Dispatch from the Front Lines: Toronto needs Batman. (Not the Adam West kind.)
What's broken in our society. Danielle Smith vs. the CBC. More pain for Postmedia.
Hey everybody! Before we get into our main dispatch today, an item we flag purely for your information: your Line editors have noticed something. Pierre Poilievre is back! After winning the leadership, he’d largely stayed out of sight. He’d been in the House, sure. And he’d kept up his social-media videos. But he hadn’t been in English-language media much, for months. That’s no longer the case. He’s re-emerging.
We can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s a new media strategy? Maybe this is part of an election-readiness plan? Maybe he was just fried after the race and needed a long break, which is now over? We dunno. But we noticed it, and now we’ve flagged it for you. PP is doing TV again. Tune in!
And here’s the podcast version, too, folks.
Those who listened to our podcast last night will have heard Line editor Matt Gurney unintentionally doom some fellow Torontonians to a lousy evening. It was just a bit before 5 p.m. local time on Friday when Gurney checked the time, announced it on the podcast, and said that thus far that day, there had been no violent security incidents on the Toronto Transit Commission's fleet of buses, streetcars and subways.
By the time Gurney put his head down to rest that evening, about six hours later, there had been two such violent incidents.
The injuries on Friday night were minor, thank God. But the two incidents were in an East York neighbourhood Gurney and his family visit often (one was in a subway station he was in just days ago). The crimes were just the latest in a string of violent attacks on the TTC, targeting either fellow passengers or TTC employees. Some of the incidents have been relatively minor — passengers being shoved and robbed, or BB guns being used to harass riders and staff. Some have been deadly serious, sadly. A teenaged boy was stabbed in the chest. Two employees were beaten by a mob of teenagers. A young woman was viciously attacked, repeatedly stabbed and slashed by another woman, without any prior interaction of provocation. (Global News reported this week that she is likely to physically recover, which contradicted early reports that she'd been permanently mutilated — a welcome update!)
All of this, just in the last few days. Hell, this week, Gurney was filling in as host for an ill colleague at NewsTalk 1010 CFRB, a Toronto AM news-radio station. In the middle of a segment about that morning's violent attack on the TTC, the Toronto police reported ... another attack on the TTC. And there have been others, even worse than this, in recent months. A woman was fatally knifed several months ago in a random attack in a subway station. In another random attack last year, a woman was doused in fuel and burnt to death.
Caveats abound. Toronto is, relatively speaking, still a safe city. The TTC moves many millions of people a week; a large percentage of whom are not being knifed, shot or burnt alive. And so on. We at The Line also suspect that whatever is happening in Toronto isn't happening only in Toronto, but Toronto's scale (and the huge scope of the TTC specifically) might be gathering in one place a series of incidents that would be reported as unconnected random crimes in any other city. A few muggings in Montreal or Winnipeg above the usual baseline for such crimes won't fit the media's love of patterns as much as a similar number of incidents on a streetcar or subway line.
Fair enough, duly noted, and all that jazz.
But what is happening out there?
Your Line editors have theories, and we've never hesitated to share them before: we think the pandemic has driven a portion of the population bonkers. We'd go further and say that we think it has left all of us, every last one, less stable, less patient, less calm and less empathetic. For the vast majority of us, this will manifest itself in many unpleasant but ultimately harmless ways. We'll be more short-tempered. Less jovial at a party. Less patient with strangers, or even with loved ones. Maybe a bit more reclusive.
But what about the relatively small majority of us that were, pre-2020, already on the edge of deeper, more serious problems? What about those who were already experiencing mental-health issues, or living on the edge of real, grinding poverty?
It's not like the overall societal situation has really improved, right? COVID-19 itself killed tens of thousands, and took a physical toll on many more, but we all suffered the stress and fear not just of the plague, but of the steps taken to mitigate it. (Lockdowns may have been necessary early in the pandemic, but they were never fun or easy, and that societal bill may be coming due.) Since COVID began to abate, rather than a chance to chill out, we've had convoys, a war, renewed plausible risk of nuclear war, and now a punishing period of inflation and interest-rate hikes that are putting many into real financial distress. We are coping with all of this while still processing our COVID-era stress and anxiety.
The timing isn't great, is what we're saying.
And on the other side of the coin, basically all our societal institutions that we'd turn to to cope with these issues — hospitals, social services, homeless shelters, police forces, private charities, even personal or family support networks — are fried. Just maxed out. We have financial, supply chain and, most critically, human-resource deficits everywhere. The people we have left on the job are exhausted and at their wit's end.
