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The Walrus September 2017

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Birding with Margaret Atwood Electric Cars
thewalrus.ca · published by the walrus foundation
september 2017
Is the sun rising
or setting on the CBC?
plus
Concussions:
The CFL Faces its
Toughest Opponent
and
Wealthy Renters
6 cities
6 themes
36 visionary thinkers
36 new ways of
thinking about
Ontario’s future
Who will you vote for?
We asked the province’s most creative thinkers to come up
with solutions to the challenges that Ontarians and
Canadians will face over the next 50 years.
Join us at one of six upcoming events across Ontario to hear
our finalists champion their innovative ideas—and help
choose the winners of the Lieutenant Governor’s Visionaries
Prize by voting for your favourites.
Reserve your tickets now.
thewalrus.ca/lg-visionaries-prize
JOIN US LIVE
THUNDER BAY
Reconciliation
Wednesday, September 13
KINGSTON
Governance
Tuesday, September 19
WINDSOR
Inclusive Prosperity
Thursday, September 21
WATERLOO
Environmental Stewardship
Tuesday, September 26
BRAMPTON
Social Cohesion
Thursday, September 28
TORONTO
Scientific and Technological Innovation
Monday, October 2
B e par t
of t h e a u d
ience
and help c
hoose t he
winners b
y voting fo
r
your favou
rites.
*featuring
live voting
at each ev
ent
contents
volume 14, number 7 • september 2017
left
“Rental
­Breakdown,”
p. 16
right
“Head Games,”
p. 30
Features
First Things
6 Masthead
10 Contributors
12 Letters
In Brief
politics
14 Socialism Is Back
Instead of fighting for the political
centre, the ndp should return to
its principles by Ira Wells
economics
16 Rental Breakdown
Why you can’t find an affordable
apartment in Canada’s biggest cities
by John Lorinc
technology
18 No Cars Go
Drivers are ready for electric
vehicles. Too bad our roads aren’t
by Cam Sylvester
society
20 What Is the cbc Good For?
Our public broadcaster charts its
course in a world of Snapchat,
clickbait, and teenage YouTube stars
by Tom Jokinen
30
Poetry
53 My Body in Three Movements
by Tess Liem
57 Dominion Protection™
by Julie Bruck
Arts and Culture
Science
Head Games
Two competing labs are racing to
find the link between concussions
and long-term brain damage.
The cfl’s survival may hinge on
the results by Brett Popplewell
justice
44 Project Spade
Inside the international effort to
take down Canada’s largest child
pornography ring
by Robert Kolker
visual arts
58 Breaking Through
Artist Geoffrey Farmer’s creative
process includes chipping away
at the exhibition space itself
by Caoimhe Morgan-Feir
arts
62
The Lovebirds
On secluded Pelee Island, Margaret
Atwood and Graeme Gibson have
built a sanctuary for their feathered
friends by Grant Munroe
65
Walrus Reads
Books by Catherine Lacey, Adrian
Owen, and Helen Humphreys
reviews
first person
66 Hair Apparent
I grew up in a black family,
but never felt black enough
by Jackson Weaver
cover: illustration by paul kim
5
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
The Sixth Annual
$5,000 Walrus
Poetry Prize
The Walrus magazine, thewalrus.ca, and the Walrus Talks are
projects of the charitable, non-profit Walrus Foundation.
Publisher
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Copy Editor
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Joseph Fellow
Digital Developer
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walrus-massey Fellow
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Production Director
Maria Musikka
• Now accepting
submissions!
Editor Emeritus
John Macfarlane
founding editor
David Berlin
Enter your poem at
We acknowledge the
financial support of the
Government of Canada
through the Canada
The Walrus Foundation Periodical Fund of the
thanks the members of Department of Canadian
our Educational Review Heritage.
Committee for their
We also acknowledge
contributions.
the support of the OMDC
Magazine Fund, an
Chair
initiative of the Ontario
Karen Prentice
Media ­Development
Vice-Chair
Corporation.
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Member ccab/bpa
University of Calgary
Worldwide
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Osgoode Hall Law School,
Printed in Canada
Educational
Review
Committee
York University
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Wilfrid Laurier university
Barb Hunt
sir Wilfred Grenfell college,
memorial university
Winner of the Arthur
Kroeger College of Public
Affairs Award for Public
Discourse
Stephen Kimber
University of King’s College
Niigaanwewidam
James Sinclair
University of Manitoba
Lee Smolin
Perimeter Institute
for Theoretical Physics
Mira Sucharov
Carleton university
thewalrus.ca
/poetry-prize
by September 13
• Finalists will be selected by
Margaret Atwood, Jordan Abel,
and Carmine Starnino,
deputy editor of The Walrus.
• Winning poems will appear
in the January/February 2018
issue of The Walrus and the
Poetry in Voice anthology.
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Operations Director
Chair
Renée Montpellier
Helen Burstyn
Office manager
vice-Chairs
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Aimée Ippersiel
directors
Shari Austin
Diane Blake
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Ira Gluskin
Elizabeth Gomery
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Chethan Lakshman
Janelle Lassonde
Robin McLay
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Justin Poy
Karen Prentice
philanthropy coordinator
May Ardekani
The Walrus Foundation
is a registered charitable
non-profit with an
educational mandate
to create forums
for conversations
on matters vital to
Canadians.
The foundation is
dedicated to supporting
writers, artists, ideas,
and thought-provoking
conversation.
We achieve these
goals across multiple
platforms: publishing
The Walrus magazine—
which focuses on
Canada and its place in
the world—ten times
a year; producing the
national series of Walrus
Talks; posting original,
high-quality content
daily at thewalrus.ca;
and training young
professionals in media,
publishing, and nonprofit development.
The Order of
the Walrus
Companions of the
Order of the Walrus
The following
exceptional
donors have made
transformative gifts in
2017 to help the Walrus
Foundation make the
greatest contribution
it can to the future of
Canada during the
150th anniversary
of Canadian
Confederation.
EVENTS DIRECTOR
David Leonard
Events & Media
Coordinators
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Catherine Coreno
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Manager of partnerships
Amirah El-Safty
Foundation Copy Editor
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accountants
Forbes Andersen LLP
National
Advisory
Council
Ian Alexander
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David Harrison
Dr. Eric Jackman
Tom Jackson
Roberta Jamieson
Donald K. Johnson
Mark Kingwell
Gerald Lazare
D’Arcy Levesque
James Little
Louise MacCallum
Hugh MacKinnon
Laura Michalchyshyn
Scott Mullin
Seamus O’Regan
Terry O’Reilly
Julian Porter
Pierre Santoni
Bernard Schiff
Helga Stephenson
Vince Timpano
Aritha van Herk
Honorary legal counsel
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charitable registration no.
861851624-RR0001
Gretchen and
Donald Ross
Ira Gluskin and Maxine
Granovsky Gluskin
Officers of the
Order of the Walrus
Lassonde Family
Foundation
The Honourable
Margaret McCain
The Walrus Foundation
is eternally grateful for
the continued generosity
of our founding
donor, the Chawkers
Foundation.
optimistic
canadians
Lead Visionary donor
Champion Donors
Ambassador Donors
rbc Foundation
Lucille Joseph and
Urban Joseph, OC
Lakshman Family
Lassonde Family
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Louise MacCallum and
­Michael Barnstijn
Michael Young
Family Foundation
Helen Burstyn
Michael Decter
David and
Yvonne Fleck
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Roger Garland
William C. Graham
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Shabin Mohamed
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Aimia is a proud
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Visionary donors
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We a
­ cknowledge with
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gratitude the f­ ollowing
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donors, who share our
John Macfarlane and
belief in provocative
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long-form journalism,
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in innovative ideas,
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and in continuing the
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The Walrus Foundation
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of the Allan Slaight
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We gratefully
acknowledge the Fund
for Editorial Excellence
in h
­ onour of John
Macfarlane.
ORIGINAL COMP
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The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
Mark your calendar
for a celebration of
the 15th anniversary of
The Walrus magazine.
Contributors
Paul Kim (cover and illustration, p. 14)
is the deputy art director of The Walrus.
L IVE
June 13 – 15, 2018
Evergreen Brick Works
Toronto
Experience the best of
The Walrus live and in person.
Meet our writers and editors,
see Walrus Talks, engage in
fascinating conversation,
celebrate journalism,
enjoy food and drink —
join The Walrus.
More details coming soon
thewalrus.ca/WalrusLive
Ira Wells (“Socialism Is Back,” p. 14)
teaches at the University of Toronto and
has written for American Quarterly, The
New ­Republic, and The Los Angeles Review
of Books.
and Sportsnet Magazine, and was featured in this year’s Contact Photography
Festival.
Robert Kolker (“Project Spade,” p. 44)
is a New York–based investigative reporter and the author of the non-fiction bestseller Lost Girls.
John Lorinc (“Rental Breakdown,” p. 16) Tess Liem (“My Body in Three Moveis a senior editor at Spacing. He has written ments,” p. 53) is an author based in Montfor the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. real. Her first chapbook, Tell Everybody
I Say Hi, was released by Anstruther Press
Christy Lundy (illustration, p. 16) is an
in February.
illustrator whose clients include ­Monocle,
the Boston Globe, Quill & Quire, and Julie Bruck (“Dominion P
­ rotection™,”
­Penguin Random House Canada. Her first p. 57) received the Governor G
­ eneral’s
children’s book is scheduled for release ­Literary Award for English-­language
in 2018.
­poetry in 2012. Her work has a
­ ppeared
in The New Yorker, The Puritan, and
Cam Sylvester (“No Cars Go,” p. 18) is
Plume.
a writer and teacher based in Vancouver.
He has contributed to the Tyee, Canadian Caoimhe Morgan-Feir (“Breaking
Business, and the Globe and Mail.
Through,” p. 58) is the managing editor
of Canadian Art.
Ashley Mackenzie (illustration, p. 18) is
an Edmonton-based freelance illustrator Grant Munroe (“The Lovebirds,” p. 62) is
whose work has appeared in the New York a writer whose work has appeared in The
Times, the Washington Post, and ­Scientific Los Angeles Review of Books, the Globe and
Mail, and The Millions.
American.
Tom Jokinen (“What Is the CBC Good Steven P. Hughes (illustration, p. 62)
For?” p. 20) is currently working on a radio is an award-winning illustrator based
documentary about urban loneliness. in Erin, Ontario. He has worked with
­ eader’s ­D igest, Scientific American,
He contributes regularly to the Globe and R
Mail and CBC Radio.
and ESPN.
Brett Popplewell (“Head Games,” p. 30) Jackson Weaver (“Hair Apparent,” p. 66)
teaches at Carleton University and is is a journalist based in Vancouver. His
the co-author of The Escapist (2016). work has appeared in Sad Mag, ­Vancouver
His ­writing has appeared in Bloomberg ­Magazine, and Vice.
­Businessweek, the Globe and Mail, and The
Tallulah Fontaine (illustration, p. 66)
Best American Sports Writing.
is a freelance illustrator whose c­ lients
Jalani Morgan (photographs, p. 30) is ­include Vice, Glamour UK, and Precedent
a contributing photo editor at Maclean’s. Magazine. Her new short comic, E
­ verything
His work has appeared in The Fader Nice, is out now.
10
1
illustration by Tallulah Fontaine
credits
Join us
‘Up on the
Roof’
The Andrew and Valerie Pringle Environmental
Green Roof has become home to a productive
urban oasis: Ryerson Urban Farm. The farm
produces close to 10,000 pounds of food every
year for use in Ryerson cafes, community share
baskets, Ryerson Market and more.
Join the Pringles for “Up on the Roof,” a fun and
interactive evening where you can learn about this
great urban agriculture project and raise money
to sustain, maintain and enhance it.
The evening will include a tour and discussion
with Arlene Throness, Urban Farm Manager,
followed by a casual and delicious dinner prepared
by Ryerson’s Executive Chef, using produce from
the rooftop garden.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
6 – 8 p.m.
Andrew and Valerie Pringle
Environmental Green Roof
245 Church Street, Toronto
$1,000 per person
(attendance is limited to 40 people)
For tickets or more information on this unique
evening, please contact Aleksandar Zakonovic
at 416-979-5000, ext. 7922.
You will receive a tax receipt for your donation.
This ad has been generously donated in support of Ryerson Urban Farm.
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
Letters
she comes first
­increasing their debt. So let’s not be too
hard on our debtors, who are simply playing by the rules. Instead, let’s take a hard
look at our flawed economic system.
David Gracey
Toronto, ON
t­ ransgenerational violence. But the relationship between childhood and adulthood is far more complicated than simple
cause and effect.
Without belittling the suffering that
people experience — or dismissing the
­a uthors’ attempts to effect change — Robin’s excellent article shows that many I would argue that many individuals are
have trouble living on a budget. Two sim- able to transform the negative effects of
ple changes would help people avoid this their past into healthier and less violent
debt spiral: all loans, even small payday ­futures. It would be fatalistic to believe
loans, should have achievable repayment that we live only in a domino pattern.
Andrew Elliot Apong
schedules, and usury laws, which make it
Mississauga, ON
a crime to charge more than 60 ­percent
annual interest, should be enforced.
cramped workspace
Jason Fleming
North York, ON
Eternity Martis’s online piece (“Why
Canada Needs Paid Menstrual Leave,”
Individuals and families need to spend less ­thewalrus.ca) makes the case for instithan the amount of money they take in, not tuting a national policy that would offer
more. Drive your car longer — don’t trade female employees who experience debiliit in for a fancy new one; live in a s­ maller tating periods three days’ paid leave every
house than what the bank says you can month. On the one hand, our periods can
­afford; and buy what you need, then priori- be crippling and make working an eightpeak interest
tize your desires. You might not get every- hour day particularly brutal. But on the
Raizel Robin’s exposé on the prevalence thing you hope for, but peace of mind is other hand, such a policy could become
of debt among middle-class families worth much more than the newest iPhone, another sexist reason to bar women from
(“Maxed Out,” June) repeats the stan- largest television set, or most extravagant opportunities in the workforce. A more
dard narrative that Canadians’ financial house. Imagine what would happen to the practical option would be to enforce ­better
troubles are due to profligate spending. Canadian economy if everyone started sick-day policies for every employee across
While this is sometimes the case, the anec- ­living ­within their means.
the board.
Greg Scheelar
Meisha Virtue
dotal evidence in Robin’s piece — which
Winnipeg, MB
Saskatoon, SK
features three Canadian families f­ acing
such financial challenges as job loss
it gets better
and the cost of children’s extracurricu“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to
lar a
­ ctivities — shows that such woes are In their article, Robert Maunder and Jona- talk of many things.” Send us a letter, email
more often caused by hard luck and the than Hunter highlight how t­ raumatic ( letters@thewalrus.ca ), or tweet, or post on
events from our childhood can influ- our website or Facebook page. ­Comments
high cost of living.
The simple reality is that our econ- ence our behaviour and health as adults may be published in any medium and
omy runs on debt. All of us, including (“How Childhood Trauma Can Lead to ­edited for length, clarity, and accuracy.
those who are debt-free, are depend- Chronic Illness,” thewalrus.ca). These findent on households, businesses, financial ings may help us understand the roots of
411 Richmond Street East, Suite B15
­institutions, and governments c­ onstantly mental illness and the perpetuation of
Toronto, Ontario, Canada m5A 3S5
After reading Sarah Barmak’s article on
modern sex research (“Pleasure Principal,” June), I felt proud to be Canadian. It’s
deeply exciting that such important work
on the female orgasm is being spearheaded
by scientist Meredith Chivers, right here in
Ontario. It’s even more gratifying to know
that federal grant agencies deemed her
work important enough to fund.
I’ve often thought that if the problems faced by assigned-female-at-birth
folks were experienced by cisgender men
­instead, those problems would have been
solved by science decades ago: ­menstrual
cramps, persistent urinary tract infections,
and an inequitable division of o
­ rgasms, to
name a few. As a sex journalist, I’m heartened to see the Canadian s­ cientific community not only recognize women’s sexual
woes, but also try to solve them.
Kate Sloan
Toronto, ON
12
illustration by Tallulah Fontaine
G E T YO U R TI C K E T S FO R
Prese nt s
A F R IC A’ S N E X T GE N E R AT ION
Each event will feature seven great speakers—
thinkers, leaders, visionaries—on the issues that will
shape Africa’s future: entrepreneurship, resilience,
education, gender, youth leadership, and more.
TORONTO
Isabel Bader Theatre at Victoria University,
University of Toronto
September 21
OTTAWA
Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat
September 26
V I SI T T H E WA L RUS .C A / E V E N T S FOR MOR E I N FOR M AT ION.
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
Politics
Socialism Is Back
Instead of fighting for the political centre,
the NDP should return to its principles
by Ira wells
illustration by paul kim
T
he first 2016 Democratic presidential primary debate had just
kicked off when the moderator,
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, summoned the spectre that, many assumed,
would be the undoing of Senator ­Bernie
Sanders’s candidacy. “You call yourself a
democratic socialist,” Cooper said. “How
can any kind of socialist win a general
­election in the United States?”
The question was presented as its own
answer: only a truly naive politician would
stand on a Las Vegas stage and expound
the virtues of Scandinavian-style welfare
states. Surely, he would have no choice
but to backpedal, reframe his politics as
“progressive,” and mumble a few conciliatory words about hard-working American
families. However, Sanders seemed to believe that he could win because of his socialism, that all he had to do was explain
what his platform represented — an alternative to a “rigged economy” in which “the
top one-tenth of 1 percent own ­almost as
much wealth as the bottom 90 ­percent.”
It meant treating health care as a h
­ uman
right, and providing paid medical and
family leave to end the travesty of separating mothers from their newborn babies.
It meant strategically deploying Scandinavian solutions, and learning from
“what they have accomplished for their
working people.”
But Cooper didn’t seem interested in
the details of Sanders’s politics; he was
more focused on the label itself. H
­ e concluded his interrogation by asking ­whether
any of the other four candidates on the
stage was “not a capitalist.” No hands
went up, which was, of course, the point.
­Sanders, viewers were to understand, was a
­political dinosaur. His ­platform — free post-­
secondary education, wealth ­redistribution,
more regulations for Wall Street — bore
the hallmarks of an unregenerate leftist.
Had the Berlin Wall not been sledgehammered down, just as ­Reagan demanded?
Had the Soviet Union not collapsed beneath the weight of its own bloody contradictions? Were we s­ eriously debating
14
whether a ­socialist of any kind could win
the White House in 2016?
In fairness, Cooper was only channelling the collective wisdom of the entire
­American political establishment. Indeed,
across the West, few factions are more
ferociously committed to the “death of
­socialism” narrative than centre-left parties themselves. This was evident in the
particular malice with which former British
prime minister Tony Blair treated Labour
Party leader (and unapologetic socialist)
Jeremy Corbyn. For a centrist such as Blair,
Corbyn represents a stale menu of policies that were rejected a generation ago:
today’s voters “do not think their challenges can be met by old-fashioned state control,” Blair wrote in the Guardian, “and
they realise that a party without a serious
deficit-­reduction plan is not in these times
a serious contender.”
Over the past few decades, the assumed
triumph of laissez-faire capitalism over
socialistic alternatives has been the sine
qua non of Western economic policy.
­Austerity, deregulation, de-unionization,
trade liberalization, tax cuts — the freemarket fundamentalism underlying these
policies is not, we are told, a contestable
­ideological position, but rather ­economic
reality. Anyone who dares challenge the
essential wisdom of the market is labelled
an irresponsible fantasist, ­unworthy of
the people’s trust. Indeed, with Corbyn
leading Labour going into the UK election, pollsters predicted that the incumbent Conservatives would easily add to
their majority.
We know how that turned out: significant
gains (and political vindication) for ­Corbyn,
and a hobbled minority government for
Theresa May and her Tories. This outcome
was just the latest instance in which a Western conservative party managed to snatch
defeat from the jaws of presumptive v­ ictory.
In 2017, widely assumed to be the year in
which right-wing ­nationalism would go
viral, its proponents have seen losses in
Austria (Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party),
the Netherlands (Geert W
­ ilders’s Party
for Freedom), France (Marine Le Pen’s
­National Front), and the UK, where Paul
Nuttall’s UK Independence Party earned
just 1.8 percent of the popular vote. ­Kellie
Leitch, Canada’s contribution to this
­pantheon, never exceeded 8 percent of
the vote through nine rounds of the Conservative Party leadership contest.
PHOTOgraphs by Andy Miah / Gage Skidmore
Ira Wells � s o c i a l i s m i s b a c k
Instead of the ascension of right-wing
nationalism, 2017 has seen a g
­ enerational
revival on the left. An increasingly educated electorate is capable of repudiating
the atrocities perpetrated in the names
of Marx and Lenin while also recognizing
that specific, achievable goals — a guaranteed annual income, universal health care,
reduced income inequality — are properly
called socialist goals, and that their realization would enable better lives for more
people. In Canada, with the NDP leadership race now underway, it seems inevitable that at least one candidate will look at
the popularity Corbyn and Sanders were
able to garner in a short period and say,
“Why not here?”
T
he case for a socialist NDP platform
finds support in the party’s recent electoral fortunes: when Thomas Mulcair manoeuvred the party to the centre in 2015,
promising balanced budgets “come hell or
high water,” the party lost fifty-nine seats
and its official opposition status. The winners were Justin Trudeau and his Liberals,
who campaigned from the left.
Yet the victory of an unabashedly socialist platform in Canada is far from assured.
Corbyn’s success, some have argued, is
inextricable from Theresa May’s failure,
while Sanders’s popularity was grounded
in the perception that Hillary Clinton’s
priorities lie with preserving an unfair
­economic status quo. In short, the thinking goes, the socialist surge was animated
by British and American factors that are
­mostly ­absent in Canada, where the politics of ­austerity are more muted and social
programs are not under comparable threat.
And it’s worth remembering that neither
Corbyn nor S
­ anders actually won power.
