I’ve just read one of a series Extraordinary Canadians: Tommy Douglas a 2013 biography by Toronto writer and author-physician Vincent Lam. Tommy Douglas was a Member of Parliament for the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation), the first CCF Premier of Saskatchewan for nearly twenty years, and had another term as a New Democratic MP in the 1970s. Well, I did learn some things from the book: when the Saskatchewan Liberals went down to defeat in 1944, Douglas and the CCF swept 47 out of 52 seats in the province. I also learned that Douglas — try as he could– was never able to move co-operatives from the middle ground to a more radical bent. He commented that co-op members were in general not socialists. It reminds me of something I heard in Italy: in the wake of World War II, Italy’s Communist Party sent the brightest cadres to work in local government, the mediocre ones to work with the unions and the dullest cadres to work with the co-operatives.
Douglas’ government – which was in power for 17 consecutive years with him as premier – was incredibly popular; the CCF won five elections in a row. And the CCF government started the Saskatchewan Arts Board in 1948, the first government-funded organization in North America to further the arts. What the book does not tell us is that Douglas was a rabid anti-Communist. To find out more about this, I read A Great Restlessness: the Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen by Faith Johnston (University of Manitoba Press, 2006), the brilliant biography of MP Dorise Nielsen. Here’s a link to a book review by historian David Frank of A Great Restlessness.
In 1927, Nielsen emigrated from London, England to Norbury, Sask. She was a 25-year-old school teacher who taught at a one room school in Norbury, a town 175 km north of Saskatoon. In the ’30s she became an active member of the CCF, but in 1937 she joined the Communist Party. She was a fundraiser for the party, an organizer and a leader. In the 1940 general election, she ran as the United-Progressive (Communist) candidate for the federal riding of North Battleford against the incumbent Liberal MP and won.
Nielsen got 57% of the vote! She joined Fred Rose, a Communist who won a byelection then a seat in Parliament in Montreal.
In 1940, Tommy Douglas was a CCF Member of Parliament. In 1942, while still an MP, he was elected Saskatchewan leader of the CCF. Two weeks before the provincial election in 1944, he resigned his seat in Parliament to run provincially. As leader and then premier, he could not abide a Communist representing any people in Saskatchewan. He conducted a covert campaign against Nielsen, undermined her and ran a male CCF’er against her in the 1945 general election. Nielsen lost her seat. That was a tragedy for her, and for women across Canada. She became a columnist, a journalist, never had a full time job in line with her stellar abilities. She ended up moving to China for the last 25 years of her life where she taught English and worked at the Foreign Language Press.
Tommy Douglas is an easy read—too easy. It doesn’t get deeply into the politics of the times, and certainly never mentions the contretemps over Nielsen. Ever since reading A Great Restlessness, I’ve never been able to return Tommy to his pedestal.
The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees (2022) by Matthieu Aikins is brilliant. A young Canadian (OK – half Canadian, half American) decides to cut his teeth as a writer. He has written a few stories in the international media about the war in Afghanistan in 2009 and travelled throughout the region. In 2015, he decides to move to Kabul and meet up with an old Afghan friend, Omar, who was a driver and translator for the Americans back in 2009. In 2016 Omar and Aikins hatch a plan to leave Kabul and somehow make it to Germany. Of course this decision means either flying or going overland on lawless roads and through dangerous mountain passes through Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey– and somehow board a dinghy with 50 other refugees to the island of Lesbos in Greece. Aikins’ decision is all the more shocking when he decides to leave his Canadian passport with friends in Trieste. So he, like Omar, has no “papers.” Aikins also taught himself Dari, a form of Persian, spoken by almost everyone in Afghanistan, so he could talk to refugees as well as Omar. As luck would have it, Aikins has a Scottish Canadian father and a Japanese American mother — so his self-described almond shaped eyes, long dark hair and olive complexion allowed him to pass as Afghani.
Of course, Aikins had to remain “in character” as an Afghan at all times. He spots English newspapers lying around from time to time, or a paperback novel in a bus station kiosk but he dared not buy them, or show an interest in reading. He is not supposed to know English.
