which was roped off and guarded by the NYPD. I was working, though my duties were uncertain.
I would not be the main man on the story. That would be the sports editor, Milt Richman. I was there to cover any “news” angles, though I was not sure what they might be. In this crowd, though, I felt more like a young fan – which I was.
A church office had been converted into a reception area. I went inside and wandered among my heroes.
There’s Hank Aaron!
There’s Willie Mays!
I wanted to go up to these guys and talk to them. But I really had nothing to say, nothing appropriate for this moment or any other. So I stood and gawked until it was time to file into the church.
The crowd, maybe three-thousand people, filled every pew. By happenstance, I sat next to Will Grimsley, AP’s lead sportswriter, a large, florid man who introduced himself then sat scrawling notes on a large writing tablet. He picked up his pace when a young black preacher delivered the eulogy, his booming voice and theatrical style mesmerizing the crowd.
“In his last dash, Jackie stole home,” said Reverend Jesse Jackson, pausing, before picking up speed, as if he was making the play. “Pain, misery and travail have lost. Jackie is saved. His enemies can leave him alone. His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual, and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun and the glow of the moon.”
It was a hard act to follow. And nobody did. As the widow, Rachel Robinson, and her family filed out behind the coffin, we all stood. Grimsley stretched and looked around the church.
He tapped me on the shoulder. “See that guy over there, that’s Bill Veeck,” Grimsley said, pointing to a man in baggy chinos and a ragged gray sweatshirt, standing alone in the back, sobbing into a handkerchief.
Veeck was known mainly as an outlaw team owner in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, famous for such stunts as sending a midget up to bat – to draw a walk. But he had also signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, in 1947, and the next year gave Negro League star Satchel Page a chance to pitch in the majors.
Grimsley wandered off to talk to Veeck, while I went to find Richman and get my orders. “I want you to go to the cemetery,” the sports editor instructed. “I’ve arranged space for you in one of the cars in the funeral procession. Call me when you can with notes and quotes.”
I got into a car with a bunch of reporters and took a window seat in the back. We followed the hearse, taking the long, slow route to the cemetery in Brooklyn.
I’d heard that some schools in Harlem would be closing early so teachers and kids could line the procession route. But I was astonished at how many people turned out, at how universal was their respect for Jackie Robinson.
These were tough times in Harlem and the city’s other black neighborhoods. Black-on-black crime, fed by drugs, was endemic, as was black rage at white society.
But none of that was evident as the hearse passed. Children in school uniforms stood at attention. Women sat on stoops. Old men leaned against lamp posts and wept. It was the same scene in Brooklyn, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
By the time we reached Cypress Hills Cemetery, it was near dusk. The weather had changed. Dark clouds moved in as the pallbearers, Jackie’s former teammates, Reese, Newcombe, Jim Gilliam and Ralph Branca – Doby and the basketball star Bill Russell – carried the coffin to the gravesite.
I stood beside a tree, apart from the scene, added some notes to the ones I’d jotted down during the drive, found a phone near the cemetery gate and called Richman before catching a ride back to Manhattan.
I was thinking about that scene when I went to find Duke Snider on Opening Day of the 1975 season at Jarry Park in Montreal. I’d seen Snider at the church for Robinson’s funeral, standing alone, aloof, as he’d always appeared on the ballfield.
Snider had been my childhood favorite, probably because of the competition we kids imagined among New York’s three centerfielders: Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, Mays of the Giants and Snider for my team, the Dodgers. I knew I drew the short straw with The Duke, but that did not diminish my adoration. He had been a great player, a prodigious power hitter and graceful fielder, though never the equal of Mays or Mantle.
As a newly minted UPI sportswriter in Montreal, I figured I’d do some kind of feature on Snider, who joined the Dodgers the same year as Robinson, 1947, and stood by his teammate and fellow southern Californian against the rampant racism of the baseball world at the time.
Snider was a broadcaster with the Expos, who sometimes coached the players. I found him in the concrete bunker that served as the team’s clubhouse in the little makeshift ballpark.
“Hi Duke,” I said, introducing myself. “Got a minute to talk?”
“Well, I was just thinking that we were both at Jackie’s funeral.”
My boyhood idol was looking down at me like I was a cockroach that had scurried into his living room. He stood there, insolent for no reason I could imagine, shuffling his stockinged feet, baseball pants rising to a belt I couldn’t see, somewhere below the huge gut that strained his white undershirt.
“Well,” I finally said, “I just thought you might like to talk about the old days in Brooklyn, Boys of Summer and all that. I grew up in New York, watching you play at Ebbets Field. Maybe we could talk about what it was like in those days, with you in Brooklyn, Mickey in the Bronx and Willie at the Polo Grounds.”
Now he looked at me as if I’d taken a dump on his spikes. “That’s old news, kid,” he said, turning to walk away, “I got work to do here.”
I thought later that he was probably right, that there was no story in talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers, long gone and forgotten by many. I had approached Snider as a fan, not a journalist. I should have asked about the Expos batters he was tutoring, kids like Gary Carter and Larry Parrish, and then maybe steered him back in time. Who of the guys you played with does Carter remind you of?
But I hadn’t prepared, just showed up like a kid looking for an autograph, thinking my baseball knowledge from the 1950s was enough to form a bond.
I’d yet to learn that you don’t – don’t want to – befriend the people you write about. Nor did I know yet that athletes were among the most narcissistic stars in the universe.
I stuck around Jarry Park that April day to watch the home opener. In the press box, the temperature was announced as eleven degrees Celsius – whatever that is – the Expos lost, and I wrote the game story.
But, after that, I left most of the day-to-day coverage of the Expos and the other Montreal teams to stringers. I was busy enough with the bozos planning to stage the 1976 Olympics.
My stories on the boondoggle of the Olympic project were getting great play in newspapers across North America and around the world. One, published in the New York Times – again with my byline stripped off – began:
MONTREAL (UPI) – What was the biggest snowbank in the city last month is now the biggest mud puddle. In a few months it even could resemble the site of the 1976 Summer Olympic Games.
It concluded with a line describing “the stadium site a circular series of blocks resembling England’s Stonehenge.”
I was starting to hear the tone I was seeking, knowing that sports could be written more from a point of view than news. Yet, writing for a wire service, you needed to please hundreds of masters.
First, I had to get my stories through an editor in Montreal, then through an editor in New York, then entice editors from Maine to Hawaii, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, to put my story in their papers.
One ex-Unipresser, Walter Cronkite, said the best way to approach a story is as if you’re writing for a Kansas City milkman, the idea being that if you can interest him, you can interest everyone in the United States.
But I wanted a sharper edge. Since I was writing sports, I turned to Red Smith of the Times for inspiration. Smith was nearly seventy and was still getting a smooth, steady flow. Sometimes he’d write with a hammer, sometimes a feather. He could wield both in the same column.
I didn’t try to imitate Smith, but thought that if I read enough of his stuff, something would rub off. It didn’t. Better stick to what I can do. Maybe it would help writing under another name, which is what I was doing as a sportswriter. I changed my byline to Ken Becker, the name I’d gone by since about age six.
While I grew up a baseball guy – and to a lesser extent a football or basketball guy – hockey was the biggest story in Canada. That’s why I covered Montreal Canadiens’ home games in the 1975 playoffs.
For me, the scene in the dressing room after each game at the Montreal Forum was better theater than the play on the ice. Not being educated in the post-game interview, I had trouble understanding why the reporters were asking players about what had just transpired. Didn’t they watch the game?
On my first visit to the Canadiens’ locker room, I found it especially comical that all the Anglo reporters gravitated to goaltender Ken Dryden, the self-anointed hockey scholar and lawyer – the Cornell grad had a law degree from McGill University – who would offer an erudite, English-only critique of the night’s proceedings.
Instead of exploring the Zen of Ken, I watched the French-speaking reporters gathered around Yvan Cournoyer. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but the Q&A seemed serious. Perhaps they were discussing nuclear disarmament, or the difference between Brie and Camembert.
The scene of English reporters only talking to English players and French reporters only to French players was the picture Canadian writer Hugh MacLennan had painted in his novel Two Solitudes, the reality of a Quebec society where French and English lived together, though always apart.
It was something I recognized in my single solitude in Montreal, living in an English enclave near the Forum, speaking only English to the clerk in the English bookstore, to the barman in the Irish pub down the street, to the waiters in the upscale restaurants I frequented, to the people in my office and the other reporters from the English media.
I had a bonjour-au revoir-s’il vous plait-merci vocabulary, just enough to be polite to the Quebecois, who were starting to get restless during my time in Montreal.
I didn’t need another language to do my work. It never occurred to me to learn French.
I was starting to get that itch again, not satisfied with what I was doing. I was eager to again write in the first-person, to cut through the bullshit with a more personal take on a story, to get a clean narrative going.
I felt my writing was in a funk, had stopped getting better. I wasn’t getting a lot of satisfaction from the sports beat, or from UPI either.
When I referred to Bobby Hull, the hockey player, as the “Blond Bomber” in a story, the sports desk in New York sent a message that read: don’t kno who “blond bomber” is – psbly a roller derby star – but bobby hull the “golden jet.”
I replied: Roller derby, hockey, wot’s the dif?
I hated making such mistakes. But I didn’t give a shit about Bobby Hull’s nickname. My body clock seemed to be telling me to move every two years, and that I had outlived my stay in Montreal.
I was bored with both my work and the city, where I mainly hung out in the press club in the Mount Royal Hotel, where I’d sometimes see Mordecai Richler holding court at the bar, or a group of hockey luminaries, sportswriters and sportscasters, reminiscing about the 1955 Rocket Richard riot.
I often sat commiserating with my news editor, Dale Morsch – Emil Sveilis, the guy who coaxed me to Canada, had left to set up a bureau in Leningrad – who drank a lot to fight depression and only got more depressed.
I knew I was a constant contributor to Morsch’s misery, since my instinct was to question authority, not respect it. But I guess I couldn’t help myself. Nor could I stop my catting around.
I was sleeping with a Jewish woman from Long Island who was working with me in UPI’s Montreal bureau. But I was also carrying on long-distance relationships with a woman in Vancouver and another in Boston, sneaking off to meet them for more intimate interplay.
At the same time, Anita and I were talking about getting back together. I’m not sure why, other than missing my daughter.
The first summer after I moved to Canada, I flew from Vancouver to Europe for a vacation in France with Anita and Kate.
In Paris, we were invited to spend a sunny day at a private swimming club where most of the women, adhering to the fashion of the time, paraded topless. During a poolside lunch of salade nicoise, complemented by a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, a club functionary scolded us for allowing five-year-old Kate to appear au natural.
When Anita translated the complaint for me, I went full-Yankee berserk on the Parisian prick. “You mean I have to look at these old ladies with their wrinkled, saggy tits, but you have a problem with a naked little girl?”
That set off a shouting match in two languages, with neither combatant understanding the other. I got in the last word when I raised a wine glass and threatened to smash it on the pool deck. “In America, we have the good sense to use plastic glasses outside.”
Anita and our host, her friend Willy from Bern, a banker in Paris, did not come to the defense of the gauche American and did not put up a fuss when we were asked to leave.
From Paris, Anita and I and Kate drove south, stopping to see the sights in Avignon, Arles and the Comargue before following the Mediterranean coast, bound for Nice.
At the wheel, in the dark, on the windy road atop the cliffs running down to the sea, I opened a bottle of duty-free Dewar’s and slugged it as far as Saint-Tropez, where I found a road that led to a beach and a dock.
We polished off the scotch and snoozed on the beach until dawn, when an elderly gent who looked like Ari Onassis appeared with his manservant, who told us to scram. Propriete privee!
Ari and his majordomo climbed aboard a cabin cruiser that had not been visible in the dark. We went back up to the road, stopped at a public beach – no sand, all rocks, of course – and doused our hangovers with a long soak in the salty sea.
The next night, having crossed the border into Italy, at a large seaside hotel in Ventimiglia, Anita and I had an epic brawl. This time, I smashed a glass – against a wall. We didn’t exchange a civil word the rest of my vacation. I returned to Vancouver with a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a tale of fear and loathing in Ventimiglia.
The next year, in the fall, I went back to Europe. But this time I traveled alone with Kate.
Anita’s father, Hermann, let me borrow his second car, a Citroen Deux Chevaux, an ugly little beast that rattled and wheezed from Bern across the Alps, into Italy.
We drove past the beautiful Lago Maggiore and on to Verona and Venice. Kate was only six, but she never complained about our wanderings in the back streets of Venice, or my prolonged stop admiring Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in an off-the-beaten-track Franciscan church. She seemed happy with the reward of chasing pigeons while I smoked and drank in the Piazza San Marco.
By the time we got to Florence, however, she was bored – we said hi to David, raced through the Uffizi in about four minutes, hightailed it for the Mediterranean coast, and checked into the Grand Hotel in Viareggio.
These were the days when an American or Canadian could travel like royalty in Europe, when one dollar – U.S. and Canadian were about at par – bought four Swiss francs, five French francs and eighteen billion Italian lire. My first Omega Seamaster cost about fifty bucks in Bern.
At the Grand Hotel, Kate and I spent the night at the bar. The bartender took a shine to Kate – she was a charming child – and kept the Shirley Temples coming while her old man ventured from Campari and soda to scotch. We probably ate dinner as well.
In the morning, we walked on the beach but it was a cold October day and we didn’t get far. After more than a week on the road, the ugly little Deux Chevaux chugged back over the Alps to Switzerland.
As I mentioned, by the next summer, in 1975, after nearly three years apart, Anita and I were talking about getting back together. Kate was having a hard time in Switzerland, especially at school. A smart, precocious kid in New York was ostracized in Bern for not being a native and not speaking Swiss-German well enough.
Anita started to sound a little hesitant – and a lot weirder – as plans for a reunion got serious. Then, one day, on the phone, she told me she wasn’t coming to Canada. She had joined the Children of God, and her future was in the hands of Jesus.
As soon as I got off the phone, I decided Anita could join the Manson Family for all I cared – we were done – but she wasn’t surrendering my daughter to some cult.
I booked a flight to Switzerland. I talked to a colleague at UPI in Washington, who connected me with an official at the State Department.
“Do I have the right to take my daughter, a U.S. citizen, out of Switzerland, back to North America, against her mother’s wishes, if need be?” I asked.
“You mean kidnap her?”
“If you want to call it that.”
“The short answer is – no.”
But the more we talked, the more he understood the circumstances, the more sympathetic he became, the more eager to help. It was implicit that our conversation was off the record, on the QT. Even post-Watergate, there was a kinship between the press and people in government.
Finally, he advised that if I got Kate cleanly out of Switzerland, he would arrange a “safe house” – yeah, he used that term – across the border in West Germany. He gave me a name and a phone number to call at the U.S. embassy in Bonn once I got across the border.
I phoned my parents to tell them what was happening. They had been aware Anita and I might reconcile. My mother called my sister Janice and the next thing I knew her fiancé, Steven, was coming along as “muscle” on my kidnap caper.
Steven Sherman was, like my sister, a painter. But he also played the streetwise New Yorker, the Dead End Kid with a degree in fine arts. He met me at the Swissair ticket counter at Montreal’s Dorval Airport and we boarded a night flight to Zurich.
At Kloten Airport, I rented a car and drove the familiar hour-and-a-half route to Bern. We stocked up on snacks and drinks, bought a pair of cheap binoculars, and took up a reconnaissance position on a bank of the Aare, with a clear view of Anita’s parents’ house on Altenbergstrasse on the other side of the river. She was living in the same upper-floor rooms where we had bunked on my first visit.
We watched and waited. Waited and watched. Patience was never my strong suit. “Let’s take a drive past the house,” I said.
We climbed the hill, to the street where the rental car was parked. I drove around the block and crossed the little bridge over the river to Altenbergstrasse.
As we approached the house, on the narrow street, about a half-dozen hippies were walking in the opposite direction. I spotted Anita among them. And Kate. “Daddy!” she cried.
So much for the snatch and the clean getaway. I slammed on the brakes. Leaped from the car. Kate jumped into my arms. The cultists encircled us.
Steven, my muscle, tussled with a couple of guys. I took Kate into her grandparents’ house. For the first time, Hermann and Elsa Schlumpf – Anita married me for my name and kept it – seemed happy to see me.
Kate and I went upstairs to her room. Anita, Steven and the cultists followed. Shoving and shouting ensued.
The cops came. Steven and I and the cultists – the ringleader was an American – were taken to the stationhouse. Anita was suddenly at my side – and on my side. So was her father, who powwowed with the polizei.
Hermann Schlumpf was a short, wiry, solid man who, Anita told me, looked like the actor Glenn Ford. He did. He was a career civil servant who had been in the army during the war, safeguarding the Swiss border from German invasion and keeping it secure for the importation of Nazi plunder.
Hermann seemed to know the cops involved and got us sprung quickly. He also managed to get Anita’s passport back from the Grifters of God, who were ordered by the cops to stay away from the Schlumpf household. They had been crashing in Anita’s apartment and been in the process of looting her bank accounts.
Steven flew home and I stayed in Bern long enough to find a lawyer and have Anita sign an agreement that said she would lose custody of Kate if she took up with any more predatory Jesus freaks or other crazies.
Anita seemed okay. But you never know. Being married to someone doesn’t make her any less a stranger.
For the moment, everything appeared settled. I told Anita I’d take care of a legal separation agreement and the divorce. She seemed relieved and grateful.
I went back to Montreal. When an opening came up to take over UPI’s Toronto bureau, I jumped at it. Maybe another change of cities would be the answer.
In September 1975, I got back on a train and headed west.
The Washington Post's mobile app headline caught my attention: ‘Un-Happy Canada Day! Why America’s northern neighbor is so bad at celebrating itself’. The article, published in the June 30, 2017 edition of that newspaper’s Outlook-Perspective section, was written by well-known Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay.
(Note – the desktop version of the story carried the headline: ‘Happy Canada Day. Don't get carried away with the celebration, please.’ Other than the headlines, both the desktop and app versions of the story were identical, and negative.)
The gist of Kay’s analysis was summarized in a one-paragraph precede which ran under the headline and before Kay’s byline: ‘Our nation never faced a life-or-death test, which explains our introspection and self-doubt.’
What followed is a rambling 2,200-word farrago of flummery and fecklessness. Kay’s tendentious prose seems intended to undercut Canada’s national identity, which he describes as being in “crisis” and in “full display as we celebrate our 150th birthday”.
In these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, one would hope that an experienced and respected journalist, such as Kay, would take the time and care required to provide balance and context to an analysis of one of the great democracies in the world. It was obviously a piece which he wrote primarily to edify our American neighbors, who themselves should be – and are – justifiably proud to live in one of the most liberal democracies known to mankind.
Unfortunately, if left unanswered, Kay’s turbid, disjunctive essay appearing in a prestigious publication such as The Washington Post would leave a distorted view of both Canada and Canadians, who have a profound pride and love for their country.
With that in mind, what follows is a succinct critique of Kay’s essay, together with some insights I believe should have been included in order to give a more balanced view of where Canada stands as it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Point # 1: Kay uses about one-third of his piece to glorify wars as “instruments of national bonding”, concluding that unlike other nations of the world – the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan, Taiwan and France – Canada has no distinguished military past around which its citizens can rally via collective memory.
Kay says: “The most consequential military battle in our history was fought on the Plains of Abraham more than a century before Canada even came into existence.”
How can Kay cite the Battle of the Plains of Abraham fought outside the walls of Quebec City in September 1759 as being “the most consequential military battle” in Canadian history when it was primarily French and British soldiers – not Canadians – doing the fighting?
Now for some historical context: This North American conflict, called the French and Indian War, was itself part of the world’s first global conflict known as The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) pitting Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and, eventually, Spain. In addition to North America, they fought in Europe, India and on the high seas.
Ironically, George Washington, who would go on to become the first U.S. president, fired the shots which precipitated this first world war, which led to the British capture of North America and was the forerunner of the American Revolution.
It happened innocently enough when Washington, then a Virginia militia lieutenant colonel (Virginia was one of the 13 original British colonies), ambushed a small French detachment in the Ohio Valley in 1754 even though war had not yet been declared between Britain and France. His rash action led to more jockeying and skirmishes between British and French forces in North America. Finally, Britain declared war on France in May 1756.
(Gillian Brockell, a digital video editor with The Washington Post, wrote a detailed account of Washington's “ambush” incident in the July 4, 2017 issue of that newspaper.)
The war in Europe, India and North America ended with The Treaty of Paris in 1763, by which France ceded Canada to Britain in return for the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon.
Of course, victory came at a financial cost. The British, staggering under a war debt of £150 million, tried to impose a series of taxes on their 13 American colonies even though such actions flew in the face of their own principles that only those with parliamentary representation could be taxed.
The American colonists, who had no voice in the British parliament, didn't take well to the tax measures. On December 16, 1773, they threw a party – the Boston Tea Party – where they dumped a shipment of British tea in Boston harbor. On April 19, 1775, the colonial militia known as "minutemen" fired the first shots of the American Revolution at Lexington, Mass.
Getting back to Kay, he writes: “Our whole history is so lacking in drama as to defy celebration.” As for his contention that Canada has never faced a life-or-death threat around which it could bond, it should be pointed out that after becoming part of the British Empire in 1763, Canada had a long and distinguished military history, whereby its troops have been recognized repeatedly for their competence and bravery. Kay dismisses such military feats with the following comment: “The big military battles in every modern war we’ve fought have been thousands of miles away. And so the usual narrative that binds nations together – our enemies came for us, but they could not defeat us – has no relevance.”
Well, here is a news flash for Kay: If Adolf Hitler’s forces had not been defeated in Europe during the Second World War, we in North America would all be speaking German now – that is, those of us whose forebears were not annihilated in Nazi death camps because of our religion or culture. And coming back to the current situation in the world, if Coalition Forces do not subdue the threat of ISIS in the Middle East in the coming months and years, there will be increasing terrorist attacks throughout the world, including in the U.S. and Canada.
So here is a partial list of prominent military actions fought by Canadians over two centuries, which Kay says is not relevant to Canada’s self-image, a point on which I respectfully disagree with him:
- After the American colonies revolted against the British Crown in 1775, Canadian militiamen declined to join their revolution and instead fought off two American invasions – one in 1775 and the last one in 1812.
- Canadian forces fought alongside Britain in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa.
- Canada, as part of the British Empire, sent 424,000 soldiers overseas in the First World War to fight the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Canada joined the war in 1914, compared with 1917 when the U.S. sent troops to fight on the Allied side.
- At the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 1917), Canadian troops won control of heavily fortified German high ground in the Calais region of France at a price of 10,602 casualties. It – not the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as Kay contends – is considered Canada’s most significant military victory and is seen as a symbol of Canadian national pride.
- Canada entered the Second World War on September 10, 1939 to fight alongside the Allied forces led by Britain and France against Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 1 million Canadians joined the armed services out of a population of only 11 million people. Some 93,000 Canadian soldiers played a major role in the liberation of Italy, fighting against ensconced, crack German troops in difficult mountainous terrain for 20 months, starting on July 10, 1943.
- It is interesting to note that whereas Canada entered the Second World War right at its start in 1939, an isolationist America entered the war only after the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The U.S. declared war on Japan (not Germany) on December 8, 1941. But on December 11, 1941, Nazi Germany, which was allied with Japan, declared war on the U.S., guaranteeing that American troops would end up joining the Allies in their campaign to liberate Europe.
- Between 1939 and 1945, Canada developed a wartime munitions industry which produced more than 800,000 military transport vehicles, 50,000 tanks, 40,000 field, navel and anti-aircraft guns, and 1.7 million small arms. Some 348 merchants ships were built to transport supplies to Britain, and 16,000 military aircraft were assembled for use by the Allies. Without Canada’s contribution, it is unlikely that Britain could have survived the Nazi onslaught until the Americans entered the war and tilted it in favour of the Allies.
- Canadian troops have participated in the Korean War (June 1950-July 1953); the Gulf War (August 1990-February 1991); the Kosovo War (March 1998-June 1999); the War in Afghanistan (2001-present) and the war in Iraq-Syria (ongoing) against ISIS.
How ironic is it that Kay makes an allusion to one of France’s “national bonding” events as being the liberation of Paris in August 1945 by the French Resistance. He does not mention that it was the approaching troops and military might of the U.S. Army that persuaded Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German garrison and military governor of Paris, to surrender, allowing General Charles de Gaulle to take control of the city as head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic.
And how about the role played by 156,000 Allied troops – including American, Canadian, British, Australian, Belgian, Czech, Greek, New Zealand, Dutch, Norwegian, and Polish – who took part in the D-Day invasion establishing a beachhead in Normandy that allowed the U.S. to send forward their tanks and infantry to liberate Paris? Does Kay not consider that a seminal bonding experience for troops of all the nations involved, including Canadians?
From personal experience, I can tell you that my father, Abe Perley, volunteered to fight with other Canadians in the Second World War and served in the European theatre of conflict for three long years, separated from his newly-wed wife, because he believed in the cause of ending Nazi tyranny. He did not speak often of his wartime experiences, but it was clear to me that his participation was based on doing what was right for our country…and for the world.
So let’s put a stake through Kay’s canard that Canada has no historical feats of military bravery and daring, which we as Canadians retain as part of our “collective memory” binding us together as a nation which places supreme value on liberty and human rights.
Point No. 2: Kay spends the balance of his piece decrying the treatment of Canada’s indigenous peoples, adding that “the dominant mood within our own borders is guilt.” He writes with seeming authority that “you cannot dispute that the past four centuries of history have been for them [indigenous peoples], largely a long series of slaughters, forced migrations, botched efforts at assimilation and, in some cases, complete eradication.”
Well, if Kay has information about “a long series of [indigenous] slaughters” in Canada, it is incumbent upon him as a journalist to back that contention with authoritative citations, such as was done by journalist Calla Wahlquist, writing in the July 5, 2017 edition of The Guardian about repeated massacres of Australia’s indigenous population, numbering in the tens of thousands of victims and stretching back more than two centuries.
Experts who have studied the question in Canada are unanimous in their conclusion that there was “cultural genocide” committed against the indigenous population, but are not willing to say that there was physical and biological genocide. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the Government of Canada in 2008, heard from 6,000 witnesses over six years. In their Executive Summary (2015), they concluded that “the state pursued a policy of cultural genocide through forced assimilation.” However, that conclusion left open the debate as to whether the Government of Canada also committed physical and biological genocide.
Certainly, there has not been – to my knowledge – mention by leaders of indigenous peoples or historians about “a long series of slaughters” within Canada. If Kay is aware of facts which indicate otherwise, he should have included that information in his “think piece”.
Contrary to Kay’s gloomy assessment of current relations with Canada’s indigenous population, Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee (James Bay, Quebec) and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says impressive strides have been made in recent years to right the wrongs done by governments to the indigenous peoples of Canada.
Writing in the July 2, 2017 issue of The Globe and Mail, he said:
Good news stories rarely make the headlines. Yet there are examples in Indian country that point the way forward…. I have had the privilege of serving as Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee in Northern Quebec for a total of 20 years. Since the signing of our Treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, we have made enormous strides in improving the living conditions of our First Nations, in setting our relationship with both Canada and Quebec on a “nation-to-nation” basis; we have taken control over the delivery of health and social services, of education, of policing and justice. We have extracted ourselves from the Indian Act and developed our own robust forms of local and regional self-government. We have established the principle of “Cree consent” requiring all development projects within our traditional territory to obtain our approval and they must involve our First Nations in meaningful ways, including environmental protection measures, employment, training, preferential contracting and financial benefits.
In short, we have achieved all of the elements that have been key recommendations in a number of national and international declarations, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All this has been achieved through difficult struggles, media campaigns, legal challenges and hard negotiations.
So unlike Kay’s dour assessment of Canada’s “national soul”, Coon Come sees a light shining through what has been a dark history between native peoples and national/provincial governments.
In fact, the only positive points Kay has to make about Canada come in the last paragraph of his story where he lauds Canada’s national political discourse, its successful immigration policies, as well as its health-care and education systems. Considering the magnitude of such issues in the composition of a country’s social fabric, a discerning reader might have expected Kay to develop those points as part of his analysis, had he approached the subject with an open mind rather than with foregone conclusions.
So let’s leave it to a more objective and realistic individual to have the last word about what it means for him to be a Canadian on this, the sesquicentennial of Canada’s birth. In the words of Chief Matthew Come Coon as expressed in The Globe and Mail article of July 2, 2017: “Please pass the birthday cake in honour of Canada – our home and Natives’ land – and I’ll have a nice slice. Please make it a big one.”
Editor’s Note: BestStory.ca welcomes its newest contributor, Susy Abbondi, a financial analyst and portfolio manager whose interest in economic issues and trends dates back to coffee house chats with her grandfather during her teenage years. Susy's biography can be found here.
No campaign promise resonated more with his supporters – and perhaps even thrust Donald Trump to presidential victory on November 8, 2016 – than his anti-free trade stance and eagerness to overhaul U.S. trade relations.
Punctuated by his “America First” slogan, one of the president’s top priorities is to renegotiate – and perhaps dismantle – international trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he has repeatedly referred to as “the worst trade deal in history”.
Trump blames unfair trade – with Mexico and China in particular – for the loss of millions of factory jobs, and, not surprisingly, has repeatedly threatened to impose hefty tariffs as high as 45 percent on their imported products.
Although these promises may very well be what secured his victory, his plan for restoring American jobs and reducing the trade deficit are oversimplified, at best. Nevertheless, American voters have come to view these trade agreements as a dirty symbol of globalization, eating away at their domestic job market.
Promises made on the campaign stump – some controversial and potentially damaging – will inevitably be limited by economic reality. Aside from a wall along the 2,000-mile southern border, if Trump follows through on his protectionist pledges, they could not only curb America’s global engagement and demolish decades of progress, but also capsize deeply-established policies on trade.
Just as anticipated, U.S. trade agreements were one of the first economic casualties of the election. On January 23, 2017 an executive order was signed for America to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious trade agreement which proposed to bring together 12 countries (including Canada), accounting for approximately 40 percent of global economic output. At the same time, Trump also reconfirmed his intentions to renegotiate NAFTA, which since its implementation on January 1, 1994 has removed tariffs on products and services exchanged among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
As the president attempts to rewrite history, America could be facing the real threat of economically destructive trade wars, especially taking into account that presidents have a large measure of authority over trade policy, even without congressional approval.
What is at stake in terms of trade?
No other neighbors are more fundamentally linked than Canada and the United States. It is not just a matter of geography, but of common interests and values that connect us beyond our multi-layered economic ties. One of the best metaphors to describe the relationship between Canada and the U.S. came from then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, during a 1969 state dinner in Washington. He expressed that being a neighbor to the U.S was like sleeping with an elephant – no matter how friendly or even-tempered the beast may be, his mammoth stature means that Canada is affected by even the smallest twitch or grunt.
Canada has always had friendly relations with the elephant to the south, and liberal economic ties that superseded those of NAFTA. The U.S. and Canada had a free trade agreement in place since 1988, but as NAFTA negotiations began in 1991, the goal became to integrate these two highly developed economies with that of emerging Mexico. The first time in history that rich countries and a poor country did away with trade barriers in order to compete on even terms.
The objective was to facilitate economic growth by easing the flow of goods between the three countries. Not only was Mexico seen as a lower cost investment location, but it also had the potential to be a promising new market for exports. While in Mexico, it was viewed as an opportunity to modernize the economy and give the population less reason to flee across the northern border – a win-win for all.
When NAFTA finally came into force in 1994, not only did it gradually eliminate tariffs and restrictions on trade, but it also brought with it protection for foreign investors, as well as a reduction in the overall cost of commerce. More importantly, the agreement enhanced the competitiveness of both American and Canadian companies. It was the first agreement of its kind, and to this day encompasses the world’s largest free trading bloc in terms of GDP.
Prior to the advent of free trade agreements, imported goods were taxed, while protected domestically produced goods were made at the expense of consumers, to whom the added cost was simply passed down. Economic theory tells us that higher tariffs lead to more costly goods and generally less trade. Free-trade agreements turn this equation on its head. When you remove the tariffs, not only do you lower costs for consumers, but you create a strong incentive to trade, which leads to higher productivity and increased GDP.
Aside from the general discontent of some American voters and President Trump, there are many proponents of NAFTA, and understandably so. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, since the agreement entered into force, trade with Canada and Mexico has nearly quadrupled, reaching over $1.3 trillion in 2014. To put it in perspective, this means that the U.S. trades more than $3.6 billion in goods and services each day with its neighbors, $2 billion of which is with Canada.
Of course, trade is a two way street; Canada and Mexico do their part by buying more than one-third of all U.S. merchandise exports, making them the largest markets in the world for U.S. goods. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Canada with its modest population of 36 million, purchases more from its southern neighbor than does the whole of the European Union with a population of approximately 500 million. In fact, Meredith Lily, former Foreign Affairs and International Trade Adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wrote in Policy Magazine (Volume 5 – Issue 1, January/February 2017) that 35 U.S. states “list Canada as their number one export destination”. Also interesting to note, Mexico with its population of 125 million, purchased more than $240 billion worth of U.S. merchandise in 2014 – nearly twice the amount America shipped to China, and more than to all of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations combined.
The upside of NAFTA
Mark Twain once famously said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” In fact, this is not the first time that we have seen NAFTA come under scrutiny and become a central argument in a presidential electoral campaign. In his bid for president in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot claimed that the advent of NAFTA would ultimately result in a “giant sucking sound” of American jobs moving south of the border. His contention allowed the billionaire businessman and political outsider to shoot to the top of the polls – sound familiar? But in the end, Democrat Bill Clinton won the election, making NAFTA a reality.
In the four years immediately following the commencement of NAFTA, according to the figures provided by the U.S Chamber of Commerce, U.S. manufacturers added more than 800,000 jobs. This is a stark contrast to the period between 1980 and 1993, prior to the creation of the trading bloc, when the U.S. shed nearly 2 million manufacturing jobs. It is also interesting to note that unemployment during this period averaged 7.1 percent, while during the post-NAFTA period of 1994 to 2007 (up to the point of the financial crisis) it averaged 5.1 percent.
A study by Dr. Joseph Francois and Laura Baughman titled Opening Markets, Creating Jobs: Estimated U.S. Employment Effects of Trade with FTA Partners comprehensively examined 14 U.S. free trade agreements and arrived at some telling results. The 2010 study, commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, concluded that “trade with Canada and Mexico supports a net total of nearly 14 million U.S. jobs, and of this sum, nearly 5 million U.S. jobs are supported by the increase in trade generated by NAFTA.” The Trade Partnership offers analyses regarding the likely competitive impact of prospective or actual trade policies.
What’s more, a 2014 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) called NAFTA at 20: Misleading Charges and Positive Achievements found that those jobs supported by the increase in trade also pay an average salary of 7 to 15 percent more than the jobs which have been displaced by the increase in imports. PIIE is a private, non-partisan, non-profit and avant-garde institution dedicated to the study of economic policy. Their main goal is to create awareness and find solutions to deal with the issues surrounding globalization.
Similarly, as per the website of the Office of the United States Trade Representative, U.S. jobs supported by the export of goods pay 13 to 18 percent more than the U.S. national average.
The NAFTA value chain
Inevitably, the enactment of NAFTA caused supply chains to evolve and production patterns to change. Today, it is common to see sourced raw materials move through stages of production in different countries, and even cross borders multiple times.
Looking at the apparel industry, for example, I think we can all agree that there is almost nothing more American than a classic pair of blue jeans or dungarees. But after cotton bales are gathered in the U.S., nearly 100 percent (as per the U.S. Department of Agriculture) of it is sent to Mexican textile mills to be transformed into apparel. As it turns out, 40 percent of good old American men’s jeans are made in Mexico, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration. Overall, the American Apparel and Footwear Association says that 98 percent of apparel available for purchase in the U.S comes from abroad.
A 2010 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled Give Credit Where Credit is Due: Tracing Value Added in Global Production Chains states that 40 percent of U.S. imports from Mexico originated from American companies operating in that country. The same goes for 25 percent of U.S. imports from Canada. Overall, “these two countries account for 75 percent of all U.S. value added returned from abroad.”
Without NAFTA, these value-added trade transactions could have gone elsewhere – dare I even say China? As a consequence of this increased production integration, Knowledge@Wharton (the business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), affirms in an article published in September 2016 and titled NAFTA’s Impact on the U.S. Economy: What Are the Facts states that cross-border investment has also grown. Foreign direct investment in Mexico, for example, has surged from approximately $15 billion prior to the enactment of NAFTA, to over $107.8 billion 20 years later.
The benefits of NAFTA go well beyond manufacturing, as the service and agricultural industries have been big winners, as well. As per the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Canada is the leading importer of U.S. agricultural products, just as Canada was the No. 1 supplier of agricultural imports to the U.S. in 2015. U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico have grown from $4.2 billion when NAFTA was first enacted in 1993 to $18 billion in 2015.
Convoluted impact of globalization
Granted, amidst all of this positive data, there is nonetheless a debate to be had about the impact of globalization on middle class wages and inequality. While trade has indisputably contributed to the growth of the economic pie, it has caused its distribution to change – in other words, despite the overall gains, the associated costs have not been spread equally across the population, leaving pockets of desolation in its wake. Clearly, this perceived inequality has left a scar on the American working class that has yet to heal – and which Trump was able to capitalize on. Nonetheless, the growing complexity of today’s economic challenges defy simplistic explanation, and it should be made clear at the onset of this discussion that the argument is a convoluted one. There are numerous factors at play that cannot be easily disentangled from other economic, social and political factors that have also influenced growth.
As stated previously, American manufacturing employment was stable and even grew in the years following the enactment of NAFTA, but generally speaking both backers and critics of the trade pact can agree that there has nonetheless been an overall decrease in U.S. jobs.
Estimates vary widely, ranging from 100,000 to as high as 700,000, but it is incorrect to attribute it all to NAFTA. Other factors cannot be discounted, such as the persistent decline in employment that predated the agreement, or the surge in imports once China became part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. In fact, some would argue that since emerging economies are in fact emerging – by introducing economic reform and greater global integration – much of this would have likely occurred with or without the introduction of U.S. trade pacts.
Unfortunately, the threat of offshoring jobs, whether it be to a NAFTA region or beyond, allowed those manufacturers who decided to keep operating on American soil to drive a harder bargain with wages. But perhaps the biggest culprit in the reduction of blue-collar jobs may very well be automation.
Rise of the Robots
The Peterson Institute for International Economics published a 2014 policy brief titled The U.S. Manufacturing Base: Four Signs of Strength, by Theodore H. Moran and Lindsay Oldenski. The brief explores all U.S. manufacturing multinationals over a 20-year period ending in 2014, with the goal of uncovering the economic effects of broadening their operations beyond domestic borders.
The study examines manufacturing as a share of total employment, showing that in 1960 manufacturing accounted for 28.4 percent of non-farm employment in the U.S. economy, but by 2010 that share had fallen to 8.9 percent, and by 2013 it was down to 8.8 percent. Contrary to popular belief, this shrinkage is not due to a reduction in the U.S. manufacturing base, but rather it is due to an increase in output. As you might imagine, the impact of technological progress has played a huge role. Indeed, we have seen a greater than 60 percent increase in gross manufacturing output between 1987 and 2013, reaching $6 trillion.
Yet, despite the overall reduction in manufacturing jobs, the study arrives at a stunning conclusion: “The creation of jobs by U.S. multinationals abroad and the expansion of sales by U.S. multinational affiliates abroad both lead to more production and employment at home, especially in high value-added areas such as R&D.” So not only do you get efficiency gains and greater specialization, making the U.S. more competitive, but ultimately offshoring jobs results in a net positive effect on domestic investment, employment and sales.
In theory, a developed industrial country – such as the U.S. – adjusts to import competition and technological advancement by moving workers into more advanced industries that can better compete in global markets. Instead, it appears that the U.S. workforce was not nimble in adapting to its increasingly skill-intensive, computerized and service-oriented economy. Perhaps policy makers should have done more to encourage the shift from textiles and toys, to aircrafts and semiconductors. In my judgment, this remains America’s largest challenge in Trump’s mission to bring back American manufacturing jobs.
Auto industry and NAFTA
The auto industry is North America’s most prominent manufacturing sector, and although NAFTA propelled it to a new level on interconnectivity, a cross-border connection was established between Canada and the U.S. decades before the 1988 Free Trade Agreement. As noted by The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Canada-U.S. Automotive Products Agreement (commonly known as the Auto Pact), was a “a conditional free-trade agreement signed by Canada and the U.S. in January 1965 to create a single North American market for passenger cars, trucks, buses, tires and automotive parts.”
In the early 1960s the Canadian auto industry was in hardship as a consequence of substantial tariff barriers. Canada had no homegrown auto manufacturer, and there were only a handful of U.S. companies producing vehicles in Canada, almost exclusively for the Canadian market (total Canadian vehicle production in 1960 was just above 379,000).
Canada needed to take action in order to ensure the long-term viability of its auto industry. As per Michael Hart in an excerpt from his book titled The Auto Pact: Forerunner of Free Trade:
As a result of the established pattern of protection, Canadians paid considerably more for cars than did Americans and had to choose from among a narrower range of vehicles. In addition, Canadian autoworkers earned about 30 percent less than their U.S. counterparts. When the costs of the excise tax, the manufacturers’ sales tax and the extra costs of Canada’s less efficient distribution system were added, Canadians often paid as much as 50 percent more than Americans did for the same car. It is little wonder, therefore, that Canadian consumption of vehicles was a third less on a per capita basis than that of Americans. It is also not surprising that by the end of the 1950s Canadians were turning to cheaper imports, principally from the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan.
To address the competitive gap between the two countries, they arrived at a solution with some rather convoluted requirements in order to increase production for export and hopefully achieve economies of scale. Some argue that the Auto Pact only achieved mixed results; it was nonetheless the initial forging of a cooperative effort on trade.
Today, after more than half a century of trade liberalization further pronounced by the introduction of NAFTA, the auto industry has created multi-layered connections between parts suppliers and assembly points which seamlessly span two borders. The tens of thousands of parts that make up any vehicle typically come from multiple producers and different countries, and they often cross borders several times, making up approximately two-thirds of the value of a vehicle. It’s a matter of fact; you can no longer buy an American-made car, just an American-assembled car.
