Dispatch from the Front Lines: Don't make us talk about America. No one likes that.
So, yeah, A BIT of America, but mostly Canadian stuff: a budget, technically. Alberta and CBC. Han Dong and Global. A stabbing in Vancouver. And some announcements.
Hello, Line readers! Before we get into the meat of the dispatch, will you indulge us a few housekeeping notes?
First of all: for the last year or so, we’ve put our dispatches behind the paywall. For the month of April, we are going to drop the paywall on the weekly dispatches, but, we are going to put some columnists, including Line editors Gurney and Gerson, behind the paywall. Probably one post a week, maybe two. Why? Honestly, to experiment. We’ve tried it one way for a while. Now we’re going to try it another way. Don’t read anything big into this. In 30 days, we’ll report back our plans based on what we see. If it works, maybe we’ll keep it. If it bombs, we’ll go back to the old way. Let’s find out!
Second, we haven’t done a direct appeal for new subscribers in a while (the paywall was accomplishing that for us). But here’s a direct appeal to our free readers: If a quarter of you converted your free subscriptions into paid subscriptions, The Line would be instantly capitalized to the level Gurney and Gerson once sketched out as their pie-in-the-sky dream-come-true target. We’d be able to start transitioning this from a (we’d argue) fun magazine into a genuine newsroom. We know times are hard right now, but this is our appeal to you: the $5 a month you’ll give to us may well be the best $5 you spend this month, or any month. You’ll be supporting independent journalism when it’s needed most. And our retention statistics are fantastic: we keep our customers happy. Please become one today: subscribe to The Line.
Oh, and speaking of independent journalists: we wanted to note the arrival of our friend Tasha Kheiriddin to the army of the Substackers. Tasha is an old colleague of ours from the National Post. We used to joke — well, actually, it was mostly sincere — that she was the person on the editorial board who’d show up to every meeting excited to talk about the report she’d just read — a report the rest of us were dreading reading. She does good work. Check her out, and support her, if you can.
One more item before we get to the good stuff: we have a policy of noting major corrections in our dispatches when we make them. In Jen Gerson’s column from Thursday, we corrected her article to note uncertainty surrounding the timeline and status of various criminal charges laid against Calgary pastor Art Pawlowski. We regret any confusion.
And now, on with the show.
Starting with our weekly video. Yes, we’re back!
Podcast version is up, too, if you prefer.
The big story in our country this week was, in theory, the budget. You’ll note our qualifier there. A budget is always important, we say with professional earnestness. It, like, funds stuff. But our usual interest in the budget isn’t in the line-by-line details, but in the political message a budget sends. Is it a good times budget? A hard budget? A pre-election campaign announcement?
This budget isn’t any of these things. In fact, our only real takeaway from the budget was that this is what a budget looks like when a government has to do a budget and so it does a budget. And in exchange for doing the budget, it won’t have to do another one for 12 months.
This isn’t to say that there is nothing of interest in there. Paul Wells, who rightly reminded us all on Saturday that budgets are never boring because there’s no boring way to spend that much money, wrote earlier in the week in some detail about the government’s plans for spurring green energy development in Canada. In a break from the routine, rather than trying to micro-manage the process via new agencies and institutes and departments, the feds are prepared to just write the cheques and let others do the work. “This is by far the least interventionist, the least meddlesome, the least obviously doomed-in-advance initiative the Trudeau government has announced to hasten the advent of the vaunted low-carbon economy,” he wrote. (Though his Saturday piece, noting the budget’s fine print, does add some doubts about the plan.)
So yes. There are interesting things in the budget. But for us, the two takeaways are basically this:
The government has been fully defensive for months now, partially over Chinese electoral interference allegations and partially because they keep screwing things up. (These are not necessarily fully separate issues.) The budget in theory could have been an opportunity for them to try and change the channel with something big and bold; instead, we got a fairly modest plan that includes some very obvious sops to the NDP. Our read? The government is just trying to survive the current challenges and it knows it needs a happy NDP to do that. The budget buys it some time and some good will from their confidence-and-supply partners.
Andrew Coyne noted this week that, last year, the budget at least made mention of our waning economic productivity and slowing economic growth, upon which nothing less than our future economic security (security period, really) rests. This budget, he laments, doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem at all. Whether or not Canada is broken is a fascinating debate, and we indulge in it from time to time ourselves here (ahem). If we don’t start growing our economy, and fast, the question of whether or not we’re broken will get a lot easier to answer! Many, many bills are coming due. It would be good to be able to pay them, eh?