This leaves us, on balance, less able to handle challenges than we were in 2020, due to literal exhaustion of both institutions and individuals. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of this erosion of our capacity, our challenges have all gotten worse!
It's not hard to do the mental math on this, friends. It seems to us that in 2020, the policy of Canadian governments from coast to coast to coast, and at every level, was to basically keep a lid on problems like crime, homelessness, housing prices and shortages, mental health and health-care system dysfunction, and probably others we could add. One politician might put a bit more emphasis on some of these issues than others, in line with their partisan priors, but overall, the pre-2020 status quo in Canada was pretty good, and our political class, writ large, basically self-identified as guardians of that status quo, while maybe tinkering a bit at the margins (and declaring themselves progressive heroes for the trouble of the tinkering).
But then COVID-19 happens, and all our problems get worse. And all our ways of dealing with those problems get less effective. It doesn't have to be by much. Just enough to bend all those flatlined (or maybe slightly improving) trendlines down. Instead of homelessness being kind of frozen in place in the big cities, it starts getting worse, bit at a time, month after month. The mental-health-care and homeless shelter systems that weren't really doing a great job in 2020, but were more or less keeping big crises at a manageable level, started seeing a few more people fall through the cracks each month, month after month. Those people are just gone, baby, gone.
The health-care system that used to function well enough to keep people reasonably content, if not happy, locks up, and waitlists balloon, and soon we can't even get kids needed surgeries on time.
The housing shortage goes insane, and prices somehow survive the pandemic basically untouched.
The court system locks up, meaning more and more violent criminals get bail and then re-offend, even killing cops when they should be behind bars.
None of these swings were dramatic. They were all just enough to set us on a course to this, a moment in time where the problems have had years to compound themselves and are now compounding each other.
Here's the rub, folks. The Line doesn't believe or accept that any of the problems we face today, alone or in combination, are automatically fatal. We can fix them all. But we need leaders, including both elected officials and bureaucrats, who fundamentally see themselves as problem fixers, and who understand right down deep in their bones that that is what their jobs are, and that they are no longer what they've been able to be for generations: hands-off middle managers of stable prosperity.
The first thing we need them to do is stabilize our problems with mental health, homelessness and crime — get the systems for managing each social ill operating at a scale sufficient to keep up with a higher baseline level of need. Then we can start making real progress, one would hope, on addressing the backlog.
But are we doing this? Are we even trying? Or are we just going to convene summits and commission reports, because that's all our middle-manager-class of leaders know how to do? Is anything short of Toronto spontaneously finding itself home to its very own Batman going to fix this?
We aren’t betting on the Batman strategy, alas. So here's where our thoughts have arrived: Do we have the wrong people — the wrong type of personality — running everything in this country? Are their expectations a problem to an extent they simply cannot conceive of our new normal, accept it and then set their minds to overcoming these issues?
We worry they won’t, or can’t, meet this moment. So while we won't stop riding transit, we'll keep our heads on swivels. Because we don't think any of this is going to get better until we make it better, and making things better is not the Canadian way. Taking good things for granted is more our speed.
Oh, and hey. Guess what happened while this was being edited for publication?
*activates Bat signal*
Careful Line readers will recall our dispatch last week in which we discussed a simmering controversy in office of the premier of Alberta. Specifically, the CBC had run a story alleging that someone within the premier's office had sent emails to crown prosecutors "challenging the prosecutors' assessment and direction of the cases stemming from last winter's border protests at Coutts." The story was based on unnamed sources, and the CBC acknowledged that they had not seen the actual emails in question. But the claim was certainly bolstered by Premier Danielle Smith's own public statements. On several occasions she stated that she had spoken to prosecutors about COVID-related charges. She later recanted, noting her language had been "imprecise." She had, instead, spoken to her own Attorney General, Tyler Shandro, on such matters.
Since then, this story has become much, much more tricky and now seems likely to mushroom into one of those classic ’Berta disasters that will fascinate and enthrall politics watchers in the rest of the country.
Where do we even begin?
There are now two stories; the first involving allegations of members of Smith's staff emailing prosecutors, which would be weird and certainly inappropriate. Prosecutors ought to be totally free from any political influence in how they pursue criminal cases.
