Search Results for: death penalty

The Big Bear Reading List

Image: Carolyn Wells

Growing up in England, my knowledge of bears largely came from Yogi Bear cartoons, and on a childhood holiday to North America, it wasn’t Disneyland, but the thought of seeing a real-life Yogi that I was most excited about. However, despite my parents stoically driving a hire car down treacherous mountain roads as I lounged in the back bemoaning the lack of performing bears, it never happened.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada many years later that I saw my first bear. I just turned a corner and there it was, a young black bear casually munching grass, completely unphased by my open-mouthed awe. Several years on, I have seen countless black bears; in fact, they rather enjoy relieving themselves on my front lawn after overindulging in next door’s apple trees. But my childhood wonder of them remains.

I am not the only one drawn to the subject; bears have inspired some wonderful articles, so I’ve compiled a reading list of six stories that not only look at bears, but the emotions and issues that they provoke.

1. Where Now Grizzly Bear? (Brian Payton, Hakai Magazine, January 2021)

In this article, Brian Payton shows grizzly bears to be intrepid explorers “destined to wander” — with male grizzlies swimming up to seven kilometers to find new territories. I found myself hypnotized by a map included in the piece, which tracks a grizzly bear as it travels an incredible 850 kilometers over five months. The positive side of grizzly bears turning up in new places is that, after decades of persecution, their numbers are finally improving and young males are looking to move away from “all these big dudes.” On the other hand, this means potential human conflict: “We know they will coexist with us. Their survival depends on our willingness to coexist with them.”

A bear emerges from dense vegetation and pauses on the shore. It’s early spring, and the young grizzly has only recently roused from hibernation, ravenous and driven. He lifts his head and gazes out across the falling tide to the opposite shore, where forested slopes are close enough to make out individual trees. The bear stands and sniffs the air.

Grizzlies can see about as well as we can, but it’s their olfactory powers—at least 2,000 times more acute than ours—that most likely set them in motion. We’ll never grasp how they perceive the world, let alone what they’re thinking. For some reason, this bear falls back on all fours, ambles away from prime habitat, and wades into the sea.

To reach the far shore, he dog-paddles west across Johnstone Strait, one of the narrowest navigable channels that make up the fabled Inside Passage. This stretch of water separates the North American mainland from the largest island on the Pacific coast, British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It’s only three to 4.5 kilometers across but anywhere from 70 to 500 meters deep. Swift tidal currents can reach 15 kilometers per hour. Vessels of every description pass through, from kayaks to freighters, to cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers. At this time of year, the water temperature averages about 8 °C, but the bear has almost no fat left to insulate him from the cold.

2. Grizzlies at the Table (Jimmy Thomson, Beside Magazine, December 2020)

One place in which grizzly bears are more prevalent than ever is in Wuikinuxv, British Columbia. Jimmy Thomson’s beautiful piece highlights the respect that this First Nations community gives their frequent visitors. The bears are valued as an important part of the ecosystem: “In eating the salmon, the bears bridge the gap between the deep ocean and the treetops, dragging the wriggling essence of one ecosystem into another.” This article is full of such powerful imagery, and Thomson’s respect for the people who wish to defend these animals is apparent.

Adam Nelson pulls the band’s truck into the small landfill less than a kilometer from the village, as he does three times a week to keep bear attractants out of people’s homes, and honks his horn to avoid startling any nearby bears. He and Corey Hanuse toss the village’s garbage bags into the landfill and wait. Minutes later a large grizzly is tearing the bags apart.

An electrified fence around the landfill, installed at great expense, lasted three days. The bears pulled it open like a can of sardines and it hasn’t been repaired. Later, someone stole the batteries. The bears have become accustomed now to the easy food the dump has on offer, and most days it’s possible to find them snacking amongst the detritus. Better there than roaming the village.

3. Barbearians at the Gate (Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, The Atavist Magazine, May 2018)

Bear intrusions are not so welcome in other areas. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s article documents life in Grafton, New Hampshire, where residents believe “in untethering themselves from institution, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives.” Hongoltz-Hetling discovers a deep-rooted conflict in Grafton between man and bear, explaining the drama with a colorful array of local stories — about eaten cats and bear-fighting llamas, for instance — that tell us as much about the characters and colloquialisms of Grafton as about the bears themselves.

With bears reaching peak boogie man status, Hongoltz-Hetling also hears whispers of a darker side to the conflict — vigilante posses embarking on clandestine hunts of bears sleeping in their dens, even though “a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.” This article is an intriguing insight into small-town life — told through the bears.

Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snowbank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

4. A Death in Yellowstone (Jessica Grose, Slate, April 2012)

How do you manage conflict between humans and bears when it escalates? That’s a dilemma faced by many park rangers. In the Yogi Bear cartoons, Yogi was a cheeky chap who loved to steal the odd picnic basket from guests at his home in Jellystone National Park. In this article, Jessica Grose discovers the stark reality that a fed bear is often a dead bear — for national parks are, ultimately, a human creation: “Its boundaries are built and monitored by the government, and the rangers are responsible for keeping its … visitors safe.” If a bear gets too close, the rangers have to play judge and jury on its life.

