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Alone at World's End


NEAR MASSET, B.C.—The other day, at twilight, I took this photograph on the beach outside my cabin on Haida Gwaii. You’ll have to forgive my Woody Allenesque self-absorption when I tell you it’s a pretty good snapshot of my interior life: Menacing clouds, a landscape bounded by grey, swaths of shadow, nearly void of humanity. On the plus side, I suppose, is the unbroken horizon and some holy light breaking through.

It’s a picture that says: “Here’s solitude. Now learn how to use it.”


I came here buoyed by a friend’s admonition. Shape your life, he told me. I’m in my late 60’s, without a job, broke, with sleep apnea, hemorrhoids and recurring gout. And I’m going through a breakup. All  the shards of a typical bourgeois life on the brink.  I was badly in need of some re-shaping. Some alone time to put the pieces back together. My daughter M had a solution. She needed a caretaker for six weeks.

Officially, I’m looking after M’s off-the-grid property here on an island at the edge of Canada’s West Coast. In my charge are four beach-side log cabins, a dog (Darkstar), a cat (Minka), and 20 chickens and ducks. I occupy the main cabin. There’s little actual work involved, other than chopping wood, feeding the animals, locking up the henhouse at night and making sure there’s a fire in the woodstoves when new guests arrive.

For a few days, I also had the happy task of caring for my 9-year-old grandson F, for whom Haida Gwaii is a vast playground and open-air school. In truth, he cared for me. F is a wunderkind; scarily precocious, he eats everything, reads for hours every day and goes to bed when he’s told. I teach him Texas Hold-em and he wins. I beat him at chess, barely avoiding a stalemate.

Friends envy me. They write to tell me they’d happily change places with me. I doubt that’s true.
They all have jobs, or are in comfortable retirement.

North Beach is a place to kick back and do nothing. But I’m on a mission. I came here intending to find some solace through writing, with a pledge to crank out at least 1000 words a day. The idea was to turn off the worry switch--not to think about anything, but just write. The late Jim Harrison, one of my favorite authors, put it nicely: “Writing causes writing. Thinking causes more thinking and is not necessarily helpful. Just write an hour or so each day.”

Writing would put all my quotidian concerns into perspective. Writing as therapy. As a purgative. Put your cares on a blank page. Then brush them aside. And then go feed the free-range chickens.

But that writing pledge exploded on my first day. Darkstar, an amiable 12-year-old black Lab, needed a walk along the beach. It was a walk that turned into an expedition, as man and dog investigated what the surf had left behind in the last high tide. Darkstar scavenged whatever flesh was left on the bones of the dead maritime life we came across.

We walked for hours, she, intoxicated by the promise of protein, me, intoxicated by the low rumbling of the sea, and the hazy shoreline of Alaska across the Hecate Strait. Every once in a while, Darkstar stopped and looked me in the eye and cocked her head, as if she sensing the weight of urban anxiety I was still carrying. “We’ll soon cure you of that,” she seemed to be saying.

After our walk, I went back to the cabin, chopped some wood, started a fire (on the third try) and made a desultory meal of rice and halibut. My time, I told myself, was entirely my own. I could do anything I needed to do to prime the pump for the writing. I could meditate. I could read. I could journal.  I could start making a bucket list.  . . .  I ended up doing none of the above. Instead, I fired up my laptop and spent hours binge-watching the first three episodes of I Claudius, that brilliant old BBC series starring Derek Jacobi.


The next day it was F who pulled me away from my work. I didn’t offer much resistance when he suggested a visit to an old growth forest. That turned into a voyage through the Land of Mushrooms. I learned not to eat the Amanita phalloides, better known as the death cap. (Uncanny coincidence: It’s believed an Amanita was used to poison the Emperor Claudius in AD54.) Instead, I should try the winter chanterelles, which look like tiny trumpets. “What’s this, F?” I asked, pointing to something white growing out of a fallen spruce. “Oh. That’s an artist’s conk. But look at this. I just found some chicken-of-the-woods,” he said.

In one clearing, F dared me to throw myself onto a thick cushion of what he called “four-storey moss.” Sure enough, I tried it and landed into nature’s equivalent of a Beauty Rest mattress. Next, he picked up a clump of “old man’s beard” which he said made for a great fire-starter.  And he found a root that, when cleaned and chewed vigorously, tasted like licorice. After an hour in the forest, I was hopelessly lost, but F found the trail that led us back to the car park.

Back home, I turned on my phone’s personal hotspot, found two bars of bandwidth—just enough for email. There was something from my lawyer, asking for instructions in my separation proceedings. There was supportive mail from my son P, standing by with financial support. There was a text from my daughter M, asking me to make a welcoming fire for a guest arriving later today. There was a payment reminder from Amex.

And I found an email from the woman with whom I’m breaking up. “  . . . You’ve lost belief in yourself,” she writes.Your creative energy is backing up in your bio-system and unless you find a way to channel it, you will become ill if you haven’t already done so. Cancer will develop. Or you’ll experience a stroke.”

How does she know my bio-system is backing up? And what’s this about cancer? I knew I should have left the laptop off.

On the way to my writing desk, I make a detour past the cabin bookshelves and come across two books I absolutely have to read, immediately: an early Cormac McCarthy (about two wanderers  lost in a threatening landscape . . . hmmm) and Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.” I also brought with me a depressing classic, Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

There would be no 1000 words  today.

By week’s end, my journal was anorexic. Here’s my entry for October 3.  F flew off today, which means I’m now able to spend some real time writing. But I find myself hopelessly distracted—between the woodstove, email, Darkstar, DVD’s and simply staring off into space. How do I manage all this solitary time? Answer: I fill out online applications for two jobs:  one with CCTV (Chinese Television) in Beijing, and one as a local reporter with the Haida Gwaii Observer in the Village of Queen Charlotte, and fantasize about the next chapter in my life. By am I kidding myself? Who in their right mind will hire a disillusioned, slightly charred if not burned out train wreck of a journalist who has done what I’ve done for 47 years?