The second story came out last week. The CBC claims that the premier's office put pressure on the attorney general to drop COVID related charges, particularly those laid against one known local crank and pastor, Artur Pawlowski. Again, the CBC relied on unnamed sources. The CBC specifically reported that Ezra Levant had met with Premier Smith and later sent her a long email outlining what she should do in relation to these outstanding charges. This letter was then forwarded to someone within Shandro's office at Alberta Justice.
'"They're constantly pushing," one source said. "I would interpret that as pressure."
For the sake of simplicity, let's take each of these stories in turn.
Let’s start with the forwarded letter. Many will be tempted to see shades of the SNC-Lavalin scandal in these allegations — here we have someone in the executive allegedly pressuring the attorney general to drop or reconsider politically inconvenient charges. And, indeed, that would be bad!
But there are a couple of key distinctions and nuances here, as well. Firstly, there's nothing automatically inappropriate about a member of a premier's staff talking to an attorney general or his staff. Remember, Tyler Shandro is a political appointee. He's an elected MSA and member of Smith's caucus and cabinet. The line between looking into things and pressure is a bit of a grey area, and not one that's easy to prove. There's nothing inherently wrong with asking Shandro or his staff to give the premier legal options on outstanding cases. Likewise, there's nothing inappropriate about forwarding an email from a private citizen to his office for consideration — not unless that email could be reasonably interpreted as an order or direction.
Indeed, that's Smith's response to all of this.
"After taking office, the Premier and her staff had several discussions with the Minister of Justice and Justice department public servants, requesting an explanation of what policy options were available for this purpose. After receiving detailed legal advice and recommendations from the Minister not to proceed with pursuing options for granting amnesty, the Premier followed that legal advice," the premier's office said in a statement.
Likewise — and this is another pretty key distinction from the SNC affair — Shandro's office has also denied the claims.
"While Premier Smith requested briefings and they were provided, at no point in time was there any direction provided to the Attorney General by the Premier or her office. The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service acts independently and at no time has any political decision affected ongoing prosecutions," Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney, the minister's press secretary, said in a statement.
Two other facts ought to be noted. First, no charges against Pawlowski have been dropped. This would indicate that Alberta Justice followed the advice provided to the premier's office. Second, there's no indication that Shandro or anybody from his office has been fired or punished for failing to succumb to the alleged pressure. (As was Jody Wilson-Raybould.)
In fact, Smith's decision to play by the book has hugely angered many in her base who thought she maintained the power of God (or at least American presidents) to pardon them all en masse.
We'll quote, here, the fine Mr. Pawlowski, incidentally a leader of the Independence Party of Alberta. He recently spoke to the Edmonton Journal.
“That was what I was hoping Danielle Smith was going to do. Well, I’m not delusional anymore. I understand, I get it Danielle — you are a Kenney 2.0. We are not going to hope with you, we need to change this government,” he said, demanding that Smith step down from the premier’s office after she did not meet with pastors nor offer compensation.
“She can set me free. She promised that she will set me free before the election,” he said.
So on this second matter, what we're left with is a CBC story that relies on unnamed sources alleging interference and pressure. Unfortunately, "pressure" can sometimes be subjective and open to interpretation. And we don't seem to have any specifics about what this pressure entailed. Nor is there any evidence that the pressure was effective, nor is anyone involved claiming to have been pressured — in fact, they’re denying it.
With that noted, let's move on to the first and, arguably, much more complicated story.
In this, the CBC alleged that emails from the premier's office were sent to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service (ACPS) challenging their direction on the non-violent charges levelled against the protestors at the Coutts border crossing last year.
If true, this gets us out of the above-mentioned grey zone pretty quick. There are very few valid reasons for a political staffer to be sending official communications to anyone within the independent ACPS. But, again, the CBC relied on unnamed sources to claim these emails ever existed. Further, the reporters hadn't actually seen the emails in question. They’d been told about them, by sources they haven’t named.
Knowing the personalities in Smith's employ, this allegation did not seem to be, uh, beyond the realm of possibility. And Smith's office herself accordingly spent the last weekend with IT professionals combing through a million emails in search of something that could match the CBC's description.
Here's where things get interesting.
The government claims it found nothing. Smith then demanded a retraction and apology from the CBC, which the broadcaster has refused to give.
There's one crucial caveat to the email search in question: Deleted emails are only stored in the government's system for 30 days after deletion, and the communications in question happened back in fall. So it's entirely possible that a deleted email would match the CBC's description and still be missed in a search.
This has prompted Smith's critics to call for a fully independent audit of these emails — and, hell, for the sake of content fodder if nothing else, we fully support those calls.