This was the case with Grose’s subject — the Wapiti sow — a bear thought to have been responsible for two deaths in Yellowstone National Park. Grose’s piece is a harrowing look at bear attacks and how rangers weigh up a bear’s guilt like a criminal case, with “ non-acidic envelopes for storing evidence, tweezers for picking up multicolored grizzly bear hairs, tape measures for measuring bear tracks.” The death penalty is based on whether a bear was acting in a naturally aggressive way or not. But what exactly is natural? The penal code for wild animals is a hard one to decipher.

Wildlife biologists like Kerry Gunther help the park’s crime-scene investigators by speculating on a bear’s emotional state. Based on the evidence at hand, he tries to determine whether a given act of bear aggression might have been a natural behavior—the result of being startled while feeding on an elk carcass, for example, or seeing someone approaching her cubs. If a bear appears to have followed a hiker down the trail instead of backing off, or if it attacked campers while they were asleep, that would be more unusual—the result, perhaps of a deranged grizzly mind.

In a mauling case like that of John Wallace, in which there are no living (human) witnesses, sorting out these categories of bear aggression can be especially vexing. But there’s one piece of circumstantial evidence that almost always leads to euthanasia: a half-eaten corpse. Under normal circumstances, the grizzly diet in Yellowstone is about 60 percent vegetarian—roots and nuts, with the remainder coming from pocket gophers, trout, elk, and bison. If the rangers have good reason to believe that a bear killed a human being and then consumed his body, that bear’s behavior will be deemed unnatural—and its crime a capital offense.

5. Lessons From a Bear Attack (Eva Holland, Cottage Life, December 2020)

Not all bears are given a guilty verdict after an attack. When Mya Helena Myllykoski and her son were charged by a grizzly bear, the bear received a reprieve for acting naturally to defend a moose carcass. In her interview with Eva Holland, Myllykoski describes her relief that the bear was spared, and how instead of paralyzing her with fear, the attack inspired her to fight to protect bears. Holland explores the fascinating psychology behind Myllykoski’s “post-traumatic growth,” as well as describing the attack itself in spine-tingling detail. Her account demonstrates great respect for the wilderness she is writing about — in a previous piece, “When a Fatal Grizzly Mauling Goes Viral,” Holland discusses her reluctance to report on bear attacks at all: They are incredibly rare, and she questions whether writing about them is anything more than voyeurism for those outside of bear country. This perspective brings sincerity, thoughtfulness, and understanding to her work on the subject.

When she shares that detail—that she has felt a grizzly bear’s hot breath on her face—I feel something unexpected creeping up inside me, a little green shoot alongside the larger growth of fear and fascination as I listen to her story: envy. Irrationally, against all logic or instinct for survival, I envy that experience, just a little. When she tells me that she regrets not having a memory of that smell, I understand what she means. I want to know what the bear smelled like too.

We crave vivid and authentic encounters with the wilderness. That, in part, is why we go out there, why we leave the city behind for an afternoon or a weekend, or more. We want to see the stars turn overhead and hear loons, owls, and coyotes; we want to watch the mist burn off a river’s surface, or a thunderstorm roll across a lake. We want to smell crushed spruce needles and wet, decomposing logs and that sweet dirt scent when the mushrooms begin to pop up.

Wilderness can feed us. It can fill our lives up with rich sensory memories. But we take risks in going there, and we bring risk with us for the animals that live there too. Sometimes we pay a price for our curiosity and our desires—but more often, they pay the price instead.

6. This Man Protected Wild Bears Every Day for 13 Years — Until He Made the Ultimate Sacrifice (Nick Jans, Reader’s Digest, June 2019)

Timothy Treadwell took the meaning of bear advocate to a whole new level. I first learned about Treadwell through watching Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, an incredible film that uses sequences extracted from more than 100 hours of video footage shot by Treadwell during the last five years of his life — years he spent living amongst grizzly bears in Alaska. Nick Jans has also written a beautiful book about Treadwell, The Grizzly Maze, depicting the journey that led Treadwell to the bears, and the stunning, eerie landscape of Alaska that is their home.

In this excerpt for Reader’s Digest, Jans explains how Treadwell was a controversial figure, a self-styled “bear whisperer” who refused to accept bears as dangerous animals, and “gave them names like Thumper, Mr. Chocolate, and Squiggle. He would walk up to a half-ton wild animal with four-inch claws and two-inch fangs, and say, ‘Czar, I’m so worried! I can’t find little Booble.'” Jans provides a moving portrait of Treadwell, culminating in a gut-wrenching description of his final demise — mauled by a bear. Accustomed to recording his life, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, had a camera turned on during the attack: “Treadwell did not die quickly. The tape runs roughly six minutes, and his cries can be heard two-thirds of that time.”

While many believe Treadwell encroached on the life of the bears, rendering his end inevitable, he was still a remarkable, larger-than-life character, and Jans manages to capture him with his elegant prose.