However, there’s no denying that some
economic and environmental anxieties
transcend borders — particularly among
millennials, who are rapidly becoming the
largest voting demographic in the West. At
a time when more young Canadians than
ever are pursuing post-secondary education — and when more parents than ever are
likely paying for that education — NDP contender Niki Ashton’s promise of free tuition
could find broad support. Guy Caron’s plan
for a basic minimum income may resonate
with the estimated 42 percent of the workforce under threat from automation. And,
as the dream of home ownership recedes
further into fantasy, young voters might
be receptive to platforms like that of former contender Peter Julian, who promised
to build 250,000 new affordable homes.
If the NDP has anything to learn from
Sanders and Corbyn, however, the lesson
must include style as well as substance. Both
of these seasoned socialists have shown the
potency of class-conscious rhetoric, calling
for political “revolution” and framing the
interests of their constituents in direct contrast to those of the “billionaire class.” Not
all NDP leadership hopefuls have taken note.
Jagmeet Singh approaches Hallmark levels
of mawkishness with his politics of “love
and courage.” Charlie Angus’s web page on
reconciliation manages to rehash both Justin
Trudeau and George W. Bush by promising
that he will deliver “real change” and that
“no child...will be left behind.” ­Only Ashton,
who vows to form a government that will
end “corporate giveaways” to companies
such as Bombardier and stop “padding the
pockets of the one-percent,” comes close
to the rhetorical brio exemplified by Sanders and Corbyn.
While the NDP should feel energized
by the global revival of leftist politics,
the truth is that socialism’s resurgence
is not so much a repudiation of populism as it is a
­ nother manifestation of it.
­Economic growth is declining in member ­countries of the Organisation for Economic C
­ o-operation and Development;
household and governmental debt are continuously rising; and economic inequality, both in income and wealth, is spiking.
These “crisis symptoms,” says e­ conomic
sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, are now
­irreversible. The longer these trends persist, the more likely lower- and middleclass voters will be to seek political voices
that address these systemic injustices.
Regardless of who emerges as the party’s
next leader, the NDP must dispense with
the stale canards that left-wing parties
should accept market-based “realities,”
scrub off that unionist stench, and fight for
the scraps of the political centre. As the unstoppable forces of automation and globalization continue to create jobless voters,
and as a growing number of citizens recognize the upward redistribution of wealth
from the poor to the rich, a genuine socialist
­alternative will appear increasingly viable.
If the Liberal Party can’t address Canadians’ anxieties, its Trudeau dynasty
could be cut short by an heir of Tommy
Douglas who can.©
15
DON’T
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A THING.
PARLIAMENT
SITS ON
SEPTEMBER 18.
WWW.HILLTIMES.COM
CONTACT
SEAN HANSEL
613-288-1145
SHANSEL@HILLTIMES.COM
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
economics
Rental Breakdown
Why you can’t find an affordable apartment
in Canada’s biggest cities
by john lorinc
illustration by christy lundy
I
t’s not hard to avoid homeownership in Canada’s largest cities these
days. All you need to do is pull down
an ordinary middle-class salary, and
almost certainly you’ll find yourself on the
wrong side of the asking price for even
a skinny semi with a filthy kitchen.
But in his recent book, The Wealthy
­Renter, Alex Avery, former CIBC real e­ state
equity analyst, argues that this fate might
not be a bad thing. Drawing on formulas
for calculating the full costs of homeownership over a lifetime, Avery shows that if a
Canadian today rents a home or apartment
and prudently invests the difference between the monthly tenant expenses and
the monthly average all-in carrying cost of
a home or condo, they will come out ahead.
This is an established reality in other
parts of the world, but it’s a relatively new
middle-class ideal here, where the dream
of the single-family home endures. Yet
from a financial standpoint, Avery’s argument makes sense. In Canada’s largest
­cities, housing prices are well past the
point of affordability for all but the genuinely affluent — a detached single-family
house in Vancouver costs roughly twenty
times the city’s a­ nnual median household
income. Canada could do well to become
a nation of renters in the tradition of such
­urbanized, wealthy countries as Germany,
France, and Denmark.
However, as anyone actually looking for
an apartment in Toronto or Vancouver in
our current markets can attest, it will take
more than a lifestyle decision to become a
“wealthy renter” — there are multiple hurdles, most of them out of a renter’s control.
Canada’s big cities are experiencing
chronic shortages of purpose-built ­rental
apartments, the result of decades of market
failures and pro-ownership public policy.
As of this writing, Vancouver and ­Toronto
both have extraordinarily low vacancy
rates, meaning that even for those who
do want to take Avery’s advice and rent
for the long haul, the prospects of finding a suitable apartment are hindered by
steep competition. In Ontario, decades of
rent control, imposed by well-intentioned
provincial governments in the mid-1970s,
effectively strangled new capital investment. “It was literally the worst possible
moment to introduce rent controls — right
at the moment when demand [for new
units] was greatest,” Avery says.
More recent factors have turbocharged
the market for homes and condos. Almost a
decade of ultra-low interest rates has stoked
a borrowing frenzy for mortgages that in turn
has sent prices for homes and condos ­into
the stratosphere. ­In just the last few years,
rents have risen considerably in big cities
as people who can’t afford to buy find themselves competing for available apartments.
16
As well, the introduction of ­c ondo
legislation in the 1990s and the curtailing of federal affordable-­h ousing
subsidies have meant that for more than
twenty years, there’s been very little
purpose-built rental housing develop­ment.
In urban centres, in fact, new ­rental apartments tend to be condos that are bought
by investors as income properties. There
are simply not enough units available
to rent.
Lately, some large property-development
companies have begun building ­rental
apartments again: private developers started construction on approximately 30,000
new units across Canada in each of the last
two years, up from about 20,000 in 2014.
Large pension funds looking for investments that offer stable, long-term cash
flow have showed a growing interest in
such projects.
Still, Peter Norman, vice-president and
chief economist of Altus Group, a ­Toronto
real estate consultancy, says rental apartments still accounted for barely 15 percent
of all new housing units built in Canada
in 2016. In Toronto and Vancouver, r­ ented
condos represent about 80 ­percent of all
rental homes — and they are often luxury units that don’t suit families with
young children, the demographic often
most hard-pressed to find reasonably
priced housing.
John Lorinc � r e n ta l b r e a k d o w n
Urban planners have spent years trying (Seattle provides tax exemptions for deto encourage developers to build family- velopers of multi-family buildings who
sized apartments, and various h
­ ousing set aside 20 to 25 percent of the units for
advocacy groups have been pushing lower-­income tenants.) He may sound like
builders to address the so-called missing a business executive with a vested interest — ­middle — fourplexes and s­ ixplexes, row which he is — but Lammam also points out
houses, and buildings that fall between that local taxes for apartment buildings in
the apartment tower and the ­single-family Vancouver account for a bracing 40 percent
dwelling and that tend to offer more of the operating costs (which affects, you
guessed it, how much land­options for renters. “There
is interest in bringing new
lords charge in rent).
Canada could
­projects forward,” Norman
There are other remedies,
says, “but they’re not necestoo. Thomas Davidoff, a prodo well to
sarily mid-market.”
of real estate finance
become a nation fessor
Hani Lammam, execuat the University of British
of renters in
tive vice-president of CresColumbia’s Sauder School
sey Development Group,
of Business, adds that Vanthe tradition
confirms that his firm,
couver all but prohibits
of Germany,
a large apartment ­builder
new mid-rise apartments
France, and
and operator in Western
in single-­family residenCanada, completed ninety-­
tial neighbourhoods, thus
Denmark.
five units in Vancouver last
­severely limiting the supply
year — a figure that accounts
of land suitable for modest
for just more than 10 percent of the new intensification. His point: land-use policy
supply but registers as barely a blip in a is deployed to favour one (extremely excity with an affordable-housing crisis. As pensive) form of housing, effectively keepLammam says, “Demand outstrips supply.” ing out another (more moderately priced)
Lammam predicts that if municipalities one. The same could be said of Toronto.
in Greater Vancouver got the sort of property-­
The Ontario Home Builders’ Associatax breaks available in Seattle, where the tion, which represents a range of companfirm also owns apartments, “it would open ies that build homes — from bungalows
up the floodgates. It’s unbelievable the to condo towers — suggests measures
amount of rental housing you would get.” such as waiving HST on rental projects,
17
­allocating m
­ unicipal land for rental projects, and relaxing on-site parking regulations. ­Creating more purpose-built rental
options, says OBHA policy director Mike
Collins-Williams, “is part of a healthier
housing market.”
Avery’s “wealthy renter” argument
holds out financial hope for the tens of
thousands of young, low-to-middle-­
income Canadians who have been priced
out of home ownership. For this group, the
market barriers could be a form of salvation from the too-great financial commitment of buying a house. The result: more
disposable income and healthier retirement savings.
But his insight depends on the willingness of policy-makers at all levels of government to make the apartment-rental
sector as robust as the already vast market
for single-family homes and condo apartments. That means better land-use planning rules, public investments in social and
non-profit housing, and tax policies that
create a compelling incentive for investors
to park their capital in multi-unit residential buildings instead of individual condos.
Avery’s ideas about long-term renting
will prove viable when rents themselves
return to earth. At that point, millennials’
legitimate gripes about being locked out of
a financially preposterous housing ­market
will take on a more self-satisfied tone. 
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
our vehicle had charged. Meanwhile, an
endless line of our gas-guzzling countertechnology
parts whizzed past.
In theory, one can travel across Canada in an EV. It would just take an incredibly long time. Charging stations are often
clumped around urban areas. Most of them
are also slow.
Drivers are ready for electric vehicles. Too bad our roads aren’t
There are three types of EV chargers.
Level
1s, which plug into any standard
by cam sylvester
outlets,
can refill our Soul’s battery in a
illustration by ashley mackenzie
day. Level 2s, which are often hard-wired
­into home and office garages, can charge
a Soul in about four hours. Then there are
Level 3s. These fast chargers can fill up
my battery to 85 percent in thirty minutes
and are vital for long road trips — you can
charge in the time it takes to grab a coffee
and stretch your legs.
Level 3 chargers are, however, incredibly
rare. Complicating matters further, there
are two types of Level 3s: ­CHAdeMO and
CCS (think Beta vs. VHS). EVs are compatible with one or the other, but not both.
(Tesla has its own charger, but it doesn’t
work with any other EV.) Across Canada, there are approximately 225 of each
Level 3 type, most of which are found
in and around Toronto and Montreal.
­According to the app Chargehub, which
maps e
­ xisting charging stations, there is
only one Level 3 charger between New
Liskeard, ­Ontario, and Cranbrook, BC — ad
­ istance of nearly 3,200 kilometres. (It’s
in Winnipeg.)
EV technology may be here — Volvo
announced that, after 2019, none of its
new cars will feature combustion-only
engines — but the infrastructure to support it is not. The Liberal government has
made headlines for its plan to issue “Green
Bonds,” which will, in part, fund charging
n may, my wife, Jeanne, and I preI was having none of it. Christina Bu of stations. And during the previous elecpared to attend an academic confer- the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Associa- tion, the party pledged to “rapidly expand”
ence in Calgary. There was, however, tion had recently predicted that the ­auto the government’s fleet of EVs — Jim Carr,
one problem: our daughter had fled ­industry is on the verge of a “paradigm the minister of natural resources, even
Vancouver’s high rents for Squamish and shift,” after which electric cars will become said he would swap his own Chrysler 300
­absconded with the family Jeep, leaving “so technologically advanced” that they for a plug-in. But despite these lofty procus with our Kia Soul electric vehicle (EV) will outperform gasoline and diesel cars. lamations, the Liberals have yet to answer
and its p
­ altry 150-kilometre range.
EVs like my Soul were poised to conquer one fundamental question: What would a
Jeanne consulted members of British the world. What was a mere hop across ­national EV strategy look like?
Columbia’s online EV community, all the provincial border?
of whom insisted we wouldn’t make it
The current reality of EV ownership,
n their attempts to nudge EV adopthrough the Selkirk Mountains: there are however, soon made itself known: we
tion along, some provincial governments
no charging stations between the towns of did make it through the mountains, o
­ nly created purchasing incentives, which, at
Revelstoke and Golden, a distance of 148 to become stuck near a trailer park out- the time, looked like smart policy. O
­ ntario,
kilometres — mostly u
­ phill. Jeanne sug- side of Golden, where, after plugging in for example, offered rebates of up to
gested that we rent a car for the journey. our Soul, we waited for four hours until $14,000 starting in 2010— EVs, though,
No Cars Go
I
I
18
Cam Sylvester � N o c a r s g o
accounted for barely one half of 1 percent
of all vehicles sold there in 2016.
According to Shanjun Li, professor of
applied economics and management at
Cornell University, purchasing incentives
are ineffective. Many early a
­ dopters who
take advantage of tax credits are either rich
or motivated by environmental ­concerns.
Either way, they are going to buy an EV,
­incentive or not. Li says that what keeps
­reluctant buyers away is range anxiety — the
fear that an EV’s battery will run out ­before
the destination is reached — and a lack of
access to fast chargers.
Both of these concerns are, however,
fixable. If the government were to shock
the system by building EV charging corridors, or partner with the private sector
to do so, it would unleash what Li calls
“­indirect network effects.” In short, the
­decision by one charging-station i­ nvestor
to partner with the government would spur
other investors to do the same. A similar
­phenomenon o
­ ccurs with buyers: when
people see more EVs on the road or ­making
use of fast c­ hargers, they’re more likely
to become convinced of EVs’ practicality
and make the switch themselves. Li estimates that if the United States ­government
had directed $924 million into ­building
charging stations, instead of s­ pending the
amount on tax breaks for buyers from 2011
until 2013, nearly three times as many EVs
would have been sold dur­ing that period.
Coincidentally, in 2012, tiny Estonia
did precisely what Li and his colleagues
are now recommending. The government there partnered with the private
sector to create a countrywide system
of fast chargers every fifty kilometres or
so. In ­February 2013, the system was used
1,000 times. Three years later, the chargers were being employed 11,000 times
per month.
At first blush, it appears Ottawa is
­taking the hint. In 2016, Minister Jim Carr
­announced a two-year program earmarking
$16.4 million to induce the private sector to
sprinkle charging stations across the country. Then, in the 2017 budget, the ­Liberal
government allocated an ­additional $120
million in a program to support ­alternative
refuelling stations — how many of those stations will support fast chargers has yet to
be determined. (There’s also word that a
­national strategy to increase zero-­emission
vehicles will be released in 2018.) Paula
Vieira, who oversees the program, says that
eighty new Level 3 c­ hargers will be installed
by March 2018. More than half of the forty
stations that have been announced so far
will be placed in the ­Toronto area.
The details given to date won’t make
cross-country road trips much e
­ asier.
Level 3s come with a price tag of up to
$100,000, and Canada’s n
­ ational highway system alone sprawls over 38,021 kilometres. Erecting one station every fifty
kilometres along the highway, as Estonia
has done, would mean creating n
­ early
800 units, costing as much as $80 million. And that would be ­doing the bare minimum — a
­ ngling for photo ops rather than
offering a viable solution for a country full
of EV drivers. As a comparison, there are
about 12,000 gas stations in Canada, each
with multiple pumps. If a similar charging
system were to be created, the price tag
could jump to $2 or $3 billion.
Until this level of investment is made,
electric cars will remain toys for rich commuters and the eco-conscious. This fact became evident when, in 2016, Carr’s plan to
get an EV was scrapped. It seems that officials concluded there were just not enough
charging stations in ­Ottawa for it to be
a practical choice.
Tessa adores her husband and three
young sons, but she’s deeply unhappy
— and then she runs into her ex.
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shows the nature of lust and how we
can become the playthings of our past
desires, however illusory.”
LISA MOORE
Award-winning author of February and Caught
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The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
society
What Is the
CBC Good For?
Our public broadcaster charts its course in a world of
Snapchat, clickbait, and teenage YouTube stars
A
by tom jokinen
t the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto,
I make a wrong turn. Third floor, east side: used to be
the radio newsroom when I worked here ten years ago.
Then, it was a frantic hub of creativity and human disorder, knee-deep in newspapers and Styrofoam Thai
takeout containers that popped when you stepped on
them. Today, it’s home to something called Communications Marketing and B
­ randing, where people meet in glass boardrooms with catchy
names. Stencilled onto the glass of the “Idea Room” are these words:
­Modernity. ­Technology. Progress.
20
photograph (left) by Paul Hoeffler
Photographs (left, centre) courtesy of the cbc still photo collection
Tom Jokinen � w h at i s t h e c b c g o o d f o r ?
I find my bearings and make my way to
the fourth floor, where staffers are holding
the morning digital-news ­meeting. I ­follow
the noise to a huge space with ­actual walls.
The vibe is casual: fleece, ­hiking shoes,
relaxed banter. Management was kind
enough to put in a foosball table, but there’s
no ball for it. A TV monitor is perched on
a stack of photocopy paper. On the wall of
the meeting room, an unmarked dry-erase
board. On the table, an untouched Globe
and Mail. Thirteen people are here, with
one disembodied voice on a conference
call from Ottawa. It looks a bit like the old
days, except for one big difference: everyone clutches a smartphone and ­studies
it instead of ­making eye contact. Some
clutch two.
The goal here is to review what happened overnight, anticipate what’s to
come, and decide how to share all this
with the Canadians who follow CBC News
online and on their phones. Such daily
­huddles are crucial for a public broadcaster
­desperate to stay relevant at a time when
people are consuming media in entirely
new ways. “If we were starting over,” CBC
president and CEO Hubert Lacroix said last
year when describing Strategy 2020: A Space
for Us All, the corporation’s latest five-year
blueprint, “the smart money would invest
everything into digital.”
photograph (right) courtesy of the Canadian press
It’s hard not to feel that the CBC is,
i­ ndeed, starting over. Strategy 2020’s signature motto is “mobile first,” which means
making the smartphone audience the top
priority, and creating content specifically
for it. It’s a mandate that, by reallocating
resources traditionally earmarked for television and radio, promises to transform the
company. Nothing will be spared: news,
current affairs, entertainment, children’s
programming. The aim is that by 2020, one
out of every two Canadians — 18 ­million
people — will access the CBC digitally. What
the CBC will look like if that happens is
anybody’s guess.
Yesterday, police in Tulsa, ­Oklahoma,
­released a dashcam video of officers shooting an unarmed black man. “Run it on
the website,” says one producer. “Do we
­obscure the video out of respect for the
dead man?” asks another. “No need.”
The video was shared e­ xtensively online,
­unedited, before anyone at this meeting
got out of bed. The conversation shifts
to Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama,
who are both visiting the United Nations
in New York today: Trudeau, to give his
first UN address as prime minister, and
Obama, to deliver his final UN speech as
United States president. The producers
­decide to carry the addresses on Facebook Live. A new project by Gord ­Downie,
21
of the ­Tragically Hip? The team decides
to “push social,” which means: get the
story out on T
­ witter, Facebook, YouTube,
and ­Instagram. There’s plenty of ­nodding.
What about the story the Globe ran about
a new extradition deal with China? There’s
­silence. “Sounds like talk at this point,”
­decides one editor, which is a polite way
of saying: nothing jumps out that will silkpurse this sow’s ear into a sexy digital story.
Leave it to radio.
Back at his office, Brodie Fenlon, ­a senior news director, discusses the meeting with me. Time moves quickly for his
team. ­Decisions are made and deferred,
but the point is to come to some agreement about what to obsess over today.
In the past, they had two ways to showcase those obsessions: radio and TV. Now
there are “­platforms.” Take Facebook Live,
which streams live video to social-media
­subscribers. It didn’t even exist a year ago,
says ­Fenlon, but it’s already “an integral
part of our a­ ssignment.” This is the CBC’s
new reality: get familiar with the digital
left Peter Mansbridge appears in a
promo shot for 1982’s Quarterly Report:
The Electronic Web. centre ­Knowlton
Nash hosted The ­National from 1978
to 1988. right Staffer Jeff Keay walks
through the newsroom in 2009.
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
landscape, and fast. “We place our bets
and figure out what works,” says Fenlon.
“When we get there, something else comes
along — like Snapchat.”
Snapchat is a social-media app that
­allows people to send photos or video
as messages. Once viewed, the “snaps”
self-­destruct — a trick that has made the
company the undisputed global platform
for dick pics. But the app has bigger plans.
Snapchat D
­ iscover, first introduced in
2015, has become a sought-after vehicle
for media companies who want to reach
a younger audience. Essentially a digital
newsstand, Discover’s offerings include
documentaries, investigative features, and
articles. Uploaded daily, the content vanishes after twenty-four hours — but not before the more popular posts ­have captured
­millions of views.
If Strategy 2020 takes hold, the CBC will
probably have to figure out how to package the range of its reporting for Snapchat,
as news outlets like the BBC and CNN have
done already. But by the time you read
this, the audience may have moved on
to a newer, flashier platform— Instagram
­Stories, say — and Fenlon and his team will
be scrambling to get their heads around
the next fad. “We’re building the car while
we’re driving it,” he says, “and it may turn
out to be an airplane.”
That’s fine. One expects a public broadcaster to pay attention to currents and tides.
But rather than excitement about new technology, there’s a very different feeling in
this building: anxiety. The new corporate
strategy proposes a future in which everyone is on digital, consuming their news
and entertainment on devices. But what
if it’s wrong? You only have to look at the
­Toronto Star’s experiment with creating
a tablet edition of its newspaper to see
how the rush to digital can end up ­being
a c­ olossal, expensive, ­and embarrassing
­disaster. Launched in 2015 and a­ ggressively
marketed, Star Touch was shuttered this
year because of low readership. It was a 20
million dollar miscalculation that ended up
costing roughly seventy people their jobs.