The people he meets are fascinating. He tells no one he is a writer; yet he types into his phone late at night to remember the events of the day.
This is a book you will not easily put down or forget. At first I thought the book was mainly bravado and “gonzo” journalism . But after the first hour (I listened to the Audio book available free from the Halifax Public Library), I realized that Aikins was an incredibly gifted and thoughtful writer and a social activist. His keen understanding of the jailing of refugees, their terrifying trust in smugglers and money that had to be paid to them at every juncture, and his resentment of the NGO sector which does little for refugees on the ground — yet raises millions from western sympathizers is amazing.
I would say the last hour of the book is the most political and the most unsettling. It is the month Trump is elected in the US, Aikins tries to explain the election to his friends at the City Plaza, a multi-storey hotel taken over as a “squat” in Exarchia in Athens. Exarchia is an anarchist-Communist community which had its own security squad against the right, the Golden Dawn and the police. Ex-president Obama went to Athens to congratulate the (formerly) radically left government, Syriza, which by now has capitulated to the World Bank’s demands to tighten Greece’s belt, discourage refugees by keeping them locked in camps offshore and basically move to the right. After reading this book, I’ll never think of Greece as a sunny, benign country.
Aikins doesn’t miss the demonstration against the US and against Obama’s neo-liberalism. What happens is inspiring and as he notes, “to believe is like falling in love.” Aikins made this incredible journey in 2016. By the end of the book, he notes that with biometrics and scanners at every border and every airport, almost no one can slip through as a refugee with fake papers, or stolen ones. He also notes that Exarchia is the second most popular area of Athens to stay in according to Air BnB.
Why you want to read Middle East Eye
Reading the Middle East Eye is a must. David Hearst’s article about Putin and what makes him tick is very useful and connects many dots. It’s here.
Also Middle East Eye features columnist Jonathan Cooke, a British journalist who lives in the Palestinian city of Nazareth which is in Israel proper. All his articles are worth reading including this one about what really happened in the village of Huwara on the West Bank in the last couple of weeks. The deaths of two Palestinians, the torching of dozens of cars homes at the hands of Jewish Israeli settlers was labelled a “pogrom” even by an Israeli army commander
Chatelaine condemns RCMP
Chatelaine magazine just published a very good article ‘Your World Gets Destroyed’: Inside The RCMP’s Rampant Culture of Sexual Harassment, by Jessica McDiarmid. Today the new interim RCMP Commissioner is announced. For the RCMP it seems to be business as usual – hundreds of women complainants and hundreds of millions of dollars paid out for sexual assault and rape of them by RCMP officers. The article — It’s here.
From the CBC News site, police run amok: Since the start of February, Alberta police have killed four people. One person, killed a year ago by police, was Latjor Tuel, a former “Lost Boy of Sudan”. He arrived in Calgary 22 years ago. His daughter, as well as his mother, have been demanding answers from ASIRT (Alberta Serious Incident Response Team) for a year now. The article is here.
What to Watch…
The Trial, is an 8 part series from Italy on Netflix. It’s VERY good. Most of these policiers are rather formulaic. This is not. A young girl dies in a chic nightclub in the city of Mantua, … southwest of Milan. There is a surly prosecutor, an intriguing defence lawyer. The accused is a young woman from a very wealthy family. Little is as it seems: the surly prosecutor has a rather exciting personal life. The defence lawyer does not. The trial takes place over more than a year, and the pomp of the Italian courtroom is worth seeing. If you like thrillers, and you like Italy, and you like an intricate trial, this series is for you.
Argentina 1985 is on Amazon Prime. It was nominated but did not win the Oscar for the best international film last week, but it would make movie moghuls in Los Angeles shed a tear or two. And well it should—it seems America has long forgotten its role in Argentina’s Dirty War. The Dirty War in Argentina continued for seven years in which about 30,000 leftists trade unionists, activists, writers and professors were killed by the country’s military junta. It came to an end in the early 1980s, mainly because of a downward trend in the country economically and its pariah status internationally. But — as everyone knows– the US and the CIA’s Operation CONDOR was behind the coup in March 1976. The Junta had managed to brick it into place for years. And academic I met in Italy told me, if you think things were bad in Chile, things were much worse in Argentina.