Those searching for the meaning in what happened to Timothy Treadwell offer compelling theories, impossible to either prove or refute but containing flickers of insight. Bear-viewing guide Gary Porter says, “I think Timmy made a fundamental anthropomorphic error. Naming them and hanging around with them as long as he did, he probably forgot they were bears. And maybe they forgot, some of the time, he was human.” Porter points out that old, dominant males generally avoid people and are intolerant of other bears. A subordinate bear that refuses to move is attacked and, if it doesn’t retreat, is often killed and eaten. Biologist Larry Van Daele calls such an event “apparently more of a disciplinary action than predatory.”

And he, too, agrees there may be something to the theory, especially given “the strange, ambiguous signals Timothy sent to bears.”

“Maybe that big guy figured Timmy was just another bear,” Porter suggests. If so, it was a final, ironic compliment to a man who strove, among bears, to become as much like them as possible.

Longreads Best of 2020: Investigative Reporting

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our team picked and featured hundreds of in-depth investigations published across the web. Here are our top picks.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

* * *

The Last Patrol (Nathaniel Penn, The California Sunday Magazine)

In July 2012, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance gave an order that killed two Afghan civilians on a motorcycle near an operating base outside of Kandahar, in a volatile region in Afghanistan. Lorance was convicted of murder. The narrative weaved by Sean Hannity and others at Fox News framed Lorance as a war hero; he was pardoned by Donald Trump in November 2019 and served six years of a 20-year sentence. The former Army officer, who had been advised to take interviews only from conservative media outlets, agreed to talk with Nathaniel Penn, and the result is an incredibly riveting and comprehensive piece on his case.

Arriving on the dirt road that led into the village, the patrol discovered two of the three Afghan men lying beside a ditch. They were dead. Their companion had run away. Near them, the motorcycle leaned on its kickstand.

It wasn’t at all the scene Lorance had imagined. “If I would have been up there,” he told me, “and would have known that they were stopped and off their motorcycle, I would never in a million years have said, ‘Fire at them.’ I would want to go talk to them and get intel out of them. I’d be like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I would want to know everything about them.”

A woman and two children stood near the bodies, weeping.

Holy shit, Lorance thought. Did we just kill good people?

The way to find out was to do a Battle Damage Assessment. Skelton was the intelligence specialist who carried the SEEK. But Lorance wanted Skelton to follow him into the village to carry out the mission and get the biometric enrollments. The engagement with the motorcycle had been necessary and unfortunate, but it wasn’t important. He ordered two of his men to conduct the Battle Damage Assessment while he proceeded into the village. They had the necessary training, even if they didn’t have the SEEK. They knelt by the bodies.

Captain Swanson, who had been alerted to the situation, was radioing Lorance from headquarters. What was happening? he asked. Were the dead men combatants or civilians? Had Lorance done the Battle Damage Assessment?

No, Lieutenant Lorance replied, they hadn’t been able to do the Battle Damage Assessment. The villagers had taken away the bodies.

As he spoke, he knew he had just made a critical mistake. He should have said that his men would get to the Battle Damage Assessment eventually, that they didn’t have time to do that shit right now. Because when you speak over the radio, “you might as well be putting your hand on the Bible,” as one member of the platoon told me.

In the years to come, Lorance’s decision not to use the SEEK device for the Battle Damage Assessment would prove to be crucial and polarizing. It would contribute both to his imprisonment and his pardon.

The weeping woman was screaming now. Lorance told himself that her tears didn’t necessarily mean he’d done anything wrong. The men whose bodies she was crying over could be insurgents. That shocked him — the idea that the Taliban had families, too. It had never occurred to him before.

Read more…

Sorry, But Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Aren’t Going to Solve Our Opioid Crisis

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP

Prosecutors across the U.S. have revived old laws to prosecute the people who supply the drugs that lead to overdoses. Critics characterize this as another ineffective technique in the ineffective tough-on-crime approach to drug addiction. Instead of incarcerating the high-level drug traffickers the laws originally targeted, they treat family, friends, and small-time dealers as murderers. For The New Republic, Jack Shuler looks at a few recent cases of drug-induced homicide, explains this tactic’s origins, and it ineffectiveness.

While this trend began prior to Donald Trump’s election, it has accelerated since he assumed office. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, a federal agency, there was a 10 percent increase in 2017 in the number of people who received federal prison sentences for distributing drugs resulting in death or serious injury and a nearly 200 percent increase since 2013. Trump has made it clear that he favors an aggressive approach to the opioid crisis. “My take is you have to get really, really tough—really mean—with the drug pushers and the drug dealers,” Trump said in February, during a speech in Blue Ash, Ohio.

Trump has pushed this rhetoric to its logical conclusion, suggesting that drug dealers should face the death penalty, an idea he said he got from Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has also expressed admiration for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for his violent approach to curbing drug trafficking. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to the 93 U.S. attorneys reminding them that they have the power to pursue capital punishment in certain drug-related cases.

