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Make Mezze, Not War

Published in J-Source on Dec. 11, 2010

By Claude Adams

It’s a delectable thesis: That if we would only put as much imagination into the delights of sharing food as we do in killing one another, the world would be a much happier place. That’s the underlying theme of reporter Anna Badkhen’s Peace Meals, the only book of war memoirs I’ve ever seen that contains recipes for baba ghanouj and boiled lobster.

“In the blighted places where I work,” writes Badkhen, an award-winning war correspondent, “food is the closest thing to normalcy.” She finds succulent scarlet tomatoes in Iraq, garlic eggplant in Kashmir, and fatoush salad in the Gaza Strip, and she spends her evenings sharing the local food—mostly vegetables—with the people she writes about, building friendships and breaking down barriers.

Presumably, this happens while less culturally-attuned correspondents—mostly men—barricade themselves in their hotel rooms at the end of a stressful day, and dull themselves with booze and protein so they can steal a few hours of untroubled sleep before the next round of calamity journalism.

Food is much more than nourishment, Badkhen says. It’s also comfort, and it reminds us what we have in common as human beings. How can one possibly feel bellicose toward someone who has just served you kaddo bowrani, Afghan pumpkin with yogurt sauce? It’s in the stomach, and in all those social rituals that accompany the filling of the stomach, that the differences among us are diminished. We ARE the sum total of our appetites, after all. Physical and spiritual.

“Over food, you talk to your hosts and fellow diners about their lives and tell them about yours, and after all the horrors of the day, such simple conversations make everyday life worth living.” This can happen over a fried egg, or over an entire roast lamb in an African village: the menu is not as important as the human interaction, the unspoken grammar of shared gustation.

Ah, but if it were only so easy. Once, while touring the on-again, off-again conflict zone of southern Sudan with a hired Egyptian TV crew, I decided to ask for a bed at the home of a wealthy Arab merchant in the village where we were filming. Not only did the merchant offer us sleeping quarters, he also ordered his wives to prepare us a lavish meal under the stars. When my crew saw the table laden with unfamiliar local dishes, they whispered to me: “We can’t eat this. We don’t know what Sudanese food is.” So over my objections, they slunk off to their tent and opened cans of tuna for supper, while I apologized to my offended host. I ate everything on offer, but the meal was not a success.

On assignment in Baghdad, while Saddam Hussein was still in power, I remember stepping into a restaurant along the Tigris and watching men beat giant river carp to death with sticks on a cement floor, before roasting them over a wood fire. There was little cultural bonding there for me; the fish blood on the floor killed my appetite. I drove back to the hotel and had an omelet.

Badkhen, on the other hand, is nothing if not adventuresome. A Russian by birth, she’ll eat anything that looks interesting, and she’ll flatter her hosts by copying the recipe. Apart from being a great learning tool, it’s part of her native survival mechanism. “We . . . did what generations of Russians, betrayed by their government over and over, have done to heal,” she writes. “We ate.”

Badkhen writes with vividness and passion, whether it’s about something as trivial as a turnip salad in Afghanistan or, as awful as a terrorist martyrdom in Israel. The problem comes when they appear on the same page. Any pleasure we might draw from the prospect of preparing and eating mezze in a Gaza market disappears when we read about Ahmat Salmi, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who hung several grenades from his belt, hooked them up to a push-button detonator, and set off to kill some Israeli Jews. Ahmat was killed by soldiers before he reached his destination. “He never got to kill anyone, not even himself,” Badkhen writes trenchantly. At that point, I skipped over the next few pages of recipes.

This is not to suggest that Badkhen is in any way insensitive to the misery and deprivation around her. Her book is much more than a gourmand’s tour of grim landscapes. She appreciates the moral incongruity of the well-fed, well-equipped Western reporter arriving in a famine zone, staying only long enough to take notes and a few pictures before racing away in an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive. As she describes herself: “A transient witness only there long enough to document pain and privation; a professional intruder, mostly safe from the devastation I arrived to write about.”

Yet it’s a job she has to do. And she argues, with great conviction, that part of that job is to immerse oneself as deeply, and as intimately, into the environment one is writing about. That immersion will probably include sitting across a rough table from people and consuming something exotic and new, and sharing the enjoyment of it. Badkhen writes that one of the disadvantages of being an “embed” with the military is that the embedded reporter doesn’t have the freedom to share food with the locals; instead, she's forced to consume the military diet of defrosted buffalo wings, corn dogs and Baskin-Robbins ice cream shipped 10,000 km in refrigerated containers.

However, if you are going to be a ”professional intruder,” Badkhen concludes, you can at least do it with some grace and openness. “In extremity, an offer to break bread is more than an invitation to hear someone’s story. It’s a chance to link that person’s life and yours.”

Not a bad modus operandi for a journalist trying to better understand the world.

Jailhouse Blues: Fonyo meets Foucault

By Claude Adams

December, 2010--Visiting Steve Fonyo, in jail, once again, I see the “docile body” that philosopher Michel Foucault describes in his famous analysis of discipline, punishment and the prison system. Steve is wearing a shapeless red T-shirt and red sweatpants (mandatory jailhouse gear), his complexion is pale (awful jailhouse diet), his hair close-cropped (loss of aesthetic individuality.) He looks flaccid and passive. His eyes are lifeless.

He’s on anti-depressants, in protective custody (“because I’m a high-profile prisoner, I guess”) and he hasn’t seen his wife in a month. His mood swings erratically from elation to despondency as we talk, separated by thick glass, over telephones. Our conversation is electronically filtered, and the cubicle we’re in allows for no human contact. If he should “misbehave” there are cameras everywhere, and guards just seconds away. We are inside Foucault’s Panopticon, where one is seen, but one cannot see the watchers, “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Just in case we forget, we hear that unseen power in the voice of authority coming from hidden speakers.

Foucault says jails are a manifestation of how society distributes power: We give it, and we take it away. In Fonyo’s case, this extends to his limbs. Literally. He’s off the grid. His artificial/electronic leg doesn’t work, because it requires a electric cable to keep it charged, and you can kill yourself with a cable. So he can’t have one in his cell. Even though it leaves him hobbling, and even more miserable, it's for his own good (he's told.) Once he leaves jail, his power will be restored.

He’s also largely voiceless. Each phone call from inside costs a dollar. Steve doesn’t have a dollar. He doesn’t have a dime. His phone card is empty. So if he wants to call Lisa, his wife, or Suzanne, his sister, or his lawyer, he has to beg a dollar from another inmate. He has to offer that inmate something in return. The common currency here is food. Steve has given up his Sunday roast chicken dinner so he can use the phone. He says that sometimes the sound of the human voice is more important than sustenance.

I have coins in my pocket but I can’t pass them over because of the glass partition. I have to leave them with the guard at the front desk, who puts them in a Ziploc bag and drops them into what looks like a mailbox. “He’ll get the money in a couple of hours,” the guard says. I’m also warned that the next time I come for a scheduled visit, I’ll have to come 15 minutes early, or my visit will be cancelled. (Fonyo is told ahead of time about a scheduled visit, but not WHO is coming to visit him. It's another one of those petty disempowerments, to remind the inmate of his status.)

Is Fonyo a threat to society? I suppose you could make a case for that, if you're so inclined. The criminal charges against him are: Four counts of driving a car while prohibited (no driver’s license), one charge of using a false credit card to buy gas, one fraud charge, and one charge of assault against his wife (he called her names, and threatened her with a laptop; she ran out and called the cops.) The fraud charge is the oddest one: A few weeks ago, he bought an $80 tool at Home Depot. He used it to fix a car. Later that week he found himself without cigarette money. So he went back to Home Depot, pulled an identical new tool off the shelf, and went to the customer service desk and said: “I bought this tool here a few days ago, but I don’t need it anymore. Can I have my money back?” He produced his old receipt. The clerk gave him the money and Steve left. He would have gotten away with it, except somebody checked the store’s closed circuit TV, and there, on tape, was a clear movie of the well-known Steve Fonyo, slyly scamming the store. (He told me once that ripping off big-box stores and gas stations gives him a rush, makes him feel like somebody; like he still has the mojo that propelled him across Canada on one good leg 25 years ago.)

Fonyo pleaded guilty to the Home Depot fraud and to all the other charges. Just to make them all go away, all at once, he says. The next step is sentencing in mid-December.

He and Lisa were married last August but they’ll probably spend Christmas apart. Unless Steve can find a sympathetic doctor to write a Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) that will convince a judge that there are mitigating factors behind his misbehavior, and that he intends to keep the peace. That’s a tall order. Fonyo started breaching the peace shortly after his run across Canada in 1985 for cancer research, and he’s been doing it with regularity ever since.

Foucault argued that our modern institutions—medicine, education, psychology, justice—operate on the kinds of principles that “cannot fail to produce delinquents.” Delinquents like Fonyo are set on the road to dysfunction early in life. He seemed predisposed to flout the institutional codes of behavior. Even in school, Fonyo hated codes and rules, and when his run across Canada made him rich before the age of 20, he was able to indulge his natural unruliness. Then he found alcohol and drugs and fast friends, and when his father died suddenly, in 1987, he fell apart. “I was so lost, I didn’t know what I was doing, living in the streets, sleeping in bushes. I just gave up on life.” Once, while sleeping off a drunk under a tree in the Downtown Eastside, somebody stole his artificial leg. The easy money was gone, and Fonyo had to steal to survive. The man who raised $13 million for cancer research now couldn’t hold on to a job because of the booze and the coke. Yet somehow, he managed to hold on to his Order of Canada (he was the youngest ever recipient) for another 23 years. They finally took it away a year ago, while he was in jail—a humiliation he still can’t understand or forgive.