We don’t make a habit of commenting on U.S. politics at The Line. We don’t avoid it, either. But in general, we’d rather read what Americans think about America than tell Canadians what we think about it.
And as a rule, we don’t comment on mass shootings in the U.S., because there is simply nothing left to say. Seriously. We began to suspect there was nothing left to say after Sandy Hook — a targeted attack on kindergarteners by a mentally ill person with easy access to a firearm. That didn’t move the needle. What would? A few years and dozens more similar incidents later, your Line editors largely retired from writing about these things. The toll it was taking on us was simply too much. We have limits to how much heartfelt anger and grief we can pour into the world to such visibly futile effect.
We are going to slightly bend/break both these rules here to simply observe two things about the U.S. — two things that won’t need much comment beyond the observations themselves.
First, in Nashville this week, a transgendered person attacked a Christian elementary school. The shooter, born female but now identifying as male, shot his way into the school and killed three staff and three nine-year-old students. The emerging profile of the shooter is both interesting and not. Not interesting: history of mental-heath issues, easy access to guns, alarming online posts before the attack — all sadly typical. Interesting: the shooter had attended the school as a child, suggesting a strong personal motive for the attack.
That’s all we’ll really say about the details of the shooting. The broader comment we’d make is that if we were to set out to imagine a more toxic brew of culture war issues, we don’t know if we could. Seriously. Transgendered person uses assault rifle to attack private Christian school? It might be possible to imagine something more inflammatory, given the current state of the U.S., but we lack the emotional strength to try. This is like the worst of Twitter somehow taking corporeal form and murdering a bunch of innocent school kids. It’s bad.
At the same time, we note without much comment that former president Donald J. Trump has been indicted by local officials in New York City. We don’t have specific details on the charges he’ll face yet, and likely won’t before Tuesday, when Trump is expected to surrender for his arraignment, but the charges are linked to his alleged illegal “hush money” payout to porn star and apparently one-time (married man) Trump sexual partner Stormy Daniels.
(Can you even believe that last sentence? Can you blame us for not writing much about the U.S. when we can avoid it?)
Anyway, our point is simply this: either of these things would leave us very, very worried about some yo-yo in the U.S. deciding to reach for a gun to settle a score or prove a point. Both of them at once? Yikes. We hope for calm. We hope people are mindful of how harsh words on social media can spill over into real life. We hope no one else gets shot this week.
Related to the above, but now back on our side of the border: When it comes to the news, we’re pretty hard to shock here at The Line. We’ve all worked in the business for decades, so we like to think we’ve seen it all. Especially given the always-on video-everything crowdsourced panopticon we’ve decided to live in, there’s not much we haven’t seen before. Hell, some of us here have spent the better part of the past year watching with, if not glee, at least grim satisfaction, the steady flow of snuff videos of Russian soldiers put out by the Ukrainian military’s propaganda arm.
But good lord, sometimes we’re truly stunned by what our fellow humans are capable of.
If you spent any time trolling through social media last week, there’s a good chance you came across a video of a man being stabbed to death outside a Starbucks in downtown Vancouver. We won’t link to it, you can find it easily enough. It’s a short clip, but all the more shocking for its brevity.
So what do you see? It’s broad daylight. Someone is holding up their camera, pointing it from the street toward the front entrance of the Starbucks. There’s a man with his back to the camera staggering a bit, there’s blood splattered on the ground in front of him. Out of the coffee shop comes a burly fellow carrying a knife, who just sort of watches as the first man falls to the ground in front of him, then lies on his face, blood pooling, motionless. “He’s dead, bro” says the cameraman. No more than a handful of feet away a Starbucks patron sits sipping his coffee, barely paying any attention.
So what happened?
The dead man is a 37-year-old from Burnaby named Paul Schmidt. He was at the Starbucks last Sunday with his wife and three-year-old daughter. According to Schmidt’s mother, the confrontation began when Schmidt asked a man not to vape near his daughter as he waited outside with his daughter in a stroller while his wife went in to the shop. It ended moments later with Schmidt dead, and the other man charged with second-degree murder. There’s no reason to think the suspect and victim knew one another.
Why does this have us so rattled? At one level, there’s nothing that unique about this. We’re living through a disturbing wave of random urban violence in Canada right now — most notably (but far from exclusively) on the TTC in Toronto where violence against passengers was up 46 per cent last year. Indeed, the killing of Paul Schmidt in Vancouver was largely overshadowed in the central Canadian media by the fatal stabbing on the TTC the night before. In that killing, a 16-year-old boy named Gabriel Magalhaes was sitting on a bench waiting for a subway when a 22-year-old man came up and reportedly knifed him out of the blue.