However, there's a pretty crucial bit of context that is getting missed in the reporting of this email mess. That is, it's illegal for public servants to delete potentially FOIPPable emails. That provision would apply not only to members of the premier's staff — but also to employees of the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service. If these emails existed and they failed to turn up in the search, that would suggest that both the political staffer and the crown prosecutors would have illegally deleted the evidence.
What incentive would Crown prosecutors have for deleting emails proving inappropriate government chicanery?
We also can't rule out the possibility that pressure took place between fully personal emails. Hell, for all we know, the search did term up something and the Premier's office is straight-up lying. Our cynicism knows no bounds here at The Line.
But here's the problem for the CBC, from what we can see based on the publicly available information. The CBC has assured us that all of the unnamed sources used in these stories are "well-placed." We take that at face value. What we don't know is whether or not the sources had first-hand information about the alleged emails. Did they receive them directly, or did they merely hear about them?
If their information was first hand, they would presumably know which staff member sent the emails in the first place — a crucial piece of information missing from the CBC's stories. We have to assume that they would also have been able to provide a copy of these emails for a CBC reporter to, at least, examine if not possess.
So the CBC's story now rests on claims from unnamed sources who recall a now-deleted email (?) that they may or may not have had first-hand knowledge of. Okay.
Look, our sympathy is with the reporters here. They're all absolutely top notch — and they've also been subject to reams of completely inappropriate abuse for the sins of doing their job. Leave them alone.
These are problems for the CBC as an institution. And there are several of them. The first is that they've made incredibly serious allegations against a premier's office based on painfully thin sourcing. In doing so, they've opened themselves up to a possible error of interpretation. Let's give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, and assume all of its sources are angels of truth speaking what they know as they understand it. Fine. Unless a reporter is able to read the emails for him or her self, how can we be sure that their sources haven't misinterpreted the actual contents of the emails? Sources can be well-intentioned and well-placed and still wrong.
The second problem for the CBC is that it's not actually on the government to disprove a negative. Because that's not possible. Nobody can prove that an inappropriate email doesn't exist. It is therefore incumbent upon the CBC to prove their story is true.
Which brings us to the third problem. What happens if the CBC has to defend this story in court, as it may very well have to do. What, exactly, is the CBC going to say here?
"We accused the government of pressuring Crown prosecutors based on the recollections of long-deleted emails we haven't seen and can't produce. Oh, and our sources probably won't testify on our behalf. But, Smith herself made a goofy statement about it she then later retracted, and we're the CBC, so trust us."
That's … not the strongest case.
Hey, maybe the email will appear, Deux ex Machina, next week. It's Alberta, so we don't rule it out! Also, wouldn't that be hilarious. But based on the information we have right now, we're not sure the CBC's story could hold up to a court challenge. In journalism it's not enough to be right. You have to be able to prove that you're right.
The last problem for the Mother Corp is the biggest problem. It's a political problem. CBC may be hoping, even expecting, that Smith will blink in the face of the CBC's superior credibility. Not so long ago, even an Alberta conservative needed to maintain an amicable relationship with the nation's largest broadcaster. A legal fight over a process story wouldn't be worth the hassle.
Those days are probably gone. The Conservatives of 2023 are an entirely different beast. A legal fight with the CBC is something that Smith, her base, and Conservatives across the country are rabidly anticipating. They're looking at this and salivating.
The CBC may be willing to go to court in the hope that the disclosure process wrests this alleged Coutts-pressuring email free. Maybe it will! But they're staking a hell of a lot of their institutional reputation on that outcome.
Meanwhile, disclosure cuts both ways, friends.
How confident is the CBC that the UCP isn't going to dredge up some internal CBC email that indicates malice, bias or mere unprofessionalism on the part of their reporters, editors or managers? Maybe even just a snarky comment or off-colour joke that can be torqued on Twitter into a national scandal?
Every snide "Screw these guys!" or "We're going to get Smith!" is going to get repurposed into evidence of systemic anti-Conservative bias at the CBC. It will promptly find its way into giant, profitable fundraising emails, both for the UCP, and the federal CPC.
And, God forbid, the CBC actually loses at court: Prime Minister Poilievre couldn’t ask for a better cudgel to use to disband, defund, or re-organize the CBC when his party heads the Heritage Committee.
We at The Line are not here to dump on the CBC. We're here to warn them. Friends, unless you've got some serious 4-D strategy we can't see from the cheap seats, you seem to be five moves from checkmate in a game you can't lose.