Fonyo is not conversant in criminology or human psychology, but what he does know is that all actions have consequences. The problem is, he can’t control his anti-social impulses. And he knows that longer he remains in custody, the greater is the likelihood that his wife Lisa will re-offend (she also has a criminal record, mostly for shoplifting. She can’t work because of a disability) “She’s going through the garbage looking for bottles,” he says. The December rent is paid by social services, but what happens then? One more shoplifting charge, and she’ll almost certainly be behind bars as well.

People ask me why I spend time worrying about Steve Fonyo, the archetypal loser; why I visit him in jail, make sure he calls his mother and replenish his phone card. It’s a good question. First of all, I believe condemnation is a wasteful exercise. I'm with Tennessee Williams, who said: "Human venality is something I always expect and forgive." But even more, I suppose what attracts me is that Fonyo embodies a kind of existential struggle between promise and disappointment. I’ve seen his better angels. They routinely get routed by his demons, but I keep hoping that they might someday prevail. Last August, I filmed his marriage to Lisa Greenwood on Fonyo Beach in Victoria. The wedding was organized and paid for by a small group of sentimental fans, led by a remarkable widow named Norma Fitzsimmons. After the exchange of vows, Norma shook her finger at Steve and said: “Now you promise me you won’t go back to jail.” For a while, with Norma’s help, it seemed like the angels were winning. Steve and Lisa found a place to live, he started working regularly as a motor mechanic. They made plans. He even promised to see a therapist, to work out some of his behavioral issues. But then the demons kicked in again, and Fonyo was back behind bars. Redemption now seems as elusive as ever.

I started this story with a reference to Foucault and the “docile body.” I did so because I believe that in Fonyo’s case, prolonged incarceration is a mistake. The docility he displays now is temporary and, I believe, partly drug-induced. Punitive measures won’t work; he’s already punished himself a lot more than police and judges can. Punishment has blunted his anger, but it will come back. Fonyo needs extended therapy, the same kind of treatment he received in the 1980s when he experienced his first bouts of clinical depression. There’s also a good possibility that Fonyo suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He was diagnosed with this illness as a young man by his family doctor, but was never treated.

Fonyo needs treatment, not jail. Jail chokes off any hope of recovery. It represents a dead end, a kind of death. And I can’t help thinking of Steve Fonyo at 18, when that young body was anything but docile, when he pushed it to achieve one singular and next-to-impossible thing. I’d like to believe that some of that spirit is still alive. And that, properly nurtured, it can help make him better. Not to run great distances. But just to walk through a regular life.

UPDATE from Lisa: He'll be in jail until at least mid-January, because it will take at least that long to prepare a PSR. The law, and lawyers, work slowly.

UPDATE from Lisa. On Dec. 17, shortly after 5pm, a very distraught Lisa calls to tell me that their rental had been broken into, and the place was trashed and robbed. The thief got everything: computer, electronics, her bike, Christmas presents, and knocked everything down. She called the police, but the landlord told her he would be evicting her. I tried to reassure her that this would not happen.

UPDATE: Visited Steve at Surrey Pre-Trial on Dec. 29. Lisa told me he's been badly beaten on Christmas Day in his cell, but four days later, he looked unbruised and in good shape, altho his spirits were still low. "I can't take much more of this," he started.
Told me that he was sitting in his cell on the afternoon of the 25th, eating a plate of noodles and watching Star Wars on TV, when someone walked into his cell, grabbed him from behind, threw him to the floor and bashed him severely about the head. Broke his glasses and almost broke his arm. He still doesn't have a name or a motive (which I don't really believe.) He reckons it was some private jailhouse thing, maybe somebody wanting to rumble a celeb prisoner. Anyway, he's now in isolation, no TV, one hour a day out of his cell, bored out of his mind. He writes a later daily to Lisa, which is a positive sign.

Fixing(?) Haiti

Letter to the editor/ Globe and Mail, Dec. 1, 2010

Putting Haiti under UN trusteeship for four years is another way of saying: Let’s just take the country, fix it, and then give it back when we’re done (letters – Nov. 30). The international community, including Canada, did exactly that when it removed the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004, and then sent in 10,000 blue helmets to pacify the country. In the process, it neutralized Mr. Aristide’s populist Lavalas movement (which, interestingly, was barred from Sunday’s election).

We’ve effectively “had” Haiti for more than six years, and things are worse then ever. Maybe it’s time to do something really radical, like helping Haiti in a way that respects its sovereignty.

Claude Adams, Surrey, B.C.

Journalist on the run

Published in J-Source on Nov. 18, 2010 Another version appeared in The Tyee on Nov. 29.

On a fall evening, after dark, you might find Luis Horacio Najera in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, peering down the desolate alleyways with a small Canon digital camera in his hand. He’s wearing a red ski jacket, and he’s uncommonly alert, a trained observer.

He might be photographing a surreptitious drug deal, or a junkie asleep by a dumpster. Luis will occasionally overhear snatches of conversation in Spanish. And that will tell him something significant. “There are Latins dealing in drugs up here,” he’ll say. He means Mexicans. He means gangs. And he should know.

Because for nearly half his life, Luis, 40, whose friends know him as Horacio, was a journalist in one of the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere—the Mexican-U.S. borderlands. His job was reporting on organized crime, illegal immigration, arms trafficking and police corruption. The good guys and the bad guys knew his name and his work, even though his employers, the Grupo Reforma, a prominent publishing house, kept his name off his stories. His exposes were bylined simply “Staff Reporter.” (See Luis' video Silencio o muerte, "Silence or Death")

That anonymity is no protection at all in Mexico. Since 2006, 34 journalists and media workers have been assassinated in Mexico. In Chihuahua province alone, where Luis plied his trade, the death toll was more than a half dozen. And it isn’t just the hit men of the drug cartels you have to worry about; the police and the federales also operate on the dark side. Reporters with zeal and integrity walk a very fine line.

Luis stepped over that line once too often. In August 2008, he wrote a story about a massacre at a Ciudad Juarez drug rehab centre. “I wrote that these places were hideouts for gangsters. I knew why the massacre happened. The military and the state police were involved. That’s when the military and the gangs converged against me. I was caught between two fires.”

Media organizations in Mexico do little or nothing to safeguard their employers, Luis says. In fact, reporters are all required to sign waivers that relieve their newspapers of any liability if they are injured or killed. For specialists like Luis, who work the crime beat, that’s a heavy psychological burden.

A reliable source told Luis that his name was on a death list, marked for assassination. As he would later write: “I could not trust the government, and I could not simply let myself be killed under some lonely streetlight.” So a month later, Luis, his wife and their three children slipped across the border carrying three suitcases, and came to Canada. They applied for refugee status.

Luis worried that his flight might be seen as an act of cowardice. But he was vindicated two months later when another journalist on the list, Armando Rodriguez Carreon, was gunned down outside his home.

Today, Luis and his family live in a small rented home in North Delta. After 14 months without a job, he found work as a janitor. He cleans floors and toilets. It pays $900 a month. The rent is $1100. They survive with the help of friends and the Mormon Church, where they worship. Some of their clothes and furniture “came right out of the garbage.”

Luis’ shoes are soaked from the rain when we meet for coffee at Tim Horton’s. “One thing about Canada,” he remarks, “is that the rain comes sideways, not straight down.” I wait for the grin, a sign that’s he’s joking. He’s not. I notice that his shoes are also flecked with paint (from a recent contracting job.) He says he spent a week selling video cameras at Futureshop, another week as a glazier’s assistant. But the janitor’s work is the most reliable. “It’s the refugee’s life,” he shrugs.

Later this month, Luis will be in Toronto to be recognized as one of the 2010 International Press Freedom Award winners. He hopes the exposure will help him find a better job, something in the academic world maybe. “I could do research in public safety, or intelligence.” Meanwhile, he’s studying English to improve his employability.

Luis knows that, for all the melodrama in his life, he’s lucky to be here. Fewer than 10% of Mexicans who apply for refugee status in Canada are accepted. It is, after all, a democracy with stable institutions. If you feel threatened in one province, you can move to another where it’s safer. And despite the occasional eruptions of drug cartel violence in the north, Mexico is still seen as a cheap and safe vacation spot for Canadians.

But one man’s paradise is another man’s purgatory. Luis spent 18 months preparing his case for the Refugee Board, and he didn’t leave anything to chance. He had letters of support from Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Article 19 from the UK, and even a publishing group in Germany. They all vouched for the fact that he was likely a marked man if he remained in Mexico.

“The smartest choice we made in Canada,” says Luis, “was to buy a printer from Futureship. My file was more than 900 pages of evidence.”

In that file, he covered his years of work as an investigative journalist in Ciudad Juarez, West Texas and New Mexico. He told of how he was threatened with death many times, how he was followed and harassed and intimidated. Once, a van parked outside his home and as his wife passed by, a thug in the van formed his fist into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot her.

The most terrifying incident of all involved a fellow journalist, Enrique Perea Quintanilla in August 2006. Perea lived in another city, and the two men texted regularly, exchanging information about the stories they were following. One day, Luis sent a text message to Perea at 2pm, and a few minutes later, he received an innocuous message in reply. What Luis didn’t know then, was that Perea had been abducted by a gang, and that the gangsters were intercepting his text messages, and replying to them. Perea was killed shortly after. A source later told him that the killers were trying to make Luis a “scapegoat” for the killing, on the basis of the text messages.

The refugee board hearing in downtown Vancouver this past summer started at 9 a.m. and lasted barely an hour. By 11:30, Luis had a decision: His application was accepted.

Today, Luis still has all the instincts and mannerisms of a journalist. Apart from his exploratory forays in the Downtown Eastside, he’s also an inveterate shutterbug. He takes pictures of everything with his pocket Canon. He’s especially proud of his 19-year-old son who marched on a recent Remembrance Day parade as a member of the Boy Scouts. He shows me a dozen snapshots.

“I want my grandsons and my great-grandsons to know why they are in Canada,” he says. “I want that to be my legacy.”

Does he feel secure now in Canada?

