This week’s edition of what seems to be my weekly newsletter, for now at least. If you like to get things in your inbox, you can sign up here. If you don’t, you can read more below.
A year ago yesterday was the death of Stuart McLean, author and radio broadcaster and Canadian icon:
“McLean’s trademark blend of storytelling — part nostalgia, part pithy observations about everyday life — and folksy, familiar delivery made him a hit with audiences for more than 20 years.”
When it happened, I wrote this on Facebook:
“A cassette of ‘Dave Cooks the Turkey‘ my aunt taped off of CBC is one of my earliest introductions to the power of radio storytelling.
“Years later, he was my first celebrity interview, when I was a student journalist. He was incredibly generous with his time, chatting for over an hour, mostly about music.
“He also invited me to the show he was promoting in Prince George, and we met backstage. My main memory of that was him being concerned about whether his socks matched his pants.
“He also told me I should listen to the Bicycles, which I did and fell in love with. So in his memory, a personal recommendation from the man who understood the power of audio”
And, on CBC itself, I wrote about one of his final performances, here in Prince George, in which he spoke about Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people. From that:
“We must remember, as we head off towards the next century, that the loudest voices are not necessarily the wisest.
“And so, I would say today as we toast the last 100 years, our toast should contain a certain humility. A modest acknowledgement of our stumbles and our quiet determination to try harder, to listen carefully, to be thoughtful of new ways, to be sure that we are on the right side of history.
“That is, to continue our coming together with open minds and hearts.
“And finally to ask ourselves from time to time how people will look back at us, 100 years from now.
“Will they say of us we were tolerant and enlightened?
“Will they say we did the right thing at the right time?
“Will they find people among us who stood firm and inched things forward, who made the world a better place?”
And finally, I had tears in my eyes a few weeks ago when I read this tribute from his “long-suffering” producer Jess Milton in the Walrus. There’s a lovely story in there about him becoming obsessed with telling the story of a man who, as a child, fell over Niagara Falls and lived, but only with his permission. And of his final performance, in a Halifax arena, ending with a sea of lights. And this:
“Over the years, we got a lot of flak for our show being saccharine. It was a valid criticism. But it wasn’t an act. That is how Stuart lived. That is how he saw the world. He wasn’t ashamed of that. He didn’t apologize for it. When he hired me, I was fresh out of journalism school. I knew nothing, or nothing about producing a successful national radio show. But I saw the world the same way he did. And he gave me permission to own that. He gave me permission to see the good. Always.”
The radio isn’t the same without him.
Not so long ago, I was writing a story about the death of an Indigenous man. The circumstances surrounding the death are still being investigated. I had permission from the family to use any of the Facebook pictures on his page, now converted to an “Remembering…” profile. Basically, if you die, people close to you can have the page frozen, a snapshot of your life.
A lot of the photos were of him posing with his children and smiling. Although the family had said I could use any photo, they had also said how difficult the loss of their father was on the children. So I reached out to ask about using those. The preference was not to have the kid’s photos included in the story, so I looked for one of him alone.
I found a good one. He was looking at the camera, cropped well. But he was wearing a baseball cap and a hoodie. I hesitated. Then I kept looking.
Because I read the comments.
* * *
Because I read the comments, I know there is a certain subsection of society that, upon hearing about the death of an Indigenous person, will find a reason it is no big deal, or their own fault, or at the least not anyone else’s fault, as if that’s the only reason to acknowledge someone’s death. They will fill in blanks to a story they don’t know based on stereotypes or their own experiences or stories they heard from someone else as if the circumstances in one situation can be applied broadly to all.
Colten Boushie’s journal with notes on elders & residential schools.
Joe Friesen/Globe and Mail
Oct 20, 2016 pic.twitter.com/M0boeK7KCf
— paul seesequasis (@PaulSeesequasis) February 3, 2018
According to Colten Boushie’s family and friends, he was “a man of the community” who “came into the world smiling,” described as an optimist, recently trained to be a firefighter, often offering to help out with odd jobs. On his Facebook page, now a memory page since his 2016 death, there are numerous posts of him asking if anyone needs their lawn mowed or wood chopped.
That’s not how I found out about his Facebook page.
I found out about it because I saw posts on Twitter where people had screen-capped a status from April 29 2016 reading:
“Back in the saddle again throw my middle finger up to the law ain’t gotta rob nobody tonight but I do it just because I’m a nut i get bored did some pills but I want more fuck this world fuck this town”.