Oct. 5

A walk on the beach under brilliant sunlight brought an uncanny flashback. Forty-five years ago, a feature writer for The Daily Colonist in Victoria, I picked up a rumor that Malcolm Muggeridge, the iconoclastic English writer and broadcaster, was in the area—encamped somewhere on Salt Spring Island, writing his memoirs. I sniffed the wind and decided to track him down.

I contacted the postmaster on Salt Spring and asked him point blank: Where was he dropping off mail for Mr. M. Muggeridge, lately of the British Isles? I was astonished when he directed me to blue house at the end of X Street with the white door. So I knocked on the door, and Muggeridge’s wife Kitty answered, and I introduced myself and made my request.

We had tea and talked for two hours and Malcolm and Kitty showed me their garden. I asked him what he was calling his autobiography. “Chronicles of Wasted Time,” he answered with a grin, anticipating my surprise. “My life has amounted to very little of consequence.”  I made all the right protesting noises. “I’m working on Volume 2,“ he continued.  “I’m calling it The Green Stick.”  (I forget why, but I wondered why a life that amounted to "little of consequence" needed multiple volumes.). Before leaving, I once again apologized for intruding on his privacy, and we laughed about the postmaster’s indiscretion. I went back to Victoria and wrote a gushing piece of hagiography about a great man penning his life in the shadow of Vesuvius. (An actual hill on Salt Spring.) It’s uncanny how fresh this memory remains after nearly a half century!

The Azer abduction story: a journalist's dilemma

By Claude Adams


Surrey, B.C.Is Saren Azer a criminal? Or a protective father with a just cause? Or is he an aggregate of both, a kind of benign kidnapper?

And until a judge or jury decide, should we even be telling his story?

In nearly five decades of working as a journalist, this is the most difficult story I’ve ever covered. I can’t answer the first three, and question four takes us to the dilemma at the heart of the news profession: Most of the time, on most stories, we are working in a grey zone, where the truth is as elusive as lightning.

Still, I believe it’s a story worth trying to tell.

Saren Azer, a Kurdish Canadian citizen, is an international fugitive. He’s wanted by the RCMP and Interpol for abducting his four children a year ago, and spiriting them to Iran where they now live. His ex-wife Alison Azer, distraught and angry, has criticized Prime Minister Trudeau for not doing enough to get the children back to Canada.

Saren Azer says he took the children away because they were being subjected to the “nightmare” of a rancorous three-year custody fight that was damaging them physically and psychologically.

A year has gone by, and he wants all the attention around the case to stop. In a telephone interview last week from Iran, Azer told me: “I heard from the RCMP that they have 40 more cases of quote unquote kidnapping. How many of those were made a day to day story in the media? How many have made it to Interpol? I am not missing, my children are not missing.”


He said the charges against him are “racially and ethnically motivated."

“I think if I was a white North American and I was to take my children to another country, Interpol would not bother to come after me. But being Muslim, Middle Eastern, yes I think that's the way.”


But there are other reasons why the Azer child abduction has become such a headline-grabbing story. First, it touches on Canada’s relations (or non-relations) with Iran. Simply put, Ottawa has no leverage with Tehran since the Harper government broke off diplomatic relations in 2012. Second, a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was drawn into a highly emotional social media campaign by Alison, who demanded that he “pick up the phone” and talk to Iranian president Rouhani. Trudeau never made the call.

And there’s the larger-than-life personalities of the two parents at the centre in this domestic drama: Alison, a media-savvy Courtenay, BC, woman who’s raised $140,000 and a whirlwind of media support in her campaign to bring the children back; and Saren, a prize-winning medical researcher and humanitarian doctor praised by people like Stephen Harper for his work with refugees in northern Iraq.

Finally, there’s the unanswered question of what accommodations Azer has made with the Iranian authorities in his new home—given that this is the country he had to flee more than two decades ago because of his pro-Kurdish activities. As David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen reported, Azer told Canadian authorities in 1994 that he faced execution in Iran, and that was the basis for his refugee application at the time.

According to Pugliese, “Azer told journalists he had a 10-centimetre scar on his stomach from the iron bar beatings he received in prison. He also claimed the Iranians tortured him with electric shocks and high-pressure water because he advocated Kurdish writings and poetry. . . . The next year, he was granted refugee status, based on his torture claims.”

And who has not read about the recent executions of Kurdish activists by the Iranian regime? Or the imprisonment of Homa Hoodfar, the 65-year-old Canadian-Iranian scholar accused of propaganda and undermining national security?  Is this really a desirable environment for raising children after they've experienced life in a liberal democracy?
Today, Azer won’t talk about what he calls “politics”. He insists that he and the children are perfectly safe in Iran. We’ve heard nothing from the four children, aged 4 to 12, but we’ve seen videos and photos of them playing happily, and celebrating birthdays in their school in northern Iran. Azer says they are assimilating well, learning to speak Kurdish and Farsi and making new friends. He says they are healthy, don’t miss their mother, and that they are happy to be away from the turmoil of the custody fight. (I’ve not been able to independently confirm any of these things.)


video


I became a small part of the story last year, just a few weeks after Azer abducted the children during a court-sanctioned holiday in Europe. I requested an interview with Alison, who was getting all the media attention, and she declined. So I contacted a Calgary woman who was close to Azer and the children—she’d been their unofficial “nanny”-- and I found Azer’s brother Kamal, also in Calgary.