This aggressive approach has filtered down to the local level. In Ohio, residents have ample reason to be frustrated with the bodies piling up in the state’s morgues; the strain on health care, police and emergency services, and the workforce—a cost of up to billions of dollars every year; and the emotional pain it’s causing families. Last summer in Middletown, Ohio, a city of 50,000 near Cincinnati, city council member Dan Picard proposed a three strikes policy for overdose rescues. Overdose victims would be required to perform community service to make up for the cost of treatment—and if a 911 dispatcher determined that someone who was overdosing had not performed community service, they would not dispatch emergency services. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to maintain our financial security, and this is just costing us too much money,” Picard told a local news station. First responders balked at the proposal, but the anger that bred it persists. Stickers that say SHOOT YOUR LOCAL HEROIN DEALER have started to appear on truck windows around the state. In Summit County, where the opioid crisis is so bad they have had to use refrigerated trailers as morgues, prosecutors have charged 49 people with manslaughter in connection to an overdose since 2014. And in Licking County, at least four people in addition to Tommy Kosto were charged for supplying drugs that led others to overdose between 2016 and 2017.

Read the story

A Presumption of Guilt

Longreads Pick
Published: Jul 13, 2017
Length: 13 minutes (3,467 words)

Following the North Star

Getty / Photo illustration by Longreads

Shaheen Pasha | Longreads | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,587 words)

I received the call at work from Tariq’s brother. I knew him briefly, had seen him as a kid, but aside from a few conversations here and there, we were virtual strangers. I couldn’t really even picture his face as his voice came across the line, hesitant, slightly unsure, a little defiant. It’s hard to imagine I had such a powerful connection to one man, and yet his brother, the person closest to him, was more of a name than a person.

“Tariq has been arrested,” his brother said to me, before his voice choked up into sobs, all his bravado vanished. I sat down in my chair with its slightly wobbly back, and dropped the handbag I had just hung on my shoulder, ready to catch my bus home from Jersey City.

“What did they arrest him for?” I said, my voice oddly calm even though it felt like my throat was closing. Drugs, maybe? He didn’t do hard drugs, that I knew. But maybe he had been caught up in the overly zealous drug war at the turn of the new millennium, when marijuana was considered the gateway to all evils.

Or maybe it was a fight at a club. That would make sense. Tariq thrived on a good fight, weaving in and out like a boxer, assessing his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. It was something we argued about incessantly when we were together. One of many things.

But I knew before he even said it. Somehow, I knew. I had seen it in a dream, a sick twisted nightmare I’d had as a teenager in my dorm room all those years ago. Tariq had woken up and put his arm around me as I whimpered in my sleep. “Hey, you okay?” he said, still half asleep. I nodded and buried my head against his chest. “Just a bad dream,” I said. “I don’t really remember.” He was asleep, anyway, before the last words left my mouth.

I did remember. Good God, I’ve never forgotten it. A courtroom. A jury of mostly white men and women staring at me. A faceless man, some kind of a lawyer, standing in front of me. Me in a box, trying not to look at Tariq as I testified on his behalf. “Please don’t give him the death penalty,” I said to the stone-faced jurors in my dream. “I can’t imagine a world that he’s not in.”

It was a vision that came to pass a handful of years later, in 2005, down to the slightly sweaty wood paneling under my fingers as I gripped the edge of the witness box to keep them from shaking. But I didn’t know it at the time of the dream. Maybe I wouldn’t have told him then even if I had known. It was the first time and, as it turned out, the last time we had ever spent the whole night together. Good Pakistani Muslim girls didn’t spend the night with a boy, after all. I felt daring, rebellious and completely happy. I didn’t want to taint it with the imagery of a ruined life. I wanted our perfect night to remain just that.

So I just watched him sleep. He looked younger than his 19 years when he slept. All the hardness that would sometimes creep across his face was gone in his sleep. He even smiled a little, untroubled by nightmares.

I should have told him.

I should have told him.

“Double homicide.” His brother’s voice snapped me back to the present. His voice suddenly collapsed within itself, shaky breaths substituting words, creating a language of grief that could only be understood by the two of us.

In books, I’ve always read that the world stops when a person delivers horrible news. Time stands still. You can feel the air. Everything goes on hold. That’s not the reality, of course. My co-worker shouted a goodbye to me from across her cubicle as she packed up her computer. Phones rang, people laughed. Life went on.

Except it never really did for me again. Not in the same way. That call changed everything. It initiated me into a painful fraternity of those impacted by the trauma of mass incarceration. And 17 years later, the pain lives on and nothing has gone back to the way it was before. What would have happened if I hadn’t stopped to pick up the phone? I was already walking away from my desk, pulling out crackers from my coat pocket to curb the new nausea of my first pregnancy.

I wonder if life would have taken its natural course. Tariq and I had broken up two years earlier, when I was 22. It was sad and heart-wrenching at the time, but not unexpected given how young we were. Our relationship would have been a memory of first love to be cherished and stored away. A tale to tell my Pakistani-American grandkids in my old age when it was long past scandalous.

