Journalism and democracy


In a democracy, it is the task of the government to protect and manage the assets of the populace. This is true in both war and peace. In war the government, representing us, is prepared to divert resources away from other tasks and to send our young people to fight and to their deaths. We make these sacrifices not just to retain our wealth but also our freedom.

Freedom is so valuable that we are prepared to die to defend it.
During peacetime, when there is an attempt to power away from the people, those who would do so know that one of the first tasks is to seize the means of communication. We have seen numerous coups where those leading the coup have gained control of the broadcast stations so that they can control all news. They can then keep the populace from knowing and responding to what is happening. Once in control, they can provide one message with no dissent.

Even when there is not a physical coup, individual politicians and their parties can attempt to control the media and, so, control the message. This can be done through intimidation or simply by having wealthy supporters buy control of newspapers, television and radio stations. These stations will not follow the supposed purpose of journalism: to inform, to educate and to entertain. Often, they do little except entertain because that is cheap and people will pay more to be entertained than to be informed or educated. However, when they do inform, the information is highly biased. At its worst, this is yellow journalism. It is filled with lies, distortions, and biases.

This is why it is critical to have an independent national broadcaster such as the CBC. It is the task, without fear or favour, of the national broadcaster to ask hard questions, to seek out answers, to point out lies, to provide information. It is not the CBCs, or any other national broadcaster’s job to be a mouthpiece for government.

One has only to compare the CBC with Pravda. When Glasnot first appeared in Russia, there was great hope that Russia would have a free press, that it would fulfill the three journalism functions. Pravda means truth and was the official publication of the Communist party. It had a specific function in spreading the political messages of the Party. With the demise of the USSR and the rise of Gorbachev, there was a time when it seemed that journalistic independence could blossom. Under Putin, the government is not the Russian government, it is the Putin government and Pravda is just another organ for spreading the policies of the Putin government.

How threatening do repressive governments find journalists? In 2014, 80 journalists were killed. So far in 2015 45 journalists have been killed. Not all those deaths represent the deliberate, targeted killing of journalists but many of them are the result of targeted killings. Those deaths also serve to silence others from reporting or voicing an opinion.

The first signs of totalitarianism, whether it be communism or fascism, is an attack on an independent media. That attack may be something as simple as budget cuts, the selling off of facilities, the removal of charitable status. One can silence critics’ voices with more than a bullet or a bomb.

If we want to continue to be a democracy, something that 42,000 armed forces gave their lives for in WWII, we have to demand that the CBC be independent, that it provide us, the people, with the best information possible, that it inform and educate us first and entertain us last. It has, over the decades created a heritage of trust. Not for all of us, unfortunately. I friend of mine said CBC means Can’t Be Conservative. While it is understandable that the CBC at the moment is delighted at the demise of Stephen Harper because he threatened to dismantle it, that burst of relief will fade and those in charge need to do some soul searching and make certain that the CBC represents all Canadians. Nobody, Liberal, NDP, Conservative, Green should get a free ride.

The Canadian people, that is you and me, have the right to own our resources. It is as legitimate for the people of Canada to own the Wheat Board or the CBC as it is for any private company to own a grain trading company or a broadcast company. There is nothing inherently virtuous about ownership by private corporations. History, recent and in the distant past, is filled with evidence of the harm done by private corporations. Private corporations have no morality, no social purpose, their only purpose is to make money their owners. To do that, they’ve enslaved people, created working conditions in sweat shops and mines, in the forests, at sea that kill people without conscience or concern. If you want to see capitalism at its worst go to Moosejaw and take the Chinese laundry tunnel tour.

That does not mean that all corporations are evil or that capitalism is evil. However, capitalism and corporations must be constantly watched, investigated, chided and, when they does wrong, exposed. The CBC must act as our ears and eyes. And voice. The CBC has a major role to play in informing and educating Canadians about the real conditions in society.
Good journalism holds the politicians and, sometimes, business people’s feet to the fire. That’s a journalist’s job. Unless, of course, you live in a dictatorship.