When we met, their version of events leading up to Azer’s abduction of the children was radically different from the story that Alison was telling. They portrayed Saren and the children as victims in the narrative, and they gave me copies of selected legal, police and medical documents which they feel support their case.

They also gave me Azer’s cell phone number in Iran, and after looking into my professional background, told me I was the only reporter he would agree to talk to. 

For a reporter, this kind of exclusive access is a mixed blessing. You have an immediate advantage over other reporters working the story. But you also risk being seen as a gatekeeper, or even an apologist. How can you be sure you’re not being exploited? How can you fairly tell both sides of the story?

I soon discovered how this could become an issue. When I learned about Azer’s precise whereabouts in the Middle East, I again reached out to Alison’s media handler to share this fresh information, and to put some questions to her. In response, she contacted my employer at the time, and criticized my ethics as a journalist. She felt, wrongly, that I was using this information as leverage to secure an interview she didn’t want to do. In her eyes, I was clearly in the enemy camp because I was in communication with the Azers

And later, she tried to prevent me from using photos and videos of the children that I received from Azer--images that appeared in a Global National story I produced.

This was not enough to put me off the story. However,  I had to be careful. Normally, the identities of children in a domestic dispute are protected, but photos of the Azer children were all over Facebook and Twitter in the social media blitz organized by Alison. It was a narrative of four kids ruthlessly torn from their mother, and taken to a Middle East war zone by an impetuous and reckless father. Alison spoke darkly about her fears that the kids would be brought back in body bags, or recruited as suicide bombers.

Nonsense, said Azer. He told me the children were never in any danger during their exodus, and that the real “war zone” in their lives was Canada, where they’d been subjected to endless RCMP interviews, and examinations by psychologists and the ministry of family services. In Iran, he said, they were allowed to be children again. “Their world is the world of a child,” is how he puts it.

How true is this? Azer and the children did spend some time in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, a stronghold of the Kurdish PKK group whose villages were being targeted by Turkish bombers. So they were, in fact, in a real war zone.


And when I said I’d like to talk to the eldest child, 12-year-old Sharvahn, and ask how she felt about being separated from her mother and her life in Canada, Azer refused. He didn’t want her to be drawn into the social media frenzy at the time, he said. Instead, he invited me to come and visit him and the kids in Iran, to see for myself how they were adapting (an invitation, incidently, that he also extended to Alison.)

I can understand the instinct of a protective father. But once again, I was unable to satisfy myself on a key question:  Can a young child or adolescent really “switch off” on a mother that abruptly? Furthermore, who was I to ask a 12-year-old this loaded question, and evaluate her answer?

Lastly, there’s the matter of those documents I spoke about earlier, the police memos, and the medical findings and family ministry reports—incomplete scraps of confidential material about a broken relationship between a man and a woman, and the health issues of their children. How much of this can ethically be made public? Is this news, or an invasion of privacy?

With their actions and statements, Alison and Saren Azer  propelled this story into the news cycle.  For better or worse, they made a deeply private crisis a matter for public consumption. And journalists like me are asked, in a sense, to adjudicate—to tell a credible story that respects the limited facts we are given, and that is fair to both sides.


Both parents have their version of the truth, and I, the reporter, have an approximation. But it’s the children, silent now, who alone can tell us the truest story, and what it can teach us. And it will be years before we hear their story.

Kidnapping or Rescue? The story behind the Azer abduction

It's been a year since Saren Azer, a Kurdish-Canadian doctor, secretly put his four children on a plane to Northern Iraq, and became a fugitive in a case that electrified social media. He is being sought by the RCMP and Interpol on abduction charges. This is a backgrounder on a dosmetic relationship that went terribly wrong, and an update.


By Claude Adams



In Alison Azer's words, the romance began as a “mutual fascination with ‘the other’.” He, the ambitious and brilliant Kurdish-Canadian refugee with dreams of changing the world; she, the attractive Prairie writer with a troubled past, now “thirsty for a vision of the world to replace the consumerist metaphors of my youth.”

They met in 1996 in Edmonton, where Saren Azer was working on a PhD in medicine. Two years earlier, he had fled Iran where he’d been persecuted for his activism. Alison was with the Alberta Lung Association, and she organized a ceremony at which Saren was being awarded a prize for his pulmonary research. She was dazzled by his intensity of feeling.

“It sounds silly now, but I was swept off my feet,” she says. “He was charismatic. He had a presence.” She was drawn to his “swarthy good looks.”

"I felt that 'pow'--a big immediate attraction. . . I learned from him about how little I know about the world."


It was the perfect fit. “He sought political refuge and found it in Canada,” she wrote later, “I sought personal refuge and found it with him.” Alison fell in love. Saren Azer, she believed, would give meaning to her life. And she would be at his side as he worked toward his medical degree, and his later humanitarian work in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to Azer family members, Alison secretly converted to Islam, gave up alcohol, began wearing more modest clothing and they were married in the year 2000.




Together they formed an organization called the International Society for Peace and Human Rights. She supported Saren while he studied and over the years, they had four children, all with Kurdish names: Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Dersim, Meitan. (They are now aged 4 to 12.)

As a humanitarian, she told friends, he worked in the spirit of Norman Bethune and Albert Schweitzer.

But over time the relationship soured. Saren’s zeal for humanitarian work began to overshadow the marriage. He was on the road a lot, obsessed by the need to help his Kurdish compatriots overseas. Also, Alison says he would "go ballistic" when she came into contact with other men.

When he was home, he was strict with the children. Saren and Alison argued, for example, about the propriety of the bathing suits Sharvahn liked to wear. He didn’t want the two girls swimming with boys. She says he was developing a dual personality: one moment the Kurdish traditionalist male, the next, the "free-thinking, Western-thinking man."