Each car and assembly plant varies in the amount of U.S. content. By taking a look at a new vehicle’s window sticker, we know that a Chevy Silverado pickup assembled in Indiana is made up of 51 percent Mexican content, as compared to a Ford F-Series pickup made up of 70 percent U.S. and Canadian parts. In 2015, Canada-based suppliers shipped approximately $17 billion worth of vehicle components to the U.S., while the two countries combined shipped $29 billion worth of parts to Mexico, as per the Industria National de Autopartes (Mexican auto parts industry association) and trade data from Industry Canada. Mexico in turn sent more than $61 billion back in parts to its NAFTA trading partners.
Also interesting to note, the U.S. Labor Department says that Mexican, Asian and European companies which produce vehicle parts are a growing share of U.S.-based suppliers, providing nearly 600,000 American jobs.
As compared to the 1960s, the automotive industry today is dynamic and innovative and not surprisingly, the cross-border flow of components has become a tenet of modern manufacturing.
On the Canadian auto front things have changed substantially, as reported by the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association: Canada now produces more vehicles than they can sell domestically. In 2015, Canadian plants manufactured over 2.3 million vehicles, of which $57 billion worth were exported for sale in the U.S., equivalent to approximately 85 percent of the vehicles built in Canada – meaning 1.95 million vehicles were exported to the U.S. and 350,000 of the 2.3 million vehicles were sold in Canada. Meanwhile in the same year, Canadians purchased 1.95 million vehicles – the 350,000 made in Canada and 1.6 million imported from the U.S., Mexico and abroad.
The blossoming of the Canadian auto industry has also fostered the development of a successful Canadian auto parts industry with companies such a Magna International Inc., Martinrea International Inc. and Linamar Corp., which are recognized around the world. These companies, along with the auto manufacturers, have become lean and efficient.
In support of improved efficiency due to technological advances, analyst Dennis DesRosiers, of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc., cites the fact that Canada manufactures the same number of vehicles it did in 1993, but with 13,000 fewer workers. But most importantly, integrated supply chains have not only kept costs down for consumers, but have allowed quality, technology and the overall safety of vehicles to be enhanced.
You got Trumped
Aside from the occasional hiccup, the auto industry appears to be working like a well-oiled machine (pun intended)! But before he was even inaugurated, Trump appeared adamant to rewrite the rules governing the North American auto industry – 140 characters at a time. Trump is infamous for taking to Twitter to apply pressure on companies, but few industries have spent as much time in Trump’s crosshairs as the auto sector.
GM, for example, was scolded for importing a model of the Chevy Cruz from Mexico, for which Trump threatened a “big border tax”. During his campaign, Trump also turned up the heat on Ford, which subsequently announced the cancellation of a $1.6 billion plant in Mexico while pledging to create 700 new Michigan-based jobs. Other manufacturers have also altered their plans – all it took was a few casual threats and some pricey tax handouts.
Trump may be resolute about turning back the hands of the globalization clock to the time when “Made in America” meant exactly that. But at what cost?
The return of American manufacturing is a lovely idea in theory. To Trump’s disenfranchised voters, it surely recalls a time when a hard working youngster could get a steady factory job straight out of high school, live a comfortable middle-class life and even retire by age 60. Granted, it may be a hard reality to face, but that America is gone. And no amount of campaign promises will bring it back.
Trump may have been viewed as a progressive presidential candidate, yet a great deal of his economic philosophy remains firmly lodged in yesteryear. The fact of the matter is that the promises made on the campaign trail may not be as simple to fulfill as he made it seem.
Trump can threaten and bully manufacturers to return operations to American soil, but economic reality, as well as a fiduciary duty to stakeholders, will inevitably limit the success of this tactic. Not all can be as it once was. When faced with the prospect of higher wages, a company will naturally opt for the use of more automation in an attempt to at least maintain profits, if not boost them.
We have already seen that technology is a job-eliminating force to be reckoned with that extends far beyond the manufacturing sector, and there are no signs of this trend coming to an end. Automation continues to make inroads, and no wonder: machines make few mistakes, they don’t take vacation or coffee breaks, and they most certainly don’t ask for raises!
Manufacturing is simply not a viable long-term solution for the revival of the middle-class – no matter how good it sounds on the campaign stump. As we have seen, Trump may very well be capable of bullying companies into returning or maintaining jobs on American soil, but with the presence of high-tech machinery and automation, a fundamental disconnect with the American workforce still remains. If he is successful, new jobs will inevitably be of a higher caliber, require more training and even a higher level of education – qualities lacking in the majority of the forgotten men and women whom Trump has vowed to save.
We have yet to see any attempts in tackling this conundrum, let alone an acknowledgement of its existence. Going forward, the U.S. faces two distinct challenges: to help currently displaced workers, and to prepare the labour force for the future waves of change that inevitably await it.
Ultimately, Trump needs to recalibrate his thinking, or his staunchly protectionist stand could very well dismantle decades of progress, and there most certainly will be consequences for all three NAFTA partners and the companies that currently function freely within their borders. Should Trump end the trade agreement in the same vein as TPP – or even make significant modifications – it will likely result in a slow, painful and potentially costly adjustment period. What’s more, it is certainly not clear that the U.S. or Canada would emerge as winners in terms of job growth.
Although we are unclear about most details surrounding the renegotiation of NAFTA or the effects it will have, we are certain that most companies are not willing to make large investments without more clarity on future policy. For the time being, we are hearing Trump tout potential changes to regulations as a bargaining chip, the most obvious of which is the potential for significant tax cuts on corporate earnings.
When it comes to the automakers, Trump and his cabinet are reviewing the stringent fuel economy and emission standards, which require automakers to raise the average fuel efficiency of new fleets to more than 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. There’s no doubt that the auto manufacturers are spending significantly in order to reach this milestone, but what a potential rollback in fuel economy standards can accomplish – especially longer term – frankly eludes me.
For one, the state of California (the largest car market in the U.S.) has the power to set its own emissions policy. Plus, 11 other states have decided to follow suit, and together they represent 40 percent of the new car market. So as much as Washington may want to relax regulations for the automakers, California remains in the driver’s seat. If GM wants to sell cars in the state, it mandates that they sell more zero-emission vehicles, which in turn requires them to continue to invest in alternative-fuel technologies. A lag in fuel efficiency standards may also affect American automakers’ ability to sell their vehicles in Europe whose standards are even more demanding.
At this point, from what little we know with certainty, you may be asking yourself, how might this all play out for the North American auto industry?
One outcome we can be sure of is that major changes to NAFTA (or its demise) would weaken the auto industry in all three countries, making it unlikely that industry manufacturers would make major new investments in North America. This is probably the biggest flaw in the administration’s argument against free trade, as they effortlessly assume that changes to NAFTA will automatically result in jobs returning to America. There is an entire world of possibilities (literally!), which may make more economic sense. This includes manufacturing in larger trading blocs such as Europe or Asia, any of the other countries with which the U.S. has free trade agreements, or member countries of the World Trade Organization which allow for trade with low, non-punitive tariff rates.
Should Trump succeed in imposing new border restrictions on trade, it is possible that it may lead to some marginal gains for a limited number of workers, although I suspect they would be short lived.
Let me explain: what is more likely to happen with the imposition of American content rules is that U.S. consumers will ultimately pay more for an American vehicle than they do today (as will purchasers in Canada and Mexico). In time, this will not only dampen demand, but diminish the relative competitiveness of American automakers. Vehicles produced by competitors who work within open borders will inevitably become more attractive – just as we saw happen in Canada during the 1960s – even with the addition of a punitive tariff. As a consequence, the number of vehicles produced in the U.S. could fall, and ultimately jobs would be lost.
The auto industry aside, 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have investments in Mexico, so for U.S. business the potential damage extends far beyond the auto sector. Needless to say, should President Trump decide to take unilateral action, it will almost certainly result in a tit-for-tat retaliation, hurting not only corporate profits but causing a general slowdown of the economy. Not surprisingly, there is little evidence that turning the United States into an island is a recipe for sustained growth. In fact, there are some interesting theories on how protectionism not only slows growth, but also innovation; we have examples such as Argentina to prove it.
Trump and the trade economy
Despite all the talk and speculation surrounding the possibility of renegotiating NAFTA, Trump’s underlying issue with trade appears to be the resulting deficit, and as far as we can tell, his goal is to eliminate it.
Trade should not be a zero-sum game, but rather an exchange of mutual benefit. Contrary to the administration’s belief, you do not come out on top from simply running a trade surplus. Americans are winning everyday from an improved quality of life by having access to higher quality goods at lower prices.
The administration’s nationalistic and protectionist stance is a far cry from Adam Smith’s concept of the invisible hand, which has also typically been the approach of the Republican Party. The invisible hand is an unobservable market force, which in a truly free market without government intervention allows the strongest economy to emerge by bringing supply and demand into balance. This, in turn, maximizes output and efficiency.
Surely, if push came to shove, America could produce the majority of what it needs, but forcing businesses to make poor economic decisions will not only come at the expense of consumers, but as mentioned earlier, over time the country would also be plagued with a lack of innovation, productivity and selection. The U.S. is far better off to engage in trade with countries which can make the products they need for less, and to spend the savings elsewhere, or invest them in pursuit of commercial opportunities which make the most sense for the economy and the nation.
We often hear President Trump complaining that he has “inherited a mess.” With the U.S. having experienced steady job growth, the unemployment rate has worked its way down to 4.8 percent (near nine-year lows), and it has been accompanied by rising wages, improved readings on manufacturing, industrial production and housing. This has resulted in GDP growth of about 2 percent per year since the recovery of the financial crisis.
The economy is far from being in shambles, and you could argue it is quite strong. But given Trump’s rhetoric, he is clearly not satisfied, as his economic agenda not only aims to reduce or eliminate the deficit, but to boost economic growth. The administration is forecasting 3.2 percent annual growth in GDP over the next decade, along with the creation of 25 million new jobs. Meanwhile, America’s economy has not been able to top 3 percent GDP growth in a full year since 2005, when that growth figure may have very well been inflated by the financial wizardry of Wall Street and the euphoric optimism of Main Street, which was liberally borrowing against artificially inflated home values.
Trump and the troubled deficit
If we take a look back at history, to the era of the 80s and 90s, which are often cited as an exemplary time of thriving economic growth, we should not ignore the fact that it was also accompanied by a growing trade deficit.
Actually, America’s trade deficit has been the world’s largest for the last 40 years, and yet America has continued to prosper. In other words, the mere existence of a trade deficit does not mean that wealth is necessarily flowing out of the country. Nor is it a signal that the U.S. has been outnegotiated, or is the loser in the trading game.
Yes, by its very definition, a trade deficit represents an outflow of domestic currency to foreign markets. Perhaps the distaste for the deficit stems from a fear that those dollars will be lost forever? As it turns out, the outflow is more akin to a temporary leakage that is eventually replenished via the capital account in the form of foreign direct investment.
Whether it is an investment in property, plant or equipment, corporate or government debt, these foreign dollars ultimately support U.S. economic activity. Had protectionist measures not permitted those dollars to be used to purchase imports in the first place, many Americans would not have been able to enjoy the subsequent benefits of foreign investments in local factories, research centers, hotel, or shopping malls, etc.
This phenomenon also explains why we have not seen the inverse relationship, which should have occurred between the growth of the trade deficit and job creation, or a decline in output, had a growth in the deficit truly been hazardous to America’s economic health.
In 2015 and 2016, the overall U.S. deficit of both goods and services combined amounted to just over $500 billion. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mexico and Canada make up a mere 10 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit for 2015 (8 percent is attributable to Mexico). Japan is the next largest culprit, responsible for 9 percent of the deficit, the European Union is at 20 percent, and China is the largest contributor of all making up 48 percent of the trade deficit. The remaining 13 percent is from a combination of other smaller nations.
At first glance, it seems that Trump’s disruptive political agenda may have been misdirected towards NAFTA when he has some much bigger fish to fry. In fact, Canada rarely finds itself at the top of the U.S. political agenda, let alone the focus of any aggressive policies. We are, of course, part of NAFTA, but luckily Trump and his voters do not seem to be under the impression that Canadians have stolen their jobs. Nonetheless, today we find ourselves in the middle of two nations – the U.S. and Mexico – that have started off a new relationship on the wrong foot, and tensions appear to be building.
Trump has tweeted: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico” and he continued on a second tweet, “It has been a one sided deal from the beginning…with massive numbers of jobs and companies lost.” He may have exaggerated the pact’s effect on manufacturing jobs, but his figures on the Mexican deficit are accurate. The U.S. went from a trade surplus of $1.7 billion prior to NAFTA taking effect, to over $55 billion deficit in 2015 and over $63 billion in 2016.
Currency swings also played a part in aggravating the situation, as the value of the Mexican peso took a plunge after the enactment of the treaty. This made Mexican imports much cheaper and certainly played a role in pricing American products out of the market. And you can point your finger to the auto parts trade as the principal offender for the growing American trade deficit with Mexico, so it is not surprising to see why the automakers have made their way into the Trump limelight.
The U.S. also runs a deficit with Canada ($11.9 billion in 2015), but closer scrutiny of our bilateral trade flows reveals that the import of fossil fuels is the largest factor affecting the trade balance.
Actually, Canada plays an important role in U.S. energy, as “we provide 100 percent of their imported electricity, 85 percent of their imported natural gas, and 43 percent of their imported oil” as per a conversation with former prime minister Brian Mulroney in Policy Magazine (Volume 5 – Issue 1, January/February 2017). If fossil fuels were to be excluded from the trade balance, there would be no deficit with Canada at all. So perhaps America’s problem is not so much the deficit but geography and geology!
On a positive note, thanks in part to America’s shale revolution and NAFTA, the U.S. has reduced its reliance on oil imports from more hostile regions such as the Middle East and Venezuela. And, in turn, Americans benefit from lower gas prices at the pump.
Trade barriers and taxes
So what is it about the deal with Mexico that is unfair towards America? For one, Trump firmly believes that Mexico’s Value Added Tax (VAT) works as a trade barrier, tilting the balance against American manufacturers.
As per the first presidential debate on September 26, 2016, Donald Trump said: “They have a VAT tax. We are on a different system. When we sell into Mexico, there’s a tax. When we sell in, automatically, 16 percent, approximately. But when they sell into us, there’s no tax. It’s a defective agreement. It’s been defective for a long time, many years, but the politicians haven’t done anything about it.”
Trump’s claims are misleading to say the least. VAT is not a tariff, but rather a consumption based tax, common to more than 160 countries around the world, including Mexico and China. It is neither a trade subsidy nor a trade barrier, and Trump’s statement makes it sound like America was duped by Mexico in negotiations, when in fact the VAT has nothing to do with NAFTA.
A VAT is basically the equivalent of a sales tax whereby the consumers of goods and services will all bear the same tax burden – no matter the origin of the product. Meaning that goods produced and sold in Mexico are taxed just the same as the ones that arrived from the United States. In other words, not only is the VAT blind to a product’s origin, but also both local and foreign products are offered to consumers on equal terms.
It is also not entirely accurate to allege that there’s no tax when Mexico sells its products in America, as they are subject to a sales tax in all but five states. And just like the VAT, it applies equally to U.S.-made items and foreign products. Much like Canada’s GST, PST or HST, which are essentially just another form of VAT by another name.
Perhaps confusion arises because of the difference in the two systems. In the U.S. (and Canada) for example, a corporation does not pay sales tax on purchased inputs used in manufacturing, and the entire tax burden applies to the final consumer. As compared to American (and Canadian) manufacturers, inputs purchased for production under the Mexican VAT system are paid no matter the stage of production.
As the VAT is not payable on exported goods, it is only natural that when these items are shipped abroad, that the producer who has paid VAT to its suppliers will in turn receive a credit for the VAT that it will not consequently collect from the foreign purchaser. Once again, this puts the American company and the foreign company on equal footing.
Despite the fact that VAT is not a protectionist policy, and completely kosher under international trade rules, there are a couple of possibilities that have been proposed and discussed by Congress and the White House, which would not only counteract the effects of the administration’s proposed tax cuts, but would also help to pay for the planned border wall with Mexico.
Border adjustment vs. border tax
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has rolled out a new tax plan which promises to lower rates and significantly simplify the federal tax system. A core component of the plan includes a so-called “border adjustment tax” provision. Under the measure, U.S. imports would be taxed at a rate of 20 percent and would no longer be a deductible expense. Meanwhile, exports would be exempt of tax in order to encourage American companies to move or increase production at home.
If it were to pass, the border fee is meant to raise $1 trillion over the next decade (or approximately $100 billion per year). Congress’s proposed measure would not only affect Mexico, but it would also affect Canada or any other country that exports their products to the U.S.
Perhaps Republicans hoped the proposed measure could satisfy the president’s protectionist urges, but thus far he has been ambivalent and noncommittal and even criticized the border-adjustment as “too complicated”. Instead he has presented a more straightforward 20 percent tax on products imported from south of the border, which could potentially be included as part of a comprehensive tax package passed by Congress. Although we are told this is just one possibility Trump is considering in order for Mexico to pay for the wall.
The administration is adamant that the plan would not only increase U.S. wages, help U.S. businesses and consumers, but also deliver “huge economic benefits.” For the time being, without more transparency on the details of the plan, it remains impossible to substantiate those claims. But despite the obscurity, from what we know to date, one important question remains unanswered: would Mexicans ultimately be footing the bill, or would Americans?
Feeling the pinch
Whether you want to call it a tax or a tariff – or any other descriptive name for that matter – it is ultimately the Americans who will feel the pinch. Companies importing products will not bear the brunt of the added cost and instead will adjust prices upwards: Americans will find themselves paying a premium for a variety of products from groceries to electronics, not to mention favorites like Corona beer and tequila.
Mexico is also a large provider of industrial products used in American manufacturing. The cost of many vehicles would be slated to rise, such as the Kentucky-built Toyota Camry. James Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America, estimates that because approximately a quarter of the vehicle’s parts are sourced from Mexico, a 20 percent tax would raise costs by about $1,000.
Granted, there is the potential for a secondary effect on the Mexican economy. If the import tax results in less sales of Mexican-made products, then consequently there would be an impact on profits, and perhaps eventually over time even on the wages of Mexican workers. As you might imagine, this could, in turn, once again ignite the desire for Mexicans to flee north – or maybe fuel an industry for ladders tall enough to get over the border wall.
Not surprisingly, representatives from the likes of Walmart and Target, as well as those of specialty retailers, have been heading to Capitol Hill to warn of the crippling repercussions of a border tax. Similarly, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) has launched a national campaign called Americans for Affordable Products to create awareness of the dangers. Despite the honorable effort on the part of Congress, the price of even the most basic and necessary apparel is likely to rise, given that 98 percent of the apparel sold in the U.S. is made abroad.
Grocery bills would also go up. For example, U.S. waters cannot produce enough fish and seafood to satisfy domestic consumption. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. Also, items such as coffee, tea, spices, chocolate and bananas cannot be produced in substantial quantity on home soil.
Unless the congressional proposal is amended, the border-adjustment measure unjustly shifts the burden onto bulk importers and retailers – especially onto those which low-income Americans rely on the most. Ultimately, if these businesses cannot deduct the cost of goods as an expense, they would end up paying tax on the full amount of revenue in the already low margin retail game. In essence, paying tax on more than just profits. Who knows, perhaps one day we will see the likes of Target reverse its “Expect more. Pay Less.” slogan!
The proposed border adjustment is also a large issue for the energy sector. Oil refiners would no longer be able to deduct the cost of their largest production input, imported oil.
As such, a corresponding hike in gasoline prices would be expected. According to the Wall Street Journal, in an article titled Border Tax Divides Energy Sector (February 23, 2017), both the American Petroleum Institute and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers have concluded in internal reports that the price of gasoline would rise by 20 cents or more a gallon.
Meanwhile, large industrial and technology companies such as General Electric, Oracle and Boeing are very much in favour of the proposed border-adjustment proposal. Given their business model, it is completely feasible for them to achieve not paying any taxes at all. In the perfect world, the resulting effects of importing and exporting would cancel each other out, but as it turns out many companies have exposure overwhelmingly on just one side of the equation.
Needless to say, either the congressional border-adjustment proposal or the administration’s tariff-like border tax, are a radical change from the status quo. For those businesses strong enough to survive the shock, it would inevitably take time, and in some cases quite a bit of money to adjust their business models to the new reality. But proponents of change argue that because the terms of trade would be altered, it would lead to a sharp increase in the dollar that would even the playing field.
Let me explain that without a change in the dollar’s value, the likely outcome would be a decrease in imports and a rise in exports, which in turn would cause the trade deficit to narrow. A decline in imports would then reduce demand for foreign currencies to pay for them, and instead there would be an increased demand for dollars. Meaning that the dollar is likely to rise as a result, theoretically enough to offset the proposed tax. So if the dollar’s rise is met with a proportional decline in the Mexican peso or the Canadian dollar for example, then the price of the items in question remains the same. What changes is the purchasing power of the dollars the exporter to the U.S. receives in exchange.
In this scenario, it is true that the burden of the tax would fall on the foreign exporter. Of course, economic theory and reality do not always coincide. There is a real chance that the dollar would not rise fast enough or to a level sufficient to offset the negative impacts.
U.S. companies and individuals alike would also be faced with another challenge should the value of the dollar rise as a response to the proposed border-adjustment tax because it would result in a reduced value of foreign investment. Thus far, estimates predict that the dollar could strengthen by as much as 25 percent.
There is also a matter of legality in Trump’s border tax scenario, which could be in violation of obligations under NAFTA and WTO rules in place to safeguard from protectionist trade policies. Should Trump decide to penalize Mexico with a 20 percent tax, it is likely to be challenged.
The perverse effects of protectionism
To make the administration’s case against a crackdown on trade even more compelling, changes to the U.S. trade deficit calculation are being contemplated.
Reports say the preeminent calculation methodology under consideration would exclude from the export tally any products that enter the country in transit (without being altered), before they are shipped to another country, such as Mexico and Canada. By not including product re-exports into the equation, it would inflate the trade deficit numbers, and perhaps give Trump the ammunition he needs to lift political support for the cause, and as leverage in bilateral negotiations.
Thus far, I have spoken at length of the most obvious drawbacks to protectionism, namely higher prices and restricted selection. The worry is that should Trump move forward with his trade-busting agenda, there are many more perverse effects which may manifest themselves.
By blocking the power of the invisible hand in the free market, the government is picking economic winners and losers, while probably sheltering a few inefficient firms that would have not otherwise survived along the way.
Ultimately, punitive tariffs are aimed at reducing competition by raising the price of foreign goods in order to render locally manufactured ones more attractive. This type of protectionism typically has the effect of temporarily creating jobs for domestic workers, and potentially even boosting wages. This, in turn, increases the incentive of workers to remain low skilled instead of advancing their abilities, education or respective careers. As mentioned earlier, this is a grave problem which the U.S. has yet to tackle successfully.
If the United States closes its borders, other countries will do the same. The temporary increase in jobs would eventually reverse itself as other countries also adopt protectionist measures – let’s not forget that hanging in the balance would be14 million U.S. jobs supported specifically by trade.
Just as the workforce has no incentive to improve, neither does industry when it remains protected. Longer term, the lack of competition eliminates the need to remain on the cutting edge of innovation, and over time product quality declines. Without trade, there is less incentive to move the business forward, and it will evolve slowly and towards obsolescence, eventually producing a more expensive, lower-quality product than that of a foreign competitor operating within truly open borders. Not to be dramatic, but insulation eventually leads to isolation, depressing not only the economy but also civilization.
Additionally, for the “America First” ecosystem to work, consumers need to be willing to pay premium prices, otherwise the system collapses. Americans who voted for Trump in essence agreed to pay up for the benefits of protectionism, but when faced with the real decision of spending actual hard-earned dollars, human nature may push them towards fixing old items instead of buying new ones. Why go out and purchase a new Toyota Camry whose price just jumped by $1,000 when you could save in the short term by upping the maintenance or making minor repairs in order to keep driving your current vehicle for longer?
Under this scenario, there are negative cascading effects. Let’s take, for example, the U.S. farming industry which exports about a third of its total production. If they are no longer shipping their farmed goods abroad, then future crops are likely to be smaller. Farming less land translates into a diminished need for tractors. Fewer tractors means that less steel is needed to build them. And less steel implies fewer steelworkers, and generally a reduced need for labour along every step of the value chain.
At this stage, without a single official policy in place, we are already seeing companies make questionable investment decisions. Thus far, the lack of pushback from America’s largest corporations has been surprising, given that nearly 50 percent of the revenue for companies which make up the S&P 500 comes from abroad.
I can only speculate that the silence is in an effort to appease the president and avoid his Twitter wrath, which often results in reactionary stock price declines. Of course, this is not without favors which the administration will need to deliver, such as tax breaks and deregulation. For the time being, American companies are going along for the ride, knowing that they can survive and even remain profitable (at least for a while) if given generous subsidies while making minimal investments in the business.
Ultimately, the repudiation of free trade could resemble something that the U.S. economy has already experienced during the 1930s era of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.
The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was an attempt to assist Americans in need. Specifically, it was designed to protect local farmers by forcing consumers to buy American-farmed products instead of those coming from Europe. The hope was to shift demand towards American consumption while pushing the burden of the crisis onto foreigners. But by the time the bill made it through Congress, it had expanded to include punitive measures on numerous other imports.
As you would expect, other countries retaliated, which then further contracted the demand for U.S. exports. The result was a competitive trade war and the downward spiral of commerce around the globe.
Although the tariffs did not cause the crisis or the resulting Great Depression, they most certainly exacerbated the situation. Unemployment reached a peak of 25 percent in 1933, and it did not fall below 10 percent for almost a decade until the start of Second World War.
When the war was finally over, 23 nations decided to come together in 1947 in an effort to learn from their mistakes, which resulted in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It is now generally understood that retaliatory tactics are also accompanied by catastrophic results, and that the benefits of trade are dispersed and only appreciable over time. Today, the basis of the GATT lives on as the World Trade Organization.
The Trump White House represents a large shift in American ideology, and this populist globalization backlash threatens to undermine the country’s position and influence in the world. Since the Smoot-Hawley era and the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has been exemplary in the promotion of free markets and liberal trade. America’s retreat is a strategic gain for China, which is eager to take over the leadership role in the globalized world.
America is abandoning the world stage as it builds border walls and pulls out of crucial multilateral trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Meanwhile, China is solidifying relationships, increasing connectivity and even promising to uphold the ideals of free trade in the world (even if it practices a mix between free trade and mercantilism) at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017. It is in the process of creating its own economic zone and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which now has 52 members. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has refused to join, but membership includes the likes of the United Kingdom, Germany and France. Canada has also applied to take part.
From a strategic standpoint, the U.S. is giving up much of its dominance in Asia, where the notion of American exceptionalism has already begun to fray. Despite the fact that the entire world has benefited from America’s role in trade by instilling the rule of law, if American traditional values recede, it leaves room for China to fashion new trading rules to better suit its needs. It may also make it more difficult for the U.S. to export to Asia, which is still undergoing fast-paced growth, as compared with the rest of the world.
In a speech in Mexico City on May 4, 2017, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said President Trump’s protectionist threats were already slowing business growth in Canada and weakening the value of the Canadian dollar. He suggested that part of the solution for both Canada and Mexico would be to revive TPP negotiations – without the involvement of the U.S. – in order to open new markets beyond North America.
Poloz called Trump’s decision in January 2017 to pull out of TPP negotiations “unfortunate”, but pointed out that officials from Canada and 10 other countries had scheduled a meeting in Toronto the weekend of May 6-7, 2017 to discuss the possibility of reviving the TPP negotiations without the U.S.
He noted that Canada has free trade agreements with 15 countries, representing 20 percent of the global economy, and that figure would shoot up when the Canada-European Union trade deal came into force in July 2017.
The future of NAFTA
Needless to say, both Canada and Mexico are important trading partners for America after nearly a quarter century of the North American continent’s three economies being tied together via NAFTA. In 2016, Canada was America’s No. 1 export market for goods (not including services) at a value of $246 billion, followed by Mexico as its No. 2 export market with purchases of $212 billion worth of goods. In his May 4, 2017 speech in Mexico, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz made a point of saying that in the auto parts sector, Canadian companies have more than 150 plants in the U.S., employing 43,000 Americans. But with Trump’s promises of drastic change, both Canada and Mexico currently find themselves teetering on the precipice of the unknown.
Perhaps Canada initially thought it was in an enviable position as compared with Mexico because we did not appear to be the main target in Trump’s desire to reopen NAFTA. After all, our bilateral trade with the U.S. is almost on equal terms, resulting in only a minor deficit for the U.S. when both trade and services between the two counties are taken into account.
Nonetheless, even after a friendly meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 13, 2017, we were not much closer to knowing the fate of the trilateral trade deal and the effect any changes would have on the intricacies of economic integration formed over the last 23 years.
You could say the meeting raised more questions than it answered. Granted, there was no talk of punitive tariffs or the need to rewrite the rules in order for trade between the two countries to become fair – just some “tweaking”, in the president’s words. Phew – but wait, what exactly did he mean by a tweak? The statement was ambiguous and left ample room for interpretation. It is quite possible that one man’s tweak could be another’s complete overhaul!
For the process to begin, the White House needs to provide Congress with a 90-day notice, which was expected to happen sometime in spring 2017, according to Wilbur Ross, the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
The negotiations are expected to take a year to complete, and it could be drawn out as the U.S. government is required by law to consult private sector advisers, as well as lawmakers, throughout the process. Despite the Republican majority in Congress, there are many who do not share the economic nationalistic views of Trump and some members of his cabinet.
The next big question hanging over the renegotiations is what form will they take, as Trump has made his preference for bilateral agreements clear. Whether it will be a two-tiered renegotiation which results in two separate parallel bilateral agreements, or a new trilateral agreement, the challenge lies in the fact that what happens to one party will inevitably have a profound effect on the others. Given the deep-seated economic ties, it would be difficult to merely tweak the agreement for Canada while making significant changes for Mexico –without fully reopening the agreement and starting negotiations anew.
Naturally, each country will aim to look after its own interests, but it is clear that times have changed, and the U.S. is less likely than ever before to budge on its plan to put “America First.” During a March 8, 2017 Bloomberg news interview, Wilbur Ross stated: “They all know they’re going to have to make concessions. The only question is what’s the magnitude, and what’s the form of the concessions.” Given that Canada and Mexico are the weaker trade partners due to their smaller economies and that America is generally less dependent on NAFTA, the U.S. may very well have a leg up in negotiations.
In the meantime, we are faced with many unknowns. Will Trump attempt to put his negotiation skills to the test to broker a completely new deal, or will he simply aim for better terms while maintaining the general infrastructure of NAFTA? Will Trump require Canada and Mexico to essentially “pay” to access the U.S. market? If Mexico is forced out of NAFTA or if the agreement’s rules of origin become more onerous, will we be able to produce Canadian goods that qualify for preferential U.S. treatment? If the administration is not satisfied, will America pull out of the agreement entirely? More importantly, from our Canadian perspective, what would North American trade relations look like without NAFTA?
To tweak or not to tweak?
As per NAFTA Article 2205, the U.S. can pull out of the agreement with a six-month notice. Should it ultimately meet its demise, it would resurrect the pre-existing FTA between Canada and the United States, which originally came into effect in 1988. Canada would be cut off from Mexican inputs, but Mexico would be left with nothing – other than barriers, both physical and economic. Even though Canada and Mexico could theoretically continue on with the pact, it was designed around the U.S. elephant and would make little sense without its participation.
In a December 2016 interview conducted by Policy Magazine Editor L. Ian MacDonald with former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who was responsible for enacting NAFTA, Mulroney referred to it as “an insurance policy.” Stating that “we were concerned that something might happen in the future and we knew that the backbone of our financial success and our economic success as a nation was going to be trade with the United States.”
Yes, Canada would dust off the old documents and have something to fall back upon, but it’s far from a perfect option. The trade deals of today expand their focus beyond just the reduction or elimination of trade barriers and punitive tariffs. NAFTA, for example, pioneered the incorporation of labour and environmental provisions. It also included other improvements over the FTA, such as provisions protecting investors via an independent dispute-settlement process. Today, given the amount of time that has passed and the fundamental changes economies have undergone – such as the advent and rise of e-commerce – the FTA and even NAFTA are due for some much-needed modernization.
Even though the TPP agreement has been abolished, it contained many provisions the U.S. sought from trading partners, and it could be used as a basis for the renegotiation of NAFTA. Canada has the recent pact with the European Union it can use as a guide covering similar provisions, called the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Key elements include addressing the digital economy by way of provision of goods and services in the form of data, and minimum labour standards, including a requisite minimum wage, as well as mobility of labour.
Revising the rules of origin will also be a topic of great importance for all parties involved and likely an area in which the U.S. will seek concessions. Rules of origin classify goods by way of how much North American materials they contain in order to qualify for duty-free access. For example, foreign fabric is considered as local content in the clothing industry as long as the item of clothing meets certain conditions such as being cut, sewn or assembled within the trade-free zone. The U.S. is likely to tighten the rules of origin in order to encourage more American production, while Canada will seek to make the rules more comprehensive and straightforward.
Most other concessions America will seek are readily identifiable as the U.S. Trade Representative publishes them annually in the National Trade Estimate Report. Let’s get into some of the specifics.
Perhaps no sector has more to lose than Canada’s dairy industry, which is currently highly protected, with price and supply regulated through quotas. Most U.S. dairy imports are subject to punitive tariffs of up to 300 percent if they surpass quota levels. Under TPP, Canada had already ceded 3 percent of the market, so it is likely that in this coming round of NAFTA negotiations, the U.S. will push for more.
In an April 17, 2017 story written by Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post indicated that one of the immediate flash points in NAFTA negotiations could be the issue of milk protein concentrates, known as “ultrafiltered milk” which is used as a protein added to cheese.
Dewey reported that ultrafiltered milk was developed after NAFTA’s 1994 enactment and, as a result, did not face high tariffs such as most American dairy products entering Canada’s protected market. The bulk of ultrafiltered milk produced in the U.S. has been shipped to Canada in the 23 years since NAFTA came into force.
However in April 2016, dairy farmers in Ontario dramatically cut their prices on Canadian ultrafiltered milk to undercut U.S. imports of that product, and other provinces were planning to follow suit, according to the newspaper, which described a price war as “a dire threat to U.S. farms.”
“This could certainly become an issue in any attempt to renegotiate NAFTA,” Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist and North American trade expert at Texas A&M, told the Post, which reported in its story that American industry groups, as well as state and congressional politicians were calling on Trump to intervene directly in the dispute, as well as in a similar issue involving Canadian price cuts on skim milk powder.
Similar to the dairy industry, production quotas apply to the poultry and egg markets, which are also likely to be under scrutiny as part of a new NAFTA negotiation. In this scenario, we could see Canada ask for some quid pro quo, as America’s dairy industry benefits from its own protectionist policies.
The topic of Canada’s softwood lumber exports emerged as a flashpoint once again, as it has been a long-running battle between the U.S. and Canada since the early 1980s. Canada owns (by way of provincial and the federal governments) the majority of the lands where Canadian timber is harvested, as compared to the U.S. where lots are normally privately owned. As such, the price of Canadian timber is treated more as an administrative matter, rather than set in a competitive marketplace as it is across the border. As a result, despite the clear and favorable bias of the U.S. house-building industry towards Canadian softwood lumber, the U.S. government would like to impose limits on its import into the U.S. in order to favor American softwood lumber producers. In 2016 alone, the U.S. imported $5.7 billion of Canadian softwood lumber, mainly for residential home building.
Just as the U.S. has a case against Canada’s softwood lumber, Canada has a similar case against American drywall. There is likely no easy resolution in all of the matters mentioned, especially not since Trump’s visit to Wisconsin on April 19, 2017 where he used a speech meant to focus on “buy American, hire American” (before signing a new executive order) to make a sudden and pointed attack on Canadian trade policies. Given that he was in America’s dairyland, Trump was no doubt playing to his constituents by bringing up the “terrible” plight of American dairy farmers. Citing it as “another typical one-sided deal against the United States” he vowed it “won’t be happening for long”, referring to the pricing changes in ultrafiltered milk products that make American imports less competitive.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calmly made his rebuttal the following day during an interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait in Toronto by pointing out that “the U.S. has a $400 million dairy surplus with Canada. So it's not Canada that is the challenge here." To which he added: “Let’s not pretend that we are in a global free market when it comes to agriculture. Every country protects, for good reason, its agricultural industries. We have a supply management system that works very well here in Canada. The Americans and other countries choose to subsidize to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, their agricultural industries, including their dairy.” And despite the finger pointing, we also know that the troubles of Wisconsin dairy farmers stem from a combination of overproduction and low global milk prices.
On April 21st, Trump doubled down on his previous comments by expanding his list of trade irritants from dairy to lumber and energy. Trump’s fighting words, reminiscent of his protectionist campaign rhetoric, make it clear that Canada is in for much more than just a “tweak” to its trade policies.
To begin with, Trump announced that punitive tariffs of up to 24 percent were to be slapped on Canadian softwood lumber imports beginning April 24, 2017. Softwood lumber products do not fall under NAFTA: over several decades they have been regulated by side agreements, the last of which expired in 2015. So it was known that a new agreement would have to be hammered out between Canada and the U.S. at some point, but Trump used his April visit to Wisconsin as a jumping-off point to fire the first salvo by imposing onerous softwood tariffs, which are, in many cases, retroactive 90 days and will throw smaller Canadian producers into dire economic straits.
As if the softwood tariffs weren’t enough of a shock to the trade relationship, Trump mused on April 26, 2017 that he was thinking of giving the required 180-day notice to terminate NAFTA in its entirety to coincide with his 100th day in office two days later. In an interview with The Washington Post on April 27th, he said: “I was all set to terminate. I looked forward to terminating. I was going to do it.” Trump said he reconsidered after speaking with advisers and with the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, saying: “I like them a lot, both of them. We have a very good relationship. And it’s very hard when you have a relationship, it’s very much something that would not be a nice act. It would not be exactly a friendly act.”
White House insiders told the Post that Trump’s stated intention to terminate NAFTA rattled business executives across America, various agricultural groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, state governments, members of Congress, as well as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who all urged the president to back down. The message was that ending NAFTA would impact negatively all U.S. business and could devastate the U.S. agriculture industry.
The only Trump advisers urging him to keep on his course to cancel NAFTA were trade adviser Peter Navarro and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, the Post reported, adding that at the same time two cabinet-level Mexican officials contacted their U.S. counterparts to deliver the blunt message that Mexico would not return to the negotiating table with “a gun to its head” if Trump announced his intention to withdraw from NAFTA. Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, described Trump’s threat as a “my way or the highway ambush” from the White House.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray went on to say in an April 27th interview on Mexican television that Canada and Mexico had mapped out a joint strategy for dealing with Trump’s threat to withdraw from NAFTA. “We had the same position,” Videgaray said.
So in reality, Trump had already made up his mind to back down even before he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Enrique Peña Nieto on Wednesday night, April 26th, the Post reported.
The newspaper gave an interesting anecdote to illustrate how Trump’s advisers, starting with his son-in-law Jared Kushner – who had urged him to back away from cancelling NAFTA – have to play up to him to salve his ego. At one point during The Washington Post interview in the Oval Office on April 27th, Trump, who had already backed down on the issue, turned to Kushner and asked: “Was I ready to terminate NAFTA?”
“Yeah,” Kushner said, before explaining the case he had made to the president: “I said, ‘Look, there’s pluses and minuses to doing it’, and either way he would have ended up in a good place.”
A Canadian Press story published May 8, 2017 in The Toronto Star reported that at 6 p.m. on April 26th Kushner called Katie Telford, Prime Minister Trudeau’s chief of staff, in Ottawa to suggest that it would be good idea for the prime minister to call the president – who was free “right now” – to discuss NAFTA.
The Canadian prime minister followed Kushner’s suggestion and spoke to Trump, as did Mexican president Peña Nieto – although it has not been reported whether Kushner was the White House adviser who triggered the call from the Mexican president. What is known is that Trump spun the calls from the two leaders into what he thought would be a face-saving ploy to explain his change of position about ending NAFTA, saying that Trudeau and Peña Nieto had asked him to back down and that he had acceded to their requests because he likes both men.
Given the mercurial temperament of this president, one wonders how many major changes NAFTA might undergo even if he eventually opts not to pull the plug on the entire agreement. For example, the Trump administration has toyed with the idea of abolishing
NAFTA’s dispute settlement regime (known as NAFTA Chapter 11) – which addresses anti-dumping and countervailing disputes – despite the fact that it seems to have worked in favour of the U.S.
Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives documented the 77 known NAFTA investor-state settlement claims made up to January 1, 2015, which included 35 against Canada, 20 against the U.S. and 22 against Mexico: Canada paid out damages totaling $172 million (Cdn); Mexico paid damages of $204 million (U.S.), while the U.S. had not lost a single NAFTA Chapter 11 case up to that point.
Intellectual property rights are also a continuing priority for America, especially in the realm of pharmaceuticals, as the U.S. has serious concerns regarding certain patent utility requirements that Canada has adopted. Ideally, the U.S. would also like additional co-operation in the fight against counterfeit goods (especially goods shipped from China), as Canadian legislation does not allow for inspection of in-transit goods destined for the U.S. via Canadian ports.
The U.S. may also pursue changes to Canadian personal duty exemptions. For short-term travellers, they are far less generous than those provided to Americans who return from travel in Canada. U.S. retailers have raised concerns on the diminishing effects of spending when on their side of the border. The same goes for personal imports of U.S. wines and spirits, which are subject to high provincial taxes and duties.
On a similar note, given the rise of American e-commerce companies, the U.S. would like to see an increase in Canada’s de minimis threshold (DMT). It is the value below which shipments from abroad are exempt from duties and taxes and customs processes, and it is currently set at a mere $20. As you might imagine, it was set in the pre-digital universe nearly three decades ago. It is also the lowest DMT in the world, as compared to the U.S., which has the highest at $800.