The Trudeau government gets down to work tomorrow. There are many tasks ahead of it but something that can be done quickly is to restore resources to the CBC, resources that will start to repair the damage done to the corporation.

The CBC is not, in spite of what we have observed for years in the actions of the Harper government, an enemy of the Canadian people. It is our best friend and champion. May it survive long to protect us.

Priorities of 1944: Variety Review


Jim Anderson calls them ephemera. They’re the kind of thing people throw away after a play or musical event. And, yet, programs, program notes, cast lists, summaries, advertisements are important because they are often the only record we have of past events, the only record of who participated, who supported these events.

When my cousin, Dilla Narfason, showed me “Priorities of 1944 Variety Revue” sponsored by the Gimli Women’s Institute, I was immediately curious. I was held a the Parish Hall, the very Parish Hall where we held our school drama night and where I danced in a circle dressed as an elf. It, the revue, not my being an elf, was held on Monday, the eleventh day of September nineteen hundred and forty four. It was produced by Mrs. W. H. Zimmerman. We know, or at least can guess, that Mrs. Zimmerman was married to W. Harry Zimmerman. Harry, if I may be so bold, has an ad in the program in which he encourages fathers to invest in a policy for their sons’ educations. No word of any daughters. The illustration is of a father handing his son a golf club. Don’t be incensed. It was, after all, 1944, one year before the end of WWI. Harry was representative of Great-West Life

Dilla was a teenager at the time. She and her friends attended the revue. I expect it was a big event. Famous stars from the city coming to perform, stars that people heard on the radio every day. After the event was over, Dilla’s friends dared her to go up to the front and ask the performers for their signatures. She did and the result is a program covered with autographs.

The variety show was supported with a whole page ad from Armstrong Gimli Fisheries which resided at 807 Great West Permanent Building. Phone numbers were still short: 93 047.

In 1944 C. B. Johnson operated Gimli Photo and Dr. K. I. Johnson was one of the local Physicians and Surgeons. Gimli Garage provided a taxicab service at all times. You could phone them at 23.

Greenberg’s coffee bar provided light lunches and H. P. Tergesen was the local general merchant. Tergesen’s is still around seventy years later but the Gimli Bowling Alley on First Avenue is long gone. I have fond memories of it. It was a steady summer source of income because I spent my evenings setting up pins.

T. Eaton Co is long gone. So is Lakeside Trading Co. Harold Bjarnason operated United Stores Ltd, a general store, with deliveries made. I remember those deliveries because Harold Bjarnason, the younger, was a friend of mine in high school and I sometimes went with him delivering groceries from the store’s panel van. I had an accident in that van because of distracted driving. I was distracted by a very attractive girl so much so that I was kissing her and driving at the same time. I ran into the rear fender of a truck parked on the road.

H. R. Tergesen was the local druggist and Dr. F. E. Scribner had come to town. Dr. Frank’s wife, Margaret, was Icelandic but he was of German background and there were rumours that he was a spy. WWII had been going on since 1939 and there were prison camps all across Canada filled with men whose only crime was their name or nationality. The war effort had recruited everyone in defence of Canada. Dr. Frank became our family doctor and friend. G. H. Thorkelson was jeweller and watchmaker. The Marlborough Hotel took an ad even though it was in Winnipeg. A lot of Icelanders stayed there. It was a favorite of my father’s.

The Hotel Como’s proprietor, H. Dougloski promised friendly and courteous accommodation. The Como was located directly across from the train station where the Co-op gas station is now. Manitoba Hydro promises to share the fruits of “our labour”. They were probably better liked then than now.

Grey Goose Bus Lines took a full page ad. Buses in those days were packed. Few people owned cars and the airport was thick with young men traveling back and forth to Winnipeg. I know. Although I was a little kid, I was shipped by bus to Winnipeg on a regular basis, mother to grandmother, grandmother back to mother. The buses were so packed that the driver put folding seats in the aisle.