Luis thinks a minute and then replies in his unpolished English: “It may sound paranoid, but I know that for drug dealers, revenge is a plate you can enjoy cold.”

It’s a reminder that after two years, Luis Najera still carries the past with him. And he still keeps a wary eye over his shoulder. In that sense, he remains a journalist on the run.

The Human Interest Trap

Published in J-Source on Oct. 20, 2010

By Claude Adams

For the Chilean miners, as for the reporters who covered the story, the common theme of the 70-day drama in the desert was entrapment. The miners were trapped underground. The reporters were trapped in their narrow narrative: all human interest, all the time.

The miners found deliverance when they made it to the surface. The media, however, are left to deal with the critical post-mortems that invariably arise from this kind of event. They are accused of turning news into nuisance. They created a “circus,” they whipped up a “frenzy,” they stepped on people’s toes, violated privacy, and abandoned all proportionality in pursuing tears, conflict and melodrama.

In the process they left decorum behind. As Steven Bodzin of the The Christian Science Monitor reported, television cameramen roughly fought for their positions, even if it got in the way of family members who just wanted to celebrate. And once the celebrations started, reporters collapsed the tent in their rush to get close to the emotion. As if that wasn’t enough, they then dug into the awkward private lives of some of the miners.

Or else they gushed (MSNBC: “I think we need this as a world!”) or revealed their cultural cluelessness (“How do they get the doves to fly down there?” asked one reporter, not knowing that the Spanish for “doves” is an idiom for the packages sent down to the miners.)

Meanwhile, there were the stories they didn’t cover: the 250 miners who escaped the mine but lost their jobs, the shockingly poor safety record of the mine in question, the way the story was exploited by a billionaire president who had been criticized for not doing enough for Chile in the wake of last February’s earthquake. And the fact that as 33 miners were being pulled to safety, thousands of lives are lost every month in the world’s mines. Death isn’t nearly as compelling as deliverance.

They couldn’t do these other stories during the Rescue Countdown because they were trapped in the feel-good narrative of a resurrection story that would be choreographed to perfection. They were bound to one of the ruling principles of journalism of this kind of event: Never, ever, for even a second, take your eye off the singular human drama as it unfolds, even if every other reporter is tracking the same story, the same image. It’s the Iron Law of the Pack.

(I once heard a foreign editor argue that the “world”—meaning his audience—could only “handle” one major international story at any one time. This belief--that news consumers cannot cope with complexity and ambiguity--is at the root of the media’s embrace of the one-dimensional human interest story, to the exclusion of anything else.)

Imagine trying to convince a news editor back home that your time might be better served leaving Ground Zero and chasing another story. Say, how politicians and officials historically unconcerned about working conditions underground are now milking the rescue for its public relations value. Talk about spoiling the party!

So the miners became heroes through the simple act of survival under unpleasant conditions (hundreds of millions of anonymous Africans do this every day) and a lackluster president was elevated to world acclaim, just for being there. It’s a familiar bland black-and-white media template that’s perfectly suited to lazy journalism.

It’s a way of working, of course, that’s imposed on individual journalists by their bosses. There are few things riskier for a journalist than to depart from the standard text of a breaking human interest story, or worse, to be “missing” in pursuit of one’s own initiative when the story that everybody else is covering happens to break.

All this prevailed in the Chilean story. But there, the rescuers did one thing differently. They were smart enough to keep reporters a safe distance away, behind a fence. But even then, the rescue organizers had a captive audience. The Pack had little to do but to keep the cameras with their long-distance lens trained on the rescue shaft, with occasional segues to the encampment of anxious waiting families.

It was a subtle and nuanced negotiation between the Chilean government and the world press: We’ll give you proximity and pictures, but never forget that we own this story, and we’ll manage it our way.

Once upon a time, it was a different story altogether.

On a November day 25 years ago, in a mountainous region not far from Bogota, Colombia, a volcano erupted and propelled a mountain of mud onto the town of Armero, swallowing up 20,000 inhabitants in a few seconds. It took a day or two for the world’s press to arrive, but when we did, it was anarchy. We trampled over half-buried bodies, got in the way of rescue crews, searched for survivors to interview, and came to half-baked conclusions about the slowness of the government’s emergency response.

Inevitably, the Pack was drawn to a 13-year-old girl, Omayra Sanchez, who was trapped up to her chest in mud and debris. We took turns interviewing her, we did our stand-ups with Omayra in the background, we traced her life story, and we watched, hour after hour, as efforts to pull her out of the debris failed. One or two network reporters were determined to have the cameras rolling as Omayra breathed her last breath. That happened about 60 hours after the mudslide—a teenager expiring after an ordeal that had not a moment of privacy.

When the last survivors were pulled out, and the last of the dead were buried, we all went home and considered our work done.

But the lesson of Chile, as is the lesson of Rwanda and Haiti and a hundred other human interest hot spots, is that the real work of journalism, the grunt work, is often found away from the centre of the “action,” and after the camera lights have been turned off.

It’s Journalism 101 from the Wizard of Oz--the way out of the human interest trap. While everyone else is transfixed by smoke and lightning, take the time to look behind the curtain. Often that’s where you’ll find the real story.

Journalism gets mad

(Published in J-Source, Oct. 12, 2010)

By Claude Adams

To the many legacies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, you can add one more: The Journalism of Outrage. The natural disaster that nearly obliterated New Orleans five years ago made it okay, no, even fitting, for reporters to let loose that righteous indignation that lurks in all of us when we are witnesses to needless death and devastation, and we know the worst effects could have been prevented.

It’s not only setting aside objectivity. It’s raising the temperature, pointing a finger, holding someone accountable. It’s more than speaking truth to power; it’s assertively demanding an explanation, and maybe even throwing a figurative shoe when an honest answer isn’t forthcoming. “Cool is one thing,” said psychiatrist Frank Ochberg of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, reflecting on the emotions that were generated by the coverage of the Gulf Coast hurricanes. “Cold is something else.”

Katrina killed cold. Those of us who covered Rwanda and Haiti and the Asian tsunami, and prided ourselves on our reserve and professional detachment as we tip-toed around the bodies, got a shock when we watched the coverage of New Orleans. The rules of the game were changing. Here, finally, was gritty, hardcore journalism with a voice, an attitude. It was the end of deference.

“Excuse me, Senator,” remarked Anderson Cooper of CNN, as the US Senate leadership was congratulating itself for having passed an emergency funding bill. “I’m sorry for interrupting, I haven’t heard that because for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets . . . Because literally, there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the streets for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities (sic) to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out there?”

Call to arms

The tone was unmistakable: If you don’t “get it,” we are here to remind you of it over and over again throughout the news cycle. It was the newsman’s equivalent of the call to arms, to shake the foundations of a lethargic Big Government until it responds.

For NBC’s Brian Williams, the slow government reaction became a focus of the story. Williams recalled watching the U.S. Third Infantry Division in Iraq land a pallet of ready-to-eat meals, portable toilets and bottled water into an emergency zone 10 minutes after an order was issued. “What about these people in front of the (New Orleans) Convention Center—they didn’t deserve that?” he asked.

A TV critic in Seattle, Kay McFadden, remarked that the outrage showed America’s “passion for passion.” The storytellers, many of whom were themselves the victims of Katrina, had the right, even the moral duty, to get mad.

But the Journalism of Outrage is more than hectoring and finger-pointing. In New Orleans, it was the distilled proxy voice of a dispossessed population--wounded, homeless and feeling abandoned. Or as the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt put it: “Outrage is at its most effective when it is based on compassion; the sense that one is speaking out on behalf of ordinary people.”

The emergence of angry, compassion-based journalism is only a small part of Covering Disaster: Lessons from the Media Coverage of Katrina and Rita, a collection of essays edited by communication professors Ralph Izard and Jay Perkins, of Louisiana State University. But it’s easily the most evocative and important part because it makes such a strong case for aggressive advocacy in certain events.

“Citizens and reporters alike saw firsthand how inefficient and inept government really was,” they write. “It was a catastrophic failure from top to bottom, from the sheriff on the street to the bureaucrat in Washington . . . Many journalists clearly abandoned the concept of fair-and-balanced coverage and became advocacy reporters, telling the people in no uncertain terms what they were witnessing.”

And this kind of journalism struck a chord with the American public: Surveys showed that a solid majority of viewers didn’t mind having their emotions, and their critical faculties, stirred by a strong-jawed mad-as-hell media.

A kind of apology

It’s a bit surprising, then, to see what happened in the post-mortem analysis of the Katrina coverage. So entrenched is the profession in its ethos of equanimity and “coolness” that when the crisis was over, some of the journalists who had made the most noise were the first to issue qualified apologies. Looking back on his displays of on-air emotion, Anderson Cooper told the authors that he doesn’t “take sides” and that viewers don’t need an overpaid anchorman to tell them what to think. It was a repudiation of an honest and, I believe, justifiable impulse. (To be sure, in his coverage of post-earthquake Haiti earlier this year, Cooper was quite unrestrained in taking sides and telling his audience what they should conclude about the slow delivery of food and medicine to the people of Port-au-Prince.)

Other commentators warned that journalists needed to be careful lest they get “burned” by this new readiness to display outrage.

“Outrage,” said the BBC’s Hewitt, “should be used sparingly and should never slide into anger.”

To which I have to ask: Why not? As journalists dispense with their dispassionate objectivity in the face of tragedy and genocide, why shouldn’t they inject a little righteous anger into their reporting? Isn’t that display of passion essential in creating a true sense of connection between a viewer and an eyewitness to an extraordinary event? Indeed, isn’t that emotion part of the context of the story? Isn’t that also part of the legacy of 9/11?

Psychologist Daniel Goleman reminds us that in any given situation “our first moral response comes as a feeling, not a thought.” That’s not a bad thing, for a reporter with fully-developed Emotional Intelligence. For those with lower EI, however, strong emotion can cloud judgment. In New Orleans, in the fever of the moment, media outlets were too quick to report rumors of large-scale violence, rape, even snipers shooting at would-be rescuers. One commentator called the coverage of Katrina “an unmitigated media disaster”—an overstatement that unfairly tarred a profession struggling to deal with the worst natural disaster in American history.

