The multi-dimensional Peter Desbarats

Official UWO portrait
Peter Desbarats 1933-2014

As I wrote in a newspaper column last week, former Canadian journalist Peter Desbarats was a complex individual with many sides and a variety of literary voices: poet, journalist, author, essayist, children’s author, performer, scholar. Noted obituary writer Fred Langan captured much of this in his memorial piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, describing Desbarats as a multimedia man with “a Don Draper phase.”

Indeed, some of this complexity emerged at Desbarats’ funeral on Friday. There were tears; there was laughter. Nephews joked about his “sideburns phase” at Global Television and the fact that, for a while, he wore a cape. “Yes, an actual cape,” one said. Peter’s widow, Hazel, read one of his favourite children’s stories — Halibut York: The Night the City Sang, which Desbarats published in 1964. And there was, even among those of us who knew him fairly well, a new appreciation for the diversity of his writing.

John Longhurst, a communications staffer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and a longtime friend, wrote to remind me that Desbarats had been a keynote speaker at a conference on faith and media in Winnipeg in 1998. In that speech, Desbarats revealed the texture of his spiritual side and how it meshed with his function as a journalist. Portions of that speech are worth reprinting here, as a kind of epilogue.

“I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the ‘Rotary Club of Canadian churches,’ ” Desbarats said.

“When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches [rationalist and fundamentalist] were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

“In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

“Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists — which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media — surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

“Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the ‘other’ side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.”

Desbarats’ observation remains apt, 16 years later.

Brown, Cimolino call for democratization of culture

To some extent, what happened in London, Ont., at last week’s Creative City Summit was routine and unremarkable. Organizers of the biennial gathering of the Creative City Network of Canada booked some convention space and hotel rooms, invited a few guest speakers, drew up an agenda that left plenty of room for workshops, excursions and networking, and sent out invitations to members. And it all seemed to go off without a hitch.

The messages relayed by the summit’s two keynote speakers, however, challenged the assumptions that lay at the heart of centralized culture planning (and the summit’s participants were, after all, culture planners from municipal bureaucracies across the country). They were also messages worth hearing by a much broader audience.

As I mentioned in a column in The London Free Press last week, San Francisco-based arts consultant Alan Brown was refreshingly plain-spoken in his description of “six domains” of creative culture (due to a lapsed passport, Brown addressed the gathering via Skype). He urged delegates to take a wider “ecological” view of culture: “While some of your communities might not have much of a formal arts infrastructure, and while your budgets may be small and getting smaller, you must realize that creativity is a currency in a different economy – an economy of meaning.  In this economy, wealth is attainable for everyone, because every human being is intrinsically creative, they just might not know it yet,” Brown said.

“Everyone has a stake in the creative capital of their community, especially businesses, elected officials, parents, and the education system.  The arts, of course, are a major stakeholder in the creative capital of their communities, but sometimes I wonder why we don’t act like it.  Too many arts groups have grown complacent and comfortable producing professionally curated arts experiences by professional artists for professional audiences — and lost touch with the vast sea of creativity all around them.  And they wonder why resources are dwindling and community support isn’t as high as they’d wish.”

Brown offered a copy of his speech to the summit, along with an apology for not being able to attend in person. Conference organizers promised to post it on their website, but I’ve not seen it there yet, so I’ll post it here.

Alan Brown on Creative Capital, May 11, 2011

The following day, Antoni Cimolino, general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, tilted similarly toward a bottom-up arts culture. Cimolino retold the stories surrounding the creation of the festival in the 1950s and how, at various points in the history of his community, strategic decisions were made by citizens and their politicians to allow an arts-rich culture to take root. Cimolino’s stories about Stratford’s history were really a prelude to his plea for support of Culture Days, a national event slated for this fall and for which he is chair of the steering committee.

Cimolino’s address, his short video on Culture Days and a question-and-answer session lasted about 45 minutes. I edited out the video portion (but see the link below) and the Q&A to produce an audio recording of about 22 minutes in length. You can listen to that here:

Antoni Cimolino on Culture Days

The video Cimolino presented about two-thirds of the way through his address is below.

Thanks to the board, staff and organizers of the Creative City Summit for allowing me to attend — and to Conestoga College, my employer, for providing the professional development time to do so.

When your member of Parliament goes AWOL

Our Votes Count debate
Ed Holder’s seat sits empty at a London West candidates debate on April 26, sponsored by Our Votes Count.