Dr. A. B. Ingimundson was the dentist and Arnason’s Dairy promised milk from government tested cows. Einarson’s Dairy promised pure, wholesome milk. Was this a suggestion that someone might be providing unwholesome milk?

Brown’s Bread from Selkirk must have sold bread to the local stores because they have an ad. There’s an ad from a Dr. and Mrs. M. Rady. They are a complete mystery. Dominion Business College has an ad and you can tell local fishermen sell fish to Independent fish Co. on Sherbrooke Street.

The Dutch Grill, and I felt clever because I knew about the Dutch Grill. Anne Chudd had told me how they started a café and how she made pies for the OBU (One Big Union) camp just north of Gimli. Then they moved to Centre and Third as the Dutch Grill Central Bakery and bus depot. John Chudd was the proprietor as well as being a blacksmith and, later, a Chrysler dealer and garage owner. Insurance was provided by Anna M. Jonasson. If you wanted a meal you could go to the Gimli Café on First Avenue. They provided hot meals and lunches all day. Gimli Transfer also rented out cottages and provided ice and wood. And, if that wasn’t enough, they also provided taxicab service that was courteous and prompt.

Keystone Fisheries was big. Along with Perfection Net & Twine Company they took a full page ad. They “extend our congratulations on your splendid achievements and accomplishments in the War effort. We sincerely hope that permanent Peace will soon be restored, with complete Vicotray.”

Mrs. Zimmerman was a powerhouse with good social connections. She got Monty Halparin (Monty Hall) from CKRC to be the master of ceremonies. She got Jean and Joyce Salel, the popular juvenile entertainers to come, along with Audrey Gardiner, the Personality Girl, along with Ed. Winnick, CKY Baritone plus the Whistling Billy Mack. There was the “Manitoba Quartette” and CBC concert pianist Beatrice Robinson from Montreal.

There was the Great Haldane, a magician, comedy tumblers, “Boogie Woogie” with Bernard Golsdoff plus Jean Ramsay, Manitoba’s “Snow White” There was a trumpet Solo by Gail Hall and a dance by Gladys Forrester, Canada’s leading dance exponent. It all ended with Harold Green CBC orchestra leader at the piano.

This was a family project because the stage manager was W. Harry Zimmerman and the producer was Mrs. W. Harry Zimmerman.

Which leads to the question who was Mrs. W. Harry Zimmerman? Cousin Dilla said, “She has to have been a local Icelandic girl.” She picked up the phone and confirmed yes, she was Icelandic, her mother and father lived on third avenue two doors down from the Benson house. The Benson House in those days was on the corner of third beside the artesian well where Moscow Gunna hung around handing out propaganda pamphlets from a shopping bag. Our source thought Mrs. Z’s first name was Elsabet, so Betty, but we were unable to unearth her family name or her parents’ names.

1944. There is still a year to go before WWII is over. The town is jammed with air force personnel being trained to go overseas and defeat the Axis. The Gimli Women’s Institute is raising money for the war effort. This revue is a big operation for a small town. However, the co-presidents of the Institute, Mrs. H. R. Tergesen and Mrs. N. Stevens, representing the upper end of the retail and fishing business are quite capable of getting out an audience. It sounds like it was a fun evening but it also was a serious cause.

(If anyone can identify Mrs. Zimmerman, I’d appreciate an email or a phone call, 204-642-7235.) or a message on my blog.


Randy Bachman on Salt Spring

This is what success can look like.

The skies are covered in cloud. There’s a light rain. It’s the kind of day to stay home on Salt Spring Island and read a book in front of the wood stove. Instead, we’re traveling through the grey afternoon light, through the tunnel of fir trees and arbutus, past the roadside stands that have signs saying free range eggs for sale, some late season flowers in an odd assortment of jars, past trucks loaded with firewood and marked with a scrawled price on a piece of cardboard. A lot of the trees are bare.