Mistakes and hyperbole will always happen in the heat of the moment. (Remember Three Mile Island?) But what Katrina demonstrated is that passion and taking sides has its proper place in disaster journalism. “2005 was the year the stakes went up in journalism,” wrote one newspaper columnist.

Things will never be quite the same.

The disparities of disaster journalism

Published Aug. 24, 2010, in J-Source

By Claude Adams

In November, 1985, the CBC sent me with a TV crew to the town of Armero in Colombia, scene of an horrific mudslide that buried the town and 20,000 of its inhabitants. In the remorseless media hierarchy of human events, Armero was a middle-of-the-show disaster. An aerial shot, some failed rescues, a few anguished interviews with survivors, a government statement, and a reporter’s on-the-scene wrap.

But then we found Omayra Sanchez. Omayra was a pretty, 13-year-old girl trapped up to her shoulders in the mud and debris. For 60 hours, with reporters all around her, she waited to be rescued. She gave interviews, prayed, cried. Her image went round the world—an icon of heartbreak and tragedy. All rescue efforts failed. Then she died, of gangrene and hypothermia. Over the years, reporters who were there would forget Armero, but they would remember Omayra.

She taught me my first, and most indelible lesson about journalism and disaster: the anecdotal human experience will always command our attention. Josef Stalin predated modern electronic newsgathering, but in a twisted way he got one thing right: A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

For better or worse, we are all transfixed by the singularity, Omayra living and breathing and in close-up. Whether it’s a baby pulled out of the rubble of a Haitian earthquake, or a tourist who survived a tsunami, the “human interest” anecdote will inevitably trump the Big Picture story. It’s not good or bad, it’s just human psychology, and it’s also part of the complex algorithm of media disaster coverage.

This came to mind while evaluating the very uneven North American media coverage of the Pakistan flooding. Considering the scale of the catastrophe—as many as 17 million homeless, and perhaps many more facing a food crisis—why is the flooding getting so much less coverage than the Haitian earthquake?

After all, the scope of this act of God is heart-stopping. In a recent report, the Toronto Star’s Rick Westhead quoted an aid official’s description: “It’s like Ontario disappearing under water, and dragging half of Manitoba with it.” On the basis of geography alone, it should be getting a lot more attention.

But it clearly isn’t. As Al Jazeera English noted in a recent report, in the week after it happened, the Haiti quake filled 41% of the “news hole” in US newscasts. The Pakistan flood, meanwhile, attracted only 3%. I would guess that you would find roughly the same disparity in Canadian newscasts.

Many reasons are being advanced for this gross imbalance in coverage. Pakistan is far away and far less accessible. Fewer than 2000 people have died, while the death toll in Haiti approached 300,000. We’re in the dog days of summer, when nobody is watching television. Our viewers and readers don’t travel there, and it has a much smaller diaspora. Celebrities haven’t taken up the cause. We’ve become “tragedy fatigued” after Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the continuing calamity in Afghanistan.

We’re told that the narrative of Haiti that we carry in our minds—misery compounded by poverty, a lost ecology and bad weather—is perfectly consistent with the devastation wrought by the January earthquake. It’s an easy story to tell. Our narrative of Pakistan, however, is colored by a complex storyline of insurgency, regional conflict, corruption, the Taliban. Some commentators talk about an “image deficit”—a politically-tinged perception of Pakistan that influences both the flow of aid, and the allocation of resources by media organizations to cover the story.

Maybe we’ve become jaded by the optics of mayhem. In a 2005 assessment of how the media cover catastrophes, the International Red Cross noted that “sudden dramatic disasters like volcanoes or tsunamis are intensely newsworthy whereas long drawn-out crises (difficult to describe, let alone film) are not.” An earthquake’s damage is picturesque, in the strict sense of the word; a flood hides its havoc. It’s just a lot of water.

Or it may be something as simple as money. In mid-1990, while I was working for the CBC in London, northern Iran was struck by a massive earthquake that claimed nearly 40,000 lives. I argued that we should be sending a crew and edit suite to Tehran immediately. I was over-ruled. It had nothing to do with body counts or disaster algorithms.The National’s newsgathering budget simply couldn’t handle it.

How do we rationalize our inexcusable indifference to the ongoing war in the Congo, which in its body count alone—five million and counting, along with rape and the dispossession of millions more—far surpasses any other human outrage since the Holocaust? The answer: too hazardous to cover, too many layers, covering too vast an area, too complicated. (And not as eye-catchingly “newsworthy” as the plight of the mountain gorillas on the Congo-Rwanda border.)

But these, in the end, are all alibis. And failures of imagination. There’s a Haitian Creole saying: “Tou moun et moun.” All people are people. And every human story, told in close-up and in detail and with compassion, has the capacity to touch us and teach us, whether in Port-au-Prince, or a flooded Pakistani village, or a hill town in Colombia. Their stories help us understand how the world works, and doesn’t work. Plus it’s great television. In 1984, the CBC’s Brian Stewart traveled to a part of the globe few Canadians knew or cared about—the wilds of Ethiopia—and came back with famine stories that captured the world’s attention.

Newsroom culture has changed dramatically in 25 years. Journalists are no less compassionate, but they are tied to a tight bottom line. Often, decisions of what to cover, and not to cover, are linked to the Eyeball Imperative—how many viewers will this story attract? How can we deliver a more cost-effective newscast? If we accept that Eyewitness News and crime/celebrity/ground-zero mosque stories draw bigger numbers than serious international journalism, how does a flood in Pakistan fit into the new business model?

As the news assignment desk becomes more and more corporatized, the Omayra Sanchez stories in the distant corners of the world will go unattended, unwritten and unfilmed. That would be a loss for journalism, and for all of us.

Tag: claude adams

Pakistan in the disaster shadow
Aug 27, 2010 by David Milliken under Hot Topics, Insights
A few weeks ago we posted a Hot Topic button to our websites when it became evident that we were receiving news releases concerning the flood disaster in Pakistan. Initially, news releases from World Vision and the Canadian Red Cross moved over the wire. These were followed by various organizations announcing substantial donations to aid the stricken country.

However, the volume of content came nowhere near the deluge of news releases that crossed CNW in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. The floods have left an estimated 17 million people homeless in Pakistan, and one media report described the devastation “… like Ontario disappearing under water, and dragging half of Manitoba with it.” Canadians were quick to respond to Haiti – as evidenced by the sheer volume of releases on CNW – but the nightmare in Pakistan seems second rate.

Why? Claude Adams, a freelance journalists, documentary filmmaker and broadcast journalism instructor, offers a balanced and thoughtful insight into why Pakistan isn’t getting the news coverage. His essay, posted on J-Source, can be accessed here:

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Tags: claude adams, crisis, flood, Hot Topics, j-source, journalism, News, pakistan

The Limits of Compassion

Vancouver Province, July 20, 2010

By Claude Adams

Twice in less than a year, Steve Fonyo has learned a harsh lesson about the limits of Canadian compassion.

The first time came back in December when he heard, while in jail, that he’d been summarily stripped of his Order of Canada—awarded 25 years ago for his epic run across Canada for cancer research.

The second time came last week, when a group in Victoria, BC, withdrew its support for Fonyo’s planned wedding next month, on Fonyo Beach, near Mile Zero, where he ended his run.

The reason: His fiancé, Lisa Greenwood, was in jail for shoplifting, and Fonyo didn’t tell them about it. That bit of dishonesty, along with rumors about other alleged misbehavior, was enough to provoke the Victoria group to yank the welcome mat, along with the flowers, limousine, wedding cake, free hotel accommodation, air tickets and other donations that were pledged.

“We are all God’s children,” said the organizer of the disillusioned Victoria group, John Vickers, but, alas, some “children” are more deserving than others. Call it kindness by contract: I will give you something, if you repay me with displays of virtue. It’s charity that often becomes paternalistic and judgmental--leading to a form of transactional redemption for both donor and recipient.

But it’s not the real thing. Compassion comes without conditions. “Compassion,” said the 19th century American clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, “will cure more sins than condemnation.”

Steve Fonyo’s life is full of sin, and condemnation. I first met Steve in jail last January. He was doing time in a Maple Ridge cell for the latest in a series of mostly petty offenses. His life was a train wreck: no job, no money, few friends and no prospects, and a growing rap sheet.

I picked Steve up on his release date in early February. His clothes were unwashed, and his artificial leg wasn’t functioning. The two-month jail term left him shaken. He said he’d been attacked and almost killed by a fellow inmate. He hobbled into the arms of Lisa, who was also there to greet him, and they hugged for minutes.

On the drive home, he talked about their impending wedding. Steve told me he’d never loved anybody the way he loves Lisa. But it's a rocky relationship. When they arrived at their rented home in Surrey, Steve discovered she’d sold some of his possessions to feed her cocaine habit. He was furious, and he asked me to leave so he could have it out with her. The next few weeks were an emotional whirlwind: they would fight, and make up, and fight again. She burned a manuscript that she had written about their life together. Before she destroyed it, she allowed me to read it. It was a touching document, a love story of two people joined in a communion of addiction and despair.

It was at about this time when John Vickers contacted Steve. Vickers, the director of the Victoria Truth Centre, said he’d like to help Fonyo with his wedding plans. An accomplished fundraiser, he quickly pulled together a network of contributors. “It’s up to us,” Vickers told me in an interview on Fonyo Beach, “to ensure that this (achievement) has a proper footnote in Canadian history.”

Fonyo mused that the wedding would excite national attention, “just like Prince Charles and Lady Diana.” Vickers said he might have to hire security guards. They were like two excited kids, building sandcastles on a beach.