Canada spends a great deal of money and resources to collect the tax and inspect these small parcels at the border – it does not even come close to covering the cost of doing so. A C.D. Howe Institute trade and international policy briefing entitled “Rights of Passage: The Economic Effects of Raising the de minimis Threshold in Canada” (published in June 2016 by Christine McDaniel, Simon Schropp and Olim Latipov), reveals that for the government to collect $39 million in additional revenues on these small value shipments, it comes at a cost of $166 million. Needless to say, this is a money-losing endeavour where both countries could stand to benefit if changes were made.
The U.S. is also weary of the support the provincial and federal governments provide to Canada’s aerospace industry – namely Bombardier. Whether it be in the form of the direct aid the company has received or whether it is masked under the veil of research and development grants, or the commercial loans the government is providing to potential purchasers of their CSeries aircraft and the additional credits they receive when the aircraft is sold in the U.S. market – the U.S. views these as subsidies working against American-made products. Meanwhile, Canada, in return, would likely solicit the opportunity to participate in U.S. government procurement projects. This would require the relaxation of local content rules, which in most cases preclude Canadian companies from even participating in the bidding process.
Other than the reciprocal requests briefly outlined above, Canada may also want to solidify measures to prevent a great unraveling of the fully integrated auto-manufacturing sector. Canada could also seek an update to the list of professionals who qualify for temporary entry to the U.S., something they were not able to achieve in TPP negotiations. But the biggest ask would be for the U.S. to open up its agricultural sector, namely the sugar industry, which is heavily protected and currently excluded from NAFTA.
Despite the concessions and the potential downside of reopening negotiations, there is one large potential opportunity for Canada and it comes in the form of the Keystone XL pipeline, as part of Trump’s plan for energy independence.
The Obama administration had originally vetoed the project, but Trump encouraged TransCanada Corp., the Keystone pipeline builder, to reapply for a permit. The project was finally given a presidential approval on March 24, 2017. If completed, the pipeline would be capable of sending up to 830,000 barrels a day from Canada’s Alberta oil sands to America’s refiners on the Gulf Coast. It also has the potential to create thousands of jobs for Canadians, particularly where they are most needed – in Western Canada.
Despite Trump’s blessings, the project still faces numerous hurdles, namely state-level approvals are needed in Nebraska and South Dakota, and there is continued opposition from environmentalists. There’s also the matter of Trump’s pledge for the exclusive use of American steel in its construction, as well as his expressed desire for a piece of the profits. It is now clear that the U.S. steel promise is unlikely to be fulfilled as the pipeline was already under construction and the materials were previously acquired, although this will be a requirement for new projects. As for the profit-sharing, it appears he has also backed away from pervious comments that would have otherwise been a clear violation of our capitalistic system.
With the arrival of the pipeline also comes consequences for the oil market. Keystone may very well impact oil production in the U.S. and, as such, the price of oil. And if oil prices are depressed, that could, in turn, make expensive oil sands projects – whose heavy crude sells at a discount to the light sweet variety – less viable than they already are today.
On the other hand, if only Mexico is hit with a punitive tariff or border tax, its oil exports to the U.S. will also be affected. This is a potential boon for Canadian producers whose oil already sells at a discount to heavy Mexican Maya, simply because it needs to travel thousands of miles by rail or pipeline. An additional 20 percent on Mexican oil, along with the availability of less costly pipeline transportation, could give the oil sands a real comparative advantage.
Broadening Canada’s trade horizons
At the end of the day, regardless of the negotiation struggles or the outcome, America’s general retreat from free trade threatens to disrupt Canada’s attempts to forge trade agreements with other countries. Without the economic heft of the American elephant at the table, our government could struggle to negotiate favorable trade deals.
Realistically, whether we have the weight of the U.S. on our side or not, Canada needs to broaden its trade horizons.
Excluding NAFTA, Canada has 10 free-trade agreements in force, which allow Canadian goods duty-free access to 13 countries. This can be improved upon. Now that TPP has fallen through the cracks, Canada needs to reach out to those countries with which it does not already have a trade deal (five out of the 12 TPP partners). They could also expedite exploratory free trade agreement discussions they plan on having with China. Meanwhile, Canadian companies should be looking at expansion opportunities presented by CETA, the new trade agreement with the European Union.
Why Trump’s plans may not work out
In the meantime, as we await the reality of the Trump presidency to unfold in the coming years, we should recognize that there are a few reasons why the president’s proposed plan to stimulate America’s growth may not materialize.
The first cause for concern is Trump’s fiscal plan, including the significant tax cuts, and a $1 trillion infrastructure program. For one, this does not necessarily jive with the traditionally tight purse strings of the Republican Party. Trump’s proposed tax cuts are twice as steep as those proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. According to the Tax Policy Center estimates, the cuts are expected to cost as much as $7 trillion over the next decade (this takes into account the effects of the change in tax on economic growth – i.e. dynamic scoring). This is expected to increase the debt-to-GDP ratio by 26 percentage points to 111% of GDP.
Purse strings aside, there are numerous issues on which Republicans and their new president have opposing views. Not only on traditional matters such as free trade, but also on Trump’s approach to world affairs, such as his open admiration for Russia and Vladimir Putin (an FBI investigation was under way for possible ties). Such contention can be used as leverage in the political process, and Trump currently appears to be burning through his political capital to pass just the first of many expected proposals.
There is also the matter of the $1 trillion in infrastructure spending to improve the country’s roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools and hospitals. There is uncertainty over the details, but the general idea is that most of the money spent would not be directly shelled out by the government, but rather would come in the form of tax breaks to firms willing to invest in private infrastructure projects. The tax break is significant, at 82 cents per dollar of invested equity, but the fear is that without government direction it may not result in the intended improvement of the country’s maintenance backlog and instead will be directed towards profit-making projects such as toll bridges.
Monetary policy is another worry, as the dollar tends to rise with interest rates, and given the U.S. dollar’s pivotal nature, a rise will inevitably be accompanied by a host of other challenges, which will be felt around the globe. Although the dollar has been strengthening against a basket of rich-country peers for years, there are many interrelated factors driving the currency, and at this point nearly all are anticipatory.
Because the American dollar reigns supreme as a means of exchange and a store of value, there is a great deal of financing in the currency beyond America’s shores. In fact, there has been a surge in demand as emerging markets have grown richer and hungrier for financing. Those capital inflows then push up local prices and encourage further borrowing.
Of course, when the dollar rises, so does the cost of servicing those debts, which in turn hurts the supply of local credit. It may also send the cycle for these dollar-denominated borrowers into a tailspin of capital outflows, accompanied by a drop in asset prices. Plus, Trump’s protectionist bent is likely to make it even harder for these emerging economies to trade their way out of trouble.
There are also dangers for America in a stronger dollar. The U.S. Federal Reserve is already in the process of raising rates, precisely because the economy is close to full employment and inflation is on the rise. If the dollar continues to strengthen, the trade deficit will widen as imports inevitably become cheaper, while exporters will suffer. Expensive exports may even cost American jobs.
This is exactly Trump’s fear, and what his potential policies are meant to avoid. Should this happen, he may succumb to his protectionist instincts and pull the tariff trigger, setting off the trade war in an attempt to bring trade into balance.
Needless to say, going forward we are facing a lot of unknowns. Could America’s long-term fiscal health be in jeopardy? Will the Fed speed up the pace of the tightening cycle? Has the market moved too quickly in anticipation of policies that may never materialize? Will the Republican Party be able to synthesize their conservative principles with Trump’s world view? Could Trump’s approach to foreign policy, his lack of experience in public office, or his unorthodox views on issues, such as immigration and climate change, damage alliances? What will be the global consequence of the anti-globalization backlash we have now seen in both American and British politics?
The United States and Britain have essentially been the guarantors of international order since the Second World War. In fact, many would argue that their close diplomatic ties and alliances in numerous military and political conflicts not only brought an end to the Cold War, but brought with it growth in world trade and investment flows which increased the standard of living for many around the world. Now that these two countries are on the path to turn inwards, we are also seeing nationalist populism stage a roaring comeback in other countries of importance.
Ultimately, if Trump’s actions result in a trade war, it is unlikely to “Make America Great Again.” It is more likely to make the U.S. and the world – including Canada – a more impoverished, hostile and even unstable place.
Editor’s Note: Stan Crock is a distinguished American journalist with a law degree whom we are pleased to welcome as a contributor to BestStory.ca. Stan’s colorful biography can be found here.
President Donald Trump’s February 16, 2017 press conference proved quite dramatically that he has brought the “no-fact zone” from his election campaign into his presidency.
During his rambling, 77-minute “newser”, Trump claimed to have the largest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan, when in reality he beat out only George W. Bush; the winning candidates in five other presidential elections since Reagan produced far larger margins.
Trump also claimed that Hillary Clinton gave Russia 20 percent of the U.S. uranium supply. That was both inflammatory and untrue. In 2013, a Russian company, Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation, bought a majority interest in a Canadian company, Uranium One, which owns 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity, which is quite different. The New York Times quoted a former State Department official as saying Clinton played no role in the multi-agency decision to approve the purchase of the interest in Uranium One.
The night after his press conference, Trump called out in a tweet the three oldest U.S. broadcast networks – CBS, NBC, ABC – as well as CNN and The New York Times, labeling them the “ FAKE NEWS media” and describing them as “the enemy of the American people.” But reporting the truth to the public is not treason. In fact, it is an act of patriotism, a fulfillment of the press’s solemn obligation under the First Amendment.
Trump is not the only creator of the no-fact zone, the verbal equivalent of a military no-fly zone, with perhaps even more impact. The real fake news purveyors (pardon the seeming oxymoron) are some digital sites, including social media, which pride themselves on disseminating false information. They help spread misinformation, but have nowhere near the impact of the president of the United States using his bully pulpit to spread falsehoods.
How we got to this presidential no-fact zone involves a complex, combustible, and toxic brew of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, and technology. The press aggravated matters by initially reacting to Trump’s every tweet, however inane and off target, instead of concentrating on the major issues facing the new administration.
But the factors that brought us here – combined with traditional journalistic values and practices, guerrilla warfare, and innovation – can lift us out of this quagmire.
Repetition breeds familiarity
Let’s start with how we got here. A big factor is the way people process information. Behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman tell you that repetition breeds familiarity, which leads to credibility. What is familiar also makes you feel comfortable. This is a biological instinct, for the survival reaction to something novel is to withdraw or fear it. Something novel may be a threat. Something familiar is not as likely to be since you have survived it before.
This syndrome operates regardless of the truth of the repeated statement. As a result, people will act in ways that are not in their economic or other interests. Hence the title of Duke Professor Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics book: Predictably Irrational. Behavioral economics thoroughly undermines the notion that markets and market participants are rational. Marketers have known this for years. So have political propagandists.
When people compare Trump to Hitler, they have the right Reich but wrong guy: propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is the real comparison. Trump knew that repeating “crooked Hillary” time and again would have the desired effect. People would believe it and be comfortable with the idea. The same is true for repeatedly using the term “fake news” to describe legitimate news organizations. Trump knows if he says things often enough, people will believe it. And sure enough, interviews with supporters show they repeatedly use the term fake news.
Cognitive bias is another big factor. In 1986, three Rutgers professors wrote in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization about a general framework for cognitive dissonance and utility maximization. It included three kinds of cognitive bias. The first is prior hypothesis bias, in which a belief about the world leads a reader to ignore information that is inconsistent with that belief – essentially confirmation bias.
I have seen that up close and personal. When I wrote a piece for my Business Week online column in March 2004 about whether President George W. Bush had something called central auditory processing disorder, I got a lot of emails from Republicans saying I clearly was a Democrat and from Democrats saying I clearly was a Republican. They all read the same piece. The Republicans believed I was a Democrat because I was saying Bush was not fit for the presidency because of the disorder. The Democrats said I was a Republican because I was being sympathetic to Bush, saying he wasn’t dumb as a stone. I did neither, of course. But as a high school classmate said at the time, “People see what they believe. They don’t believe what they see.”
Anchoring and adjustment
The second bias is anchoring and adjustment, a form of semantic priming. Initial estimates serve as an anchor and later adjustments are too small in light of new information provided. Consider a 1999 study by two German psychology professors involving how old Mahatma Gandhi was when he died. They asked one group if he died before or after the age of 9 and the other if he died before or after the age of 140. The first group’s estimates averaged 50 and the second averaged 67. He actually was 87 when he was assassinated. The numbers in the question clearly had an effect as an anchor to prime thinking about the answer.
The final bias is one based on commitment. When you are committed to a course of action, you will ignore information that causes a low level of dissonance with that commitment. When the dissonance grows too large, however, the three Rutgers professors found, “the blocking of evidence reverses itself, and the initial decision is revised in line with the external evidence.”
The website Better Humans had a piece called Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet. The subtitle: because thinking is hard. It noted that Wikipedia has a list of 175 cognitive biases, and Better Humans grouped them into a bunch of manageable baskets: What we do to cope with too much information, not enough information, the need to act fast, and figuring out what to remember. We cope with too much information with some of the mechanisms I’ve mentioned: relying on things primed in our memory or repeated, details that confirm our beliefs, bizarre or funny things that stick out, change, and flaws in others.
When there is not enough information or meaning, we find stories in sparse data. We fill in characteristics from generalities – and can’t remember what is real and what we filled in. We simplify. We think we know what others think and project our assumptions. We imagine people we know are better than those we don’t know.
When we need to act fast, we are confident in what we know and do, we complete things in which we have invested time, we preserve our status in our group, and we favor the simple over the complex and ambiguous. We may rely on heuristics, experience, a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, stereotyping, profiling, or common sense to make a good enough but not perfect decision.
All too human
In terms of memory, we edit and reinforce memories after the fact, discard details to form generalities, reduce events to key elements, and store memories based on how we experienced them. We encode information that seems important at the time, but that is in comparison with what else is going on and may have nothing to do with the memory’s intrinsic information value. All of this can lead to less than optimal behavior. We are human, all too human.
Of course, our minds have filtered information this way for millennia. But in the U.S., the number and quality of sources of information have changed. We used to have three networks and local newspapers that had a fairly uniform approach to providing reliable information. Journalists and editors vetted the information they received to see if it was true and then provided balanced stories by talking to all sides of an issue. So these psychological factors worked on absorbing fact-based information as opposed to the claptrap from multiple sources we encounter now. The advent of multiple sources on the web combined with these psychological dynamics have produced ruinous results.
The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo wrote an excellent piece on Nov. 2, 2016, about How the Internet is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth. The Internet has democratized the marketplace of ideas, but factually-challenged wing nuts have dominated it, creating a perverse and unhealthy effect on democracy. As a tech writer, Manjoo understandably focused on technology. But there are other factors.
Decades of attacks on the mainstream press by right-wing hosts on the radio – not exactly a new technology – and radio broadcasts of an unending number of absurdities have taken their toll, too. Take a look at how many people think President Barack Obama is a Muslim – 29 percent in a 2015 poll. And in a 2016 poll, 72 percent of Republicans doubted Obama’s U.S. citizenship despite the clear record.
Similarly, 52 percent of respondents who said they knew a lot about Common Core standards thought they applied beyond math and English, and 57 percent thought the standards mandated more testing. They were wrong in both instances, but those misconceptions led them to oppose the Common Core. Not understanding the truth has consequences.
I have had personal experience with the effects of fake news. I have eaten at Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria that was the site of a December 4, 2016 visit by a gun-wielding North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch, who believed false website stories that the restaurant was involved in a supposed child-trafficking ring led by Democrat Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta. I also eat regularly at a restaurant a few doors away. I shop at the bookstore on that block, Politics and Prose, which supposedly had a tunnel through which the kids went to Comet Ping Pong. The gunman found no kids at Comet and no tunnel. Surprise, surprise. I lived for five years a half block from all of this. I can tell you that fear permeated employees of these establishments – and, fortunately, that the neighborhood supported them all.
Fake news does not affect just national politics. A high school classmate recently resigned from the City Council of Lafayette outside San Francisco after serving for 11 years. He had been planning to leave for a while, but he was really glad he did after a local tax measure he had nurtured for two years flamed out in the wake of a hail of social media lies. The biggest was that the measure would finance a $60 million Taj Mahal of a City Hall. There was no such plan, but 56 percent of the population voted against the measure, which had both union and Chamber of Commerce support. Author Neal Gabler calls this fake news an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment.
Another example of irrational behavior, at least from an economic standpoint, is a focus on compositional amenities, the topic of a Washington Post column by Charles Lane. New Yorkers, for example, prize the social, cultural, and economic benefits of a diverse society. As Lane put it, “Life brims with new experiences, challenges, excitement, what an economist would call ‘positive externalities’ of demographic change.”
Survey data from 21 countries shows that people with less education and fewer job skills have more anxiety about cultural changes engendered by the arrival of immigrants, even when such immigration is shown to have an overall positive economic impact.
“Yet,” he goes on, “homogeneity has benefits too. In rural areas, or small towns, where everyone speaks the same language, or practices the same customs, life can be simpler, more predictable, less frictional.” Those are compositional amenities, and many people value them above the benefits of diversity, even above economic gains.
In a 2009 paper, a U.S.-British trio of social scientists used survey data from 21 countries to show that concern for compositional amenities is much more important in explaining public opinion on immigration than economic concerns, such as immigration’s impact on wages and taxes. Anxiety about cultural change can, and often does, outweigh evidence on immigration’s economic impact – even positive data showing immigration actually raises wages overall or that undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes.
The study reached another important conclusion: compositional concerns rise as educational attainment falls. As you acquire more skills and information, it becomes easier, presumably, to adapt to an increasingly diverse culture.
So if you believe that Washington is screwed up (your prior hypothesis), if your anchors are that immigration and globalization are awful, if you are committed to throwing the rascals out and changing Washington, if you focus on the unusual, if you fill in characteristics and can’t remember what is real and what you filled in, if you are more comfortable with people like yourself, if you oversimplify, if you think you know what others are thinking (and it’s none too good), if you reinforce memories incorrectly after the fact, and if you keep hearing things whose repetition makes them believable and makes you comfortable, it is quite easy to operate in a no-fact zone.
Fake news purveyors consciously exploit these human cognitive failures. In a January 18, 2017 New York Times article, the Maryland Republican operative, Cameron Harris, explained how he had ginned up a fake news article about an Ohio warehouse with tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton ballots. Harris noted that Trump was starting to lay the groundwork for losing by saying it would happen only because the system was rigged. Harris noted that the distrust of the media among Trump supporters meant that anything that parroted Trump’s talking points would work. He said that people “were predisposed to believe Hillary Clinton could not win except by cheating” and added, “people wanted to be fed evidence, however implausible, to support their beliefs.”
Yet another element of behavioral economics affects both the public and the press: the penchant to look at the numerator instead of the denominator. If you looked only at the number of people who buy lottery tickets and lose (the denominator), no one would buy a ticket. Instead, the public and the press focus on the numerator, the rare person who wins. That encourages people to buy lottery tickets, which is not economically rational. But it is how people think and act. And it is how journalists act and think when they focus on outliers as newsworthy.
This approach has distorted public perceptions about free-trade agreements. The focus will be on a single plant that closes and lays off 300 workers (the numerator). The press pays no attention to the hundreds of other employers who may be hiring three or a dozen new employees, more than offsetting the job losses. Nor does the press pay much attention to the fact that consumers will be saving, say, $1.50 per imported tee shirt on millions of tee shirts, which adds up quickly and frees up huge sums for other purposes.
NAFTA’s positive impact
This is not academic. How many people know that in January 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, there were 16.9 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and four years later, though some jobs moved to Mexico, the number of manufacturing jobs had increased steadily to 17.6 million. The rise reversed what had been a steady decline since May 1979, when the number hit 19.5 million.
That’s just part of the story. U.S. employment overall grew 21 percent between 1993 and 2007, when the great financial recession hit. In the decade after NAFTA, the U.S. economy grew 44 percent, significantly faster than NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada. The U.S. Trade Representative said that during that decade, U.S. exports to Mexico and Mexico’s exports under NAFTA grew at similar rates—more than 200 percent. But of every $1 of Mexican exports that arrive in the United States, 40 cents comes from parts and materials made in the U.S. In a complex economy, it’s impossible to isolate one cause such as NAFTA for the economic boom, but it’s also impossible to argue that NAFTA crippled U.S. workers. The Democrats and Trump are just wrong about trade. And the Trans-Pacific Partnership is perhaps the best trade deal Washington ever negotiated, with unprecedented environmental and labor protections.
The distortions and lack of context have unfortunate consequences. After the 2014 mid-term election, I attended a Northwestern University event in Washington with a bunch of fellow alumni who were prominent reporters. Liz Bumiller of the New York Times was one of the panelists and asked why, when by every measure the economy was doing so much better than when Obama took office, he was such a drag on the party. The answers spewed forth: ISIS, the IRS scandal, Ebola. When it was time for audience questions, my question was: More people have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died from treating Ebola patients in the U.S. Do the media have any responsibility for distorting this and other issues?
Peter Alexander of NBC News, the moderator, said he wished he could take back some of the stories he did. He noted that high school students in Northern Virginia who lived 15 miles from Dulles Airport were treated for post-traumatic stress disorder because someone from Liberia might have disembarked a plane at Dulles. The students didn’t need to have contact with the person or even be at the airport. This is nuts, and the media are to blame.
A structural issue aggravates the media’s focus on the numerator. With 24 hours to fill, CNN and others fill it with all ISIS all the time or all Ebola all the time or all missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370 all the time – for weeks even though there was not a scintilla of anything new to report. This inflates issues out of all proportion and squeezes out time for stories about such things as steady job growth or retiring baby boomers being a big reason labor participation rates are down.
There’s yet another layer to all this. In 2005, Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay called On Bullshit. He wanted to create a theoretical understanding of the concept and cited everyone from St. Augustine to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-British philosopher.
Frankfurt wrote that, “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely-related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” The basic premise was that there is an important distinction between lying and bullshit. A liar knows what he is saying is false and tries to deceive the listener. A bullshitter doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not because the goal is not to deceive. Rather the goal is to convey an impression of the speaker – the perfect tactic for a narcissist or the loudmouth at a bar.
Frankfurt cites a book called The Prevalence of Humbug – a 1985 collection of essays written by Cornell University philosophy professor Max Black (1909-1988). It includes an account of a bombastic Fourth of July orator who talks about “our great and blessed country, whose founding fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” Frankfurt says the speaker doesn’t care whether the statements are true or whether the audience believes them. The speaker just wants the audience to consider him patriotic, sensitive to religion, and conscious of our history. It’s all about the speaker. Was this essay prescient or what?
Into all of this steps the mainstream press, which doesn’t fully understand what it is getting on the bottom of its shoes. I want to take the press to task for contributing to the mess we are in, but not for the conventional reasons. I think it is entirely unwarranted to criticize the press for getting the election wrong. For starters, it simply reports what the polls show.
The national polls actually were right. The Real Clear Politics average just before the election gave Clinton a 3.3 percent edge. The actual result was a 2.1 percent difference, not far off and certainly directionally correct. The slender margins in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were within the margin of error, though Michigan, which showed Clinton with a substantial lead, was not. The large crowds that Trump cited were not a good indicator. Mitt Romney had even larger crowds than Trump before getting trounced in 2012.
That said, the press has some ‘splainin to do. But a little context first. In the November 21, 2016, issue of The New Yorker, George Packer wrote that the press is “reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts.” That’s not a bad summary. Let’s look at reviled. A June 2016 Gallup survey of confidence in institutions showed the press beating only big business and Congress. Some 20 percent of respondents had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers, while 21 percent did for TV news. Big business came in at 18 percent. Congress didn’t make it into double digits, managing only 9 percent. Personally, I couldn’t believe it was that high. (At his January 16, 2017 news conference, Trump was wrong about this, too, when he said the media’s public approval is lower than that of Congress.)
Financially desperate also is on target. Labor Department data show newspapers lost 271,800 jobs between January 1990 and March 2016, or 60 percent of newsroom jobs. Magazines lost 52,800 jobs, or 36 percent, in that period. Jobs in broadcasting and Internet partially offset the hemorrhaging, rising from 30,000 to 198,000. But the figure overstates that surge because the industry category includes Internet directory publishing, book publishing, game sites, software publishing, maps, street guides, and atlases. How many of these workers actually produce news is unclear. This job loss has been an unmitigated disaster.
The fact that most news organizations are publicly held aggravates matters. One consequence: according to one polling specialist, Time magazine did not bankroll a single poll this election cycle, and the media financed fewer states polls. In September 2016, much too early for any poll to be dispositive, I saw a national poll on the tube, turned to my wife, and said I wished they would devote more time to meaningless relevant polls rather than meaningless irrelevant polls. After all, we vote by states so the national polls are irrelevant. But now I know why I didn’t see more meaningless relevant polls: there wasn’t money for them as the traditional ad revenue-based business model cratered.
When the L.A. Times, Washington Post and New York Times were privately owned by the Chandler, Graham, and Sulzberger families, respectively, they could be content with modest returns. The focus was as much on the mission as on the money. But when these companies are competing on public capital markets with the returns of a Microsoft or Apple, they are toast. With advertising declining and executives focusing on quarterly earnings and their fiduciary duty to shareholders, layoffs are inevitable. In contrast, Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013 has resulted in more staff and continued straight-shooting news coverage. It is a business model we should encourage, as are the non-profit ProPublica and the St. Petersburg Times. (I elaborate more on the Bezos experiment further down.)
The press is ‘reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts.’ – journalist George Packer writing in the November 21, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
The third leg of the analysis by The New Yorker’s George Packer concerned a crisis over the efficacy of gathering facts. Lucas Graves, a University of Wisconsin journalism professor, wrote a book (published in 2016) called, Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism. According to a review of the book in The Washington Post, Graves says the press faces a dilemma in fact-checking. Reporters are supposed to be objective instead of taking sides. And they typically have to ask both sides for comment. The Post abandoned its constant fact-checking of Ronald Reagan’s fictions because readers ignored the fact-checking, and the paper worried about a perception of partisanship. The paper figured it was up to the Democrats to correct the record. That is not a solution. The public can easily dismiss what Democrats say as partisan. The paper shirked its responsibility. The press needs to be the honest broker and arbiter of facts. There is not always equivalence. Some things are demonstrably false.
I admit to starting off with the naive notion that facts matter. I will never forget the look of utter sadness, bewilderment, and shaken faith on the face of Rachel McAdams’s mother in the wonderful movie Spotlight as she started reading an article about the abuses of her beloved Catholic church – a story reported and written with the rigor that then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron demanded. It was a movie, but it was not fiction. (Baron became editor of The Washington Post in December 2012, a position he still holds.)
But the press can shoot itself in the foot or even in the head. Consider Rolling Stone’s false University of Virginia rape story. Then there’s Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, Steven Glass of the New Republic, Jack Kelley of USA Today, and Brian Williams of NBC News – all of whom fabricated or plagiarized stories. These news outlets are all major, influential, and tarnished.
The balls syndrome
How does this happen? I suspect some of it has to do with journalistic biases, but I don’t mean the biases that most people talk about. There are two biases in particular that can get media outlets in trouble. The first is what I would call the balls syndrome. There usually is little penalty for a reporter being tough on someone in a story if you get something wrong (assuming no libel risk) because at least you had balls. Contrast that with being soft on someone and getting it wrong. Then you look like a shill. That’s much worse for your reputation in the newsroom.
Writing pieces which exonerate people – and I’ve done that – is much tougher than the hard-hitting piece. There is the fear among your editors that something you missed will come out the following day or week, and you – and your publication –will have egg all over your collective face. The truth is that printing those stories is really what takes balls. It also requires the same reporting and writing rigor Marty Baron demanded of the priest abuse story in the The Boston Globe. Both have to be bulletproof. Of course, all stories should be that way.
The second bias is the slogan I learned when I was in journalism school, that it is the role of the journalist to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Both of these biases were at play in the first question of the first Republican debate. John Harwood, a respected veteran reporter for CNBC, asked: “Mr. Trump, you’ve done very well by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it, send 11 million people out of the country, cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit, and make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others. Let’s be honest. Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”
The question afflicted a comfortable Donald Trump and comforted the afflicted who feared deportation. It also was a perfect example of how the press took Trump literally but not seriously while voters took him seriously but not literally. Harwood did this in a particularly off-putting way and made himself – rather than Trump – the issue.
Not only did Harwood turn off viewers (including me, and I was sympathetic to his premise) and make Trump look like the victim, he also fell into a trap Trump had laid. According to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the notorious right-wing website Trump aide Steve Bannon ran, thought he had a lot to learn from radical community organizer Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky (1909-1972) focused on provocations that would cause a reaction he could exploit to garner sympathy. Breitbart figured he could provoke his enemies into making mistakes and then exploit them. So when Trump makes preposterous statements and the press reacts loutishly, as Harwood did, Trump can pounce.
Some journalists think the way to deal with Trump is to pair whatever he tweets with mention of the story from which he is trying to distract attention. That would be a mistake. He would nail the press for trying to read his mind and crucify the press for its reaction: exactly the Breitbart strategy. Instead, just write the story Trump didn’t want to get attention and don’t tie it to the tweet.
Another way the press digs itself deeper into a hole is to be dismissive of those who believe fake news. Jim Warren, a respected veteran journalist, wrote on Poynter.org about “the stupidity of a growing number of Americans” who believe “goofy stories, the lies, the conspiracy theories that now routinely gain credibility among millions who can’t bother to read a decent paper or digital site and can’t differentiate between Breitbart and The New York Times.” When you start blaming your customers for your problems, it’s a problem. You need to probe why this phenomenon is occurring. And I have to say that the public had a better bullshit detector than the press if it took Trump seriously but not literally. His supporters never expected him to build a wall. They thought he told it like it is even if he didn’t mean what he said – a contradiction only a brilliant bullshit artist could pull off. But these voters see bullshit artists in bars every day and apparently have extra-large grains of salt in their diets.
While I think Trump is an effective marketer, a clueless low-life, and someone I could never vote for, it’s ridiculous to say all his supporters are stupid. He cobbled together Republicans who could never vote for a Democrat, Hillary haters, people who merely didn’t trust Hillary, people who wanted to oust a dysfunctional establishment, people left behind by globalization and technology, bigots, xenophobes, nationalists, misogynists, people affected by the cognitive biases I have mentioned, and, no doubt, some people who are stupid. I have no idea what percentage of Trump supporters each of these groups constitutes. But calling them all stupid is wrong. Dismissing them as ignorant is an excuse for the press to avoid looking in the mirror to see its own warts.
Finally, the press talks incessantly about Trump’s relations with the press and his name-calling. It comes across as self-important navel-gazing. If the press is worried about this, relegate it to the half-hour Sunday shows about the media. Don’t have panel after panel discussing it. Don’t serve as a megaphone by repeating his message. He is playing the media yet again and the media are taking the bait.
The bullshit meter
Having said all this, what gives me reason for hope?
Reason No. 1: While cognitive dissonance is powerful, the Rutgers professors found that when dissonance grows too large, the blocking of evidence reverses itself, and the initial decision is revised in line with external evidence. Facts do matter.
Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein and Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, wrote a piece in the New York Times with similar good news about how three groups of people – strong believers in man-made climate change, moderate believers, and weak believers – reacted to good and bad news about climate change. In the initial portion of the experiment, the groups received an anchor – the information that scientists believe the average temperature in the U.S. will rise at least six degrees by 2100 – and the experimenters asked participants for their estimates. They came in at predictable levels, given their sentiments.
Then participants were randomly assigned to get either more encouraging news about the environment or more negative news and asked to revise their own estimates. Weak believers were moved by the good news and reduced their estimates, but were unmoved by bad news. Stronger believers were moved a lot by bad news and less by good news. Moderate believers were moved equally by both kinds of news. The important point is that a large majority showed movement. Few people were impervious to new information. Facts do matter.
Finally, there is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which stems from a series of experiments conducted in 1999 at Cornell University by psychologist David Dunning, a Cornell professor at the time, and then-Cornell social psychology Ph.D. student Justin Kruger. The experiments illustrated that low-ability individuals suffered from an illusion of superiority, which prevented them from recognizing their own incompetence.
That phenomenon applied to the 2016 presidential election. Dunning, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, wrote in Politico that the problem wasn’t that voters were too uninformed but rather that they didn’t know how uninformed they were. They didn’t understand the holes in their expertise.Voters didn’t hold Trump accountable for gaffes because they didn’t know they were gaffes.
Dunning noted some recent experiments that asked political partisans to rate their understanding of such issues as sanctions on Iran, a flat tax, and a single-payer health system. The respondents expressed a lot of confidence in their knowledge until the researchers started asking them to describe in detail the mechanics of policies. The respondents realized their understanding was mostly an illusion, and they moderated their stances, donating less money earned in the experiment to political advocacy groups they favored. Again, facts do matter.
And finally, I would note Trump’s abysmal initial approval ratings. According to a Gallup poll, his overall rating has dropped five percentage points since the inauguration to the lowest rating on record for a president at this point. And while he won 48 percent of independent votes, his support among independents has plummeted to 35 percent, according to Gallup. The ratings may be based on missteps, on wrong-headed policies, on the endless stream of falsehoods emanating from the White House, or on some combination. But maybe this too is evidence that facts matter.
Reason No. 2: Truthful reporting has consequences. General Michael Flynn is no longer the National Security Adviser after the media reported accurately that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with Russians and discussed sanctions with them. A candidate to succeed him turned down the position because, as the press has accurately reported, the White House national security machinery is in chaos rather than the well-oiled machine Trump says it is. In addition, Secretary of Labor-designee Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration after truthful reporting about his employment of an undocumented worker. Facts do matter.
Reason No. 3: As I noted, concern with compositional amenities is inversely related to education levels. And those levels are rising. In 1940, 5.5 percent of men held college degrees, and 3.8 percent of women did. In 2015, the figure was 32.3 percent for men and 32.7 percent for women. If the cost of college gets under control, those numbers will continue to rise. That will reduce the fissures in the different ways Americans react to diversity.
Reason No. 4: “Remember the Maine?” Yellow journalists – William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – used that irresponsible phrase to blame Spain (without proof) for the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, which precipitated the Spanish-American War. The U.S. has exhibited irresponsibility and resorted to fake news – think Senator Joseph McCarthy – in the past, and we recovered from it. My hope is that the pendulum will swing again.
Since the election, according to the New York Times, subscriptions have risen for publications such as The Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and the New Yorker. Non-profits such as National Public Radio and ProPublica report big boosts in subscription rates or donations. People realize that you get what you pay for and the notion of getting free news on the web is neither a sustainable nor a desirable business model.
Reason No. 5: Patient, private capital. Jeff Bezos’s 2013 purchase of The Washington Post offers a back-to-the-future solution, one that demonstrates the benefits of private ownership and patient capital whose vision extends considerably further than the next quarter. An analysis by Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy shows that Bezos increased newsroom staff to 700 from 600 and hired 35 more engineers. Traffic on its website rose to 66.9 million unique visitors in October 2015, surpassing the New York Times and a 59 percent increase over the previous year, according to Kennedy. Traffic continued to rise, posting a 30 percent increase in April 2016 over the previous year, according to the New York Times. Bezos was willing to make investments in technology, which bean-counters at public companies typically don’t do.
Bezos media model
The conventional wisdom holds that big investments in the web won’t pay off for a stark reason. Kennedy quotes Nicco Mele, the former senior vice-president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, as saying that a print ad reaching 500,000 people brings in revenue of around $50,000, while a programmatic ad served up by Google reaching the same number of people on the same newspaper’s website might bring in no more than $20. It’s not easy to make up that gigantic differential.
But Kennedy argues it’s possible if Bezos overturns the traditional business model. Under the traditional model, print ads made a lot of money per reader on a relatively small number of readers. In the future, Bezos said he wants the Post to make less money per reader on many more readers. So the Post is uploading content on Facebook’s Instant Articles, Apple News, and Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). He is improving the Post’s quality and, thus, its brand to attract paying subscribers to its website and apps, which are more lucrative than Google searches. Kennedy says Bezos also is positioning himself to exploit revenue sources that don’t now exist. And the Post wants to sell some of its technology innovations to other publications to make money and make content-sharing easier.
Bezos fosters experimentation, which is clearly healthy. But more than that, he understands the journalistic enterprise. Kennedy cites a Bezos quotation: “I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”
And at a conference in late May 2016, according to the New York Times, Bezos said he bought the Post because he wanted to make it into a more powerful national — and even global — publication, and that The Post was well situated to be a watchdog over the leaders of the world’s most powerful country. That was when Barack Obama was president and Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite to succeed him. It was hardly an anti-Trump partisan observation.
If Bezos strengthens the Post’s journalism, keeps it factual, and expands readership significantly, he could achieve two fabulous goals. One would be finding a viable and sustainable business model for quality journalism. And if the reader base is big enough, he could draw from both Fox News and MSNBC partisans, bridging the gap that has divided the country for too long. Once these partisans start understanding the world from the same fact base, as they once did, we can start to heal as a nation.
The St. Petersburg Times and ProPublica also benefit from not being public. But they are exceptions. What we need are more buyers with Bezos’s even-handed ethos, a willingness to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Indeed, I have not noticed any changes editorially in the Post since Bezos bought it. Its editorial page remains moderate to conservative, and its news columns let the chips fall where they may.
Bezos understands the journalistic enterprise: ‘…the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.’
Is this a model others could follow? Obviously with its prominence and size, the Post is not like every other paper. But precisely because of that, what Bezos has to do is expensive. Comedian Stephen Wright once said: “The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Bezos is willing and able to be the innovator and first adopter. Others can benefit from his risk-taking and be later adopters, buying the technology and adopting his approach without spending to develop them. So others may be able to exploit his cost-saving and revenue-generating techniques at far lower cost.
My last topic: What should the press do?
No. 1: More Denominator – The 24-hour news cycle has become a structural problem when it should be an opportunity. With all this time available and the capacity of the web to eliminate the physical space limitations of print publications, journalists have the opportunity to help the public understand policy and news events in unprecedented ways. Instead of the pap we get, journalists should provide context—the denominator.
Take the economic recovery. The recovery is slow by historical standards, but only if you are looking at business cycle recessions and recoveries. This was a financial-crash induced recession, not a business cycle recession, and business cycle recessions correct themselves much faster. When you compare it with other financial crises, the downward dip was huge, and the turn in employment and growth was comparatively swift. Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart of Harvard in their book, This Time is Different, wrote about eight centuries of financial follies. In 2007, the finance wizards said yet again this time was different, just like the dot.com folks in 2001. The point of the book is that it never is. The result always is disaster.
I read that book, and I read behavioral economists so that I could bring perspective to what I was writing when I was a columnist for Investopedia and TheStreet.com. I felt this was important. I could give readers something they didn’t see elsewhere. But that shouldn’t have been the case. Anyone could pick up these books or call the authors. Others should have written the same kind of piece to show that with the proper baseline, this recovery was rapid.
And while growth is slow by past business cycle recession standards, that’s also because U.S. export markets around the globe are in a tailspin. The U.S. is doing much better than our peers in Europe and Japan. But again, the media don’t provide that context. When I hear Obama’s critics say he hasn’t had a 3 percent growth year during his two terms, they are correct. But it’s like my wife saying I never passed the bar when I never took it. What she says is absolutely true and utterly misleading.
This is not about taking sides. I think journalists should have asked why prosecutors allowed Hillary Clinton’s lawyers to decide which emails to turn over when there was no claim of privilege. After all, her point was there were no classified documents on her server. Would mobster John Gotti have gotten that treatment? The cops would have showed up with a warrant and taken all the hardware and software in Gotti’s office and home.
No. 2: A New Model – More and more media outlets are cutting staff and increasing the workload of those who remain, requiring them to do videos, write online, and meet print deadlines. When will they have the time or financial resources to do the necessary legwork to provide evidence, facts, and context?
My idea, which I have suggested to a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, my alma mater, is that the dozen or so most prominent journalism schools band together in a cooperative, much like the Associated Press, and sell their stories for nominal amounts to publications. The schools are in major cities both here and abroad. The costs are fixed and funded. Professors are seasoned professionals who can work with the students on story development and edit their work. The school can use WebEx or something similar for story meetings. Students can take turns administering the distribution of stories and story repositories – a marketable skill. These could be the stories that get the facts and context right.
A while after I mentioned the idea, I read in the Northwestern alumni magazine that 20 Northwestern students recently helped Pulitzer-Prize-winning Chicago Tribune reporter David Jackson with an investigation of hog confinement and the environmental effects of waste spills, which have killed more than 492,000 fish in a nine-year period. As part of a class, the students built a database of hog confinements in Illinois, compiled field notes, filed Freedom of Information requests, checked court documents, and tracked down other sources. The result was a 4,000-word report that highlighted weak oversight of the industry. To my amazement, at least part of my idea is not half-baked and already has been piloted.
No. 3: Stop Chasing the Shiny Ball – In particular, Trump tweets. They are like snapchats with no lasting effect or value. He rescinds them by the end of the 140 characters or within 24 minutes or 24 hours. They are meaningless. In the past, when a president’s words followed deliberation and thoughtful consideration, you covered them. They had policy consequences. This goes against every journalistic instinct, but Trump’s words, unlike those of previous presidents, don’t matter. (Foreign leaders, please bear this in mind.) Trump's words tell you something about his rather reprehensible personality, but not what he will do. Don’t cover them.
He is simply playing the press. He did so throughout the primaries and the general election, making outrageous comments that got him millions of dollars’ worth of free airtime and making him seem transparent and accessible. He continues to play the press, tweeting, for example, that he knows something about Russian hacking that no one else does. And the press continues to bite for this BS.
Consultant Brad Todd, who coined the phrase that the press takes Trump literally but not seriously, and voters take him seriously but not literally, advocates that the press stop chasing his tweets. I emailed him after he posted that idea on CNN.com. I said he proposed what the press should not do, then asked him what the press should do. He said report on what Trump does, not on what he says. That makes sense. (Lord knows Trump is doing enough to keep reporters busy writing about what his administration is doing, from the travel ban to the environmental safeguards his Environmental Protection Agency is angling to repeal.) While he is following up on some of what he says (the travel ban), he is abandoning other pronouncements (jailing Clinton and his foreign policy stances on one China, Israeli settlements, and ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, to name just a few examples). There is no way to predict whether a tweet will become policy.