Alison’s initial attraction to “the other” in Saren began to wane. In December, 2012, after a bitter argument, she left the family home in Comox, on Vancouver Island, and took the kids to a women’s shelter in Victoria. She told police that Saren had threatened to kill her, and the kids were no longer safe at home.

No criminal charges were ever laid, but the breakup led to a legal separation, a divorce and a bitter two-year custody battle involving the courts, family therapists, and the RCMP. Saren calls it a “campaign of terror and hatred” that was damaging the children. Both parties accused the other of physically abusing them: medical documents show that the children suffered from eating disorders, sleeplessness, bed-wetting and developmental issues. One of the girls was found to have “expressed some suicidal ideation.”
Saren won the legal right to spend time with the children, but Alison was deeply distrustful and suspicious of his intentions. He says she even had GPS tracking devices hidden in their suitcases when they went to visit their father.
“We were surrounded, we were encircled, we were brutalized,” Saren told me in a Skype interview on May 13. “For others it might have seemed like just another case in family court (but) what I saw my children go through was nothing less than a terror.”
“Over the past three years . . . all the struggles with the ministry (of child and family development), all the struggles with the RCMP, all the struggles that were happening in our lives, it shattered their mental, emotional, psychological and physical health . . . They were so young and so impacted by that process to the point that I didn’t recognize them anymore.”

Saren began making plans. He was a highly-regarded physician on Vancouver Island—with a six-figure income; his research into pulmonary disease was winning prizes; and his international humanitarian work had even drawn the attention of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But, in his heart, Saren believed life in Canada was becoming untenable for him and the kids. He complained that the Canadian justice system was blind to their plight.

In August 2015, he made his move. During a holiday in Germany with the kids, Saren bought five one-way airline tickets to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. He promised the children a brand-new life, away from the trauma of the custody fight with their mother. The flight took the runaways into the war-torn Qandil Mountains, where Kurdish nationalists were being bombed by Turkish warplanes. It was a territory controlled by the nationalist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), effectively at war with Turkey.

A desperate mother went in pursuit. On the basis of information from police and sources in northern Iraq, and travelling with an Iraqi journalist, Alison tracked Saren and the kids down to a village in Iraqi Kurdistan. There, after negotiating her way through countless checkpoints, she received a frosty welcome from leaders of the PKK, a group considered by Canadian officials to be terrorists.

But the PKK elders denied that they were giving refuge to Azer and the children. They said there was nothing they could, or would do to help her in her quest. As they were leaving , Alison’s Iraqi guide was given a dark warning: Do not bring her back into PKK territory, if you know what’s good for you. He took it as a clear death threat.

Meanwhile, Saren Azer had contacted family members across the border in his native Iran, and someone from his family arrived by car to collect him and the four children. They were driven to the Iranian city of Mahabad, nestled in the mountains--the home of Saren’s mother, and other family members.

I was told they crossed the border openly, they were welcomed by Iranian authorities, and all five were eventually given documents affirming them as Iranian citizens. It seems that the issues which had prompted Saren’s flight from Iran more than 20 years earlier—his full-throated Kurdish nationalism—were forgiven. Within months, he found a teaching job in a university hospital.
Iranian civil law is highly patriarchal when it comes to child custody in divorce cases. In effect, the authorities believe he has broken no laws in seizing his children, as long as the mother is allowed to see them. Accordingly, Saren has invited Alison to visit the children whenever she likes. Meanwhile, the children have found what Saren calls their safe haven.

“Our daily life is filled with joy,” Saren told me in our Skype interview. “My children now are children. They sing, they dance, they laugh, they play. This is how a true childhood should look like, not in the waiting rooms of psychologists and counsellors. Not in the interview rooms of the RCMP.”

At school, they were learning the Kurdish language, along with Farsi and Arabic. There were also classes in English. There are videos of them at play, and taking part in traditional dances.

But to Alison, the picture Saren painted was all a sham. “What he’s doing,” she told an interviewer, “is the desperate attempts of a man who’s been on the run for nine months. He’s a wanted fugitive. He continues to cross borders illegally. And his actions speak to his desperation that he must be feeling knowing that authorities are circling in on him.”
She organized a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter that vilified Saren and other family members, and she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Canada-wide campaign to help her recover the children. In a 20-minute sit-down with Justin Trudeau, she demanded that the government put pressure on Iranian authorities to have Azer extradited, and the children returned. All it would take, she told Trudeau, was a forceful phone call to the Iranian president.

When nothing came of her efforts on Parliament Hill, she became the angry, desperate, hectoring mother, critical of the government’s inaction—its refusal to take matters to a higher diplomatic level. She also had strong words for the RCMP, who she believed weren’t doing enough to pursue their warrant for her husband’s arrest.

“I have had the unpleasant experience, the horrifying experience, of seeing this government from the inside,” Azer told The National Post. “I am furious.” She said officials were "asleep at the switch."

But most wounding of all was a claim by Saren that the children were content in their new life, that they had Iranian citizenship, and that they had no wish to communicate with Alison. Could they truly have become so alienated from their mother in a few short months?

“They’re children in captivity,” she says, somewhat defensively. “They need to be rescued, and they can’t rescue themselves. Canada needs to rescue the Azer children, my children.”

Saren sees it differently. “We are an ordinary family,” he told me. “Our important issues now are finding a car, looking after our cats, making our meals, cleaning our house. These are our issues, going to the parks, going to picnics, we couldn’t care less about that madness that goes on in Canada.”



**************************************************************************



Alison has told reporters that on June 12, Saren Azer was "arrested" in the province of West
Azerbaijan, but that charges of abduction against him were dropped because no one from
the Canadian government contacted Iranian officials.



