Monday, January 5, 2015

Award-winning writer and journalist Russell Wangersky’s new novel Walt, marketed as a thriller, follows a lonely supermarket janitor who collects scraps of paper discarded by customers, decoding their banal grocery lists and receipts to reveal their hidden lives. The disappearance of Walt’s wife, Mary, has put him squarely on the radar of police. Other women have also gone missing in St. John’s. But it’s Mary’s whereabouts that is the central question of the novel.        
Walt is a deceptively simple crime story, employing the common motif of parallel lives. The novel presents three characters: the suspect, the detective and a young woman Walt has got his sights set on. He stalks her for a year, following her home, watching from a distance. But that’s all he does – watch. Detective Dean Hill, who heads up a new cold case squad, himself a loner and recently divorced, believes Walt may be responsible.
What sets this novel apart is that the reader simply doesn’t know what happened to Mary. Has a crime even been committed? “Maybe she moved out west,” Walt tells investigators. We have our suspicions, and there are clues buried deep in the details.
Books like this are successful when the author gets into the headspace of their main character. Weaker writers go for the gut. But Wangersky is a master at occupying the internal spaces of the mind and excavating its darkest corners. Here he employs a variety of perspectives, fluidly moving between first-person narrative and diary entries to create an unsettling voyeuristic-like experience. As the tension builds, readers will burn through the last few pages of this tightly-written thriller that travels to some disturbing places.


On March 15, 1931, an explosion ripped through the stern of the steamer SS Viking, just nine miles from Horse Islands, White Bay on the north east coast of Newfoundland. With insufficient supplies, shelter or medical equipment, of the 153 men aboard, 24 perished. By then, the sealing industry was in decline, and only a handful of steamers were sent to the front, marking the beginning of the end of Newfoundland’s two hundred-year traditional industry. In his new book, The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, Shannon Ryan presents, through recorded conversations with sealers, a comprehensive resource detailing their working lives at a time of both modernization and economic collapse.
            Shannon Ryan has spent his entire professional life documenting the working lives of Newfoundland fishermen, having already produced two books on the subject. Over the course of two years, and with the assistance of more than a dozen history graduates, Ryan and his team collected approximately 150 oral history interviews from former sealers. But Ryan also had additional sources at his disposal, including a series of taped interviews conducted in the 1960s and 70s. The resulting narrative spans approximately twenty years, from the Great Depression to Confederation, when sealing ceased being a Newfoundland industry but was “resurrected as a Canadian industry in time to meet the animal rights protest movement.”
            The Last of the Ice Hunters is encyclopedic in both scope and design. The sealers themselves provide revealing insights, and their plain language is, at times, both simple and eloquent. Lester Andrews is particularly effective: “It was a dog’s life. I’ve got a dog that belongs to my grandson, and I wouldn’t let it go in the berth that I slept in for all the world.” Oral history writing has gone through resurgence because it tends to present these kinds of relatable working class stories to a general readership. With The Last of the Ice Hunters, the themed chapters and interviews are arranged alphabetically, as the author indicates, for the ease of reading. For multi-voiced oral histories to flow organically, they need to develop a rhythm that builds into a chorus. Here they tend to feel assembled into a tallying of anonymous experiences, rather than a collection of commonly-shared narratives. Many personalities get lost in the shuffle.
Shannon Ryan’s The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt is timely because it portrays an industry in general decline. Hampered by constantly diminishing markets, by the beginning of World War II, the seal hunt was conducted by only a handful of vessels. By the end of the war, the fleet had all but vanished. Today, because of bans on seal products in Europe, the industry is mostly relegated to exporting fur. The parallels are undeniable. The author’s opening essay is detailed and functional and provides a broad overview of both his methodology and the industry. Ryan writes, “The history and oral traditions of sealing ships and sealers have remained a vital part of Newfoundland’s culture and history.” To that extent, the raw data is a major contribution. But what the book lacks is cohesion. There is a sweeping narrative lurking beneath the surface of these voices which only sometimes emerges. In his introduction, Ryan admits, “The informants were so generous with their time and attention they deserved to be included, even at the risk of repetition.” It makes the reader wonder if a defter editor might have presented a more creative approach.