The post is being shared as a repudiation of his character with comments like “karma will bite you” and “thug” and “didn’t deserve to be killed but not an angel”.
A quick Google search uncovers the fact those words are lyrics from the song “Catfish Billy” by the Alabaman rapper Yelawolf.
And a search from there will show numerous young people who’ve pasted those same words in their Facebook statuses, many whom appear to be white, including teenage girls.
I wonder if they were shot and killed if those statuses would be used as a repudiation of their character.
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This isn’t a comment on the trial itself.
This isn’t even a comment on what happened to Colten Boushie, specifically. It is a comment on the public discourse when an Indigenous person is killed or goes missing. I will readily acknowledge there are people who express glee or “well, that’s what you get” comments anytime someone they perceive to be as criminal is killed or injured, regardless of race.
But I will also point out that it is only stories about Indigenous people- even positive, good news stories- that have had to have comments closed because of the amount of vitriol and ugly language they attract.
I will tell you that even though I have done zero coverage of this story, and am two provinces away from it, I got a call this week from someone asking why I hadn’t investigated whether Boushie had a criminal record. I will tell you that after another recent story I wrote, this one about a mother marking the disappearance of her son ten years ago, I got an email asking why I had bothered. You see, the mother had worried her son was getting involved in gangs so she had moved provinces in order to keep her child safe. This email suggested it was no great loss that another Indigenous gangster had disappeared.
He was 14 years old.
* * *
The screencapping of Boushie’s Facebook status brings to mind what happened to Michael Brown’s social media accounts after the Black American teenager was shot and killed in 2014. In one of his photos he was flashing a peace sign, which was interpreted by some commentators as a gang sign, in others he was wearing chains and jewelry, a sign he was a “thug.”
In response, his family spoke about Brown’s humour, his love of music, how he had just graduated high school and was headed to college. After that, Greg Howard wrote:
“By all accounts, Brown was One Of The Good Ones. But laying all this out, explaining all the ways in which he didn’t deserve to die like a dog in the street, is in itself disgraceful. Arguing whether Brown was a good kid or not is functionally arguing over whether he specifically deserved to die, a way of acknowledging that some black men ought to be executed.“To even acknowledge this line of debate is to start a larger argument about the worth, the very personhood, of a black man in America. It’s to engage in a cost-benefit analysis, weigh probabilities, and gauge the precise odds that Brown’s life was worth nothing against the threat he posed to the life of the man who killed him.”
Whoever went through Colten Boushie’s Facebook page looking for those Catfish Billy lyrics had to scroll past a lot of other statuses. Some are expressing frustration with car problems. A lot are “good morning everyone”. Some have rough language that you’d be familiar with if you have any young people in your social media spheres.
But the one that really strikes me is one that was posted on the same day as the Catfish Billy post, also quoting a rapper– this one Hopsin, taken from his Instagram page. It reads:
“Change is one of the most difficult that we face but change is inevitable, one reason we don’t like change is we get comfortable where we are, we get used to friends , our jobs, the place we live , even if its not perfect we accept it because its familiar , and what happens is because were it willing to change we get stuck in what god used to do instead of moving forward to what god is about to do , just because god blessed you where you are doesn’t mean you can sit back and settle there, you have to be open to what god is doing now , what worked five years ago may not work today , if your going to be successful you have to be willing to change , every blessing is not supposed to be permanent , every provision is not supposed to last forever, we should constantly evaluate friends in our lives , who’s dragging you down , who’s speaking into your life who’s are you depending make sure there not limiting you, if you don’t get rid of the wrong friends you will never make the right ones”
I don’t know if this speaks to Boushie’s character or the trajectory of his life any more than the Yelawolf post. But I know that of the two, only one has been quoted, screencapped and shared by people suggesting he somehow got what he deserved, as if that lessens the tragedy of a young man’s death, the loss to his family, and to society as a whole.
He listened to rap music.
He was no angel.
He was one of the good ones.
All of these things can be true.
The question is, do any of them matter?
I’ve been reading the One Week, One Band feature on Leonard Cohen by Sabina Tang and enjoying it immensely. Since getting an iPad for Christmas I’ve found myself wanting to read liner notes while listening to albums and while that doesn’t exist, features like this one and Pitchfork’s Sunday Reviews are a pretty good substitute.
I became a fan of Cohen with 2014’s release of Popular Problems and the single “Almost Like the Blues“, the same week he turned 81. His voice was just so deep and rich and full of, not life, per se, but of a life lived. And it kept going. Listen to “Almost Like the Blues” and then compare it to “You Want It Darker” from 2016, released just weeks before his death. Hear the register drop.