When Trump delivers information about hacking that no one else knows, write about it. Until then, write about other things. Only 16 percent of the population uses Twitter. Trump has maybe 18 million followers. Repeating Trump’s tweets amplifies their reach enormously, makes unserious things serious, and does not serve the public well. On January 17, 2017, New York Times columnist David Brooks said he would take this approach. “I’m going to try to respond only to what he does, not what he says or tweets,” Brooks wrote. “I really wish some of my media confreres would do the same.”
As an aside, Trump’s tweets clearly are an attempt to bypass the press and yet use the press to get the message out more widely – a shrewdly-executed paradox.
No. 4: Fight Fire with Fire – According to a piece in the New York Times, fake news sites in Central Europe found out that when they put Clinton in the headlines, they got little traffic. When they put Trump in the headlines, traffic surged. Straight media should use search engine optimization for the same results. Using algorithms to get factual stories at the top of Google searches has to be a priority.
There must be more to the strategy than search engine optimization, however. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Google’s algorithms are seriously flawed. When Dylann Roof – who shot and killed nine blacks praying in a Charleston, S.C. church on June 17, 2015 – Googled black-on-white crime prior to the shootings, the SPLC says that the first site which came up was that of the Council of Conservative Citizens. It had pages and pages of alleged black-on-white crimes which stirred Roof’s emotions, the SPLC says.
Making matters worse, once you go to such a site, Google’s algorithms lead you to more sites that align with your preferences. Getting L.L. Bean on your list after an Eddie Bauer purchase makes sense, of course. But feeding distortions and incitement is quite another matter. You get into a vicious cycle of seeing more and more of this destructive balderdash. New Nation News, a different racist site, is still at the top of the Google list when you type in Roof’s search words. Similarly, when Trump was doing his victory rallies, my wife Googled leadership rallies and what came up were sites about Nazi rallies.
Google is taking some steps to reduce the depravity. It is depriving false news sites of ad revenue, which is helpful even if the sites simply pop up again in a new form. But it has to go further and change its algorithms. The SPLC said it went to Google at one point because typing in Jew immediately brought up virulently anti-Semitic sites. Google adjusted the algorithm to avoid that. According to a techie I know who works on search engine optimization, Google has an in-house process that enables manual action when someone spots something improper popping up from an innocuous search.
But it would be better to rely on a systemic change rather than ad hoc fixes. According to the techie, Google relies on two factors to determine where a link ends up on a search: relevance and credibility. Relevance ends up taking precedence. A major factor in relevance is time spent on a site. So someone might spend a lot of time on a racist site dealing with black-on-white crime that repeats the phrase often and less time on the Justice Department site with actual statistics on black-on-white crime and a lot of other information, meaning that the phrase (“black-on-white crime”) does not appear as often.
As a result, the racist site will appear higher on the search page. And if that site gets cross-referenced by other racist sites, it also will get high marks for credibility, cementing its position. Maybe credibility, in the sense of factual accuracy, needs to take precedence over relevance in a systemic way, at least for those hot-button issues. Google needs to turn this algorithm sword into a plowshare.
Another way to fight fire with fire is repetition. For those old enough to remember, every night during the Carter administration’s Iran hostage crisis – which lasted 444 days between November 4, 1979 and January 20, 1981 – the network news shows would announce, for example, “Day 200 of the hostage crisis”, then Day 201, then Day 202. Trump’s Inauguration Day on January 20, 2017 was Day 584 since he announced in June 2015 that he was running for the presidency. Now, I think every medium should post the following message every day until Trump releases his tax returns: “Today is Day XXX since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president and has been holding his tax returns hostage.”
For good measure, accompany the number of days with a list of candidates who released returns under audit. This is not taunting, though it may be guerrilla warfare. There is a legitimate news reason. The taxes are the only way to see whether Trump is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution or bribery laws. He may not have investments in Russia, but he has done business with oligarchs who have bailed out some of his investments. So he owes them big time. The repetition will lead to familiarity, credibility, and positive feelings about the need to release the documents. It will mean the normalization, once again, of what had been a standard practice.
What will be normal in the near term is, of course, a major question. The media will have to be flexible, innovative, and thoughtful to address unprecedented challenges. It has to understand its customers in ways it has not had to in the past.
I have to admit some trepidation for the Republic, and I do not say that from a partisan standpoint. I think the first George Bush was the best one-term president in history. He kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and had the good sense not to go to Baghdad. He dealt deftly with the reunification of Germany. And he made the politically courageous and politically suicidal decision to raise taxes because it was in the nation’s interest, if not in his own political interest. How many politicians are that altruistic today?
And I think history will treat President Obama extremely well. He brought the country and the world back from the brink of economic collapse. He saved Detroit. He got the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Play Act passed. He nailed Osama bin Laden. He had the guts to abandon the Washington playbook and not take the bait that his credibility was at stake when he drew a line in the sand for Bashar Assad and Assad crossed it. Obama didn’t launch a military strike. Instead he achieved his end – getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons – through negotiation. Obama got rid of Iran’s nuclear capability, signed progressive trade deals, and negotiated a great climate deal. And he was scandal-free.
While I canvassed for Democrats in 2016 – I departed full-time journalism more than a decade ago – I remain eclectic. I have written exculpatory stories about both a Democrat, Bill Clinton, and a Republican, Scooter Libby. Libby always has insisted on his innocence and in November 2016 received vindication when the District of Columbia Bar reinstated his law license, and the Disciplinary Counsel concluded that he “presented credible evidence in support of his version of events.”
My trepidation stems from the fact that I don’t think any Trump policy is baked. Trump has no core values, principles, or policies so we have limited insight into what he will do. But as an optimist, I think that things are never as good as you hope or as bad as you fear.
I have a concern that is deeper than policy or politics, though. It concerns systemic, fundamental questions about whether there is truth, whether it is possible to ascertain it, and whether it is possible to have a consensus on it. My answer to all three is an emphatic yes. We did once before and we must again.
As voters, we need to know what’s true and what’s not. And sound government policy needs a factual basis. This requires restoration of traditional journalistic values while journalists become more creative and understand their audience better – not to pander to them but to convey information in meaningful ways that readers and viewers will absorb. This will not be easy. Nothing of this magnitude, nothing so vital, or indeed indispensable, ever is.
Editor’s Note: Our guest columnist Mel Solman is a Montreal-born writer and teacher who lives in Toronto and has a great number of worried American cousins.
Open concept living space is the perfect metaphor for the times – the destruction of private space. Who needs a place where you can close a door, have a private thought, think, analyze, reflect, judge with evidence? Instead, just tear everything down. Everything open.
The implications of this mean everything is mixed and blurred. Show business and politics. Academia and popular culture. Open concept. No use for the evil binaries anymore – good and bad, truth and lies. Everything is open, confused. The living room, the dining room, the kitchen all run into each other. Who needs walls, privacy, and quiet places in which to be separate, alone and thoughtful? To envisage consequences for actions.
The late Marshall McLuhan, my University of Toronto professor who was internationally renowned for his studies about the effects of mass media on thought and behaviour, warned that this was coming. The loss of privacy and private spaces. The loss of spaces in which to read and think and the destruction of the desire to do so. No private space, no deep reading, no thinking, analysis, perspective, nor real understanding. Even those living areas with doors have huge flat screens. Not a book in sight.
“You can be very smart but have no brains” (as my grandma would say) applies to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. They manifest the mentality of “open concept living space” – entertainment AND politics, expert AND showman. Worst of all, the standards applied to showbiz are blurred into the standards for political life. In other words, no standards. Anything goes. Kitchen and living room AND bedroom. Entertainment and politics.
And you reap what you sow. How many politicians in the past resigned for an error of judgment or for a horrible action or an intemperate utterance? How many think of doing so now when it’s all just showbiz – one big reality show of the vulgar, the immature, the stupid who “we the people” judge by television standards and expect little of.
Dare to hope people get the irony? Bring back the walls. Between politicians and entertainers. Between truth and lies. Between good and evil.
Police officer Kasandra Galarneau is the epitome of maternal care as she lovingly pets a raccoon she rescued from traffic while he slurps his way through a blueberry smoothie laid out for him on the sidewalk under a blazing mid-morning September sun.
Galarneau, 24 and less than two years on the Montreal police force, patrols a lot of territory from her post at Station 20, which covers downtown Montreal and Mount Royal Park, a 200-hectare oasis of verdancy built on an extinct volcano, which is Montreal’s highest spot, boasting a lookout 234 metres high.
Rocky (my unoriginal nickname for him) could not have picked a better spot to be rescued than Cedar Avenue, which runs in front of the Montreal General Hospital and on the side of Mount Royal – which just happens to be on Galarneau’s run. So there she was in a flash after receiving a call in her patrol car that a citizen had reported a raccoon in the middle of Cedar Avenue, trapped by two-way traffic and falling over when he tried to walk away.
When I arrived on the scene a few minutes later, Galarneau had already stopped traffic to pick up about 40 pounds of Rocky in her arms and carry him to safety on the sidewalk. At 5 foot, 8 inches and 125 pounds, Galarneau may look like a delicate, willowy blonde model, but don’t be fooled: she’s a throwback to the coureurs des bois, those hardy French fur traders of the 17th and 18th century who explored much of North America, opening trade routes all the way down to New Orleans and Mobile on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Just ask her boxing coach, Francis Lafrenière, himself Canadian middleweight boxing champion and International Boxing Federation champion in the 160-pound weight class. “She’s a good boxer,” Lafrenière told me in a telephone interview. She has a good right hand that can put unsuspecting opponents to sleep, what’s known in French as “la force de frappe.”
She’s been training (along with six other women) at Club de Boxe Lafrenière in St. Clet (about 30 miles west of Montreal) for 1 ½ years, two or three times per week, 90 minutes per session. She’s an all-around athlete who runs, lifts weights and plays defense in a women’s hockey league.
Of two amateur bouts in 2015, she won one on points and the second by knockout. Her coach describes her as “hard working and nice,” but says once in the ring, she is “a rough character.”
Lafrenière wants to schedule more bouts for Galarneau, but time is tight these days because of her heavy police workload, he tells me. When I ask whether she comes from an athletic family, he says he doesn’t know because “she isn’t much of a talker”.
But on Rocky Raccoon Rescue Day, Galarneau is all smiles when I ask about the effort she made not only to save Rocky, but to make sure he was going to be checked out and returned to his home on nearby Mount Royal.
Rocky loves his smoothie
She tells me she thinks Rocky was sideswiped by a car while crossing the road earlier, which explained why he kept falling down when trying to make his way to the sidewalk and back into the nearby protective forest bordering the slope of Mount Royal. But now as we observe Rocky finishing off his smoothie, he seems to have come to his senses and is walking well, with no apparent injury to his paws.
In fact, he is becoming so frisky that Galarneau worries he will amble back on to the road. So once again – unlike any other woman I know – she scoops up this docile, muscular raccoon with ease and gently places him on the back seat of her cruiser.
She volunteers that this is the first time she has ever been called to rescue an animal, adding that she has a German Shepherd as a pet, what she calls a “classic” breed of dog. Galarneau, a 2010 honours student who studied police technology in a three-year course at English-language John Abbott College, switches effortlessly between her French mother tongue and English.
As we wait for an SPCA truck to arrive so Rocky can be checked out for what appears to have been a concussion, I think of the daily headlines I hear and see from our American neighbors, concerning the numerous shootings of civilians by law enforcement officers in that country.
Fire first, question later
The Washington Post published a story on December 26, 2015, citing 965 civilians fatally shot by American police officers in 2015. Newfoundland math professor Tom Baird, who also writes a column for The Independent.ca online news publication, estimated in an April 14, 2015 article – based on available statistics – that 25 civilians are shot and killed annually by police forces across Canada. Fatal police shootings in Europe, Australia and Japan are much lower than even that, he reported.
Taking into account that the U.S. population is 10 times greater than that of Canada’s, there is still a tremendous discrepancy between the two neighboring countries in the per capita ratio of incidents in which police use deadly force.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says the problem with American police forces is a lack of funding to train officers in the emotional and psychological aspects of using force and to sensitize them about the social consequences on police-community relations when they do end up using deadly force on civilians.
In a 2014 interview with journalist Paul Waldman and published by The American Prospect, Haberfeld said U.S. police training “is focused completely on the technical aspect of the use of deadly force.”
Average training of police in the U.S. is 15 weeks, Haberfeld said in the 2014 interview. “Fifteen weeks is nothing. Police forces in other countries have twice, three times as long training as we have here….We are saving money on police training, saying that it's very expensive to have longer training. And I think it's irresponsible in a democratic society to say that a profession that has the authority to use deadly force, we just should shorten the training because a longer training is too expensive. Basically, what we're doing is putting a dollar sign on people's lives, both police officers and members of the public.”
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says in addition to the basic recruit training cited above, American police trainees receive an additional eight weeks of field training, but Haberfeld told me in a September 26, 2016 email interview that only the larger American police departments can afford field training.
“The small ones, which constitute over 90 percent of the police departments around the country, mostly cannot even afford field training because they have too few officers,” Haberfeld said, citing Finland and Ireland as two of the countries with the best training models for police.
Finland is tops for cops
The Police College of Finland offers (in Finnish and Swedish) a three-year bachelor’s degree in policing, as well as a master’s degree in policing and further specialized studies. Both Finland and Ireland have also introduced more integrated training that requires interaction with professionals dealing with the psychological aspects of using force.
The Irish Times published a story on April 23, 2015 pointing out that police training in Ireland, which dates back to 1786, started a new BA in Applied Policing in 2014 based on problem-based learning. It has been accredited by the Law School at the University of Limerick. The Irish Times further reported that the new training embedded human rights and ethical policing as a core program outcome. “It ensures that ethics, human rights, values and community are considered in the management of all policing situations,” the newspaper said.
In the U.S., police training varies from state to state, but college or university diplomas are not mandatory. However, some federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Air Marshal Service, do require a three- or four-year undergraduate diploma from a college or university accredited by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
The standards for police training in Canada also vary from province to province, but Haberfeld told BestStory.ca that the Canadian “training approaches are considered to be among the best in the world.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s national police force, has a 26-week training program at the RCMP Academy in Regina, but unlike some police forces in Canada, it requires candidates only to have a high school leaving certificate; not a college or university diploma.
The Ontario Provincial Police has a 20-week training program, and, like the RCMP, requires potential recruits to have only a high school leaving certificate.
Quebec knows how
Quebec has higher academic standards specifically geared towards police work, requiring those wishing to join any police force in the province to take a three-year police technology program at a recognized college and then pass a 15-week training program at the National Police Academy of Quebec (NPAQ) in Nicolet, 95 miles northeast of Montreal.
NPAQ spokeswoman Andrée Doré told BestStory.ca in separate September 23, 2016 phone and email interviews that the three-year police technology programs in Quebec colleges offer 1,665 hours of training, followed by 485 more hours at NAPQ if the students are subsequently accepted into that institution.
Dorée emphasized that NPAQ cadets are drilled about techniques and protocols in dealing with civilians suffering from mental health issues. The NPAQ modules employ case studies, as well as theoretical and interactive exercises for dealing with such scenarios. As part of their training, the NPAQ uses what Doré calls the “national model” favored by police forces across Canada to determine under what circumstances the use of deadly force is justified.
“They’re (police cadets) taught that the choice to use deadly force should only be made after the situation has been analyzed, taking into account the behavior of the subject and tactical considerations,” Dorée said, adding that the objective is to teach police cadets how to de-escalate a tense situation through communication and, if necessary, through the use of non-lethal force to subdue the subject.
As I and Agent Galarneau continue to await the SPCA’s arrival, I mull over the irony that this animal rescue operation is taking place near the slope of Mount Royal Park, which was designed by famous 19th century American landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted, who also planned New York City’s Central Park, along with architect Calvert Vaux.
Olmsted (1822-1903) lived in an era of massive transformation of North American society from rural, agricultural communities into predominantly urban, industrialized living spaces. A descendent of the New England Pilgrims, Olmsted battled to make natural green spaces available to poor people within urban settings in an effort to compensate for the onerous employment and living conditions of workers during and immediately after the Industrial Revolution.
Poor get shot more
It is from the same lower socio-economic class that Olmsted tried to help that most current victims of fatal police shootings originate, often as a result of despair or fear, stereotypes and poor communication.
Professor Haberfeld told me that the real cause for the plethora of police shootings in the U.S. is inadequate training and the burgeoning prevalence of guns on the streets, which makes police officers ever more fearful for their lives.
However, in a July 13, 2016 interview published by The Atlantic, Donald Grady II, a retired police chief with the City of Santa Fe, N.M. and later at Northern Illinois University, said the underlying cause of multiple shootings by U.S. police officers is bad recruitment, rather than bad training.
“This is not a training issue,” Grady II told journalist Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. “This is an issue of who it is that we’ve decided we would allow to police our country,” citing his theory that police forces are hiring candidates who have aggressive personalities, rather than seeking out “more cerebral, more sensitive, empathetic, rational” people with college or university training.
“We’re screening in people that are too aggressive and less cerebral,” he said in The Atlantic interview. In a previous July 9, 2016 interview with the same journalist and magazine, Grady II, who happens to be black, said police are especially aggressive when dealing with minorities. “That’s not an illusion on the part of minority communities,” he said. “That’s real,” citing “numerous” times he was stopped when out of uniform by police claiming unjustifiably that they suspected he had committed some kind of violation with his car.
As I consider how difficult and dangerous are the challenges faced by police officers these days, I can’t help but think that both Haberfeld and Grady II are touching upon core issues underlying the myriad of fatal shootings by police across America. Upon taking leave of Agent Galarneau for my nearby hospital appointment, I ask whether I can call her later to inquire about Rocky. She gives me her number at the police station and says to leave a message if she is not there and she will call back.
True to her word, she calls back within minutes later the same day with the happy tidings that Rocky Raccoon has received a clean bill of health and has been returned to his habitat in Mount Royal Park to be reunited with his presumed family.
In my mind, I give thanks for Rocky’s good fortune and for my own in living in a country with strict gun controls where the overwhelming majority of police officers are well trained and, like Kasandra Galarneau, are dedicated to protecting the public, (including our four-footed friends), showing respect and keeping their promises.
Back in the early 1970s, the father of future career journalist Darrell Laurant could have been forgiven for wondering aloud about the value of his young son’s college diploma as he watched a dogged tired Darrell drag himself to their Lake George. N.Y. summer home every night after washing dishes at a restaurant and operating the Ferris wheel in the local amusement park.
His dad, Frank Laurant, an executive with a Glens Falls, N.Y. insurance company, had expectations that his son would end up in a career using his brain rather than his brawn after Darrell graduated with a major in history from Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, N.C.
In a recent telephone interview, Darrell, a new contributor to BestStory.ca, recalled with a laugh his father, a disciplinarian who had served in the U.S. Air Force during the Second World War, telling him: “Imagine where you would be if we hadn’t put you through college,” meaning he didn’t think his son’s career prospects were looking that rosy even with a college diploma under his belt.
Darrell was able to rationalize his predicament by reminding himself that the other fellow washing dishes with him as a summer job at the local Howard Johnson’s restaurant was a philosophy major from Penn State. “I’m learning about life,” he mustered up the courage to tell his dad, as if to say all the drudgery was simply fodder for his future career as a writer.
And, considering the trajectory of that career, he wasn’t wrong. One thing that could be stated with certainty was that Darrell always had a curiosity about life, a love of writing and an entrepreneurial streak, starting at age 8 when he wrote short stories and mimeographed his own one-sheet newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y. selling it to neighbors for a nickel each.
In college, he covered sports part-time for a weekly called the West Columbus-Cayce Journal (now defunct) while working in the emergency room of the local hospital, where the cops would share information about injuries sustained in shootouts and car wrecks, never realizing they were speaking to a journalist – albeit a stringer for a weekly.
Of course, all those guts-and-blood yarns ended up in the West Columbus-Cayce Journal, much to the consternation of the much larger Columbia State daily paper. Funny thing was that every time a journalist from the Columbia State called the hospital’s ER to try to get their own stories, they were passed to a young intern by the name of Darrell, who politely told them that he was not permitted to release confidential information about patients.
For a young man with moxie and chutzpah, Darrell’s next career move in 1974 seemed logical: why not start a magazine titled South Carolina Sport with another journalist who, when he was not covering sports, was working in the U.S. Navy aboard a nuclear submarine. Darrell figured his journalist buddy would be the perfect business partner – lots of money from a deferred salary and nowhere to spend it during his six-month stints aboard a submarine.
They made good use of his friend’s payments from Uncle Sam, putting out a high-quality sports magazine, which, unfortunately, couldn’t attract enough advertising to keep it going beyond the first year.
So it was back to daily journalism, first as a sportswriter with the News & Courier in Charleston, S.C., and then in 1977 with The News and Advance in Lynchburg, a Virginia town with a population of about 80,000. Darrell started as a sports writer in Lynchburg, but by 1981 he was also writing a local column, where his eye for detail served him well. (You can read Darrell’s profile at www.beststory.ca)
He had offers over the years to join larger newspapers, for example in Pittsburgh, but by then he and his wife, Gail, a Utica, N.Y. lass, had started a family (two children and currently four grandchildren) and found Lynchburg to be a safe, affordable community to live in. So he spent the next 36 years of his career at The News and Advance, but kept his hand in freelancing, writing more than 150 articles for magazines and websites across America.
Within a year of his retiring in 2013, he had published his first novel and, true to his entrepreneurial roots, he started a free marketing service for book authors called Snowflakes in a Blizzard – snowflakesarise.wordpress.com.
Every Tuesday, his digital blog publishes a new entry promoting an author’s book, replete with photos of the cover and the author, a summary of the book and other sections titled: The Back Story; Why This Title? and Why Someone Would Want To Read It. In addition, the write-up contains reviews of the book by other authors, as well as an author profile, comments by the author about the world of writing, and a sample chapter.
All his years of organizing and writing stories for mainstream media have given Darrell the eye and experience needed to put together such an innovative and detailed promotional service for book authors.
Many of the authors promoted on his site have found that their exposure on Snowflakes in a Blizzard enticed readers to look them up and purchase their books on the Amazon.com site, where with 12 million publications listed, it’s easy for unknown authors to get lost in the digital maze if readers do not know to look specifically for their page.
After he retired in 2013, Darrell, his wife and Darrell’s mother, Juanita, retired to the brick-and-wood split-level house which Juanita and her husband, Frank (who passed away in 2001), had built as their retirement home in Lake George way back in 1973.
And guess what? The man who was mayor in 1973 – Robert Blais – was still king of the proverbial castle when Darrell moved back some four decades later. The old newspaper instincts quickly engulfed Darrell, who interviewed the still-energetic mayor as part of a profile he wrote for BestStory.ca about both the mayor and the town of Lake George.
Darrell’s colorful story is entertaining and packed with information for people interested in rustic beauty, vacation destinations, and history. Of course, any tourist destination which can boast of ghost sightings is a sure-fire magnet for real adventurers. And so it was that I called Paul Rutherford, an Albany-based author and filmmaker who produced a one-hour documentary about Lake George in 2012, which ran on a local NBC affiliate a year later.
Rutherford, who spent every summer at Lake George between age 16 and his early 20s and who bought a house there 10 years ago, made sure his documentary captured not just the scenic beauty of the Adirondack Mountain resort, but its history, including the famous hotels frequented – and residences owned – by wealthy Americans who travelled there every summer in the late 19th century and 20th century via the Delaware and Hudson (D & H) Railroad.
The D & H abandoned its Lake George branch in 1958, by which time automobiles had supplanted train travel for many tourists who took advantage of the interstate highway system built during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
(Interestingly, given the long-held affinity of Quebec and Ontario residents for Lake George vacations, the D & H – known as “The Bridge Line to New England and Canada” – was purchased in 1991 by Canadian Pacific Railway, which, in turn, sold it to Virginia-based Norfolk Southern in the fall of 2015. As of February 2016, CP Railway and Norfolk Southern were in merger talks.)
Rutherford told me that during the filming of his documentary, On the Lake, he interviewed employees at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center, who told of seeing full-bodied ghosts of soldiers supposedly killed during and after the siege of Fort William Henry in August 1757 by French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. Montcalm’s siege was part of the French and Indian War waged in North America between Britain and France.
(This North American conflict was itself part of the world’s first global conflict known as The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) pitting Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and, eventually, Spain. In addition to North America, they fought in Europe, India and on the high seas. It ended with The Treaty of Paris in 1763, by which France ceded Canada to Britain in return for the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon.)
The original Fort William Henry, which stood at the southern end of Lake George (near where the current hotel stands), was the scene of a massacre when Montcalm’s 2,000 Huron Indian allies violated a safe passage pledge given by Montcalm to British troops and their civilian dependents after they surrendered and exited the fort without ammunition en route to British-held Fort Edward near Glens Falls, N.Y.
It’s not known exactly how many British soldiers were killed and scalped or how many women and children were taken captive, but the estimates range between 200 and 1,500 dead. The events surrounding the battle are portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel, The Last of the Mohicans, first published in 1826.
The original fort lay in ruins for about 200 years until a replica was rebuilt on the site as a tourist attraction in 1959.
Filmmaker Rutherford told me that one of the staff at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center told him that one day she had folded tablecloths and stacked them on a table in a dining room, only to find them moved to a chair when she returned to the empty room a few minutes later.
The head of security at the hotel had an even more eerie ghost story: it seems that one of his security guards was watching a monitor with cameras trained on a basement room where liquor was stored. Suddenly a dark specter appeared in front of the cameras and the monitor went blank. The guard ran down to the locked room only to find bottles overturned and broken, as though hit by a cyclone. “After that, the security guard was a believer,” Rutherford said, one of those locals described as being “in the ghost know.”
Rutherford, whose company FilmWorks109 does corporate videos for many sectors including real estate, has posted the one-hour documentary about Lake George on his company website, where it was to be available for free until June 1, 2016 for viewers wishing to enjoy the full visual impact and color of this beautiful rustic resort, which attracts hordes of tourists every summer: www.Filmworks109.com
As for Darrell, when I asked him why he had chosen to write about Mayor Robert Blais and Lake George, he replied: “The town is a fascinating place to me because it’s a step back in time when vacations were all about resorts with mom-and-pop restaurants and motels rather than big corporate chains. As for the mayor, he’s an extraordinary promoter who’s been around for a long time. There’s an event happening every week in Lake George. It’s never dull.”
Posted by Warren Perley
I knew from experience that I would have to hustle if I wanted to visit Jonathan Truchon in the hospital on April 5, 2015 after his seventh cancer operation three days earlier.
It was Easter Sunday, and the weather was glorious – sunny but a tad nippy because of a robust wind accompanying the minus 3 C temperature. One year earlier – on Thursday, May 8, 2014 – I had attempted such an impromptu visit one day after Jonathan had undergone a similar spine operation at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) only to discover to my amazement that he had already left to continue recuperating at his parents’ Châteauguay home.
The April 2, 2015 operation was to remove part of the tumor which had regenerated on his spine where surgeons had removed most of it in May 2014. Doctors at the JGH didn’t want to operate on Jonathan again in April 2015 because another surgery on the delicate spine area could have led to complete paralysis or death during the operation itself.
But Jonathan, a bodybuilder and boxer, insisted that if he only had six months to live – as the doctors had told him and his family – because the cancer had spread, then he wanted to be able to stand on his own two feet, while at the same time taking every possible measure to extend his life.
It was no contest when it came to the battle of wills between the medical men in blue scrubs and Jonathan: the charismatic young man got his way with the doctors who, like everyone who met him during his short life’s journey, fell under the sway of his courage and charisma.
He was accompanied into the April 2, 2015 surgery by Dr. Peter Jarzem, an orthopedic surgeon who had operated on Jonathan on June 13, 2011 to replace his L4 lumbar vertebra with a synthetic one to deal with the ravages of cancer and the weakening of his back bone caused by radiation and chemotherapy treatments he had undergone between July and December 2010.
Dr. Jarzem was not among the surgeons who operated on Jonathan on April 2, 2015, but the senior surgeon walked him into the operating room as a sign of solidarity and support. It was also a potent indicator of the kind of bonds Jonathan formed with those who crossed his path.
Two weeks after the April 2, 2015 surgery, Dr. Jarzem was part of the surgical team which conducted an eighth operation on Jonathan to clean out an infection in his spine and brain which had taken hold after the spine surgery two weeks earlier.
As I entered the family room at the JGH on Easter Sunday April 5, 2015, there, once again, was Dr. Jarzem wearing blue jeans and a ski jacket on his day off. Jonathan, in his blue hospital gown and sitting in a wheelchair, was surrounded by his immediate family: mother, Lyne; father, Denis; his three brothers – Jean-François, Simon, Olivier – grandfather, Richard Provost, and grandmother, Aline Provost; his baby niece, Élanie Truchon; and, of course, his beloved Uncle Stéphane Provost and wife, Aunt Vicki.
Jonathan had asked his family to attend this special intimate hospital gathering to prove, once again, how the power of positive thinking and support from his family and friends helped him deal with his health challenges. The daunting task he had assigned himself this time was to stand up and walk a few steps when conventional wisdom dictated that his body with its frail, wounded spine should be incapable of such a feat.
There was silence in the room as we all held our breath watching Jonathan use his muscular arms to lift himself out of the chair. With the help of an orderly who steadied him, we stared in amazement as he walked about half a dozen steps before easing back into the wheelchair.
I glanced at Dr. Jarzem: there were tears in his eyes as he hugged Jonathan. “You’re my hero,” the patient told his doctor. “No,” replied the doctor, “you’re my hero!”
Jonathan went on to thank Dr. Jarzem and the medical team at the JGH for taking such good care of him and his family, saying he was put on earth to fight the scourge of cancer and to give hope to others suffering from the disease. Everyone in the room wore a plastic red nose, representing the Fondation Néz pour Vivre , an organization in which Jonathan played an active role, collecting funds for research and support of young Quebec adults, 18 to 35 years of age, who have been impacted by cancer and for their families.
In fact, Jonathan had in recent years become a star speaker and fund-raiser for both Fondation Néz pour Vivre and its sister non-profit organization, La Fondation des Gouverneurs de l’Espoir, which collects funds for cancer patients up to 18 years of age and for their families. In total, more than $8 million has been raised by the two organizations over the last 10 years.
Founder Francine Laplante called Jonathan her “captain.” He was a frequent guest speaker at various CEGEPs and high schools. An annual golf tournament which in 2015 raised $140,000 for her two charitable foundations at the Bellevue Golf Club in Léry, Quebec, has since been named in honor of Jonathan Truchon.
Jonathan was admired and befriended by some of the world’s greatest athletes, including former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and Corey Crawford, the star goalie of the 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Andrew Lavigne, co-owner of Ace Athletik fitness centre, told me that Crawford had tears in his eyes when he brought the Stanley Cup to his hometown of Chateauguay in August 2015 and saw Jonathan ambling towards him as fast as he could using his walker. Everyone, including Crawford, applauded when Jonathan entered the gym, where he worked out himself and helped Andrew train other athletes, including Crawford in the off-season.
After hearing news of Jonathan’s death, I thought back to the extensive interview I had with him, his mother, Lyne, and his Uncle Stéphane in August 2011, gleaning everything I could during a mammoth, eight-hour session so that I could write a detailed story explaining his remarkable attitude and courage in the face of a disease which afflicts millions of people.
I recalled how robust he seemed at that time, brimming with confidence and optimism about his future plans as an inspirational speaker to encourage those battling cancer and to help raise funds in their support. I also remembered how his mother, Lyne, would frequently break down in sobs as he recounted his amazing recovery up to that point.
What I didn’t know then and only found out after Jonathan’s passing was that his mother, Lyne, and his father, Denis, were guarding a secret that doctors at the JGH had confided to them after Jonathan’s spinal cancer operation in May 2011, three months before I interviewed him: The cancer had spread into Jonathan’s bone marrow, meaning he did not have long to live.
“If you have anything you want to achieve with your son, do it now,” they told his parents at that time, according to his uncle Stéphane. Nobody knew the dread that Lyne and Denis were living with for the last four years, knowing the prognosis for their beloved son. As usual, Jonathan managed to exceed doctors’ expectations. After his May 2014 spine operation which doctors believed could leave him crippled, he amazed his oncologist, Dr. Petr Kavan, showing up at his checkup a month later without the aid of a walker.
Dr. Kavan was very emotional and had a big smile on his face when Jonathan walked into his office, Stéphane recalled of that meeting. “Dr. Kavan said: ‘I just don’t believe it. You’re a miracle.’”
The “miracle” known as Jonathan Truchon lived to celebrate his 27th birthday on December 16, 2015 and spent one more Christmas in the embrace of his family before passing peacefully at home at 3:15 p.m. on December 30, 2015.
Nothing about Jonathan’s trajectory seemed to have changed in the intervening years since I interviewed him in August 2011 other than the fact that as of 2015 he had faced eight bouts with cancer, compared with the five he had overcome when I first met him. For Jonathan, it was always business as usual: battling his cancer, one operation at a time and getting on with the business of life, building bridges to encourage and help other cancer patients.
Jonathan showed courage, determination and a positive attitude in facing the foe of cancer from cradle to grave. I’m proud to have known him and to have had the privilege to interview him and to write about his special character, which will undoubtedly continue to inspire others facing similar adversities. In hindsight, there is not a word in the BestStory.ca article posted in April 2012 that I would change.
In fact, one quote from that story sustains me through the sad days of mourning for this special spiritual warrior: It was a comment Jonathan made to Stéphane when he caught his uncle weeping quietly after 15-year-old Jonathan had undergone a cancer operation on his face in July 2003 at the JGH and was resting in his hospital bed:
“Don’t cry Uncle Stéph. It’s only sad if you live and are not remembered by anyone. It’s important to touch people’s lives. I’ve been blessed to receive and give more love than someone two or three times my age.”
Posted by Warren Perley
Almost one in five Canadians and Europeans has experienced chronic pain in their lifetime. In the U.S., chronic pain afflicts almost one in three people, the figure likely higher due to the large number of wounded American military personnel returning from overseas engagements and the high proportion of people living in poor socioeconomic conditions in that country.
So when Dr. Patricia Lynn Dobkin, a McGill University psychologist, offered to write a first-person account for BestStory.ca about one of her patients whose chronic pain may have delayed diagnosis of a life-threatening condition, I immediately accepted.
Dr. Dobkin, who has extensive experience studying the connection between chronic pain and depression, has changed the identities of the people she writes about in order to protect patient-doctor confidentiality.
But the story Dr. Dobkin tells is true, and her first-person narrative gives us an unusual insight not only into her patient’s feelings but also into her own sentiments as a caregiver struggling to maintain her professional balance, all the while drawing ever closer emotionally to her patient and, ultimately, relating to her like a sister.
In 2015, Dr. Dobkin published a book, Mindful Medical Practice: Clinical Narratives and Therapeutic Insights, showing how mindfulness enables clinicians to be resilient and fully present with their patients in such a way as to promote healing.1
Prior to moving to Montreal in 1987, Dr. Dobkin trained at a pain clinic at the University of Rochester Medical School in New York state where she obtained her Ph.D. When she arrived in Canada, she was so concerned about the lack of services for patients with chronic pain, particularly those in Quebec, that she took a sabbatical leave from McGill University in 2004, dedicating her time to organizing health care services for such patients. She summarized her findings in a Health Technology Assessment Report that was sent to the Ministry of Health, headed at that time by Dr. Phillip Couillard, now the premier of Quebec. She subsequently published a book chapter and some articles on the topic to increase awareness about this challenging problem.
While speaking recently with Dr. Dobkin about chronic pain, I was reminded of an anecdote related to me by a Crohn’s patient suffering severe chronic pain, caused to a great extent by a fistula near her rectum. During a conversation about her case with her gastroenterologist, the well-meaning doctor said he had just come from a spinning class and asked whether she had ever tried that exercise.
That anecdote is indicative of the fact that most doctors don’t understand the nature of chronic pain or how to treat it. They’re reluctant to prescribe opiates over a protracted period for fear of inducing a chemical dependency in their patients, and most are not conversant with psychotherapeutic approaches to pain management, which can include antidepressants and cognitive behavioral techniques to treat underlying depression which can exacerbate pain. So the symptoms sometimes get ignored by acute-care doctors who are frustrated at not being unable to find a physical source for the chronic pain and who are, at the same time, scared of turning their patients into drug addicts. Some likely conclude that the pain symptoms could be psychosomatic.
And nothing frustrates a doctor more than a patient with an “idiopathic” medical problem, meaning a condition of uncertain or unknown origin. American journalist Meghan O’Rourke wrote an excellent article in The Atlantic issue of November 2014 detailing how it took doctors in the U.S. 15 years to diagnose a medical problem which had left her over those years with persistent anemia, as well as occasional elevated white blood cell counts and inflammation markers.
“To me, my life was slowly dissolving into near-constant discomfort and sometimes frightening pain – terror at losing control,” the 30-something O’Rourke wrote. Her doctors’ response: “You’re fine. We can’t find anything wrong.” Or, as one doctor told her: “You’re probably just tired from having your period.” In spring 2012, a sympathetic doctor, who believed O’Rourke’s pain was real, used new tests to prove she had an autoimmune condition no one else had thought of – Lyme disease, caused by multiple tick bites from her adolescence.
In recent years, a few pain centres have been established to deal with the issue of chronic pain, such as McGill University’s Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, which opened in June 2003 at the Montreal General Hospital. The centre is composed of 39 basic and clinical pain researchers from the Faculties of Medicine, Dentistry and Science. Through their own activities and international collaborations, they focus on new discoveries and their clinical applications to prevent and treat chronic pain.
(The U.S.-based National Institutes of Health defines chronic pain as any pain lasting more than 12 weeks.)
While writing her article for BestStory.ca, Dr. Dobkin told me that the prevalence of chronic pain is a call to action, citing a study led by Professor Donald Schopflocher of the University of Alberta in Edmonton and published in 2011, which showed that 18.9 percent of Canadians report living with persistent pain. This rate varies by region, with the Atlantic provinces the highest (21.9 percent) and Quebec the lowest (15.7 percent). The most common types of pain are low back, arthritis and joint pain.
The President of the Canadian Pain Society, Dr. Mary Lynch, from the Pain Management Unit of the Queen Elizabeth II Health Services Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, published a paper, also in 2011, indicating that the wait time to be treated in a Canadian pain clinic was more than one year.
Chronic pain is the single most common cause of disability in working aged adults and it is well documented that chronic pain increases with age. For example, Professor Schopflocher’s study found that 31.5 percent of women 66 years or older reported chronic pain, compared with 22.2 percent of men in the same age group.
A review of the literature led by Dr. Harald Breivik from the Department of Pain Management and Research, University Hospital and University Oslo, in Oslo, Norway indicates that the overall prevalence rate is the same (19 percent) in Europe.
A 2010 American study conducted by Catherine Johannes and her colleagues at RIT Health Solutions in Durham, North Carolina found that 31 percent of American adults are living with chronic pain.
Rates are consistently found to be higher in women in all of these reports. While it is hypothesized that sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone) play a role in this difference, psychology and culture may account for it as well, Dr. Dobkin told me.
The costs are staggering, reported as both direct and indirect costs. The former includes medical testing, procedures, surgery and medications. The latter includes productivity losses, sick leave, disability payments and use of complementary and alternative therapies not covered by the government (e.g. acupuncture, massage). According to Dr. Lynch, direct costs in Canada are greater than $6 billion per year. Indirect costs are greater than $37 billion annually, which is more than those for cancer, heart disease and HIV combined.
These chronic pain statistics are the backdrop to Dr. Dobkin’s moving account of her very close relationship with a patient whom she considered to be as close as a sister. [Doctor draws close to dying patient.]
1. You can find Dr. Dobkin’s book, Practice: Clinical Narratives and Therapeutic Insights at amazon.ca:
Posted by Warren Perley
Sunday, August 16, 2015 started out like any other weekend day...if you tend to spend your time in the company of brilliant doctors and researchers who have dedicated their lives trying to pinpoint the root cause of Crohn's disease. I do not usually.
However, on that particular beautiful summer afternoon, five world renowned experts (plus, a special guest) – from the U.S., Israel, the U.K. and New Zealand – joined together to share their latest and, in some cases, groundbreaking findings during the “International Research Symposium: Game-Changing Concepts in Crohn’s Medicine” at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois, a north suburb of Chicago.
I was fortunate enough to not only be in attendance, but to help coordinate this landmark event that attracted approximately 115 guests and raised a little less than $10,000 for ongoing Crohn's research, with the proceeds split evenly among the featured presenters’ respective charitable projects.
First up at the podium was Dr. William Chamberlin, a gastroenterologist from Las Cruces, New Mexico, who began with an overview of Crohn’s and general concepts providing context for material to come. Dr. Chamberlin is just one of a handful of gastroenterologists worldwide who use an anti-MAP Protocol involving multiple antibiotics to treat Crohn’s. [An extensive interview with Dr. Chamberlin can be found on the homepage of this site.]
After an early intermission due to technical difficulties, Dr. Michael Collins of University of Wisconsin in Madison presented that Mycobacterium aviumsubspecies paratuberculosis (MAP) is a pathogen that most often infects ruminant animals, such as cattle. However, it is also capable of infecting a wide range of other animal species, including non-human primates.
Food from infected animals is commonly contaminated with MAP, and food manufacturing practices such as pasteurization kill many but not all MAP. MAP, in fact, has been cultured (found alive) in retail pasteurized dairy products, he said. Thus, there are many ways humans can be exposed and it is highly likely that MAP is capable of infecting humans and causing disease. [An extensive analysis by Dr. Collins tying Johne’s disease in ruminants with Crohn’s disease in humans can also be found on the homepage of this site.]
Patrick McLean, product manager of RedHill Biopharma, an Israeli biotech company which has developed a triple antibiotic anti-MAP therapy known as RHB-104 for Crohn’s, was next, representing the charitable interests of Dr. Thomas Borody, an Australian gastroenterologist and one of the anti-MAP therapy pioneers.