But there’s something about the video of Paul Schmidt’s last moments alive that is almost impossibly cold — beginning with the fact that the video was shot in the first place, and narrated by someone close enough to help, but more interested in getting social media footage than in stepping in. Schmidt’s family, along with the Vancouver mayor and chief of police, have asked people not to watch or share the video and have requested that it be taken down.
But beyond the decision by a bystander to film and narrate Schmidt’s killing, there’s the behaviour of the others in the video, like the patron who continues to drink his coffee while Schmidt bleeds out. And then there’s the accused himself, standing holding a knife as his victim dies, looking as if he hadn’t a concern in the world. According to police, the accused was found sitting calmly in the Starbucks and surrendered without any trouble.
Almost 60 years ago, a 28-year-old bartender named Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her New York City apartment. The New York Times published an article about the murder with the headline "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police," and it included a quote from a neighbour who said he heard Genovese’s screams but “didn’t want to get involved.” The murder became something of a sensation; Harlan Ellison wrote a magazine piece in which he claimed that one man turned up his radio to drown out Genovese’s screams.
As it turned out, the reporting in the original story was highly suspect: there weren’t anywhere near 37 witnesses; no one actually saw her being killed; many thought the noise was just drunks or lovers arguing. As it turned out, at least two people did call the police.
But like many such cases, what mattered more than the truth of the incident was the fact that it seemed like the sort of thing that could happen — it struck at what a lot of people saw as a fundamental truth about the modern world. For decades after, the killing of Kitty Genovese served as a short-hand for what many saw as the undeniable alienation, apathy, and indifference of urban life. The phenomenon of people keeping their heads down and not getting involved or helping their fellow citizens in grave danger became known in social psychology as the “bystander effect.”
The killing of Kitty Genovese might not, itself, have been an example of the phenomenon, but the murder of Paul Schmidt certainly looks like it. We just have the short video, we don’t know what happened before or after, and we don’t know what was going on off-scene. But it is hard to not look at what happened in Vancouver last week and wonder if Canada has become a nation of cold, apathetic, and indifferent bystanders.
We at The Line have already said most of what needs saying about this week's Alberta debacle. Jen Gerson published a column about a video showing premier Danielle Smith hosting some kind of phone call with known controversial pastor Artur Pawlowski, who has racked up numerous charges in recent years as his crusade against Godlessness morphed into a fight against vaccines, masks, physical distancing measures, and open borders.
The only outstanding question is whether the video — in which Smith admits to meeting "weekly" with "our prosecutors" about COVID related cases — vindicates some of the CBC reporting we've previously criticized. Specifically, we've had some questions about a claim by the CBC that someone from the premier's office sent emails to the Alberta Crown Prosecutor Service challenging "prosecutors' assessment and direction on cases stemming from the Coutts border blockades and protests."
As we noted at the time, this certainly could have been inappropriate; as we all learned during the SNC-Lavalin scandal, prosecutors ought to be able to conduct their work free of political interference and pressure. Communication between political staff generally ought to be confined to the attorney general, or members within the Justice department. So if such email between the premier's staff and prosecutors existed, it might be a pretty damning example of political interference and overstep.
Problem was, Smith denied any such communication occurred. And an email search failed to turn anything up.
Further, the CBC reported on these emails based on the recollections of unnamed sources; the reporters had not actually seen the communications in question — which left the premise of the story vulnerable to a lie by the sources, or to something as simple as a disagreement of interpretation.
Anyway, even though the video between Smith and Pawlowski is embarrassing for the premier, it doesn't do much to hold up the CBC's story, either.
A few reasons for this: Firstly, we still haven't seen any email between a member of the premier's staff and a crown prosecutor.
Now, there was a letter penned by Ezra Levant and sent to the premier in which Levant outlined all kinds of things he thought ought to be done about outstanding COVID charges, including charges laid against Pawlowski. But, so what? Citizens send political figures letters and complaints all the time. Unless there was evidence the Levant letter was then used to direct prosecutors, there's nothing untoward in it.
Back to the video between Smith and Pawlowski. During the 11-minute call, Smith says she's been briefed on the nature — and limits — of her powers and she seems to be very conscious of maintaining appropriate boundaries between politics and independent prosecutors. She spends a lot of time trying to explain to Pawlowski that she can’t just make his charges go away. (Although she may not have fully respected the spirit of the law, she seemed to be well versed in the letter of the thing.)