Fonyo lied about Lisa being in jail, because he didn’t want any blemishes on the evolving fairy tale. But Vickers found out anyway. A person close to Fonyo told Vickers that Lisa was in jail, and speculated that she might not even be released before the wedding. And there were other things: rumors about drugs and stolen goods and shoplifting at the Fonyo home. In emails to me, Vickers worried that “many innocent people (were) being truly victimized” by Fonyo’s activities.

I asked him if he had any hard evidence. He didn’t. Could he name somebody who had been victimized? He couldn’t. He acknowledged that his assumptions were “unsubstantiated” and that it may have been a “sorrowful failing” on his part to jump to conclusions. Vickers issued a news release, saying the wedding was off due to “complications.” All the other Victoria donors melted away, all except 88-year-widow Norma Fitzsimmons who told me she would still donate flowers, and solicit other donations, because “I don’t believe in hitting someone who’s already down.”

Fonyo never got to answer the allegations. And, as with the Order of Canada revocation, he never found out who his accusers were.

Steve Fonyo raised an estimated $13 million in the fight against cancer. It was the selfless and reckless act of a teenager driven by a crazy idea that succeeded, against all odds. He never asked for anything in return.

Fonyo is a hard case: rough, often uncouth, prone to anger, insensitive to others, opportunistic, not always truthful. He’s an addict on the road to recovery (he says), and likely suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. In short, he’s not an easy man to warm up to. “I am what I am,” he says defiantly.

But for all that, Steve Fonyo is what we made him. He’s a product of our culture, a culture that confers celebrity, and then takes it away, and then passes judgment. We created the hierarchy of values that he tried, and failed, to live up to.

In a way, Steve Fonyo holds up a mirror in which we see the reflection of all the things we dislike and disown in ourselves. And that reflection presents us with the challenge to learn what a true community of compassion might look like.

“There’s a whole swath of Canadians across the country who want to see (Steve) get on a better path,” said Vickers. Then he withdrew his offer of help, even though his Truth Centre offers healing for those “in situations less than perfect.”

A wedding won’t save Steve Fonyo. That’s just one of the fantasies he wove, with our complicity. But he doesn’t need or want our approval. What he needs is some trust and compassion--the same kind of raw unquestioning altruism he showed when he started his run, for us, in a Newfoundland snowstorm 26 years ago.


August 6, 2010

I read your article about Steve Fonyo. I appreciate your thoughts, and the article was very well written, but I do not believe Steve Fonyo is worthy of your efforts.

Steve Fonyo ran across Canada to promote himself. To show others he was just as good as Terry Fox, and was able to do anything Terry could do… only better. Steve is not a person who does things without benefit to himself. He is a thief, an addict and an emotional cripple. He has no idea how to run his life, and is… simply put… not a very nice person.

When Steve decided he was going to run across Canada, he walked into the news room at CJIB Radio in Vernon BC, and promptly told News Director Glen Morrison “ I am Steve Fonyo, I am going to do what Terry Fox could not do… what are you going to do for me?”. I know this, because I was there when it happened. I was the Sports Director in the same news room. His attitude was awful, so we sent him packing without a sponsorship. CKAL Radio took the sponsorship and regretted doing so.

For the better part of the next year, we heard and witnessed all kinds of stories about the things Steve did during his Canada wide run. Walking out of restaurants without paying the bill… swearing at people who did not donate…. And being charged with theft in Salmon Arm, for walking out of a Shoppers Drug Mart store with a basket full of personal items.

Even the Canadian Cancer Society threatened to withdraw their approval of the run.

Steve Fonyo does not deserve our compassion.

Make some phone calls to the people who were involved with “the run”. Find out about all the Dirty Little Secrets…!!!

The life and times of Steve Fonyo, would be an interesting read if ALL the details were ever released. He is a Con, and you have been conned (sp). He is no better than a common thief, liar and addict. The only difference is that he is Almost Famous!

He is addicted to the spotlight, and will do anything to keep himself in it.

Sorry, but there are a lot of real people in this world that need our compassion. Steve Fonyo is not one of them.

Craig Jeffers

August 7


Thanks for your note. I wasn't aware of some of the anecdotal stuff you relate about Steve's past.

I view this at two levels. As a journalist, I too look at the accumulation of awful behavior, bad choices, and outright criminality, and am tempted to write him off as a reprobate.

But there's another way to view this. Steve is ill. He's almost certainly ADD (diagnosed in his 20s, and never treated) and he's an addict. He desperately needs therapy and psychological help. I've told him this, and others have too, but it's classic ADD behavior to disregard the best advice.

In a way, the more trouble he causes, the more compassion he is in need of. I'm not a bleeding-heart liberal, but I can see what's in front of me. His life is a cry for help. If we turn away now, he falls deeper down the rabbit hole.

Condemnation is the easiest thing in the world. "Fuck him"--the essence of a lot of the hate mail his story has generated-- slides off the tongue with no effort at all. Caring enough to push him in the direction of help is a little harder. Somebody asked me yesterday "How many times can he fall off his pedestal, and expect us to put him back?" My reply is that WE put him up on the pedestal, possibly against his will, and he never really felt at ease at that height. So let's not try to "put him back"--let's just try to help him find his angle of repose as if he were a brother of a child. That's hard work, and it may be disappointing and even heart-breaking.

But I think it's worth it. Even if he hadn't done something extraordinary for us as a teenager.

Claude Adams


I appreciate your reply.

I do not disagree with most of the things you say. But I have had almost 25 years experience, both directly and indirectly with this man, and I feel you have lost sight of the fact that this is not a very nice person.

I respect you for your courage, but suspect you are being a little naïve. This is not a man that will change, but will allow you to help him until he has exhausted every ounce of your patience, energy and time. He’ll take from you whatever he can get, and leave you wondering why you ever thought you could help in the first place.

There have been a lot of well meaning people trying to help him over the years. The “wedding planner” in Victoria is the perfect example. The wedding of a lifetime for Steve and his fiancé… only to be spoiled by the fact that she was in jail and he steals gas!

Maybe before you get more involved, you should investigate a little more. Drive to his hometown of Vernon BC. Interview friends and relatives. Talk to Glenn Morrison, Doug Blackie and Lee Powell about covering the “run”. See why the people in his own home town are embarrassed, and not willing to help any more. He gives a whole new meaning to the term “heart-breaker”.

I wouldn’t call you a “Bleeding Heart”, only a good guy, trying to understand why this guy is so bad. I enjoyed your article. It was fair. But, I would hate to see another person get hurt and be taken advantage of.

**Sorry for the bad grammar…. I was a Sportscaster… not a news guy,.,…. Hahahaha




"This is not a man that will change."

Think about that statement a little, and you will see just how wrong-headed it is. Was Fonyo born a lying, cheating, opportunistic heartbreaker? Of course not (unless you believe in the "bad seed" theory). He was "changed" into that lifestyle by circumstances, most of which started young, many of which we are not aware of, and some of which we, his audience, may even have contributed to.

Read some elementary psychology, about how people learn to survive in the world, about how they react to classic punishment and lack of mentoring.

You call me naive; I prefer to believe that I think a little more deeply and critically, and humanely . . . We live in a community of interdependencies: some of us in this community benefit more than others from the compassion that drives the community. Steve fell through the cracks: I'm sure your list of eyewitnesses have a lot of rich anecdotes about how he is "not a very nice person." I don't challenge that assessment: my question is, how did it happen, and what do we do about it?

Was his run across Canada a giant "con" by a wet-behind-the-ears teenager? I was watching in the 80s when he did it, I've also been around the world a few times in my life since then, and met a lot of saints and sinners, and I believe Steve is neither. He's just a thoroughly fucked up kid who swears a lot, cries easily, has terrible relationship problems, and employs some unfortunate survival mechanisms. He gets caught, but as an ADD-stricken guy, compounded by addiction, he doesn't take responsibility, or feel guilt. (Read about this condition. It's very interesting.)

Too many of us, confronted by the Fonyo's of the world, react, as sportscasters are trained to do, with their gut. That makes for good "gutsy" journalism, all black and white and headlining-grabbing and judgmental--a 30-second analysis. But it doesn't go to the heart and the head. And I think that's where you should do to understand Fonyo, and why our smug "gut" reactions don't serve anybody or anything (except maybe the little Stephen Harper that exists in all of us.)



From Terry Delisle, August 7

I just finished reading your rationalism,
on Fonyo`s behavior.
You have some good points.
I am a senior who was planning to attend his wedding
give a nice sum toward starting their new life.
Most all canadians are forgiving ... let the past stay
where it belongs.

But... we are dealing with the present now..that is
not looking any rosier than past misbehavior.
What kind of message then would we send
to the teens these days " rewarding " lawless living
regardless ?

As a parent of four decent law abiding, hard working adult children
I never believed in " unconditional love "
Due to dire circumstances I had to fill in both parent`s role
all by myself, in their formative years.
I was very firm, but fair and loving at the same time.
They got hugs and I love you`s every day.

With one of them I had to use " tough love " when
she did`nt toe the line, keep the rules ( bad outside influences ),
she had to leave our home
and live somewhere else, for 2 years..
Believe me it was a lesson to the 3 younger ones
they never gave me a speck of trouble seeing that.
The troublesome one in her teens got married early
have a better than average marriage
working at a responsible job in the bank for many years
Now at age 52
a happy grandmother and considers me her " best friend "
who helped keeping her on the straight and narrow.
at a time of her crisis.

I think we all feel compassion for Fonyo deep down
and in the long run our prayers will help more, than handouts.
We know Steve and Lisa are incapable of managing no matter
how much we would give.
First some serious, prolonged counselling ( since their parents did`nt do the job )
then help them get on their feet.

respectfully yours : Terry


Here's a thought: Maybe real compassion comes only after the point when you really don't want to give it any more. Think of the drowning man who fights off your efforts to save him. Do you stop trying?