Mr. McLean summarized the RHB-104 clinical studies currently under way, suggesting they could lead to some of the best remission rates ever published on the treatment of the disease. He stated that this particular anti-MAP therapy may be effective for a large number of Crohn’s patients, but a sensitive and specific diagnostic for MAP infection needs to be developed to establish the cause of Crohn’s. This is one of the key elements of RedHill’s large Phase III clinical trial in progress among 270 patients in the U.S., as well as among patients in Canada, Israel and other countries.
There were two speakers in the diagnostics category. Dr. Amy Hermon-Taylor (GP/family physician) presented the research of her father, Prof. John Hermon-Taylor of King’s College London. A compelling body of evidence supports MAP as the “prime suspect” in the causation of Crohn’s, she said. To confirm or refute this, it is critically important to have a sensitive, specific and reproducible test for MAP, without which research in this area cannot move forward, she added. (Current tests lack sensitivity and results have varied widely among different research groups.)
Dr. Hermon-Taylor said that her father and his colleagues have developed a new test, applicable to both blood and tissue samples, which fulfills these essential criteria. Applying the test to blood samples – using a “flow cytometry” assay – offers a simple, rapid, quantitative diagnostic ideal for use in a clinical setting. Applying the test to intestinal tissues of people with Crohn’s – using an “immunofluorescence” assay – allows researchers to see MAP, in intricate detail, for the very first time, she said. This not only enables diagnosis, but also offers a wealth of new insights into mechanisms of disease in Crohn’s.
Confirming the cause of Crohn’s will establish a therapeutic target, setting the medical community on the final pathway to curing the disease at last, she said. And if that therapeutic target is confirmed as MAP, then the new therapeutic anti-MAP vaccine developed by her father, Prof. John Hermon-Taylor, offers hope for a cure. The vaccine is currently being manufactured by the Jenner Institute, Oxford (also responsible for developing the Ebola vaccine using very similar technology).
The vaccine is currently in the Pre-GMP (Good Manufacturing Process) phase of manufacture. GMP manufacture was expected to start in October 2015 and will last one year. Phase I trials in healthy human volunteers are expected to begin in June 2016.
These will be followed by a Phase II trial, anticipated to begin in February 2017. The Phase II trial will be a single-centre trial conducted at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, will last one year and will involve 20 adults with Crohn's disease.
The patients recruited to this trial will need to meet strict entry criteria and the results will be analyzed in real time as it proceeds.
As soon as there is evidence of safety and efficacy, Dr. John Hermon-Taylor and his colleagues can apply for use of the vaccine on compassionate grounds. This will enable people who wish to have the vaccine but are unable to be part of the trial to access it on a named-patient basis outside of the trial.
Indeed, under the newly proposed “Early Access to Medicines” scheme in the U.K., severely ill patients who have failed existing treatments may be granted access to new medicines that are proven to be safe, even before efficacy has been fully established. This means that the earliest the vaccine could be made available to patients on a named-patient basis would be late 2017.
In addition, following the demonstration of safety and efficacy, it is anticipated that the vaccine technology would be licensed to a pharmaceutical company to make it available to all who need it through health services worldwide as part of larger Phase III trials inviting wider participation.
The manufacture and trial of the vaccine is being funded through investment in the company HAV Vaccines Ltd. (HVL) Completion of the trials is dependent on HVL to secure the remainder of the funding required.
A Q & A about progress on the development of Dr. Hermon-Taylor’s vaccine can be found at http://crohnsmapvaccine.com/faq.
John Aitken, a medical laboratory scientist from New Zealand with more than 35 years of experience in mycobacteriology and emerging infectious diseases, also described the diagnostic test that his lab has been using. Instead of using DNA, his lab is growing an organism cultured from the blood of Crohn’s patients they have termed “Son of MAP,” because this variant differs considerably from the conventional strains of MAP detected in cattle and thought to be associated with Crohn’s.
“Son of MAP” has features of MAP; however, it would not be found using existing bacteriological techniques, Mr. Aitken said. There was one slide that showed a four-day “Son of MAP” culture that had all but eaten away the media and covered the entire plate. Mr. Aitken detailed five forms he has observed in this organism, of which the persistent form is commonly seen in long-term Crohn’s patients.
Lastly, Dr. Chamberlin introduced EpiBro, a new therapy that his company is readying for testing. He described how Crohn’s patients have a genetic innate immune system defect that does not allow them to effectively kill the mycobacterial species. EpiBro, he said, has shown great promise with few side effects in HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria patients because it:
- Stimulates innate immunity, which Crohn’s patients are unable to accomplish on their own
- Down-regulates damaging inflammation resulting in less tissue damage
- Resolves the infection by enhancing immunity
A newly formed company, Immunikas, hopes to begin human trials for EpiBro soon.
A last minute addition to the program, Dr. David Rubin, section chief of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition from The University of Chicago Medicine, spoke about genetic associations with Crohn’s and stated that he used anti-MAP therapy as one option in his practice. He was engaging and gave an overview of the research being done by his group, including investigations into the microbiome.
Following the final word, many guests stayed for an informal reception with the presenters. It was the perfect blend of science and social opportunities for Crohn’s patients – some currently on anti-MAP therapy and some interested in starting based on what they learned during the day’s presentation – to compare their personal experiences. This included the parents of several young children excitedly chatting away about how well anti-MAP therapy has been working for them.
Contact information was exchanged, hugs were shared and a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” was belted out to Dr. Amy Hermon-Taylor, who celebrated her 40th birthday the week prior. When all was said and done, Crohn’s history had been made by bringing together these bright minds for the first time ever to shine light on MAP as a primary causal agent. Those of us in attendance will never forget it.
To view a video series of the symposium presentation and/or donate to the ongoing efforts, please visit: TheCrohnsInfection.org.
Article author Stacey J. Sturner is a professional writer and fundraiser who resides in Chicago with her husband and two sons, ages 7 and 4. A year ago, her oldest was diagnosed with Crohn's disease after a long summer of sickness landed him in the hospital. Upon stumbling across the MAP theory on the Internet, she connected with several of the specialists in this article and offered to coordinate the symposium which brought them to Chicago this past summer. With an interest in starting her son on anti-MAP therapy, it could not have happened at a more perfect time!
Posted by Warren Perley
The pulse of the audience will likely beat a tad faster when Dr. Amy Hermon-Taylor steps up to the podium in the Chicago-area municipality of Deerfield on Sunday, August 16, 2015 to address an international research symposium on Crohn’s. She is the daughter of London-based Dr. John Hermon-Taylor, the world’s first pioneer in alternative treatment of Crohn’s disease, and what she has to say should give tremendous hope to the millions of Crohn’s sufferers and their families worldwide.
Her father has developed a therapeutic vaccine against the MAP bacterium, which is found in the majority of Crohn’s patients, causing inflammation with accompanying pain, diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue, among other symptoms. Dr. John Hermon-Taylor’s vaccine, which has been shown to both prevent and cure MAP infection in animals, still has to be tested in humans. As well, he is working on a simple test to be used with the vaccine in order to detect MAP in the tissue and blood of Crohn’s patients prior to, during and after treatment with his vaccine. No such simple test currently exists.
But it will take money – a small amount by scientific research standards – to bring Dr. Hermon-Taylor’s MAP test and vaccine to the point of human clinical trials. As of summer 2015, $4.1 million (U.S.) was needed for the vaccine; $184,000 for one more year of lab work on the MAP-detection test and $460,000 to run the test through a clinical human trial.
In total, less than $5 million is needed at this point for further testing of what could be a cure for Crohn’s disease, according to the handful of gastroenterologists and microbiologists around the world who understand the role of MAP in Crohn’s disease. That’s less than a $1 donation on behalf of each of the estimated 5 million people worldwide who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, which includes both Crohn’s and colitis.
How do I know that the top MAP experts in the world support Dr. John Hermon-Taylor’s initiatives for a new Crohn’s test and vaccine? The primary reason is that I interviewed most of them for the current story posted today on our site about the three pioneering gastroenterologists who consider Crohn’s to be an infectious disease and currently treat their patients with a mix of antibiotics known as the anti-MAP Protocol.
One of those gastroenterologists I interviewed for my story is New Mexico-based Dr. William Chamberlin, who is one of the five guest speakers invited from around the world to address the August 16, 2015 Deerfield symposium titled, Game-Changing Concepts in Crohn’s Medicine.
Among the other guest speakers are microbiologist John Aitken of New Zealand; Patrick McLean, Product Manager of Israel-based Redhill Biopharma; and Wisconsin-based microbiologist and veterinarian Dr. Michael Collins, who wrote what some experts believe is the most comprehensive scientific analysis ever done tying Crohn’s disease in humans with Johne’s disease in cattle. Dr. Collins’ analysis was posted on BestStory.ca. in February 2015.
It is precisely because Dr. Collins’ piece was so well documented in proving the link between the MAP bacterium in cattle and the MAP bacterium in Crohn’s patients that I felt obliged to research and write a follow-up story about which doctors offer anti-MAP Protocol treatments, what those treatments entail, as well as their success rates in attaining remission. Having a loved one who has suffered from severe Crohn’s most of her life motivated me to find answers to the questions that would likely come into the mind of any patient who believes MAP infection could be causing his Crohn’s.
Before I give a summary of where my research led, please allow me to explain the objectives of our ad-free, long-form journalism site – www.BestStory.ca – which was launched in Montreal in April, 2012. Some Crohn’s patients, after becoming aware of Dr. Collins’ analysis on our site last February, questioned why they had to pay 40 cents to read it.
The answer as to why we charge 40 cents per story is that when we started three years ago we had to establish a business model which would at least give freelance journalists and our site the potential to earn some revenue on stories – given the fact that we don’t accept ads, sponsorships, donations or subscriptions.
Ours is the only long-form journalism site in the world where the writers themselves can choose any stories they wish to pursue, and we at BestStory will support them with professional editing and graphics at no cost before posting their articles on our site. As Editor of the site, I don’t care whether the subject matter is likely to lead to many story sales or whether I agree with the writers’ points of view. If the journalist in question thinks it is a story which should be published, that’s good enough for me – as long as the research and writing is original and well done. Copyright and moral rights of all their original material remains with the writers.
So when Dr. Judy Lipton, a retired American psychiatrist who has undergone the anti-MAP Protocol and is completely cured of her Crohn’s, approached me in 2014 about the possibility of publishing a very important scientific analysis by her colleague, Dr. Michael Collins, about the connection between Johne’s disease in cattle and Crohn’s disease in people, I agreed immediately.
The truth is, if it were up to Dr. Collins, his analysis would be given away free because his only objective as a man of science is to inform Crohn’s patients about the role MAP plays in their illness so that they can seek treatment to eradicate it.
But my role as Editor of BestStory.ca is not only to make sure that every story that appears on our site is the best that it can be, but to also build a business model to allow the many freelancers who have registered with us as potential writers to at least have the chance to earn modest revenue on their stories. The amount we charge per story – 40 cents – does not come close to covering the hundreds of hours it can take to research, write, edit, and do a layout with interesting graphics for a story such as Dr. Collins’ 8,500-word scientific analysis.
Every journalism site in the world has to have a means to generate revenue. If not, it won’t stay open for business – unless it is being supported by a benefactor. We have chosen a business model which places the choice of whether to purchase each story, on an individual basis, into the hands of our readers. No subscriptions and no intrusive ads: just premium, original journalism with interesting graphical layouts.
If you are a Crohn’s patient or a family member with a loved one suffering from IBD, I think that both Dr. Collins’ story and our follow-up analysis posted today will provide you with detailed information, put into layman’s context, that you will not find elsewhere on the Internet.
Here is a synopsis of our latest 13,000-word Crohn’s analysis, which took more than one year of research and four months to write:
I started the piece interviewing the top gastroenterologists in the world, including an extensive telephone interview with Dr. William Chamberlin, who give the anti-MAP Protocol treatment in order to find out what antibiotics they use in their mix. Along the way, I discovered that Dr. Thomas Borody of Australia is, by far, the gastroenterologist with the highest rate of remission among Crohn’s patients worldwide. I wondered why and discovered he has access to one key antibiotic that no gastroenterologist outside Australia can obtain on a regular basis as part of an anti-MAP Protocol.
Again I wondered why, which led me to an interview with Novartis, which manufactures the antibiotic. I found out Novartis’ position about why this antibiotic is no longer readily available in Western countries, and I also found out from officials there how it could be obtained in special cases, such as for Crohn’s treatment.
As a follow-up to the Novartis interview, I spoke with government officials in Canada as to the legality of a medical doctor importing this key antibiotic to treat Crohn’s. At the same time, I looked into U.S. government regulations concerning importation of prescription medicines not available in the U.S. (The situation is similar in the U.K.) Along the way, I consulted with an experienced, independent litigator as to the Canadian government’s legal interpretation of importing prescription drugs, and then I looked into what can be the dangerous world of online prescription purchases.
In between the dogged research concerning the difficulty of doctors obtaining this key antibiotic, I interviewed renowned Florida-based microbiologist Dr. Saleh Naser at length as to why the MAP bacterium is so difficult to culture from Crohn’s patients. I also spoke with eminent MAP specialist, microbiologist Dr. Marcel Behr of McGill University, who talked about a genetic mutation he has discovered which could trigger Crohn’s disease among those carrying the MAP bacterium.
I had an exchange with British microbiologist Dr. Roger Pickup, a colleague of both Dr. John Hermon-Taylor and Dr. Jeremy Sanderson, the third of the three well-known gastroenterologists currently giving patients the anti-MAP Protocol. What Dr. Pickup had to tell me is frightening: His recent studies show that MAP is now being spread not only through milk from cows, but also through local water supplies contaminated by fecal matter from cattle.
I also looked into the situation of doctors who are reticent to give the anti-MAP Protocol because it has not been sanctioned by their local governing boards, which in turn makes it difficult for patients seeking such treatment to find a doctor. The story looks into how that situation could change in the near future if clinical studies being conducted by Redhill Biopharma in the U.S., Canada and Israel on the RHB-104 anti-MAP pill turn out well.
My story entailed interviews with patients, such as Dr. Judy Lipton and Tristan Biesecker who underwent the anti-MAP Protocol, as well as with a Montreal businessman whose two young children took the treatment. All, except Dr. Lipton, said they followed alternate therapies, which they described, in addition to the anti-MAP Protocol.
Dr. John Todd Kuenstner of West Virginia told me the story of his son who had Crohn’s and his daughter who suffered from complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). Both were treated and helped by the Borody anti-MAP Protocol, which brought up the theory that MAP infection could be responsible for a slew of autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and many others. Dr. Kuenstner, a pathologist, and 13 other scientists and doctors wrote a case report published in The World Journal of Gastroenterology on April 7, 2015, calling for MAP prevalence studies into at least 20 autoimmune conditions.
The idea that, in addition to Crohn’s disease, MAP could be the culprit in a myriad of other autoimmune conditions makes the work of Dr. John Hermon-Taylor that much more pressing and deserving of financial support. His work on a new anti-MAP vaccine and test is discussed prominently in my story.
People wishing to donate directly to Dr. John Hermon-Taylor’s efforts to bring his anti-MAP vaccine and test to market should visit his site at: http://crohnsmapvaccine.com/.
Those who want to hear his daughter, Dr. Amy Hermon-Taylor, give an update on her father’s work can buy a $25 ticket to attend the August 16, 2015 symposium being held at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, located at 1201 Lake Cook Road in Deerfield, Illinois. For an extra $75, those attending can take part in a “meet-and-greet” with the guest speakers after the formal presentations. Monies raised will go towards Crohn’s research: http://crohnsmap.ticketleap.com/symposium/
Posted by Warren Perley
On February 12, 2015, Washington Post science reporter Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting piece on the Opinion Page of that newspaper saying “we live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge…faces organized and often furious opposition” from doubters who “have declared war on the consensus of experts.”
Mr. Achenbach was referring to a minority of the population which refuses to accept scientific truths about all manner of public health issues, ranging from vaccinations to climate change.
The day after Mr. Achenbach’s piece was published, BestStory.ca posted an 8,500-word analysis by Dr. Michael T. Collins of the University of Wisconsin about another medical hot potato involving the connection between Crohn’s disease and a bacterium known as Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis (MAP), which is found in the gut of cattle and other ruminants suffering from a disease called Johne’s, as well as in the intestines of many Crohn’s patients.
MAP has also been found in those suffering from ulcerative colitis, which together with Crohn’s, is collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), affecting more than 5 million people globally and growing rapidly in the Western world. There are 2.2 million IBD patients in Europe, 1.4 million in the U.S. and 233,000 in Canada, which has the highest per capita rate in the world. Australia has more than 75,000 IBD cases in a population of 23 million.
In addition, countries which traditionally had a low incidence of the disease, such as China, India and Latin America, are reporting a growing number of cases as their economies become more industrialized.
IBD, especially Crohn’s disease, is characterized by chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain and weight loss. Whereas colitis affects only the large intestine, Crohn’s can strike the digestive tract anywhere from the mouth to the anus.
What makes Dr. Collins’ analysis so important to Crohn’s patients and their care-givers is that it lays out, step-by-step, the scientific case that Crohn’s is an infectious disease, rather than strictly an autoimmune condition which is currently treated by most gastroenterologists with immunosuppressant drugs and expensive biologic medical products, such as Remicade™, Humira™ and Stelara™.
That, in turn, means this disease could be treated, and possibly cured, by a mix of three or four antibiotics traditionally used to treat tuberculosis and leprosy, which emanate from the same Mycobacterium genus as does the MAP bacterium found in patients suffering from Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
Although most gastroenterologists dismiss out of hand that Crohn’s and colitis are infectious diseases, there are, in fact, a handful of gastroenterologists around the world already successfully treating Crohn’s patients with antibiotics. In the coming months, I plan to do a story on those doctors, as well as some of their patients who have been treated and will share their stories with our readers.
But those are anecdotes: what IBD patients need now are hard, scientific facts which they can share in a frank discussion of treatment options with their gastroenterologists, most of whom will also undoubtedly find Dr. Collins’ analysis about the infectious disease aspect of Crohn’s to be informative if they take the time to read it.
As Mr. Achenbach pointed out in his Washington Post article, there is a tendency for all of us, even those who believe fervently in science (and medical doctors should be near the forefront of that cadre) to seek evidence that confirms what we already believe. But by clinging to shibboleths that defy science and logic, we may be shutting the door to new and better options.
And as Albert Einstein, an acknowledged scientific genius of the 20th century, wrote in a July 8, 1901 letter to family friend Jost Winteler: “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of the truth.”
The very same day we posted our Crohn’s story, I received an email from a new reader in the Maritimes who had just bought the article (all stories behind our paywall sell for 40 cents each) to glean information about how antibiotics might be used to help her 15-year-old son who has Crohn’s. Here is what that reader, who asked me to keep her identity private, had to say:
I am so amazed at the detail of the research and connections presented in Dr. Collins’ analysis: everything has been presented clearly, concisely and in an easy-to-read format. I will definitely forward a link to my son’s GI specialist and to our family doctor for their review….This couldn’t have arrived at a better time. I know I am going to find it invaluable in my attempts to persuade our GI team to think outside the box.
Now I’d like to introduce you to Cheri Lehmann, 55 years old and a life-long Crohn’s sufferer, who is another prime example of the kind of patient who could use the information in Dr. Collins’ scientific analysis to help her seek “the truth” about an antibiotic treatment option.
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard about the possibility of antibiotics [known as the anti-MAP Protocol] being used to treat Crohn’s,” she told me during a February 8, 2015 telephone interview. “My God! I’ve got to find a doctor who could at least give me a chance to be treated with such antibiotics.”
Cheri is a customer service representative in the manufacturing sector who lives in Sussex, Wisconsin, a town of 25,000 located 40 miles east of Madison (where Dr. Collins lives). She is facing a critical juncture in her treatment: in January 2015, she changed jobs and is now waiting to see whether her new insurance plan will cover most of the costs of her weekly injections of Humira™, which add up to about $6,000 a month.
Having lost more than half her small intestine during three surgical resections over the years, Cheri lives in constant pain and discomfort, but considers herself lucky that the Humira™ has been making her condition “bearable”, which still means running to the bathroom with diarrhea between four and eight times daily. She cringes at the thought of what might become of her if she loses her Humira™ injections because without insurance coverage such treatment would be unaffordable. This makes her search all the more urgent for an alternative, such as the anti-MAP Protocol.
Cheri, whose first marriage broke up due to the strain created by her illness, is happily remarried and the mother of two grown children. She has a positive attitude and tries to live every day to the fullest, taking pleasure from all life still has to offer, including country-road spins on her beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Cheri has written a brief but detailed history about her battle with Crohn’s disease in order to help educate the public about the daily pain and stress that IBD, especially Crohn’s disease, inflicts on those it strikes. Below is her story.
Posted by Warren Perley
Two recent events convinced me we needed an in-depth analysis on BestStory.ca explaining to readers the political and economic trends which have steadily increased income disparity.
The first event was a November 19, 2014 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation financial news show called “The Exchange with Amanda Lang”, in which the host waxed positive over the fact that the latest Statistics Canada figures, which came out the day before, showed that the wealthiest 1 percent of Canadians controlled 10.3 percent of national income in 2012, down from 10.6 percent one year earlier and 12.1 percent in 2006. [By contrast, three decades ago the figure was 7.1 percent.]
U.S. figures indicated that the top 1 percent in that country had a 19.3 percent share of total income in 2012, the largest share in a century of record-keeping and up from 18 percent in 2006.
Amanda Lang’s point was that Canada was doing much better than the U.S. in closing the wealth gap between the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent of its citizens. “It’s kind of refreshing to know that the big disparities in income aren’t happening here [in Canada],” Lang said…”The gap between the rich and the poor is narrowing in Canada.”
It didn’t take long for one of her guests, senior economist Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to squelch that notion and to put the entire matter of income disparity into context, pointing out that Canada has tax advantages for the wealthy, many of whom use private corporations as shells for aggressive tax avoidance, meaning the wealth gap is still there – it’s just not visible as taxable income.
But Yalnizyan wasn’t finished. She went on to warn the Conservative government of Stephen Harper not to make the income gap worse by introducing new tax cuts in anticipation of a 2015 federal election.
Lang seemed taken aback by Yalnizyan’s contention, asking rhetorically how it could be that the super wealthy in Canada had access to tax dodges not open to their American counterparts.
Looking Lang in the eye, Yalnizyan went on to say: “You can talk about things getting better, but talk to anyone on the street and they’ll tell you it isn’t.”
She was referring to Canada, but the malaise of inequality originates in the United States, the unbridled champion of consumerism based on free-market, free-trade capitalism which it promotes worldwide.
Yalnizyan’s comment that anyone on the street could tell you how bad the have-nots are faring brought to mind an anecdote related to me a few months ago by my niece, Norma, who lives in Atlanta. It seems that she, her husband, Robert, their 9-year-old son, Gabriel, and their 6-year-old daughter, Noa, were on their way to an Atlanta Braves-Philadelphia Phillies baseball game when they passed some homeless people near Turner Field, located in downtown Atlanta at the junction of I-75, I-85 and I-20.
Gabriel had saved $60 from his birthday money to buy an Atlanta Braves jersey with the name of his favorite player, outfielder Justin Upton. But as they walked towards the stadium entrance, Gabriel, who had three $20 bills for his anticipated jersey purchase, saw a homeless black man with a breathing tube and a near-empty cup for change.
What happened next, I’ll let Gabriel tell you in his own words as part of a composition called “Random Acts of Kindness” he wrote for a class project. [You can find his composition, replete with his byline and without editing by us, at the end of this Note From The Editor.]
I was impressed by the fact that a young boy could be so touched by the plight of a sick, homeless stranger and could instinctively understand that it is not a normal situation for people to have no option but to sleep outside.
So I resolved to find a journalist who had the depth of intellect, talent, experience and compassion to explain to all our readers – old and young, American, Canadian and other nationalities – how we as citizens of some of the wealthiest, democratic nations on earth have allowed our most vulnerable neighbors to slip into the depths of poverty and despair.
As Editor of BestStory.ca I don’t normally assign stories to journalists; it is up to the freelancers themselves to choose their subject matter. But I made an exception in this case and contacted Henry McRandall, a firebrand journalist who has worked at major media outlets across North America, including The New York Times, and is founder and Editor of www.WriseUp.com, an opinionated, hard-hitting online newsmagazine.
Every young journalist in the world would do well to have the opportunity to learn their craft from an experienced old-time media maven such as Henry. Unfortunately, most likely will never have that opportunity because big-city legacy media are no longer the apprentice-type shops they were in my day and in Henry’s time when experienced journalists from around the world mingled, collaborated and exchanged points of view with their younger colleagues, making us all better journalists and transforming our newspapers into must-reads for people seeking context about political, social and economic events.
Although we couldn’t put Henry in a classroom or in a newsroom, we did the next best thing by inviting him as a guest contributor to BestStory.ca to write a detailed analysis on this hugely important issue of income disparity and its twin demons of homelessness and hunger.
So in the end, I took Armine Yalnizyan’s advice and asked someone in the street, in addition to my 9-year-old great-nephew, Gabriel, how things are going for the have-nots. Befitting an intellectual who has sat as a journalist at the news desk of The New York Times and as a homeless vagrant on the streets of downtown Toronto, Henry McRandall has provided us with a detailed analysis of the political and social events in America which have brought the disaster of income inequality upon the heads of citizens of all Western democracies, including Canada. His conclusions leave scant room for optimism for those dreamers among us who aspire to a more egalitarian society.
It brings to mind the last scene in the 2012 neo-noir crime film, “Killing Them Softly”, starring Brad Pitt as a mob enforcer who is in a Boston bar renegotiating his fee for three hits with a senior Mafia emissary. On a bar television, we see and hear Barack Obama giving his victory speech from the November 4, 2008 presidential election in which he talks about how in America “out of many, we are one” based on opportunity and hope.
“This guy [Obama] wants to tell me we’re living in a community?” Pitt’s character asks rhetorically. “Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America is not a country; it’s just a business. Now f _ _ _ _ _ _ pay me.” Fade to black.
Posted by Warren Perley
Since launching BestStory.ca in April 2012, I’ve been happily surprised by the number of non-journalists coming forward with relevant story ideas and first-hand knowledge on specific subjects.
Falling into that category is Sima Goel’s analysis of life for women in Iran under the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, compared with their existence under the ayatollahs who replaced him.
What qualifies Sima to write such a piece? Well, she lived under the rule of both the Shah and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who seized power by force on February 1, 1979. She also openly defied both regimes and almost paid for it with her life, managing to escape Iran in a daring desert flight in 1982.
I knew that Sima, who works as a chiropractor in Montreal, had literary aspirations, having written a 2014 memoir titled, Fleeing The Hijab, A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran. (Those interested in learning more about her book can find information at: http://www.fleeingthehijab.com/)
What makes Sima’s BestStory.ca article informative and interesting is the way she has combined an analysis of Iranian politics over the last 50 years with copious amounts of personal details from the first 17 years of her life there. It helps to have an author who is a native speaker of Farsi, meaning she likely has greater insight into the many facets of Iranian culture.
Of course, Sima knows well the history of Iran, including the fact that Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s efforts to Westernize Iran were just following in the footsteps of his Brigadier-General father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921 when, with the support of British money and supplies, he overthrew the Qajar dynasty.
Once securely in power, Reza Shah tried to mandate Western dress and ban the veil for women, but met stiff opposition from devout Muslims and the clergy. He encouraged women not to wear the hijab, and he fined institutions, such as restaurants, hotels and cinemas, which did not allow the sexes to mingle.
Although Reza Shah was supposed to be presiding over a constitutional monarchy, candidates running for election were hand-picked by the military, and ballot counting was overseen by members of the government’s Interior Ministry.
In 1935, he informed the League of Nations that the name Iran, which is how its citizens have referred to their country through most of its history, should be used officially by all countries instead of Persia, which was the name favored by most Western states based on historical precedence arising from the Greco-Persian Wars dating back to the 6th century BCE.
The beginning of the end for Reza Shah came during the Second World War when he refused to allow Iran to be used as a conduit for British military supplies intended for the Soviet Union in its war against its former ally, Nazi Germany, which was Iran’s largest trading partner.
So on August 25, 1941, British and Soviet troops invaded Iran by air, land and sea, taking over the country almost immediately after 15 Iranian divisions surrendered. Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who the occupying Allies felt would be more amenable to their demands.
After the Second World War, Britain’s MI6 and the United State’s CIA orchestrated another Iranian coup d’état, overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, on August 19, 1953. Mosaddegh’s crime? He introduced legislation passed by parliament to nationalize the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company after that British corporation refused his demands for an audit of its books and a renegotiation of the terms granting access to Iranian oil reserves.
After the overthrow, General Fazlollah Zahedi formed a military government which allowed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to rule as an absolute monarch, making him even more powerful than his father, Shah Reza, who in theory had been a constitutional monarch.
Sima’s story concentrates on the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the ayatollahs who overthrew him in 1979. For those of you who might ask why you should care about Iran’s past, the answer is that knowing about its turbulent, recent history is the only way to understand present-day Iran, which is a major power in the Middle East and likely one of the keys to stopping the Sunni militants, known as ISIS or ISIL, who have overrun Syria and Iraq in the last few months, terrorizing civilians with stonings and beheadings.
President Barack Obama announced in a speech to his nation on September 10, 2014 that the U.S. was putting together a coalition of Western and Arabic nations to fight ISIS, although no U.S. official mentioned Iran as part of that effort until Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris on September 15, 2014 that the U.S. was open to having confidential communications with Iran about the crisis in Iraq even if Iran had not been invited to join the coalition.
The two nations have not had diplomatic relations since 1979 when militants supporting Ayatollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days.
Journalist Kate Brannen of Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine wrote an insightful article on September 10, 2014, pointing out that despite Obama’s omission, Iran is the one country in the world which has already sent forces into Iraq and Syria to battle ISIS.
Aside from weapons, intelligence and military advisers, the Shiite government of Iran is providing hundreds of ground forces fighting alongside the Shiite Iraqi soldiers and militiamen against the Sunni ISIS forces, Brannen wrote. In Syria, Iran has organized thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon – equipped and trained by Iran – to battle ISIS militants fighting to depose Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Brannen reports that the U.S. and Iran do not coordinate military action or share intelligence and have no plans to do so. Some Americans, such as former Obama national security adviser Douglas Ollivant, think that is a short-sighted policy on the part of the U.S.
Ollivant wrote an analysis in Qatar-based Al Jazeera on September 9, 2014 that the “U.S. should welcome” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in its fight against ISIS.
But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted on September 15, 2014 that Iran would not cooperate with the U.S. in its battle against ISIS because he views it as a pretext for the U.S. to “dominate the region.” As he was leaving hospital after a prostate operation that same day, The New York Times reported that Khamenei described American statements about fighting ISIS as “absurd, hollow and biased.”
It is against this backdrop of Middle East chaos that Sima revisits the chronology of how Iran – which could have been such a force for positive change in the region, given its size, strategic location and oil resources – has instead become mired in ethnocentric, theocratic dogma which deprives citizens of human rights and reduces economic opportunity for its middle class.
Iran News Update (INU), an online Iranian diaspora publication opposed to the fundamentalist regime, reported that on March 6, 2014 the Iranian parliament’s plan and budget committee released figures showing that 15 million people in that nation, about 20 percent of the population, live under the poverty line with 7 million of them receiving no government support services.
It went on to report in May 2014 that Iranian resistance sources have figures showing the poverty crisis is even worse than that officially reported, with 50 million Iranians living under the poverty line and 10 million unemployed.
Most of the human rights issues analyzed by Sima in her story, including the right to use birth control measures, are still making headlines. On August 11, 2014, it was reported that Iran’s parliament has voted to ban some forms of birth control, including vasectomies, as well as advertising for family planning.
Iranian authorities led by Khamenei say the measure is needed to combat a declining birth rate, preserve Iran’s national identity and combat Western influence.
Opponents of the birth control ban contend that authorities are trying to relegate women to the home in their traditional roles as wives and mothers to offset their surging rate of education and access to the workforce.
Again, the involvement of women in the education sector and in the Iranian workforce are among the many points analyzed by Sima. She quotes from a prescient article written in 2005 by American law professor Louise Halper in the Harvard Review of Law and Gender. Professor Halper noted that despite the return of Sharia law after the fundamentalists grabbed power in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian women had banded together to upgrade their status, as evidenced by higher enrolments at universities and a larger presence in the job market.
Professor Halper, who passed away on June 21, 2008 at age 63, spent part of her 2005 sabbatical year in Iran, speaking on law and gender in Islamic societies. She was known as a fierce defender of minorities, civil rights and social justice in America and abroad. (Many thanks to her son Reuban Halper for granting us permission to reproduce a photo of his mother for our story.)
The end of August 2014 also marked the 26th anniversary of a one-month period of brutal executions of political prisoners led by then-Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then-Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who ran unsuccessfully as a so-called reformist candidate in the 2009 Iranian presidential election.
It was late July 1988 and Khomeini had accepted (without much enthusiasm) a United Nations ceasefire to end a stalemated, eight-year war with Iraq, led at the time by Saddam Hussein. The death toll from the trench warfare was high for both sides: an estimated 500,000 Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, with a corresponding number of civilians.
In order to deflect anticipated public unrest over the monetary and human costs of the war, the fundamentalist regime of Khomeini decided to execute thousands of political prisoners in Evin and Gohardasht prisons between the end of July and August 1988. Reza Gafari, a survivor of the massacre, wrote a book titled, A State of Fear, describing the secret executions.
Geoffrey Robertson, an Australian-born barrister with dual British citizenship, documented the massacres, saying the prisoners were tortured and – without being able to mount legal defenses – led straight to the gallows where they were hung from cranes four at a time, or six at a time from ropes dangling from the stage of the prison’s assembly hall.
Their bodies were doused with disinfectant, packed in refrigerated trucks and buried by night in mass graves, the locations of which were – and still are – withheld from family members.
Once again, Sima’s analysis touches upon the political prisoners held in Evin Prison by both the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, and how she and others took to the streets in protest against such human rights violations.
Her story helps readers understand how Iran, a country with a rich cultural heritage stretching back to the tolerant ancient kingdoms of Persia, has lost its way partially due to a backlash against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s attempt to accelerate that country’s conversion into a Western-style culture without corresponding democratic freedoms and human rights.
She even touches on the cultural influence of Zoroastrianism, which is the oldest religion in the world and was the primary one of Persia until the Islamization of that country in the 7th century CE, at which time most Zoroastrians fled, many to India.
Here’s an interesting footnote for those of you not up on the Zoroastrian religion, of whom there remain just over 25,000 adherents living in Iran as of a 2012 census. Its most famous son was Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist and lyricist of the rock band, Queen, who was voted in a 2009 Classic Rock poll as the greatest rock singer of all time.
Mercury was a Parsi, one of two Zoroastrian sects, born Farrokh Bulsara in the British protectorate of Zanzibar Sultanate, now known as Tanzania. He moved to India with his parents, also British citizens, where he began piano lessons at age 7. Later when living in London, he learned guitar.
Aside from his amazing voice, which was a natural baritone but could range four octaves between bass low F and soprano high F, the flamboyantly gay Mercury was a virtuoso performer known for strutting the stage with bare-chested bravado.
Despite the reality that homosexuality is a crime sometimes punishable by death in Iran, as well as the fact that Western music is censored in that country, it might shock some Westerners to learn that in August 2004 the Iranian government officially approved for sale an album of Queen’s greatest hits, including Bohemian Rhapsody, written by Mercury for the band’s 1975 album, A Night at the Opera. Queen, always wildly popular with Iranian underground rock fans who bought and sold bootlegged albums, thus became the first rock act to ever receive official Iranian government sanction.
Nevertheless, one is left to wonder whether the rock world would have ever been blessed with the brilliance of a Freddie Mercury if his forebears, who originated in Iran, had not fled Islamic repression there in favor of freedom.
Posted by Warren Perley
As a reader, it’s hard to resist a story revealing for the first time the details of how Canadian scientists helped rescue the three Apollo 13 astronauts from certain death when their spacecraft was crippled 200,000 miles from Earth 44 years ago this past April.
As an editor, I was as much intrigued by the person writing, as by the story itself. After all, it’s not every day that you have a NASA-accredited researcher and scientist, such as Torontonian Dr. Roderick Tennyson – considered one of the world’s most knowledgeable aerospace engineers – offering to write a memoir about the most famous space rescue in history.
Many of you probably remember the details of that near-death, space adventure through the 1995 docu-drama titled Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. In the film, Tom Hanks stars as flight commander Jim Lovell; Kevin Bacon is Command/Service Module pilot Jack Swigert; and Bill Paxton is Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) pilot Fred Haise. The movie was a box-office hit, grossing $355.2 million. The expression, “Houston, we have a problem,” became part of the English lexicon as a result of the Apollo 13 crisis.
But what the Hollywood version of events completely ignored was the role played by some of Canada’s most brilliant aerospace scientists in helping to figure out a way to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely after an oxygen tank explosion disabled their spacecraft on Monday, April 13, 1970.
So I considered myself a lucky editor to land such an original, unique, behind-the-scenes story. However, I soon realized that luck had nothing to do with it. Our ability to present this story to our readers had everything to do with technology writer and editor Daphne Lavers, who is Rod Tennyson’s wife and is herself a much valued contributor to BestStory.ca.
It was only after several discussions between them that Daphne persuaded Rod that the story should be told about the role played in the Apollo 13 rescue by an elite group of scientists at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS).
With the help of Daphne who worked closely with him in organizing and writing his story with an eye to accuracy and copious detail, Rod recounts the drama that gripped the UTIAS scientists from the time they received the call for help from NASA on Thursday morning April 16, 1970 until about 4 p.m. that same day when they came up with the answer to the one mathematical problem they had been asked to solve: How much pressurized oxygen was needed in the connecting tunnel between the Command Module and the Lunar Excursion Module, in conjunction with an explosive ring which would be detonated, in order to separate them without damaging the Command Module, which was needed to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth?
With typical precision, Rod tells us in his story – www.beststory.ca – how and what answer the UTIAS team calculated for NASA within a matter of hours. The fact that he was part of that illustrious UTIAS team and would go on to become a two-term director of UTIAS (see his profile Roderick Tennyson) did not surprise those who followed his brilliant career.
A harbinger of his potential as a scientist and researcher was apparent as early as 1958 when he was still an aerospace engineering student at the University of Toronto. His small aerospace class of eight or nine students was invited to Downsview air base, near UTIAS, for a tour of the facility and an introduction to the Avro Arrow, the best supersonic fighter aircraft in the world at that time and manufactured in Canada by A. V. Roe.
The tour took several hours and included access to the air traffic master control room which was being readied for a test flight by famed Polish-Canadian test pilot Jan Zurakowski. The students were taken out to the hangar and onto the gantry beside the aircraft. One at a time and accompanied by an Avro engineer, they were allowed to walk on a defined section of the aircraft wing and look into the cockpit.
“It was amazing. The aircraft looked huge – it was a stunningly beautiful machine,” Rod recalled.
In fact, the aircraft was huge – with a wingspan of 50 feet, a length of nearly 78 feet, and capable of Mach 1.98 speed. This compares with the U.S.–made fighter aircraft touted by the current Conservative government, the F-35, with a wingspan of 35 feet, a length of 52 feet and a flight speed of Mach 1.67. The Arrow was also superior in that it had twin engines, meaning it could fly even if one of them flamed out, unlike the single-engine F-35.
Rod and the other students watched as the aircraft was towed out of the hangar and Zurakowski taxied down the runway for takeoff. When he was airborne, they were allowed to listen to his real time comments to the control tower.
“I was definitely hooked on aerospace as a career! “ Rod says. Before he left the facility that day, he had been offered – and had accepted – a job with A. V. Roe, scheduled to begin when he graduated the following year. “It was a dream job for a young aerospace engineer,” he recalled.
Unfortunately, the year following his visit to A. V. Roe, the Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker cancelled the Arrow program on February 20, 1959, taking the unheard-of step of ordering the immediate destruction of all blueprints and insisting that all flight test models be cut into pieces with blow torches.
During the test program for the Arrow, various polished stainless steel test models had been fabricated with different geometries in order to come up with the optimum engine inlet configurations. Rod knew that a number of these test models had been fired off the Scarborough bluffs over Lake Ontario and that they lay in the bottom silt, never to be recovered.
“Much to our amazement, one of the models was found at the back of a storage cupboard in the UTIA [University of Toronto Institute for Aerophysics, as it was then known] machine shop,” Rod said. “It is now on permanent display at the institute [UTIAS].”
Like most Canadians, Rod was shocked when he learned of the Arrow’s cancellation. It led him to continue his aerospace studies after completing his undergraduate engineering degree. “I decided that my best chance to get ahead in this field was to pursue graduate studies at UTIA,” he said. “This was highly recommended by the professors who agreed that two years of undergraduate aerospace education was too little.”
He went on to get his Master’s and a Ph.D. in aerospace studies with his thesis on cylindrical shell structures. Ironically, losing the job opportunity with the Arrow program and instead staying at the U. of T. to specialize in the study of cylindrical shell structures likely allowed him to contribute more fully to helping the UTIAS team tackle the Apollo 13 challenge several years later.
But the Apollo 13 mission was not the most significant scientific or academic achievement of Rod Tennyson’s career. In later years, he and his research team flew experiments on the Space Shuttle to study the effects of the space environment on plastic thin films (such as Kapton used for solar panels on satellites) and composite materials (for example, carbon fibre reinforced plastics similar to what we use today on sporting goods and race cars).
They also studied impacts from space debris and micrometeoroids, much like what was shown in the movie “Gravity”. This work led to new design methods for predicting impact damage to spacecraft, and a fibre optic impact detection system which received a NASA award for innovation.
In the past decade, Rod has focussed his research on fibre optic sensor systems used on bridges and pipelines for detecting damage such as corrosion, cracking and structural failure. He and his research team have several patents that were used to create commercial systems in a startup company called Fox-Tek, which has since merged with another company.
But for all Rod’s outstanding scientific career accomplishments, the Apollo 13 mission was surely the most momentous achievement of a lifetime, allowing him to be part of a dedicated, brilliant Canadian aerospace team which helped save the lives of three intrepid American astronauts!