Walking on the second floor between
colour-coded elevators, I see a picture in
an office window, held in place by closed
Venetian blinds. It’s like some kind of talisman of the past — a faded publicity shot of
comedy duo Wayne and Shuster. I am not
a fan of nostalgia: glory days usually prove
never to have existed. But the picture’s
presence seems rebellious, because these
tuxedoed cornball geniuses — who got their
first CBC show in 1946 and were off the
air by 1989 — don’t fit into an ­evolving
image of a forward-looking, plugged-in,
hip CBC.
22
Since its founding in 1936, the CBC has
routinely been accused of stodginess. But
as the broadcaster adapts to changing
media conditions and grows more elaborate, it harbours ambitions that ­threaten
to outstrip its own ability to define itself.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, once a managing editor
of CBC Radio News and now head of the
journalism program at the University of
­Toronto’s Scarborough campus, puts it this
way: “When media organizations lose sight
of their purpose, they embrace technology
without really understanding what it is.”
In the CBC’s past, we find examples of
excellence in which new or emerging technology barely figured: Morningside, This
Hour Has Seven Days, The Great E
­ astern,
and, more recently, WireTap. These shows
were about writing, performance, the
­vagaries and complexities of human communication — not electronics. It’s a legacy
the broadcaster ignores at its peril.
H
eather conway, the CBC’s executive vice-president on the English side,
has a modest office on the seventh floor of
the corporation’s Toronto headquarters.
I wait for her in an open carpeted space
the size of a basketball court. It’s e­ mpty but
for two black vinyl c­ ouches pushed close
together as if marking a spot on the carpet
where one might build a fire for warmth.
photographs courtesy of the canadian press
Tom Jokinen � w h at i s t h e c b c g o o d f o r ?
The space is undergoing renovation as the
CBC shrinks its footprint in the building and
rents out office space it no longer needs.
The mood is ghostly: ­human beings used
to work here, before the downsizing and
reconfiguring — all the euphemisms for
people losing their jobs.
It’s important to note that despite the
CBC’s cutback targets — it aims to shed 1,150
full-time positions by 2020 — it a­ lso plans to
hire 300 new employees “in the next years”
to improve the company’s d
­ igital skills.
Whether that will mean more coders, more
interactive journalists, or more thought
leaders who would help shape the company’s ultramodern ethos remains unclear.
What Strategy 2020 does make clear is that
the CBC wants its creative people to think,
a lot, and often, about smartphones and
what to put on them. To drive home the
point, TVs hang near most elevators in
the building, showing the latest Chartbeat metrics on how Canadians are using
cbc.ca: 57,852 concurrent visitors at 11
o’clock in the morning, growing to 60,832
an hour later. Is this good? It’s just metadata, but the effect is of watching koi in a
pond, seeing where they feed, for how long,
and in what parts of the information pool.
A story about the Trans Mountain pipeline, for example, has 1,251 views. But the top
story on the CBC, with 4,109 views, is about
a Kingston landlord upset that his tenants
have been keeping livestock in their apartment: a goat, rabbits, ­chickens, “definitely”
quails, according to the landlord. The reasons one story has four times as many clicks
as the other are not all that complicated. One
story advances your understanding of political and economic forces in Canada. The
other you can practically smell, and is more
likely to show up on your Facebook timeline.
The question is: Which of those two stories represents the future of the CBC? It’s
the classic clickbait dilemma. Do you draw
people in using cat videos, then hit them
with the hard journalism they need? But
the strategy is flawed. You end up with a
news service that’s all over the map, trying hard to be liked. When I talk to F
­ enlon
about metrics, he says, “It’s healthy and
good to do a gut check with what we think
is ­important and how that’s playing with
the audience, but it’s just one of many
­factors.” Which is to say that, in the newsroom, an editor’s ­instinct about news value
will be informed, but not determined, by
numbers. Still, by the elevator, there’s the
insistent statistical hum that tells a programmer what people really want — and
it’s not pipelines. Who doesn’t want to
give people what they want? E
­ specially
if you’re looking to round up 18 million of
them by 2020.
23
left Employees watch a dispiriting
­newscast on April 10, 2014. centre An
­interactive exhibition previews the CBC’s
2013–2014 ­lineup. right Hubert Lacroix
speaks at the 2015 annual public meeting.
“People’s viewing habits are ­shifting
away from scheduled content to on-­
demand content,” Heather Conway tells
me. “In radio, they’re shifting from linear
listening in the car or home to streaming.”
She holds up her smartphone. “I have one
of these,” she says. “Most Canadians have
one, too, and they check them all day long.
And one of their favourite things to check
is CBC. So by the time you get to the supper
hour, you actually know the news. What
you’re ­interested in is what’s next.”
For programmers at the CBC, the message is simple: Think about digital. All. The.
Time. But making radio and TV with that in
mind is more challenging. A radio producer
I know there tells me that, so far, she’s had
little guidance about how to, as she puts it,
“up the digital game.” The company should
appeal to younger listeners, one manager
told her. That same m
­ anager said, vis-à-vis
the vision thing, that in five years people
will be using driverless cars, so the CBC
needs to think about creating programming
for people who are in cars but don’t have
to focus on driving. “I have honestly tried
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
to understand our mission or mandate,”
she says, “but the message from management has been vague and confusing.”
All she knows, she says, is that every
­F riday, she gets an email announcing
the top digital stories for their division
(often the quirky ones), and that everyone wants to be mentioned in this report
and are g
­ utted if they’re not. “Our numbers suck,” she says of the radio show she
works on. “So a group of us tried to figure
out how to ­better market our show. We’re
not marketing experts, but no one else is
doing it for us.” They hashed out ways to
make Twitter more effective in boosting
their ­numbers. But, she asks, “Are we even
­making radio anymore?”
Those concerns sounded ­familiar. I heard
similar things in 1992, when I ­started as a
radio producer. At that time, the corporation’s president was Gérard Veilleux. His
idea, which he had cooked up with pen and
paper on a Canadian Airlines flight from
Edmonton to Ottawa the year before, was
eventually dubbed “repositioning.” At the
time, the television audience was s­ hrinking,
and the fear was that things would only get
worse thanks to satellites — nicknamed
“death stars” — which could broadcast hundreds of specialty channels for every taste,
leaving general-interest networks like the
CBC in the dust. New technology called for
change, so Veilleux and his senior programmers dreamed up a branding exercise that,
they said, would win back viewers by reminding them of how distinctive and vital
the CBC was.
It was a ratings disaster. A decision was
made to move the flagship newscast The
National from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. because
it was assumed that viewers’ habits were
changing (Veilleux claimed they were going to bed earlier). A new logo was c­ reated.
Other than that, very little direction was
offered to the programmers who were
expected to reposition the network: they
­received no clear set of marching orders
to help them address, through their craft,
what it meant to live, work, and raise families in Canada. “Nothing was spelled out,”
complained the late Knowlton Nash in The
Microphone Wars (1994), his history of the
CBC. Gerald Caplan, a public-policy expert
who co-chaired a government task force
on Canadian broadcasting in the 1980s,
called Veilleux’s shakeup “a way to make
sure I watch as little CBC Television as possible. And,” he continued, “it’s working.”
The National eventually moved back to its
old slot, and Veilleux moved on to another
job. The new logo remained.
The plan exposed the CBC for what it
was, and in some ways still is: a ­public
broadcaster in a state of t­ echnological
panic. “Each new wave of managers that
come in,” says Barry Kiefl, president of
Canadian Media Research Inc. in Ottawa
and former head of research at the CBC,
“get caught up in these metrics that they
think are meaningful because others in
the industry use them.” In other words,
the CBC’s current struggle to gauge success using terms like “concurrent visitors”
and “engaged minutes” isn’t so much about
the t­ wenty-five funniest acts of vandalism,
the top fifteen ghost videos. He’s here to see
whether the CBC wants to do business with
him. He has nearly 2 ­million subscribers. For
context, CBC News on YouTube has 361,000
subscribers, and The ­National has 119,000.
These YouTubers are being scouted
as freelancers for the CBC. It’s all part of
what Abby Ho, then head of the CBC’s Creator Network, calls “facilitating emerging
­talent” — or, if you will, sourcing unconventional fare for use on specialty channels,
both online and mobile. “Our goal,” says
Ho, “is to create a range of digital content
that meets the needs of Canada’s d
­ iverse
populations.” The business ­model seems
obvious: drive the kind of traffic that legacy
media can only dream of. A growing number of people have given up on television altogether and are looking for fresh material
on YouTube or via Facebook and any number of other apps. The production model
is also appealing: young people who might
never otherwise have scored a contract
at the CBC are getting their work shown
there after all, and a lot of them are gifted.
One such creator is Toronto-based
Wendy Liu. Through her YouTube channel
Withwendy, which has 540,000 ­subscribers ,
Liu teaches people to sew clothes and
­accessories, such as mini-­backpacks and
wrap dresses, from scratch. On one episode
of her CBC Life show, Dollar Store DIY, she
media managers adapting to technology offers instructions on how to make an “adoras it is about their being s­ educed by the able and easy” advent calendar from low­future and all its buzz words. The archi- cost materials. The growing popularity of
tects of ­Strategy 2020 might want to pay such YouTubers among ­younger audiences
attention to the wrecks in their rear-view has led the broadcaster to partner with
­mirror — if only to make sure that something an American media company called Fulllike r­ epositioning doesn’t happen again.
screen, which claims billions of video viewings ­annually and produces such original
he youtube space at Toronto’s shows as Making Moves (about a ­dancer
George Brown College opened in who “navigates the cutthroat LA dance
April 2016. On one Friday the following scene and high stakes world of ­internet
­winter, I show up for an event hosted by the stardom”) and Kingdom Geek (a talk show
CBC. The room is loft-like: white walls, an with a co-host who “breathes geek culexposed ceiling, track lighting, and what ture, especially all things ­superhero”). The
appear to be carpeted blocks for creative YouTube and online entrepreneurs who
young people to sit on.
work for Fullscreen — the company boasts
I’m clearly the oldest of the crowd, which a r­ oster of 70,000 creators from across
numbers about thirty. Most of the other the globe — will supply ­material for the
­attendees produce YouTube videos on CBC’s TV network and digital ­channels.
their own channels: how-to, comedy, music The main hope is that the t­ raffic will cre(“Do you do metal? I do metal”). One of ate a social-media gateway to the CBC’s
them makes video compilations of content own properties.
from other YouTube creators. Example:
We watch a “sizzle reel”—a tightly
the top five videos of people flipping plas- ­edited montage of various CBC YouTube
tic water bottles so that they land ­upright, ­channels. Clips from web-based sitcoms
What does it mean
to tell Canadian
stories “the way
we do”? This
existential puzzle
has dogged the
corporation for
decades.
T
24
Tom Jokinen � w h at i s t h e c b c g o o d f o r ?
and ­makeup tutorials. Footage of flamboyant vloggers and young people in Uniqlolike garb. There’s an ­emphasis on ­diversity,
and the whole thing is set to a high-energy
rock track. Some of the montage looks and
sounds familiar, but much of it doesn’t. In
a way, it’s refreshing — upbeat, ­dynamic.
The quality is high. Yet d
­ uring our talk,
Dvorkin expressed uneasiness with the
“mobile first” mania driving interest in
such ­content. Of his old employer, he says,
“They have anxiety about being accused of
being elitist and are convinced that ­being
popular and having ratings is the only
definition of success.” Besides, he continues, CBC managers are “just like any
consumer.” They get wowed by new tech
and gadgets.
Viewers witnessed some of the perils
of this tech giddiness last October, when
foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed was
assigned to a refugee rescue ship in the
Mediterranean. She worked up ­material for
The Fifth Estate, but she also appeared on
­Facebook Live, reporting from the deck in
the middle of the morning, Toronto time.
Viewers were invited to send questions.
A number of commenters were in the mood
to rattle on about the CBC. “Why go live
when you refuse to run ­stories ­honestly...
zero integrity,” wrote one ­viewer. “It’s
TIME to cut the liberal news station loose,”
another said. The rest argued over the issue
of refugees. Dump them in Italy, tell them
Canada is full, screen the boat for terrorists,
send them back home — and all this while
Ayed was ­engaged in a risky assignment.
Not, perhaps, what the CBC had in mind
for this experiment. But it was instructive.
On the one hand, it’s a bold move to take
a reporter in a dangerous situation and put
her in a live video on a social-media platform that just this year hit 2 billion users
worldwide. On the other, editorial control suffers when such projects turn into
forums for trolls. That’s one of the flaws
of “mobile first”: it encourages people to
think about the platform first, then plug in
the story and hope for the best.
The other flaw is more ­fundamental.
The glossy Strategy 2020 features a photo
of joyful young people lying on grass, holding tablets and smartphones. But what
if the brave new world where everyone
smiles at a device is, if not a fiction, at least
­over-imagined? “The under-­reported surprise story in this period of great technological upheaval,” says G
­ regory Taylor,
a professor in the Department of Communication, Media, and Film at the University of Calgary, “is the continued r­ esilience
of traditional television. Yes, cable has
seen a drop in numbers, but many of
those are people who simply moved to
new s­ ervices: Bell Fibe, Telus Optik. Since
Netflix launched in ­Canada, traditional TV
viewing has dropped from 28 to 27.4 hours
a week — hardly a disaster.” In other words,
the technological change that is actually
happening might not be enough to warrant “flipping” the CBC’s priorities by 2020.
­Putting digital first ­ignores how people
use the radio for company, while doing
chores or pretending to work. It ignores
how people keep the television on d
­ uring
a crisis, how much a
­ uthority it carries.
One mistake the CBC leadership made in
1992 with repositioning was to try to fight
the death stars by becoming one. As well
as moving the time of The National, they
divided the TV schedule into specialty
blocks: kids programming blocks, adult
entertainment blocks, information blocks.
Viewers were bewildered. The CBC’s current technological panic could produce a
similar result: the corporation is pushing
content onto social media before it knows
whether it’s building a car or an airplane.
Today, the CBC offers French, English, and
Indigenous radio and television, as well as
specialty and media-partnered programming. Podcasts, too. Commissioned entertainment is big budget, like Schitt’s Creek,
or low budget, like Withwendy. The CBC is
news on the Trans Mountain pipeline produced by professionals. The CBC is viral
content on YouTube produced by ­amateurs.
The CBC is, in a word, exhausting.
Not that the CBC has cornered the market on overdoing it. The Globe and Mail
produces podcasts, such as Colour Code,
hosted by Denise Balkissoon and Hannah
Sung, which focuses on race in ­Canada.
This is a newspaper making radio. The
­National Post purchases video-news packs
by the Canadian Press and then posts them
on its website. This is a newspaper being
a television station. Snapchat is working
on an original reality show called Second
Chance, in which couples who are no l­ onger
couples discuss why their relationships
didn’t work. This is a photo app being every
specialty lifestyle channel you don’t watch.
“Everybody’s doing everything,” admits
Fenlon, which is as good a description of
the media landscape as any.
25
“It’s a crowded place,” he says of the
social-­media turf the CBC covets, “and
every English-language publisher is basically competing for attention with every
other English-language publisher. But no
one tells Canadian stories the way we do,
and no one is in Canada the way we are.”
This is the CBC’s trump card: if it’s prepared
to be unabashedly Canadian in a milieu
where no one else sees much commercial
value in doing the same, it will enjoy the
benefits of being different. But it’s important to say this out loud, and often — at least
as often as CBC management uses the term
“mobile first.” Better to say “Canada first,”
on radio, television, and mobile.
W
hat does it mean to tell Canadian
stories “the way we do”? This existential puzzle has dogged the corporation
for decades. In the 1950s, a time when
the ­debate over public broadcasting was
­intensely political, the Massey Commission opted to define the CBC in the negative:
it was not American. Beyond that, things
have stayed vague.
“When I drive across the country,” says
Heather Conway, “I don’t even need to
hear the call letter. I know how to find the
CBC, because it sounds like nothing else
on the dial.” She’s right: the sound and
look of the CBC are not an accident, and
have always been deliberate. Peter Gzowski had it, Stuart McLean had it, Michael
­Enright, Rosemary Barton, and Matt Galloway have it: they understand there is
really o
­ nly one listener or viewer. The
­relationship is intimate.
Where some private broadcasters go
wrong is in thinking of an audience, of the
many, and then hollering ­material over
everyone’s head to the back of the hall.
It’s like having a conversation with a stage
actor who’s still in character. At times, the
CBC makes the same mistake. But its legacy is the voice in your ear, the feeling that
someone is talking ­directly to you. The CBC
could use its own Jane ­Jacobs, someone
who could put a halt to the frantic construction of hi-tech expressways and look again
at the old neighbourhoods to see what’s
worth preserving. In the old neighbourhoods of the CBC, there has ­always been
quiet respect for human ­dignity and the
power of listening. ­Only ­after that comes
respect for image and sound: the craft. If
the CBC wants to be “mobile first,” it’s
worth remembering that there’s never
The
TheWalrus
Walrus� �j suely/a
p t eu
mgbuesrt22001177
been a more intimate communication tool
than the smartphone. It is most often held,
watched, or read by one person. It is not
a place for broadcasting. It is a place for
one-on-one contact.
It’s also worth remembering that if Canadians are drawn to the CBC, it’s not for
its technological savvy. Chris Boyce was
the director of radio and audio for English
CBC. He left two years ago in the wake of
the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. Now he’s coowner of a podcast company based in British ­Columbia. He suggests that Strategy
2020 may not be a radical move that will put
Canada’s oldest magazine
the CBC on the cutting edge so much as it is
delivers fresh perspectives
a new ­expression of the ongoing confusion
the corporation has faced in the modern
on faith and spirituality.
era: Why are we here? What do we do, and
how
do we measure our success at ­doing it?
For a free sample copy of
“In my period at the CBC,” he says, “a lot
The UniTed ChUrCh Observer,
of time was spent running in circles beemail subscribe@ucobserver.org
cause nobody could figure out if we were
or call 1-800-936-4566
doing what we were supposed to be ­doing.
And in the ­absence of an articulated vision,
everyone filled in the blanks in the way they
­wanted, or the way that fit their view of what
­public broadcasting should be.”
www.ucobserver.org
It doesn’t have to be that way. The BBC,
too, has made digital a priority, shifting to a
“mobile-first proposition” — as described in
its 2017 annual plan — that features “shortUCO_WalrusMay14v3.indd 1
14-04-14 11:56 AM
form journalism and visual storytelling.”
But the BBC also says it will emphasize
“slow news”: a deeper, long-form focus on
current events and issues. While the CBC
uses words like “transform” and “innovation” in its Strategy 2020, the BBC is declaring up front that it will keep doing what
it does best, damn the metrics.
Is the CBC diluting its mission by ­taking
on too much? For Boyce, that’s the dark
heart of the matter. He thinks the great
tragedy of the CBC is that it is utterly unable to free up resources to do things it
­absolutely must do to remain relevant.
“Does it make sense to continue creating
supper-hour newscasts?” he asks. “Is that
BY MICHAEL LISTA
the most cost-­effective way to reach Canadians with ­local CBC ­content?” Boyce
doesn’t think so. “But ­nobody wants to
be the executive that killed local supperhour news on CBC.”
Also, the country’s changed. There are
six times more people in Sarnia, ­Ontario,
on newsstands September 11
than in Grand Falls–Windsor, Newfoundland, but it was only the latter that had (at
least until last year) a CBC station. There
are shows on CBC Radio and Television
OLDER.
WISER.
SMARTER.
No Asylum:
A Manitoba
Border Town
Divided
The October Issue
26
1
that have been around forever and that
are expensive to produce, but that no
longer command audiences the way they
used to. “We don’t live in a world of limit­
less ­resources; we live in a world where
we needed to make tough decisions about
what to stop ­doing, so we could start ­doing
new things,” says Boyce.
But doing new things also means
understanding why you’re doing them.
The CBC has asked the federal government for a
­ nother $400 million to run an
advertising-­free operation, which it argues
would stimulate the creative marketplace:
more documentary and entertainment
programming would have to be commissioned to fill all the freed-up time on TV,
radio and smartphones. If the corporation
wants that money, it really needs to come
up with a vision — whether it’s one that incorporates lessons from the past, or one
that ­reaffirms that frontline programmers
can be ­trusted to follow their instincts.
What the CBC can’t do is repeat the mistakes of repositioning and expect t­ axpayers
to wave it through. Graham Fox, CEO of
Montreal’s Institute for Research on ­Public
Policy, and an occasional CBC pundit, says
talk of vision must come ­before any talk of
money. “Let’s first decide what the CBC’s
mandate should be in the social-media
age,” he tells me, “and then we can come
to an agreement on what that costs. Until
we know what we want the CBC to deliver,
a debate on how much funding it should
have is a pointless exercise.”
A
t the digital-news meeting, beyond
talk of “pushing social,” there is discussion of another story: a Russian man is
considering a head transplant. Questions
arise. First of all, is that the right term?
Should the procedure instead be called
a body transplant? Also, a head transplant was tried on a dog decades ago and
the dog died, so there’s that. Some see
the Italian surgeon as a ­visionary genius.
Others say he’s a dangerous crackpot. So
there’s ­narrative ­tension. But no one is talking about how it will be packaged o
­ nline.
That’s for later. Right now, they’re still
searching for the human heart of the story:
Socratically, sarcastically, rhetorically.
That’s what the CBC does best: put a
bunch of people in a room and force them
to hack through the weeds until they find
a story worth telling. That’s its mandate.
Everything else is a distraction. s
credits
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The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
science
Head
Games
Two competing labs are racing to find the link
between concussions and long-term brain damage.
The CFL’s survival may hinge on the results
by Brett Popplewell
photography by Jalani Morgan
F
ive days before he died,
Rod Woodward sat in a
restricted mental health
­p avilion at a hospital
in White Rock, ­British
­Columbia. He was happy
as he dined on cake and admired the
clusters of balloons that dotted the room.
It was September 22, 2016, and after his
wife and nurses sang “Happy Birthday”
to him, he posed for a photo in the
­uniform that had changed his life.