The road is slick, has curves in it sharp enough that they need signs to warn people to slow down. By the time we reach the Fulford Hall, the light has disappeared. We thought we were early but the parking lot is full. Cars are parked along the road. We slow to a crawl because people are appearing from behind cars and sauntering across the road.

Inside the hall, we turn in our tickets, get our hands stamped with red ink. I stop to look at a guitar that is being auctioned off. It has been signed by Randy Bachman. There is a bowl of suckers for sale for a dollar apiece. They’ve very cleverly been named Lalipops instead of Lollipops. The play on words is because the evening is a benefit being put on to raise funds for Lali Formaggia, who was seriously injured in a plane crash. She was returning from a backpacking trip when the plane she was on struck a tree shortly after taking off. She survived but had a broken arm and third degree burns on her legs. Randy Bachman has generously agreed to do a one man two hour show similar to his Vinyl Café gig on the CBC. Forty-five friends of Lali have pitched in and volunteered to organize and promote the evening.

Outside the Fulford Hall there is a sign with black letters that advertise the event. Friday night and Saturday night. This is Saturday night and during a break between the two sets, we hear that we are lucky we came tonight. The Friday night crowd wasn’t as lively. This crowd is high energy. People are pouring in the door, their voices up half an octave with excitement, smiling is endemic. Waiting for the concert to begin, people are standing rather than sitting, there is a roar of conversation, people are flowing into and out of the kitchen area with pie and muffins.

A woman climbs on stage. The crowd sits down. She makes a few general comments about the show and introduces the special guest of the evening, Lali Formaggia. Lali has a strong accent, long blond hair and tells us about the plane crashing, her trying to crawl free, her legs being on fire and calling for help. Someone called John came to her rescue and pulled her away from the plane. She was two months in hospital and hasn’t been able to work and won’t be able to work for some time.

Randy Bachman comes in and the room is electric with anticipation and admiration. He has had a house on Salt Spring for a long time now. It’s made of rammed earth, cost millions to build and I know about it not because he is just down the road from JO’s place but because I saw it on a David Suzuki show. Rumour has it that his place is for sale but during the show, he said that he’ll be in Toronto for another year and a half and then he’ll be back in his garden on Salt Spring. You could feel a sense of relief. His being here makes people feel good.

There are people who are natural story tellers, who know how to engage an audience, who know where the emotional content of their narrative lies. Bachman has had a lifetime of learning to be the best of Canada’s story tellers. His stories about growing up in Winnipeg, playing locally, making repeated efforts to gain an audience, the crazy events that happen, the results of which are unplanned and unpredictable, touch an audience because they’re stories everyone can relate to. Yes, he may be more talented than any individual audience member, but he’s been subject to the crazy whims of fate and the vagaries of luck and circumstance. Like all of us in our own way. What isn’t in the stories is how he became a successful businessman in spite of being in a tough business where lying and deceit are the norm, where nearly everyone is out for himself and there is nothing bigger than the egos of the participants and yet has managed to keep a reputation for integrity. Somehow, through all the years of dealing with bar owners, concert promoters, producers, technicians, audiences, he’s managed to keep something of that enthusiastic beginner on the way to becoming The Guess Who and BTO (Bachman Turner Overdrive).

The audience is older. The average age is probably around sixty. There’s a lot of white hair and bald domes. There are some younger people and people with young children but the tickets are 55.00. It would be pretty steep for twenty somethings with two kids.

The audience is hungry to hear the stories about the songs they danced to when they were young. It is a night of entertainment and revelation. People are swept along as Bachman explains that he and the other band members had green cards that allowed them to work in the USA but that when they were going to Texas to play they were warned to turn around because those green cards also meant they could be drafted. That event resulted in the song American Woman and when Bachman explained that the song sold millions before radio stations figured out it was an anti-war song and that the American Woman wasn’t a rejected lover but the Statue of Liberty, that grey haired audience laughed with delight for they’d been around for the Vietnam War. No one had to give them a history lesson. They’d been there.

