What to Watch, What to Listen to, and What to Read …

There are two new Canadian documentary films about workers that you can watch and compare. The first is Company Town which you can see here .  Have a look at the one minute trailer.

Rebecca Keech, former Oshawa GM worker, now with Green Jobs Oshawa

The second is Town of Widows, also made in 2019. and available here.

I prefer Town of Widows.  The documentary is about people who survived and barely survived work at the General Electric plant in Peterborough, Ont.  In 45 minutes we see a town that was essentially a company town, which for years offered skilled and semi-skilled work to literally tens of thousands of workers.  Occupational disease was rampant, and in the last decade or more hundreds of men have died from various forms of cancer caused by asbestos.  In one case, it took the worker’s widow 24 years to get compensation for his untimely and tragic death. The factory workers’ wives have also contracted the disease and died from just washing their husbands’ work clothes. Even in the nearby park, Beavermead Beach on Little Lake has been off limits for swimming for years as it is a toxic soup of tar, PCBs, trichloroethylene (TCE) and cyanide. 

The union, UNIFOR, does not seem to be in the picture much, however the widows and retired workers do battle with the WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board)  which overall has refused to fund claims and give benefits to ill GE workers. 

We see one retired worker and union activist Jim Dufresne who had worked at GE for 42 years yell ‘don’t eat the fish from here’ as he paddled his canoe by people fishing.   Here’s a short article from Chemistry World about the carcinogens in the air at the GE plant  https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/ge-accused-of-exposing-workers-to-toxic-chemicals/3007470.article

Sandy LeBeau, widow of Roy LeBeau. She received compensation nearly 24 years too late. Photo credit: Joelle.kovach@peterboroughdaily.com

Company Town, also made in 2019-20, shows the dwindling presence of General Motors in Oshawa, Ont.  Not so long ago, the plant had more than 20,000 workers, and at the time of the film the plant had announced a couple of thousand lay offs as the plant was scheduled to shut down within months.  There were a couple of citizen activists, plus an impressive woman organizer, Rebecca Keech, a third generation GM worker.  Keech and several others started an organization called Green Jobs Oshawa as a way to use the plant and the workers to green manufacturing.  They did doing what they could to stop the shut down – or get a better severance package from those who at middle-age see their futures as ones with chronic unemployment.   This film also featured UNIFOR’s president Jerry Dias – telling the workers it could work out, but knowing it was not about to work out at all.

Somehow I like Town of Widows more – maybe the film featured more women who were widows of GE workers, or zeroed in on families and memories.  Somehow it moved faster and had a bit of humour.

Still over the last decades, there have been so few Canadian films made about workers both these docs are welcome.  Another suggestion I have is to watch Strike in Town, a 1955 NFB film (37 minutes) also about an Ontario town where one of the major employers is threatened with a strike here.  What is fantastic is that aside from the lead roles, the rest of the cast are furniture workers and their families playing themselves! Amazing.

The Feel Good Series…

Now to a feel good series I didn’t much like, but you might.  I’m sure some of you have seen the recent Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.  Here’s the trailer https://youtu.be/CDrieqwSdgI.  The first two episodes were interesting and fast moving – in the late ‘50s, an eight-year-old girl winds up in a Christian orphanage in Kentucky.  It wasn’t that the institution was so bad – it was just so boring, lifeless  and energy draining – that’s what we see.  The girl, Beth, becomes fixated by chess, as taught to her by the gruff school janitor.  The portrayal of institutional life, the fearful and obedient staff, the hapless janitor, the cagey woman principal were all well-drawn characters.  And there was a sense of menace woven into each episode.

(below left: Jolene and Beth at the orphanage, photo credit: Time.com; right: Beth and Ben at a chess championship, photo credit Wired.com)

Unfortunately, pretty soon the series slid into what I call the American comfort zone. Who doesn’t empathize with an orphan? There was the lonely girl chess genius (and her sidekick, a clever black roommate) who acted defiantly.  They smoked, they popped librium as a bedtime treat and they talked back to staff.  However for Beth, her competitive spirit was nurtured by the chess games with the janitor and championships held at the local high school.  As a teenager, Beth becomes inured to almost everything but the need to win and prove herself.  At age 15, she is adopted by a loveless couple, and her new mother becomes her confidante, her advisor and her only friend.  Along the way a gaggle of chess loving boys follow Beth around and try to date her. 

Again there is the hint that something big is about to go wrong – but Beth overcomes many obstacles.  There is the old-shoe comfort of the red “scare” propagated in the US, so that a “G-man” has to “protect” her from the Soviets when she plays chess at  an international competition in Moscow.  Protect her? Did they think she was going to defect from Lexington, KY?  Maybe she should have!  