He was getting better with age.
That’s captured in Tang’s opening quote from Ezra Koenig, tweeted on the day of Cohen’s death:
– first album at 33
– dropped “Hallelujah” at 50
– first arena shows in his 70s
He did it til the end. RIP
The quote I’ve drawn above (an idea taken from Austin Kleon I’m trying out) captures something about Cohen’s music that is so appealing to me. He provides a model of how to get older, how to recognise it will end, and to see it as both an inevitable defeat and a thing of beauty.
As Tang writes,
“He worked as if he had a rock polisher in his torso. The world was comprised of a few raw materials – Love, Sex, Death, God – that went tumbling around, for years, until they fell back out smooth and timeless as river pebble, hitting the ground with the finality of pronouncement. It took time, so he was a patient guy”
He did not lament casually. Or, in his own words:
“If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darkerHineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord”
I don’t have kids but I do have a niece I like hanging out with. She’s seven now and I realized that she virtually never shows up anywhere on my social media. I tend to not post a lot of pictures of people online and that goes more so for kids. I don’t have any strong feelings about this one way or another, it’s just my way of doing it. It means my Facebook and Instagram pages are largely devoid of the people in my life.
This is fine, but it does mean that when I get those ‘memory’ posts it’s often of things I saw and did but not of the people I was with. If I want to see that I have to go into my personal photo roll and check out where I was on a particular day. Google Photos backs up everything on my phone and gives me memories privately, so that tends to be more meaningful than anything I put out in public.
Of course, in the old days people had to actually print photos out, put them in a book, and then look through that book if they wanted to see pictures of the past. They didn’t get daily notifications about what they were doing one, five, ten years ago.
The other day this popped up in my memories feed.
It’s a photo I took of Zadie Smith’s NW when I was reading it a couple years ago. I love this passage and I’d forgotten about it until I got a little notification in my phone. It made me think maybe I should take photos of words I love more often. I can file them away in a notebook but, like those photo albums, I won’t see them unless I take them off the shelf. This way past thoughts and ideas are with me, ready to pop up a year, two years, four years from now.
Anyways, back to my niece, I’ve decided I’d like to do a better idea of recording stories about her. This week she instructed me on how to construct a sword out of Legos. Then we built a tower out of blocks for the Snowman King and had to stand guard to protect from dogs and other people in the house who might come. Also, I’m told she now prefers Lego to My Little Pony and that her younger sister would likely ruin any weddings she attends.
Oh, and my wife wasn’t allowed to look at these slippers because she “likes animals” so might steal them.
As I wrote in my latest newsletter, we got a lot of snow this week– to the extent that we parked our car for a couple of days since it was likely we’d be able to make it off the street. The upside to all the snow is it made for some good cross-country skiing:
That’s Shane Lake, about a 15 minute drive from my house and about 20 from downtown. The trail it connects to is one of the main bus routes in the city, near the university. Every time I get to enjoy it like I did yesterday, I’m blown away that it exists not just within city limits but on such an accessible route.
A couple of years ago some friends were out ice fishing and I went and joined them on my lunch break. Another year, before the snow had fallen but after the lake had frozen, a group of us from work went up to play hockey. That’s incredible.
While the lake is only about a fifteen-to-twenty-minute walk from the two main trailheads, the rest of the system covers over 25 kilometers of trail for snowshoeing, hiking, skiing, running or biking. Sometimes we go up, take a side trail we’ve not tried before, and see where it takes us.
And that’s just one option. My house is right near a school field, that connects to another school field, that connects to a park that connects to a forest while only crossing one road. Once we had visitors from another city and they couldn’t believe we weren’t on the edge of the city. It’s great for walking the dogs and, when we get a snowfall like this one, skiing right out of our driveway and into the wilderness.
People complain about the winter, but I think it’s when Prince George really shines. You don’t have to shovel rain, but you can’t build forts or have the experience of the full moon lighting up a dark night as it reflects off of it, either. I know people who go to Hawaii or Mexico for Christmas, but I can’t imagine wanting anything other than a city blanketed with snow. For the last few years it seems like the winter of my youth- snow, cold- comes later and leaves earlier and this year even when I’ve had to shovel multiple times a day I’ve been glad of it, hoping I don’t ever experience a year without snow, although it seems increasingly likely.