While the premier did say on the tape she was asking prosecutors about "COVID-related" files on a weekly basis, we're not entirely sure whether she meant her staff were talking with crown prosecutors, or if she simply meant they had been talking to staff within the justice department — a conflation she had a habit of making.
And, most weirdly, by the time this call took place, Art Pawlowski wasn't even facing any "COVID-related" charges. The only charges outstanding were those connected to a sermon he gave at the border crossing at Coutts during the convoy, which allegedly amounted to him inciting the continued closure of critical infrastructure. That matter is ongoing.
In our previous dispatch on this file, we were incorrect on this point. We said then that Pawlowski hadn't had any of his COVID-related charges dropped. We were wrong. (Sorry!) In fact, charges were stayed in December of last year — a few weeks before the video call in question took place. In addition, Pawlowski had successfully appealed several earlier COVID-related charges back in July, well before Smith took office.
But if Smith's meddling had resulted in Pawlowski's stay in December, she seemed to be oblivious to it, and the pastor made no attempt to bring it up. Instead, he launched into a tirade against the Crown prosecutor pursuing him for the Coutts related charges. On the whole, the video makes it seem like Smith wasn't particularly well briefed about the specifics of Pawlowski's case at all.
As we've said already, the video call was very dumb and very inappropriate, and it certainly improves the argument for holding an independent investigation into this mess. We reserve final judgement on the matter until more information comes out; we don’t rule out the possibility that Smith et al gone done borked it. But the impression we're getting from all of this so far is not a government prone to rampant illegality, but rather one that is patently amateur.
Your Line editors have to admit that the threat of libel doesn't exactly fill our hearts with dread. In this, we are, perhaps, unusual. But if you're been in journalism for any length of time, your office walls will be cluttered with the trophies of desist letters and statements of claims for disgruntled subjects. Although we always stay on the right side of the law, these kinds of angry gems are inevitable.
And that's because anybody can file a libel claim. There are clear and obvious defences to such a claim, of course, but individuals with enough cash or ire are free to file as they see fit; and many do, knowing that even if the suit falls flat, the threat alone — and costs involved with the defence — can sometimes be enough to silence the critic.
Most of the time, the vast majority of libel notices die on the vine; often at the moment when the suit reaches disclosure — the stage at which both parties must hand over private correspondence to ascertain responsible journalism, or malicious intent.
We bring this up because this week, now-independent MP Han Dong filed suit against Global News and a series of its staff for stories claiming that he had met with the Chinese consul in Toronto and advised the government to delay releasing the two Michaels as doing so would benefit the Liberals.
The story, by Sam Cooper, cited two unnamed sources.
Again, we will note that anybody can file a libel claim, and there are generally strong defences in place for journalism. Innocent or not, we have some doubt that Dong will be keen for Global's lawyers to dig through his private correspondence. Disclosure goes both ways. We also think many are underestimating how broad and powerful Global’s defences would be if the matter ended up in court.
Anyone pinning their hopes for some kind of vindication for Dong — and, by extension, the Liberals on Chinese interference allegations — should settle in for a long, and probably disappointing outcome.
That said, we would like to note that we aren't all-in on the assumption that Dong has done anything nefarious.
Although we find the early talking points of Liberal supporters — ie; that CSIS mistranslated the Mandarin words for "immediate" and "delay" — to be ludicrous, the story does have some holes.
First of all, why would it benefit the Liberals for the Chinese government to continue holding the Michaels?
We also can’t entirely rule out the possibility that the spy agency did screw up the translation of whatever conversation they claim to have intercepted.
According to Dong's version of the story, the MP did speak to Chinese consul officials about the two Michaels, and failed to disclose this conversation either to his superiors at the PMO, or to Global Affairs Canada, which was working to secure the release. This alone was inappropriate, and probably ought to have gotten Dong booted from caucus — unless he wasn't actually working without the sanction of his bosses. If Dong were working as an unofficial backchannel for the government, well, then this starts to be an entirely different story altogether, doesn't it?
The Chinese interference story is messy and ongoing and we just want our readers to know that we're keeping an open mind on all angles, including the possibility of Han Dong's innocence.
Okay! Thanks! Remember: dispatches not paywalled, some columns paywalled, for an experiment in April. Comments will be opened on dispatches only. You’re behaving yourselves lately. Keep it up!
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