Column for May 28, 2006

Of anniversaries, speeches and civic responsibility

This month’s second anniversary of the Shirley Street standoff passed with barely a whimper, a sad testament — but one that would no doubt comfort our current prime minister — to the power of governments to outlast their critics by simply ignoring whatever legitimate questions they raise.

Shortly after midnight on May 19, 2004, machine-gun-armed, battering-ram-equipped police showed up at a Shirley Street address to enforce a child apprehension order and seize a five-month-old baby girl from its parents. A shot was fired from inside the house, triggering evacuation of the entire Halifax neighbourhood, which was over-run by police SWAT teams. It only finally ended when the parents emerged from the house 67 hours later and were arrested.

That’s when the judicial process — charges, motions, trials, verdicts, sentences — took over. But the legal process didn’t, and couldn’t, answer the larger questions the siege had provoked.

Why had the Children’s Aid Society sought the apprehension order in the first place? While both parents had their run-ins with the courts over child custody issues in previous relationships — and been charged with child abduction — there was no evidence they’d physically harmed their children or represented any immediate threat to their newborn infant. In fact, the available evidence suggested they were loving, caring parents.

So why did the police choose to enforce this order with a massive show of force in the middle of the night when there were other, less confrontational alternatives?

Who represented the child’s interests in all of this? The child is now in a foster care system that — read the papers — sometimes seems more dangerous than anything you could imagine happening to her in the care of her parents.

There were a lot of us with questions. I wrote a number of columns, even took that rare-for-me step and joined an ad hoc group lobbying the government for a public inquiry to answer our questions. All to no avail. The government said everything was fine, and that was it.

Except that our questions — still legitimate — have never been answered. Even a promised internal review of the police department’s actions in the case remains incomplete, and no one on city council or the police commission seems to care why it’s taken more than two years to prepare.

You might think the current provincial election campaign offered a chance to revive political interest in this matter. You’d be wrong. Election campaigns, as our now-you-see-her-now-she’s-gone prime minister Kim Campbell pointed out, are not occasions to discuss serious issues.

So far in this campaign, we’ve been assaulted by a continuous combination of largely meaningless sloganeering — “A Better Deal for Today’s Families” trumpets the NDP; “Our Families, Our Future Our Home” me-too the me-tooing Tories; and “Fresh Ideas for All Nova Scotians” sing the Liberals, sounding more like a bread commercial than a political rallying cry — with a daily double-double dose of promises that read like a child’s idea of a wish list, laundry list, grocery list, to-do list and for-everything-else-there’s-Mastercard-list all tied together with a Vote-Me bow.

Which brings us to the press. Which, generally speaking, has played stenographer to our politicians, doing virtually nothing to force them to articulate any larger — even smaller —vision for the future.

Which brings us to our Governor General, Michaelle Jean, who, in a remarkable speech to the annual Canadian Press dinner in Halifax last week, put this question squarely to the assembled elite of editors and publishers: “To what extent,” she asked, “does journalism have a civic responsibility?”

A former journalist — whose time in her native Haiti covering the first free elections in 1987 gave her “the absolute conviction that journalism is the very expression of civic responsibility… so much more than a simple career plan” — chided us for falling into the trap of allowing “ratings, circulation and ad revenues alone [to] determine the standard of conduct,” and for failing to help Canadians understand an increasingly complex world because we offer them “no reference points, no ideas, no analyses.”

The Governor-General’s speech got a standing ovation. But it’s not clear that we — any more than the governments who outwait those who would question them — are really paying attention.

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