Woodward had once been a 200-pound
football player who, on three different
­occasions, drank champagne out of the
bell of the Grey Cup — first as a ballboy
for the BC Lions, then twice as an all-star
­defensive back for the Ottawa Rough
Riders. His career left him scarred and
battered, with a shoulder so heavily reconstructed that doctors used it as a case
study on rebuilding a joint. He’d retired
at thirty-four with a basement full of trophies and a bank of memories from the
field. Even near the end of his life, the game
was foremost in his mind. He’d recount to
patients and staff how, on a distant birthday, he’d once caught three interceptions
at L
­ ansdowne Park in a v
­ ictory over the
Edmonton ­Eskimos. Then, thirty seconds
later, he’d repeat the story again.
Almost four decades had passed since
Woodward left the game for good. He’d
pursued a c­ areer as a coach before becoming a financial advisor. He’d been a success until he racked up gambling debts
and, in his mid-fifties, stole $185,000 from
two elderly clients. At sixty-five, he was
sentenced to jail, though his family was
never sure if he understood his crime. All
they knew was that he’d grown paranoid
with age. He believed the government was
tracking his movements. He’d close the
drapes, refuse to speak about certain topics
on the phone, and wonder if the television
was watching him.
Diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2012, Woodward often forgot to eat.
His athletic build diminished until, eventually, the Grey Cup ring he’d won on a brisk
day in 1973 slipped off his finger and vanished. His former teammates had mailed
him a replica of the jersey he’d worn in
that game. Now, on his last birthday, he
sat in that jersey, his old number twentysix hanging from drooping shoulders.
Woodward finished his cake, then got to
his feet and started to dance. At the end of
the party, his wife, Kay, kissed him goodbye, then left him to rest.
The next day, he fell near the very place
he’d danced. Because his brain was unable
to send out signals warning him to brace
himself, he smashed his shoulder on the
ground, breaking it, and took one final hit
to the head. Four days later, he was dead.
Among the condolences Kay received
was an email from Leo Ezerins, a former
Hamilton Tiger-Cat and the founder of
the Canadian Football League Alumni
30
Brett Popplewell � h e a d g a m e s
­ ssociation. He wrote to say he was sorry
A
to hear of Woodward’s passing and asked
if the family would be willing to donate his
brain to a team of doctors in Toronto who
were studying the effects of concussions
on CFL players.
The request left Woodward’s widow
feeling conflicted. She wanted to learn
the full extent of the damage inside her
husband’s head, but was unsure ­whether
to trust ­Ezerins and the Toronto doctors.
She’d heard their research was being used
by the CFL to deny any connection between
concussions sustained on Canadian gridirons and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease
believed to be shortening the lifespans
of players. To Kay, it seemed clear that
her husband’s struggles were the result
of the twenty-two years he’d spent colliding i­ nto other players. She’d already
decided to sue the CFL for having encouraged and ­facilitated his suffering.
Her lawyer placed a call to a competing
American lab that runs one of the biggest
brain banks in the world, and whose researchers have been instrumental in linking repeated head injuries in contact sports
to CTE.
And so the most coveted possession
Woodward had left was removed from
his skull, lowered into a bucket of formaldehyde, and prepped for the long journey
to a Boston refrigerator. It would sit in that
refrigerator for months, part of a growing
backlog of brains waiting to be analyzed.
I
t’s difficult to remember how football was viewed before a series of postmortem discoveries linked the sport to
neurological rot buried deep inside the
skulls of deceased players. But despite fifteen
years’ worth of headline-making reports,
there remains controversy over what the
science has actually proven.
Much of that science has come out of
Boston University’s CTE Center, where
neuropathologist Ann McKee and a team
of seventeen researchers have spent
the last decade slicing up the brains of
­athletes, injecting the shavings with dye,
and ­placing them under a high-­resolution
­microscope. While
most of the more
Left Leo Ezerins,
than
400 brains the
a former ­Tiger-Cat,
B
­
oston
researchers
stands in Tim
have peered into
­Hortons Field in
Hamilton, Ontario. come from football
31
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
p­layers, the bank’s specimens are also
drawn from other sports: h
­ ockey, soccer,
boxing, wrestling, rugby, and even baseball. The vast majority of those brains have
revealed signs of irreparable damage that
­McKee’s team blames on concussions.
When you sustain a blow to the head,
your brain — grey gelatinous matter suspended in fluid — jostles against the walls
of the skull. Depending on the location
of the damage, a concussion can lead to
­nausea. In some cases, the brain loses the
ability to send signals to other parts of itself, triggering a physical collapse or a momentary inability to form sentences. Hit
your head hard enough, and you’ll lose
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consciousness. Post-concussion syndrome
can last months, even years, leaving victims sensitive to light, noise, and motion.
A brain that hasn’t healed from a concussion is prone to second-impact syndrome,
a more catastrophic injury that can be fatal.
The Boston researchers say that even
sub-concussive blows — repeated hits that
aren’t diagnosed as concussions — can
damage neurons, causing a protein called
tau to cluster and clot inside cells, slowly
killing them. These tau deposits assume
misfolded shapes called neurofibrillary tangles; as they spread, the brain deteriorates
and loses mass. A similar process occurs in
other neurodegenerative diseases, such as
Alzheimer’s, but in the case of CTE, the tangles are found wrapped around blood vessels. While the wreckage this brings about
is often concealed within the brain’s deep
folds, its symptoms eventually become
visible: mood swings, cognitive impairment, impulsive ­behaviour, ­depression,
memory loss, a
­ ddiction, and suicidal
thoughts.
32
A group of Toronto researchers, however, has started to push back on the
narrative coming out of Boston. Led by
Charles T
­ ator, a highly decorated eightyone-year-old neurosurgeon, the Toronto
lab, which was founded in 2010, has become the world’s second-largest d
­ evoted
to concussion research. Compared to the
­Boston researchers, Tator’s team has found
­fewer incidents of CTE in the brains it has
examined. In fact, says Tator, “We’ve seen
­examples of people who’ve had multiple
concussions but who don’t have any evidence of the disease. Like, none.” While
research suggests that concussions can
cause CTE, why, they wonder, aren’t all
players a­ ffected e­ qually? What’s the threshold for how many concussions you have to
sustain or how hard you have to be hit to
develop CTE? Is it possible that certain players are prone to the disease for other reasons? Are there genetic factors? Integral to
the Toronto team’s research: the brains of
CFL players.
The CFL reported that thirty-two concussions occurred during the regular season of 2016 — an average of 3.6 per team,
representing a drop of 29 percent from the
previous season. Yet that statistic doesn’t
reflect the countless sub-concussive blows
that may occur on any play and that go
undocumented. For its part, the CFL continues to assert that there is “no conclusive evidence” linking concussions to CTE,
a position that appears to find some backing in the science highlighted by Tator’s
team. The CFL’s current stance is similar to one the National Football League
abandoned in March 2016, two years ­after
agreeing to pay an estimated $1 billion in
damages to more than 4,500 ex-players.
Despite the reluctance of both leagues
to admit a direct relationship between CTE
and the game, the concussion crisis has
already altered the way football is played
on both sides of the border: rule changes,
fines, and penalties related to reckless play
have been implemented. But many say the
changes are inadequate. H
­ elmets equipped
with telemetry systems designed to monitor impacts to the head have been available for years, but they’re not mandated for
use in the CFL. Instead, the CFL has introduced an “injury spotter,” an individual
who monitors impacts via video from the
CFL Command Centre, on the third floor of
league headquarters on W
­ ellington Street
East in downtown T
­ oronto. Before they
Brett Popplewell � h e a d g a m e s
are allowed to return to the game, players suspected to have suffered a concussion are examined on the sidelines with
the use of an app that evaluates the fine
movements of the eyes.
In the meantime, the CFL is facing two
related concussion lawsuits. The first, filed
in Vancouver in 2014 by Arland Bruce, a
one of the more precariously financed
leagues in professional sport.
O
n a rainy Friday in early March
2017, Arland Bruce, a thirty-nineyear-old Kansas-born former wide r­ eceiver,
sat in a Vancouver courtroom. With tattoos peeking out of the sleeves of his
black suit, he kept his
eyes fixed on the panel
of ­judges while his lawyer argued that it was the
court’s ­duty to hear the
case. But Bruce’s counsel was getting nowhere.
For three years, the
CFL and its ­b attery of
high-priced attorneys
have fought Bruce’s litigation, arguing that the
courts are the wrong
place to deal with the
case of an otherwise
healthy looking two-time
Grey Cup winner who alleges he has CTE — a legal
claim, the first of its kind
against the CFL, that can’t
be proven so long as his
brain remains inside his
head. A BC judge ruled
in the CFL’s favour back
in 2016. But Bruce appealed, and now he was
back in the courtroom for
a second attempt to push
his case to a trial.
A ten-year CFL vet,
Bruce had been a marabove Leo Ezerins wears his 1986 Grey Cup
quee player who’d explode off
­championship ring, which he won while playing
the
snap, dart across the line of
for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
scrimmage, and seek out open
­former all-star, is expected to set a preced- ground on a crowded field. It was after one
ent that will dictate how the court treats the such snap on a September night in 2012 at
second case, a class-action lawsuit that was Regina’s Mosaic Stadium that Bruce took
filed in 2015 in the Ontario S
­ uperior Court of off into the Saskatchewan zone looking for
Justice. The class action involves Woodward a pass, only to collide with a Roughrider.
and more than 200 other alumni, some of Bruce s­ omersaulted into the air and then
whom have experienced suicidal thoughts came down hard, his head striking the turf.
as a result of what they believe is going For several minutes, he lay unconscious.
on inside their heads. ­Alleging that the In his affidavit, he says that he has since
CFL has tried to create an impression that been terrified to go to sleep. ­After that hit,
concussions in the game don’t cause long- he competed in just one more game for the
term brain damage, these players are seek- Lions. He was traded to Montreal, but he
ing $200 m
­ illion in damages — estimated was no longer the ­player he’d once been.
to be the league’s entire revenue in 2016.
Released from his contract, Bruce soon
The lawsuit, some believe, could found himself unemployable and sleep­ultimately finish off the CFL, ­historically ing in a truck parked underground at the
33
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. As a star of
the game, he’d earned more than $1.5
­million over a career that saw a top ­salary of
$190,000. But he’d saved hardly any of it.
One day, he walked, ­unannounced, into the
office of Robyn W
­ ishart, a ­Vancouver-based
brain and ­spinal lawyer who’d made a
name for herself representing ­Gabrielle
Carteris, one of the stars of the original
Beverly Hills, 90210, in an on-set injury
case. Bruce was paranoid, delusional, and
dealing with escalating headaches. He told
Wishart that the pain in his head made
him feel as though he’d just been in a car
accident. He wondered if his years in the
game had left him with CTE.
“He was in really bad shape,” recalls
­Wishart, who agreed to represent him on
a contingency fee basis. A month into the
2014 CFL season, she launched a lawsuit
against the league on Bruce’s behalf. In it,
Wishart contends that the league misrepresented the dangers of concussions throughout Bruce’s career and failed to provide him
with adequate care — e­ specially after the hit
in Saskatchewan that left him with signs
of post-concussion syndrome: fogginess,
memory loss, anxiety, personality ­changes,
and a sensitivity to light and sound.
But the league’s handling of Bruce’s
post-concussion syndrome was just one
part of Wishart’s initial case. She also
dragged Charles Tator into the lawsuit,
naming him as a defendant. Arguably the
most famous Canadian neurosurgeon alive,
Tator is a professor at the University of
­Toronto and an internationally acclaimed
concussion expert. But to Wishart, Tator is
a leading advocate for the type of science
the CFL has relied on to dictate its policies
on concussions.
In Bruce’s statement of claim, Wishart
alleges that, after having accepted funding from the CFL and teaming up with Leo
Ezerins and the alumni association to gain
access to the brains of retired players, T
­ ator
began “downplaying and obfuscating” the
research of independent scientists and
neurologists. (Tator denies ever having
­received funding from the CFL.)
At the heart of her allegations is a controversial academic study of six deceased
CFL players that was co-authored by Tator,
Ezerins, and four others. The study, published in the May 2013 issue of The ­Frontiers
in Human Neuroscience, found that CTE was
present in 50 percent of the brains analyzed. However, the paper was ­published
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
under the title “Absence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Retired Football
Players with Multiple Concussions and
Neurological Symptomatology.” The authors go on to challenge the established
link between concussions and CTE, ­stating
that existing post-mortem research was
“­limited by biased samples.” In other words,
people donated their brains for autopsy
because they already had reason to suspect they had CTE.
Wishart recalls how angry that study
made her. The title alone, she says, was
“horribly misleading.” In the statement of
claim, she alleges Ezerins’s author credit was proof that the study, if not the entire project, had been tainted by a conflict
of interest.
Also in the statement of claim, ­Wishart
draws attention to comments from E
­ zerins
that, she alleges, show he put the league’s
survival ahead of player safety. He once
told a reporter that the Boston CTE researchers were on a “feed bag” and
suggested that the long-term impact of
concussions might be “psychosomatic.”
Wishart further alleges that Ezerins tried
to shut down a cognitive test being run
out of McMaster University on twentyfive retired Tiger-Cats. Ezerins says he
didn’t support the McMaster study, because he was led to understand that it
wouldn’t be able to effectively ­determine
cognitive decline. But, in the claim, W
­ ishart
quotes Ezerins as having made the following statement: “It is a very important issue and we want to make sure it
does not reflect poorly on the game of
football.”
For nearly three years, Ezerins and ­Tator
stood accused of negligence in the Bruce
case because of their work on the “absence
of CTE” study. The allegations against
both men were never proven, and were
­u ltimately dropped by Wishart. Speaking after the fact, Tator says he found his
­involvement in the Bruce case utterly perplexing; ­Ezerins — whose name was attached to the study because he procured the
brains that were used — says it kept him up
at night. It never made any sense to either
of them that they should be p
­ rosecuted
for publishing work in a peer-reviewed
journal.
Bruce’s case, however, soon devolved
into a dispute that has nothing to do with
football, league negligence, or the competing science about degenerative brain
damage. To stave off a trial, the league
argued that the court has no jurisdiction
to resolve disputes between employers and
unionized workers. It presented Bruce’s
appeal as a simple case of “health and
safety,” meaning it should be handled by
arbitrators under the CFL’s collective bargaining agreement. It was a smart play:
a judge sided with the CFL in 2016 and
then again during the March 2017 appeal,
which Wishart lost in a unanimous ruling.
But ­Wishart intends to keep pressing for a
trial. “I want to take this all the way to the
Supreme Court,” she says.
Tator argues that, by tarnishing the
­motives of his team, Wishart’s actions
are hampering the progress of science.
The real villains, he says, are the holdouts who refuse to acknowledge the dangers of aggression and violence in contact
34
sports. But in the eyes of many ex-CFLers,
Wishart’s a crusader. “Once Bruce’s case
was out there,” she says, “I started hearing from former players spread all over
the place.” She became a kind of legal
shepherd, herding those players into the
class-action lawsuit now targeting the CFL,
travelling everywhere from Boston and
Los Angeles to Edmonton and Calgary
to interview broken-down legends who
made small sums of cash in return for risking their minds and bodies in pursuit of a
storied chalice.
Wishart believes she’s fighting a long
war on behalf of the forsaken and the
­vulnerable. She describes a frantic call she
once received from the mother of a former
player who had locked himself in a room.
­Terrified that her son was planning to end
his life, his mother had pulled ­Wishart’s
Brett Popplewell
Author �� Shteoardy g a m e s
name off the internet. “She called me
screaming,” Wishart says. “That’s when
I told her to call out the names of the players on the class-action suit. Let him know
he’s not alone.”
The man ultimately came out of the
room. “That was just one phone call.
I get them often. I get wives. I get children. I don’t get players as often as I get a
loved one.” She says clients fall into three
categories: those who have lost motor control, those who have lost impulse control,
and those who have lost both. “My goal
or force its way far enough over an invisible line of battle to gain more downs and
maintain possession of the ball.
Both the American and Canadian variations were codified in the years that followed. Both initially involved a three-down
structure, though the Americans e­ ventually
added a fourth. This change ultimately
made players more focused on trying to
­physically carry the ball past the defending
line, while Canadians have become more
intent on throwing the ball into enemy
territory.
Performed on a field of mock
battle, American football was initially popular among the sons of
Civil War veterans. It’s easy to
imagine they enjoyed outflanking opponents, charging the field,
and flying their school colours
over a vanquished foe. In Canada, the game took shape as a
display of grit between the leading schools of Ontario and Quebec. By 1884, the p
­ redecessors
of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats,
­Montreal Alouettes, and T
­ oronto
Argonauts were all vying for the
precursor to the Grey Cup.
Early reports of concussions
left Charles Tator leads the world’s secondlargest team devoted to c­ oncussion research.
in the game date back to the late
above A signed CFL football is displayed in
nineteenth century, though the
Tator’s office at Toronto Western Hospital.
term was used to describe everything from temporary confusion
is that no CFL p
­ layer will kill themselves,” to comas or even deaths on the field. The
she says.
sport’s risks attracted real scrutiny in Canada and the US after the Washington Post
ootball’s ties to Canada are about reported that forty-five football players
as old as the country itself. The first had died from i­ njuries sustained on Amergame generally recognized as a precursor ican gridirons between 1900 and 1905.
to North American football was played on The mounting violence caused then presiCanadian soil in 1861 — a full fourteen years dent Theodore Roosevelt to urge a series of
before the first organized indoor hockey changes to the American game: the forward
game in Canada, and eight years before pass was eventually introduced, as was a
what is often cited as the first football game new rule that called for play to be stopped
in the United States.
when a player fell on the ball. But, for
Even in those early years, the Can- “­reasons of tradition,” says Steve D
­ aniel,
adian and American games were played the CFL’s head statistician and ­designated
­differently — a fact that became apparent in historian, those rules weren’t applied north
1874, when a team from ­McGill ­University of the border until 1929. ­Daniel has spent
travelled to C
­ ambridge, Massachussetts, to the last decade compiling and analyzing
square off against Harvard in a cross­-border statistics from 5,400 games and more than
skirmish that would change the Amer- 100 years of ­Canadian football. Accordican game forever. It was that ­encounter ing to Daniel, the only ­player to die after
that introduced Americans to the idea of suffering injuries on a CFL field was an
“downs” — a set ­number of plays in which American linebacker named Tom Pate.
the offensive team carrying the ball has Pate was a twenty-three-year old Univerto either overrun the defenders and score sity of Nebraska grad who’d gone undrafted
F
credits
35
2
Presents
Mobility
Eight speakers.
Seven minutes each.
Featuring
The Hon. Michael Kirby
Adam van Koeverden
Dr. Dee Mangin
and more
Hamilton
Thursday,
Oct. 5 | 7 p.m.
David Braley Health Sciences Centre
McMaster Health Campus
100 Main St. W., Hamilton
For tickets and
information, visit
thewalrus.ca/events
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
Concordia
University
Presents
Disruption
Seven speakers.
Seven minutes each.
Featuring
John Kim Bell
Peter Nowak
Karen Li
and more
Toronto
Tuesday,
Oct. 10 | 7 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre
93 Charles St. W., Toronto
For tickets and
information, visit
thewalrus.ca/events
by the NFL and signed with the Tiger-Cats
in 1975.
Late in the fourth quarter of his twelfth
game for Hamilton, Pate sprinted straight
into two Calgary blockers while trying to
give chase to a Stampeder who was en route
to a touchdown. The front page of the next
day’s Calgary Herald showed an image of
Pate mid-air. One Stampeder had just taken
out his knees while another blocked him
high. Pate went into convulsions s­ hortly
­after that photo was snapped, his head
having smashed into the turf of McMahon
­Stadium. He was unconscious when they
took him off the field and died three days
later. The official cause of death was an
aneurysm.
“American football has a lot of these
­stories, but this is the worst that I can
find on a CFL field,” says Daniel. “It just
so h
­ appens the player was an American.”
Of the more than 5,000 living CFL
alumni, 75 percent are Americans who
earned a fraction of what they would
have made in the NFL. (In 2014, CFL salaries were roughly $80,000 per season.) At last count, more than seventy of
those American players have alleged that
they’ve suffered ­debilitating brain damage on Canadian gridirons. Yet a group of
CFL alumni and scientists argue that Canadian football may not be the threat it’s
often considered to be. It may even offer
a solution to a bigger problem: American
football.
Ezerins and others have taken the ­lower
rate of CTE discovery in Toronto as a sign
that the game might be safer up here.
Those who make such an argument point
out that CFL fields are twelve yards wider
and ten yards longer than those in the US,
a circumstance that may limit the force of
c0llisions. Though the CFL resisted the forward pass for years, Canadian football is
now more of an aerial game than anything
else. The three downs in the Canadian
game make the offensive team more inclined to try to throw the ball up the field
than to attempt to gain yardage by running the ball across the line of scrimmage,
which is where some of the most brutal
hits still occur.
But perhaps the most fundamental difference is that in the NFL, opposing linemen are separated by just eleven inches.
When play begins, they explode into one
another from less than a foot apart. In the
CFL, the distance is one yard. As a r­ esult,
36
1
the linemen who serve as immovable
­objects are generally smaller in the CFL.
“Whether all of this makes Canadian
football safer is a legitimate question,”
says Tator. “I don’t think we have data that
would back up such a claim right now, but
ten years from now, we might.”
McKee scoffs at the very idea. “Head
trauma is head trauma,” she says. “I find
it frustrating that there’s so much discussion about whether this disease exists — the
evidence is more than ample. Of course we
need to do more research. But the conversation shouldn’t be whether football is associated with it, because it is, but how to
prevent it. Our mission is to cure this disease,
not to destroy the CFL or any other league.”