Staring down into the dust and gravel strewn Adams Mine, Gordon McGuinty, a mouthpiece and deal-maker for big garbage, saw a potential gold mine, a solution to Toronto’s waste disposal crisis. Beginning in 1990, and over the course of the next fourteen years, local residents would undertake five separate civil resistance campaigns to thwart McGinty’s mega project, to turn the Adams Mine into a garbage bin. In what reads like a political thriller, Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine Dump by Charlie Angus details how a grassroots campaign left several multi-billion dollar consortiums, two levels of government, and McGunity himself running with their tales between their legs.
            In 1989, when McGuinty first decided upon the Adams Mine, it was still in full-swing. Between 1969 and 1990, the pit, stretching 1,800 feet across and 600 feet deep, was the largest of six mines in the northern township of Timiskaming, supplying millions of tonnes of iron ore to the steel mills of southern Ontario. McGuinty’s plan, to bury Toronto’s trash in the mine—3.2 million tonnes a year, or enough to fill 800,000 garbage trucks—promised environmental sustainability and permanent jobs to a community hit hard by recession. But that was before the massive pit filled with 23 million tonnes of ground water, creating some very complex problems. If toxic leachate got into the water table thousands of acres of farmland would be contaminated—forever. McGuinty’s solution: to pump the water out for a thousand years using untested hydraulic technology. After passing two environmental assessments, the cards seemed stacked against the people of Kirkland Lake.
            Angus frames the battle within the broader historical context of the southern exploitation of the north, echoing the writing of political theorist Chris Hedges and what he termed “sacrifice zones,” communities damned to economic and environmental wreckage in the name of capitalism. Angus, a freelance journalist who moved north to escape the confines of the city, joined the fight against McGuinty because, he felt, basic standards of environmental and political accountability were under threat. It’s through the lens of his experiences working as a researcher, speech writer and public relations consultant that much of Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine Dump War is based.
            Angus exposes the backroom deals between McGuinty and his buddy, Premier Mike Harris, and the silencing and dividing of the opposition, but it’s the undaunted determination of the people of Kirkland Lake which takes centre stage. In fact, the book is, in part, a resource manual for running an effective grassroots campaign, whereby a group of diverse and seemingly opposed groups, aboriginal, Quebecois and Ontarian, led demonstrations, blockades and non-violent resistance right to the steps of Toronto City Hall.
            Angus writes with confidences and a deep understanding of the issues that only an insider could provide, juggling some very complex problems without confusing the reader or detracting from the narrative. Mega industrial projects like the Alberta oil sands and the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador are becoming the norm. In fact, the Alberta oil sands are expected to grow by 550,000 barrels per day by 2017. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, it has already made Canada one of the worst environmental offenders on the planet. Famed linguist Noam Chomsky once wrote, “The general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community issues guided by values of solidarity, and sympathy, and concern for others, or there will be no destiny for anyone.” What makes Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine Dump War by Charlie Angus a timely and important book is that we, as ordinary Canadians, have the power to change that.

First appeared in Our Times Vol. 32 No. 6.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Waco, Texas. April 19, 1995. After a 51-day standoff with American federal and Texas State law enforcement, nine survivors of the religious group Branch Davidian emerged from the inferno that had engulfed their former compound. In total, 76 Branch Davidians died, including 26 children. A battle had ensued after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to raid the ranch in search of illegal weapons. While it’s not known for certain what caused the fire, it’s suspected that pyrotechnic rounds delivered from a grenade launcher ignited the blaze. The standoff raised some serious questions about the warrior-like, confrontational mentality in American law enforcement. In his revealing new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, investigative journalist Radley Balko takes on the issue by piecing together the alarming details of how and why America’s police forces have been transformed into combat troops.

Balko, senior editor at Reason Magazine (concerned with “free minds and free markets”) and a former policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, has written extensively on hostile police tactics. The case of Cory Maye garnered national attention when Balko wrote several exposés outlining tactics employed by Prentiss, Mississippi police during a raid on Maye’s home. In December 2001, Maye was awoken by a sudden and violent pounding on the front door. “I thought someone was trying to break in,” he later testified. Maye and police would disagree on what actually transpired, but the ensuing melee left one police officer fatally shot. Maye was eventually sentenced to death for capital murder. What Balko uncovered was a disturbing trend that had become a normalized part of police investigations: from searches related to weapons and drug violations, to responses to non-violent misdemeanors, thousands of commando-like raids are being conducted annually by SWAT (Special Weapons and Training) teams who are undertrained and over-equipped. With fewer oversights than soldiers on a battlefield, it’s a volatile, and often disastrous, combination.

The book opens with a brief history of policing in America. As Balko explains, modern police forces first emerged in the 19th century to better cope with myriad problems facing centralized urban areas. Limited to fighting crime and protecting the public, constables were often unarmed and without uniforms. But today’s modern police forces hold little resemblance to their modest origins, leading to the book’s fundamental question: How did this happen? Balko writes, “We’ve evolved from a country whose founding statesmen were adamant about the dangers of standing forces, to a country where it has become acceptable for government agents dressed in battle garb to storm private homes.” According to the author, the process was so gradual that it happened right under the noses of Americans.