Posted by Warren Perley
As a former career journalist who covered federal and provincial politics for The Canadian Press, our new contributor James Osborne knows a thing or two about tackling controversial subjects. In fact, he warned me during one of our first email exchanges almost three months ago that an analysis he wanted to write about Western prejudice against Islam would likely “provoke some controversy.”
So I expected there could be blowback on the subject once the piece was published. However, I didn’t even have to wait for it to be posted before I got a taste of the kind of negative perceptions prevalent in Western society about Muslim culture.
A Canadian writer to whom I mentioned the pending story by Jim immediately told me that would be a “must-read” piece for her because she had heard nothing good about Muslim culture, citing among others an Internet article titled “The Joys of Being a Muslim Woman” written by Nonie Darwish.
Darwish has also written a book titled, “Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law.” The basic premise of her writings is that the goal of radical Islamists is to impose Sharia Law on the world and in the process destroy the Western rule of law based on protection of human rights.
Darwish, born in 1949, spent her childhood in Gaza, then under Egyptian control. Her father, Colonel Mustafa Hafez, an Egyptian military officer in charge of army intelligence in Gaza, died in 1956 in a targeted killing by the Israel Defense Forces after he led covert attacks on civilians in Israel. Darwish became disillusioned with Muslim culture as she had experienced it in the Middle East and eventually converted to Christianity after immigrating to the U.S. with her husband in 1978.
In her 2009 book, “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” Darwish describes the Quran as “violent, incendiary and disrespectful,” saying that barbaric acts such as beheadings, stonings, rapes of women and persecution of gays come directly from it.
So why wouldn’t an average non-Muslim reader of Darwish come away with negative thoughts about the Quran and Islam in general? After all, she grew up in the religion and the culture. If anyone should know the truth, she should, right?
Well, not necessarily. Even though she grew up as a Muslim, that does not make Darwish an expert on the Quran. What she is knowledgeable about is the repressive Muslim culture she was forced to endure during her childhood in Gaza and young adult years in Egypt.
So why pontificate about a subject — the Quran — on which she might not be an expert? I can’t answer for Darwish, but I do know that James Osborne’s analysis is based on the solid research of trained theologians which sheds light on how the real teachings of the Quran have been subverted by influential fundamentalist Islamists to create a xenophobic culture which subjugates women and teaches hatred of Western values.
As a journalist and researcher, Jim is suggesting that non-Muslims should not confuse the teachings of the Quran with the way extremists have misinterpreted them to create a regressive Muslim culture, which moderate Muslims reject. His message is that predominantly Western Christian society should overcome its prejudice and embrace moderate Muslims in their moral battle against extremists waging jihad.
Jim will be the first to tell you that he does not consider himself an expert on the Muslim faith. But he has spent three years of his life studying research by recognized academic scholars of Islam and Christianity in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.
His article on the home page of www.BestStory.ca explains how Western prejudice against peaceful Muslims could be paving the way for more Islamic terrorism against the West.
“This issue has bothered me for some time,” Jim told me before he submitted the piece to BestStory.ca. “Some results of my research came as quite a surprise to me. It also points out that certain practices attributed to the Islamic religion are, in fact, culturally based, which is why these vary widely among numerous Muslim countries.”
Jim’s keen journalistic sense, which he employs to parse the line between religion and culture, allows us as readers to understand how an author such as Nonie Darwish could get it right when she talks about the repressive nature of the Muslim culture she experienced, but how she could go off-track in attributing that culture directly to the Quran.
Jim’s determined effort to provide an objective analysis of how Muslim religion and culture intersect will, I hope, be appreciated by my friend the Canadian writer who told me that such an article would be a “must-read” for her. For all of us non-Muslims, understanding the difference between religion and culture is an important distinction to make if we hope to understand the basis for the terror and tyranny which have been foisted on the world by the evil people who perpetrated 9-11.
Posted by Warren Perley
Tilar J. Mazzeo, a self-described “scavenger for details,” has the kind of tenacity that can pay big dividends for a best-selling author of non-fiction.
In her most recent book, titled The Hotel on Place Vendôme, published by HarperCollins, Tilar scours the Hôtel Ritz under a magnifying glass to reveal, in the words of former New York Times foreign correspondent Alan Riding, “a steamy world of sex, drugs, partying and political intrigue” during the Nazi occupation of France between September 1940 and August 1944. The sub-title of her book reveals all: Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris.
Few, if any, cultural icons of the 20th century have denoted more pretentious luxury than the Hôtel Ritz, which was the inspiration for the slang expression, “putting on the Ritz,” referring to a grand lifestyle, replete with sartorial splendor and fine food.
Just three decades after its founding by Swiss hotelier César Ritz in 1898, American songwriter Irving Berlin was inspired in 1929 to publish a song titled Putting On The Ritz, which made its debut as part of a musical of that name one year later.
In 1934, the National Biscuit Company (later known as Nabisco) took advantage of the international patina of the Ritz in order develop a round buttery cracker with scalloped edges, which it marketed under the brand Ritz Crackers.
Ritz has even made its way into the Oxford Dictionary as the noun “ritz” and “ritziness”, as well the adjectives “ritzy”, “ritzier” and “ritziest”, meaning flamboyant luxury. All derivatives of the word are attributed by the Oxford to the Hôtel Ritz founded by César Ritz.
Tilar’s book traces the history of the Hôtel Ritz from its founding through the Roaring 20s with its colony of European and American expatriate artists, including F. Scott Fitzgerald; through the war years and Ernest Hemingway’s claim that he liberated the Ritz from the Nazis in late August 1944; through and beyond the 1979 sale of the iconic hotel to Egyptian-born millionaire Mohamed Al Fayed whose son Dodi Fayed and Princess Di ate their last meals there on August 31, 1997 before succumbing to injuries sustained in a traffic accident while trying to flee paparazzi.
[According to eyewitnesses, the only thing Hemingway liberated at the Hôtel Ritz one late August day in 1944 was its fine wine collection, the Germans having fled from the hotel in advance of the American Army’s arrival.]
The majority of Tilar’s history of the Ritz concentrates on the war years and the collaboration between Nazi occupiers and the French elite of the business, entertainment and literary worlds in what was then still the cultural capital of the West. What they all had in common was a love of luxury and power.
As Editor of BestStory.ca, I feel fortunate that Tilar has treated us to not just one, but two examples of her writing, which you can find on our home page — www.beststory.ca. Her main piece is about the challenges she faced — almost seven decades after the war had ended — in conducting research into the cozy relationship between many Parisians living under the Vichy regime and their Nazi occupiers, who set up their headquarters in the Hôtel Ritz in September 1940.
In her typical understated style, Tilar, 42, told me in a telephone interview that she speaks French “imperfectly but courageously” having studied the language in high school in Camden, Maine and practiced it during teenage summers spent with family friends in Orleans, located 69 miles southwest of Paris and known for its magnificent chateaus, lush vineyards and succulent French cuisine.
Her language skills and determination have served well in her adult life, as she transitioned from the sedate world of New England writing and literature professor into a high-octane, non-fiction author who takes 12- to 18-month academic sabbaticals to trot the globe ferreting out secrets from earlier eras about luxury brands and their enduring influence on people’s self-identities.
In her BestStory.ca article, Tilar takes us behind the scenes of the blisteringly hot Paris summer of 2011 as she traipsed through archives and cobble-stoned streets searching for clues of collaborations which had occurred between occupiers and occupied a lifetime ago. She didn’t get much cooperation from the French bureaucrats, but that didn’t deter her.
For both writers and readers of non-fiction, her article is a primer on the serious, sustained effort and subtle approach required in researching a delicate subject. In total, she spent three years on research and one year to write the book.
“I learned at some point,” Tilar told me, “not to be so specific about what I was looking for.” The object of her desire was the Hôtel Ritz registry, which would have identified the list of guests staying there at the same time as the Nazis. “I didn’t realize how unpopular a subject wartime collaboration still is with the public there. They’re very sensitive about it.”
Of course, not all the French are, or were, sensitive about wartime fraternization. Take Arletty, described in Tilar’s book as a “sultry French film star and national celebrity” who “passed the war in luxury at the Hôtel Ritz” with her much younger German lover, Hans-Jürgen Soehring, a handsome, blonde lieutenant in the Luftwaffe and the son of a diplomat.
Arletty was imprisoned after the war, at age 47, for fraternizing with the enemy, but remained unchastened when released from her cell a few years later to resume her career as an actress. She is quoted by Geoffrey Nowell Smith in The Oxford History of World Cinema as saying of her scandalous love affair: “My heart is French, but my ass is international.”
The second treat offered by Tilar on the BestStory.ca site is an exclusive excerpt from her book’s Chapter 7 titled, The Jewish Bartender and The German Resistance. It revolves around Frank Meier, better known as Frank of The Ritz, a debonair Austrian of Jewish heritage who worked with the French Resistance while serving drinks to Nazi bar patrons.
During the course of her research, Tilar discovered that Frank was involved in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a bomb planted at his Rastenburg, Prussia command post known as “Wolf’s Lair.” The bomb was contained in a briefcase planted by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, chief of the army reserve. The assassination attempt became known as Operation Valkyrie, which was the German government’s code name for an emergency plan in case of a general breakdown in civil order.
Tilar’s Chapter 7 picks up at the Cambon bar at the Hôtel Ritz on Friday, July 21, 1944, the day after the bomb went off charring and temporarily paralyzing one of Hitler’s arms, but otherwise leaving him very much alive and bent on revenge against those who had plotted his death.
Tilar engulfs her readers with dramatic alacrity:
“The storm troopers at the Ritz that day [July 21, 1944] weren’t looking for wounded gunmen or members of the French resistance. It was the German plot they were working to uncover. The Ritz bar — Frank’s domain — had been a center of the German resistance in Paris almost since the war began.”
Tilar told me that Frank was the “mailbox,” passing messages to and from Resistance fighters at his bar. During her research of archives, Tilar discovered that German police in Berlin knew that Frank was a conduit, but decided not to arrest him. She never found out why they let him continue to operate, but speculates that perhaps they were hoping he would lead them to “bigger fish.”
[A big thank-you to Andreas Augustin, president of The Most Famous Hotels In The World, an Austrian-based publishing company which writes about historic hotels, for allowing BestStory.ca to reproduce one of their photos of Frank Meier as part of Tilar’s excerpt: www.famoushotels.org ]
If you were to conclude that Frank’s main claim to fame was as a spy, you would be wrong. He’s one of the best-known barmen of the 20th century, having concocted multiple cocktails in honor of Hôtel Ritz bar patrons starting in 1921 through 1947. His 1934 book titled, The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, contains 300 of his recipes and went through three limited edition printings. It’s still available on amazon.com.
And if you were to assume that Tilar Mazzeo is a shy bookworm and writer who cherishes her solitude [See her Contributor’s Profile at www.beststory.ca], you would likely be wrong, once again. All her photos depict a wispy, ethereal presence with a toothy, luminous smile framed by a stylish bob of blonde hair, perhaps a vestige of the 11th century conquest of Sicily by the Normans, also known as Norsemen, themselves descendents of the Vikings. Tilar looks as though she would have been totally in her element hoisting libations with the literati who frequented the Hôtel Ritz bar between the two world wars.
Even the name, Tilar J. Mazzeo — J. stands for Jenon — has a patina of exoticism, a flash of her Sicilian and Finnish heritage (the Finnish is on her mother’s side mixed with American Puritan). She alights as a social butterfly to imbibe a pungent glass of wine while regaling new acquaintances with stimulating conversation in fluent English and French, buttressed by some Italian and German, and just a smidge of naughty Finnish to shock.
In fact, wine and writing seem to have played symbiotic roles in her life, according to a September 2011 interview she gave to Judy MacMahon of My French Life magazine. Her first job as a professor was in Oregon’s wine country in her early 20s. But her then-husband, also an academic, couldn’t find a job in Oregon. So they moved to the Midwest, where they both secured teaching positions. But there was no wine industry there, which left Tilar less than rosy.
To console herself, she studied the history of French champagne and made some new girlfriends who were also passionate about their wine. At some point, they graduated to sharing bottles of champagne amid girl talk as to whether there really was a Widow Clicquot behind the French champagne brand Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. (Veuve in French means widow.)
That led to her first book about luxury brands published in 2009 by HarperCollins and titled, The Widow Clicquot, a New York Times bestselling business biography of the visionary young widow who built a champagne empire.
One year later, HarperCollins published her second such book, The Secret of Chanel No. 5, an unauthorized biography of the world’s most famous perfume. In fact, the idea for her next book came to mind while researching British and American government documents about the wartime activities of fashion designer Coco Chanel: the name of the Hôtel Ritz kept popping up with its list of famous and infamous residents.
[You can find her most recent HarperCollins book about the Hôtel Ritz at: www.harpercollins.com ]
Describing herself as an “energetic, nomadic optimist,” Tilar said in the My French Life magazine interview that “the best ideas come from talking over champagne with girlfriends.”
She confided to me that she is a woman of “eclectic intellectual interests.” And she doesn’t seem to stay in one place very long. Every time I contacted her by phone or email over a one-week period, she was in a hotel or airport at Dallas, Boston, Tel Aviv and New York City, either to promote her new book or to research her next one.
Travel has been her passion since as a 17-year-old leaving high school she saved $10,000 working part-time as a waitress and took off several months, visiting France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. She stayed in England, while a student at Cambridge, with stints living in Berlin, Paris and the south of France.
As a child growing up in the seaside town of Camden, Maine, she and her three younger brothers (a banker, a lawyer and a diplomat turned teacher) received art and dance lessons. Tilar’s mother and father, an engineer, also made sure that she received instruction in violin. But Tilar always had her eye on writing, announcing that career choice to her parents with the precocious self-confidence that only a 6-year-old can muster.
Of course, writing was already in her genes through a 13th century ancestor, troubadour Mazzeo di Ricco da Messina, one of the Italian Trecentisti/Sicilian school poets. The family lived in the Sicilian province of Messina until the devastating earthquake of 1908, which wiped out Tilar’s entire family there, except for her great-grandfather. On the boat to America, he met his wife-to-be, who was also the only one of her family to survive.
As befits someone who comes from a family which has worked diligently for all they have achieved, Tilar is humble…with an ever so quirky sense of humor. On ratemyprofessors.com, one student from Colby College in Maine wrote of her: “She made the required and dreaded class my favourite class. She’s fun and has a great sense of humor.” Another student wrote: “This travel writing class rocks. Tilar is witty and funny and damned smart and my head is buzzing when I get out of class. Awesome.”
But make sure you complete your lesson plans because she’s no pushover, according to a third student who wrote: “Mazzeo is cool. Slackers beware, but otherwise she rocks. Class discussions are intense.”
Somewhere between the Midwest, Maine and Paris, Tilar lost her first husband (divorce), but ended up remarrying in February 2013 another academic, Professor Robert Miles, chairman of the Department of English Literature at the University of Victoria. In 2014, she emigrated to Saanichton, British Columbia as a permanent Canadian resident. (The cost of cross-border tax accountants? “Bloody frightful,” she told me.)
To make sure her second marriage got off to a rollicking start, Tilar headed for Las Vegas where a justice of the peace dressed as Elvis pronounced the vows and then drove husband and wife down the Vegas strip in a pink Cadillac convertible while people cheered and horns honked.
In an interview with journalists Sarah Boland and Genevieve Liston-Oakden of The Colby Echo college newspaper, Tilar described her second marriage ceremony as “really sweet, a ton of fun.”
Happy to have you in Canada, Tilar, where your blithe spirit and literary talent are a welcome addition!
Posted by Warren Perley
There seems to be confusion and misunderstanding about the wording of the second question of the Crimean referendum ballot of March 16, 2014.
On March 17, the CBC quoted Mikhail Malishev, head of the Crimean referendum committee, as saying that initial results indicated that 95 percent of voters in that region approved of leaving Ukraine in favour of becoming part of Russia.
The CBC News story was an amalgam of reporting by The Associated Press and the CBC’s own reporters, including Susan Ormiston:
The two referendum ballot questions as reported online in the CBC piece were:
- Do you support reunifying Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?
- Do you support the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?
Ormiston is quoted as saying: “The ballot actually doesn’t give an option to stay in Ukraine. The second option is to vote for an autonomous Crimea…so the result is almost decidedly clear that this part of Ukraine will vote to go for Russia today.”
In the next paragraph, the CBC article states: “This second question refers to a constitution that asserts Crimea is an independent state and not part of Ukraine. Reference to autonomy within Ukraine was inserted at a later date.”
What does it mean when the CBC says a “reference to autonomy within Ukraine was inserted at a later date”? Inserted into what? Inserted into the Crimean constitution? If so, when was the original constitution passed and when was the “inserted” reference to “autonomy within Ukraine” passed.
Without giving historical context to that paragraph, it is incomprehensible and meaningless. The only thing we understand is Ormiston’s conclusion: “The ballot actually doesn’t give an option to stay in Ukraine.”
But Ormiston’s conclusion is incorrect, given that the second question clearly asks whether voters support “the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and the status of Crimean as part of Ukraine?”
What’s needed, but missing, is an explanation of the 1992 Crimean constitution. After the U.S.S.R. broke up in 1991, the Crimean parliament voted on May 5, 1992 to pass its first constitution declaring Crimea independent. The next day, on May 6, 1992, the Crimean parliament amended this new constitution by inserting a sentence declaring that Crimea was part of Ukraine.
On May 13, 1992 the Ukrainian parliament annulled Crimea’s declaration of independence. One month later, in June 1992, the Ukrainian and Crimean governments negotiated a compromise whereby Crimea was given the status of “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” with its own parliament and president, as well as more powers than the other 24 oblasts (provinces) of Ukraine.
In subsequent years, there was jockeying between the Crimean and Ukrainian governments over what powers Crimea should be able to exercise under its 1992 constitution, resulting in the Ukrainian parliament under President Leonid Kuchma abolishing the May 1992 constitution on March 17, 1995, together with the post of president of Crimea.
In October 1995, the Crimean parliament adopted a new constitution, but the Ukrainian government did not recognize it until April 1996 when substantial amendments were made to it.
In October 1998, the Crimean parliament ratified the fifth draft of the October 1995 constitution and two months later, the Ukrainian parliament also confirmed that version of the Crimean constitution. [Article 135 of the Ukrainian constitution specifies that the Crimean constitution must be approved by the Ukrainian parliament.]
Now with its second question on the referendum ballot of March 16, 2014, the Crimean referendum committee was giving Crimean voters the option of whether they wished to remain part of Ukraine but with the greater autonomous powers they had as part of their 1992 constitution, as opposed to the 1995 version of the constitution ratified in 1998.
The upshot of this history lesson is that contrary to what CBC reported today, Crimean voters were given a choice on their referendum ballot as to whether they preferred to remain part of Ukraine. The results clearly indicate that they do not.
Posted by Warren Perley
In journalism, there is a difference between knowing and understanding. When we watch Western media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, we “know” that Russian military forces recently invaded Crimea, where a majority of the population has been calling for secession from Ukraine in favour of reunification with Russia.
But to “understand” why this is happening and whether a Crimean referendum vote in favour of rejoining Russia is logical, legitimate and, ultimately, legal, readers and viewers need context – historical, political and social.
Unfortunately, such context has been in short supply in Western media reports. So as Editor of BestStory.ca, I was looking for a knowledgeable writer with a profound understanding of Ukraine, Crimea and Russia in order to analyze for our readers the circumstances underlying the headlines.
I found such a man in Dmitry Tamoikin, a writer and businessman of Russian and Ukrainian heritage born in Crimea in 1984, who now calls Halifax, Nova Scotia home. He is in touch daily, via email and phone, with colleagues and friends in Ukraine, discussing the economic and political crisis in that country, as well as the prospects for Crimea to reunify with Russia.
His 7,351-word analysis, for which you can find the teaser on our home page, is a masterful summary of the long, turbulent history and cultural ties which both bind and divide the Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities, helping us to understand the current crisis and what the future likely holds. I respect that Dmitry’s analysis appears well balanced in respect to the positions of both Russia and Ukraine, as befits an analyst with blood ties to both countries.
You can learn more about Dmitry by reading his profile at www.beststory.ca. Later in this memo, I’ll reveal a few additional nuggets about Dmitry’s personal life.
But first, allow me to share with you five facts about the Ukraine, courtesy of Cam Ross, a retired major-general with the Canadian Forces who is an Executive Fellow at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary.
- Ukraine is approximately the size of Saskatchewan with a population of 46 million.
- It’s bordered on the north with Russia, on the east with Crimea, with the Black Sea to its south.
- The eastern Crimean port city of Kerch is connected to the Russian port of Kavkaz by a 4 km ferry service which takes about 25 minutes one way.
- Ukraine obtains more than half its natural gas from Russia and owed that country’s Gazprom $1.6 billion as of March 2014. At the same time, Ukraine was negotiating a $15 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
- There are more than 1 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, with 337,000 in Ontario, 333,000 in Alberta and 198,000 in British Columbia.
Ukraine, with a land mass of 233,062 square miles, is the largest country lying entirely within Europe. Its biggest city and capital is Kiev, with a population of 2.8 million. About 78 percent of its population is ethnic Ukrainian and 17 percent is ethnic Russian. The remaining 5 percent is made up of Belarusians, Romanians and Tatars.
The country is composed of 24 oblasts (provinces) and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, whose 2 million citizens – most ethnic Russians – are now in the eye of a storm concerning efforts to secede from Ukraine in favour of becoming part of Russia. The dominant religion in Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Since the Middle Ages, Ukraine’s fertile farmland, which has earned it the reputation of being the breadbasket of Europe for its abundant grain crops, has been fought over by powers including Cossacks, Tatars, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, Russians, Turks and Germans.
Russia went to war against the Turks in 1768 [Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774], leading to its annexation of Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and its Tatar allies in 1773.
The Russian Empire collapsed during the Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought into being the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). In March 1921, three years after the First World War ended, the U.S.S.R. and Poland signed the Peace of Riga dividing the Ukraine between them.
Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Germany and the U.S.S.R. [allies at the time, but enemies two years later when Germany turned on the U.S.S.R. and invaded it] divided Poland between them, with Eastern Galicia and Volhynia with their Ukrainian populations being reunited with the rest of Ukraine under Soviet control, where it remained until 1991 when the U.S.S.R. collapsed and the Ukraine became independent for the first time in its history.
Meanwhile, in 1954, when Ukraine was still part of the U.S.S.R., Nikita Khrushchev, who was then First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a good-will gesture, where it has remained pending the ramifications which will occur as a result of the March 16, 2014 referendum. For more than 200 years, Russia has had, and continues to have, a large naval base in the warm-water, Crimean port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea.
It is against this complicated backdrop of history that Dmitry Tamoikin has taken us inside the hearts and minds of both Russians and Ukrainians for an astute political analysis from his unique vantage point of having long-held and current ties with Ukrainian citizens both inside and outside Crimea.
The issue of the legitimacy and legality of a referendum vote such as that undertaken by Crimea on March 16, 2014 deserves further analysis here, especially in light of the Canadian experience whereby the province of Quebec held two such referendums – one in 1980 and another in 1995 – with the avowed purpose to secede from Canada.
First, let’s look at the positions recently enunciated by key NATO allies on this matter:
- On March 6, 2014, President Barack Obama said the Crimean referendum violates international law and the constitution of the Ukraine.
- The same day, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement: “Canada will not recognize a referendum held in a region currently under illegal military occupation.”
- On March 10, 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the British House of Commons: “We are all clear that any referendum vote in Crimea this week will be illegal, illegitimate and will not be recognized by the international community.”
- On March 9, 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman issued a statement quoting Merkel as telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Crimean referendum was “illegal.” The statement went on to say that the referendum was “against the Ukrainian constitution and international law."
- On March 1, 2014, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tweeted that the Crimean referendum was illegal and would result in sanctions against Russia.
Interestingly, the People’s Republic of China has declined to jump on the bandwagon in opposition to the referendum. China’s official news agency issued a release on March 10, 2014 in which it quoted President Xi Jinping as saying China “hoped that all parties concerned would tackle their differences through communication and coordination,” adding that “his country maintains an objective and fair stance on the Ukrainian situation.”
At a news conference in early March in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the “legitimacy” of sending Russian troops into Ukraine. He replied that Viktor Yanukovych, whom he still considers to be the legal president of Ukraine, asked “us to use the Armed Forces to protect the lives, freedom and health of the citizens of Ukraine.”
When asked his biggest concern as a result of the Euromaidan demonstrations, he replied: “We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.” He went on to call it “uncontrolled crime” which could spread to the eastern portions of Ukraine where most ethnic Russians reside.
So what is an “objective and fair stance”, as Chinese President Xi Jinping phrases it from a legal point of view? In a March 7, 2014 interview with the BBC, Professor Marc Weller of the University of Cambridge’s department of politics and international studies, acknowledged that “the autonomous Crimean territory may indeed be legally entitled to argue for a change in its status.”
However, Weller went on to say that under international precedent even if a referendum supports separation, the local government (Crimea) must still negotiate such terms of separation with the central government in Kiev.
What Weller failed to point out is that there is no legally constituted central government in Kiev with which to negotiate since militants overthrew Ukraine’s legally elected president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, 2014, leading him to flee to Russia over safety concerns.
Constitutionally, the Ukrainian parliament could have undertaken impeachment proceedings against Yanukovych to remove him from office legally. They failed to do so, which in turn makes the interim presidency of Oleksandr Turchynov illegal. In his analysis, Dmitry Tamoikin goes into more detail on this point.
To add emphasis to the illegal status of Ukraine’s interim government, Yanukovych issued a statement from Russia on March 11, 2014, stating that he remains Ukraine’s legitimate president and commander-in-chief, adding he plans to return to Kiev shortly.
In his BBC article, Marc Weller also questioned the right of Russia to send its forces into Crimea under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians from violence even though there was no such evidence. However, those on the ground in Crimea, with whom our writer Dmitry Tamoikin has been in daily contact, say that such violence was threatened by right-wing extremists from Kiev who have subsequently been dissuaded solely by the presence of Russian troops, who have not yet fired a shot in anger.
And let’s not forget that the Crimean parliament voted in favour of asking the Russians to intervene on their territory, even though Weller claims the Crimean authorities lack the legal power to make such a request. However, when anarchy reigns at the federal level in Kiev, surely it is the responsibility of an autonomous territory such as Crimea to fill the vacuum and take steps for the protection of its citizens that federal authorities either can’t or won’t do.
[For those who wish to read Weller’s entire BBC article, it can be found here.]
It’s instructive to look back at the two referendums held by the Quebec government in 1980 and 1995 by which they sought to separate from the Canadian federation. It should be noted that there were no negotiations between the two levels of government – federal and provincial – before Quebec held either referendum, both losing causes for the side which wished to separate.
Prior to both votes, no world leaders outside Canada expressed the view that such a referendum was illegal, despite the fact that neither the Canadian nor Quebec government had negotiated a common set of rules for the referendums. Nor had they discussed how assets and liabilities would be divided if Quebec did separate. In fact in 1995, the Canadian and Quebec governments didn’t even agree on whether a unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec in the event of the separatists winning the referendum would be supported by international law.
So why now are world leaders saying that the referendum being held by Crimea must be negotiated ahead of time with the Ukrainian government? The terms of separation could be negotiated after the results are known and if they favour secession. Perhaps by then, a legally constituted federal government will be in place in Kiev, meaning the Crimean government would have a legitimate partner with whom to negotiate.
Prior to the 1995 Quebec referendum, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed constitutional law professor Stéphane Dion to challenge the legal validity of the vote. One of the arguments made by Dion was that the vast majority of international law experts "believe that the right to declare secession unilaterally does not belong to constituent entities of a democratic country such as Canada."
In light of Dion’s assertion and considering that Ukraine is not “a democratic country such as Canada,” a moral and legal argument could be made that an autonomous territory such as Crimea which holds a referendum vote to separate could then have the right to declare unilateral secession from a failed state such as Ukraine, which is in the throes of anarchy, corruption and near-bankruptcy.
Keep in mind that it was only after the whisker-thin victory to keep Canada together in the 1995 referendum [49.42 percent in favour of separation, compared with 50.58 percent against breaking up the country] that the federal government, through Dion, submitted a reference case to the Supreme Court of Canada on September 30, 1996 in which they asked, among other questions, about a province’s right to self-determination under international law.
On August 20, 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that Quebec could not secede unilaterally under Canadian or international law. However, it also ruled that the Government of Canada would have an obligation to negotiate in good faith with the Quebec government if Quebecers expressed a clear will to secede.
Again, if we apply this principle to the current situation in Crimea, one could extrapolate that if President Viktor Yanukovych, corrupt as he may be, were to re-assume his legitimate powers as president of Ukraine, then Crimea would have an obligation to negotiate with his government the terms of any secession approved in the March 16, 2014 referendum.
We can also assume, given Yanukovych’s pro-Russian stance and the protection afforded him by that country, that he would be more than willing to oblige his Russian patrons by negotiating the release of Crimea into their jurisdiction.
For those of you interested in delving further into this contentious issue, I urge you to read Dmitry Tamoikin’s in-depth analysis, which you can access on our home page. I have just scratched the surface here to give you an idea of the multi-layered nature of this political hot potato.
Aside from the analysis he provided, Dmitry has also made available to us photos from Crimea taken by himself and colleagues Ekaterina Groznaya and Dmitry Szamrej. We thank them for their photographic contributions.
For those of you wondering how Dmitry Tamoikin passes his time when he’s not writing or working in the family business trading collectibles and art, he is a fitness fanatic who works out at the gym, scuba dives, runs 10 km outside, even in winter, and swims the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Compared with his regular routine, writing a 7,351-word analysis of the Ukrainian crisis is a piece of cake for our Man from Sevastopol.
Posted by Warren Perley
Editor’s Addendum: I ran across an unusual situation this week: A California businessman, Morgan Linton, who despite being a proud American can’t help acknowledging to the world that the 2014 Olympic broadcast coverage of the CBC is vastly superior to that of NBC.
NBC’s parent company spent $775 million (U.S.) for American broadcast rights to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, whereas CBC reportedly paid less than $154 million (U.S.) which includes Canadian rights for both the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, as well for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
NBC has said it will have more than 1,000 hours of live streaming coverage across six NBCUniversal platforms at Sochi, compared with 1,519 hours of live programming announced by the CBC.
Before resigning in April 2013, CBC’s executive vice-president Kirstine Stewart told The Canadian Press that CBC hoped to make “a bit of profit” from advertising on the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. By comparison, NBC has said it expects to earn $1 billion in ad dollars from the Sochi Winter Games.
In light of the foregoing facts, I asked Morgan to write a first-person account of what prompted him and his wife, Daina, who hails from Milton Ontario, a small town 25 miles west of Toronto, to switch to CBC from NBC. This marks the first time that I have turned over a Notes From The Editor entry to a guest writer, whose profile you can find at the end of this story.
The Winter Games has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I can still remember learning about countries I had never heard of at around age 5. “Where’s that?” I would ask my parents, pointing to a globe on the coffee table. I guess you could say the Olympics were inadvertently my first geography teacher, but more importantly it was the first time I learned about other cultures around the world.
My wife is from Canada and, like me, she also loves the Winter Games. If you saw us watching figure skating, you’d think we had a family member in the event — yes, we absolutely love the Olympics!
In 2010 we made the trip to Vancouver to experience the Winter Games first-hand. It was absolutely magical. Here’s the thing though: while I was expecting the magic to be all about the events, I quickly found that it was much more. Every night we found ourselves hopping from country-themed house to house. From Russia House to Swiss House, we were welcomed with open arms, tried a few drinks we’d never tasted prior to that and listened to music we had never heard before.
What I learned was that what really makes the Olympics magical is the fact that the whole world comes together, puts their differences aside and shares together in the excitement of the events. I can still remember swapping stories with a guy from Sweden who was the same age as me: we talked about what life was like, what our dreams were and what we did on the weekends. I learned that our lives were incredibly similar; we just lived in different places.
Fast-forward to 2014: my wife and I were excited to watch the Olympics, this time from our home in Los Angeles. We don’t watch a lot of television (we run a tech startup in L.A., so we’re pretty busy people) so we just have basic cable. Still that meant we would get NBC in HD, so I thought we’d be in good shape. I was wrong.
What we learned was that NBC actually only broadcasts the Olympics in two four-hour blocks, of which 50 percent of the broadcast is spent on long, elaborate commercials (the same ones over and over and over again) and commentary.
Then when NBC does show the events you missed, they end up very focused on the U.S. athletes. In the ski slopestyle, introduced for the first time at Sochi as an Olympic competition, they never showed the British athlete who was in first place; we just saw that suddenly someone was ahead of the U.S.
[Dara Howell, a Canadian, became the first gold medal winner in ski slopestyle, finishing first in that women’s event on February 11, 2014, followed by American Devin Logan who took silver and Canadian Kim Lamarre with bronze. — Editor]
The good news for us was that I had heard about a great option that NBC had added this year called “Live Extra” that made it possible to watch the Olympics live or on-demand later on. We were saved! Once again, I was wrong. Opening the app, I found out that basic cable wouldn’t cut it; I would need to upgrade my account with my cable provider in order to stream the “Live Extra” content.
That’s when we realized that CBC, BBC and tons of other TV networks around the world allow people in their respective countries to stream for free directly through their website(s). You didn’t need a separate cable plan. It just worked. All you needed was a computer located in that country.
We decided to take action because we wanted to watch the Olympics, not just the highlights shown during “Prime Time” the next day. So I went to StrongVPN.com and purchased a $12/month package that allowed me to change to a Canadian IP address. Two minutes later, we had access to more Olympic content than I ever thought would be available.
As we started watching, my wife and I looked at each other: “Where are the commercials?” Twenty minutes in and we still hadn’t seen one. Finally we did see one commercial, which lasted under a minute, and then we were instantly back in the action. The slopestyle event that I had really been getting into suddenly took new form when we had the chance to see all 31 athletes compete, rather than the three to four who had been shown in between epically long commercial breaks during NBC’s Prime Time.
I’m a morning person, so watching the Olympics from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. won’t work for me because I’m out like a light by 10 p.m. Then when I wake up in the morning and the Olympic events are rocking in Russia, NBC runs no Olympic programming. The same thing happens in the afternoon: between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., the main time I would have to watch the Olympics, NBC is showing non-Olympic programming on every single channel.
Let’s compare this to the Canadian lineup: CBC has Olympics on multiple channels, going all day and night. The streaming is open to everyone, not just people with a specific cable plan. And the content is focused on the athletes and the events, rather than on the commercials.
Just to compare, I decided to pay Time Warner to upgrade my cable plan so I could see what this NBC “Live Extra” is all about. The first event we watched showed us two snowboarders and then, no joke, 10 minutes of commercials. I thought this must have been an error with the app itself. So I relaunched it and things seemed to get better: still lots of commercials, but not lasting 10 minutes….Then the stream cut out and started at the very beginning.
When I dug deeper, I found that the “Live Extra” app was missing some key events and coverage of some of the athletes who really made these events special. When the app was working, the commercials were relentless. Just as you were starting to get into it, here comes another epic commercial for a $3,500 watch.
Now we are enjoying every minute of the Olympics, and more importantly, every athlete who has worked so hard to get to where they are today. I don’t care whether the athletes are or aren’t from the U.S. I care that they are great at the sports to which they have dedicated their lives.
I love America and am very proud to be from such an incredible and diverse country. I grew up in Berkeley, California and have friends all over the world. It’s sad to see a country which is famous for embracing diversity and celebrating cultures from around the world have its Olympic television network limit access to one of the world’s most unifying events. It really makes you wonder if we’ve lost our way…. Then I remember, it’s not the United States that’s in charge of how we watch the Olympics: it’s NBC.
Morgan Linton, born in Berkeley, California, spent nine years traveling the world as an early employee for digital music startup Sonos (he is still a proud shareholder in that company) after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University.
In 2007, Morgan founded Linton Investments, a domain name and branding company that has helped some of the most recognized startups in the world acquire their top choice domain names.
In 2012, Morgan left his full-time job to co-found with his wife a Los Angeles-based Fashion Metric, a next-generation platform funded by billionaire Mark Cuban and aimed at changing the way guys shop for clothes online by providing a new algorithm that replaces size charts. Morgan says that people think of them as the Pandora of Menswear: www.fashionmetric.com
Morgan’s wife, Daina Linton, originally from Milton Ontario, which is considered part of the Greater Toronto Area, obtained an undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Guelph before getting her master’s degree at UCLA. Daina is CEO of Fashion Metric and Morgan is CTO of the company.
And, oh yes, Morgan and Daina want you to know that they were watching the Sochi 2014 Winter Games via the cbc.ca website streamed to their Apple TV media server, which then connected to their very large plasma television. All of which made them feel as though they were watching the Olympics from Canada, but without the snow and frigid temperatures!
Posted by Warren Perley
Still active as a trainer of bodybuilders, Montreal’s Jimmy Caruso is once again being lauded as a “legend”, both as a poser and as a photographer, for his classic shots of seven-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger whom Caruso first photographed in 1969, two years after Arnold arrived in New York City as a 19-year-old and won the Mr. Universe title.
The high praise for both Caruso and Schwarzenegger comes in the March 2014 issue of New York-based Muscular Development magazine which features one of Caruso’s most famous photographs of Schwarzenegger on its front cover, a side view with his right bicep flexed at shoulder level and his left arm flexed with hand and fingers touching waist.
The magazine’s centrepiece foldout features the best-known photo ever recorded of Schwarzenegger, again taken by Caruso, showing the bodybuilder posing with his back to the camera, arms flexed with elbows pointed towards the ground.
Steve Blechman, publisher and editor-in-chief of Muscular Development, states in his Editor’s Letter in the March 2014 issue that Caruso taught Schwarzenegger how to pose. “Both men soared to iconic status, with Arnold becoming the greatest bodybuilder of all time and Caruso being named the greatest physique photographer” by the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), he writes.
Early in their careers, both Caruso and Schwarzenegger's paths crossed with the founders of the IFBB, brothers Joe and Ben Weider, who overcame impoverished Depression-era childhoods in Montreal to found a global bodybuilding empire that included multiple health and bodybuilding magazines, exercise supplements and equipment, as well as Olympia bodybuilding contests.
[As an adolescent in the 1960s, I used to save my weekly allowance for a yearly visit to buy bodybuilding equipment at the Weiders’ international headquarters on Bates Road, six blocks from my home in the Cote des Neiges area. I remember getting goosebumps every time I saw the large-format posters of famous bodybuilders which adorned the walls in the reception area.]
Now Caruso has been hired as a consultant for a Hollywood movie on the lives and careers of the Weider brothers to be produced by Steve Lee Jones and directed by Brad Furman. Jones produced the acclaimed 2011 film on right-to-die pathologist Jack Kevorkian titled You Don’t Know Jack and starring Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman. Furman directed the 2011 film The Lincoln Lawyer, starring Matthew McConaughey. That film grossed almost $100 million.
Jones, who has been nominated for Golden Globe and Emmy awards, told journalist Dan Solomon, senior features editor at Muscular Development magazine and founder of the popular Pro BodyBuilding Worldwide online radio show, that the working title of the new movie is Bigger, with a projected production budget of $30 million and shooting scheduled to begin in 2014. In fact, Solomon was hired as co-executive producer for the film after he introduced Jones to Eric Weider, Ben’s son and Joe’s nephew, who will share the title of executive producer with Solomon.
Eric Weider was so impressed with Jone’s plans to produce a first-rate biopic on the lives of his father and uncle that he granted Jones “exclusive rights” to the life story of his famous father and uncle who passed away in 2008 and 2013, respectively. Ben died at age 85 and Joe passed away at age 93.
Jones told Solomon that his film will focus on the story of Joe and his younger brother, Ben, starting with their childhood growing up on Coloniale Avenue in the working class Le Plateau area of Montreal near famous St. Lawrence Boulevard, known as The Main and the unofficial dividing line between the mainly French-speaking east end and the predominantly English-speaking west end of Montreal.
The film will focus on the brothers fighting to overcome “rampant” anti-Semitism as they worked to organize a global bodybuilding movement which they converted into a multi-billion-dollar empire.
Both Schwarzenegger and Caruso have warm memories of the Weider brothers. Joe Weider took Schwarzenegger under his wing after he arrived in America from Austria in 1967, moving him to California, where he supported him with an apartment and salary while supplying him with the most advanced bodybuilding equipment and training. Joe Weider, himself a weightlifter, became Arnold’s official sponsor and used his influence to gain him entry into the movie business.
I remember Jimmy Caruso from an article I assigned one of our reporters, Leanne Murray to do in July 1989 for our west-end Montreal newspaper called The Weekly Herald. At the time, Caruso was about to launch a gym in Decarie Square in west-end Montreal in partnership with Ben Weider.
Leanne quoted him as saying of the most famous photo he took of Schwarzenegger, which appears, once again, in the March 2014 centrefold of Muscular Development magazine: “We worked for hours on that one pose. Arnold knows how meticulous I am.”
The gym, equipped by Ben Weider but operating under the management and name of Caruso, opened later in 1989. Now under a different owner and name, the gym is in the same spot, and so is Caruso. In his late 80s and still lean as a Whippet, he continues to train both weekend athletes, as well as serious bodybuilders, such as 20-year-old Max Garneau-Pillet, who Caruso recently told me has the potential to be one of the best bodybuilders in the world.
Garneau-Pillet will be the surprise guest poser at the Cobourg Naturals bodybuilding and fitness contest in Cobourg, Ontario on March 29, 2014. Jimmy Caruso will undoubtedly be nearby directing his charge and snapping photos, much as he did 45 years ago for another aspiring bodybuilder from Austria, capturing on celluloid the most memorable poses in bodybuilding history.
Posted by Warren Perley
Journalists who have had the privilege of covering legal issues know the drama that can unfold in a courtroom. Often, due to space or time restrictions, only a small part of that drama makes it into the newspaper, website or broadcast.
Many years have passed since I last covered court cases for United Press International and The Gazette, but I stumbled upon an opportunity last year to cover a lawsuit brimming with drama pitting a Montreal homeowner against two large insurance companies which refused to pay her for damages from a frozen pipe which burst in her vestibule, flooding her finished basement.
