Friday, 30 October 2015

John Furlong has the right to be proud of his life and work

The Globe and Mail published this on October 30, 2015.

Lost in the clamour of last week’s federal election was the quiet sound of a door closing. John Furlong’s hard-fought struggle to clear his name reached its conclusion. Stories like these do not have happy endings, but we can at least mark the occasion and pass judgment where judgment is due.
Last Monday, Laura Robinson, the journalist whose articles in 2012 created a firestorm that threatened to incinerate Mr. Furlong’s reputation, announced she would not appeal the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss her defamation claim against Mr. Furlong.
Ms. Robinson’s articles claimed Mr. Furlong had misrepresented his past. That in telling the story of his family’s decision to immigrate to Canada in 1974, he had buried the story of an earlier time when he was a very young teacher at a parochial school for First Nations children in Burns Lake, B.C. And that, while at the school, he had abused students.
Ms. Robinson took direct aim at Mr. Furlong’s reputation as the man who had not only been CEO of the highly successful 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, but someone who had, for the first time, included First Nations as partners in those Games.
Mr. Furlong quickly and vigorously denied the allegations. He sharply criticized Ms. Robinson’s journalistic practices. He accused her of a “shocking lack of diligence,” of holding a “personal vendetta,” a “two decade-long pattern of inaccuracy” and more.
Key elements of her story soon began to fall apart. The RCMP investigated. They undertook a wide range of interviews and inquiries. They discovered no reliable evidence to support the claims of abuse. For example, one former student had not even been at Mr. Furlong’s school when the alleged abuse took place. No charges were laid. Lawsuits commenced by alleged abuse victims were dismissed.
In due course, Mr. Furlong himself decided it was time for closure, and he dropped his own claim for defamation against Ms. Robinson. But Ms. Robinson was determined to clear her name from Mr. Furlong’s attacks. In essence, she put her journalistic integrity on trial.
She lost.
In a careful, methodical, 74-page judgment, without a single rhetorical flourish, Justice Catherine Wedge explains the law of defamation, analyzes the evidence and then finds that Mr. Furlong was entitled to respond as he did, and that he did not lose the right of verbal self-defence that arose when his reputation was attacked.
It was not necessary for Justice Wedge to decide whether Mr. Furlong’s criticisms were true, only that he was entitled to make them.
But her decision reads as a textbook on how not to do investigative journalism. She says at one point, “whatever [an] investigator’s professional credentials, he or she must be up to the task of determining, to the greatest extent possible, the accuracy of the information where guilt or innocence – or the reputation of an individual – is at stake.”
Justice Wedge spoke of the need to take the “greatest of care” to ensure the spontaneity and reliability of the statements of informants. Ms. Robinson had instead “telegraphed” her intentions, and “had no information from any independent source to support the allegations.”
At its best, investigative journalism can unearth important, hidden truths about misuses and abuses of power. The fearless pursuit of truth may sometimes cause collateral damage to reputations. Those whose reputations have been wrongly harmed have the right to sue for that harm. The law strikes a balance that recognizes the vital importance of vigorous public discourse, while imposing a measure of discipline intended to ground that discourse in fact, not fiction.
All of this requires journalists to work with skill, diligence and integrity. As the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision makes plain, that was not how Ms. Robinson did her work.
Last Monday’s announcement that Ms. Robinson would not appeal was both graceless and unrepentant, without even an acknowledgment of the brutal harm she had caused, not only to Mr. Furlong, but also those former students who were victimized by her zealotry.
But maybe at last, for John Furlong and his family, a door has closed. What they have gone through can never be taken back. It is appalling. No court judgment can fully undo the hurt.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Un-Canadian, eh?

The Globe & Mail published this on October 13.

A friend of mine once suggested that a good way to end a particularly troublesome media scrum would be to say, “That question is un-Canadian.”  His point was that Canadians are a polite respectful people, and that polite respectful people do not ask annoyingly difficult, even disrespectful, questions of politicians.

It was a cute thought, but I never took him up on it.  Better just to try to come up with good answers to all those pesky questions.

But in the last days of this long election campaign, there is another idea of “un-Canadianness” that is getting a worrisome amount of attention.

This is the idea that there are two kinds of Canadians.  Those who are, well, Real Canadians.  Just like us.  Old stock.  And those who are not.

And so it is being argued by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that Real Canadians would not seek to hide their faces in public places.

And that what this country urgently needs is some sort of tip line so Real Canadians can report the “barbaric” cultural practices of our un-Canadian neighbours to The Authorities.

And that there are two classes of citizens: some whose citizenship can be removed for certain offences, and others who, being Real Canadians, might go to jail for their crimes but will always be citizens.

It is as if the one thing Canada needs most urgently at this time in place is not viable policies to remedy a persistently flagging economy, address the looming crisis of climate change, or restore Canada’s position of credibility in world affairs, but rather, a legislated dress code for citizenship ceremonies.

But it is much worse than that.

There is a principle which is truly fundamental to our country.  It is that we do not simply tolerate difference, we celebrate it.

We do not impose the values of one religion on all; instead, we respect religious freedom.  This protection is written into our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the document that, more than any other, is the expression of our deepest values as a nation.

The constitution goes further than this.  A section which is quoted much less often reads, “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”  Not just the passive acceptance of difference, but its preservation and enhancement.

Hardwired into our nation’s system of government is the idea that we are not a seamless, homogenous whole.  We are instead a patchwork, a mosaic, a tapestry of different beliefs, customs and practices.  The idea is that these differences should not divide us, but rather unite us, within a constitutional framework that guarantees basic rights to all while fundamentally respecting - as liberal democracies must - our individual right to live our lives autonomously, freely.

This must surely include the possibility that some will hold religious beliefs that call them to modesty in public, even to the extent of veiling their faces.  There is, in fact, no difference between the Scottish born immigrant who wants to wear his kilt to his Canadian citizenship ceremony, and the Muslim immigrant who wants to veil her face.  Both want to become Canadian, to obtain full membership in a society that will not scorn their difference, but rather embrace it.

There are some who think otherwise.  Plainly, some of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are in that group.  But we have seen these people before.  People who advocate for the creation of tip lines to rat on the behaviour of our neighbours are not much different from Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Theirs is the politics of intolerance, fear and division.  Today we will be given the opportunity to phone the tip line.  Tomorrow we will be required to do so.

Some will say that this is simply a political strategy.  A late campaign attempt by the Conservatives to exploit so-called wedge issues intended to scare us into voting for them.

The problem, however, is this.  If we reward them now for their intolerance, we can expect more of it.

There are important issues in this election campaign.  The parties differ markedly on some, and not on others.  We can choose among different approaches to economic growth, environment protection, refugee policy, parliamentary reform.  It may be hard to see the differences sometimes through the noise of partisan rancour.  But it’s an election, not a tea party.

All except for this. The notion that what this country needs now is a politics that punishes cultural and religious difference, that classifies us into different categories of citizens, is profoundly wrong.  It is, in fact, un-Canadian.  We must reject it.