All of us here at The Line have worked at Postmedia in one capacity or another, and we have (mostly) fond memories of working at vibrant, vital publications staffed with dedicated and in many cases brilliant journalists. But the chain has been hit by relentless waves of downsizing over the past decade and more; we have friends and colleagues still toiling away at the much-diminished Postmedia properties; so we know just how difficult it has been for them to maintain basic levels of coverage and standards of credibility.
So what is there left to say about the latest round of cuts that were announced this week? On Tuesday, Postmedia’s acting Senior VP of Editorial Gerry Nott held a town hall for the company’s 650-odd editorial employees. In an audio recording from the meeting that was leaked to other media outlets, Nott said that they would be laying off 11 per cent of the editorial staff across the board, with almost every property affected.
It turns out, though, that the cuts won’t necessarily be evenly distributed across the more than 100 papers in the chain. According to some reports, the Montreal Gazette (founded in 1778) will lose up to a quarter of its 40 remaining editorial staff. The Vancouver Sun and National Post likewise seem set for lopsidedly large cuts.
Even by the remorseless standards of media downsizing in Canada, this is bad. But what else is there to say? News has been a terrible business in Canada (and elsewhere) for two decades, for reasons that are well known and which have been well discussed. Nothing about the trajectory of the business should have given anyone reason to think that the previous round of layoffs would be the last one. And there’s no reason to think that this week’s layoffs will be the end of it either.
But aside from the usual expressions of sympathy and dismay, we’d like to make a few more substantive points.
The first is that these latest cuts help underscore how futile and even counterproductive the federal government’s media strategy has been.
Futile, in the sense that since the Liberals announced their $600 million bailout (sorry, “assistance”) of the news media in 2019, Postmedia has collected tens of millions of dollars in government grants, tax credits, and emergency financial support. Far from stabilizing the business, the staffing cuts have continued while taxpayer money continues to flow to both senior management in the form of compensation, and in the form of payments to Chatham Asset Management, the New Jersey-based hedge fund that owns Postmedia.
And counterproductive, in the sense that the main effect of the bailout of the newsmedia has been to postpone the inevitable decline of the legacy operations while hindering the experimentation and innovation that needs to happen. From the start, the federal government’s approach has been highly reactive and politicized, without any real strategic sense of what it is trying to accomplish and what a healthy and responsible ecosystem would look like.
Worse, Ottawa is on the verge of compounding this folly with Bill C-18, the Online News Act, would force digital platforms like Google and Facebook to pay Canadian news media more than $329 million a year for the privilege of linking to their news stories. Bill C-18 is currently before the Senate, and we hope that maybe these latest layoffs from Postmedia will lead the senators to engage in some very sober second thought about the value and wisdom of proceeding with this bill.
The problems with the news business are long-standing. And unfortunately, they seem to be getting worse, not better, even in areas where there seemed to have been successful innovation. Vice, which has been trying to sell itself for ages, recently entered into a content deal with Saudi Arabia of all places. Vox Media recently laid off seven per cent of its workforce. The Washington Post, owned by one of the richest men on the planet, is bracing for an unexpected round of layoffs this quarter. And so on.
It’s a grim situation all around. We aren’t opposed to government involvement in the news business — hey, we’re fans of the CBC. But it’s not clear to us how throwing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, soon to be followed by tens of millions of Big Tech dollars, at companies that are fundamentally structurally unsound and almost certainly doomed is a smart and responsible way of approaching the problem.
We don’t pretend to have much in the way of grand solutions here at The Line, except a baseline belief that if we do journalism that is worth paying for, we might be able to convince enough people to pay us so we can keep doing it.
So, ummmm …
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great rest of your weekend.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org
As always, folks, we welcome your comments on the dispatch, but please refrain from replying to each other, which leads inevitably to much evil and great sadness across the land.
I’ve been a longtime National Post subscriber, but the paper is a shadow of what it used to be. I’ve kept my subscription going, but there’s been a few points where I’ve asked myself why do I bother? There’s been a steady series of departures of my favorite writers. I think if John Ivison and Colby Cosh left, I’d be finished. There’s also been a few periods where the paper has lurched towards populism for a while - not really my cup of tea, and I already avoid Conrad Black and Rex Murphy columns as it feels like they lost the plot several years ago. I’m glad that The Line has been carrying on a lot of the Post’s tradition of fun, slightly irreverent writing.