The wedding is a smokescreen. Steve and Lisa embraced the idea for a lot of complicated reasons, but it's a dumb idea. An idea that we, as a society, get very excited about for reasons I'll never understand. A public wedding for them would be a mistake but they don't know it. In a strange way, WE are imposing it on them. We're all hung up on rituals

As you say in your last line, they need counseling. Now. The truly compassionate Canadians will dampen the wedding bells, and focus on getting them both some help


Native Compensation: A poisoned chalice?

Three years after this article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Reader's Digest Canada, Dale Myra, on the left, was found frozen to death in the Whitehorse night. That's Phillip Gatensby on the right, his friend and counsellor. "I'm sure he is in a much better place now and suffers no more," Phillip told me. " PS, he loved the article."

By Claude Adams

The adjudicator spoke softly, but the questions struck Dale Myra at his core. Myra and his lawyer had prepared months for this session, rehearsing the words, going over his testimony. A Cree native in his early 40s, Myra had never before spoken about being raped in his Yukon residential school, but sitting in a lawyer’s office in Whitehorse, he was being pressed for details. He became nervous and tongue-tied. At times, he broke down. For support, he looked across the room to his friend and counselor, Phillip Gatensby.

By the end of the afternoon, he had told the adjudicator everything, reliving his abuse, episode by painful episode. All that remained was the judgment and the payment. Or so he thought.

A few weeks later, the Canadian government apologized to Myra. This was followed by $265,000, given in two installments. Suddenly, he was rich. The experience, however, had left him gutted. It’s a terrible irony: the money—and what he had to do to get it—made Myra’s life worse.

Myra’s story is not unusual. While there are no reliable statistics, thousands of men and women who were compensated for their mistreatment in the residential schools never received the psychological and emotional help they needed. The money was meant to start their healing, but for many it became a poisoned chalice. By accepting the cash, survivors waived the right to initiate lawsuits against either the government or the churches, (although they are still able to initiate proceeding for more compensation claims based on cases of individual abuse.) And when that money was gone, they had nothing, only their pain and unresolved trauma.

This cycle of pain, payout and more pain is the latest chapter in the sorry history of Canada’s residential schools, which became compulsory for Indian, Metis and Roman Catholic Inuit children in 1920. Separated from their parents, children lost their language, their culture and, in many cases, their sexual innocence. The last of the schools closed in 1996, and by then lawsuits, charging sexual and other abuse, were already in the courts. The federal government, the churches and native groups eventually agreed that survivors should be able to bypass the courts in their bid for compensation. As a result, direct payments and closed hearings were instituted in 2006.

So far, the federal government has paid out $2.05 billion to school survivors; the churches (Presbyterian, Anglican, United and Catholic) have contributed about $100 million of that amount. The money was distributed in two blocks. The lion’s share, called the Common Experience Payment, went to nearly 100,000 former students who simply had to prove they attended one of 139 residential schools. The rest went to compensate survivors who could show they suffered sexual abuse.

Tony Martens, a social worker in Surrey, B.C., whose agency has worked with hundreds of native families, says residential school survivors are especially vulnerable when telling their stories because they’re forced to drop their defenses after decades of shamed silence. “Those defense mechanisms—drugs, alcohol, alienation, denial—probably saved their lives, despite how unhealthy they may be,” Marten says. “When we eliminate those things, in short periods of therapy, we can create somebody who’s likely to become suicidal.” Indeed, Myra tried to kill himself after he revealed the trauma of his school years. “All the things you want to forget in your life, they come back,” he says. “It’s a dirty secret.”

Myra says his lawyer, Laura Cabott, told him where he might get some advice about trauma and managing money, but she didn’t press him on it. He had other ideas anyway. “I can handle it,” he told her. “And if I need to cry, I can go up into the mountains by myself.” Plus, he had his friend Gatensby, whom he could call when things got really bad.

But this friendship, and the mountains, weren’t enough. Over the next several years, Myra burned through his compensation money like a man possessed. He gave $60,000 to the woman raising his son, and spent the rest on epic binges with friends. He became a brawler, spent time in jail, and traveled the province on a drunken odyssey. “Stayed at the Day’s Inn in Vancouver for a while, very high class, more than a hundred dollars a night.” he says. “I would call room service, tell ‘em I need another case of beer and they went down to the liquor store and got it for me. Met some of my cousins, and got them all wasted.” That party lasted two weeks. Once he hit bottom, he tried to slash his wrists.

Today, Myra lives on the streets of Whitehorse with “two cents in my back pocket.” His spiral downwards is mostly a blur. He’s a trained heavy equipment operator, but he’s too damaged by addiction to work. His hands shake when he talks.

Yet lawyer Laura Cabott argues that the media exaggerate stories with bad endings. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years,” she says, “and I’ve had hundreds of clients and I’ve found that generally people do wise things with their money.”

In the Yukon town of Carcross, the sudden arrival of payout money two years ago caused a spike in illegal drug use. Dealers from B.C.’s Lower Mainland swarmed into the area and found ready customers among the newly enriched natives. “There was an enormous influx of crack cocaine,” says criminal justice support worker Mark Stevens. When the money ran out, so did the traffickers. The local addicts went back to what Stevens calls “the drug of choice”—alcohol. Dr. Patricia Bacon, who heads a harm reduction program in Whitehorse, said that when the “gravy train” of government money ran out, dozens of cocaine users had overdosed. Some of them died.

Willard Martin, a First Nations chief in Greenville, B.C., has noticed another phenomenon. “The saddest thing is when those who receive compensation relocate to urban areas where they spend their money and become homeless.” Martin said a popular destination is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Canada’s most notorious centre of homelessness and drug addiction.

To be sure, many compensation stories are positive. Some recipients paid off debt, bought new homes or fixed up old ones. Aboriginal culture is a sharing culture, and a lot of the payments were distributed among family and friends. Other recipients, like Whitehorse’s Norman Drynock, used their money for their child’s education. “I will watch my daughter graduate. She’s the first one in our family to go from high school to college.”

In Edmonton, survivor Leonard Martial, a small, soft-spoken alcoholic, used his $13,000 compensation to buy clothes, a laptop, food and to help his brother with his bills. For a while he lived in a tent, but the money gave him a financial cushion, and social workers helped him find a small apartment. He also got help to recover from his addiction.

Martial died last February but his resilience and generosity made a strong impression on other residential school survivors. Karen Bruno, manager of Aboriginal services at the Boyle Street Community Services in Edmonton, says Martial was a mentor and icon to the survivors. "Five hundred people attended his funeral. He had a better life in his year and a half with us than he had in his life before." she adds--a tribute to the positive effects of compensation when it is accompanied by long-term counseling and social assistance. But Leonard lived in a big city, where there are numerous social safety nets to help people who seek it. That’s not the case in many of Canada’s outlying areas.

Even if Dale Myra had taken his lawyers advice and had asked for help, he might well have not had timely access to the help he needed in Whitehorse. A local native support group centre says there’s an eight- to 12-month waiting list for professional help in that city. In British Columbia, Dr. Charles Brasfield, a Vancouver-based outreach psychiatrist and psychologist who has worked in native communities for 25 years, says there are perhaps seven or eight qualified trauma counselors - psychiatrists and psychologists – to serve all of British Columbia. As a result, in that province alone, the thousands of residential school survivors, especially in distant rural areas, never get the help they need.

Mike Cachagee of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors, is deeply critical of how Canada’s churches and government are dealing with school survivors. “It’s like Pontius Pilate: We compensated them, we apologized, now get them the hell out of here.” Large payments of cash, without effective community-based healing to go with it, Cachagee says, is creating a “culture of substance abuse fueled by money; it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire.” Dr. Brasfield adds: “You don’t fix rape with a dollar bill.” (The NRSS lost its government funding earlier this year. “Basically, they cut us off,” said Cachagee, who claims it is because he is “so vociferous.”)

Even the lawyers working on behalf of survivors say that the money by itself has little therapeutic value. “We give them money because there’s really nothing else to give them,” says Regina lawyer Tony Merchant, whose law firm has represented thousands of First Nations litigants. But Merchant said it would be “paternalistic” to tell the recipients how to spend or invest their money.

Survivors like Willie Blackwater of Chilliwack, B.C., say Ottawa needs to stop looking for quick results. “It took generations to destroy us,” he says, “and they want us to heal in five years or less.” Seriously traumatized sex-abuse victims, says Martens, need months and even years of therapy before real healing starts

Residential school survivors suffered a further blow in March when Ottawa said it would cease funding an organization specifically established to target the trauma of residential schools: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Set up in 1998, the AHF supported 134 innovative community-based programs, some of which incorporated traditional healing activities.

Now, says AHF president Georges Erasmus, most will disappear. “In many areas, including the already under-serviced regions of the North, one-of-a-kind programs developed over years will be gone,” He says AHF was “the best hope we have for a better future.”

While cutting off the AHL in its 2010 budget, the government did set aside a further $199 million for what it called “higher than expected funding needs” for residential schools survivors. Health Canada says it is committed to making sure all former students and their families are able to get “effective and culturally safe mental health and emotional support.” To that end, it offers 500 “service providers”—native elders and healers, community-based mental health workers, psychiatrists and psychologists.

Some First Nations communities, like Alkali Lake in B.C. and Hollow Water in Manitoba, have their own unique native-run programs to deal with the legacy of residential schools. But even these programs are few and far between. And many compensated former students end up worse off in their communities.

One such example is 53 year-old Ben Pratt. Born in Lestock, Saskatchewan, he spent his adolescence in the Gordon Residential School, where he says he was raped. Thirty years later, he told his story and he was given $46,000 in compensation. Pratt was ostracized, he says, by people in his community who accused him of accepting “arse money.” A born-again Christian, his marriage broke up and he turned to alcohol. Pratt ended up without a family, without friends, and addicted. The money was gone within a year. He says that if he had things to do over again, he would “never ever have come forward” with his story about childhood abuse.