During the break between the two sets, a fellow got up and made the point of telling us that no money was being skimmed. That every cent collected would go to Lali. Then there were the draws for signed Randy Bachman posters. When we first arrived, after I’d found a seat, I’d gone back to buy three tickets on the guitar and the posters. Didn’t win so as we were leaving JO bought a poster for twenty dollars. Because she grew up in Winnipeg, Bachman has a musical place in the teenage heart of her youth.

The audience did a great ooohhhmmmm for a friend of Lali’s who spoke for a couple of minutes and thanked Bachman. It was a supreme Salt Spring moment. When the audience was asked to help out with a couple of songs, it did so with enthusiasm.

At the end, the audience stood up to applaud. That has become a meaningless, annoying habit Canadian audiences have got into. However, on this night, it was well deserved.

On the way back over the winding road, I smiled a lot. It had been a memorable night. I now knew the surprising impulse that replaced “white collar worker” with “taking care of business”. I knew about the pizza deliveryman who looked like Fidel Castro who went on to become a brilliantly successful musician. I woke up smiling the next morning. In spite of the clouds and the rain.

I’d watched a community come out to support one of its own who needed help. I’d watched a famous person who doesn’t need to help anyone, help someone who needed help. I saw some of the forty-five volunteers and the audience members who bought tickets, Lali pops and posters, who came together for a good cause. It used to be called being a community.

After my grandmother died at age thirty-two, my grandfather was bankrupt. My grandmother had been ill and needed private nursing for four years. All his savings had gone for housekeepers and nurses. He was a carpenter and, in the winter, he went fishing on Lake Winnipeg. They had four children. The community in Gimli, Manitoba, gathered together and held a fund raiser for him. Those are the community values we sometimes talk about with nostalgia. However, I felt as I sat in the audience listening to Randy Bachman, that there are places where those community values still exist.

Gimli Film Festival: Bloodflowers

I’ve been asked to choose a story of mine to talk about at the Gimli Film Festival. I’m supposed to choose a story that I think would make a good movie and why I think so. I’m going to talk about my short story, “Bloodflowers.”

I’m choosing “Bloodflowers” because a large number of film makers have expressed interest in turning it into a film. I’ve turned them all down, not because I doubt their ability to make a decent movie from it but because they never have any money. It’s Canada, right? The role of writers and artists is to starve. Not me.

I’ve had a number of movies made from my short stories and novels. “The Pedlar” was made from “A Place of One’s Own”. Gentle Sinners was made from the novel of the same name. “God Is Not A Fish Inspector” was made from the same-named short story. Al Kroeker produced and directed it along with a documentary “Waiting for Morning” that featured my father and people around Gimli being interviewed. There are a couple of others. Gentle Sinners paid decently but only because of a legal battle over foreign rights that left me with 4% of the producer’s gross.

Gross is an important word in film making. People in the film business use “net” returns in contracts to rip off writers. There are never any net returns. It doesn’t matter how many multi-millions a film makes, so many expenses are charged against a film that it is impossible to ever “net” anything. You want a piece of the action, you’ve got to get a piece of the gross.

When I started out being involved with film, I was so naïve and so thrilled that I didn’t know enough to say, I own this property, you can’t have it to raise money with unless you cut me in for a slice of the gross. I also want a decent upfront payment that is finalized by the time production starts. The viewer in front of the screen is watching art or entertainment but behind the scenes, it’s all about money and everyone is out to grab as much as possible. No writer can afford to be naïve. The price is too high. Every writer has to ask one question when approached by a film maker or would be film maker, “What’s in it for me?”

When I had a meeting with a film maker who wanted to turn The Girl With The Botticelli Face into a movie, we were discussing appropriate payments for options for three years. We were disagreeing about the last payment when the would be producer said, “I’ll give you percentage of the net.” That was the end of the conversation. I walked out. I don’t like being insulted and I don’t like someone trying to rip me off.

(to be continued)