This film is full of bravado and yes — victory –after the thousands of days of misery and murders in that country. .
Clockwise from top: A scene in Montreal from 19-2; Season 2 premier about a school shooting (brilliantly done) in 19-2; Legal staff in Argentina 1985; A protest in 1982 by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group founded by mothers searching for children taken by the military regime; a still from The Trial.
A middle-aged state prosecutor draws the short straw and must prosecute eight members of the military for vicious crimes against the people of Argentina. He needs help; first there is the matter of some people resenting him for not taking a public stand against the Junta in years gone by. He redeems himself by taking on a young co-counsel, and a team of young law students to track down more than 800 victims of torture, blackmail and terror by the Junta. The young people fan out across the country to interview and persuade reluctant witnesses to sign statements– some to come forward at the trial.
Much of the film is a court room drama — there is a panel of white male judges, virtually no women in the courtroom — except for the crying women who were witnesses to their own torture and others’ disappearances. At one point the prosecutor, prodded by the defence, asks the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to remove their decorated head scarves in the court room. The Mothers are the women who demonstrated every Thursday for years against the regime because their children were disappeared and their grandchildren were taken and adopted out by the Junta. The most fascinating scene shows the prosecutor’s 12 year-old-son, who deliberately hangs about outside a restaurant during the trial, and sees the judges share a pizza lunch. Then they make a secret deal on the back of a napkin about which general will go free and which will end up in jail. One judge notices the boy, goes outside to buy the boy a red lollipop and warn him not to be a snitch.
And, find of all finds, is 19-2 on Netflix. This cop show from Quebec is fantastic. The script is tight, and clean. The cops are not sentimental nor are they great people, or even good cops. A cop from the SQ (the old QPP) moves to Montreal to join the city police. The cops have a level of rage that means among themselves – they get into physical fights. Some days they are “good” to the neighbours and those who call 911. Other days the cops are short-tempered, ugly and unknowing. The high point of the series is the first episode of the second season. It’s a school shooting incident that has to be seen—brilliant. We have all read about school shooters, but the cops’ inability to protect dozens and dozens of teens is clear. The cops can’t think quickly, they can’t find their way around the huge modern high school to locate the shooter — the SWAT team never arrives. I can’t say enough about this subtitled series. It’s a must.
What podcasts to listen to…
There is a two-part podcast series Before Morgentaler, part I and II on The Big Story. It’s a not so gentle reminder of the important fight to legalize abortion in Canada and Dr Henry Morgentaler’s huge contribution. You can listen to the podcasts here.
I’m listening to the series, The No Good Terribly Kind Wonderful Lives and Tragic Deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman on CBC Podcasts. At first I was wary of listening to the tragic details again and again. But the podcaster, Kathleen Goldhar, manages to include the true story of Barry Sherman’s efforts to destroy the life and career of prominent Toronto hematologist Dr Nancy Olivieri. Sherman’s generic drug company, Apotex, funded her lab to conduct a major research trial on a drug called Deferiprone, which was supposed to help patients with the sometimes lethal blood disorder, Thalassaemia. Everything went fine – till it didn’t. When Dr Olivieri tried to pull the plug on the drug trial because it was putting sick children at too much risk, Barry Sherman went ballistic. You can listen to the podcast here.
I prefer Goldhar’s investigation into the Sherman murders of 2017 to the podcast by Kevin Donovan at the Toronto Star. Donovan merely looks at the immediate “facts” of the case and not at the substance of much of the hatred directed toward Shermans. For instance, some have said that it was their only son Jonathan who was responsible for their deaths; others have said it was Barry’s angry cousin, Kerry Winter. Winter had lost a huge court battle against Apotex, Sherman’s generic drug company. The lawsuit cost Winter $8 million. In addition, days before the couple’s deaths, Winter had also been assessed $300,000 to cover Sherman’s court costs.