If the government money is such a curse, why do survivors continue to apply for it? Phillip Gatensby says the answer is simple: Poverty. Many aboriginal Canadians are so poor the promise of a large amount of money is irresistible. Also, many believe that if they finally break the silence of their abuse, they may also be released from its deep and lingering pain. Unhappily, Gatensby says, both these “releases” are often not achievable because so many of the survivors don’t have the appropriate psychological expertise available, nor a strong community to nurture and sustain them.

Critics of the payout program say this is where the federal government and Canada’s aboriginal leaders need to focus their attention—on programs that restore the “caring functional communities” that can help people like Myra rebuild a life, programs that promote sobriety and strong families, and programs that give jobs and dignity back to people like Pratt.

When asked by Reader’s Digest about the shortcomings of the native compensation payments, Margo Geduld, a senior communications advisor with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, would say only that the federal government “realizes that the journey to healing is difficult for some former students.” “And that,” she added, “is why we continue to work with partners to ensure former students have access to culturally appropriate health support.”

Native leaders say healing is essential not only for the survivors of the residential schools but for the next generation of aboriginal Canadians. “If Canada fails to take up these opportunities in good faith,” says AHF president Georges Erasmus,” the youth will inherit the legacy of this failure, just as surely as if they had been in the residential schools themselves.”

For Dale Myra and those like him, though, it’s still all talk. As he walks out into the sub-zero Whitehorse night, Myra’s looking for his familiar support group: his street friends, nicknamed Timbits, Razzle and Rockin’ Robin. One of them will have a bottle of wine. Later, a friendly volunteer will be holding Bed #4 for him at the local Salvation Army shelter. Until something better comes along, this is Myra’s only community of compassion.


On a cold February day in Winnipeg last year, a grey-haired man shuffled into the Siloam Mission homeless. He introduced himself to staff as William Woodford, and handed over an envelope. Inside was a bank draft for $40,000.

Woodford, an aboriginal man in his mid-80s who had spent his childhood at the Elkhorn Indian Residential School, came back a few days later with an additional $10,000. He said he wanted to share his government settlement money with people needier than him.

Shelter staff said the money would be used for emergency beds and meals. Most of the people who use their services are aboriginals themselves, and many are school survivors like Woodford.

There are other examples of altruism among First Nations recipients of apology money. In Whitehorse, a group of 11 survivors from the Yukon and Northern B.C. communities pooled 10% of their compensation money to help launch a local organization called CAIRS, that provides therapy for survivors, along with woodworking, metalworking and other handicraft programs. The 11, who call themselves The Trailblazers, wish to remain anonymous.

And there are other compensation stories with more happy endings. Some recipients paid off debt, bought new homes or fixed up old ones. Aboriginal culture is a sharing culture, and a lot of the payments were distributed among family and friends. Other recipients, like Whitehorse’s Norman Drynock, used their money for their child’s education. “I will watch my daughter graduate. She’s the first one in our family to go from high school to college.”


Extraordinary forgiveness

Last year, while researching a project on restorative justice, I met Debbie, an Abbotsford, BC, woman. She had a remarkable story to tell. Fifteen years earlier, her stepson Kristian Warsing had strangled Debbie’s two young children, and tried to kill her during what appeared to be a psychotic rampage. For a long time, Debbie wished that Kris, convicted of murder, would “rot in hell.” But then came an extraordinary transformation. I researched the story and brought it to the CBC, and they asked me to produce it with reporter Duncan McCue. McCue wrote and narrated the feature we called “Embracing a killer.”

It was broadcast on CBC's "The National" on Sunday, April 4, 2010

Steve Fonyo's Run for Life

Broadcast on CBC's The Current

ANNA FONYO (STEVE'S MOM) 3:09 “Boxes and boxes, here I can show you . . . 3:22 Here, DRAWERS FULL OF DOCUMENTS AND PAPERS, Yes, it’s all pictures, and here something PHOTO ALBUMS lots of things here 3:40 SO THESE HAVE BEEN HERE FOR 25 YEARS That’s right . . . 4:37 Well, it’s a good memory, some of it, but . . . it’s all gone (laughs.)”

SUZANNE FONYO 3:55 “What he did was just outstanding, it was great, and we’re all proud of what he did. What we’re not proud of, is what he did after.”

MUSIC and MANSBRIDGE 0:26 “Good afternoon, from Victoria BC, I’m Peter Mansbridge. It is fitting perhaps that it is raining here in Victoria . . . an incredible journey comes to an end on this day 14 months after the day it started in the snow of St. John’s Nfld., the journey, of course, that of Steve Fonyo . . . “

For a brief, brilliant moment, 25 years ago, Steve Fonyo had a country’s undivided attention, and mostly, its gratitude—a 19-year-old high school dropout with one leg, a big ego, and a brash crazy idea . . . to do what Terry Fox had been unable to do . . . to run from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a battle against weather, an unforgiving landscape and a physical handicap . . .

(MANSBRIDGE) 1:05 “Today those battles are all behind him and today is a day of celebration . . . . “(fade down)

Fonyo’s celebration lasted several months . . . he raised more than $13 million in his fight against cancer . . . and he became the youngest ever inductee into the Order of Canada . . But the battles weren’t all behind him . . .

(MANSBRIDGE) 2:39 “Are you looking forward to what’s going to happen after the run? FONYO I’m looking forward to a good long vacation in the Cook Islands.”

What Fonyo couldn’t foresee then was a lifetime of battles against a host of personal demons: Alcohol. And cocaine. And depression. And debt. And the sudden death of his father. At one point, he even stuck the barrel of a handgun into his mouth, and almost pulled the trigger. Another time, he had his leg stolen while in a drunken stupor under a tree in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside . . . But on this day in 1985, riding the crest of international celebrity, anything was possible.

MANSBRIDGE 48:27 “It was brief, but it was a moment of magic, and a moment you will see spread across the newspapers of this land tomorrow morning, and it will be a moment of history in Canadian books for years and years to come, Steve Fonyo with his foot in the Pacific Ocean . . . 49:00 Steve you made it, congratulations! Thanks. What did it feel like when you did that? It feels great!!”

FONYO 1 0:31 “It’s been a bad trip. It’s been a bad trip. I’m putting it behind me.”

On a crisp February morning …25 years later, I’m driving Steve Fonyo home from jail in Maple Ridge, BC. He’s just completed a two-month sentence for violating a judge’s order not to contact his girlfriend Lisa after a fight. The order has since been lifted, and Lisa is with us in the car.

FONYO 1 0:52 I enjoy just being free. I don’t know how to explain it. How do you explain something like that? Can you explain that? LISA I just think you’ve learned to not take so many things for granted.”

Fonyo’s problems with the law are not new. They started in 1987, the careless behavior of a young celebrity—too much booze and partying. But then the bad stuff began to accumulate: theft, fraud, assault, drunk driving and driving without a licence. When I visited him in jail in February, he had no friends, no money, no driver’s licence and his car was impounded. He didn’t have access to cigarettes, writing paper or even a clean change of clothes. He needed me to drive him home.

FONYO 1 4:56 “I need a job, I need to get back to work soon . . .5:06 unfortunately things aren’t free in the world, the phone bill, rent, behind in rent, stuff like that, it won’t fall from the sky.”

But to understand the Steve Fonyo today … it helps to know who he was and what he did more than 2 decades ago…

(SUZANNE) 0:52“He just took one day at a time and he just did it . . . (fade down.)

Fonyo’s sister Suzanne was a pillar in Steve’s life back then. She left the family’s perogi restaurant in British Columbia to handle logistics for the first six months of his cross-Canada run. It was called The Journey for Lives.
Suzanne is 13 years older than her brother … she says she was his second mother, driving in the motor home that followed Steve, talking him through his moods, and arranging his public appearances.

SUZANNE 1 3:20 “It was the impossible dream, I mean Steve was only 17 at the time . . . 3:33 he was only 17 and we’re saying, what the hell are you doing, you’re just a kid, no professional training, he wasn’t a professional athlete, he didn’t have a proper diet, it was almost impossible but he did it.”

FONYO 3 6:20 “When I started in Newfoundland, the first day, I ran 12 kilometres and it was nothing like anything I’d expected, all the training I did, those 12 kilometres I thought what did I get myself into, and that was in a snowstorm on the very first day and I thought, Oh my God, what did I get myself into?”

(SUZANNE 1) 3 56 “He was quite determined, he said I’m gonna do this and when I was on the run with him, there were times when I just I couldn’t believe that he was still going on, in the winter in Ontario it was 40 50 below with the wind chill and I was driving the motor home at 2 or 3 km an hour and I was watching him and he had his headset on and just going going going.”

(FONYO 3) 6:45 “I stuck to it, I plugged through it, I did it, every day I was out there, every single day, go go, go, go, go.”

(SUZANNE 1) 4:22 “And he had a lot of trouble with shin splints and being tired and going to all the meetings and receptions and that was hard on him as well because he had to go off the road and run into this city and run into that city and do another interview here and there , it took a lot of his time from the run as well . .

ANNA 2:45 WAS THIS HIS ROOM? He was here, he was back and forth . . .

In a trailer park in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, I meet Steve’s mother Anna, 77 years old, an immigrant from Hungary who supports herself with hairdressing work, and selling homemade perogis. She doesn’t see Steve much, but her trailer is a museum of memorabilia from her son’s run—plaques, testimonials, paintings, boxes of souvenirs that are getting moldy with age. One room is set aside for him, the bed made, but he hasn’t been there in years. All the photographs are of a young, smiling teenager, full of promise.