W
hat we now call CTE was first
identified eighty-nine years ago by
a forensic pathologist named Harrison
Martland. He analyzed the symptoms displayed by a generation of battered prize
fighters — speech impairments, slowed
movement, confusion, and tremors — and
concluded that they’d been brought on by
repeated blows to the head. He called the
condition “punch-drunk syndrome,” or
­dementia pugilistica, and estimated that
nearly half of all former boxers had it.
It wasn’t until September 28, 2002, that
events were set in motion that would lead
to the discovery of the syndrome in the
brain of a football player. On that Saturday, a Nigerian-born forensic p
­ athologist
named Bennet Omalu walked into a Pittsburgh coroner’s office to examine the body
of Mike Webster, a dead Pittsburgh ­Steeler.
Webster had been a nearly 270-pound
centre lineman in the NFL. Dubbed “the
strongest man in football” by CBS, he’d
hike the ball, then cross the line of scrimmage with more ferocity than any other
player of his generation. It was said he hit
like Rocky Marciano, though he used his
head instead of his fists.
When his playing years were over, he
descended into a sort of madness, sometimes using a stun gun to put himself to
sleep. He died of a heart attack at the age
of fifty, but those who saw his corpse remarked that the body looked like that
of a man twenty years older. Omalu removed Webster’s brain and, over a series
of months, waited for it to be sliced into
thin sections, which were injected with
dye. He then placed these samples under
a microscope. What happened next has
credits
Brett Popplewell � h e a d g a m e s
been the subject of films, documentaries,
and more than a decade’s worth of literature, both journalistic and academic. The
specialized staining allowed Omalu to tag
the tau protein deposits that had accumulated in Webster’s brain, and prove the
presence of CTE.
His controversial findings were published in the journal Neurosurgery. Omalu
believed that the NFL’s doctors would want
to know more in order to adjust the way
football was played. Instead, the league’s
doctors challenged his findings and called
for the article to be ­retracted (it wasn’t).
But the CTE diagnoses kept coming — in several cases, because of suicide. Andre
Waters, a retired Philadelphia Eagle who’d
shot himself in the head at forty-four. Justin
Strzelczyk, another ­Steeler, who, after an
almost forty-mile-long high-speed ­police
chase, drove over a median and rammed
his pickup truck into a tanker. His body
was thrown eighty yards.
In June 2007, Omalu began working
with the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization established by neurologists
based in West Virginia and Massachusetts. One of the forces behind the institute’s founding was Chris Nowinski,
a then twenty-eight-year-old Harvard grad
who’d played college ball but made his
name and reputation as a wrestler in the
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
He’d suffered concussions during his football career, but it was the one he took from
a boot to the chin in a wrestling ring that
left him with post-concussion syndrome
and unable to perform his job. In the middle of some matches, he’d forget the choreography and whether he was supposed to
win or lose. He retired ­after one incident in
which he leaped off his bed and slammed
headfirst into the wall. He was asleep at the
time, but later took it as a sign that something was wrong with his brain.
Nowinski wasn’t a doctor, but he was
smart, outgoing, and persuasive. He began
to view himself as both a survivor of postconcussion syndrome and a potential victim of CTE—a disease he felt desperately
needed to be studied. Before the institute
was even set up, he’d already convinced the
families of Waters and Strzelczyk to send
the players’ brains to Omalu. Nowinski
became known as the “Brain Chaser.” He
would monitor news for the suicides and
deaths of any athlete he suspected had suffered from concussions. Then he’d cold call
their families. “I don’t know what made
me good at it,” he says.
After almost a year of working t­ ogether,
Nowinski and Omalu had a falling out over
differing opinions on the direction of the
institute. Omalu left to set up another centre in Davis, California. But Omalu’s work
there has been overshadowed by the growing body of discoveries coming out of Ann
McKee’s lab in Boston University’s CTE
Center, which has become the largest hub
in the world for the post-mortem study of
contact-sport athletes; Nowinski and his
arm’s-length organization, now called the
Concussion Legacy Foundation, secure
“My son loves the
game — when I see
him hit somebody,
I cheer. I fear for
him. But at least he
knows what he’s
getting into.”
hundreds of brains for McKee. An average of two arrive each week.
During a tour of the brain bank in late
March, McKee opened a refrigerator and
pointed out the Tupperware containers
filled with sliced-up remnants of the men
they once defined. She noted that the specimens were all instantly recognizable to
her. She didn’t need a nametag to identify
them. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,”
she said. “I’m constantly hearing that I’m
­making all this up, that it’s a construct of
my imagination. Nobody wants this ­disease
to be true. I wish it weren’t true.”
But McKee’s findings are only one part
of the dispute. There are those who have a
problem with the fact that so many brains
in sport find their way to the same steel
autopsy table in Boston. Which is why the
University of Toronto got into the concussion
business.
B
ald, except for some white frizzled hair above his ears, Charles
­Tator wears a suit and tie under a white lab
coat and sits in a small office overlooking
37
the atrium of the Toronto Western Hospital on B
­ athurst Street. He’s surrounded
by stacks of files, an autographed Canadian football, a sculpture of a spine, and
numerous scientific and medical trophies
collected over a fifty-six-year career as a
leader in the study of the human brain.
It has been about ten years since he conducted his last surgery, but he remains
active in the field as the founder and director of the Canadian Concussion Project. It was Tator who, after reading the
­early ­research coming out of Omalu’s and
­McKee’s post-mortem studies, said, “We
need to get into that.”
“Not long ago, concussions were viewed
as a waste of time — barely worth studying,”
he says. “As a result, they’ve been very neglected both on the clinical and research
side. But a mythology has evolved in recent
years, which is a whole other problem.” He
agrees that concussions are significant injuries that need to be prevented, and has
spent years urging the NHL to take head
trauma more seriously. But he is uneasy
about the narrative that he says originated
in Boston and was then fed to the media
and, by extension, the players — namely,
that if you take enough hits to the head,
you’re destined to develop CTE. That’s not
what his team has been finding.
Tator chooses his words carefully as
he describes the growing rift between
his pathologists and the ones in Boston.
“There’s room for more than one school
of thought on this,” he says. When asked
about Wishart’s allegations that he and
his lab have collaborated with the CFL to
downplay the link between concussions
and CTE, he says it’s absurd that anyone
would accuse him of manipulating his science to serve the game of football. ­Tator
explains that he relies on Ezerins and the
CFL Alumni Association for one thing:
brains. He stands behind his academic
integrity.
Given the stakes, however, it seems
inevitable that the two labs would find
themselves at odds. There’s a story, which
Nowinski initially hesitates to share, about
a détente he tried to broker between
his team in Boston and Tator’s team in
­Toronto. “When Toronto announced that
they were starting up, I reached out to
­Tator and said, ‘Instead of us competing
for the same brains, why don’t you collect and study the brains from Canada
and we’ll do the same down here?’ But
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Brett Popplewell � h e a d g a m e s
the age of sixty-seven. His was the first
CFL brain to be harvested for study. Next
came the brain of Peter Ribbins, a Blue
Bomber who’d suffered from ­amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson’s,
and died in the Cayman Islands at sixtythree. Twelve days later, Tony Proudfoot,
a sixty-one-year-old Alouette with the
same ailments as Ribbins, passed away in
Montreal. Bobby Kuntz — a seventy-nineyear-old Tiger-Cat who’d long suffered
from Parkinson’s, died in Waterloo on
February 7, 2011.
Their brains found their way to the office
of Lili-Naz Hazrati, a member of T
­ ator’s
team who works at Toronto’s Hospital for
Sick Children. By mid-2011, Hazrati had
dissected all four specimens. She found
no traces of CTE in the brains of Proudfoot or in Ribbins, but did identify them in
those of Roberts and Kuntz. Hazrati says
she has found some evidence suggesting
that head trauma on CFL gridirons is leading to CTE, but cautions that it’s inconclusive. “We speculate that concussions cause
CTE,” she says. “But I’m not 100 percent
sure that’s the case. We lack ­proper controls to make that link.”
She tells the story of a Toronto lawyer in
his early forties who suffered from ALS-like
symptoms and died in his house four years
ago. One of Hazrati’s colleagues called her
and asked if she’d look at the lawyer’s brain.
She put his tissue under the microscope and
saw the obvious patterns of CTE. “I went
back and I asked the man’s wife, ‘Did he
tackle who spent nine seasons have any history of concussions? Did he
above Lili-Naz Hazrati is part of the Toronto team
in the league. MacIver had told play any sports?’ And his wife said, ‘No,
studying deceased players’ brains.
­Ezerins that he’d been knocked he did not suffer any concussions.’” HazTator refused.” (­ Tator doesn’t recall that out several times. He’d experienced mood rati published her findings in the March
specific request.)
swings in his later years. He eventually suc- 2017 issue of the ­International Journal of
Woodward wasn’t the first dead Can- cumbed to a heart attack, but he’d become Pathology and Clinical Research, claiming
adian CFL player to have a brain that was convinced before he died that something to have identified the first case of CTE in a
coveted by both camps. Back in 2010, was wrong with his head. When Ezerins patient with no history of head trauma. Her
when Tator’s group was just getting s­ tarted, learned of his friend’s death, he followed methodology has been questioned by both
­Ezerins began reaching out to alumni up with the family about a d
­ iscussion he’d McKee and Nowinski, who point out that
while they were still alive. His rationale had with MacIver about donating his brain. there’s no real way for her to know w
­ hether
was simple: “We’re all part of the same But it had already been committed to the patient had suffered head trauma in
fraternity. It’s tragic to see these men go ­Boston. Ezerins says he tried to negotiate earlier stages of his life.
down. I see it more than anybody. The its return. Nowinski says that, by that point,
But of all the brains Hazrati has exambiggest ­challenge to the science is getting the matter was out of his hands.
ined, one that stands out is Todd Ewen’s.
donations. They need brains to study, and
Still, the Toronto team quickly came Ewen was a former NHL enforcer who
I’m the guy who knows where they can into possession of other brains — Jay got his name on the Stanley Cup with the
find them.”
Roberts’s for one. A former Rough Rider ­Montreal Canadiens in 1993. He died in
Although Ezerins has helped bring fif- who’d moved north from Iowa to play in 2015 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound
teen brains to Tator’s researchers, he re- 1964, he’d stayed in the town that made to the head. “Todd Ewen killed himself
grets having lost out on the brain of Doug him a champion. He died, after suffering because he thought he had CTE. But the
MacIver, a personal friend and former nose from lung cancer, on October 6, 2010, at brain was clean — no CTE. His wife was
39
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
­completely upset with me. His kids were
upset with me.” They wanted Hazrati to
explain why he’d committed suicide, but
she couldn’t.
Accurate suicide statistics about former CFL and NFL players are hard to come
by. But when Edward Riley, a professor
at Stanford University and an anesthesiologist, began looking at the data from a
2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on suicide mortality in retired NFL players, he noticed an alarming
spike — twelve suicides in the last decade,
more than in the previous sixty years combined. In a letter to World Neurosurgery, he
posited that this spike may not be a result
of CTE, but of contagion.
Suicides, Riley argues, may be feeding
off one another. The loss of adulation that
comes at the end of a career can plunge
players into a deep and dark depression.
And the publicity around CTE may be inadvertently validating suicide as an option
for certain depressed players by suggesting
a possible link between their emotional
state and the disease.
O
n Saturday, March 4, while his
son was at a training camp with the
Stampeders, Alondra Johnson hugged his
wife, Marguerite, climbed into his Cadillac,
and sped off into Los Angeles traffic. The
then fifty-one-year-old Hall of F
­ amer had
­decided to skip out on the interview scheduled for this story. He turned onto the freeway and pressed down on the throttle as he
made for Mulholland and the canyon roads
that cut through Malibu. He often thought
of just ending it on those roads — of veering hard into a wall and letting the laws
of physics do the rest. That day, he e­ xited
left toward the coast and drove until the
impulse faded. It was dark when he returned home.
On Sunday, he apologized. “Yesterday
was bad. I didn’t feel up to having this conversation.” He says he has felt ambivalent
about the game ever since it cast him aside
at the age of thirty-eight. He spent the last
dozen years trying not to reflect on past
glories or defeats. He pawned off much of
his memorabilia, including his Grey Cup
rings. And now, he’s suing the league — the
most formidable all-star a
­ ttached to the
class-action lawsuit.
Johnson was one of the biggest names
in the league during the 1990s and early
2000s. He spent thirteen years with the
Calgary Stampeders and competed in six
Grey Cup championships. When he retired,
he did so with the second-highest number
of tackles in CFL history. He was the hardest hitter in the game, the man quarterbacks feared most. He’d clench his teeth,
fix his eyes on the man in the pocket, and
smash his way through the offensive line
with a ferocity few others could match.
But he says he played his entire ­career
with headaches. His brain would start
pounding every season at the start of
training camp. Still, he outlasted almost
every other Stampeder, holding onto his
job for thirteen years in a market where
players tend to last no more than two
“Every day, I watch
guys I played with
deteriorate before
my eyes. You don’t
know how tragic
it is to see them
go down. I could
be next.”
and a half seasons. After he was cut from
the ­Stampeders, he managed to eke out
another quarter of a season with the
Roughriders, who needed a linebacker.
Afterwards, with no money, a battery of
injuries, and a dwindling sense of purpose,
he drifted from couch to couch. He stayed
in Canada for five years. When his father
died in a car accident in 2009, he packed
up what little he had left and headed home
to help care for his mother in LA.
He soon got a job in construction and
tried to move on with his life. But, gradually, his wife and others close to him started
noticing that his behaviour was changing.
She’d find him crying while reading about
his past; sometimes, he’d disappear for
hours on a drive heading nowhere. Since
2010, the couple had been paying increasing attention to the reports of CTE. Then,
in May 2012, Junior Seau shot himself in
the chest. Seau had been one of the game’s
biggest stars, recording 1,846 tackles in
a twenty-year NFL career. Johnson recalls shaking when he heard the news.
40
He had been compared to Seau his entire CFL ­career. Both were California-born
­linebackers, both had played the game for
longer than average, and both were known
as the hardest hitters in their respective
leagues. (Upon examination, Seau’s brain
showed evidence of CTE).
Johnson was still trying to make sense of
Seau’s suicide when he suffered a mysterious seizure during a barbecue with friends.
Through her own research, Marguerite
learned about the doctors in Toronto and
Boston, and about Bruce’s case. “I know he
has a brain injury,” she said. “I don’t need
a diagnosis. I’m married to it.” She and
Johnson decided to stay in the US to deal
with their medical needs, but she reached
out to Wishart.
Soon Johnson had signed on to the classaction suit. Doing so brought him a wave
of unwanted attention from reporters, who
latched onto his name. Many of them questioned how Johnson could sue the league
for his own ailments while supporting his
son’s attempt to get a contract north of
the border. “It’s hard to explain,” he says.
“My son loves the game — when I see him
hit somebody, I cheer. It’s in our blood.
I fear for him. But at least he knows what
he’s getting into. We didn’t know anything.”
He didn’t receive much support from
his old CFL friends for his decision to join
the lawsuit. “It wasn’t easy to do this,” he
says. “I don’t want to look like I’m trying
to cash in. Football gave me everything
I have. But we’re veterans, and we need
looking after. Right now, I have things to
live for. But I wake up every day wondering what’s going on inside my head.” In
his wallet is a card that declares his last
wish: that his brain find its way to Boston.
A
fter she donated her husband’s
brain, Kay Woodward would stand in
her dining room and stare at his ­cremated
remains, which she kept in an urn surrounded by flowers and photos from his
career. Despite all the ways she believed
the CFL hurt her husband, she had loved
being the wife of a Grey Cup winner. She
clung to her memories of watching Pierre
­Trudeau personally congratulate the members of the 1976 team. She loved thinking
of her husband driving with the top down
on his MG, cruising to the stadium, then
strapping on his helmet and pads and doing what he did best. Each day since his
death had been hard. “I know it’s not right,”
ADVERTISEMENT
MOTHER AND MONSTER
By Lisa Moore
© Andrew Stewart
And in the afternoon?
Stealth. A rumour. A momma and two cubs. The Zodiac
swings on the crane, an ink blot in the middle of the sun.
Hits the water, and the chain coils up, and another Zodiac
sways down. The drivers zip out. The ocean is a bed of
harsh, sharp sparkles. Everything lit up, hyper-bright. The
bay is calm; it should be cold but it isn’t.
Five Zodiacs, another hanging up there, and swaying like
a cradle. Engines idling, drivers standing with legs apart,
braced against the tiller, silhouettes. Splat of radio static,
but the drivers are talking low. The drivers are using
bedroom voices. Copy that.
Nineteen Zodiacs in all, load them fast, hurry up. Fast, but
quiet. That’s the first ten. Copy that. Go, Tina, to the left.
That’s the next ten. Let’s keep our voices down. Go, go, go.
We won’t get too close.
So, we zoom up to the waterfalls. Fans of spring melt,
thick as concrete where it spills off the black rock, and
then shrapnel, bullets or feathers or glass beads far flung
dazzle, icy cold. Drilling the water below, drilling down to
where the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain
gorge on whatever billowing energy the tumbling water
stirs up and the other sentient beings, blind or numb
scoot around the boiling turmoil to feast.
There was a polar bear in the water as we entered the
fjord, swimming. The smooth pellet of a head, tiny in the
distance, imagine the churning paws, the drive and power,
holding up all that weight maybe a mile from shore. All
that power concentrated in the work of keeping his black
nose up above the surface, held high, sniffing.
The Zodiacs approach the shore. How blue and eyehurting the ocean is in the binoculars when you touch the
focus dial, and a single sparkle bursts like a bomb in one
of the lenses and a tiny bump makes the mountain blur in
a slo-mo jerk, so the solid rock goes unsolid and seems to
pour. Squish the two sides together, fold them in and the
visual shock of the shore, as it becomes crisp, close, and
clear. Vivid, sharp enough to cut. You can see each blade of
grass for an instant, then another bump on a wave and it
all goes liquid and runny again. We stop, we idle. Nineteen
Zodiacs and you can hear, on the wind, passengers saying:
I can see them. I see them. A momma and two cubs. And
the shuck-shuck of the camera.
But, oh god? The elegant, awkward clambering from the
water, standing now, and the shimmer the binoculars make
of mist and distance. Standing now and turning her head,
looking back over her shoulder. Shaggy and shapeless
and bigger than you thought. Much bigger. And the cubs,
someone says, have got to be two years. The cubs are big.
Turning to sniff the air, turning to acknowledge. And the
cubs beside and there is no hurry. Hand the binoculars over.
There, there. But it’s yellow, it’s not white, and bigger than
I thought and slow/fast. Dangerous and peaceful. Mother
and monster. Silent and arrogant. Powerful and endangered
and solitary. The fur has no pigment. Each hair is hollow.
The skin beneath is black. So what is that colour, why white?
Why does it look ancient? It might be made of ice.
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The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
she says. “But I want them to find it in his
brain. I want them to tell me that he had it.”
She’d already told the Boston team
about Woodward’s 125 concussions. She
could recall at least two incidents when
he’d been knocked unconscious. She hadn’t
noticed many changes in him, then. He’d
always been a neat freak, but in retirement
he got obsessive about tidiness. He’d yell
over spills and rant about the importance
of keeping things clean.
He took that obsessive-compulsive behaviour with him to the Investors Group,
where he was known as a diligent worker
until he turned fifty, at which point his life
went off the rails. He lost his job in 2001
and was eventually charged with fraud and
theft. His defence lawyer struggled to get
through to him. A reporter covering his
sentencing described him as a “thoroughly
beaten man, a galaxy away from his glory
days.” To his wife and son, he seemed like
a lost child while he was in prison. When
he got out, he was changed. He’d wander
away from home and return, confused, in
the back of a police car. That’s when Kay
took him to see the doctor, who told them
Woodward’s frontal lobe was shrinking as
a result of dementia.
Seven months after Woodward’s death,
the doctors in Boston called to tell Kay that
large portions of her husband’s brain were
riddled with neurofibrillary tangles — a hallmark of CTE. “This was among the
worst we’ve seen,” explained Thor Stein,
the lead neuropathologist on Woodward’s
case. Stein estimated that the disease had
begun to spread through his brain in the
early 1980s.
As Kay listened, she let her tears flow.
Her husband’s condition had put her family
through years of torment. “He would have
been dealing with this for thirty years,” she
says. “I know now it was the disease that
changed him.”
T
here’s a statue outside the old
Canadian Football Hall of Fame in
Hamilton. Cast in stainless steel and aluminum, it depicts two football players at the
moment of impact. One holds his arms
outstretched, leaping for a catch, while
the other sets in for the tackle, his head
cocked to the side as he rams his shoulder into the leaping man’s torso. Forged
as a lasting depiction of a touchdown pass,
it looks eerily similar to the hit that triggered the photographer to snap Tom Pate
in m
­ id-air, the moment before he fell backwards. For forty-five years, the two men in
that ­statue have done what no player really
can: avoid the inevitable collapse. But now
they stand in limbo on top of a cracked pedestal beside a parking lot — relics in need of
attention.
To peak and then decline is the tragic
arc that unites all athletes. But sports have
a lifespan, too. A century ago, boxing and
horse racing were the most popular pastimes in North America — a heavyweight
title bout or a thoroughbred horse race was
the athletic equivalent of a royal coronation. Now they’re just sideshows, ­richer in
lore than in actual appeal.
Football has grown into a sport far bigger than almost any other in North American history. But the game’s significance
seems to be declining, especially in Canada. Public apathy can be felt on schoolyard gridirons across the country: the
number of high-school teams has dropped
since 1977 — the same year 69,083 fans set
an attendance record as they crammed
­into Olympic Stadium for a September
showdown between the Argos and the
Alouettes. In Toronto, fan support has
plummeted: last year’s Grey Cup ­struggled
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42
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Data
Brett Popplewell � h e a d g a m e s
to sell out. Game attendance is dwindling
­throughout the league, even in the traditionally strong markets of Edmonton and
Calgary. South of the border, the NFL still
dominates the sports landscape. Yet TV
­ratings have fallen there, too, as has participation in tackle football by boys aged
six to twelve.