I was now married to a Pakistani-Canadian man who had swept me off my feet in a matter of months. It was a suitable relationship with a suitable young man who ticked off the boxes of propriety in my Pakistani immigrant community: Muslim, educated, handsome. And, to top it off, we were in love. It was a new relationship filled with promise.

I was pregnant with our first child. She was a little speck of a human being inside me. I’d been consumed with delight since I had seen those two blue lines just two weeks earlier.

Career, marriage, baby.

Done, done, done.

Normal. Mundane. The life I had been planning since I was a little girl.

This phone call was not part of the plan.

The first shrill ring. Let it go to voicemail, I said to myself walking away. I’ll tackle whatever it is when I come back to work tomorrow.

A second ring, slightly more demanding in tone, if that’s possible. I hesitated. What if it’s my husband or my mom? Nonsense, they’d call you on your cell phone. You’ll miss the bus.

Third ring. What if something is wrong? Sigh. I walked back to my desk and picked up the receiver.

As it turned out, something was terribly wrong.

Read more…

The Death Penalty on Display

Fanny Carrier/AFP/Getty Images

At The Texas Observer, Robin Ross writes on the rise of dark tourism — the macabre fascination with Huntsville’s Texas Prison Museum — site of America’s first lethal injection.

The three syringes lie in a row, lined up neatly on a somber black background. Displayed with a saline drip bag and looping IV catheter, the vials are oversized, as though designed for the chubby hands of a child playing a macabre game of doctor. Below each is a typed card explaining its purpose in the December 1982 death of Charlie Brooks, Jr., the first person in the United States executed by lethal injection.

To their right is a pair of hair clippers used for shaving inmates’ heads before electrocution as well as a sponge that was soaked in salt water to conduct electricity. The last thing to touch dozens of men’s shaven skulls, the sponge sits on a plastic riser, its face pale and pockmarked like the surface of a distant moon. A second sponge is in a baggie on a shelf a few steps away in the Texas Prison Museum’s vault. The objects sit there matter of factly, their subtle presentation belying the roles they’ve played in execution, Texas history and making Huntsville — with its five prisons and the headquarters for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) — shorthand for the death penalty all over the world.

Last year’s visitors came from all over the world. They arrived alone, with their kids on vacation, on school field trips, on charter buses loaded with senior citizens, with their motorcycle clubs, and on the way to visit spouses on death row. Some showed their prison ID cards, mentioned where they’d been incarcerated and cracked jokes about former residents getting discounted admission.

People like to play outlaw, walking into the replica of a cell, and for a dollar per person, visitors can borrow striped shirts and snap selfies behind bars.

Read the story

The Death Penalty on Display

Longreads Pick

At The Texas Observer, Robin Ross writes on the rise of dark tourism — the macabre fascination with the Huntsville’s Texas Prison Museum — site of America’s first lethal injection.

Published: Apr 22, 2016
Length: 16 minutes (4,000 words)

Snapshot of Canada: An Accidental Reading List

ürgen Schwenkenbecher/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Cleaning our basement recently, I found a box of old Canadian magazines. The covers were crisp, the bindings intact. Published between 2011 and 2013, I’d gathered these issues of The Walrus and Maisonneuve as research for an abandoned book project. Curious about what was inside, I sat down with them and a pot of very British black tea — the kind The Empress Hotel serves with tiny sandwiches in Victoria, British Columbia.

People call The Walrus the Canadian New Yorker. Maisonneuve was named Magazine of the Year in 2005, 2012, and 2016. Between their striking glossy covers I found the stylish, substantial writing these magazines are still known for, and stories both evergreen and of their time: stories about food, sex, drugs, immigration, politics, Indigenous rights, art, and the environment.

Thumbing through old magazines can be fun. Dated advertisements reveal bizarre worldviews and outdated thinking, like the doctors who famously preferred Camel cigarettes, and a mid-century ad I found featuring two poodles smoking the Old Gold brand. Those were the days. Back issues also capture a country’s struggles, its psyche, mythology, and national narratives, and these Canadian issues returned me to a particular time in my own life.

Years ago, I pitched an idea for a book called Canphilia to a literary agent. Philia is a suffix denoting love or an affection for something, and I loved Canada. The title was too scientific for a first-person narrative travelogue in search of the Canadian national identity, but I was younger then, and that was the best I could come up with.

Covering 3,854,085 square miles, Canada is the second-largest country in the world. Canada and the United States share the world’s longest international border, yet few Americans can name half of the 10 provinces let alone name beloved Canadian icons or defining cultural characteristics. “To outsiders,” my proposal said, “Canada seems like the perfect country: scenic, peaceful, friendly, progressive. Its national parks are the envy of the developed world. The country has one of the highest standards of living on earth, a functioning public health system, and it’s the only G8 country with balanced books. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, outlawed the death penalty, and operates North America’s only federally authorized drug injection site. Naturally, when people talk about it, most utter some variation of, Ah, I love Canada. But beyond vague notions of Britishness, hockey, and maple syrup production, what do we really know about it?” One thing I knew was that living next to one of the most loud-mouthed, aggressive, arrogant countries in history could make any neighboring country appear quiet, peaceful, and humble. Or maybe their voice was drowned out by all of our patriotic, idiotic, saber-rattling nonsense.