The Feel Real Series

For my money, you’re better off to watch the series The Americans, which stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.  The Americans is about real Soviet spies who live under cover as parents in model American family in a Washington suburb in the late ‘70s and early 1980s.  The problem is they live across the street from an FBI agent.  It’s more lively, more exciting and discomforting than The Queen’s Gambit.  You can watch the series on Amazon Prime, or borrow the series for free on DVDs at the Halifax Public Library.  Here’s a trailer to introduce the first of six seasons.

If you have $10, spend it on watching Les Miserables. Here’s the trailer. You can buy it from this site. The recent film from France traces a day in the lives of cops hunting kids (and a missing lion cub!) in a poor, immigrant banlieue of Paris. This feature film is fantastic. Probably your high school French won’t get you too far, so be sure to watch the English subtitles. Two nasty and experienced cops decide to show a new cop, who came from the countryside, what real policing is all about. Everything from the cops’ treatment of high school girls who smoke dope, to threatening and searching (without a search warrant) mothers in their tiny apartments, to busting 10-year olds — to confronting Roma is in this film. You will not take your eyes off the screen- sex, race, colour, disadvantage and plain old unfairness swirls through a visually wonderful film. I have my son Omri to thank for the hot tip; he saw it on a recent Air Canada flight to Toronto.

Omri, now in Vancouver

Thunder Bay – Second Season on Canadaland!

The new series on Thunder Bay on the Canadaland podcast here is brilliant.   It’s a second season to the blockbuster first season with episodes that reveal the miserable truth about the Thunder Bay police, its politicians and the killing of at least seven Indigenous high schoolers who “drowned” in the waterways of  Thunder Bay a year ago.

courtesy of Canadaland

In the first episode of season 2, we find out that 862 people went missing from Thunder Bay in 2019– that is 2.3 people per day!   That represents 0.8%, of the city’s population. The podcast goes on to say that percentage is seven times higher than anywhere else in Ontario.  In Halifax, if 0.8% of the population went missing, it would translate to 3200 people!! The last figures I saw were from 2014.  That year, less than half that number — 1690 — children and adults  went missing— which . represents 0.4% of the population of HRM.  

This is crowd-funding month at Canadaland. I just upped my monthly donation to $9, and for that I get ad-free podcasts, plus a pair of royal blue Canadaland socks. 

With some of the money it raises, Canadaland is going to employ a journalist who knows Quebec – its people, its politics, and its language.  That’s going to be great—radical reporting about Quebec is sorely lacking in the English Canadian media. 

Another wonderful series on Canadaland is called Commons.  The newest theme is a great expose called The Police here. Podcast host Arshy Mann delves into the mainly hidden true history of the police, notably the RCMP.  He looks at everything from the Mounties’ infiltration and destruction of left wing and radical groups in the 60s and 70s, to the RCMP burning barns and basically holding the Liberal government of the day hostage to something just short of fascism. 

“Suggestions in the Commons by aggressive Conservative MP John Crosbie that the government “sure would” destroy damaging documents, provoked a testy retort from Trudeau who snapped: “Who said ‘we sure would’? I’ll kick his ass.” Over at the commission hearings, meanwhile, three days of hearings left more questions than answers. Most disturbing of all is the possibility that the public may never know precisely what role ministers played—ordering or supervising—SS activities in the 1970s.”

by Robert Lewis, Nov. 6, 1978 in Maclean’s magazine. Lewis was covering the McDonald Commission RCMP Inquiry into illegal practices by Security Services

Then like every “good government,” the Liberals succumbed to the “Stockholm Syndrome”.  It turns out that a federal Liberal key cabinet minister, Warren Allmand, who was considered a true liberal, a friend of international development, and an adversary to the US empire – was anything but.  The second episode of Police is especially outstanding and revealing.

Starlight Tours

Sometimes true crime is not  just a good listen, but a political podcast.  This is true of Kristi Lee’s Canadian True Crime Series.  She delves into the deaths of three Indigenous people – frozen to death on the outskirts of Saskatoon.  As a person who lived in Saskatoon for more than a decade – I was sick of the police (and even journalists blaming the young men themselves for their own deaths in what are known as ‘starlight tours’.   But one young man, Darrell Night, managed to survive his ordeal.  Dressed only in a light jacket, a t-shirt and jeans, after a night at a bar Night was literally abducted by police in the -28C November cold.  His complaint to the Saskatoon police started to unravel what white cops [all across the prairies] had been doing for decades.   The podcast touts a Cree lawyer, Don Worme,  whose own background and interactions with police led him to take on the case of the racist (and murderous) cops and the attendant inquiries.  Listen to it here.

above: Darrell Night, photo credit DarrellNoakes@photoshelter.com
above Saskatoon’s 2nd Ave, on a winter night. Photo credit: thestarphoenix.com

Dr Sherene Razack, a renowned Canadian academic of Critical Race and Gender Studies — formerly at OISE (part of University of Toronto) and now at the University of California at Los Angeles– wrote an excellent article  “It Happened More than Once”: Freezing Deaths in Saskatchewan” published in 2014. You might like to read here.

