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December in Review

The reason for the treason...

by Ken Clare

Would Joseph Howe "Herald" His Descendent? Ken Clare Thinks Not. Photo: Aaron Bihari
Would Joseph Howe "Herald" His Descendent? Ken Clare Thinks Not. Photo: Aaron Bihari

The reason for the treason….

Those arrested when the Occupy Halifax camp was destroyed in November were in court on December 29, facing charges of obstructing police and breaching an undertaking.

   No doubt their attention was focused on their upcoming court appearances, in January and February.  But not too far in the back of their minds must have been the reason for the treason—and if they needed reminding, Canadian bank profits for 2011 were announced just a couple of weeks earlier.

   Our five big banks (TD, CIBC, Scotia Bank, Royal Bank, and BMO) did okay this year.  Their 22.4 billion total profits, an increase of 15% over 2010, was aided not only by the federal corporate tax decrease, but also by a decrease of more than 2.5% in Ontario corporate taxes over the past 18 months. 

   Additionally, the annual bonuses handed out to the banks’ ‘top performers’ rose by 8%, to 9.3 billion.  Luckily that miniscule pot of cash was spread out over far fewer ‘performers’: StatsCan reports financial sector employment fell by 14% last year.

   Kinda sums up the economic crisis, doesn’t it?  Wacky wealth for some; job losses and court appearances for others.  Hmmm…

A new militarism?

Once in a while even the academic lecture can surprise and please us.

   Ian McKay, Queen’s University historian, visited Halifax on December 13 to talk about the growing alliance between the Canadian right and our armed forces.  McKay cited the growing symbolic validation of the military—American-style fly-overs; renaming our forces as ‘Royal’; Highways of Heroes.  He sees the military increasingly used as a wedge between Canadians and democracy: labelling those who oppose military adventures as unpatriotic; the uncritical place in economic development given to military projects, such as the F-35 fighter and (deep bow, please) the Halifax frigate project.

   McKay’s riff on William Stairs, nineteenth century military icon, reminded us—as the historian must—that the love of things military always has its uses.  A Halifax boy wonder (two great African adventures before be died at 29), Stairs explored with Stanley and suppressed Katanga for the singular imperial brute King Leopold of Belgium.  He was the local poster boy for the life of military adventure in the years leading up to the Boer War, and on into WWI. 

   And so it is again.  Through the Afghanistan and Libyan adventures the nation’s relationship to our military has been redefined.  We are not a peaceable kingdom.  We owe our prosperity and freedom to the warriors, our nation’s heroes.

   To what end?  McKay sees an enhanced military as more than a throwback Conservative ideal.  Their golden age, he says, is a mythical Canada of the 1920s—men were men, women were subservient, the family was the family and we all were industrious, respected authority, and went to war when we were told.

   But the armed forces may be more than just another part of that quaint mosaic, McKay fears.  If Canada can be recreated in an old/new Conservative image through democratic means, all the better.  But if not…

   McKay, who writes books like you and I write out our weekly shopping list, has authored, with Jamie Swift, the forthcoming Warrior nation: Re-branding Canada in a Fearful Age.  Put it on your wish list.

A life measured in column inches?

In a one-newspaper town the proprietor of that paper wields enormous power—deciding what is news and what is not, of course, but also setting the tone and terms of public discourse.

   The early-December passing of Graham Dennis, 57 years the publisher of the Chronicle Herald, merited more than passing note.  And it certainly got more, much more.    

   Most of us end up six feet under.  Even if Dennis is a candidate for resurrection, as several of his Chronicle Herald obituarists seemed to suggest, the weight of the prose under which he was buried will certainly keep him in the box for good.  For the record—and it must have been a record—within five days of his passing we counted 144 column inches of news coverage (perhaps an editorial humorist intentionally rounded it all out to a gross), 52½ column inches of opinion pieces, 342 square inches of photos, one editorial, two editorial cartoons, and two obituaries totalling 36 inches.

   Many of the dozens who wrote, or who were quoted, reflected on Dennis’s fine personal qualities: his generosity, civility, caring.  None save New Brunswick tycoon Arthur Irving—no stranger to poor newspapers—claimed that the Dennis proprietorship gave us good journalism.

   On this, the record is official, and clear.  The Uncertain Mirror, the 1970 Canadian Senate Report on Canadian Newspapers, singled out the Dennis family newspapers (the Chronicle-Herald and the Mail Star at the time) for their most scathing critique, beginning, "[T]here is probably no large Canadian city that is so badly served by its newspapers….there is probably no news organization in the country that has managed to achieve such an intimate and uncritical relationship with the local power-structure, or has grown so indifferent to the needs of its readers.”

   The Senate Report cited “lazy, uncaring journalism,” saying, “[T]he flatulent nature of the Dennis editorial product supports the view that something very close to news suppression frequently takes place….We find it ironic, and a little sad, that the Chronicle-Herald prides itself on being a direct descendent of the Novascotian published by Joseph Howe, the father of Canada’s free and responsible press.”

   The Herald papers improved with time.  When the Halifax Daily News was in full flower, from the late 1980s to 2008,  the Chronicle Herald’s reporting was crisper, the writing better, and opinion less uniformly corrosive.

   But that was then.  Now that Halifax has slipped back to a single daily published paper of note, the Herald’s news room is much smaller, and independent intelligent commentary a stranger. (The cartoons are still great.  Always were.)  Lost dogs, cats up trees, crime and family tragedies dominate the front page.

  If the Canadian Senate of today dared a serious study on the state of newspapers in Canada, Halifax would again be among those considered least well served.

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