The vast majority of Canada’s 38 million inhabitants lived in larger urban centers within 125 miles of the US border, so I planned to drive, hike, and ferry across the entire country, from west to east, sticking to the border, to investigate. “More importantly,” my proposal said, “do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?”

I was ambitious and slightly bananas, and I wanted to do for Canada what Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones did for China, and Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains did for the American Midwest: write a vivid, nuanced, humorous portrait of a people and their homeland, that would appeal to a general readership and enlighten myself as much as my fellow Americans. In addition to Canada’s national character, I would interrogate my own interest, search for the reasons so many of us disgruntled Americans fall under the country’s spell. Obviously Canada wasn’t perfect, with its clear-cut logging and historically egregious treatment of Indigenous people. I wanted to examine Canada’s contradictions, and debunk popular stereotypes. I wasn’t interested so much in defining “constitutional monarchy” or “parliamentary democracy” for American readers, or helping them reconcile Canada’s independence with its connection to the Queen. I was interested in profiling the personality of the Canadian people and their culture while trying to figure out why I longed to live somewhere I knew so little about.

The agent loved the idea, but we never shopped it to publishers. I couldn’t afford to take enough of the trip to write any sample chapters, and supposedly, Americans don’t care enough about Canada to read books about it. I filed “the Canada book” away in the back of my mind as I developed other niche book ideas that never sold, because that’s the kind of writer I am. As I moved around, my Canada books and back issues came with me.

After reading these issues, I thought it’d be fun to assemble some of their stories, which reveal new sides of Canada to outsiders like me (and maybe you). This is not meant as a definitive Canada reading list. It’s a sample of what I pulled from one stack of issues from 2011 — 2013. That makes this collection more of a tiny time capsule, an incomplete portrait of a particular place in time. Actual Canadians can gather more wide-ranging, complete lists that capture the totality of Canada, its breadth and depth. These older stories also provide an interesting baseline to compare Canada now with Canada then. After reading them, I wondered: Has Canadian secondary education improved? Is Kraft mac ’n cheese still Canada’s national dish? What happened to that hyped comedy troupe Picnicface? Here they are in chronological order, with their subheads included as description. None of these stories feature hockey or The Tragically Hip, but one is about Labatt beer. Part of Canada’s identity involves outsiders’ reliance on cliché. Enjoy, eh?

* * *

Going Viral” (Maisonneuve, Kaitlin Fontana, Summer 2011)

“This fall, the sketch comedy group and online-video machine Picnicface will simultaneously launch a feature-length movie, a TV show, and a book. Can eight nerds from Halifax resuscitate Canada’s ailing comedy scene?”

In Halifax, far from the showbiz machine, Picnicface has been free to both develop a unique voice in front of a warm audience, and to cultivate a show without fear of high-profile failure. McKinney likes that the group is from Halifax—it reminds him of his early days in Calgary, before he moved to Toronto. “If they’d been born in LA, they’d have all been poached before they could create this voice that develops between like-minded people, this ecosystem that happens in smaller places,” he says. Halifax, for Picnicface, is an incubator. Little goes further: “We’ve done some garbage here, but I’m really happy we did, because it helped mold us.”

Canada’s Most Unwanted” (The Walrus, Jasmine Budak, December 2011)

“Domestic adoption is rarely the first choice for prospective parents. But with rising infertility rates and the availability of foreign infants declining, some 30,000 children in government care have a better shot at finding a family.”

Canadians have long adopted from abroad, but largely for humanitarian reasons, in spurts and small numbers: orphans of the Irish famine, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars; and, later, in the mid-’70s, from orphanages in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, and Latin America, through Ottawa’s newly established national Adoption Desk. But over the next two decades, as adoption became normalized and the supply of domestic infants began to wane, inter-country adoption became less about finding parents for destitute babies and more about finding babies for hopeful parents. It was no longer motivated by goodwill, but rather became a transaction in the business of fulfilling the developed world’s growing demand for infants.

Visions of the Future” (Maisonneuve, Chandler Levack, Summer 2012)

“A twenty-four-year-old singer named Grimes is the world’s hottest independent pop star, and her fame has cast Montreal into the spotlight yet again.”

Grimes’ success and the exposure she’s brought her Arbutus label-mates—Sean Nicholas Savage, TOPS and TONSTARTSSBANDHT, among others—have made Montreal a high-profile indie-rock hotspot once again, reminiscent of the time, several years ago, when Arcade Fire attracted the world’s attention to the city. Although Montreal has plenty of other worthy independent labels, like Secret City and Alien8, the rise of Grimes has made Arbutus a litmus test for the promise of the city’s young musicians. Today’s tastemakers are fickle, and too much hype can cause a community to cannibalize itself—especially one as small and tight-knit as Montreal’s music scene. As Morrissey once said, “We hate it when our friends become successful.”