I recently wrote a story about Fort St. John, a place with more snow and more cold than Prince George, adopting a Winter City strategy in an attempt to reverse a 2004 study that found the notion of having six months of winter was a ‘marketing weakness’ when trying to attract students and professionals. Taking best practices from an international winter cities movement the project recommends a series of small steps, from providing warming huts on trails and winter starter kits for new residents to encouraging businesses to leave lights on to make streets more inviting.
To write the article, I actually wound up watching the full hour-long presentation from Urban Systems, the planning company hired to take on the project. The quote that stood out to me was from Chad Carlstrom who said
“We are fixed in our geography but we are not fixed in our mindsets… We are here to create change that embraces the winter we live in.”
“We are fixed in our geography but we are not fixed in our mindsets.” What a great way to think about it.
Note: if you are a geek like me and would also like to watch the presentation, it can be found here— it’s “Untitled Video 2018-01-08 12:58:22.”
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The funny thing about being sick is when one of my co-workers takes time off for a cold or cough or something, I am glad of it. And when someone goes walking around in public while they are still sick I am resentful, because then it is spreading (of course I understand people still have to go out in the world while sick, sometimes to work because they have jobs like that, but still). But when I get sick I feel guilty for taking time off and try to force myself back in, even though if literally anyone else were in the same situation I would tell them to stay home.
Point being, I finally got sick this week after avoiding whatever it is that’s been going around and basically hid out for three days watching The Good Place which is a show that I still haven’t decided whether it’s good or not, but at least it’s interesting (it is, basically, a half-hour sitcom style show about people living in an afterlife that may or may not be heaven but at the very least is prone to error). I am still not fully better, but I went back to work for the last couple of days, no doubt to the resentment of my co-workers.
Also this week it snowed a lot. For the first time since 2014 we had to park our car for a couple days as we waited for the street to be cleared because all our neighbour’s trucks were getting stuck and we have nowhere near that clearance. Which meant I got to and from work using the bus system which, in my case at least, was still pretty reliable despite the bad roads. My only critique, really, is it would be nice to have some way of finding out whether your bus is ten minutes late or actually left ten minutes early, because both happen sometimes and that guessing game is not fun.
Still, I got where I was going and city crews came and cleared off our street yesterday so it looks like the new strategy is paying off!
Also, I’m in the midst of rewriting the design of my website which is actually a fun project for me because it satisfies both the design and puzzle-solving portions of my brain, which I don’t use all that often. If you’re, like, really into reading about why I’m doing this again, I recorded it here, just for my own purposes.
At work, I learned about how snow load is measured and why houses built pre-1985ish may be at risk of being damaged in the Bulkley Valley.
And about how the snow and cold is good news for winter festivals happening in Prince George and Fort St. John this weekend.
On the podcast, there is a story about Elderbeary, the mascot for senior citizens in Prince George, being neglected because not enough people volunteer to help seniors, and doggy swimming lessons in Fort St. John, among other things. You can download it now.
Also, in response to a question about diversity on the internet I wrote some very quick thoughts.
Last week, I recommended the CBC Saskatchewan podcast “Boushie” about the trial of Gerald Stanley in the death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, a case that has crystallized a larger discussion about racism and justice in Canadian society given Boushie’s status as a young Indigenous man and Stanley’s as a white farmer in area marked by racial tension (not unique to that part of Canada but, for now at least, more visible).
Yesterday, Stanley was found not guilty and the intensity of the polarization increased. In Facebook comments there were people celebrating, while on Twitter the #JusticeForColten hashtag took off. In that context, I am coming back to two pieces I read about the case that speak to the larger conversation around it.
The first is Andray Domise on the jury selection process, in which every visibly Indigenous or Indigenous-appearing person was challenged and dismissed as a potential juror. “None of this is to say that a visibly white jury cannot fairly try a murder case,” he writes.
“But where race is a social factor in the case, if not a material factor, the social impact travels far past the courtroom walls. In racially charged cases, convictions rendered by all-white juries against defendants of colour can cause cause widespread community distrust of the criminal justice system. Acquittals of white defendants, by all white juries, where the victim is a person of colour, can do even more damage. Not only can it create a similar loss of trust in the system, it can inculcate self-appointed vigilantes with the belief that the law is engaged in a secret handshake with them.”
The thing about juries, generally, is we know very little about why they make the decisions they do which makes it hard to rule out things like implicit bias being a factor. It’s kind of a matter of faith, and there’s no way to really check on it unlike, say, by examining a judge’s comments on their reasons for a conviction. I suspect this is a conversation to be had, among many others.