(ANNA) 4:08 here is one pictures, when I was with Mulroney, that was on her (?) 20th birthday when we was in Ottawa, THAT’S YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND SHAKING HANDS WITH BRIAN MULRONEY Yeah, yeah WARM GOOD WISHES FROM BRIAN MULRONEY, I have another 2 3 but I don’t know WHERE IT’S ALL all in the box. .
5:38 WHERE ARE THE HATS, YOU MENTIONED 200 HATS? I gave it away, YOU GAVE THE HATS AWAY. Yeah, because it all gets moldy the wintertime in boxes, I give it to boys and girls, I went to the farmers market once a week I have some handicrafts I sell and I take the whole box there, anybody who wants it take it not for sale but just to give THESE WERE HATS THAT HE GOT AS SOUVENIRS IN HIS RUN. . everywhere he gets the hats, all kinds 621

The success of the Journey for Lives launched Fonyo on a celebrity rollercoaster ride. He had money in his pocket, the party invitations poured in. He met Michael Gorbachev and Tina Turner. Sylvester Stallone told Steve he was his inspiration for the movie Rocky 4. In 1987, Fonyo went to England, hoping to run another marathon against cancer. It was there that he got the bad news.

(FONYO 2) 2:35 “I got a call from my mother. I was living in England and she said you’d better come back, your Dad’s very sick. And two days later I’m back in Canada and I see my Dad in hospital. I couldn’t believe what I saw, it was beyond awful, on morphine, didn’t recognize me, in and out very very emotional lung cancer .. the next day he’s dead . . .

Steve has trouble telling this story, swearing, choking back tears.

3:33 And It’s fucked me up, man, I had a real tough time, didn’t know what to do,(choking up) lost the best friend I had in my life, didn’t know how to deal with it, so hit the drinking very heavily. . . 352 I’d been drinking before but casual, not abusing it, not getting drunk and doing stupid things. This went on and on, I was gonna commit suicide, I used to have lots of guns because when I was a kid I used to hunt with my dad . . . and I had a 9mm semi-auto handgun which was registered, I had it legal, and I was gonna blow my fuckin’ head off, didn’t know what to do. (I had it in my mouth) I was gonna pull the trigger (the rest if not very clear.)

(SUZANNE 2) 9:11 “If my Dad had been around it would have been 100% different, he needed that man figure and the support of his Dad, and I think that was one of the major factors that brought him down after all those years and all the support my dad gave him on his run, it was difficult for him to lose his father 933”

Fonyo spent a year and a half in therapy with a psychologist in Vancouver. He says that was helpful. But the depressive episodes continued. Without a sense of purpose, without supportive friends or mentors, he soon found more relief in cocaine.

(FONYO 2) 5:25. I was on my own, man, 5:40 I was so lost, I didn’t know what I was doing, living on streets, living in bushes, I just gave up on life, 10:00 when I used drugs and drinking, I used that to hide the pain, it puts you in another state of mind, it puts you another world, a fantasy world that doesn’t exist and that’s what it did for me.”

Fonyo slipped in and out of this fantasy world, but meanwhile, the real world offered some opportunities. They all ended badly.

(SUZANNE 2) 6:27 He ended up working in Edmonton in a bank in a suit and a tie, and he hated it, and that went on a for a couple of years and then he got a grant for helicopter training and he finished it, but what went wrong there, I think he went into a depression, started drinking and once you have that reputation a pilot cannot be drunk or involved in alcohol and I remember I was in the restaurant I wrote at least 50 or 60 letters to different airports and helicopter CEOs and nobody replied because he had already that reputation, he was in the paper, caught for drinking and driving, so that was definitely his fault. HE LOST HIS DIRECTION DIDN’T HE? Yes and he always wanted to come back and he tried, but he had his problems 733

(ANNA) 8:00 HE MADE SOME MISTAKES, DIDN’T HE , he made a big mistake, yes, he made a big mistake WHAT WAS HIS BIGGEST MISTAKE 807 I think it WAS drinking, drugs, and the bad friendship . . . he don’t have nobody beside him. 819 He was too young when he started, and maybe it went to his head,

FONYO 3 11:31 “I think I got a bad hand of cards . . . 12:35 I should have had proper counseling, I should have had proper guidance to steer me in the right direction, you know, really famous at 18 years old and really not knowing how to deal with it . . . you know I had a really difficult life.”

And it got more difficult while he was in jail. As the Olympics were ramping up and the torch was making its way across the country, Steve thought he would get a chance to carry it. A chance maybe for personal redemption. An acknowledgement of what he achieved 25 years ago.But it didn’t happen. He says he was overlooked because he doesn’t have the charisma of the late Terry Fox, or the polish of Rick Hansen

13:45 (FONYO 1) “I use Rick Hansen as an example. I’m not the pretty boy, well cut, like the speech yesterday by Tiger Woods, I don’t come across like that person, I don’t have the empire behind me and coach me about how to look good on camera, . . . I came across the person who I am, if you like it great, if you don’t like it, there’s not much I can do about it 14 15 this is me and I believe lying to people is not the right thing to do, 1424 I’m not saying that Rick Hansen is lying, I just don’t have that image and never will, I’m not gonna try competing with that. 1436 But don’t kid yourself, after watching the opening of the ceremony of the Olympic Games, you think I’m not pissed off. Sure I am, cos I should have been there too.

And then he hit rock bottom.
While he was in jail he was told that the Order of Canada he had been given following his run … had been taken away.
On that February morning, on the ride home from jail. Steve talked about this with his girlfriend Lisa… frustration and anger in his voice …

FONYO 1 9:38 Because I screwed up for driving with no license or had a couple of drinks or whatever, the only person I hurt was myself, didn’t get into a car accident by the grace of god, I could have, yes, could have hit a child and killed somebody, yes, I could have, I could have, I could have, but I didn’t 9 56 They’re judging me for something I never even did, and they’re taking it away. 1005 I got the order of Canada for an achievement, okay that’s why, now because I have some problems in my life they take it away?
LISA 1122 They’re looking at the picture where you’ve been warned many times to knock it off and you just don’t give a shit and just go ahead and do it again anyway, with your driving while prohibited, your drinking and driving, that’s the big one in my eyes anyway 1137 STEVE yes, but people forget last time I had drinking and driving was 1989, so people . . . look back and think it happened like last year, why didn’t they take the Order of Canada away 20 years ago? Why now, 20 years later they wake up and now we’re gonna take it away. You gotta let it go sometime . . . that’s what I’m pissed off about.”

(SUZANNE 3) 027 He should be recognized for his accomplishment, He raised over 13 million dollars, he was a kid, 18-years old, he finished the run it took him a year and a half I definitely think he should be recognized, he should be honored . . .
1:00 I wish I knew who started all this, some government bureaucrat went up to the Governor General and said ‘oh look at this guy, they should take his Order of Canada away.’ I think it has something to do with the Olympics, they did it in the middle of the Olympics, WHY? . . . 128 it makes me sad when I look at the Olympics and I saw Betty Fox and Rick Hansen and Wayne Gretzky and I feel my brother should have been part of it. Who started it? I wish I knew and why? I don’t understand.

(RIDEAU HALL) 0:10 (sound of dialing, and ringing)

To try to answer those questions, I called Rideau Hall, the Governor-General’s residence in Ottawa. It’s the Governor-General who oversees the Order of Canada, assisted by an advisory council.

(RIDEAU HALL) 1:40 “Annabelle Cloutier, Bonjour.”

1:44“I’m doing a story for CBC Radio on Steve Fonyo and the Order of Canada. I wonder if you can answer a question or two for me. I’d like to know a little bit about how it was initiated, this whole process of rescinding the Order of Canada for Fonyo.

212 In this case we have two options, either someone asks the advisory council to consider a revocation or it can be done by the deputy secretary himself or herself . . .2:34 so I cannot say specifically how the case of Mr Fonyo has started, it remains confidential. YOU CAN’T TELL ME ANYTHING ABOUT WHO INITIATED THIS PROCESS No it’s confidential and it cannot be published or unveiled EVEN IF MR FONYO HIMSELF WOULD INQUIRE. No, and we’re not under the Access of Information Act, so no its confidential.”

Miss Cloutier said many Canadians have the impression that the Order of Canada is awarded for a single notable achievement. It’s not.

(RIDEAU HALL) 7:06 “It’s a little nuance that often people don’t do, they associate the Order for one thing you have done in your life but in fact it’s a lifetime achievement and you become a member, it’s like being a member of the Lion’s Club, it’s a membership, it’s not an award per se SO YOU’RE JUDGED ON YOUR BEHAVIOR OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR LIFETIME AS A MEMBER Yes.”


Today, most days, you can find Fonyo, covered in grease, in a truck repair shop in Surrey, BC, working on engines and transmissions.
After jail, he did manage to find a job.
Most of his hair is gone, so is the bright-eyed enthusiasm of the young athlete in the old photos. A middle-aged spread is starting to show, and his mechanics patter is laced with expletives.


He gets along well with the men he works with. They call him Fonzie, because of his obsession with cars. His boss says he’s an excellent mechanic . . . Fonyo says his time in jail taught him a thing or two about himself, where he went wrong, and what he has to do now.

FONYO 1 5:36 “IS THIS GOING TO BE A DIFFERENT STEVE FONYO THAT WE SEE Yeah, oh yeah, for sure RADICALLY DIFFERENT Yes . . . 5:50 I can’t take things, the law into my own hands, driving with no licence and stuff like that, doing foolish things 6:07 driving around thinking that I got this invisible shell around me that nobody can come through 632 YOU’VE HAD TIME TO REFLECT, HAVEN’T YOU, LOTS OF TIME TO THINK ABOUT YOUR LIFE Lot’s of time to think . . . I think I’m gonna be okay now. I think I’m gonna be okay now. I am.”

(SUZANNE 3) 5:17 “He needs to concentrate on positive things, he needs to concentrate more on his job and think of a bright future, don’t let all the negativity get to you.”

And that’s Steve Fonyo’s plan too. When he’s saved up some money, and found a stable place to live, he hopes to live a quiet life, out of the spotlight, with the addictions and the petty crimes behind him. It won’t be the Journey for Lives anymore. But rather, a journey for one, normal life.