Calgary Reconsidered” (The Walrus, Chris Turner, June 2012)

“Six truths about the city that’s no longer, simply, Cowtown.”

Even if you love the city deep down, you sometimes feel as if you’re merely putting up with it, waiting for it to grow all the way up and become what it pretends to be. Calgary is an overnight millionaire fresh from the sale of a gas exploration company, complaining about the greed of all those farmers who jacked up the lease rates. Calgary is the home riding of the prime minister abutting the home riding of the premier, and still insisting that it doesn’t get a fair shake in Ottawa or Edmonton. Calgary is the highest per capita income in Canada in a province with no sales tax, indignant that its property taxes are going up. Its conservatism sometimes scans as a youngster’s I-got-mine insolence. Its emerging power and prominence come across from some angles as pure teenage bluster.

The Hunter Artist” (The Walrus, Sarah Milroy, July/August 2012)

“In Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a new generation is redefining Inuit art, preserving northern traditions as it adapts to southern ways of life. One of these artists is Tim Pitsiulak.”

Whites imagine Inuit, and Inuit imagine whites; Inuit art is where their fantasies meet, but the interface is changing. Kinngait continues to release its annual portfolio of about forty prints, as it has for more than fifty years. Despite stars like Kenojuak, prices for the prints have remained fairly consistent and modest, in the $500 to $2,500 range. But one-of-a-kind drawings are gaining a following and, as with the prints, the prices are regulated by Dorset Fine Arts, the co-op’s Toronto distributor, which sends the art to dealers across Canada and around the world, who then charge what the market will bear. Pitsiulak’s largest and best drawings can now sell for as much as $12,500, making him one of the most successful artists in the North. His aunt Kenojuak’s best works sell for around $16,000. Shuvinai Ashoona’s prices are close behind Pitsiulak’s and rising fast. This phenomenon of individual artists’ commanding widely differing levels of remuneration could someday lead to a break with the old co-op way of doing things, in which the revenue from higher-priced artists supports the costs of maintaining the studio and distribution, helping to fund the production of those artists who are less likely to sell. Inuit artists in Cape Dorset may hesitate to abandon a system that has afforded them predictable prices for pieces on completion (as well as studio space and material costs), irrespective of the vagaries of the southern art market.

Manufacturing Taste” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, September 2012)

“The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner — a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are.”

The point is, it’s nearly impossible to live in Canada without forming an opinion about one of the world’s first and most successful convenience foods. In 1997, sixty years after the first box promised “dinner in seven minutes — no baking required,” we celebrated by making Kraft Dinner the top-selling grocery item in the country.

This makes KD, not poutine, our de facto national dish. We eat 3.2 boxes each in an average year, about 55 percent more than Americans do. We are also the only people to refer to Kraft Dinner as a generic for instant mac and cheese. The Barenaked Ladies sang wistfully about eating the stuff: “If I had a million dollars / we wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner / But we would eat Kraft Dinner / Of course we would, we’d just eat more.” In response, fans threw boxes of KD at the band members as they performed. This was an act of veneration.

John Cage’s Canada” (Maisonneuve, Crystal Chan, Fall 2012)

“The twentieth century’s most important avant-garde composer may have been American, Crystal Chan writes, but he found his greatest inspiration north of the border.”

On a Thursday night in August 1961, Cage took the podium at Montreal’s Théâtre de la Comédie-Canadienne and moved his arms in a circle, imitating the hands of a clock. In response, eighteen musicians began to play. The piece, called Atlas Eclipticalis, was Cage’s first Canadian premiere, and he had written it by matching notes to star positions in an astronomical atlas. At the time, the whole world had its eyes on the stars; earlier that spring, a Soviet cosmonaut had beaten the Americans to space. Composing music with the help of astronomy was still an eccentric method, though, and one that marked an important shift in Cage’s career. After Atlas Eclipticalis, Cage moved away from writing music with notes, rests and other conventional symbols. Instead, he went on to create graphic scores—essentially, drawn music—and write textual instructions. He started to see himself as a creator of experiences through sound, rather than a composer of music.

The Place Where Art Sleeps” (Maisonneuve, Chris Hampton, Fall 2012)

“The vast majority of the art gallery of Ontario’s priceless collection isn’t on display — it’s tucked away in high-security, top-secret vaults.”

Of the AGO’s eighty-five-thousand-piece permanent collection, only about 3,900 works are on display right now. At any given time, 95 percent of the collection is in storage. Paintings, sculptures and installations account for roughly eleven thousand pieces in the vaults, while photography and works on paper make up the other seventy thousand. This isn’t unique to the AGO. Art institutions are a bit like icebergs; the public sees less than a tenth of their holdings. But that may finally be changing. While security and conservation remain top priorities, galleries are beginning to experiment with new ways for the public to engage with their broader collections. Visitors increasingly want to see everything—including what’s behind the scenes.