When London insurance broker Ed Holder decided to run under the Conservative banner my riding, London West, in 2008, I was thrilled. I happen to be a big believer in the importance of integrity in local candidates, no matter their political stripe. Elect 308 scrupulous, principled and sincere candidates to the House of Commons and the rest, I figure, will take care of itself. It’s why, three years ago, I saw Glen Pearson, a Liberal in London-North-Centre, and Irene Mathyssen, a New Democrat in London-Fanshawe, as worthy contenders in their respective ridings.

I was especially delighted about Holder’s decision to run because I’d come to know him through my role as editor at The London Free Press. As chair of the newspaper’s editorial board, I kept a slot open for a community member, who would serve for one year. At one point, Holder was one of these.

I invited him to the post largely on the strength of his community involvement and leadership. He was regularly in the news, for all the right reasons — supporting important social causes, raising money to preserve a community tradition that was about to go extinct, and giving of his time in the service of local charities. I was pleased when he accepted and grateful for his sage advice.

What I remember most about his contributions to our meetings was his incisive mind and ability to probe, with business-like detachment, whatever happened to be the issue of the day. He was a stickler for precision, fairness and transparency. He insisted that politicians, chief executives and charities face scrutiny and be held accountable. He believed strongly in the importance of benchmarks and good, defensible standards by which to measure performance.

When voting day arrived in 2008, I was more sure of my vote than I’d ever been. His victory over longtime Liberal MP Sue Barnes, for whom I’d also voted more than once, seemed timely and deserved.

During the last Parliament, I called on Holder’s office for assistance on one occasion. I was serving as chairperson of charitable organization and was perplexed by some new rules being imposed by Ottawa. Within hours, Holder called personally to set me straight on a simple misunderstanding, brought about by a vacancy in our CEO’s office. Holder’s businesslike approach to the problem was exactly what I had expected of him.

Because he’d been such an proponent of accountability and openness, I looked forward to seeing him at candidates debates in my riding in the current campaign. I have been profoundly disappointed by his absences at many of them, including the one debate held specifically in London West riding for London West voters this week. Yes, he has participated in some meetings, such as the Rogers-sponsored debate that would be televised repeatedly through the campaign (best not to avoid that one). And he has appeared at debates in local high schools, where exposure to voting constituents with hard questions is minimal. He has not responded to my question about whether his absences are the result of a personal decision or party war room diktat.

I suspect it’s the latter. If so, London West’s MP must be chafing under the order. This is entirely unlike the Ed Holder I have come to know — the one who held up accountability in public life as an imperative. Absent other explanations, I resent the fact that the long arm of a control-obsessed prime minister appears to have absconded with my member of Parliament. He is absent without leave at precisely the moment — and I think he, in his heart of hearts, would personally agree — that he ought to be living out the notions he once so strongly advocated.

UWO debate posterUpdate: According to CBC.ca, Holder has also declined to attend the all-candidates meeting this evening at the University of Western Ontario, moderated by Huron University College political science professor Paul Nesbitt-Larking and sponsored by UWO’s Faculty Association, the Graduate Teaching Assistants Union and the University Students’ Council.

Update II: Indeed, Holder was a no-show at the UWO debate.

Update III (May 2): Holder was re-elected handily on election night, by a margin of nearly 9,000 votes over his nearest challenger, the NDP’s Peter Ferguson. Congratulations to Mr. Holder. Here’s hoping he finds effective and personal ways to stay in touch with his constituents.

CBC Online leaves impression on Conestoga students

When I asked my new media students in class today about the things that were most memorable or surprising about last week’s field trip to CBC Online in Toronto, they responded nearly unanimously: It was the buzz, the electricity and enthusiasm they felt among the staff working on the fourth floor of the CBC Broadcasting Centre. Amid the rapid changes that have seized the journalistic enterprise over the past three years, here was a group of eager and committed professionals who avidly embraced the changes that have left so many experienced journalists dour and shell-shocked. For the visiting students, the palpable sense of energy among CBC journalists was at once refreshing and reassuring.

Credit where credit is due: The visit was largely arranged by Waterloo Region Record reporter Jeff Outhit, who teaches computer-assisted reporting in Conestoga’s postgraduate New Media: Convergence program. Outhit contacted one of his former Record colleagues, Lianne Elliott (@cbclianne on Twitter), now a producer at CBC.ca; she met our group and arranged a discussion on the future of online media with Kim Fox (@kimfox), CBC News’s senior producer for community and social media.