I can’t take any credit for uncovering the case; it fell in my lap when my sister, Linda Shohet, mentioned to me in January 2012 that she had likely suffered in excess of $20,000 worth of damage after a pipe burst while she was down south during the Christmas holiday period that year.
I knew that she had insurance on the house she had lived in for four decades, so I just assumed that Aviva Insurance and its sister company, Traders General, would pay for the repairs.
After all, Aviva Insurance makes a point in a flyer it includes with its insurance policies of promoting how “simple and easy” it is to make a claim. “Happiness…Guaranteed”, trumpets the flyer.
But it was anything but “happiness guaranteed” when Linda tried to get reimbursed. Aviva Insurance and Traders General refused to pay out based on a clause of “exclusion” in her policy which states that daily visits are required to a home when its owner is absent for more than seven consecutive days during heating season.
The truth is that she was not even aware that Clause 9Cii of her policy required daily visits. It’s not as if either Aviva Insurance or her broker, Dale Parizeau Morris Mackenzie, ever brought the clause to her attention.
And she is not alone. There are 9 million Canadian homeowners, including 2.1 million in Quebec province, many of them with similar clauses in their insurance policies requiring daily visits when they are absent. And, like Linda was, most are not aware of the need for daily visits when they are away during heating season.
Founder of the Montreal-based Centre for Literacy, Linda is one of Canada’s top literacy experts and a 2012 winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for contributions in that field. So she knows unclear language when she reads it, as she did when she perused in detail the legal jargon in her home insurance policy in January 2012 after the flood occurred.
The fact that she had paid her premiums like clockwork for 40 years without ever making a claim also made her wonder about the lack of balance and fairness on the part of the insurance company in refusing to pay her anything.
To press her claim, she hired George Peizler of the law firm of Peizler & Vani, whom both of us have known since childhood. His March 2012 demand letter was refused by Aviva Insurance. Then just days before the case came to trial in February 2013, Linda told me that the insurer offered to settle for $3,000, a throwaway that added insult to injury.
Linda countered at $12,000, but never received another offer from the insurance company which, in effect, was telling her: meet us in court. Aviva Insurance and Traders General must have felt very confident about their legal position argued by the team of Robinson Sheppard Shapiro, a 75-lawyer firm, more than one-third of whom specialize in insurance law.
The winning legal strategy employed by Peizler is detailed in the story on our home page, as are the possible ramifications of Linda’s win for millions of homeowners across Canada, especially those in Quebec, and for the insurance industry in general.
There were three legal arguments raised by Peizler. Any one of them could have won the case for his client, and, in fact, one did: his position that Clause 9Cii in her insurance policy is “abusive” and, therefore, “void” under the Quebec Civil Code.
But one of the three arguments Peizler raised, which I thought would be a checkmate move, the judge did not even rule on, likely because he had already decided the case on the issue of Clause 9Cii being abusive.
Due to the fact that the judge did not rule on the argument alluded to above, I did not delve into it in detail in my story on our home page. However, it is worthy of discussion here because it gives you, the reader, an idea of some of the colour, context and nuance that can occur during the thrust and parry between lawyers dueling in a courtroom.
Peizler was very nonchalant as he brought up this, his third argument that February 2013 day before Judge Jean-F. Keable of Court of Quebec. He had already presented his first two arguments, looking almost as though he was through for the morning and about to sit down when he told the judge: “You know, My Lord, just a couple of days ago I was thinking about Clause 9Cii and wondering why it mentions about a policyholder being away for more than seven consecutive days. What is the significance of the seven days?”
It reminded me of a scene out of a Columbo movie starring the late Peter Falk, when the detective always looked as though he was finished with his line of questioning, only to turn back and say: “Oh, just one more thing….” Based on the judge’s intense look and note-taking, I concluded that Peizler’s allusion to the seven days was like a shot of caffeine for him.
Peizler went on to explain that Clause 9Cii of his client’s Aviva Insurance policy states that daily visits are required “if you have been away from your premises for more than seven consecutive days….” The mention of “seven days” could be interpreted to mean that an absence of fewer than seven days did not require daily visits, he argued.
At first, the insurance companies’ lawyer, Marcel-Olivier Nadeau, tried to argue that it didn’t matter when the damage occurred during the 30-day period because the policy would only be in force if daily visits had been executed, regardless of whether the incident occurred during the first seven days or afterwards.
But Peizler argued that every clause in a contract must be interpreted to have a meaning by virtue of Article 1428 of the Quebec Civil Code, which stipulates that “a clause is given a meaning that gives it some effect rather than one that gives it no effect.” Therefore, Peizler said, a meaning must be imparted to that part of Clause 9Cii which stipulates if a policyholder has been away from her home for more than seven consecutive days she must arrange for a competent person to make daily visits.
If the “seven days” had no meaning, why had the insurance company not written the policy to state that any absence by a homeowner, regardless of the number of days, required her to arrange daily visits? he asked rhetorically.
In any case, if the judge was to find that the clause was unclear, Peizler reminded the court that Article 1432 of the Quebec Civil Code states: “In case of doubt, a contract is interpreted in favour of the person who contracted the obligation and against the person who stipulated it. In all cases, it is interpreted in favour of the adhering party or the consumer.”
Peizler introduced into the court record a written admission by Nadeau that the damage occurred at “an unknown date between December 22, 2011 and January 5, 2012.” Therefore, he argued, the insurance companies had not met their legal burden of proof, as stipulated in Article 1432 of the Quebec Civil Code, to prove that the water pipes in Linda Shohet’s house burst between the eighth and 30th days, which according to Peizler’s interpretation of Clause 9Cii was the only period when daily visits would have been required.
Peizler’s arguments seemed to unsettle Nadeau, who called such reasoning “pernicious”. Judge Keable asked Nadeau to give his interpretation of what the “seven days” mentioned in Clause 9Cii meant. Nadeau, who seemed unprepared for the question, replied that it meant that seven days should be counted backwards from the time that Linda Shohet called on January 5, 2012 to report the damage, meaning the court should then fix December 28, 2011 as the date of record when the pipe likely burst.
Judge Keable, who seemed to want to make sure that he understood Nadeau’s reasoning correctly, repeated what Nadeau had just told him, asking Nadeau whether that was what he had meant to say. Nadeau replied in the affirmative.
Nadeau went on to say that the insurance company could not determine when the flooding occurred because Linda Shohet only reported it on January 5, 2012 when she returned from vacation. Peizler replied that the claims adjusters should have been able to tell by comparing watermarks on the walls and the colour of standing water approximately when the disaster had occurred.
At one point, what appeared to be a frustrated Nadeau questioned before the judge the competence of Linda’s adult son, David Shohet, to check on the house during her absence. He told the judge that asking an incompetent person to check on the house was akin to having nobody available for the task.
Keable then asked Nadeau whether that meant one had to be a plumber in order to ascertain water damage. Nadeau replied that he meant to say that David Shohet had not gone into the house daily, as required by the insurance policy. In fact, he pointed out that David Shohet had not even gone into the house on a weekly basis.
The plaintiff admitted prior to trial that her son, David Shohet, had visited the house twice during her absence but had only entered the house once —on his first visit of December 22, 2011, two days after she had left for Atlanta to visit family.
When the trial ended, I tried to interview Nadeau to ask him about his reasoning in counting backwards to give a meaning to the “seven days” mentioned in Clause 9Cii, but he refused to speak with me. As it turned out, it really didn’t matter what he was trying to say because the point was never ruled on by Keable, and Nadeau ended up losing on the issue of 9Cii being null and void because the judge found it to be “abusive” under the circumstances. Nadeau also refused my request for his photo to run with our story.
Just three years out of law school at the Université de Montréal, perhaps Nadeau was finding out first hand that there is no such thing as a “slam dunk” when it comes to litigation. What had looked like a sure win for Aviva Insurance and Traders General heading into trial turned into a victory for a determined underdog, Linda Shohet, who may have led the way for other besieged Canadian homeowners fighting for justice from their insurance companies.
Posted by Warren Perley
More than one month before the Taliban launched a January 17, 2014 suicide attack on civilians in a Kabul restaurant killing 21 people, including two Canadians, BestStory.ca contributor Jeremy Kuzmarov wrote a scathing analysis of Western involvement fighting the Taliban in that Asian country. "Western economic interests fuel dirty, covert war in Afghanistan"
Kuzmarov, a former Montrealer who is now a history professor at the University of Tulsa, says the NATO intervention of more than 12 years is propping up a system of warlords, drug smugglers and corrupt politicians to the detriment of civilians.
He points out that unemployment in Afghanistan hovers around 60 percent, child mortality is among the worst in the world and that fundamentalist warlords continue to deprive girls of education, forcing between 60 and 80 percent of them into marriages against their will.
Kuzmarov is not the only expert questioning Canada's role in the Afghanistan war. Six days before Canadian accountants Martin Glazer of Gatineau, Quebec, and Peter McSheffrey of Ottawa were among the 21 killed in the horrific Taliban suicide bombing and gun attack, Globe and Mail correspondent Doug Saunders wrote a piece in that newspaper under the headline: "Was our Afghan saga useless - or worse?"
Saunders concluded that NATO's counterinsurgency effort to build infrastructure institutions and better lives for ordinary Afghans has failed, citing United Nations figures released the week before that show severe malnutrition has increased by 50 percent or more in that country since 2012, although it is still not as bad as in 2001 before NATO intervened.
Saunders also reported that in early January 2014 Afghanistan's human rights commission released statistics showing that between March and September 2013 there had been a 25 percent increase in violence against women, who are still suffering abuses similar to those endured during the Taliban era.
As an editor with many years of experience at major media companies, I take note when a seasoned and respected reporter, such as Saunders, essentially reaches the same conclusions as Kuzmarov, himself a respected academic who wrote a 2012 book showing the connection between clandestine policing during the Cold War and the continuing war on terror, including the link to large-scale human rights abuses.
What it tells me is that BestStory.ca is on a good track as a serious, long-form journalism site when it recruits academics with profound knowledge on a given subject to write journalism-style pieces in their fields of expertise.
Of course, it takes motivated intellectuals, such as Kuzmarov, who are willing to develop reporting skills to go along with their analytical abilities. Kuzmarov is just such an individual. He accepted my suggestions to interview officials who could comment on the war in Afghanistan, including former interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae.
The result is an impressive 4,995-word story which combines some original reporting with insightful analysis based on many citations from previous articles, studies and books. An academic with Kuzmarov's research abilities and in-depth knowledge of the subject is ideally suited to put such a complex subject into context for our readers.
Of course, when I checked out Kuzmarov's writing background in Montreal, it came as no surprise that he should take to reporting like a duck to water. I learned that during his student days at Dawson College in the mid-1990s, he was, in fact, a reporter at the student newspaper called The Plant.
"We called him The Sports Guy," recalls filmmaker Karen Cho, who studied at Dawson at the same time and also worked at The Plant. "He was one of the best writers in the journalism class…a super bright guy."
When he wasn't studying or writing sports articles, she recalls her friend, "The Kuz", would engage in multiple games of Scrabble, for which he had a passion.
Kuzmarov himself recently told me that during his early student days he had aspirations of becoming a professional sports reporter, but decided to focus on academe when the advent of the Internet began to gut traditional media business models.
Writing is in Kuzmarov's DNA: his grandmother, former English literature professor Ann Weinstein, wrote an intriguing review in June 2013 of Greg Bellow 's biography of his father, Saul Bellow, in which she managed to weave in fascinating details of her lifelong relationship with the famous author. "Saul Bellow’s fame and foibles as seen through his eldest son’s eyes"
So when people ask me where I find journalists for our site, I can honestly say there are many talented people around us who have writing skills and just need the editing and graphics infrastructure we offer at BestStory.ca in order to shine on the journalism stage. Jeremy and his grandmother, Ann, are among them, for which we give thanks.
Posted by Warren Perley
We heard the legal term “due process” used by Senator Pamela Wallin in making the case yesterday (October 23, 2013) as to why she should not be suspended from her Senate seat without pay.
Other than an acknowledgement from a handful of senators, such as fellow Conservative and friend Hugh Segal – himself a lawyer – the legal concept of “due process” is not likely to win support from most senators. They will likely vote next week in favour of suspending Wallin and fellow Conservative Senators Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau without pay and without health benefits for “gross negligence” in the “management” of “parliamentary resources.”
Earlier this year, an audit by the financial advisory firm Deloitte found irregularities in the travel and housing expense claims of Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau, all now the subjects of criminal investigations by the RCMP.
Brazeau, suspended with pay earlier this year after he was charged with sexual assault, has refused to repay $48,744 in expenses that auditors found questionable. All three have been forced to resign from the Conservative Party caucus.
The RCMP is also investigating a fourth senator, Liberal Mac Harb, who resigned last August after repaying the Senate $230,000 in expense claims deemed improper.
Wallin repaid more than $140,000, including interest, in September 2013. In February 2013, Duffy repaid the Senate $90,000, given to him by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s then chief-of-staff Nigel Wright when Duffy said he did not have sufficient funds.
Senate suspensions would remain in force for the remainder of this parliamentary session which will last until the next general election, likely in 2015. So while in theory, the suspensions could be rescinded after the next election, that would not happen if by that point criminal charges had been laid by the Crown based on the RCMP investigations now taking place. If any senator were subsequently convicted on a criminal charge, he or she would be precluded from ever sitting in the Senate.
So the real question of criminal right or wrong as pertains to the Senate expense fiasco will play out in a court of law if and when criminal charges for fraud and/or breach of trust are laid against any of the three. When criminal charges are pending, “due process” must come into play with a presumption of innocence afforded to the accused unless and until such time as the Crown has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt before a judge or a judge and jury.
Despite Wallin's assertion to the contrary in her October 23rd speech, the Senate is within its legal rights by virtue of Section 18 of the Constitution Act  to censure a member who has violated rules of conduct, which could result in a suspension.
However, there is a question of whether the Senate has the right to suspend a member without pay which, according to Rob Walsh, former House of Commons Law Clerk, could be a violation of Section 59 of the Parliament of Canada Act.
Walsh said in an interview with the CBC’s Carole MacNeil on October 24, 2013 that Section 59 of the Parliament of Canada Act guarantees that Members of Parliament and senators must be paid as long as they are sitting in their respective bodies.
Walsh was of the opinion that the Senate can only withhold pay for senators who are repeatedly absent from the Upper Chamber. If a senator, such as Wallin, was forcibly prevented from sitting in the Upper Chamber, meaning she didn’t get paid, she could seek redress via a lawsuit against Public Works Canada, he said.
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether suspension of a senator without pay is legal in virtue of Section 59, we are left to wonder on a moral level whether these suspensions are any different than the kinds of sanctions imposed by professional bodies, such as medical boards or organizations governing sports, when individuals violate their rules of conduct?
Paying back the amounts deemed owed by Deloitte was a tacit admission on the parts of Wallin and Duffy that their expense claims were unjustified. Why should they now be shocked that the Senate is moving to make an example of them in a desperate attempt to prove to taxpayers that the institution is worthy of public trust?
Just as individuals in such situations are usually afforded a hearing before an internal committee in order to present their side, so did government Senate Leader Claude Carignan announce on October 17, 2013 that the three senators would each have an opportunity to defend themselves when the motions are debated, including the possibility of putting forward amendments to the motions for suspension.
Imagine a situation in private industry whereby an employee has been found to have misstated travel expenses repeatedly with the result of more money ending up in her or his pocket. When caught by the bookkeeper, the employee agrees to repay all the unjustified expenses with interest. In such a situation, could anyone blame the employer for terminating that employee or at least imposing a suspension without pay?
Make no mistake about it: fairness and balance should be part of all human relationships and is an integral part of our justice system, but “due process” is a sine qua non only in legal matters before an impartial and qualified judiciary.
The reason why Wallin’s argument in favour of due process is not going to win the day is because conceptually it is an oxymoron from the get-go to compare a highly partisan political body such as the Senate with a court of law.
In her address to the Senate on October 23, 2013, Wallin herself acknowledged that the Senate is “a chamber that has not demonstrated it is prepared to rise above party politics.”
But in the next breath she called for a Senate process that provides “the same procedural safeguards as a court of law.” She went on to say: “I want to make it very clear that I need to be sure that the protections afforded me are the same as a proceeding before a court….” including “the right to an open-minded jury.”
Her accusations against fellow Conservative senators Marjory LeBreton and Carolyn Stewart Olsen for allegedly leaking information to the media which besmirched her reputation just makes her attempt to obtain an impartial hearing in the Senate that much more difficult.
Wallin is certainly within her rights to seek redress for her perceived grievances before an impartial jury, but she has surely mistaken the venue where she will find such due process. It is not to be found in the Senate, but in a court of law.
If the senators finally do balk at passing the motions in favour of suspension, I suspect they will be motivated less by "due process" than by "self-interest" as they take to heart Wallin's warning that any one of them could be next on the list to be audited and suspended without pay for expense irregularities.
"Today my name is there," she told her colleagues in her Senate speech on October 23, 2013. "Tomorrow, next month or next year, it could just as easily be yours."
Posted by Warren Perley
Really good humour columnists are hard to come by. They’re up there with talented editorial cartoonists as a rare artistic species capable of parsing serious issues in search of the black humour within.
Brad Flory, a 30-year veteran of daily newspapers in Michigan, is just such an artist. His sense of humour and writing style remind me of Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist who wrote an internationally syndicated humour column for The Miami Herald between 1983 and 2005.
Brad considers himself to be an Everyman, a term derived from a 15th century English morality play translated from its original Dutch and which nowadays is representative of an average individual whom audiences can relate to as she/he deals with the vagaries of changing life circumstances.
Brad has come up with a term to denote the style of his Everyman persona: “Life in Plaid”, which is the title he has given to his very funny website: http://www.lifeinplaid.com/
His idea of Life in Plaid ranges from once eating a pizza pulled from a trash can and liking it to being someone whose trust contractors continually abuse by breaking their promises to show up for house repairs.
His outlook on life can be summed up by the first line in the novel Scaramouche by 20th century Italian/English novelist Rafael Sabatini: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
Notwithstanding his sense of humour, Brad Flory is a serious, respected journalist who was inducted in June 2012 into the Journalism Hall of Fame of his alma mater, Central Michigan University.
For his first BestStory.ca humour column, Brad who worked for 27 years at the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper, didn’t have to look far as he describes tongue-in-cheek how it felt to be a casualty of that Michigan newspaper’s downsizing last year. He still writes on contract for that daily owned by MLive Media Group, which is controlled by Advance Media, a major communications company owned by the Newhouse family.
Advance Media also publishes some of the world’s best known and respected magazines through its Condé Nast division, such as, GQ, Architectural Digest, House & Garden, Golf Digest, Vanity Fair, Vogue, W, Wired, and The New Yorker.
The subject of newspaper cutbacks comes as no surprise to North American readers.
In Canada, Sun Media, a subsidiary of giant Quebecor Media, announced on July 17, 2013 that it was closing eight publications and eliminating 360 positions in addition to the 1,000 positions it had already cut from its newspapers since the economic downturn of 2008.
Postmedia Network, Canada’s largest newspaper publisher, has been losing money since 2008, posting a $112 million loss in its spring 2013 quarter. It has responded by continually reducing publishing days, staff and its real estate footprint.
Another trend in Canada and the U.S. is to save salaries by eliminating publishers, instead having one manager oversee the business operations of multiple newspapers. On May 30, 2013, the Chicago Sun-Times announced it was cutting its entire photography department, requiring reporters to shoot photos and video.
Such desperate attempts by newspapers to adapt to dwindling advertising revenues by cutting editorial resources has only exacerbated the loss of their readers, according to the Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Pew reported in March 2013 that 2012 saw “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.”
“Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978,” Pew reported.
Nearly a third of U.S. adults, 31 per cent, have stopped turning to news outlets because they no longer provide them with the news they have been accustomed to getting, Pew said, referring to both print and television news.
So amid all this dire economic news, how can one explain the mix of optimism and dark humour which motivate our Michigan-based Plaid Man to write with such wit about receiving his own pink slip last year?
Well, to begin with, you should know that Brad is used to adversity, growing up as a rabid Detroit Lions fan who sports that NFL team’s tattoo on his left shoulder. The last time the Lions won the NFL championship was in 1957 when Brad was a month old. “I was so excited, I shit my diaper,” he told me.
As to whether he will live to see the Lions win another NFL championship, he says: “The way things are going, no biological life form can last that long.“ Then the inner optimist shines through, adding: “ But who knows? Maybe next year.”
Brad, who lives in the tiny town of Mason (population 8,752) 90 miles west of Detroit, even has a kind word for the Motor City, which on July 18, 2013 became the biggest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy protection.
“Detroit is a far better city than its reputation,” Brad told me. “It’s got character.”
Sounds to me like that could be the subject of another opinion piece by our Plaid Man.
Posted by Warren Perley
As an editor, it’s always a bonus when a piece of writing and its author are both brimming with fascinating anecdotes. So it was when Ann Weinstein, a retired English literature professor from Dawson College in Montreal and a life-long scholar of Saul Bellow’s works, unexpectedly contacted me a few weeks ago to offer BestStory.ca a review of Greg Bellow’s memoir about his famous writer-father:
Of course, there have been many reviews published worldwide since Greg’s book titled Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir came out two months ago. But on my first reading of Ann’s piece, I realized it had been written not only by an academic with expert knowledge of all Saul Bellow’s works, but by someone with personal insights into the man himself.
I later discovered that over the years Ann had met with Saul Bellow a dozen times and was one of a small group of scholars granted access by him prior to his death in 2005 to the 45 boxes of archives he had donated to the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, where he taught.
What makes Ann’s book review — [SEE TEASER] — so different and special is her ability to put into context what Greg Bellow has to say about his father with what Saul Bellow actually wrote and did, as well as what other scholars, including Ann herself, have written and learned over the years about the Montreal-born, Chicago-raised Bellow.
Their relationship at the beginning was not what Bellow might have described in his own vernacular as “hunky-dory”. Ann, who had become hooked on his writing in 1958 as a mature student at Sir George Williams University, awoke one summer more than two decades later imbued with a biblical-like vision which “commanded” her to trace Bellow’s Canadian roots to the working-class, Montreal municipality of Lachine, where he was born before moving to gritty Napoleon Street near fabled St. Lawrence Boulevard, which marks the unofficial demarcation of the English and French areas of Montreal. At age 9, Saul moved with his family to Chicago.
Ringing doorbells in Bellow’s old Lachine neighborhood, trying to find friends or relatives who might share their memories of him as a toddler did not endear her to the maestro, who by this point had won the Nobel Prize for Literature  and numerous other awards, placing him in the pantheon of great 20th century novelists.
In a letter dated April 18, 1984 bearing a University of Chicago letterhead, Bellow wrote concerning her quest to trace his Canadian roots:
Dear Mrs. Weinstein:
I gather from earlier letters that some of my books have given you some pleasure, and for this reason I find it difficult to see why you must for your part complicate my life and distress me by converting me into a project. It isn’t that I mind being useful and ornamental: it does, however, seem unfair to involve me in research. I don’t much liked being the subject of “studies”: I do prefer to be let alone, and it is a point of honor with me not to molest aged cousins who face death. I assure you that in their time of maturity and vigor their interest in me was very slight, and I greatly doubt that they would have much to tell you. I have no intention of sabotaging your grant application, but you no more require blessings from me than any anthropologist gets from a tribe of Eskimos. I would be delighted to have a drink with you and your friends in Montreal, and you are welcome to use any information that you might informally pick up somewhere between utter sobriety and total drunkenness. I am acquainted with very few Montreal writers — Leonard Cohen is one of them, and Louis Dudek of McGill is another.
Bellow was beginning to discover what Ann’s immediate family — husband, Oscar, sons Joel, Ralph, and daughter, Donna Kuzmarov — already knew: she had a single-minded devotion to scholarship which propelled her from a Brooklyn-born schoolgirl too poor to attend college to a mature student, married to a Montrealer, who went to university in her mid-30s, becoming an English professor and a world-class expert on the works of Saul Bellow.
Daughter Donna, a psychologist at McGill University and a former English teacher, remembers her mother as “a bundle of energy who juggled many tasks” bringing up a family in the 1950s, 60s and 70s while honing her literary and scholastic skills.
She was a homemaker par excellence, known in Yiddish as a balabusta, who when not studying and writing would bake up a storm of pies and other sweet treats. She won a $50 prize from a homemaking magazine for her “sour dough twisty cookies”, Donna fondly recalls.
After her children were grown, Ann still volunteered to babysit for neighbors on their verdant Snowdon-area street, where she was known to youngsters in the 1970s and early 80s as the “mommy of Bijou”, the family’s pet beagle.
Ann’s husband, Oscar, an accountant 13 years her elder who had met her at a Schroon Lake resort in the Adirondack mountains in northern New York state during the Second World War, was very supportive of Ann and her literary ambitions, including her scholarship involving Bellow’s writings.
Oscar, who stayed active as an accountant right up to the time he passed away in 2009 at age 98, would drive Ann everywhere, including down to Brattleboro, Vermont, where she dropped in unannounced at the country home of an astonished Saul Bellow shortly after he wrote her the letter of April 18, 1984 [cited above]. It was at that meeting in Vermont that he gave her permission to consult his archives at the University of Chicago on the understanding that she would stop pestering his relatives and former neighbors in Montreal.
In answer to some questions I emailed Ann recently, she told me that she found Bellow to be “intimidating” in person. “He spoke like he wrote,” she told me. “He was more of an observer and listener than warm and friendly….I was always nervous in his presence, knowing how erudite he was.”
In one of her final emails to me before we posted her story, Ann let drop an intimate detail about her own father who had not been receptive to her university ambitions as a young woman growing up in Brooklyn prior to, and during, the Second World War. Ann sent me a Quote of the Day she had read in The Gazette of June 17, 2013: “Whoever does not have a good father should procure one.”
She went on to tell me: “Because my own father might just as well have been mute since I don’t remember having a solid conversation with him, it’s no wonder I adopted him [Saul Bellow].”
But over the years as she and Bellow met at various conferences and speaking engagements, the relationship seemed to warm, perhaps because Bellow was flattered by Ann’s single-minded attention to his works. Or, perhaps, because Ann’s probing brought back vivid memories from his early boyhood days in Montreal, growing up poor on Napolean Street with a Russian immigrant father struggling to support a Jewish Orthodox family by bootlegging on the side.
In his 1964 breakout novel Herzog, which contains autobiographical elements, Bellow has protagonist Moses Herzog expressing the following sentiments:
Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather — the bootlegger’s boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses’ heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feelings than he had ever again been able to find….What was wrong with Napoleon Street? thought Herzog. All he ever wanted was there.
Whatever the reasons for Bellow’s warming towards Ann Weinstein, the respect was obvious, judging by an August 24, 1990, letter he sent to her Montreal home, wherein he addressed her as Ann, rather than Mrs. Weinstein:
You are clearly a devoted fan and I am grateful to you as such. To read discussions or explanations of what I have written makes me absolutely wretched, to talk about my books and stories throws me into a state of depression. Long ago I gave up reading reviews and it may surprise you to learn that I have not read what people have written and published about me. Thus I was able to reply to Ruth Wisse. We are acquaintances, not a scholar and subject matter. I do not exaggerate when I say that reading about myself drives me up the wall — yes, and across the ceiling too.
So don’t be vexed with me.
Yours with best wishes,
In 2007, Ann published Me and My (Tor)Mentor: Saul Bellow, A Memoir of My Literary Love Affair — “a record of what my mentor’s work has meant to me and the interesting people my interest in Bellow led me to meet.” Ann’s memoir can found at:
A member of the McGill Institute for Lifelong Learning, Ann should serve as an inspiration to young, aspiring writers who could learn from her the importance of patience, perseverance and humility.
Despite her impressive literary and scholastic accomplishments, fulfilled under challenging circumstances, Ann still maintains a low-key, deprecating sense of self as evidenced by her recent emails to me during our editing process. “I don’t consider myself scholarly,” she told me. “I am sloppy with footnotes and do not possess the jargon of academics and critics. But I do take pride in making Saul Bellow more accessible to the average reader.”
Posted by Warren Perley
During the past long weekend, I was reading various accounts of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s alleged use of crack cocaine, first reported on May 16, 2013 in U.S.-based media site Gawker and in the Toronto Star.
One piece which caught my eye was by contributor Christopher Bird in the Torontoist, which questioned whether Ford could successfully sue either outlet for defamation. Bird’s conclusion was that Gawker is bullet-proof because it is based in the U.S. and a foreign libel judgment is not enforceable in America.
He also concluded that the Toronto Star had taken all the steps needed to protect itself from a successful libel suit in Canada because it had followed the guidelines outlined in a 2009 Supreme Court of Canada judgment which expanded media protection against defamation suits when reporting on matters of public interest.
For my part, I don’t think such black-and-white conclusions are justified. Let’s start with the case of Gawker, whose editor, John Cook, said he viewed a tape shown to him by drug dealers in Toronto, on the basis of which he reported that Rob Ford smokes crack cocaine. He went on to say in his Gawker article: “I know this because I watched him do it, on a videotape. He was fucking hiiiiigh [sic]. It’s for sale if you’ve got six figures.”
Libel law in Canada and the U.S. are very different. In Canada, the burden of proof is on the defendant (for example, a media outlet) to prove that what it said was true, which is an absolute defence, but a high hurdle. Since the 2009 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Grant v Torstar Corp, the defence against defamation has been broadened to allow a media outlet to report in a responsible manner on a matter of public interest.
The Supreme Court judgment referred to the “vital role of the communications media”, in light of Section 2b of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which reads, in part, that “everyone has…freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
The Supreme Court concluded: “A defence that would allow publishers to escape liability if they can establish that they acted responsibly in attempting to verify the information on a matter of public interest represents a reasonable and proportionate response to the need to protect reputation while sustaining the public exchange of information that is vital to modern Canadian society. The law of defamation should therefore be modified to recognize a defence of responsible communication on matters of public interest.”
In the U.S., the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove that what the defendant wrote or broadcast was false. And even then, the defendant likely won’t be found liable for defamation unless the plaintiff can prove that the defendant acted maliciously or in a reckless manner, knowing their material was false or could be false.
Despite Bird’s opinion to the contrary, as expressed in the Torontoist, enforcing a Canadian court’s libel judgment against a U.S.-based individual or media outlet is not impossible. Bird wrote: “…defamation judgments made against Americans in foreign jurisdictions are not collectible in the United States.”
Perhaps Bird’s misinterpretation of the law arises from the Speech Act of 2010, passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, which makes foreign libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S. if they violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing, among other rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
However, any such defamation case brought in Canada against either Gawker or its editor, John Cook, would likely not impinge on his First Amendment rights. In fact, if such a case was heard in a Canadian jurisdiction it would probably hinge on the same central element as if the same case was heard in a U.S. courtroom, namely: Did Cook take the necessary steps to ascertain whether the video he viewed of Ford allegedly smoking crack cocaine was authentic or a forgery?
We all remember the hoax video made by Montreal students showing an eagle snatching a baby on Mount Royal. Published on YouTube on December 20, 2012, it was viewed by thousands of people and made the newscasts of major media outlets around the world.
Why is it beyond reason to believe that the video of Rob Ford could also be a hoax? The authenticity of the video — and whether attempts were made to verify it by journalists — would certainly be a central issue in any defamation suit heard in a Canadian court.
In the case of Gawker, a Canadian court of law might also hear evidence of possible malice, given that media outlet’s acknowledgement in its May 16, 2013 story that “we’ve made fun of Ford before,” calling him “Toronto’s insane, terrible mayor.…”
In any case, regardless of one’s opinion of Rob Ford, a defamation judgment made by a Canadian court can be enrolled for enforcement in an appropriate court in the home state of an American defendant. This was done by Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret, owners of Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia, who won a $425,000 defamation judgment in February 2012 in Nova Scotia Supreme Court against Louisiana blogger Doug K. Handshoe, who had made graphic homophobic comments against the two men on his website and accused them of criminal acts.
In January 2013, Leary and Perret enrolled the Nova Scotia Supreme Court judgment in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, based in New Orleans, asking that court to enforce it. Leary told BestStory.ca in a May 20, 2013 telephone interview that he and Perret have hired counsel in New Orleans to make oral arguments before that court. He said no date had yet been set for the case to be heard.
Once a judgment is rendered in the matter by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, the next legal appeal would go direct to the U.S. Supreme Court, if either party to the suit sought to take the matter further and if the highest court in the U.S. agreed to hear the case.
The legalities set out above cover any libel action that might be taken in Canada against an American-based media outlet, such as Gawker. But where would the Toronto Star stand legally if it turned out that the cocaine video was a forgery or that it could not be proved to be authentic and Rob Ford sued them?
In concluding that the Toronto Star protected itself against a successful libel action, Torontoist contributor Christopher Bird oversimplified the 2009 Supreme Court of Canada judgment (Grant v Torstar Corp) pertaining to the media and what constitutes responsible communication on matters of public interest.
In my view, the Toronto Star comes up short on several counts in its handling of the Rob Ford cocaine controversy, regardless of whether the video ultimately turns out to be authentic or a forgery.
There are seven factors cited in the 2009 Supreme Court judgment to be considered in determining whether a defamatory communication on a matter of public interest has been responsibly made:
One of those factors is the urgency of the matter. The Supreme Court wrote: “The question is whether the public’s need to know required the defendant to publish when it did” or whether “…a reasonable delay could have assisted the defendant in finding out the truth and correcting any defamatory falsity….”
By their own admission, the Toronto Star reporters viewed the video on May 3, 2013, but their story was published only on May 16, 2013 after they learned that U.S.-based media outlet Gawker was publishing on this matter that very same day. So it seems that the Star’s timing in publication was based on a consideration of competitive advantage versus Gawker; not on the public’s need to know on May 16.
Bird wrote in the Torontoist: “And one would expect the Star to take reasonable steps to check the veracity of the video, as well as reach out to Rob Ford himself for comment. They did both….”
Yes, the Star did contact Ford for comment, but how does Bird conclude that the newspaper checked the veracity of the video? Having their reporters view it does not determine whether it is authentic. For that, the Star would need to take possession of a copy of the video in order to have it checked out by forensic technicians knowledgeable about digital manipulation.
Another factor cited by the Supreme Court in determining whether a defamatory communication can be considered “responsible” is the status and reliability of the source of the story. “The less trustworthy the source, the greater the need to use other sources to verify the allegations,” the court wrote. A judge and jury would not likely consider the drug dealers cited in the Toronto Star story to be “trustworthy”.
Interestingly, one of the factors cited by the Supreme Court as to what constitutes responsible communication on a potentially defamatory matter would have given the Toronto Star the perfect legal cover to report on the issue: The Star could simply have reported what Gawker published, namely that the editor of that outlet said he viewed a video showing Ford smoking crack cocaine.
The Supreme Court wrote that a published report concerning a matter of public interest, whether it later turns out to be true or not, can be repeated by other media outlets if done in a fair manner and attributed to the original party reporting the matter. Those outlets repeating the story must make clear that the truth of the allegations has not yet been determined; they must set out both sides of the dispute, and they must give the context in which the original report came out.
In other words, the fact that another media outlet, such as Gawker, is making a potentially libelous statement then becomes the basis for other media outlets to report what Gawker is saying without exposing themselves to being part of a potential defamation.
The Star could have reported what Gawker said and then gone on to say that two of its own reporters had viewed the video earlier and that although it appeared to show Ford holding a glass crack pipe to his mouth, the Star was unable to verify the authenticity of the video and, therefore, did not publish until it became public through Gawker.
Such an approach would have obviated the need for the Star reporters to twist themselves into a pretzel by writing in the first paragraph of their May 16 story that the video “appears to show Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine.” By the eighth paragraph, they had dropped the qualifier “appears”, describing the person in the video as Ford. And one of the reporters, Robyn Doolittle, clearly said during an interview on CBC’s The National on May 17 that it was Rob Ford in the video she viewed. Kevin Donovan was the other Star reporter who confirmed that it was Ford in the video.
One last fact which could come out at some point is whether the Toronto Star was the Canadian media outlet which one of the drug dealers told Gawker had offered to pay $40,000 for the video, but had been turned down because $100,000 was being sought at the time.
If it turns out that the Star missed an opportunity to buy the video over price [$40,000 offered, compared with $100,000 asked] rather than principle [some media outlets feel paying news sources is an ethical compromise], it will be one more example of how the Star declined to take the step needed to obtain the video and prove, once and for all, whether it is authentic or a forgery.
Knowing whether the video is authentic would make moot all discussion of defamation. For $100,000, the Toronto Star could have had the story to itself and proved to its readers whether their mayor partook of cocaine on this occasion or whether he was the victim of drug-dealing hoaxers.
Posted by Warren Perley
It’s exactly one year ago today that we launched our ad-free, long-form journalism site, BestStory.ca, based in Montreal. Due to its being different than existing online journalism sites, many freelancers were confused as to how it worked. Some were, and are, dubious as to whether the public will support such a site, which charges 40 cents per story to individual readers, with journalists earning 25 percent of the gross.
We currently have hundreds of registered readers, many of whom have purchased more than the minimum number of story points, which we take as a sign of support. Analytics tell us that readers spend an average of six minutes in the public area of our site, compared with an average of less than 30 seconds on most media sites. Our bounce rate is below 20 percent, meaning most people who land on our home page check out other sections in our public area.
The path to profitability is clear: many more readers are needed and eventually a higher price could be charged for our articles, which are currently less than half the amount and, in some cases, 700 percent less than the price of individual stories sold on other pay-as-you-go sites.
Why do we persist? The answer is because we think a “pure” ad-free media site, such as ours, helps empower freelance journalists and provides readers with original, in-depth pieces they won’t find elsewhere. If the quality is maintained, we believe that the readers will come and, with them, the revenues.
In fact, one of the questions put to me in November 2012 by Ryerson journalism student Zakiya Kassam was: “Why do you think there is a need for a site like BestStory.ca to exist?”
Her question was in preparation for an article she was writing about BestStory.ca for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, a print and online publication put out by one of Canada’s oldest journalism faculties located at Ryerson University in Toronto. It appeared on their blog on March 21, 2013: http://www.rrj.ca/b27498/
The Ryerson article never really got into the details of editorial quality and integrity, which I emphasized in my interview with Kassam. Instead, it morphed into a discussion of whether ad-free journalism is a viable business model.
Mike Karapita, who is the journalism program coordinator at Humber College in Toronto, was quoted in the article as saying he didn’t think many people would be willing to pay anything, even 40 cents, for online stories such as those offered by BestStory.ca.
I would have thought that someone in a position of responsibility, such as Karapita, would have taken the time to read a few of our stories so that he might judge their quality and possible value. At the very least, shouldn’t he as a journalism program coordinator make it his business to know whether BestStory.ca might be a reputable publishing venue for some of his graduating students?
Instead Karapita opted to make his negative comments without buying even one story. He seemed more interested in predicting that an ad-free site such as BestStory.ca could never succeed on a commercial level rather than judging the quality of the research, writing and layouts on our site.
But for journalism students everywhere, including those at Humber and Ryerson, the primary issue should not be whether BestStory.ca and other ad-free sites can eventually become commercially viable. Nobody knows for sure at this point because all such sites are in their early development.
What graduating students should be concerned about is how they can continue to hone their craft by working with experienced, competent editors and whether articles appearing on a site such as BestStory.ca could help further their careers, perhaps leading to recognition of their skills and other writing contracts.
Obviously all writers would like to be compensated adequately for their efforts. And our model offers that possibility by putting decision-making on possible story purchases in the hands of millions of potential readers. But before a site can succeed financially, it has to have enough good content to attract those new readers, who in turn will tell others about the site. How fast such content is produced is in the hands of the freelance journalists.
I’ve had journalists tell me: “Oh, I’ll come back and write for your site when it is better known and has more readers so that I can earn more money.” Well I can tell you, as someone who has spent half his adult life in full-time journalism and half in business, that no enterprise and no productive working relationship was ever built on such passivity.
If you, as a freelancer, share with us the conviction that our new journalism model presents interesting possibilities, then you should join us as an occasional contributor. Or if you don’t have the time or inclination to write a story for our site, how about joining our Facebook Page and following us on Twitter to help get word out to other potential readers and writers.
There is a lot of upside to getting involved. BestStory.ca has been built to give maximum freedom in terms of story selection and writing style to serious freelance journalists who care about quality and accuracy. Here are some of the elements that set us apart in what we offer to writers:
- Freelancers make their own story selections; they are not imposed by an editor.
- There are no deadlines, which removes a stressor.
- Freelancers maintain copyright and moral rights over all their original material.
- All stories are carefully and thoughtfully edited in close collaboration with writers.
- Layouts are done by professional graphic designers using multiple photos.
- Freelancers can track their story sales 24/7 based on geography and chronology, with any royalties due paid monthly via PayPal.
- Contributors have a 400-word profile which can link back to their website or blog.
- Stories can be updated at any time by writers in order to keep their stories fresh.
- As the experienced Editor of the site, I am available seven days a week to discuss with contributors their story ideas and how best to implement them.
The empowerment of freelance journalists, as outlined above, is part of the answer to the question asked of me by journalism student Zakiya Kassam as to why I think there is a need for an ad-free journalism site such as BestStory.ca.
The other part of the answer is that there has been a gradual blurring — both online and in print — of the lines between editorial and advertising over the last few years so that it sometimes becomes difficult, if not impossible, for a reader to know whether she is perusing impartial editorial content or marketing material disguised as editorial.
As part of my emphasis on the potential for editorial matter to be tainted by advertising, I referred Kassam in February 2013 to an excellent article by Jonathan Sas published in the B.C. weekly The Tyee on January 28, 2013:
In the article, Sas spoke about how major media organizations such as the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post are now selling marketing features, known as “custom content”, written by their journalists without telling readers that the piece has been paid for by an advertiser.
In the “old days”, before newspapers became desperate for ad revenue now gobbled up by online search engines and social media sites, such as Facebook, all marketing material written in journalism style was clearly delineated as such. That is no longer the case.
I am not saying that all advertising is bad; but the reader deserves to know what is impartial journalism, compared with branded marketing content disguised as impartial journalism.