Doppel Gang: Why Canada Needs Quebec” (The Walrus, Mark Kingwell, January/February 2013)

“Why Canada needs Quebec.”

Yes, there it is. Quebec is Canada’s familiar-strange double, a return of the repressed, so like the rest of the country and yet so minutely, eerily different. Are they plotting something large and secretive, some kind of surprise secession? Probably not. No, they probably just want things to go on like this more or less forever, teetering between passive entitlement and passionate outrage, sketching a glorious future free of any reality principle.

Unmasked” (Maisonneuve, Andrea Bennet, March, 2013)

“Before the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, police infiltrated activist communities as part of a massive, costly campaign that resulted in high-profile arrests and prosecutors. Who were these undercovers, and how did they avoid scrutiny?”

Guelph was also home, in the lead-up to the G20 summit, to a branch of one of the largest undercover police operations in Canadian history. The $676 million security bill for the G20 summit and its G8 counterpart—which was held on June 25 and 26 in Huntsville, Ontario—included funding for an eighteen-month-long infiltration of activist communities, from January 2009 through June 2010. The Joint Intelligence Group, a well-staffed network of OPP and RCMP officers based in Barrie, Ontario, carried out this investigation. According to the JIG Operational Plan, the effort included twelve “trained covered  investigators,” as well as commanders, managers, and technical and office support. Over the course of those eighteen months, JIG made $8 million worth of capital purchases and had a $297 million operational budget. It set up commander offices, a project room, workstations—and, during the G20 summit itself, an operational “War Room.”

Fight of the Bumblebee” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, March 2013)

“Honeybee colonies are collapsing around the world, putting food production in danger. We may need Canada’s indigenous pollinators to save the day.”

South of Detroit and Windsor, sandwiched between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, the flat lines of Essex County farmland carve the southern tip of Ontario into tidy rectangular parcels of fertile, well-drained soil. When you approach Leamington from Highway 401, it is difficult to imagine this area as the nearly impenetrable forest it once was, or that the fires lit by would-be farmers to clear the land once burned so brightly they could be seen 500 kilometres west in Chicago. Today the aerial view looks more like a semi-industrial park, because the area is dominated by gunmetal grey–framed greenhouses. With some 355 hectares under greenhouse vegetable production, more than anywhere else in North America, the region’s output is larger than the entire industry in the US, and growing much faster than other types of agriculture.

First Do No Harm” (Maisonneuve, Ann Silversides, April 2013)

“Are doctors and drug companies to blame for the opioid-abuse crisis? After two shocking deaths in small-town Ontario, Ann Silversides reports from one of the largest coroner’s inquests in Canadian history.“

Under the Influence” (The Walrus, Matthew J. Bellamy, June 2013)

“Beer is to Canada as wine is to France. How Labatt and its allies brewed up a nation of beer drinkers.”

Before the Black Christmas of 1936, Mackenzie approached J. Walter Thompson Co., a major global advertising agency. Mark Napier of the Toronto office had an uncanny feel for the cultural logic of the age, and wanted to portray brewers like Labatt as instrumental, not detrimental, to the nation’s development. In a series of advertisements published in the national monthly Canadian Homes and Gardens, he highlighted Labatt’s long, influential past. “It really all began 70 years ago,” read the text of one ad in 1937, under the tag line “Then As Now.” In others, he linked the company’s evolution to watershed moments in our history, such as Confederation and the Boer War, when “soldiers knew good ale.” As Canadians searched for uniquely Canadian ideas, events, experiences, and commodities—the makings of a national identity—Napier served up Labatt’s product as an age-old piece of Canadiana.

The Marineland Dreamland” (The Walrus, Craig Davidson, July/August 2013

“Deconstructing memories of a scandal-ridden theme park.”

I worked at Marineland for eight summers. Brendan Kelly, six years. Phil Demers, twelve. It paid our rent and put beer in our fridges. Best summers of my life. To a man, we spoke those words.

It makes you wonder. What if, rather than fabrication, “The Tale of the Frozen Sea Lion” was an act of erasure? My unconscious mind embarking on a sly mission of disburdenment, of purposeful forgetting? If I forget enough, if my own story fills with holes, I can tell myself it’s a lie. And that’s easier, overall. Easier than holding on to the knowledge for twenty-plus years, doing nothing meaningful about it. Easier than remembering how I laughed as my supervisor kicked a dead sea lion.

Arkansas’ Tradition of Assembly-Line Killing

Longreads Pick
Source: The Intercept
Published: Apr 8, 2017
Length: 18 minutes (4,686 words)

Meet the Woman Who Helps Humanize Murderers

Longreads Pick

Mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn investigates the upbringing of defendants on trial — often for their lives — to humanize clients in a bid to convince at least one juror to bypass the death penalty for a life in prison without parole. Wynn shares the stories of three of her clients — men charged with murder, whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and extreme child neglect.

Author: Elon Green
Source: MEL Magazine
Published: Feb 8, 2017
Length: 15 minutes (3,819 words)