Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Polite Bum's Rush From Conrad Black's Table


Being Ousted from the Best Seat at the Griffin Poetry Prize

Bernard Gauthier (Bravo TV) and myself arrived early at the Griffin Poetry Prize award dinner in Toronto on June 7. The Distillery District hall doors had only been open for a few minutes. We were one of the first to be welcomed by Scott and Krystyne Griffin, the founders and funders of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. The prize is the largest annual award for a single book of poetry in the world.
I had trouble hearing our hosts because of the Mexican mariachi band that had just begun to tune up. I am sure I would have heard all the details about the seating arrangements if I leaned a little closer in.
We entered the large exposed brick space that was once used for the fermentation of millions of gallons of liquor. The room soon began to fill with everyone I have read in the past 10 years. Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Christopher Dwedney, Richard Gwyn. There were TV stars journalists, and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.
More and more people poured into the space. It was an elbows-up cocktail hour. This was going to be a sold-out show. Bernard and I worried we would get separated and not be able to sit together when the dinner bell rang.
We decided to stake a claim at one of the round dining tables. I placed my car keys and glass of beer on the table. Bernard put his notes and bag on a chair beside me. We went our different ways, promising to meet up when the dinner began.
The supper announcement was made and I sat down at our table. Soon I was joined by a man I had met at a Huffington Post party a week before: the recently released Conrad Black. He had out-dressed me. He was joined by his wife Barbara Amiel, whom I used to see when I helped out at Maclean's 15 years ago. Our table started to fill up with Murray Frum and an actress whose name I was told and promptly forgot.
No one spoke to me. One couple standing nearby glared. No Bernard. I hung onto his seat as long as I could.
But soon, the iron gaze behind me made it obvious that this table was not an open seating spot. I gave up my chair (and Bernard's too) to an annoyed elderly couple who seemed to know everyone at the table.
Not a bum's rush but I blushed none the same. I grabbed Bernard's bag and made my escape. We met up at the media table. CBC, CP, filmmakers, photographer Tom Sandler: They laughed at my story and one bun got tossed my way. We had a good meal. A lot of laughs!
David Harsent's Night and Ken Babstock's Methodist Hatchet were the international and Canadian winners of the 2012 annual Griffin Poetry Prize. They each received $65,000 in prize money. As we were leaving I handed Bernard back his bag. "Mon ami," he said, "that is not my bag, where did you get it?"
It had been on the chair beside Lord Black. I was going to return it to their table, but you know, at the age 60, I try to only blush once a day. I found one of the organizers, told her what had happened, gave her the satchel and very quickly disappeared into the night.

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Monday, 11 June 2012

For some members of the police and the media, Caribana is code for black

Spectators at last year's Caribbean Carnival Festival parade in Toronto
Media manage to quickly link Eaton shooting with North America's largest Caribbean Canadian festival

Late last week I joked with my associate Craigg Slowly (@ThatTDotGuy) that it would be only a matter of time before CFRB right wing on-air host Jerry Agar would link the Eaton Centre shooting with the Caribbean Carnival Toronto (the carnival formally known as Caribana).
Don't know if Agar has taken a run at us yet, but, other media outlets have indeed made the tenuous link between an inner-city gang shooting at the Eaton Centre and North America's largest Caribbean cultural event.
The Globe and Mail on Saturday did a feature on public safety at Yonge and Dundas and somehow managed to use the Caribana name.  The reporter, Kelly Grant, listed some of the murders that had occurred near the Dundas / Yonge intersection. In that list was the 2005 murder of a Brampton man in Dundas Square - he was shot dead in front of police the day after the 2005 Caribana Parade had ended. It was referenced as occurring during Caribana.
On the same day the Toronto Sun columnist Michele Mandel, quotes an unnamed police officer talking about an unnamed man out on bail being caught at an unnamed Caribana event with a loaded gun. The mystery criminal was, according to Mandel, convicted of the crime but gives no facts to back the quoted mystery officer. Mandel was writing about lax bail monitoring.
I privately contacted the Globe writer to once again say that the 2005 shooting at Dundas Square had nothing to do with our festival (It is like the Groundhog Day movie - this is the 7th year I have been making these calls). I won't get a retraction,  but,  I would like them to change the information they have in their "Caribana Files" so that the Caribana Dundas Square Killing moniker doesn't appear yet again.  The reporter told me she stands by what she wrote but will take into account the festival's concern the next time!
In an emailed dialogue with the reporter I explained that " I have been involved with the festival formally known as Caribana on and off since 1999.  I deal with the media and more often than I would like, I have to deal with false statements made by the media about the festival.  I have found that the word Caribana is a codeword for black when there is a  story about gun crime in the GTA in the summer.
Two years ago there was a murder in Ajax at a church that was called the pre-Caribana Murder, even though it was weeks before the festival, in another city and was at what appeared to have been a private party.  Police called it pre-Caribana because many of the partygoers were Caribbean Canadian. The media picked up on that name, until we were able to get a police retraction.
“Before that” I continued in my email “there was a teenager murdered by his "friends" in Pickering a day after the parade. It was called the Caribana Murder by Crime Stoppers, the court and the media. The young victim told his mother he was going to be attending the parade, but there was no indication he did make it there, or that the parade had any bearing on his brutal death in another city. "
Before that? A murder of two Montreal men in the Four Seasons parking lot was briefly dubbed a Caribana weekend double murder.
And even before that there was the death of Dwayne Taylor who  Grant mentioned in her Globe story. It was 2005. The Caribana Parade had ended the day before Dwayne Taylor, 21, of Brampton, was shot and killed at the Yonge-Dundas Square in front of police officers.
The Caribana parade had ended Saturday afternoon along Lakeshore Blvd, miles from the Sunday morning shooting at Dundas/Yonge.  No one was in costume. In fact there were no indications Taylor had attended the parade, or that his killer had been involved in Caribana.   Caribana's name was invoked solely because Mr. Taylor was black and because there were many Caribbean Canadians in the Square.  
Any murder is tragic.  All gun crimes must be punished.  Falsely linking murder and gun crimes to ethnic-specific cultural events is lazy reporting and a symptom of a larger cultural problem in Toronto. Running columns that abandon fact, only help fuel intolerance in the city.
 As for the Toronto Sun, I couldn't reach the columnist, so I did leave a note on their website simply saying that it is unfair to the festival to cite an unnamed police officer talking about an unnamed  armed criminal busted at an unspecified "Caribana events" without any facts to back allegations that a man was caught with a gun at the festival.  The year, the location of the crime, the name of the criminal and information about the court bail hearing would add credence to the story. Neither the columnist or the paper has responded.
It is important that as the PR guy for the festival, I have to honestly answer all questions about public safety.  I know the festival will be asked about a fatal police shooting after our parade ended last year – those questions must be answered. It is equally important that we always stare down wrongful reports about previous crimes mythically linked to the festival.