Here in Hamilton, Ezerins spends his
time liaising with veterans and also promoting the sport among youth. His rationale:
if Canadian football is to have any future, it
must prove that it is worth saving. Not just
to the pathologists or the lawyers studying
the case, or to the general public debating
whether to tune in, but to the young men
deciding whether competing for the Grey
Cup is worth the risk.
Standing at the fifty-five-yard line inside
Tim Hortons Field, home of the T
­ iger-Cats,
­Ezerins peers up past the empty grandstands to the banners that bear the names
of his former teammates. He still feels pride
when he steps onto this field, despite the
physical toll the game took on him — that’s
the price he had to pay for living out his
dream and ­earning a Grey Cup ring. “Every
day, I watch guys I played with deteriorate before my eyes. You don’t know how
­tragic it is to see these big men go down.
In theory, I should be next.”
For the last six years, he has recruited
alumni for an ongoing study aimed at detecting CTE in former players who are still
alive. He directs them to Carmela Tartaglia, a Toronto-based neurologist and
Tator’s colleague. Tartaglia is one of the
first researchers in Canada to begin testing a revolutionary biomarker that can
bind to the tau proteins associated with
CTE in a living brain. A successful method
of tracking the progress of brain damage
in real time would help researchers figure
out why some athletes get the disease and
others don’t. It might also make it possible
to distinguish the symptoms of concussions
from those of other conditions — chronic
pain, depression, or anxiety, for example.
A big concern for Tator’s team is that players who suffer from treatable conditions
may be forgoing help because they’ve been
led to ­believe they have CTE.
By now, about a hundred participants,
most of them between the ages of thirty
and eighty-four, have entered Tartaglia’s
lab in downtown Toronto. After they slip
into hospital gowns, a doctor injects radioactive tracers into their arms. They’re then
43
slid into a PET scanner, where they stay
for about an hour while Tartaglia ­watches
their brains on a screen.
Tartaglia has yet to finalize her results.
There’s mounting pressure, she says, to find
something. She operates under the rule of
publish or perish, just like her rival clinicians in Boston, where alumni of the NFL
have begun taking part in a similar study.
Confirming CTE in vivo is the holy grail of
concussion research. But there’s a risk involved, she says, in revealing your findings
before you really know what they mean.
Tartaglia believes she sometimes sees
the tau proteins that characterize the
­disease — they surface on her screen as
red-dyed clusters in tissue that is otherwise
green. Spotting them isn’t always emotionally easy for her, she says, since there’s
­nothing she can do to help these players.
While her goal is to find a way to prevent the
disease in the minds of the living, she has
to know for certain what it is she’s looking
at — and to establish certainty, she needs to
get deeper inside their brains. Because the
test to confirm CTE can only be done postmortem, the players will have to move on
to the next stage of the study. Ultimately,
she says, they will have to die.
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
justice
Project
Spade
Inside the international effort to take down
Canada’s largest child pornography ring
by robert kolker
T
he toronto police service’s Child Exploitation ­Section
(CES) is located on the third floor of police headquarters,
a modern brown building in the city’s downtown. Sixteen
officers work there, crammed into a fluorescent-lit, openplan office. Like their counterparts at similar agencies around
the world, the officers engage in activities that most other
cops find hard to stomach, spending hours each day searching the web
for sources of sexually explicit photos and videos of children. Some work
undercover posing as pedophiles, winning entry into private, secure peerto-peer networks, where they can catch suspects sharing their collections
of photos and videos. Others are experts in image analysis, cataloguing
and studying each new picture or video that is found in hopes of tracing it
to its source. Members of the public aren’t allowed inside the office, and
the nature of the work attracts few visitors.
44
Robert Kolker � p r o j e c t s pa d e
45
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
One afternoon in October 2010, d
­ etective
Lisa Belanger was sitting at her desk when
her supervisor, Paul Krawczyk, walked past
to grab a ­printout. Krawczyk — tall, with the
slender, broad-shouldered build of a competitive cyclist — was running a search on the
IP address of an anonymous collector he had
met working undercover in an encrypted
online community. He had spent months
gaining the confidence of this particular collector before the man fi
­ nally agreed to share
some of his images and videos. Krawczyk
was startled by the volume: ­approximately
10,000 media files, many of them depicting
the sexual abuse of young boys. He expected
the trace to lead nowhere; many collectors of
child pornography are adept at scrambling
their IP addresses. But the name — Brian
Way — was real. Way happened to be a resident of Toronto’s west end; he was in his
late thirties, single, and, evidently, an entrepreneur. He had a company named Azov
Films. “Do you want me to start looking
into it?” Belanger asked.
Belanger is pale and petite, with dark
hair and a steady gaze. She joined the CES
in 2009, when she was thirty-four years
old; by then, she had been on the force
for nine years, was married to a fellow
detective, and had two young children.
“They asked me how I thought I would do
with child pornography,” she told me, “and
I said I had no idea.” Belanger was the first
person in her family to become a police
­officer. She studied philosophy at the University of Toronto. The degree “helped me
to have a big picture of life in general,” she
said. “When you’re doing your job, you’re
not bringing a lot of preconceived notions.”
She became a CES ­detective constable,
conducting ­inventories of the material
found on the computers of suspects after
their ­arrests, shaping the cases, and shepherding them through the courts. Delving into the hard drives of pedophiles, she
found that she had a rare ability to wall off
her personal life from what she was seeing onscreen. “I never found a video or an
image that kept me up at night,” she said.
Still, she added, “The videos are worse
than the pictures. The less I need to see
of the video, the better.”
The typical Azov Films production, as
Belanger soon discovered, involved boys,
most of them between the ages of e­ leven
and thirteen, frolicking and exploring
the beaches, backyards, and basement
­playrooms of small Eastern European
towns along the Black Sea. There was
l­ ittle dialogue and no plot. Sometimes the
boys rode around in cars; sometimes they
went camping; sometimes they played
cowboys and Indians or roller skated or
went for a swim. The videos purported to
document “naturist,” or nudist, culture.
In some of the videos, the boys were fleetingly naked. The onscreen action stopped
short of anything explicitly sexual, but the
titles — Beach Bums, Sandy Bottoms, Bikes
& Backstrokes — suggested more. The Azov
Films website declared, “No film we sell
violates Canadian or American law.” It was
the sort of disclaimer, Belanger thought,
that doubled as an advertisement.
Each successful
child porn case
unearths a new
motherlode of
leads — and makes
collectors more
cautious.
I
n the late 1990s, Thomas and Janice
Reedy, a couple from Texas, made a fortune creating what most law enforcement
officials consider the first commercially
successful internet pornography business.
Landslide, as it was called, was a portal
through which, with a simple credit card
payment, customers and suppliers could
meet and do business on more than 5,000
different pornography websites. The most
lucrative variety of porn proved to be child
pornography — a genre that was looked
down upon in traditional porn circles but
was tailor-made, it seemed, for the anonymity of the web. Over two years, the
child pornography sites within Landslide
brought its owners more than $1 million
from 100,000 customers.
But the Reedys, who were arrested in
1999, were merely the matchmakers, not
the pornographers. Today, internet child
pornography has grown into a market with
a value between $3 and $20 billion, and
the police who investigate online child
exploitation have been playing a long
game of catch-up. One of the computers
seized from Landslide yielded a customer
46
­ atabase with 100,000 names, a­ ddresses,
d
email addresses, and credit card ­numbers.
These led, in 2001, to a sting called Operation Avalanche, which resulted in the
­arrest of more than 100 child sex ­offenders
and pornographers. In 2009, during Operation Joint Hammer, the FBI arrested more
than sixty Americans and rescued fourteen girls — some as young as three years
old — from abuse. In the years that followed,
those cases led to the arrest of twentytwo others in Operation Nest Egg. It’s an
axiom of the field that each successful child
porn case unearths a new motherlode of
leads — and makes collectors more cautious. Online collectors and producers are
often experts at encryption, and they have
grown adept at defending their actions
through free-­expression laws. The Toronto
CES ­estimates that, at any given moment,
thousands of IPs in T
­ oronto are offering
­images of exploited children — though child
pornography cases are the least likely to
­result in conviction.
After its founding in 2000, the CES
­quickly earned a reputation for innovation, and for going after wide-­reaching
cases involving major producers and direct abusers. “I could sit there and download child pornography all day and
make arrests all day, but it’s kind of low-­
hanging fruit,” said ­Emily Vacher, a former FBI agent who worked on the agency’s
­Innocent I­ mages National I­ nitiative and
helped train T
­ oronto’s first CES detectives.
“In ­Toronto, they don’t just want the dealers on the ­corner — they want the suppliers,
­because they’re ­directly ­abusing children.”
In 2003, William ­McGarry, a CES victim
identification officer, helped crack a notorious case involving 400 pictures of a girl who
had been caged and abused by her father in
a suburb of North Carolina; McGarry has
a tattoo on his arm that reads “Every Child
Matters.” In 2005, Paul Krawczyk, then an
undercover detective, ­assumed the identity
of the administrator of an e­ ncrypted peerto-peer file-sharing network and impersonated him for nearly six weeks, gathering
information that led to dozens of arrests in
several countries. “I find we have the most
rewarding job,” Krawczyk told me. “You go
bust a drug dealer, and you might see him
a week later. But to be able to ­actually save
a child from abuse, you know you have
made a difference.”
Many of Belanger’s cases have suggested a link between thought and a­ ction.
Robert Kolker � p r o j e c t s pa d e
­ ccording to a 2005 analyA
sis of arrest ­r ecords by the
Crimes against Children Research Center at the University
of New Hampshire, in one of
every six investigations involving the ownership of child pornography images, the offending
persons have also directly sexually abused or assaulted children. And so in 2010, when
Krawczyk directed Belanger’s
attention to ­Azov Films, she immediately understood the opportunity it presented. So many
child pornographers thrive
­u ndetected, but Brian Way
was in her own city, running a
seemingly legal video company
out in the open without encryption, aliases, or anonymity. As a
target, Way was irresistible, but
so was ­Azov Films. Belanger
wanted to help the boys in the
films and arrest the producers,
but she a
­ lso knew that Azov’s
sales records could provide the
names, addresses, and c­ redit
card numbers of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of customers — some of whom might be d
­ irectly
abusing children. Why lock up
just one porn trader when they could shut
down an entire cottage industry?
But there was a problem. Glancing at the
police files, Belanger and Krawczyk discovered that four years earlier, in 2006, the CES
had investigated Azov Films but filed no
criminal charges. At the time, the company
sold online videos that seemed to fall into a
protected category of speech. Like all pornography, child porn has p
­ roven difficult
for lawmakers and the courts to define. The
most explicit sexual images aren’t in question; the grey area involves images of nude
children, often pubescent, that are sexual
only by context. Section 163.1 of the Canadian Criminal Code ­defines child pornography, in part, as any visual representation
of “explicit sexual activity” or “the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual ­organ
or the anal ­region of a person under the
age of eighteen years.” The United States
statute similarly includes in its definition
of child porn the “lascivious exhibition of
the genitals or pubic area of any person.” By
specifying a “sexual purpose,” the law protects high-minded free ­expression — such
radical; as far as Belanger knew,
no one in law enforcement had
ever tried it. It also raised a provocative question: Could customers be ­arrested for viewing
­material that many believed
was e
­ ntirely legal?
H
as the photography of Sally Mann, whose
work features child nudes and who has
been accused of exploiting children — even
as, at the l­ ower end of the market, it leaves
room for interpretation.
Azov Films was hardly the first company to exploit this grey area, though it
was the first to have realized its potential
on the internet. Mail-order businesses
selling “­naturist” films — featuring young
boys, often without clothing, in natural settings — already existed, and remained legal
by showing only nudity and no sexual acts.
When Way turned out to be a voracious
collector of child porn, however, Belanger
began to question whether his company’s
films really deserved legal protection. The
law specified a “sexual purpose” as the
defining characteristic of child pornography, but did that have to mean explicit
sex? Read another way, Belanger thought,
the statute surely could mean that a “sexual purpose” could apply to any image at
all that common sense suggested had no
reason — other than a sexual one — to be
on film. This legal argument was quietly
47
ad the CES detectives
been going after Way only
for his personal collection, they
would have raided his home
right away. But they wanted to
go after his business, his filmmakers, and his customers, too;
to get them, they needed more
evidence. “We didn’t want to
go to court and have them say,
‘Everything you seized, you
don’t get it because you didn’t
h ave e n o u g h g ro u n d s ,’ ”
­Belanger said. (Way’s ­personal
­a ctivities as a collector of
­abusive images and videos
­offered no indication that he
had access to children or that he
was abusing children directly,
so the CES felt safe in delaying
his ­arrest.) While Krawczyk
examined the hardcore images in Way’s p
­ ersonal server,
Belanger launched an investigation into the company’s activities and films.
In November 2010, Belanger put ­together
a team to stake out the entrance of ­Azov
Films, which was located in a warehouse
building on the Queensway, a major thoroughfare in Toronto’s west end. Surveillance yielded the same sight almost every
­morning: Way, paunchy and stout, carrying
a breakfast from Tim Hortons. He brought
no laptop, or anything else from home that
might easily link his business to his personal collection. Trucks rolled in and out
of the office garage throughout the day.
The DVDs, it turned out, were shipped by
a third-party broker, which had been told
that the products were sports documentaries from a company named 4p5p. When
questioned later, employees said they had
never heard of Azov Films. B
­ elanger then
asked the assets and forfeiture unit to run
a report on the company. It showed almost
$2 million in income in the past two years.
Aficionados of naturism couldn’t generate that sort of revenue, Belanger thought.
But an audience seeking sexually laden
­imagery might.
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Robert Kolker � p r o j e c t s pa d e
Belanger could visit the Azov Films
website only so many times; if Way was
monitoring the IP addresses of the site’s
visitors — and she later learned he was — her
presence would be conspicuous. Belanger
and Krawczyk arranged for an American
counterpart, Brian Bone of the US Postal
Inspection Service, to order ten DVDs and
have them shipped to a safe location in the
US, where they could be shared with the
CES, ­securely and online. Then she watched
them, n
­ oting every moment that could be
said to serve a “sexual purpose.” All the
videos contained nudity. In one, a child
takes fifteen showers; in another, staged
in a sauna, nude children sit around on
­couches and eat food. Each film began with
the same scrolling text: “­Naturism has been
around since the dawn of time. The freedom of being ‘one with nature’ is a healthy
pastime in many European cultures.”
Belanger was prepared to argue to
a judge that five of the ten videos she had
watched fit her reading of the law. In her
view, it would take only one tainted video
to expose the hundreds in the Azov Films
catalogue as pornographic. “You say, ‘This
one film’s borderline, and this one’s not
borderline,’” Belanger said. “But it’s all
the same kids, right? So it sexualizes the
whole collection.” That reasoning turned
out to be convincing enough that a judge
granted the CES a warrant to go after not
just Way, but also Azov Films and its customer records.
On the morning of May 1, 2011, Way was
arrested as he left the office for his usual
coffee-and-bagel run. The ­operational
plan for the raid was thirty pages long and
­involved the tightly choreographed movements of thirty officers. To prevent any
of Way’s associates from shutting down
­access to the servers, the detectives hit
every possible location at once — Way’s
home, office, post office boxes, s­ afety
­deposit boxes, and car. Over the next few
days, they gathered forty-five terabytes of
videos, photos, emails, and other corporate data — everything but the records from
the customer chat room. (The server for
the chat room was located in Sweden; by
the time the police learned about it, it was
unrecoverable.) They did find the company’s customer records, plus thousands
of hours of video in the Azov Films archive
and a
­ nother 10,000 v
­ ideos from Way’s
personal collection. It was the largest seizure of such material in Canadian history.
The records offered Belanger everything she’d hoped for: more than 10,000
­customer names and addresses from some
ninety countries. Although many may have
been under the impression that their viewing activity was innocent, Belanger believed that all of them were participating
in child exploitation and that some might
also be engaged in actual abuse. To prove
this, not just to authorities in Canada but
also to those in the jurisdictions around the
world where the customers lived, B
­ elanger
­needed to make her case one video at a
time. With a team of eight colleagues, she
set up a command centre in a conference
room off-site. While Way remained in
Many of the
customers arrested
occupied positions
of authority and
trust: forty teachers,
six members of law
enforcement, nine
clergymen.
­custody, Belanger and her team watched
as many of the films as possible, noting
down ­exactly what in each film ­constituted
a “sexual purpose.”
It would have taken more than a year
to watch every available second of every
video; she decided that 500 movies, in six
months, would be enough. A whiteboard
displayed the names and pictures of the
boys, their locations, and who was filming them. Belanger was ­deeply ­affected
by what she saw; she felt as if she were
watching the children grow up ­onscreen.
“They’d be eleven, and then thirteen, and
then fifteen,” she said. “These boys will
never have a normal life. How many thousands of people have these m
­ ovies, have
seen these boys?”
Belanger flagged 176 Azov Films v­ ideos
as pornographic, based on her reading
of the law. She spent another six months
combing through the company’s records,
searching for anything else that confirmed
that children were being exploited. Way’s
emails revealed him as a man c­ onsumed by
49
his career. He had started out as a ­television
cameraman for CTV and ­Alliance ­Atlantis
before turning to copying and selling
“coming of age” films — including naturist ones — f­ eaturing young boys. When his
rivals accused him of ­piracy, he did them
one better and became a producer of original films. By 2008, the website was drawing more than 1 million visitors per year.
Way handled every sale himself, running
all credit card ­purchases and spot-­checking
them against the IP addresses to monitor
for suspicious activity. The ­Azov Films site
encouraged customer interaction, offering
Facebook-style profiles of the boys that included birthdays, ­hobbies, and interests,
and providing a comments ­area that became
filled with adoring posts. When customers began voicing reservations about any
­specific boy — “He’s becoming too old, and
they’re not into that,” Belanger said — she
would ­notice that in ­videos made around the
same time, the boy would wrangle younger
ones into view and then slip out of the frame.
Way seemed to spend much of his time
emailing his filmmakers, among them
­Igor Rusanov and Andrey Ivanov, both
from Ukraine, and Markus Roth, based
in ­Romania. Each had a regular roster of
boys and had earned a position of trust in
his respective community, which allowed
him considerable time alone with them.
Like Fagin with the Artful Dodger in ­Oliver
Twist, each had secured the loyalty of one
main boy who would recruit others and
help them feel comfortable being photographed — clothed at first, and then not.
Way told the filmmakers which boys to feature next, and they shared with him their
day-to-day troubles: which boy couldn’t
make it to a film shoot, which boy’s parents were getting suspicious.
Often, Way maintained that he could
justify his business to authorities. “There
is so much porn out there right now, but
I feel the p
­ olice won’t even lift a finger unless there’s something overtly sexual,” he
wrote to a fellow distributor in 2007. “Child
erotica is not illegal, thus I am not in jail.”
B
elanger handed all of her evidence
and customer information over to
the appropriate jurisdictions, which then
had to decide whether Canada’s reading
of its child porn statute would apply in
their legal systems. The US, Greece, Germany, I­ srael, Mexico, South Africa, Spain,
­Norway, I­ reland, Hong Kong, Australia,
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Robert Kolker � p r o j e c t s pa d e
and ­Gibraltar all co-operated; few jurisdictions in Europe, Asia, and South America,
though, had similar statutes. The United
Kingdom did not respond to officers until
after the Toronto police went public with
the first wave of arrests.
On November 14, 2013, the Toronto
­Police Service held a widely covered press
conference to announce the results of its
three-year investigation of Azov Films.
The probe was called Project Spade, to
suggest that it would dig deep. The p
­ olice
­announced that all of Way’s filmmakers
had been a­ rrested in their home countries
during the company’s waning months.
Markus Roth was said to have recruited
as many as 200 boys over several years.
“He knew how to get under your skin and
make you feel safe,” one boy’s mother
told a reporter from the ­Toronto Star. “He
was playing a kind of Robin Hood in our
­village.” It was reported that Igor R
­ usanov
was charged with filming and selling child
porn. In 2010, Roth pleaded guilty to filming and possessing child pornography.
But Project Spade was even more successful in its pursuit of the company’s customers. It initially resulted in the arrest of
348 people in ninety countries — as a direct
consequence, the detectives a
­ nnounced,
386 children, not counting the dozens of
Eastern European boys who had ­appeared
in the videos, had been removed from
harmful situations. “These were actual victims of sexual violence or of the production
of child pornography,” Bone told me. He
has pursued several investigations in the
US based on leads from the Azov Films customer list. “I’d take the amount of a­ rrests
and victims identified against pretty much
any operation that’s taken place in the last
ten or fifteen years.”
The operation vindicated the notion that
arresting suspects for possessing or viewing child pornography could lead the ­police
to perpetrators of actual abuse. Many of
the customers who were arrested occupied positions of authority and trust: forty
teachers, six members of law enforcement,
nine clergymen. David Scott Engle, a former family lawyer and a volunteer baseball coach in Maple Valley, Washington,
­pleaded guilty to making videos of two
boys, one of whom he ­repeatedly raped
and the other whom he sexually abused;
Mark Shaffer, a seventy-nine-year-old doctor in Aurora, Ohio, confessed to abusing a
twelve-year-old boy and a ­five-year-old girl.
Such cases took ­Belanger and her colleagues by surprise. “We did have some
people who are on the sex offender registry, but that was not a large number,” said
Kim Gross, former commanding officer of
the CES. “It was more like the pillars of the
community — people in positions of authority, people who have never been in contact
with the police ever.”
But many customers were charged
­only with possessing Azov Films videos,
and some objected that the legal ground
had been unfairly shifted beneath them.
­Sebastian Edathy, a member of the German parliament who had presided over
a public inquiry into a string of neo-­Nazi
In Canada,
the maximum
sentence for
making and selling
child pornography
is ten years—far
less than it would
be in the US.
murders, was defiant after his arrest.