Balko outlines how the militarization of America’s police forces was propelled forward by a series of historic events. It’s a logical chronology, beginning with the Watts Riots and the counterculture movement, to the politically motivated oppression of the Nixon era, right through to the War on Drugs and the domestic surveillance apparatuses of the post-9/11 world. Like other structures of power, law enforcement exists in a vacuum, aptly termed the “Police Industrial Complex.” According to Don Santarelli, former head of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, under Nixon, “They’re always after greater power.”

The first SWAT teams were created in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots by Darryl Gates, the then 34-year-old inspector with the Los Angeles Police Department. Watts burned for six days, reflecting the anger of black and Latino residents tired of years of racial discrimination, and living in fear of intimidation by the police. The riot spread well beyond the neighborhood to encompass 46 square miles. Looting and arson were rampant; snipers took pot shots at police and firemen from high-rise windows. According to Balko, “The Watts riots were the first major incident to nudge the United States toward more militaristic policing.” Five years later, Los Angeles the first city in the United States equipped with a SWAT team. Its purpose was limited to those extraordinary events which were outside the realm of normal policing: riot control and hostage-taking, for instance. By the mid-1970s, the number of active SWAT teams had grown to 500.

During the 40 years since Watts, and through four administrations, SWAT teams would see unparalleled growth. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” set the wheels in motion. By the end of the 1980s, 89 per cent of U.S. cities with a population of over 50,000 would have a military-equipped SWAT team. Signed into law in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act authorized the War on Drugs and granted police the legal authority to conduct “no-knock” raids where only “reasonable” suspicion was required before entering a home unannounced. Balko writes, “It gave police permission to mete out extraordinary violence on people only suspected of non-violent crimes.” These no-knock raids are the centerpiece of Balko’s damning narrative: a world populated by vague enemies, like drugs and terror, where SWAT teams storm private home employing increasing aggressive tactics in pursuing a never-ending war on civilians.

Incentive-based federal grants, where the size of disbursements is tied directly to the number of drug arrests, and generous forfeiture policies, helped fund this explosion. Often times, state and municipal agencies were competing for the same pot of money, increasing the pressure for more impressive busts. By the mid-1990s, SWAT deployments had jumped by 937 per cent. Between 1997 and 1999, the Pentagon received 3.4 million requests for equipment and doled out tens of thousands of military-grade weapons and armor – everything from aircraft to machine guns. But police militarization wouldn’t stop there. Drug raids account for 95 per cent of all SWAT deployments. Now battle gear and aggressive police tactics have spread into mundane areas like raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, raves, and high school dances. Even the departments of Agriculture and Energy now have SWAT teams.

Balko’s accounting of the billions wasted on arming America’s police forces and the Supreme Court’s dismantling of civil liberties is equally both mindboggling and terrifying. But his primary focus is on the proliferation of SWAT teams. He paints a grim picture. A standing army exists in American cities and towns with few checks and balances protecting civilians. The book provides the reader with a sense of their day-to-day operations and their approach to training and operations. But we rarely hear from active-duty police themselves. Balko’s conclusions are based mostly on news reports, government documents and trial transcripts. Perhaps in-depth interviews with current SWAT personnel would have provided a more balanced approach. But this is an otherwise scathing report on American policing policies that’s equal parts history lesson and horror show. George Orwell once wrote, “If you want to see a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face.” Upon reading Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces one can’t help but think that Americans aren’t that far removed from a police state.

"Armies in the Streets" first appeared in Our Times.

Since her critical and commercial breakthrough, Open, was published in 2002, Lisa Moore has become one of the most recognizable names in Canadian literature, having recently been crowned the winner of Canada Reads 2013. Her new novel, Caught, follows David Slaney, a 20-something Newfoundlander, who escapes from federal prison in June 1978 after serving five years for smuggling a boat-load of marijuana into Canada. 

On the surface, Caught appears to be a complete about face for Moore, whose more high-minded literary novel February told the story of Helen, a young mother widowed by the Ocean Ranger disaster. However, Caught works as both meditative character study and first-rate page-turner. But it’s her skillful emphasis of the quieter moments, Moore’s trademark, that define the book, particularly those shared between Slaney and his girlfriend, Jennifer. Moore maintains a delicate balance, and she pulls it off with ease, guiding us through some seriously rough human terrain and a geographical landscape that stretches across the continent. A superbly written novel that crosses literary boundaries, Caught will surely garner her even wider readership.

"Bravado and Betrayal" first appeared in Atlantic Books Today.