Amber Hildebrandt

Following that session, online reporter and producer Amber Hildebrandt (@cbcamber) spent some time describing her use of new media in various reporting assignments, including the trial of serial murder Russell Williams last year. (Read Hildebrandt’s reflections on that experience here.) The morning wrapped up with demonstrations by Elliott of the software and other tools CBC.ca uses in its online reporting, as live coverage of the final landing of the space shuttle Discovery was underway. It included an interview with former Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who had flown on Discovery, on a set nearby.

Along the way, there was also a quick introduction to CBC Radio weekend news anchor Martina Fitzgerald, another of Outhit’s former reporting colleagues, this time at the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Hats off to CBC Online’s staff, who went above and beyond the call of duty in challenging and inspiring our students. The trip was a stimulating and potent reminder of the power of a well-organized field trip to leave an indelible impression.

Will La Presse be Canada’s first paperless newspaper?

The front page of La Presse on March 12 featured coverage of the earthquake in Japan.

Whenever I’ve taught courses in the history of print journalism in Canada, I have invariably made reference to a book that is now more than a quarter century old: Wilfred Kesterton‘s seminal work, A History of Journalism in Canada (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1984, 304 p.). First published in 1967, the book meticulously chronicles the development of Canadian journalism through four distinct press periods and is an authoritative collection of the significant names and dates along that odyssey.

Yesterday, amid reports that the Montreal newspaper La Presse plans to go entirely digital within five years, I wondered whether some future history book on Canadian journalism (would it be published on paper?) might not point to La Presse and yesterday’s date as the harbingers of a new “press” period.

La Presse is beginning the transition immediately. It plans to offer long-term subscribers a free iPad and hopes to trim its print run drastically over the coming years. The newspaper company, a division of Gesca Limitée, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Power Corp., has a printing contract with Transcontinental Inc. that runs through 2018.

J-Source.ca reported yesterday that La Presse has already invested more than $7 million in its “iPad plan” and expects to spend another $25 million to realize it. Postmedia News newspapers, including the Windsor StarOttawa CitizenMontreal GazetteCalgary HeraldEdmonton JournalSaskatoon StarPhoenixRegina Leader-PostVancouver SunVancouver Province and Victoria Times Colonist, have been delivering its products via the iPad since late last year. But the La Presse announcement goes further in that it foresees a complete transition to digital.

As a postsecondary journalism educator, I often get asked about the future of newspapers and, for that matter, the future of journalism. My answers: The future of printed newspapers (“ink on dead trees”) has a finite horizon, as it should. Few of today’s journalists entered the vocation because of a love affair with ink-stained fingers, giant printing presses, metal plates and rolls of newsprint (those romances belonged to an earlier generation). Rather, they entered — and continue to enter — the vocation because of their interest in research, interviewing, an innate curiosity, writing and storytelling across a variety of delivery platforms, and a deep desire to better understand the world, from big-picture issues to esoteric minutiae. That future, I think, remains bright.

Remembering a soldier I never knew

A couple of years ago, I happened onto the website of Legion magazine, the English-language periodical dedicated to “Canada’s military and its heritage.” I noticed the “last post search” tool in a lower corner of the page and, rather offhandedly, plugged in my surname. I was certain I’d get a “no results” type of response. But there, in blue on grey, was the unexpected outcome: Private William Cornies. Service No. B154579. Died Jan. 19, 2003.

It surprised me, because nearly every Cornies is Canada is somehow related, however distantly. Nearly all arrived in this country during one of several waves of Mennonite migrations from Europe — either as settlers or refugees — during the 19th and 20th centuries. And with them came the dominant view of warfare and participation in it: that it ran counter to their understanding of Christian faith. They were, and are, predominantly pacifist. So how was it, I wondered, that a young man of Mennonite ancestry came to serve in the Canadian military?

I began my search with Library and Archives Canada. I wasn’t immediate family, so there were strict limits on what the Archives’ analysts could tell me. They could reveal this: He enlisted on Feb. 1, 1944, and was discharged on July 15, 1946. He served with the Irish Fusiliers (Vancouver Regiment) at the rank of fusilier.

The next step was to ask my parents (I’m fortunate both are still alive). I provided what details I had and they, in turn, dove into their multi-tiered network of acquaintances, as robust — and often as reliable — as any Internet connection. Within a matter of days, the answer came back: They knew someone who knew someone who would likely know. (Among Canadian Mennonites, the notion of six degrees of separation shrinks to two or three.)

I followed the virtual trail of DNA and, before long, was speaking to Henry Cornies of St. Catharines, Ont. Private Bill had been his older brother. During that conversation, a picture emerged of an independent-minded young man who didn’t unquestioningly accept the religious views of his parents. (His father, Wilhelm Henry, had served in the Russian army during the First World War and had become an ardent pacifist.)