That's not quite what happened, say sources close to Azer's family. In fact, two Iranian
officers in plain clothes arrived in a taxi at the university in the city of Urmia where Saren
was teaching.

They identified themselves as Interpol liaison officers, and asked Saren if he would appear
in court the next day. He was not arrested.

The next day, Azer appeared in court as instructed, and the appearance was very brief. In
response to a question from the judge, Azer said that his two boys were over the age of
three, and his two girls over the age of seven. With that, the judge said the children were
legally in the custody of their father, no crime under Iranian law had been committed, and
the case was dismissed. (The children were given Iranian birth certificates.)

Azer was told he was free to go.

A Death in Solitary

By Claude Adams

(Published in The Tyee on Aug. 1, 2016)

Burnaby, BC—Christopher Roy hanged himself with a strip of bedsheet in a room measuring seven feet by 10 feet in a prison in Abbotsford, B.C.

He’d just spent 60 days alone, in what we in Canada call “administrative segregation” because we live in a liberal society and we don’t like the word “solitary.” Chris’s father has another term for it. Slow death. Other people call it torture.

We kill people like Chris Roy slowly. And call it suicide. And then we hold inquests and ask ourselves how it happens.


Why do we keep a 37-year-old man in total isolation, hermetically sealed, for two months—a father of two teen-aged girls who was addicted to heroin and Sudoku, who never committed a violent crime in his life, and who even turned himself in to police when he broke parole?  

After weeks in solitary, Chris wrote that he’d “like to get my mental health issues under control.” He asked to speak to a psychologist, concerned about what he called the “stigma” of mental illness.

Eighteen days before his suicide, he stopped his almost daily phone calls to family and friends. He went silent, often a sign of depression.

Three days before his suicide, he barricaded himself inside his cell, broke a broom handle, and threatened prison staff with it, through the food slot on his cell door.

The actions of a disturbed man? One prison staffer who talked to him described Chris as “wide-eyed,” “very distracted,” and “all over the place.” He displayed the classic symptoms of paranoia—worried that fellow inmates could get into his high-security cell and kill him.

But he never saw a psychologist. Or a psychiatrist. Matsqui Institution, with a prison population of nearly 300, has a psychiatrist come in for one afternoon a month.

I just spent three days in a coroner’s inquest in Burnaby, listening to the story of Chris Roy’s life and death in June, 2015. Sitting there, I vividly recalled the horrifying story of Ashley Smith, the woman who died of self-inflicted choking in solitary in 2007 while prison guards watched.

Her death produced more than a hundred recommendations for humanizing Canada’s prison system. Among them was a call for end to indefinite solitary--a prisoner never knowing when the isolation will end. Most of the jurors' recommendations have not been acted on.

The coroner’s jury in the Chris Roy suicide had just 25 recommendations but, because they have no force in law, they will also likely go unheeded.

A coroner’s jury, unlike a courtroom jury, is not allowed to assess blame. Jurors can’t point fingers, or hold anybody to account. There’s no righteous outrage. No lawyer’s histrionics. Proceedings are very civil and dignified.

But the Chris Roy story warrants some outrage.

A CCTV video of events in the segregation range on June 1, 2015—the day Chris hanged himself—contains some graphic irony. At the moment that he slipped the makeshift noose around his neck, the hallway in the range is quiet, virtually deserted. By contrast, in the minutes after his body is taken down, the range is a scene of frenetic activity—nearly 20 guards, paramedics and other prison staff focused on herculean efforts to revive him.

At the point of death, Chris was the center of attention. No efforts were spared to restore a pulse. By contrast, in life, penned up in 70 sterile square feet, he was largely forgotten—with only his tangled thoughts to keep him company.

In the last days of his life, he was despondent, lonely and afraid. He was worried about a drug deal inside prison that had gone bad. He was afraid that other inmates could get into his cell and hurt him. From his cell, he’d heard somebody in the yard yell:  “We know where you are.” They called him a “rat.” Worst of all, word was getting around that he was a sexual offender—it was only a rumor, but it was the kind of thing that could get you shanked in a prison culture that has its own hierarchy of “right” and “wrong” offenses

To make things worse, a prison staffer-- I'll call her S.C.----had just delivered some bad news:  Chris was being re-classified as “maximum security” and would soon be transferred to Kent Institution, a maximum security facility that holds a higher number of violent inmates

It  was S.C.'s job to tell him about the changes in his status.  So at 4:25pm on the afternoon of June 1, 2015, she passed him some paperwork to this effect through the food slot of his cell in the segregation range. In a CCTV prison video, we see S.C. opening the slot and passing Roy the papers. Then we see his hands emerge as he signs the documents.

Later, Chris’s father Rob would call this transaction “the triple knockout blow.”

It was Chris’s last communication with the outside world. Weeks earlier, when he was first put into solitary, he’d spoken to his mother Brenda on the phone, and he’d assured her, pointedly, that she shouldn’t worry, “I would never kill myself, I just want to finish my time and get into a drug program.”

But now, something snapped.

Later, under questioning, S.C.  was asked if she had a discussion with Chris about the implications of the transfer to Kent, how it might affect him psychologically.  “He didn’t request (a discussion),” she said. “If he had refused to sign I would have taken this to mean that he was unhappy.”

In fact, what we know now is that, talking to Chris though a food slot measuring 17 inches by 6 inches, it was not possible for the parole officer to assess just how truly unhappy he really was.

Chris was one of the 28 inmates in S.C.'s caseload. Normally, she sees her cases once a week, but she had just come back from leave so she wasn’t up to speed on his file.

“You didn’t have an opportunity to review the file?” she was asked.

“I don’t recall,” she said.

S.C. was then asked if, when an inmate is told he was being transferred to a prison like Kent, “can this have a significant impact?”

She answered: “It could.”

It could. And it did.