The other piece is from the Globe and Mail, in which Boushie’s mother and siblings recount what happened to them when the police showed up to tell them their son/brother had just been killed:
“The officers entered without asking permission and without offering much comfort, Ms. Baptiste said, an account confirmed by William.
“‘They searched everything, like they were looking for somebody, or something,’ Ms. Baptiste said.
“After a few minutes an officer tried to force a weeping Ms. Baptiste to her feet.
“‘He grabbed my wrist right here and he said ‘Ma’am, get yourself together.’ And I told him, ‘No,’ Ms. Baptiste recalled.
“William and his brother Jace Baptiste said the officers also asked if they’d been drinking. They hadn’t. They were waiting for Colten to return home. They even had his dinner ready in the microwave, they told the police. An officer walked over and opened the microwave to check if this was true, an act so presumptuous Ms. Baptiste and her sons dwell on it every time they tell the story of that night. Would the officer have acted the same way in the home of a white family that had just been notified of their son’s murder? Ms. Baptiste doesn’t think so.”
An internal RCMP investigation found the RCMP did nothing wrong because of the “safety risks involved.” According to the Toronto Star report, the family’s allegations “couldn’t be supported” and police acted as they did because they believed someone from the shooting scene may have been in the home. As in the jury selection, there is a sense from the family and community leaders that the system was stacked against them from the start.
There are very different versions of Canada we live in, depending on who we are.
One thing Facebook gets right is comment moderation for pages. The ability to blacklist certain words, and hide comments from everyone except the poster and their network should be adopted everywhere
Thanks for reading! Remember, if your body is telling you to rest, do it. Take care of yourselves!
The trial for the alleged murder of Colton Boushie, the 22-year-old Cree man who was shot and killed on a farm in rural Saskatchewan started this week. And so did “Boushie,” a podcast being produced by CBC Saskatchewan and the single most important thing I think is happening at CBC right now.
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but also, maybe not. I’ve only listened to two episodes (because that’s all there is), but this is the first CBC podcast I’ve heard that I think really capitalizes on CBC’s strengths without simply being a radio show available to download.
Here’s what I mean by that. So far, there are roughly two categories of CBC podcasts (I’m writing this as a listener, by the way – I don’t actually have any information that gives me more insight into the world of CBC podcast than any other interested listener with the ability to look at iTunes).
Category one is what I already mentioned— radio shows available to download. These are things like the Sunday Edition, the Current, As It Happens. Smart, insightful programs but also ones beholden to the formats and conventions of broadcast radio.
Category two is CBC Originals podcasts. These are shows like On Drugs, The Fridge Light, and Somebody Knows Something: things you might hear on CBC, but are designed with the idea that they are a podcast.
By the way, this how they are sorted in Apple’s Podcast store, just in case you were wondering how I came up with this:
The CBC Originals are also smart and insightful. But to a certain extent they operate independently of the overall CBC ecosystem. They aren’t tapping into the newsrooms and daily reporting going on across the country in a way that’s central to the overall structure of how they’re made, as best I can tell.
That’s not the case for Boushie. The two primary players are a host (Rachel Zelniker) and reporter (Charles Hamilton), both based in Saskatchewan and both, it is evident, with some depth of knowledge of the cultural context in which this trial is taking place and just why it is so explosive. In setting the scene before the daily courtroom drama begins, the podcast draws extensively on existing CBC radio content, such as past interviews and local call-in shows. It’s the sort of stuff that virtually nobody but CBC would have on hand.
But it’s not simply a rehash of past content. The day-to-day programming is recontextualized into a larger narrative, complete with (tasteful) music beds and a natural-sounding back-and-forth between the two guides. It’s also too long to fit in as a segment on an existing radio show and too short to be a show of its own. In other words, it’s a podcast. And the fact that it’s coming from Saskatchewan really sets it apart— how many other media organizations with this sort of infrastructure even have people based there?
A while back I somewhat facetiously tweeted “The Daily, but for anything other than American politics every day.” I was referencing the New York Times podcast that, every weekday, spends fifteen to thirty minutes with one of its reporters contextualizing a story of the day. While rightfully lauded, I (obviously) find it somewhat narrow in scope and crave something that speaks more directly to my experiences as a Canadian. I don’t know if it’s in the plans, but if anyone is wondering what a Canadian version of the Daily might sound like, Boushie is providing an excellent example, on an important story. You can subscribe to it here.
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