After his draft notice arrived shortly before his 18th birthday, William refused to let anyone talk him out of enlisting in the army. He was determined to serve his country and didn’t want to be branded a coward — the epithet leveled at many young Mennonite men who applied for and received conscientious objector status. They served their tours of duty as farm workers, loggers, lumberjacks, miners, grain handlers, factory labourers, construction workers and similar assignments. Some served in the medical or dental corps.

In all, about 7,500 young Mennonites claimed CO status during the Second World War. There is another figure, however, that gets far less mention in official denominational circles: about 4,500 young Canadian Mennonite men (and a few women) enlisted for active military service, despite church’s historic peace position and the invocations of their elders to shun enlistment in the Canadian forces in favour of CO service. For them, church leaders deployed an unfortunate term: verlorene Soehne. Lost sons. And thus began a disaffection that, in many cases, would be last a lifetime. William was one of these. He was resolute. For church elders, there would be no saving Private Cornies.

He trained as an anti-aircraft gunner in Nova Scotia, where he met Shirley Smith, his future wife, from nearby Windsor, N.S. He was eventually relegated to the service corps and was discharged from the army on July 15, 1946, after serving about 30 months. He spent the lion’s share of his career as a steelworker and boilermaker at Foster Wheeler in St. Catharines, which, at the time, was doing a lot of work for Atomic Energy of Canada.

After his children, Billy Jr. and Linda, had grown and his wife Shirley had died, William Cornies continued his connection to a brotherhood that would never have dubbed him “lost.” He was a proud member of the Legion’s General Nelles Branch in Niagara-on-the Lake, where even today he is remembered for his loyalty, independent thought and the frequent companionship of his dog.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet this distant relative a few years earlier. I would have enjoyed the conversation.

The proposed takeover of The Canadian Press

If a deal by CTVglobemedia, Torstar Corp. and Gesca Ltée gets federal approval, one of the fixtures of Canadian journalism for nearly a century will be fundamentally changed. The companies, which operate CTV and The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and La Presse, respectively, have announced they’ll take The Canadian Press private.

The Canadian Press has a long and distinguished history in the annals of Canadian journalism. The news cooperative was formed in 1917 by Canada’s newspaper industry as a means of sharing news across the broad expanses of an emerging country which, only a dozen years earlier, had grown to stretch from sea to sea to sea. The real catalyst for its creation, however, was the First World War and the growing appetite among Canadians for news from the front. Information was relayed via telegraph wires.

Over the ensuing decades, CP, as it became known, became the mainstay of print journalism in Canada. It was maintained by member newspapers, which also contributed stories to the service to supplement CP’s own national staff and news agenda. A photo desk was added as transmission of pictures over great distances became feasible, and broadcast news services were added as television took hold in the early 1950s.

As might be expected in an enterprise where the public interest and corporate interests frequently conflict, The Canadian Press has been close to collapse several times in its history. Canwest pulled out of the cooperative on July 1, 2004, to form its own news service to feed stories to both its newspapers and Global Television outlets. Quebecor Media Inc. formed QMI Agency last year for similar purposes; its participation in The Canadian Press ended on July 1 of this year. The agency’s pension plan continues to be hugely underfunded and needs urgent attention.

If the three-way deal gets Ottawa’s approval, it will be interesting to see how the new owners (currently, the three largest members) integrate the news service into their operations and what impact that integration will have on jobs at all four entities. Of national concern should be the extent to which the Canadian Press news service will make its content available to other subscribers — and at what price. Will small, independent or start-up news operations in small communities be able to afford the news services offered up by Canwest, QMI or The Canadian Press? How will information flow across the country be affected? Will competition between the three major companies improve national news coverage or will a narrowed focus by the three corporate news-service owners, as they seek to service the needs of their own properties and divisions, constrict that flow? If, as playwright Arthur Miller said, “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself,” is a robust news service, or a series of them, vital to the conversations of a nation?

Far less important, but esoterically interesting among those who teach journalism, will be the question of how The Canadian Press’s new owners deal with the question of style at their operations. The Canadian Press Stylebook differs in many respects from The Globe and Mail’s Style Book, which is different again from Toronto Star style. In classrooms and labs, the importance of learning to adapt one’s news writing to some style standard — whether it be The Canadian Press (the standard at most Canadian schools) or some other — is the bane of many a j-school student’s existence. Some additional consistency here might actually be a good thing, though there are strong arguments for the differences between the news organizations on niggling points. And the style purists won’t be easily persuaded.