Sometime in the next hour, Chris gave up on life.

First he covered the small plexiglass window of his cell with a paper towel so he wouldn’t be disturbed. Then he tore a strip off a bedsheet. Looking up at the ceiling of his cell, he found a convenient suspension point that would support his weight: the metal casing around an overhead heat detector.

Standing on a chair or his bed, he rolled the bedsheet strip into a ligature, tied it around his neck, affixed it to the suspension point, and jumped--cutting off the oxygen to his brain.

At 5:32pm, a corrections officer, J.G., came down the range in the company of a male nurse doing his regular rounds with a cart of pills. J.G. noticed that the window of cell #24, Chris Roy’s cell, was covered by paper. “Mr. Roy,” she said, “Are you there? Health care is here if you need anything.”

No response.

As precious seconds passed, she rushed back to the “bubble”—a security post at the end of the segregation range—and requested that a guard there try to raise Chris on an intercom system that connects with every cell.

Again was no response, so J.G.called for guards to come and open the food slot to cell #24. Holding a transparent plastic shield over the food slot, a guard opened it and looked inside. (The shield is used in case an inmate tries to spray the guards with urine or feces.)

“Mr Roy appeared to be standing at the door,” J.G. said. “All we could see was his arms and torso . . . Soon we could see that he was hanging.”

Finally, the cell door was opened and a guard cut Chris’ body free. He flopped to the floor, his fall partly cushioned by plastic garbage bags full of clothes on the floor of the cell.

A guard started chest compressions, and J.G. made the call that would bring paramedics to the scene. When the medics arrived, it took 15 minutes before they could get a pulse, and once they did, Chris was rushed to Abbotsford Hospital.

He remained on life support for two days. A pair of armed prison guards were on duty at his hospital door.  At one point, Chris’s father asked the attending doctor if there was any hope.  Rob Roy remembers how the doctor framed his prognosis: “The chances of Chris walking out of here,” he said, “are the same as you winning the Power Ball (lottery) twice.”

There would be no medical miracle. Chris was pronounced dead at 6:49pm on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. He was 37 years ago.

***************************************************************

At the inquest into Christopher  Roy’s death, an assistant warden of Matsqui Institution put it this way: “The response (to the suicide) took too long and we have to get better at it.”

As an employee of Corrections Service of Canada, what he couldn’t say was what was on the minds of Roy’s parents attending the inquest, and on the minds of the five  jurors: Why was this recovering heroin addict in a solitary cell in the first place? Why, given what we know about the psychological effects of solitary confinement, was he in there for 60 consecutive days? And why, after all that time, did nobody twig to the fact that he was suicidal?

Chris Roy was a non-violent criminal with a serious drug habit—a one-time roughneck in Alberta’s oil patch who became a hardened addict in his late 20s. It was an addiction that ruined his marriage, and alienated him from his two daughters. “He would just do a disappearing act,” his father Rob told me. “To his credit, he made sure his daughters never saw him when he was high.”

When his money ran out, Chris began breaking into private homes and stealing to raise money for his next fix. But he wasn’t very good at B & E. In his last offense, he put his fist through a window, cut himself and the blood allowed police to track him through his DNA.

He was sentenced to two years plus a day—a federal rap—from which he got an early release. But he breached his parole and then, at his mother’s urging, he gave himself up to police. That’s how Chris found himself in Matsqui. For reasons that are not clear, he was placed in a solitary cell. To await a transfer to another institution that never came.

In a sense, he fell between the cracks of the system.

Chris called his mother, and told him to send him as many Sudoku puzzles as she could “so I can keep my sanity.”

He was joking. But as the days dragged into weeks, that sanity would be pushed to the breaking point.

Ed McIsaac, a former member of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, a prisoner’s ombudsman group, was asked by the coroner if he had any views on the maximum amount of time any prisoner should be in solitary.

He answered: “Five days.”

But in fact, Chris Roy's sentence was life.

The Collapse of the Berlin Wall

LeipzigAbout 70,000 people walk through the city centre of Leipzig on Oct. 9, 1989, during one of the so-called Monday demonstrations against the East German Communist regime. Former CBC correspondent Claude Adams and his cameraman, Philippe Billard, clandestinely filmed one such protest about a week before the Berlin Wall fell. They transported the footage back to the West by burying it amid video of Adams's son's birthday party. (Reuters)

Growing up as a German-Canadian, I always knew it as just "The Wall"  die Mauer. The "Berlin" was implicit, a crude scar down the middle of my heritage. It was built the year I became a teenager, shortly after I got my Canadian citizenship papers, and it was torn down just after I turned 41. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was first breached.

Standing in Potsdamer Platz in the centre of Berlin, on a cool, overcast November night, wearing a Cold War-era trench coat and holding a CBC microphone, I remember thinking that this was a defining moment in my professional life. As such, I had to be careful. I needed to approach this story with professional detachment, without any emotion whatsoever, even though or perhaps, because this was such a pivotal moment in 20th-century history. I had to wear a mask of dispassionate impartiality. At the time, we called this "getting out of the way of the story." Watching the tapes of my broadcasts 20 years later, however, I'm embarrassed by the lack of passion in my voice. If ever there was a moment for a tear, a tremor in the voice or a trill of joy, that was it.

The collapse of the Wall, of course, was the climax of a bigger geopolitical story that I and other members of CBC's London bureau had been following for weeks in the fall of 1989. Seismic events in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other Warsaw Pact countries were keeping us busy; we sensed that we were witnessing the important end of something. The "p" and "g" words were on everyone's tongue: perestroika and glasnost, reform and openness. Mikhail Gorbachev was stirring the tectonic plates of Europe. So our eyes were on the entire Soviet Bloc, but our attention was fixed mostly on Germany.