“I ­assume that the presumption of innocence counts for me as well,” he posted
on his Facebook page, insisting that the
content of the films he’d bought from ­Azov
Films over five years was “­unambiguously
legal.” His arrest created a scandal for
­Angela Merkel’s government; he resigned
and was indicted on child pornography
­charges. He eventually pleaded guilty.
The few Azov Films customers who
fought the charges had mixed success.
The US public defenders for two separate
customers both argued that the “­lascivious”
standard was unconstitutionally vague.
Neither motion proved to be persuasive,
and both men were convicted. But a Los
Angeles schoolteacher had his charges
reduced to a misdemeanour and three
years’ probation. Claiborne H. Ferguson,
a defense attorney from Memphis, Tennessee, represented Azov Films customer
David Rohm, a sixty-five-year-old former
instructor and assistant athletic coordinator at the University School of Jackson.
51
“You’re saying that this person found it
to be arousing, and therefore that turned
the art into child pornography?” ­Ferguson
said. “That’s a thought crime.” But one of
the videos that Rohm bought seemed questionable enough, even to the lawyer, that
Rohm pleaded guilty. “It’s just a bit too
much to say that these are just naturalistic films,” Ferguson conceded.
Then there was Ryan Loskarn, an
­affable and well-liked chief of staff to
US ­Republican senator Lamar Alexander.
­Between November of 2010 and March of
2011, Loskarn bought three DVDs from Azov
Films. Police raided his home and searched
his hard drive, which was discovered to contain hundreds of videos of underage boys
and one of a man raping a girl perhaps as
young as six. (Loskarn himself was not suspected of engaging in abuse.) On January
23, 2014, while under house arrest, Loskarn
hanged himself. Four days later, his ­mother
posted online the text of an open letter he
had written s­ hortly b
­ efore his death. “I owe
many, many people an explanation,” he
wrote. “I found m
­ yself drawn to videos
that matched my own childhood abuse....
The more an image mirrored some element of my memories and took me back,
the more I felt a ­connection. This is my
deepest, ­darkest secret.”
B
elanger’s case against Azov Films
would not be closed until she had
faced Brian Way in court. On a Tuesday
morning in March 2015, Way, after four
years in custody, appeared before Justice
Julie Thorburn at the Superior Court of
Justice in downtown Toronto to begin five
days of testimony. He was expected to
argue that the activities of his filmmakers
had nothing to do with the content of the
films he sold. He was doubling down on
his original justification: that the government’s case was based entirely on a misinterpretation of the law — and that his films,
however distasteful, belonged s­ afely in
a legal grey area.
As he would on each day of his trial, Way
wore a blue suit, button-up shirt, and no
tie. His buzz cut emphasized his protruding
ears, and he seemed trim, maybe twenty
pounds lighter than on the morning of his
arrest in 2011. Belanger sat several feet
away at a desk just behind Jill Cameron and
Jennifer Strasberg, the two lawyers for the
prosecution. She had a laptop open, and
it contained the entire case file — emails,
Robert Kolker � p r o j e c t s pa d e
My Body in Three Movements
by tess liem
1.
I read we can understand Shakespeare’s use
of the word nothing as a reference
to zero where zero means a vulva,
at least in his sonnets. I thought how nice:
one of my body parts, in being nothing,
is something. This something enough to know
I want to drop Shakespeare, stop writing & learn
how to do something useful with my hands.
I thought it out, decided to become
an electrician & my friend told me
I would make beautiful light art: neon
sculptures shaped like no thing in particular.
Or, my body all wired, lit & moving.
But, no, it’s not my part to move nothing.
2.
I’ll start a queer construction company
to advocate for our rights & I won’t
wish for much else. A lie. I’ll try reading
again, I’ll try writing in the evenings
when I am tired from wiring light.
& I’ll try not to romanticize this
literal electricity. But I’ll
probably fail. Because, well, honestly,
I am trying to figure out a way
to want to be in the world. & you know
I expect to be told not to put words
like honestly in my poems, not to
start with that shit. So I won’t start with it.
I won’t end with it honestly either.
3.
I thought about it & the nothing was
not my body. It was not my body:
a tight fourteen lines. It could not be mine.
& it would not be my body drunk with
neon lights either. It’s easier if
I understand it is not my body
in particular. Easier if I
accept accepted criticism, if
I admit nothing ever happened to
any part of my body, if I lie,
if I have nothing to lose. Easy if
I’m an absence named nothing.
I write
0 to describe grief & to me it means
I had more than a pen to begin with.
53
­ ideos, photos, financial records — in the
v
event that she was asked to look up evidence. The previous June, Belanger had
been transferred out of the CES to help
start a new unit of the Toronto Police
Service specializing in cyber crime. Her
laptop’s screensaver featured the words
“Keep Calm & Valar Morghulis,” a play
on a phrase from George R.R. Martin’s
gory fantasy series, which means “All men
must die” in the fictional tongue of High
­Valyrian. “I’ve read all the books,” Belanger said later, with a smile.
Way had been charged with twentythree criminal counts, including the
­instruction of a criminal organization.
At the trial, he pleaded guilty to all charges related to his personal collection of
child images but not guilty to any c­ harges
­related to his business. The plea made strategic sense. The penalties for viewing or
­trading abusive images are generally far
more lenient in Canada than in the US; on
just those charges, he could reasonably expect to be released with time served, while
the business-related charges, particularly
the one involving criminal organization,
might keep him in jail for the rest of his
life. To beat the remaining charges, Way
would have to argue that his personal and
professional lives were entirely separate
and that Azov Films was entirely legitimate.
Way had waived his right to a jury trial,
so he directed many of his answers to the
judge. As Way calmly fielded questions
from his lawyer, Nyron Dwyer, the satisfaction he took in his professional success became obvious. “I’d be lying if I said
I wasn’t taken aback at first,” he said. But
the films “were being sold everywhere. If
it were illegal, then some of these people
would be getting caught.” He admitted to
having a sexual interest in boys but i­ nsisted
that it had nothing to do with his business,
which had remained within the bounds of
the acceptable “blueprint” established by
other naturist films. He claimed to have
been ignorant of what had really been happening to the boys during the production
of the films. “It didn’t appear to me the
boys were being forced,” he said. “The
cameraman assured me they were doing
it voluntarily, and that the parents were
­involved.” And he reminded the court that,
long before B
­ elanger’s investigation, the
CES had brought him in but declined to
press charges. “That meeting in 2006
was a big day for the company, because
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
it ­basically told us that everything we were
doing was good,” he said. “It was, ‘Here
is the line, and don’t go across it,’ so we
stayed on one side of that line.”
During cross-examination, Jill Cameron,
one of the prosecutors, at times indignant,
dismissed Way’s “blueprint” explanation
as unconvincing. “You’re saying it’s a coincidence?” she asked. “The fact that you
had a sexual interest in boys had nothing
to do with the fact that you sold films of
naked boys?”
“I also have a sexual interest in teens as
well as adults and women,” Way said flatly.
“They’re completely unrelated.”
When pressed, Way allowed for the
possibility that pedophiles might like his
movies. “I mean, the thought did cross
my mind,” he said. “But we had a lot of
people buying my stuff. . . . To say that
­only pedophiles bought our films would,
I think, be incorrect.” Way suggested that
the Victoria’s Secret catalogue would be
an appropriate analogue: if some viewers brought a sexual purpose to it, that
wasn’t his ­responsibility. “People don’t
make shoes for a sexual purpose,” he said
at one point. “But some people use shoes
that way. It’s the same with me.”
The judge shook her head, squinted, and
pressed her fingers to her temples. “You
knew that it could be attractive to pedophiles?” she asked.
“I knew some people with a sexual ­interest
in children would like the films,” Way said.
“But they weren’t made for that purpose.”
Over the next two days, the prosecutors
screened portions of his movies. First there
was Sticky Water Wiggles: Boy Fights IX, in
which naked boys are seen doused in water,
wrestling in wet underwear, and covering
one another with whipped cream. For the
first time, Way flinched. “From what I gathered from the trial so far, everyone has a different opinion of what child pornography
is,” he said. “I believed at the time that this
was not child pornography.”
Cameron then showed Way an email
from 2008 in which Way, discussing Sticky
Water Wiggles, told Roth, “What sells the
water videos so well is because the white
underwear is see-through.” Way responded
to Cameron, “We’re in the business of
selling nudist films, so the more nudity,
the better.”
During a break, Belanger said, with
­annoyance, “I think it’s going to take a
lot to crack him. A narcissist, that’s ­really
what he is. He can keep this persona under
­control, like he did on the stand. That’s what
made him able to pull off this business.”
The next day, the fourth day of testimony, Cameron showed clips from a
video called Cutting Room Floor. Belanger
turned around, locked eyes with me, and
smiled grimly. Way, at first, had told Roth
that the film was too risqué, but in 2011,
shortly b
­ efore his arrest, he had released
it anyway.
The first half of Cutting Room Floor consists of nothing more than a naked boy,
alone in a room, sitting on a basketball with
his legs spread and eating from a package
of rotisserie chicken. He dangles the pieces
of chicken over his mouth, giggles, sucks
his fingers, moans. Halfway through the
film, the boy substitutes a chocolate cupcake for the chicken — sitting on it, rolling around on it, laughing, slipping off
the ball.
“That’s the only thing that’s been going
on for twenty minutes,” Cameron said.
“How could the purpose of this video be
anything other than to show his genitals
and anal region?”
“It’s interesting,” Way said. “I guess
it would be in the eye of the beholder.”
John RalstonSaul
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54
Robert Kolker � p r o j e c t s pa d e
­Seeming to tire, he complained that he was
being asked the same question over and
over: “You’re trying to change my mind.”
hadn’t released those particular sixty-two
films. Rather than d
­ eclare that Way’s business was ­pornographic, Thorburn stuck to
deciding the case one film at a time.
n may 12, 2015, Justice Thorburn
Way’s sentencing hearings began in
announced her decision. She found ­December 2015 and concluded in July 2016.
Way guilty on every count except for the In Canada, the maximum sentence for
­criminal organization charge. Belanger making and selling child pornography is
had been right: if a judge could be per- ten years, even on multiple counts — far
suaded that just one Azov Films video less than it would be for someone convicted
was pornographic, Way could be deemed on similar charges in the US. Some in Cana pornographer.
adian law enforcement say that if you want
But Way’s legal strategy had also been to avoid being disappointed at a trial, you
partly vindicated. Thorburn designated should leave before the ­sentencing. Way’s
sixty-two videos‚ including Sticky Water attorney noted that his client had served
Wiggles and Cutting Room Floor, as porno- five years before sentencing; as he was
graphic, but she withheld that designation ­entitled to extra credit for pretrial jail time,
from the other 114 videos. In her decision, he would be eligible for release not long
Thorburn applied criteria drawn ­directly after his sentencing. Sure enough, the
from Canada’s child porn ­statute: The clar- judge’s sentence will allow Way, perhaps
ity of the image. The camera a
­ ngle. The the world’s most financially successful
proximity to the genital or anal r­ egions, the convicted child pornographer, to be a free
duration of the depiction of those ­regions, man as early as January 2018.
and whether the camera zooms in on them.
The judge refrained from creating new
The judge noted that she did not give any case law about the legality of naturism or
weight to Way’s account of his intentions or child erotica. Nevertheless, the impact of
­motivations, only to the images onscreen. Project Spade continues to resonate beyond
RCM_Walrus_1/2p_Sept2017.qxp_Layout
1 2017-07-04
2:57
PM PageAzov
1 Films customHer
decision said ­nothing about ­whether
Brian Way.
Additional
the business would have been legal if he ers have been a
­ rrested and p
­ rosecuted.
O
2017.18
CONCERT
SEASON
Brian Bone noted that when he’d first heard
from Toronto detectives about ­Azov Films,
he’d discovered that the ­National Center
for Missing and E
­ xploited Children had
­already received complaints about the site.
The success of this case, Bone said, means
that future complaints are less l­ ikely to
be ignored.
No one, not even Belanger’s colleagues
in the CES, expected that so many of the
customers of a supposedly legitimate business would turn out to be guilty of far worse
activities. “I really get it now, and I didn’t
necessarily get it at the beginning,” Krawczyk said. “Does this person have this hourand-a-half video because they need to get
into the children’s lives? Is that perhaps
the same person who volunteers at the
­local church? Is that the school janitor who
puts cameras in the washroom and records children?”
Belanger, for her part, remains convinced that every Azov Films video was
pornographic. “Even the stuff that’s hard
to fit into the definitions we have right now,
how can we not see it for what it is?” she
said. Belanger argued Way knew everything that was happening to the boys ­being
filmed: she had seen everything on his
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Robert Kolker � p r o j e c t s pa d e
computers — how he made it clear who
his favourite boys were and, in g
­ raphic
­detail, why. His desires and his films were
a ­reflection of one another, Belanger said;
in any number of emails, she reported,
he referred to certain boys as “hot.” “He
definitely enjoyed it personally,” she said.
But in his business communications and
­personal correspondences, “he’s calling the
­kettle black. His number one insult ­towards
anyone who pisses him off is ­pedophile:
‘I’ll uncover you as the pedophile that you
are.’ So what’s going on there? Major selfhatred, or major denial?”
She still thinks about the boys who were
exploited by Way’s company, their images
dispersed around the world. Near the end
of her time on the case, she discovered
through email records that one boy had
tried to reach the owner of Azov Films
to complain. Way had never replied, so
­Belanger decided that she would.
She and the young man started to Skype.
Now in his twenties, he said he had come
across a movie he’d appeared in several
years before, when he was still living in
Ukraine. Only then, he said, did he learn
that he’d likely been seen by thousands of
people around the world. “He told me how
they were told that the film was just ­going
to be about Ukrainian culture and that
they wouldn’t be shown nude,” ­Belanger
said. “But they were.” In the spring of 2015,
when Way was found guilty, one of the
first things Belanger wanted to do was
let the young man know. She sent him an
email and tried to Skype him, but he hasn’t­
answered. x
Dominion Protection™
by julie bruck
The name had an air of the Raj about it,
but the system was what my mother called
the contact points on every door and window.
Disarming meant dialing from the kitchen phone,
giving the receptionist a spoken code, part name,
part digits — simply, our phone number: Wellington 3
4 6 oh oh. They must have hated accounts like ours,
with pot-fuelled, latchkey teens whose sole incoming
focus was the refrigerator, who were usually found
combing the Frost Free shelves, startled, mouths
full of frozen cake by the time police arrived.
And it’s curious to think, as apparently no-one did
circa 1969, that the person speaking numbers into
the black receiver might have had a knife to the throat.
But this was the Dominion of Canada, self-governing
nation of the Commonwealth, when dusk was dusk,
not the twilight of empire, and a call duly
disconnected the circuits until everyone was home
for the night, to be reset by the last to bed.
Then wind would start to roil the tallest
maples swamping the house, leaves brushing
even the third-floor panes before sighing
into place at dawn. And when daylight broke
and poured across the wide lawns, the Italian
gardeners were already there, eating bagged
breakfasts on the tailgates of their trucks, while
up and down the street, systems were silenced,
and men with their briefcases set forth.
57
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
­obsessiveness and experimentalism might
have made him a convincing mad scientist,
but art seems to have been his destiny in
this one. In the early 1990s, Farmer found
himself in San Francisco surrounded by
countercultural icons such as Kathy A
­ cker
and John Cage. Now based in Vancouver for
Artist Geoffrey Farmer’s creative process includes
almost three decades, Farmer has built an
international f­ ollowing. “Geoffrey brings
chipping away at the exhibition space itself
together various elements that can seem
by Caoimhe Morgan-Feir
quite disconnected, but he finds paths between things and forges a kind of p
­ oetic
structure out of disparate sources,” says
ast april, two weeks before the seemingly difficult circumstances while England-based Hannah Rickards, herself
the opening of this year’s V
­ enice ­also congratulating him on his achievement. an award-winning artist. Farmer doesn’t
­Biennale, the National Gallery But this was precisely the building that really make paintings or drawings or sculpof Canada (NGC) announced a Farmer had wanted — and helped create.
tures in themselves, although they often
$3 million restoration of the deteriorating,
Farmer, fifty, is Canada’s foremost in- ­appear in his projects. What ­Farmer makes,
sixty-year-old Canada Pavilion. Visitors stallation artist. In the past decade, he has more than anything, is sense: sense out of
arrived at the event, which could be con- filled a room at the Louvre with intricate otherwise meaningless objects, sense out
sidered the Olympics of art, to find a build- figures cut out from an art-history textbook, of a tangle of information.
ing disassembled. There was no longer turned odds and ends into animatronic
When the NGC’s director and CEO Marc
much of a facade. Portions of the roof had sculptures, and collaged bits of fabric and Mayer phoned Farmer in late 2015 to ask
been lifted off. A terrazzo floor was covered found i­ mages into the most unsettling hand if he would carry the mantle for Canada
by a layer of masegni stones. Throughout puppets you’ve ever seen. He reshapes at the 2017 event, Farmer i­ mmediately
the opening week, some visitors could be galleries to suit his ends, building huge agreed. Twenty-nine countries have
forgiven for wanting to commiserate with plinths and transforming rooms into new permanent buildings in Venice’s G
­ iardini
the exhibiting artist, Geoffrey Farmer, on worlds for his projects. In another life, his Pubblici, a park created by Napoleon, and
visual art
Breaking Through
L
58
photographs by francesco barasciutti/courtesy of geoffrey farmer
Caoimhe Morgan-Feir � b r e a k i n g t h r o u g h
At Farmer’s installation for the Venice
Biennale, which closes on November 26,
a grandfather clock leaks and brass
“planks” spout water.
every two years, each of them puts on an
exhibition, trotting out their national best.
Canada has experienced a relatively tough
go in the fair over the years, in large part
because of our mid-century, nautilusshaped building — widely considered to be
an unwieldy place to present work — and a
lack of public funding compared to other
­nations. But in 2017, Canada had Farmer.
And F
­ armer had something to work with.
A year ago, Farmer’s older sister, the
Vancouver artist Elizabeth Topham,
emailed him two photographs. The pictures, which their father had found while
sorting through their grandmother’s effects,
are striking: black-and-white shots of an
empty GMC flatbed truck rammed into a
ditch by a train. Lumber planks flung off
the truck are scattered around the scene,
and a railway-crossing sign, knocked aside
during the collision, leans over the driver’s
side of the dented vehicle. Their grandfather had been d
­ riving the truck. It’s believed that his chest hit the steering wheel,
and while he managed to walk away from
the scene of the accident, a few months
later, he died of a heart a
­ ttack. This May,
these images, sixty-odd years old, took
on another life as the catalyst for Farmer’s artwork in the world’s oldest and stateliest exhibition.
Farmer’s family had never discussed his
grandfather’s accident, but its effects were
deeply felt in other ways. Farmer and his
father had “a difficult relationship,” ­Farmer
tells me. (Since his early twenties, Farmer
has used his mother’s ­maiden name.) But
finding the photographs made the difficulty of his father’s life palpable. “Understanding my father and what he went
through as a child, growing up in poverty,
in a working-­class environment, losing his
­father. It broke me open ­emotionally,” he
explains. “I have so much more e
­ mpathy
for what he went through.” It is a vulnerable admission from the often-elusive
artist. Farmer speaks comfortably and
thoughtfully with the press, yet he often
shies away from self-revelation. In Venice,
though, the artist mentioned this aspect
of his family history at exhibition openings and dinners. Farmer, who has made
a ­career of organizing the outside world,
is now trying to make sense of his own.
S
eventy-one brass “planks,” the only
literal connection to Farmer’s source
material, lean against the pavilion’s walls
and sit stacked on the ground and atop
other sculptures. Most of the planks spurt
streams of water without warning, as if the
pavilion were alive but injured. The building, as a whole, seems to have sprung a leak.
A tiled fountain near the pavilion’s centre
intermittently sprays a thirty-foot geyser
of water, which glitters in the sunlight and
sends linen-clad art patrons jumping out
of reach throughout preview week.
The sculpture’s basin is modelled on the
courtyard fountain at the San ­Francisco Art
59
Institute, a formative location for Farmer,
who studied there for a year in 1990. Other
sculptures in the work, called A Way Out
of the Mirror (the title a nod to Allen Ginsberg, a favourite poet of ­Farmer’s), loosely
reference collisions in history — Farmer’s
personal history in most instances, but
also the colonial history of Canada and
of the Venice pavilion site i­ tself. A small
bronze casting of a hole that Farmer dug
into the pavilion’s foundation squirts water
out front; a little bronze turtle ­carries
a book and a burbling can of water on its
back behind the central fountain; a rough,
oversized praying mantis (purportedly a
self-portrait of Farmer during his awkward adolescence) sits perched, posing
with two books, on a log in a corner. An
index could be made of all the small references that Farmer has secreted w
­ ithin
each piece, but one allusion to family registers plainly: next to the courtyard fountain,
axes and a chisel puncture an enormous,
water-spewing grandfather clock.
“Growing up gay, and feeling like
I existed outside of society, I always had
a desire to be part of society,” Farmer says.
“In the beginning, my interest in art was to
somehow become part of the world.” One
way to do that: take control of the images
that depict it. For the 2012 edition of the
major German exhibition Documenta (13),
­Farmer embarked on an epic installation
titled Leaves of Grass. Working with a team
that at one point included some ninety
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
Farmer’s installation for the
Documenta (13) exhibition in 2012
featured more than 23,000 images
culled from vintage Life magazines.
volunteers, he cut out more than 23,000
­images from an archive of fifty years’ worth
of Life magazines, glued each one carefully
to a piece of miscanthus grass, and stood
them upon a long, narrow table, creating a staggering overview of the world in
pictures. “After the Documenta (13) project, I really felt that I had entered into the
world somehow,” he says. It was time to
find new ground. “I began to think about
my own history. I just felt that it was time
to be more introspective.”