Kevin Donovan’s podcast The Billionaire Murders: The hunt for the killers of Honey and Barry Sherman is ok if a bit of a slog, but it’s here.
Clockwise From top left: A group photo of the hikers from the Dyatlov Pass Incident with another group they encountered, the Blinovs, on their journey to Mount Otorten (Teodora Hadjiyska/Dyatlov Pass Website); from Toronto Star’s podcast The Billionaire Murders; 1988 photo of Dr Henry Morgentaler (The Canadian Press); last known photo of the nine hikers from the Dyatlov Pass (Russian National Archives); from The System podcast on BBC; .
Limelight is a fascinating fiction podcast series from BBC Radio 4 – In The System, there is a mysterious crime, a disaffected belligerent family and a pretty good anti-hero. Listen to the series here:
On Disappearances, you could listen to Dyatlov Pass. In the winter of 1959, nine fit Russians disappeared on a hiking/camping trip in the Ural Mountains. Though I’m not wild about the presenters’ digs at socialism, and the secret world of Moscow’s KGB (what about the CIA, what about CSIS, what about the Five Eyes??), the mystery of what happened to the nine is rather fascinating. It’s here.
Jordan Bonaparte is the founder and host of the Nighttime Podcast from Halifax. Almost every Sunday night, he teases out the myriad of strands to the Portapique tragedy with two guests, author Paul Palango (whose bestselling book I review here) and lawyer Adam Rodgers. With the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission due in two weeks, you might want to have a listen. You can start with the timeline Bonaparte created, which makes it easier to understand the weekly discussions. The series is here.
I listen every week.
In 2020, somehow I missed this excellent podcast called Hustled: when your boss is an app. A co-production between the Toronto Star and Antica Productions, the Star’s labour reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh, in seven episodes the podcast looks into food and room-sharing apps. The issue of unionization came up as Foodora fought against the union drive — though the workers ultimately won their union. However in the end, Foodora left Canada because “they could” with no penalties pulling jobs from hundreds if not thousands of couriers nation-wide. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts (for free) here.
Canadian True Crime…
Finally, Canadian True Crime has a very good two-part series, Kelly Favro’s Story, that looks at the issue of Crown prosecutors automatically asking for publication bans on victims of rape and sexual assault. Kelly Favro of Victoria BC never asked for the publication ban, but the Crown had it imposed after the trial of a man who viciously raped her. He was convicted, but somehow his name was never made public—nor was hers — on account of the publication ban. This is a harrowing but very instructive tale about Favro who joined with others to fight –without lawyers — for changes. Listen here.
By the way, you don’t have to pay to subscribe to Spotify or Apple to listen to their podcasts. They are free and available anytime.
About 80 grocery workers just got unionized at Pete’s Frootique (a small grocery owned by Sobey’s) in downtown Halifax. Congratulations to them and the SEIU Local 2! It’s the first grocery store on mainland NS to have been certified in 20 years – the old IGAs with unions were decertified in the early 2000s. Supermarkets and even a couple of drug stores are unionized in Cape Breton, but not on the NS mainland.
Featured image at the top: a new rule in 2016, allowed female RCMP officers to wear hijabs. Here is the article, and this photo is by Jason Franson/The Canadian Press.
Reading through Judy Haiven’s recent blog is a whirlwind experience ! Though I never read fiction, especially not crime stories, I found her description of each item, whether a podcast or a book, drew me in……In a few sentences, she manages to convey the most intriguing snippets. Her writing flows easily while it covers important historical facts. She provides references for each item which are as intriguing as the podcast or book they are referencing. Judy has an amazing memory and talent which she generously shares with us !
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Thanks so much for your kind words!!
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I always feel so worldly and sophisticated when you recommend something I’ve already read/watched/listened to….:)
Thank you Dr Haiven, for your commitment to community, and your recommendations!
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thanks valerie, I’ll write even more with that encouragement
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