A very good, and disturbing book that is referred to in the podcast is Starlight Tour: the last, lonely night of Neil Stonechild by Susan Reber and Robert Renaud.  I read it when it was first published in 2005 and highly recommend both Razack’s article and the book Starlight Tour.

What to Read

This month’s Briarpatch Magazine focuses on the workplace. One especially interesting article is here Organize Amazon.  A group of people, who remain anonymous and still work at Amazon, want to fight for decent pay and benefits.  In a way they are part of a ‘non-union’ organizing drive at Amazon “fulfillment centres” in Canada. With Covid and people shopping more and more online, it is estimated that more centres will be built in some parts of the country. Amazon management has attacked and fired anyone involved in a union drive, but this network of activists might be able to make some inroads.  The activists’ email is chopdowntheforest@gmail.com.

Some years ago when I read Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation, I read that the most dangerous job in the US in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was not miner, factory worker, farmer, driver or even policeman. 

It was fast food worker.  According to the book, many young people, students, and older people were killed at work by robberies, especially robberies gone wrong at closing time.  McDonalds, Wendy’s and other fast food outlets tend to be located on highways that criss-cross the US with easy access – and easy egress day and night.  Store hours were long, and in the “old days” customers paid in cash.   Staff turnover was high. Ex-employees who had been fired, or disgruntled employees  knew where the cash was kept, could estimate how much was in the daily take, and thanks to the perennial problem of packing a gun – thieves often killed or maimed store staff in a robbery. 

So I read with interest How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing:  Discount chains are thriving — while fostering violence and neglect in poor communities by Alec MacGillis– it is here.     The investigation was co-sponsored by ProPublica, a US nonprofit newsroom that looks into abuses of power and the New Yorker Magazine. 

Just as many poorer city neighbourhoods in Canada have become  food deserts—ie no supermarket, or green grocer to serve the local customers. We also see the move of stores to indoor malls or to business parks. The draw of giant supermarkets and other chain stores to the outdoor strip malls includes other big box stores, chain restaurants, free parking but limited bus access. Dollar stores which span the city become the only place to buy anything from placemats, to a box of nails, to facecloth.  In addition to sundry items, Dollar stores also stock snack food, boxed drinks, packaged cookies and canned goods.  This fascinating article shows why Dollar stores in the US are attractive to shoplifters, and are often scenes of violent crime.

“A new form of retail has moved into the void. The discount chains Family Dollar and Dollar General now have nearly 40 stores in St. Louis and its immediate suburbs, about 15 of them in North St. Louis. This is where the people who remain in the neighborhood can buy detergent and toys and pet food and underwear and motor oil and flashlights and strollers and mops and drain cleaner and glassware …  Rudimentary provisions like these allowed the stores to remain open as “essential” businesses during the coronavirus shutdowns. “These stores are our little Walmarts, our little Targets.” —

from How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing

A Transparent Woman

A short story that appeared in a summer New Yorker is the teaser for a new novel Red Pill, by one of my favourite contemporary British authors, Hari Kunzru. The short story is called A Transparent Woman — you can read or enjoy listening to it here .

People disparage the former GDR – East Germany’s –Stasi, its secret police.  This story is a look back at how the Stasi operated in the years immediately preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The main character of the story is an East German 20-year old woman, disconnected from her working-poor family.  She worked in low paying jobs to earn enough to share an apartment where she partied with Deutschpunk (punk band) musicians and writers.  The Stasi took an interest in her, and though she had no interest in the government or politics, her life changed dramatically. 

Perhaps this short story is a warning to us today.  With our smart phones, we are tracked wherever we go – even to walk the dog.  Our purchases, our texts, our emails and calls are tracked and kept.  We know this because in Canada, the CSE Act (Communications Security Establishment Act) keeps the metadata which is likely fed to the NSA in the US. Remember Edward Snowden? As he said,

“Metadata is extraordinarily intrusive. As an analyst, I would prefer to be looking at metadata than looking at content, because it’s quicker and easier, and it doesn’t lie.”


Featured Image: Qu’Appelle Valley, by Dorothy Knowles (Saskatoon: 1977) photo credit: Michael Gibson Gallery.

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