­ entured to the dump with James Alariaq,
v
the deputy ­mayor, and used a diamond-­
tipped saw on the school’s ­remains. He
packed the warped rebar pieces into a ­duffel
bag, dragged them back to Ottawa, and
shipped them off to Switzerland and then
to ­Venice, where they were nestled into
a trough at the pavilion’s rear.
The collisions — cultural, familial, and
historical — evoked in A Way Out of the
­Mirror have little in common, save for
Farmer himself. “It’s my creation myth
“He’s somebody who has spatial ambition.
He was always moving into places where
maybe he shouldn’t necessarily be.”
But Farmer was also representing Canada during the sesquicentennial, and found
himself grappling with the country’s colonial past. “This project has made me
understand that I am complicit in history,
and complicit in the events of the world,
­whether I’m touched by them directly or
not,” he says. So, in early February, F
­ armer
flew up to Nunavut. He had read reports
from 2015 about the arson at Peter Pitseolak
High School in Cape ­Dorset, a hamlet that
also houses a world-renowned co-­operative
that produces Inuit prints and drawings.
During his four-day visit, he spoke with
­local artists and community members and
eventually made a request: that they ­allow
elements of the school’s wreckage to be included in his final piece for A Way Out of
the Mirror. With their ­permission, Farmer
of how I became an artist,” he says. Born
in 1967 in Vancouver, Farmer found himself aimless in his early twenties, until his
sister brought him to an art class at a ­local
community college. Something clicked.
At the urging of the college’s teachers,
he applied to the Emily Carr Institute of
Art and Design (now Emily Carr University). During his time there, he formed
a lasting friendship with fellow student
Brian Jungen, who has himself earned
plaudits for his boundary-pushing sculpture. Together, they devoured hours of
film (a continued passion — Farmer’s
­personal Instagram feed is a curio collection of rare and old movie clips), learned
from such instructors as the famed photo
artist Ian Wallace, and began building art
beyond the large, beautiful photographs
60
Vancouver artists had become known for
internationally.
Farmer began exhibiting shortly out of
school and, almost immediately, s­ tarted
taking galleries apart. He pierced the
walls of Vancouver’s Or Gallery in 1996
and strung lights through the holes to give
the space a celestial effect. A black steel
fireplace suspended in a 2005 exhibition
at the Power Plant in Toronto fed a flue up
through a cored-out portion of the ­cement
ceiling. Walls that had never been touched
at the Vancouver Art Gallery were taken out
for his 2015 retrospective. “He’s somebody
who has spatial ambition,” says Kitty Scott,
a curator at the Art Gallery of ­Ontario, who
oversaw the Venice piece and has worked
with Farmer for twenty years. “He was
­always moving into places where maybe
he shouldn’t necessarily be.” At the VAG,
Farmer also avoided the customary exhibition tour: docents brought visitors down
into the catacombs of the building — a former courthouse — to explore the archives, a
frequent source of inspiration for the artist.
“It’s always a new way of doing things with
Geoffrey, so n
­ othing is standard,” Daina
Augaitis, chief curator at the VAG, tells me.
The NGC’s team initially suggested
to Farmer that they could start preparing for the planned refurbishment of the
Venice pavilion by deconstructing a few
portions of it during his project. Maybe
they could take away a little glass, they
thought, or remove some of the interior.
Farmer wanted to go further: he wouldn’t
just make sculpture — he would make the
­pavilion disappear. “He actually pushed us
on it,” says Gordon Filewych, the ­architect
photographs by anders sune berg/courtesy of catriona jeffries
Caoimhe Morgan-Feir � b r e a k i n g t h r o u g h
Exit details at the Canada P
­ avilion
include a metal duvet and an
­antique trough containing materials
from Cape Dorset.
leading the refurbishment. “We told him water-control system. While plans for the
what we thought was possible, and he said, site were being developed, Farmer head‘Well, can we take most of the roof off? Can ed to the Kunstgiesserei, a famed foundry
we take the facade off?’” In a handful of in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Nine months
months, while at the same time trying to went into perfecting each of the installanegotiate draconian Venetian heritage tion’s sculptures. When the holes drilled
regulations, Farmer and the NGC’s team into the brass wooden planks were first
equipped the pavilion — a space without so tested, the water pressure was too low,
much as a toilet — with an invisible water resulting in a clean stream — unacceptreservoir, a pump room, and a complex able. The holes were reshaped, welded in
ENGAGING OUR
DIVERSE CITY
THROUGH ARTS
Donate today:
Photo by: Tania Fitzpatrick
photographs by francesco barasciutti/courtesy of geoffrey farmer
61
a jagged, o
­ rganic fashion, so the streams
of water travelled along in varied paths.
Nothing was standard, and nothing was
overlooked. “I think it’s the best Canadian
Pavilion ever,” Berlin-­based Canadian
artist AA Bronson told me after seeing
Farmer’s work. It was certainly the best
­attended — a record 41,770 people visited
the site in May.
Under one of the trees in A Way Out
of the Mirror, an aluminum sculpture
of a crumpled duvet lies heaped on the
ground. There are no clues about its meaning, with the exception of one sentence in
Farmer’s poetic, elliptical exhibition text:
“A ­duvet freshly slept in by Karl after an LSD
trip in the rock formations of the Maggi
­River, I had to drive us to the airport the
next day.” The text feels like an intimate
­admission, until you realize that none of
the particulars have been given away. Who
is Karl? When did they do LSD? Why does
the duvet matter? It sums up the organizing principle of the piece, which layers
­autobiographical details that feel revealing,
but keeps the fully fleshed-out stories just
beyond reach. Farmer may have entered
the world at large, but his own world, for
the time b
­ eing, ­remains just out of view. 
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
arts
The Lovebirds
On secluded Pelee Island, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson
have built a sanctuary for their feathered friends
by Grant Munroe
illustration by Steven P. Hughes
S
tep outside. Behind the cars and
construction, the lawnmowers and
dogs, you’ll likely hear the chirps,
coos, warbles, whistles, peeps,
cries, and trills of birdsong. It’s music so
common that we often register it only in
its extremes: the concrete silence of e­ mpty
industrial parks, the green symphony of
northern woodlands. Mostly, birds are
just there, peeking, tweeting, then darting off. But to a surprisingly large group
of North Americans — almost forty-eight
million, by one count — they’ve become
objects of particular affection. Among the
most famous of this tribe are Margaret
­Atwood and Graeme Gibson, a mated pair
of authors.
In May, at the height of spring m
­ igration,
I met the couple, whose shared love of birdwatching and conservation spans the ­better
part of their forty-six-year partnership,
at a café on Ontario’s Pelee ­Island — the
southernmost populated point in ­Canada,
situated in the western basin of Lake Erie.
The seventy-seven-year-old Atwood, face
shaded under a wide-brimmed hat, shared
a sandwich with Gibson, who wore a fiddler’s cap and brown cardigan. They were
on the island for the sixteenth ­annual
Springsong Weekend — a fundraiser p
­ artly
founded by Atwood and Gibson in 2002
to support the heritage centre on Pelee
(rhymes with peewee) — and to birdwatch
with the friends they host there for visits
each spring.
Over a lunch made noisy by birds and
­local human residents that winged through
the café’s outdoor patio, the two spoke of
how they’d been introduced to the hobby.
Atwood, who grew up on a lake, came to
62
an awareness of wildlife early. For G
­ ibson,
it was more of a sudden hazing: one day
in the 1960s, while on a walk, he was
buzzed by a red-tailed hawk. “­Suddenly,
this bloody big bird went right over my
head,” he told me, “and I thought, what
the hell was that?” So he bought binoculars
and a Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North
America, found the creature again, and
soon became enamored of his discovery.
“The hawk was Graeme’s ‘trigger bird,’”
Atwood said, using a term for whichever
species first brings a future birder to the
pastime.
Gibson, who retired from novel ­writing
in 1996, has a less visible public profile
than Atwood, but his passion for ­nature is
as notable. After the hawk i­ ncident, with
what he calls “the zeal of a c­ onvert,” he
became interested in texts that ­illustrate
Grant Munroe � t h e l o v e b i r d s
­ umanity’s ancient relationship with
h
avian life. The result was his 2005 miscellany, The Bedside Book of Birds — a wonder cabinet of a book. Over 370 pages,
Gibson o
­ ffers excerpts from m
­ edieval
bestiaries (on ­parrots, cranes, and the
mythical ­caladrius), travelogues by Bruce
­Chatwin (on albatross), Cuban folk tales
(roosters), fiction by Franz Kafka (on
vultures — ­obviously). There are poems
by ­E dna St. Vincent M
­ illay, Okumura
­Masanobu, and ­Margaret ­Atwood herself
(swans, cuckoos, and vultures again), and
numerous other works — i­ ncluding etchings, sculptures, illuminations, paintings,
and sketches of birds from nearly every
period and culture. In his introduction to
one of the closing chapters, Gibson writes
that birdwatching “can encourage a state of
being close to rapture — the forgetfulness
that blends the individual consciousness
with something other than itself.”
In 2003, Atwood and Gibson helped
found the Pelee Island Bird Observatory.
The non-profit serves as a node within
the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, a chain of observation stations that
­gather data on passing avifauna. “PIBO’s
chief mission,” said Atwood, “is counting
birds. Hence our slogan: We count birds
because birds count.” Without a
­ ccurate
numbers, she said, it’s impossible to know
what’s happening across the distances
many ­species travel — and such information can offer scientists insight into ecological and environmental changes. Gibson
noted that the island lies at the confluence
of the A
­ tlantic and Mississippi migration
routes. As many as half of Canada’s more
than 400 recognized bird species can be
seen there each spring. Just north on the
mainland, at Point Pelee National Park,
thousands of humans travel from around
the world to witness red-necked grebes,
yellow-­breasted chats, and prothonotary
warblers, among others, “drop down” to
rest before resuming their journeys.
Interest in birdwatching has grown since
the couple took it up; it’s among the few
vintage hobbies whose adherents are gaining in number. Among them, in the parlance of the pastime, are “listers,” who
travel far afield to add species to their socalled life lists; “patchworkers,” who focus
on birds of a specific region; and ornithologists. The rise in popularity might be due
to the growing number of retiring baby
boomers — but a surprisingly wide swath
of s­ ociety is in on the trend. W
­ hether
­ ecause of the hobby’s low buy-in cost,
b
its ­touted ability to develop mindfulness,
or its ­potential to act as a palliative for a
generation numbed by high-density downtown living, reports of binocular toting
twenty-somethings are up. This October,
Canada’s Greystone Books will publish
Bernd Brunner’s Birdmania: A Remark­
able Passion for Birds. The work offers an
overview of humanity’s relationship with
birds, but gives emphasis to the conservationists, con artists, and eccentrics who
made birds the focus of their lives — a sort
of bedside book of birders.
Earlier this summer, Atwood launched
the third graphic novel in her Angel ­Catbird
series, a zany, colourful work of benevolent propaganda she created in collaboration with illustrator Johnnie Christmas. Its
messages: (1) birds are important for our
environment, but (2) they die in alarming
numbers, and (3) many of those deaths
are caused by domestic house cats, so
(4) please keep your cats indoors. Other
famous literary couples have shared
pastimes — ­V ladimir Nabokov collected
butterflies to the delight of his wife, ­Vera;
Sylvia Plath took up beekeeping with Ted
Hughes — but few have been as well-paired
for the activism that often attends birdwatching: Atwood’s interest, which seems
cooler and slightly ­ironic, tempers Gibson’s gregarious fanaticism. Rather than
rail against cat owners, as some do, they
have adopted a balanced collaborative
­angle: driven yet compassionate, cut with
humour, grounded in science, effected
through appeals to emotion and intellect.
As the conversation turned to other local
initiatives the couple supports — including
one of the island’s first certified organic
farms and the Pelee Island Book House,
a newly opened writers’ retreat — the question of seclusion arose. Given the solitary
demands of her vocation, few would have
begrudged Atwood a complete withdrawal
from the island’s community. Instead, she
chose involvement.
“It’s not me,” she said. “Graeme can’t
help himself.”
“Well, they’ve been good to us,” Gibson
said, “the people here.”
Like remote communities across the
country, Pelee has a reputation for protecting its own. The islanders encourage
birdwatching, but not celebrity sighting.
Stories abound of tourists being ­comically
63
misdirected: ask for Atwood, and you might
end up on the far side of the island at Dick’s
Marina — long abandoned, now a midden
of planks and broken slips.
While we finished our coffees, our talk
turned to the friends who visit. Birds still
come, but the “old gang” that gathers
to greet them is thinning. Shaughnessy
­Cohen, one of their first hosts on Pelee,
collapsed of a cerebral hemorrhage during a live session of Parliament in 1998.
Two others died recently, including historian Ramsay Cook. Gibson is eighty-four.
Weeks before I met him, he decided to skip
major knee surgery. “I have dementia,”
he said, confirming what The New Yorker
­reported in a long profile of Atwood this
past spring, “and so I thought I’d focus
on that.” It’s not so bad, really. Early in
the day, he can look at birds, he told me,
touching his knee. “Then, after two beers,
I can walk home.”
Just as Key West was for Ernest Hemingway, the island is a refuge of sorts for
Atwood — an escape from a world that has
never wanted her more than it does now.
A media-savvy elder, her opinions on world
politics, the environment, and s­ ocial issues
are germane and quotable. Her work, too,
is reaching a g
­ reater audience, especially
among a younger ­generation. Atwood’s
tweeting — often humorous, o
­ ccasionally
expressing fears of rising authoritarianism — has attracted more than 1.5 ­million
­followers. Hulu’s adaptation of The Hand­
maid’s Tale was recently renewed for a
second season; the CBC will be airing
a miniseries based on her 1996 novel,
Alias Grace, starting September 25. Even
amid the static of pop culture and news
cycles, it’s b­ecome nearly impossible to
ignore her voice.
Would an outsider have known this
based on the attention of the locals who
stopped by the café for butter tarts and
­coffee? Likely not; all passed without pausing. A few long glances, maybe. But no one
bothered the couple. She gathered their
napkins and plates.
A moment after the server left, A
­ twood
peered over my shoulder. “We see you,”
she said in a sing-song voice. “We know
what you want.” Gibson followed her gaze
and raised his brows in surprise. I expected
a tourist. But it was only a common grackle,
Quiscalus quiscula, black and iridescent
blue. It turned its head quite curiously, as
those bright birds will, and flew away. 
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
The Answers
By Catherine Lacey
romance novels tend
to ­o ffer only platitudes:
love is universal; the right
partner is capable of offering solace in a cruel world.
(Think Jane Eyre, Atonement,
or, if you must, The Fault in
Our Stars.) The most compelling aspect of
Catherine Lacey’s new novel, The ­Answers,
is that she avoids any such conclusions. The
book, d
­ escribed as a “meditation on love,”
tells the story of Mary Parsons, a woman
who suffers from an inexplicable illness.
To pay for treatment, she begins working for Kurt Sky, an eccentric millionaire
on a pseudoscientific quest to manufacture the perfect relationship. He hires
several women — each representative of
a ­specific “type” — to be his partners. Mary,
for ­example, is the “Emotional Girlfriend”;
her colleagues take on other roles, such
as “Maternal Girlfriend” and “Anger Girlfriend.” A research team monitors participants with sensors and cameras, and
instructs the women on how to act.
Lacey’s prose is expressive and ­biting — sex, for example, is depicted ­mostly as a
source of suffering. In the end, the book
isn’t really about love. Rather, it e
­ xposes
the unreliability, nebulousness, and sheer
stupidity of human emotion — a much
more satisfying message.
— Viviane Fairbank
Into the Gray Zone
By Adrian Owen
adrian owen’s Into the
Gray Zone is not a book to
read before bed, as the mind
drifts. Owen, a neuroscience
researcher at the University
of Western Ontario, examines the cases of people who
suffer from brain injuries or degenerative
diseases and appear unresponsive. But
through clever experiments — for e­ xample,
asking patients to imagine playing tennis,
thereby activating a part of the brain involved in movement even in immobile
­patients — and advances in brain-imaging
techniques, Owen and his colleagues have
demonstrated that as many as 20 percent
of those deemed to be vegetative are
­actually conscious: they simply have no
way of ­expressing that.
It is hard to tell whether this development should be seen as encouraging or horrifying. On the one hand, families who have
believed that their loved one is still in there
may be vindicated. On the other, there are
currently few ways to improve quality of
life for these patients. Owen ends his book
on an optimistic note, ­citing advances that
he believes will lead to a c­ learer understanding of the mind and better lives for
those trapped inside it. For now, h
­ owever,
his research only deepens the mystery of
human consciousness.
— Alexander Tesar
The Ghost Orchard
By Helen Humphreys
“it is an intimate act,
tasting an apple,” writes
Helen Humphreys. It can
­also be a nostalgic one. In The
Ghost Orchard, Humphreys
presents little-­known stories about poets, artists, and
thinkers who were inspired by apples. In 1792,
Ann Jessop, then a middle-aged Q
­ uaker
minister, returned to the United States from
a visit to England, where she had collected
the scions of various apple trees. Jessop had
travelled with fellow minister Hannah Stephenson; Humphreys suggests that it may
have been the shared experience of that
trip that sparked Jessop’s passion for apples.
More than a century later, another American would develop a similar passion. Humphreys describes the long walks that Robert
Frost enjoyed with fellow poet Edward
Thomas in 1914 — walks that often took them
through the apple orchards of Gloucestershire. Decades later, an eighty-three-yearold Frost planted his own ­orchard, in part
as a tribute to that relationship.
Humphreys began writing The Ghost
Orchard when her own friend, with whom
she’d travelled, became ­terminally ill. In
seeking out the lost stories of o
­ rchards
and the people who once cared for them,
the author offers unexpected lessons on
friendship and growing older.
— Samia Madwar
65
Create
in Banff,
Inspiration
Awaits
Literary Arts Programs
at Banff Centre
Winter Writers Retreat
This self-directed
program offers time and
space for writers to retreat,
reconnect, and re-energize
their writing practice.
Apply by October 11
banffcentre.ca
Photo by Donald Lee.
walrus reads
The Walrus � s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 7
first person
Hair Apparent
I grew up in a black family, but never felt black enough
by Jackson Weaver
M
y mom was
one of the first
black children
to be adopt­e d
by a white family in British
­Columbia. In 1969, the Vancouver Sun featured her in an
article headed “Negro Orphans
in Demand,” describing her as
“Just One of the Family.” The
story itself presents a bait and
switch: she’s first described as
a “problem child,” but then it
comes out that the only issue
she has is being too cute; the
joke is that you’d assume that,
as a black child, she would be
“a problem.” In 1969, this was
thought of as accepting.
Most black people have far
worse stories. As a kid in Oakville, Ontario, my dad ducked
rocks thrown by his classmates after he
moved with his family to a white neighbourhood. I was never short of these stories
growing up. They were presented alongside
the ones all black children are told about
Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Emmett Till,
Martin L
­ uther King Jr., and Viola Desmond.
Stories of the people you’re supposed to live
up to. People who share a culture.
I had to experience that culture secondhand. Unlike my parents, I was just the lone
middle-class black kid at a good school,
not long before a black man became president of the United States. I was so far removed from the culture they belonged to,
it felt like a lie to say I was “really” black.
I wasn’t pelted with rocks. I wasn’t sprayed
with firehoses. I didn’t even sound like the
black people I saw on TV. Instead, I’d look
in the mirror and know that the only thing
black about me was my skin. I was halfway
between each group: superficially of both,
but realistically, of neither.
So I was terrified of haircuts. Black hair
has survived cultural integration; it’s a
­different material than white hair, and
you need to go to people who know how
to work it. We’d take the hour drive, and
I’d go to black hairdressers and sit in the
chair, staring in the mirror, terrified to
open my mouth. I didn’t want to miss a
reference I should know. I didn’t want to
r­eveal what I imagined everyone in the
room knew: I was a ­cultural failure.
That fear made me spend the early
2000s studying Kunta Kinte as he grimaced in the movie Roots, lashed to a post,
refusing to give up his name. I memorized Kanye West lyrics, then pretended I’d
­always hated him when my cousin laughed
and told me that was “white people rap.”
I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for
a sixth-grade report, telling my t­ eacher
I could finish a book that turned out to be
twice as long as any of the others chosen.
I said it was because I loved reading.
In truth, it was because staying up late
every night, struggling to keep to the chapter schedule I’d set for m
­ yself, was a form
of suffering I had i­ nvented. In high school,
66
a white friend with a tougher
home life and far better knowledge of hip hop told me he was
more black than I was. I fought
him on it. At the same time, we
both knew he was right.
At thirteen, I went to New
York to see my black aunts,
­uncles, and cousins. They had
experiences, knowledge, and
patterns of speech that granted
them entry into the club I still
didn’t know how to join.
I said hi to my cousins. They
laughed a little when they spoke
to me. I smiled back awkwardly.
They asked, “Why do you
talk so white?”
I didn’t speak much after that.
Back in 1947, psychologists
Kenneth and Mamie Clark asked
children to look at dolls that were
identical except for their skin colour, and
then decide which ones were “nice” and
which were “bad.” Nearly all the children,
whose skin tone ranged from light to dark,
identified the black doll as “bad.” This experiment showed, among other things, the
negative effects segregation can have on
self-confidence and self-perception. We’ve
moved past blatant segregation now; my
mom was adopted into a white family, and
my dad eventually stopped having to duck
rocks. But we still see race. For my white
friends, being white was a fact — it was what
they were supposed to be. My being white
signified a failure. I was born with black
skin, but had done nothing to deserve it.
I still walk into barbershops feeling like
a trespasser in my own skin. I sit uncomfortably, as if just breathing is a cultural
­appropriation. I speak and am reminded
that the people we are, the people we
­a ppear to be, and the people we identify with can be vastly, painfully different.
Sometimes they go together. Sometimes
they don’t. Sometimes, we’re orphans.~
illustration by Tallulah Fontaine
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