I vividly remember Leipzig. It had begun with a peaceful candle-lit march by 40 people, demanding that East Germans be free to travel. In successive weeks, the march grew to 80 people, then several hundred, then tens of thousands, walking in defiance of local authorities. My cameraman, Philippe Billard, and I decided that this was something we needed to witness. So, we packed a small portable video camera and passed through Checkpoint Charlie posing as tourists. In the camera was a videocassette with footage of my son Patrick's eighth birthday party.

We arrived in Leipzig in the early evening about a week before the fall of the Wall, and a huge candle-lit demonstration was already underway. Philippe filmed the march surreptitiously, on the last half of the birthday cassette. Then, on the drive back to Berlin, we rewound the tape. It was an inspired precaution. Sure enough, at Checkpoint Charlie, East German border guards demanded to see our tape. We handed it over, and they watched portions of the tape of Patrick blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. "A handsome boy," they said, and sent us on our way. The next day, the first video images of the Leipzig marches were shown around the world.

There are few things more thrilling than to touch history on the run. The early evening of Nov. 9, 1989, was overcast and wet in East Berlin. The media were gathered at a routine press conference by a Politburo member, Guenther Schabowski. It was boring, and I was looking forward to a dinner of sausage, red cabbage and beer. Shortly before 7 p.m., as he was wrapping up, Schabowski made a curious comment. It was delivered sotto voce, almost like a throw-away line; the instantaneous translation made it sound as if the government was lifting the rules that prevented East Germans from travelling abroad. The Wall, he seemed to say, would be open starting the next morning. Without elaboration, Schabowski gathered his papers and walked out. I bolted out of my seat, told my camera crew to follow me, and we chased him to his waiting limousine. "Mr. Minister," I said, with forced calmness, "aren't you afraid there will be a huge exodus as a result of this?" Stepping into his car, choosing his words carefully, Schabowski replied: "Nobody can say what will be the result of this step, you see. But we are trying to do our best for the people."

History sometimes swings on such banal words. Within an hour or two of this announcement, tens of thousands of East Berliners began gathering at crossing points at the Wall. They demanded immediate travel visas. They wanted them now. The guards were nonplussed. They said the Wall would not be open until the next morning, but the crowds were so large, and so insistent, that the border guards threw up their hands and let them through. I was in my West Berlin hotel suite shortly before midnight, editing my story about Schabowski's curious statement, when my cameraman came running in, waving a videocassette and shouting: "People are going through the Wall by the thousands!!" The Ossies , as the East Germans were called, were already beginning to flood West
Berlin's high-end shopping district, the Kurfuerstendamm, with fistfuls of useless currency.

Within a day or two, the sledgehammers began knocking down the Wall. In March 1990, there were free elections. By the following October, there was only one Germany. Twenty years later, the emotion that I suppressed so "professionally" in my reporting of these and subsequent events, is still with me.


Slow Justice: The Adam Anhang Murder Mystery


I've produced a lot of crime stories, but few have the sensational elements of what I called "A Father's Justice," reported and narrated by 16x9 chief correspondent Carolyn Jarvis.

YOU CAN WATCH THE FULL 16X9 STORY HERE.

At the heart of the story is Aurea Vazquez-Rijos--blonde, irresistible and relentless. And by all accounts, ruthless. While a fugitive in Italy, she was known as the "Vedova Nera"--the Black Widow. Now she is in prison in Puerto Rico, awaiting what is certain to be a headline-grabbing murder trial.

Aurea is accused of masterminding the murder of her husband, Canadian millionaire Adam Anhang, on the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2005. She's charged with promising a hitman $3 million to kill Anhang, fearing that an imminent divorce would leave her penniless.

After the murder, Aurea fled Puerto Rico and flew to Italy where she started another family. I spent several days in Florence, tracing her movements and meeting the Italian banker who was financing her defence.

Carolyn conducted interviews in Puerto Rico and in Winnipeg, where Abe Anhang, the victim's father, was determined that Aurea would be brought to justice. He tracked her every movement. However, it would take  years, and the intervention of an Italian detective, Interpol and the FBI before she was arrested in Spain and extradited to face trial in San Juan.

That trial will soon unfold.








The Pain of Unexplained Loss: the Legacy of MH370



By Claude Adams


On the evening of March 7, 2014, Steve Wang turned on his smartphone and found a voice message from his mother, who was vacationing in Nepal. “I’ll be landing in Beijing at around 6:30 tomorrow morning,” she told him. “Please come and get me. And bring a coat. I don’t have one with me.”

Wang was tired, so he asked his father if he would pick her up. Then he went to bed.

He awoke the next morning to the sound of a key in the door. “They must be back,” he said to himself. He looked at his phone. It was shortly after 8 a.m. Then he checked flight arrivals on his laptop. MH370, it said, had been delayed. “That’s odd,” he thought.