In her article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism (first link above), Kassam quoted Max Linsky, one of the founders of U.S.-based longform.org — which has ads — as questioning why a site such as BestStory.ca would refuse to run ads, saying he didn’t think charging for stories could work for smaller media organizations.
My answer to Linsky and others is that BestStory.ca refuses all ads because:
- We consider online advertising to be intrusive on the literary experience and on the privacy of our readers.
- Ads would detract from our layouts which now have access to our total image area for text, photos and other graphics which enhance reading pleasure.
- We want our site to promote only writers, photographers and illustrators; not rotating ads over whose content we have no control.
All those who think that online advertising is the answer to financial stability for digital media should read a March 29, 2013 article in Ad Age with the headline: “As Ad Rates Sink, More Websites Explore Ad-Free Business: Why jump on a failing model? Andrew Sullivan asks.”
The entire article can be found at: http://adage.com/article/media/online-ad-rates-falling-sites-explore-ad-free-business/240620/
Here is an extract:
This is web publishing in 2013, when declining ad rates and the sense that each buck is harder to get than the last is leading increasing numbers of publishers to strip out the ads and ask readers to pony up. Even The New York Times has at least contemplated the idea of an ad-free version, asking readers about it in a recent survey about potential new products…. But ad-free experiments are taking root faster among smaller publishers and blogs, for whom the economics of digital advertising can be particularly punishing. You wouldn't call it a sea change, but there is a lot of splashing in the waves.
Well, I’m proud to say that BestStory.ca, the only ad-free, long-form journalism site in Canada, has been one of the first such media companies in the world to “splash in the waves,” experimenting with a new model of journalism which caters solely to readers and writers.
Please join us on Facebook and Twitter on this our 1st anniversary to continue spreading the word to others who might appreciate a journalism model predicated on first-rate editorial content and integrity.
Posted by Warren Perley
The most famous photo of FLQ terrorist Paul Rose, who died of a stroke at the age of 69 on March 14, 2013, was taken in January 1971 as he lifted his left arm in a clenched fist victory salute outside the courthouse in Montreal where he had just been charged with the kidnapping and murder of then-Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte.
Rose's arm was immediately yanked down by burly Det.-Sgt. Albert Lisacek of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), who on Dec. 28, 1970 had been part of an SQ raiding party which captured Paul Rose, his brother Jacques Rose and co-conspirator Francis Simard in a farmhouse tunnel in St. Luc, 22 miles southeast of Montreal.
The incident and the animosity between Paul Rose and Lisacek, anointed by the press in 1972 as Canada's toughest cop, is recounted in a 17,000-word profile of Lisacek I wrote on our ad-free journalism site, BestStory.ca, just months before he died of colon cancer on Nov. 20, 2012:
At Albert’s funeral on December 1, 2012, I met Richard Meloche, who retired in 1990 as an SQ inspector after 27 years with the force. He told me an interesting anecdote concerning the famous UPI photo, published around the world, of Rose raising his arm in a victory salute and Albert immediately pulling his arm down.
Meloche, a young constable in uniform at the time, told me he had his left wrist handcuffed to Paul Rose's right wrist as they left the courthouse that January day in 1971. He added that he was none too happy to be handcuffed to Rose, fearing the accused might try to flee, dragging him along. The only solace he had was the sight of the 275-pound Lisacek in plain clothes on the other side of, and slightly behind, Rose.
"I knew Albert was a tough guy," Meloche recalled. "Nobody tangled with Albert." So when Rose lifted his free left arm in a victory salute, Albert used both his massive arms to pull Rose's arm down immediately. Meloche said Albert almost broke Rose's arm in the process. "He really yanked it down," Meloche recalled with a chuckle. "Rose didn't say anything, but I could see he wasn't too happy."
The photo of the tussle between Rose and Lisacek was carried worldwide by the wire services. The UPI photo showed Albert grabbing Rose’s left arm to bring it down while Meloche looked on. A reader from Nashville, Tennessee cut the photo out of her local newspaper in January 1971 and sent the clipping to SQ headquarters with a note which read: “Thank you God for a man like Sgt. Albert Lisacek.”
But the FLQ did not give thanks for Lisacek. Instead they listed him as their No. 1 assassination target in a communiqué issued in the fall of 1970 at the height of the crisis. Albert told me in an interview in May 2012 that after he learned of the threat on his life, he installed an alarm with a trip wire around his country house in Lac des Ecosses, 84 miles north of Montreal. The alarm sounded at 5 a.m. one morning, prompting Albert to jump out of bed and run outside “bare balls with my Thompson” sub-machinegun looking to shoot the intruder. It seemed that a bird had tripped the wire.
In the BestStory.ca article, Lisacek talked about how the SQ, acting on a tip on December 27, 1970, surrounded a farmhouse in St. Luc, Quebec, where the three remaining members of the Chénier cell of the FLQ – Paul and Jacques Rose, together with Francis Simard – were hiding in a 20-foot-long subterranean tunnel just over three feet high.
Dr. Jacques Ferron was asked by the terrorists to act as a mediator. The negotiations stretched for hours until the Quebec government agreed to the demands of the Rose brothers and Simard that bail conditions for political prisoners “return to normal”.
One last concern the terrorists had was to receive assurances from the SQ’s commanding officer that Albert not be allowed anywhere near them because they were concerned he would shoot them with his trusty Thompson sub-machinegun. They threatened to blow up the farmhouse if he didn’t leave, Albert told me. The commander ordered Lisacek to leave, which he did, and the prisoners came out of their hole with their hands up at 5 a.m. on December 28, 1970.
Albert said he was rankled by the way the 1994 French-language docudrama Octobre portrayed him shooting a Uzi sub-machinegun into the tunnel to force the culprits out. That never happened, he insisted. As well, he told me that the film was inaccurate in showing Montreal police on the scene. Only the SQ was present.
Paul Rose, Bernard Lortie and Francis Simard were all convicted in the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte. Despite the heinous nature of their crimes, none of them ended up doing much jail time. Albert told me he believed that many French-Canadians had been brainwashed into believing that the terrorists were heroes, fighting for the freedom of Quebec.
It’s the same kind of revisionist thinking that allowed Radio Canada – the French-language arm of the CBC – to describe Paul Rose as an “activist, political scientist and trade unionist” in the announcement of his death on March 14, 2013.
Radio Canada neglected to mention that Rose was convicted of the murder and kidnapping of Pierre Laporte, a dedicated civil servant and the father of young children when he was strangled to death with his gold crucifix on October 17, 1970 at the age of 49, one day after Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau declared the War Measures Act. Laporte’s body was stuffed in the trunk of a car abandoned at St. Hubert airport on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River across from Montreal.
To understand the barbarity of his execution at the hands of the Rose brothers and Simard, Quebecers would do well to reread a letter Laporte wrote to then-Premier Robert Bourassa on October 11, 1970 while in captivity, asking the premier to do all he could to negotiate his safe release.
The note, which runs just over 150 words, reads in part:
I had two brothers, both are now dead. I remain alone as the head of a large family that comprises my mother, my sisters, my own wife and my children, and the children of Rolland of whom I am the guardian. My departure would create for them irreparable grief, and you know the ties that bind the members of my family…
You have the power of life and death over me. I depend on you and I thank you for it.
The last word on the matter should go to then-Parti Quebecois leader René Levesque, himself a sovereignist but an exemplary social democrat, who had this to say at the time of Laporte’s murder: “Speaking for the Parti Quebecois we find completely intolerable Mr. Laporte’s barbaric execution by people who have no sense of humanity and who don’t reflect Quebec.”
As proud Quebecers and Canadians, we must not let the passage of time warp our perception of historic events, together with the values and lessons they represent. A terrorist, such as Paul Rose, convicted more than four decades ago of a politically-motivated kidnapping and murder in a peaceful, democratic country, was neither a hero then nor now by any standards of civilized society.
Posted by Warren Perley
People often ask me how I find writers for BestStory.ca. The answer is that they usually find me, as evidenced by fishing guide and author Ari Vineberg, who sent an email in the fall of 2012, 26 years after we first met when I was Montreal Bureau Chief for United Press International.
Ari wanted to know whether I’d be interested in a first-hand, riveting account of world famous fisherman Franck Hiribarne’s attempt to land a musky, the only large predator fish which had consistently eluded him. Due to arrive from his native France in November 2012, Hiribarne had already hired Ari to be his guide – the fifth time he had come to Canada in his quest to land the big one.
Win or lose, I told Ari I thought the drama behind the scenes of such a chase would be a winner for a long-form journalism site such as ours. It was at that point that Ari and I began to reminisce about our first meeting in 1986 when he walked into my UPI office in Old Montreal with its picturesque view overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
At the time, Ari was a young writer, born and raised in Sherbrooke, Quebec, who was attending political science classes at McGill University. He was also fresh off two summer internships at the Sherbrooke Record under venerable Editor Charlie Bury, whom he described to me as follows:
Charlie allowed his charges a lot of leeway and liberty. He was like water: soft yet hard, but always very fair and open, never treating us as anything else but equals, which we weren’t. We all adored him, and when the last weekly edition was put out on Thursday night, we would hang around and have a party – it was the best job I ever had and he was the best boss.
When I met Ari in 1986 after his tutorship under Charlie, he was a young man brimming with chutzpah, telling me he was looking to “go international.” So why not start at UPI, whose motto was and is: One Up On The World.
We met the year after the June 23, 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 31,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 329 people aboard including 268 Canadians, 27 British citizens and 24 citizens of India. The Boeing 747 jumbo jet was en route from Montreal to London to New Delhi.
Evidence pointed at a Sikh militant group known as Babbar Khalsa based in Canada. A handful of members were arrested and tried, but due to investigative bungling and various legal errors, only one was convicted of manslaughter: mechanic Inderjit Singh Reyat, who at the time lived in Duncan, B.C.
In 1986, the first charges in the case were laid in Quebec Superior Court in Montreal, which was where the doomed flight had originated. Being tied up with another story at the time, I hired the supremely confident Ari as a freelancer to sit in the courthouse and cover a preliminary hearing.
Almost a quarter century later, Ari remembers one of the defence lawyers was named Michael Code, a strapping man of about 6 foot, 4 inches, who went on to become a law professor at University of Toronto and who co-authored for the Ontario government in 2008 a series of recommendations to streamline legal procedures in complex criminal trials.
Aside from the name of one of the defence lawyers in the Air India bombing, what else does our intrepid reporter remember from his UPI freelance experience of a quarter century ago?
Well, Ari told me, he recalled that I as UPI Bureau Chief seemed to be a “real hard-core journalist” who was “overworked” but had not yet spiraled into alcoholism. (I took his words as a compliment, but not seeing the expression on his face when he said them, I’m not 100 percent certain.)
Ari also recalled that it took UPI close to six months to pay him for his freelance work and that I kept bugging head office, insisting that he get paid. Finally the meager cheque arrived. “You stuck with it and fought for me,” Ari said recently. “I thought that was very cool!”
After getting his political science degree at McGill, Ari ended up going into the family business to help his dad, who had fallen ill due to the infamous tainted blood scandal which affected the Canadian Red Cross in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His dad passed away due to a tainted blood transfusion, and Ari had to put his dreams of a journalism career on hold.
After 20 years working in the business world, as both a retailer and distributor of soft goods, a flash flood wiped out his business in the Eastern Townships, persuading Ari it was time to concentrate on the more important things in life: writing and fishing on a full-time basis.
Now I think that’s “very cool”; the fact that a man’s journalistic career can be rekindled after so many years and that readers of a new long-form journalism site, such as BestStory.ca, have an opportunity to recognize the literary talent of one such as Ari who has been hidden among us for far too long.
Posted by Warren Perley
His first year in office, 1961, was not developing into the auspicious start that President John F. Kennedy had hoped for after eking out a close victory over Richard M. Nixon in the U.S. election of November 1960.
In mid-1961, the disastrously, unsuccessful Bay of Pigs military invasion of Cuba by U.S. - backed expatriates of that island nation embarrassed the Kennedy administration.
To make matters worse for the young president, who was just weeks short of his 44th birthday, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin become the first human in space when he orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961.
Kennedy needed a dramatic gesture to restore his nation’s bravado and confidence. He found the perfect occasion in an address to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961 when he announced that America planned to become the first nation in the world to land a man safely on the Moon before the end of the decade. America kept that promise when astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander of Apollo 11, hopped down onto the Moon’s surface with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.
In those early days of manned space flight, Daphne Lavers was a young girl growing up in Alberta, but it didn’t take her long to catch the “space race” bug, which led to a career starting in the 1980s as a science and technology writer. You should know that Daphne’s idea of “fun” is a tour of the top floors of the 1,815-foot-high CN Tower, which house television and frequency modulation transmitters, microwave radio antennas and power transformers for Toronto-area broadcasters, including the CBC. A high-tech visit juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Toronto skyline and Lake Ontario is, in Daphne’s words, “very cool.”
She is an expert in all matters technical, having written for cable television and electronics trade magazines where she tracked developments in satellite technology, including the promise of high definition television in the mid-80s, long before anyone in the public had heard of it. In 2002, she published a reference book titled Tech Talk for Canadians, which defines hundreds of scientific and technical terms. (She hopes to update the book when she can find the time.)
Daphne was editing a small, Toronto-based, electronics trade magazine that covered the satellite, radio, television and electronics industries when the Challenger space shuttle exploded on January 28, 1986, 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members.
During every shuttle launch, the office television set was on: that morning, everything stopped, she recalled. “Work became impossible and everyone left early. That day changed everything; catastrophes in space no longer involved simply inanimate satellites and orbiting research spacecraft.”
Following Challenger, there were several malfunctions onboard various satellites and it became clear, even to those not in the space science fields, that space was getting crowded and that it was only a matter of time before space debris became a serious problem.
A little more than a decade after the Challenger disaster, Daphne married Rod C. Tennyson, one of the leading space debris scientists in Canada and an accredited NASA experimenter. She covered ground-breaking research that he and his colleagues did in the 1990s at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. At that time, Daphne was Communications Officer for the Institute for Space and Terrestrial Science, a research centre based in Toronto which reported on scientific research and experiments.
So who could be better qualified to write now about the threat posed to life on Earth and in space by orbiting junk? Daphne has done a masterful job of researching the history of the space debris problem dating back to the early 1970s, just a few years after Neil Armstrong uttered these prophetic words upon stepping onto the Moon: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Her story brings us up to the present, and projects into the future as to possible solutions being considered by space scientists.
With her extensive knowledge, history and connections with the space community, Daphne was even able to provide an informed initial analysis of a recent development: the unanticipated launch of a North Korean rocket on December 12, 2012.
To complement Daphne’s in-depth reporting on the serious issue of space junk, we have posted 20 photos and 12 illustrations, many of them spectacular, among which we are proud to present one of NASA scientist Donald Kessler drawn by world renowned space illustrator Pat Rawlings.
Pat, who resides in Dripping Springs, Texas, a small community of less then 2,000 located 21 miles west of Austin, has been creating space illustrations, many of them for NASA, for 30 years. In fact, his beautiful artwork, depicting the excitement and drama of outer space, has earned him the reputation of being NASA’s “storyboarder”.
The secret of his success is to be a visual storyteller, Pat said in an interview published in Fast Company magazine in December 2012. “If you look through my artwork, I try as much as possible to make the pictures look like they’re one climatic part out of a movie.”
Pat’s entire interview can be read at:
More examples of his artwork can be found on his website:
While on the subject of space junk artwork, I’d be remiss not to give a callout to BestStory.ca Art Director Rodney Hall, who is himself an accomplished illustrator. Rodney was so enthused with the subject matter that he volunteered to do a major illustration depicting a space junk scene, which we have posted as the first graphic at the top of Daphne’s story. Here’s a hint: the illustration is an imaginative depiction of a 1950 Dodge V-series pickup truck in the context of space.
We hope our readers will be as enthused to peruse Daphne’s 7,235-word story with 20 photos and 12 illustrations, as we are in bringing it to you as the first science story on our ad-free journalism site. Given Daphne’s expertise, experience and enthusiasm, it likely won’t be the last science story she writes for you!
Posted by Warren Perley
When a man of high character, such as retired Det.-Sgt. Albert Lisacek, passes from this earthly existence, our first reaction is one of mourning because some of us appreciate how this humble, brave police officer put his life on the line for 25 years with the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), protecting ordinary, law-abiding citizens.
There are still many among us in Quebec who lived through the tumultuous decades of the 60s and 70s, recalling vividly the loss of innocence we all felt when on October 17, 1970 FLQ terrorists strangled to death Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, likely with his own crucifix chain, and then stuffed his body in a stolen car abandoned near the St. Hubert airport on the South Shore of Montreal.
At that time, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau said of the “cowardly” assassination that “I can’t help feeling as a Canadian a deep sense of shame that this cruel and senseless act should have been conceived in cold blood and executed in like manner .”
A tearful Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau said of Laporte’s killing at the time: “Is it a warning addressed to all those who hold public office that they will not only be suppressed or assassinated but that it will be done in the most cruel manner?”
Parti Quebecois leader René Levesque, himself an exemplary social democrat throughout his careers as a journalist and politician, had this to say: “Speaking for the Parti Quebecois we find completely intolerable Mr. Laporte’s barbaric execution by people who have no sense of humanity and who don’t reflect Quebec .”
Albert Lisacek gave no speeches at that time. Instead, he swung into action with an elite SQ unit, which found and arrested three of Laporte’s kidnappers on December 27, 1970, hiding in a tunnel under a farmhouse in St. Luc, Quebec.
I followed Albert’s police career when I worked as a journalist for daily media, such as The Canadian Press, The Montreal Star and The Gazette. But it was more than three decades after Albert took his retirement in 1981 that I finally learned all the details of his police career, including how he helped track down and capture the FLQ terrorists. When we reconnected in May 2012, I interviewed him over several weeks for a 17,000-word profile about his amazing police career which we have posted on the home page of our website.
Albert brought justice to a world of criminality where bullies beat those who are often defenseless. He was a big, robust man who gave those bullies a taste of their own medicine. Law-breakers called him “Dirty Albert”. Respectful police colleagues nicknamed him “Little Albert”. And in 1972, Canadian Magazine wrote an article on his exploits, anointing him “Canada’s Toughest Cop”.
Albert was a man of few words. So it came as no surprise to me that when he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer on November 1, 2012, he was stoic and never complained. His only comment when told he had three to six months to live was the rhetorical question: “What can you do?”
Even the doctors and nurses in the palliative care unit at the Jewish General Hospital had to ask him whether he had pain and needed more morphine because he was not one to take the initiative in letting them know how he felt. His beloved wife, Jackie, made all sorts of plans to get him back home and treat him with natural remedies to try to prolong his life when traditional doctors said there was nothing more they could do.
But his cancer was too far advanced for him to return home, and Albert knew it. I and his friend, Bill, brought him books, mostly Westerns, because he was an avid reader.
Each time I visited him in the two weeks he was at the Jewish General Hospital, I noted a steady decline in his condition. But he was always happy when I arrived, greeting me with the words: “How ya doing kid? What’s new?” When our visits drew to an end, he’d extend his hand, crush my fingers in his powerful grip and say: “Thanks for coming. I really appreciate it.”
That was the thing about Albert. He appreciated the little things in life, which, in reality, are the most memorable: sitting in a rocker in the country air, yakking with his few close friends, and in the old days, when he had his beloved dogs, their gentle muzzles pushing against him accentuated by their wet kisses on hands and arms. Of course, nothing could beat an embrace from his angel, Jackie, who was always by his side with a few “bons mots” to cheer his spirits.
One thing that struck me from the time he learned of his cancer until his death the night of November 20, 2012, was the way the weather cooperated, as though God was saying to Albert that his final weeks on earth would reflect the subtle, earthy beauty of a sunny, warm fall afternoon with its muted hues. Almost every day the first three weeks of this month was sunny and warm, bringing to mind the prose of Chinese writer and inventor Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who was fluent in both Chinese and English. This is how Yutang described autumn:
I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its tone is mellower, its colours are richer, and it is tinged with a little sorrow. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and its content.
Albert, who turned 79 on July 13, 2012, had also experienced mellowness, wisdom and the limitations of life as he entered his 80th year just over four months ago. He had lived fully and honestly, accomplishing much in his quest to protect those less physically powerful than himself.
I last saw him at 6:45 p.m. on the night of November 20, 2012 in his hospital room. He was having difficulty breathing due to fluid buildup in his lungs. Although he was too weak to speak, he still acknowledged me with his eyes as I sat in the chair by his side.
When I left at 7:30 p.m., I think we both knew that it would be the last time we would see each other on this earth. He died less than 4 1/2 hours later. Normally, I would have told him goodbye and promised to call or see him the next day. This last time, I left wordlessly, not wanting to say goodbye and with the deeply-held belief that one day we will meet again.
Posted by Warren Perley
Two weeks ago, just months after I finished writing an in-depth profile of the most flamboyant cop in Canada, I learned that retired Det.-Sgt. Albert Lisacek of the Sûreté du Québec is battling colon cancer.
As he did throughout his storied career, Albert has adopted a stoic attitude as doctors and nurses in the palliative care unit of the Jewish General Hospital care for him.
Every time I visit, Albert greets me with: “How ya doing kid?” We then chew the fat, as he recounts stories from his days on the police force. Last summer, when I was interviewing him for the 17,000 word profile posted on this site, Albert decided that the time had come for him to clear the air as to what really occurred in the early morning hours of January 24, 1975 when infamous bank robber Richard “The Cat” Blass was gunned down by police in a chalet in the Laurentian ski resort of Val David, 50 miles north of Montreal.
Although there was no love lost between “The Cop” and “The Cat”, Albert never liked the way Blass came to an end. Even before he knew he had cancer, he had made up his mind that he wanted tell the world what he had witnessed in the chalet. Hopefully, his setting the record straight gives him some measure of solace now.
Those wishing to sign a get well card for Albert can do so on our FaceBook Page
Posted by Warren Perley
In the midst of researching an article, a journalist sometimes stumbles upon a secondary story which deserves its own write-up. After all, who can resist a yarn consisting of a "beer doctor", roller derby player and coach all rolled into one who happens to be a ground-breaking entrepreneur streaming live roller derby matches from across Canada onto the Internet? His derby name is Dr. Johnny Capote and any roller derby fan who has ever watched Canuck Derby TV has him to thank.
I came across Johnny only after I had spent two months researching and writing about why the women of roller derby are so passionate about their sport, as seen through the eyes of players in Montreal Roller Derby. All 9,066 words and 41 photos can be found on the home page of this website. In doing my research, I was aware of the big stars, such as Smack Daddy of the New Skids On The Block and Suzy Hotrod of Gotham Girls Roller Derby. But I wanted to find out what was attracting average athletes to the sport.
I followed the transformation of a waitress named Amy I had met at a restaurant in west-end Montreal called Otago as she morphed into her weekend derby persona of Sneaky Devil. Amy is a young lady, a down-to-earth, shy individual who grew up in the small Saskatchewan town of Assiniboia, 60 miles south of Moosejaw near the border with Montana. She is willowy and soft-spoken, hardly the image one might conjure of a rough-and-tumble roller derby chick.
The only clue I gleaned that she had an alter ego was a discreet sugar skull tattoo on her svelte left calf. When I asked a few questions, it didn't take long to realize that she was passionate about roller derby and that her fragile looks belied a steely determination to compete on the oval, where female players show they're every bit as tough as the men and a lot more entertaining to watch because of their athleticism and agility.
My story covers all aspects of women's international roller derby — sporting, social, sexual, political and business — as seen through the eyes of players and observers. We posted the piece on BestStory.ca in September 2012 [SEE TEASER] and immediately started working on a complementary short YouTube video which we hoped would reflect the passion and fun of the sport. Of course, we thought it only appropriate that the two-minute video start with Sneaky Devil. But we realized we needed to transition from a closeup of her to some of the exciting action we had witnessed during the August 2012 championship match of Montreal Roller Derby.
I decided to call the good doctor, Johnny Capote, the founder of Canuck Derby TV. Without hesitation, Johnny made available to us some superb high definition game footage which you can see in the video at http://youtu.be/BVlvKv0ZFr4
In speaking with him, I learned that Johnny plays on the Team Canada men's team (he's No. 10) and that between 2007 and 2010 he coached La Racaille, the Montreal Roller Derby team for which Sneaky Devil started playing in 2012. What makes his story even more compelling is that he used his own money to start Canuck Derby TV — www.canuckderbytv.com — in March 2010 to stream "live boutcasts" of all Montreal Roller Derby matches, as well as various tournament games across Canada. He has trained personnel at affiliate station ToRD.TV in Toronto to stream games from that city's league, and is in the process of setting up affiliate stations across Canada.
Johnny was originally trained in streaming techniques for Internet boutcasts by Hurt Reynolds, one of the founders of Chicago-based Derby News Network (DNN), itself the primary clearing house for derby news and video broadcasts on the Internet. Canuck Derby TV and DNN maintain a close working relationship with all the Canadian boutcasts made available to DNN. In fact, it was Canuck Derby TV which streamed all the games worldwide from the first ever Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto in December 2011.
In March 2012, Johnny formed an alliance with Aaron Johnston, founder of Vancouver-based video production company AMJ Pro Video, to create high definition Internet boutcasts for 93 of the matches covered in the 2012 season. Johnston, with experience broadcasting professional football and hockey, feels there is a Canadian television market for HD Saturday Morning Derby. Johnny and Aaron plan a "soft" launch for HD DerbyTV.com in the spring of 2013 for those Canadians who would like the option of watching derby matches on their television, as well as on their desktop computers and mobile devices.
For those wondering where Dr. Johnny obtained his doctorate, I can now report after my interview with him that he is a certified "beer doctor" with a Montreal-area microbrewery called Les brasseurs du nord, which brews under the brand name Boréale. Johnny, 46, is referentially known as "doctor" when he visits the bars and restaurants of his Montreal clients to ensure the beer is flowing smoothly through their pumps and taps.
What motivates the good doctor to continue his hectic quest to spread video of Canadian roller derby worldwide? The gratification of hearing players like the woman who recently thanked his crew for allowing her husband in Afghanistan and her parents in the U.S. to watch her in action. Plus his ambitious HD roller derby plans keep him out of trouble. "If I weren't working on this monster of a project, I'd probably be in the stands, watching roller derby and drinking far too much PBR [Pabst Blue Ribbon, a sponsor of Montreal Roller Derby]." Sounds like fun, eh?
Posted by Warren Perley
We’ve all heard it said that a picture can sometimes convey the gist of a moment better than words. Some of us writing long feature articles are very cognizant of just how critical photos can be when dealing with a plethora of text in need of complementary visual elements. Especially when the story is about a fast-paced, colorful sport, such as women’s flat track roller derby, which requires seven referees and 15 non-skating officials to keep track of the action in each match.
So when I ventured forth to cover my first Montréal Roller Derby game on July 21, 2012 in anticipation of writing an in-depth story about the phenomenon of this burgeoning sport, I asked BestStory.ca graphic designer Karen Boor to accompany me as a photographer. She snapped some good shots at that double-header and at the championship game two weeks later, on August 4, 2012.
Luckily, along the way we met some professional photographers and filmmakers who happen to love roller derby. They all made their photos available to us for our story.
Adam Chard was at the July double-header involving a match between La Racaille and Les Contrabanditas, as well as the second game between New Skids On The Block and Skate Free or Die.
Adam works as a freelance designer and photographer under the name Croatoan in Cardiff, Wales, taking photos of gigs and bands, and specializing in the design of concert posters and album artwork.
He is the official team photographer with the Tiger Bay Brawlers of Cardiff. “I love the team, I love the sport and I love being involved in the derby world,” Adam told me. “My girlfriend Jen Clawed van Slamme skates for the Brawlers and it's been inspirational to watch her play and develop, especially when she was chosen to captain the Brawlers’ ‘B’ team, as well as skate on the travel ‘A’ team!”
Adam was on vacation in Toronto for the summer when he visited Montreal for the July double-header. Prior to that, he covered the GTA Rollergirls’ Fresh Meat Tournament in Toronto. His work can be viewed at www.croatoandesign.co.uk
Sean Murphy was shooting at the Montreal Roller Derby championship game of August 4, 2012, which was a rematch between La Racaille and Les Contrabanditas. As well, he photographed the action at the first Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto in December 2011.
Sean was interested in photography for years, but never got serious about shooting until December 2010. His grandparents were involved in photography clubs and contests in the film era, and his father has numerous wildlife photography credits. Sean started out covering roller derby practices, learning to overcome the challenges of indoor, high-speed, low-light action.
He is currently head photographer for the Renegade Derby Dames out of Alliston, Ontario and has covered women’s flat track roller derby matches throughout Ontario and Quebec. Sean is a founding member of the Roller Derby Photographers' Association and a participant in f/2.8: Fast Glass Around The Derby Track. His roller derby work can be found at www.girlsofderby.com
Jean-François Poirier provided us with photos of Dance Animal, which bills itself as “The World’s Only Comedy Dance Tribe”, and which provided high-energy entertainment at the intermission of the July double-header.
Jean-François is a software developer with a long-standing interest in photography. His very first camera was a Minolta X-700 in his teens, which then turned into a Canon Coolpix 995 and finally a Canon 30D.
His fascination with event photography was revived when he met the members of Robin Henderson’s Dance Animal at the Fringe Festival in 2009, telling me he was instantly “transfixed by their energy and personalities.” After he re-designed their website, he “gladly jumped in and played the role of paparazzi”, shooting photos of Dance Animal’s various appearances, including halftime at Montréal Roller Derby.
Jean-François, who does freelance web design and development, can be found at http://www.jeanfrancoispoirier.ca.
Denver-based filmmakers Ron Patrick, Robin Bond and Dave Wruck provided us with photos taken during the filming of their fast-paced documentary titled Derby Baby! The film, which had close to 200 screenings scheduled in cities around the world between June and fall 2012, explores why women around the world are flocking by the thousands to play flat track roller derby.
Revenues from the screenings are available to be used as fund-raisers by women’s flat track roller derby leagues around the world. In addition, DVDs and Blu-rays were scheduled to be sold online at www.derbybabythefilm.com with a sizeable percentage of the gross revenues going to the charity Plan International, which promotes children’s rights and fights children’s poverty in 50 developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
When Toronto-based photographer Joe Mac snapped photos at the December 2011 Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto, it put him on the radar of derby leagues and publications around the world.
He had been introduced to roller derby action just two years earlier, at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival where the Hollywood movie Whip It! was screened; he photographed Toronto Roller Derby players skating around Yonge Dundas Square, shouting Whip It!
“I knew I was hooked,” he told me. “Little did I know at the time, I would eventually become one of the photographers at Toronto Roller Derby.”
His “blood began to boil” when he heard that the first ever World Cup would be held in Toronto and he was subsequently engaged by event organizer Blood & Thunder Magazine to be an official photographer at the December 2011 tournament. These days, he travels extensively around Ontario shooting roller derby and is also covering games in New York state, always looking to “capture the magic moments in derby, on and off the track.”
For our story, Joe supplied us with the photo showing the 2011 Roller Derby World Cup team MVPs posing together in Toronto with tournament MVP Smack Daddy of Montréal Roller Derby. His work also appears in the documentary Derby Baby! and he is a contributor to Canuck Derby TV.
Joe’s derby photos can be viewed at: midnightmatineephotography.wordpress.com
Last but not least, many thanks to Montreal Roller Derby — www.mtlrollerderby.com — and its communications director Plastik Patrik for allowing us to use photos from their team site shot by Dany Boivin and Anne Keough.
For those readers who might be interested to know the origins of the expression, “A picture is worth 1,000 words”, here is some journalism history which may surprise you with its intellectual connections to women’s flat track roller derby.
Arthur Brisbane (1864-1936), a New York City reporter who went on to become editor of William Randolph Heart’s New York Journal, was quoted in a March 28, 1911 article in the Syracuse Post Standard as saying in relation to journalism and publicity, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”
Time magazine reported that Brisbane’s syndicated column had a daily readership of over 20 million, which represented one-third of the U.S. population at the time. When Brisbane died in 1936, Hearst said: “I know that Arthur Brisbane was the greatest journalist of his day.”
Upon Brisbane’s death, Damon Runyan, an author and newspaperman who started as a sports writer, was quoted in Time magazine as saying: “Journalism has lost its all-time No. 1 genius.” This is the same Damon Runyan who convinced film publicist Leo Seltzer in the mid-1930s to turn roller skating marathons into a competitive contact sport which has evolved into women’s flat track roller derby.
Arthur Brisbane’s dad, Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), was an American utopian socialist who wrote books and articles in support of that movement, including a weekly column in the New York Tribune founded by Horace Greeley (1811-1872), a reformer known as one of the greatest editors of his day. Utopian socialism supported the principle of autonomous cooperative enterprises, which also happens to be the basis for the 21st century revival of women’s flat track roller derby.
Albert Brisbane’s theories of utopian socialism were themselves based on the works of French philosopher Charles Fourier (1772-1837), who is credited with coining in 1837 the word “feminism”, which again comes full circle when applied to the empowerment of women through the revival of flat track roller derby.
So it seems as though much of the egalitarian philosophy underpinning the revival of women’s flat track roller derby has been “skating” through the annals of history. [SEE TEASER]
Posted by Warren Perley
When I was working as a full-time journalist in major media companies in the 1970s and ’80s, friends outside the business used to ask me how I came up with story ideas. The truth is that the stories usually chose me; rather than the other way around. What I mean is that when “hard news” broke, the priority was to cover it for the next day’s newspapers.
It was the same at all the media companies where I worked – The Canadian Press, The Montreal Star, The Gazette, United Press Canada and United Press International. Writing feature stories was a luxury for which most of us rarely had time. And when we did, the features weren’t all that long, perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 words, which with a few photos would fill most, or all, of a broadsheet page.
So when I was sent by The Gazette to write a story about Det.-Sgt. Albert Lisacek taking his retirement from the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) in 1981, it was a relatively short story of several hundred words, which could not possibly do justice to his long, colorful career. Even in those days – before advertising revenue had shrunk – the “news hole” at most papers was tight and predicated on the number of ads in that day’s issue.
I dreamed of one day writing Albert’s life story, which 30 years ago – before the advent of the Internet – could only have been done by means of a book. But then a book publisher would likely only have agreed to such a venture if he/she believed it could be a commercial success, meaning enough copies of the book could be sold to justify the time and expense of putting it together.
Well, along came the Internet in the early 1990s, and, since April 2012, BestStory.ca! Would “Canada’s toughest cop”, who turns 79 on July 13, 2012, be willing to tell his stories to me and the public more than 30 years after his retirement?
A few conversations with Albert, et voila, we had the real stories behind the most spectacular cops’n’robbers and terrorist headlines in Montreal’s history – over 17,000 words and 66 photos and 2 illustrations. Aside from having no space restrictions on what I write for BestStory.ca, I also have no editor telling me that Albert’s language might be too salty or the truth too raw for the average reader. So what you get here is Albert Unleashed which, as anyone who has followed his career will attest, can be blunt. But as the New Testament says, “...the truth will set you free.”
In terms of the truth Albert related to me, I got more than I bargained for. Of course, I knew from my days as a journalist that he had been involved in hunting down the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) terrorists Paul Rose, his brother Jacques Rose and Francis Simard in 1970.
I also knew he was present when infamous killer and bank robber Richard Blass, known as “The Cat”, was shot dead by police in the early morning hours of January 24, 1975. But now, more than 37 years later, Albert revealed what really happened in the moments before Blass died in a hail of police bullets.
Of course, one of the reasons so much information came out of my interviews with Albert is because for the first time in my journalism career I had the luxury of having two crack researchers available who dug up background that has added rich detail and context to the story I wrote. Their background information allowed me to ask the right questions of Albert during our many hours of conversations, which stretched over more than a month.
One of the researchers is Karen Boor, who is a full-time graphic designer responsible for the photo selection and layout of articles on BestStory.ca. Karen also happens to be very curious and adept at ferreting out details on the Internet.
My other researcher was Luc Paquette, who himself is mentioned in the story as a young boy growing up in the Laurentian mountains community of Lac des Écorces, where Albert spent his summers between 1963 and 2004.
Luc, who works for a chartered accountant, is currently writing a history of Lac des Écorces – founded about a century ago. He first did research on Albert for his book. When he found out I was writing a story, he offered to share his research about the detective.
So my hat goes off to Karen and Luc for their help, without which my article would not have been nearly as interesting or as complete.
Some of the other facts that I was surprised to learn in writing Albert’s story was his connection to infamous bank robber Machine Gun Molly and Jacques Mesrine, Public Enemy No. 1 in France.
This is a real-life story of cops and criminals. I hope it will help you understand not only what Albert Lisacek did as a cop, but why he did it – the story behind the legend! [SEE TEASER]
Our art director, Rodney Hall, has put together a short video to promote the story on YouTube. Please have a look and pass it on to anyone who appreciates a real-life story about cops’n’robbers:
Posted by Warren Perley
Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), the British novelist, short-story writer and playwright, once said that "the trouble with young writers is that they are all in their 60s."
Being an astute critic of literary style and structure, Maugham was keenly aware that true artists never stop growing and striving to perfect their craft. We blink an eye and discover that a lifetime has passed in pursuit of that elusive goal of artistic fulfillment coupled with public recognition, hopefully accompanied by financial remuneration. Most artists never reach all their goals due to a confluence of factors,including the difficulty of translating artistic excellence into commercial success. Being a diligent, dedicated journalist does not always guarantee access to the infrastructure needed to showcase your talent.
With those thoughts in mind, I am pleased to be part of a new business model intended to give all serious and competent freelance journalists - those who are young in years and those who are young only in spirit - a chance to follow their dreams and to write well-researched, meaningful stories for sale directly to readers across Canada and around the world.
I feel privileged to have the opportunity to pay homage to all the artists - writers, photographers and illustrators - involved in the first stories which appeared on our site when we launched today. You can read about them in our Contributors' Profile section. I also want to thank our programming team, which worked so hard to build the computer code for our system.
But first and foremost, special kudos to my partners in this massive journalism effort - graphic designers Rodney Hall and Karen Boor. Rodney, who has worked with me since my days as editor at The Weekly Herald (a Montreal community newspaper) starting in 1988, designed the look, graphic interface and functionality for the entire site based on our mandate to create a sublime literary experience for our readers. He also created our logo, with its retro-50s look intended to convey the joy so many of us feel when reading in a relaxed atmosphere.
Karen - creative, experienced and diligent - works with me on every article to select the best graphics and layout to make the stories come alive. Most of our freelance contributors have not met her, but they can rest assured that she is behind the scenes, making sure that their stories, photos and illustrations are displayed in the most visually attractive manner possible.
As a writer and editor, I feel strongly about the importance of the graphic look of a story because it is an integral part of an enjoyable literary experience. So in addition to those who are listed in our Contributors' Profiles, I want to give a call-out to two photographers in particular whose contributions are part of one of our first stories which compares Barack Obama with Pierre Elliott Trudeau. During their lifetimes, Yousuf Karsh and Rod MacIvor created impressive bodies of work dedicated to visual artistry.
Let me start first with the one who is young in spirit and enjoying his winters in Florida: Rod MacIvor retired in 2007 after 42 years as a photographer based in Ottawa. Rod, who worked at various times for United Press International, the Ottawa Citizen and freelance, is best known for his collection of photos of the family of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Margaret (Sinclair) Trudeau chose him as her first photography instructor and said of his photos of her husband: "Rod captured the intimate side of Pierre Trudeau, without sensationalism - the reality, not the weakness; the best, not the worst." Seven of Rod's Trudeau photos are included in our story.
His many Trudeau images - including one of Trudeau carrying his young son, Justin, under his arm which was a National Newspaper Award winner - have attracted a total of 20,000 people at various exhibits across Canada over the years and raised $20,000 for prostate cancer research. Rod now specializes in bird, nature, environmental and street photography (including documentary style wedding photos). An annual exhibit of his works is held through the Phillip K. Wood Gallery in Almonte Ontario, about 10 miles from Ottawa.
Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) was a giant of 20th century portrait photography, documenting intimate and poignant views of some of the best known politicians, actors and athletes of our time. A small sampling of his subjects: Sir Winston Churchill, Mackenzie King, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, René Levesque, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandella, Henry Kissinger, Martin Luther King, Queen Elizabeth II, Lionel Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart , Yul Brynner, Robertson Davies, Lord Beaverbrook and Muhammad Ali.
Born on December 23, 1908 in Mardin, an Armenian city in southeastern Turkey, Karsh escaped the Turkish massacre of Armenians in that region in 1915 and ended up 10 years later booking a trans-Atlantic freighter passage from Beirut to Halifax, where he was met on the stormy New Year's Eve of 1925 by his mother's brother, George Nakash, who had migrated earlier to Sherbrooke, Quebec.
Karsh recalled his first impression upon arriving in Halifax: "The sparkling decorations on the windows of the shops and houses, the laughing crowds - for me it was an unbelievable fantasy come true. On the two-day journey to my uncle's home, I marveled at the vast distances."
The teachers at his Sherbrooke high school had quite a challenge teaching a 17-year-old Armenian boy who spoke no English or French, but one who was ever so well behaved. Karsh, who had witnessed stonings of Armenians in his native Turkey, recalled the kindness of his new Canadian friends. He later recounted, tongue in cheek, that not only did his new buddies not stone him, but they even allowed him to keep the marbles that he won. "The warmth of my reception made me love my adopted land," Karsh said.
Uncle Nakash, a bachelor, was an established photographer who took Yousuf under his wing before sending him to Boston in 1928 to serve an apprenticeship with portrait photographer John Garo. Karsh returned to Canada four years later and established a studio in Ottawa close to Parliament Hill, where he came to the attention of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
King was so pleased with Karsh's portrait of him that he arranged for the young photographer to meet visiting dignitaries, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who had his photograph taken after addressing the House of Commons on December 30, 1941.
That portrait of Churchill is said to be the most reproduced portrait photograph in history. Karsh, named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967 and a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1990, was on his way to international acclaim. You can read his entire story and see his magnificent work at www.karsh.org
We at beststory.ca are thrilled to have two of Karsh's photos - one of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and one of Quebec Premier René Levesque - in our story comparing Obama and Trudeau. It's "living" proof of the immortality of great art! [SEE TEASER]