“Something is wrong.”
WATCH THE COMPLETE 16x9 STORY HERE


Wang got up and found his father sitting at the computer. “I think something happened,” his father said. “I waited at the airport until 8:00, but there was no information so I came home.”
“My brain suddenly went empty,” Wang said in a recent interview with 16×9. “I never heard of such a thing. A plane going missing!” He spent the next few hours on his laptop, with a growing sense of dread. He found a special emergency support number on the Internet. “I called it dozens of times. But nobody answered.”
Much the same thing was happening with hundreds of family members in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur—the Malaysian capital where Flight 370 had originated. A pattern of evasive or non-answers and sympathetic shrugs from officials was creating a panic among the next-of-kin who had gathered at the two airports. People were crying. Chain-smoking. Begging anyone in a uniform for news. “Everybody was helpless,” Wang said. “It was chaos.”
WATCH BELOW: American pilot Michael Exner of Boulder, Colorado, gave 16×9 access to a simulation of what would happen to a Boeing 777 jetliner in the event of a loss of fuel when flying at 35,000 feet. This scenario is what some experts believe may have been the final moments of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 as it flew over the South Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014.
That chaos, as he called it, has never completely gone away, at least, for the families. The aviation mystery of the ages is about to enter its second year—a mystery even more compelling than the disappearance of famed flier Amelia Earhart in the Pacific Ocean in 1937. The official search for Earhart lasted 17 days. The search for MH370 never really stopped. And there’s no end in sight.
So what do we know? The last human communication from MH370 was a terse “Good night, Malaysia 370” at 1:19 a.m. local time on the morning of March 8. Then, a yawning silence. Someone switched off the plane’s communications systems two minutes later as the Boeing 777 entered Vietnamese airspace. A satellite then traced its inexplicable flight south over the Indian Ocean. Presumably, after several hours, the fuel tanks emptied and the 200-ton aircraft—with one of the best safety records in the skies—plunged into the water.
To the anxious family members, like Steve Wang, and Sarah Bajc, who lost her partner Philip Wood, this scenario is all conjecture. The next-of-kin are all living in a world of “ambiguous loss,” as psychologists call it. A world where nothing is certain and everything, however awful, is possible. Wang still clings to the infinitesimal possibility of a hijacking—his mother held hostage somewhere, waiting for rescue. Bajc thinks the plane may have followed a northern, rather than a southern route, with a landing on the Asian landmass. She talks darkly about a cover-up.
“There’s no other explanation,” she says, “for the behaviour of the investigation team and the government and how they’ve treated the families.”
WATCH BELOW: Even after a year, Sarah Bajac rejects some of the more likely scenarios of what may have happened to the plane. 
Wang rejects the widely-held idea that the pilot or co-pilot may have mounted a bizarre suicide mission. “I don’t believe people could do such things,” he says. “Why did he just keep flying for more than 8 hours, and fly into a place where people cannot be found? I don’t believe it. It makes no sense.”
But suicide flights by disturbed pilots are not unknown. Investigators say it’s happened at least four times since 1997. The most serious one was Egypt Air Flight 990 in October, 1999. A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigation suggested that moments after the captain left the flight deck on takeoff from JFK Airport, a relief first officer sent the plane into a rapid descent and crashed. The reasons are unknown. All 217 aboard were killed. Egyptian authorities strongly disputed the suicide story.
For some victims of ambiguous loss, no possibility is too outlandish.
“When something terrible happens that you don’t understand, your mind dwells on it until you come up with a solution,” Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson said. “A lot of the systems in our brains that are responsible for negative emotion . . . hold on to things we don’t understand and then repeat them to other parts of the brain, which is what you feel as involuntary thinking—over and over again—until there’s a solution generated.”
So the families of the missing experience endless fear, endless grief and endless frustration. In their minds, to acknowledge that a loved one is dead might even seem a kind of betrayal.
WATCH BELOW: As a crash investigator for the US National Transportation Safety Board, Greg Feith spent years studying the causes and effects of airplane disasters. 16×9 spoke to him on the occasion of the anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. 
Peterson’s advice: “Narrow your timeframe. Don’t be thinking what your life is going to be like six months down the road or three years down the road. Pay attention to today, tomorrow and next week . . . Make this day as good as you possibly can and then the next day as good as you possibly can and then over time you’ll be able to stretch that out again.”
Steve Wang, however, doesn’t buy that prescription. He says he is ready to wait “for my whole life” for a resolution. And he believes his children, grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren will be looking for the truth, if they have to, making flight MH370 a mystery resonating through the generations.

The Myth of the "Vegetative" Brain


Of all the stories I've produced for Global 16x9, one of my special favourites is a piece we first broadcast in the spring of 2013, called "Waking the Brain."

YOU CAN SEE THE FULL STORY HERE

It's the story of three individuals--Leonard Rodrigues, Rohan Pais and Kate Bainbridge--who were all diagnosed as vegetative or "brain dead" after a catastrophic accident or illness. But the doctors were wrong. As their families discovered, all three did in fact have some brain function, and two of them are on the road to recovery. Kate, who lives in Cambridge, England, has actually written a book and paints watercolours.

In the case of Rohan and Kate, their brains were unlocked through the work of a remarkable Anglo-Canadian scientist--Dr. Adrian Owen of Western University in London, Ontario. Owen discovered that as many as one-fifth of all patients diagnosed as vegetative may  have some detectable brain function, and that this enables them to communicate with their doctors and loved ones.

And that may be the first step to recovery from brain injury once thought to be incurable.

In conversation with 16x9 executive producer Laurie Few, I talked about the making of this story. YOU CAN SEE THAT CONVERSATION HERE.


In Muhammad Ali's Orbit

A Letter to the Editor, Globe and Mail, June 8, 2016

I grew up in awe of Muhammad Ali as a fighter and quipster, but the memory I will cherish the most is when Ali arrived in Baghdad 26 years ago to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of a group of American hostages.
I was a CBC reporter staying at the Al Rasheed hotel when Ali’s convoy arrived on a blistering hot November day. The hotel staff – bellboys, waiters, front-desk staff – swarmed him from the moment he stepped into the lobby. In the hotel restaurant, they lined up for autographs and photos, and Ali, exhausted and already visibly stricken by Parkinson’s, obliged them all.
His staff tried to get him to his room for a rest, but he refused to leave until every Iraqi staffer had his moment in Ali’s orbit.
Ali had to wait in Baghdad for a week, but his “rope-a-dope” statesmanship worked. He finally got his meeting with Saddam, and came home with 15 hostages.
Claude Adams, Surrey, B.C.