Apology To Reporter Is Not Enough. What Happened Here Was A Thuggish Attack On The Rights Of All Of Us
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted December 15th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS
“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law. …..
Fundamental Freedoms …
‘Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:… Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication. ….”
According to stories in the newspaper employing the reporter whose constitutional rights to do his job without interference were violated by Niagara’s regional government this past December 7th, that government’s chair – one Al Caslin –issued an apology days later to the St. Catharines Standard reporter, Bill Sawchuk, for unlawfully seizing his computer and notes, and for ordering him out of the regional headquarters building under the watch of Niagara Regional Police.
Based on what this veteran journalist and former Standard reporter witnessed at the time of this incident, and based on what I have has heard and read of Caslin’s apology – perhaps the most fulsome one he has given in his three years as regional chair since he felt it necessary to apologies to members of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority two summers ago for what he claimed to be a defamatory presentation St. Caatharines citizen Ed Smith made about to the regional council about the conduct of his political pals on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s board – I have one over-riding hope.
I hope that, for the sake of all members of the news media and the public they serve as watchdogs of the powers-that-be – a media that is finding it even harder to do its job on this continent in the face of some of those powers tarring it with Stalin-like terms like “enemy of the people” and “fake news” – that the St. Catharines Standard and its new owners at Metroland Media Group and Torstar Corporation will not accept Caslin’s apology as the answer.
I don’t always agree with the views my former Standard colleague Doug Herod expresses in his columns, but I believe he was right on target in a column the newspaper published this December 9th, when he wrote the following under the heading ‘Self-appointed Keystone Kops’ –
“There is no excuse for Niagara Region’s actions Thursday night,” wrote Doug Herod of what unfolded at the December 7th regional council meeting. “Following orders from on high, its officials dictatorially seized a reporter’s notes and laptop under the mistaken belief he was secretly recording a closed-door meeting. It was a despicable, shameful, wrongful, defamatory and incredibly stupid response to a non-existent problem.”
“I’m not sure how anyone could forgive this brazen, intimidating attempt at suppressing the right to report on the workings of local democracy,” Herod continued.
“But maybe – just maybe – the furor over their actions might have abated slightly in the following day, once they realized the egregiousness of their behaviour and the bready of community condemnation, regional officials sucked it up, unequivocally acknowledged their huge mistake, admitted they acted like bullies, conceded they had no legal authority to confiscate someone’s property and apologized profusely to not only reporter Bill Sawchuk, but all Niagara citizens.”
“But guess what? They did none of this. Instead, they composed and issued a news release that weakly attempted to justify their actions by explaining the mindset that led to the wrongful seizure of Sawchuk’s notepad and computer. It was a breathtaking, insulting attempt at butt-covering.”
Maybe Caslin read Herod’s column, and maybe he did not.
But a day or two later, The Standard reported that he finally got around to contacting the newspaper and Sawchuk directly, to apologize.
He also reportedly declared that “the buck stops with (him),” before turning right back to butt-covering when asked who gave the order to seize Sawchuk’s notes and computer, and have him removed from the building -– “About 25 councillors, lawyers, the CAO, staff and a chair,” was the shit sandwich this poorest excuse Niagara has ever had for a regional chair served up as an answer.
Perhaps, nothing in Herod’s column sunk in after all. And why should it. According to members of Caslin’s Trump-like cabal, we’re fake news!
From what I read and heard of the moments following the discovery of a computer or some other device sitting at the media table and allegedly recording the regional council while it was in closed session, councillors and staff were apparently yelling and running around chaotically, like a bunch of pre-Kindergarten children with no adult supervision in the room.
And where were the adult supervisors – in this case the regional chair, Al Caslin, the CAO, Carmen D’Angelo, the clerk, Frank Fabiano, and others that we, the people, pay six-figure salaries to behave professionally and make sound and sober decisions on our behalf?
They were certainly there earlier on, gathered together in a whispering huddle over whether or not the council should go into closed session in the first place. Why would anyone be wrong to assume that they were primarily responsible for what – only minutes later – happened to the Standard reporter?
Getting back to professional, sober and sensible, if it is at all possible to go there in context with this group, one option that could have been employed if, as it is alleged, there was a device that was in the recording mode that belonged not to Sawchuk, but to Niagara citizens Preston Haskell who comments on news in the region on a blog site, might be to stop the meeting for a minute, turn the recording device off, then get together with Haskell later to make arrangements to have whatever the device may have picked up in the closed session erased.
That’s simple. You don’t need a six-figure salary for that. And it is also not a response that is draconian enough for this group, and that gets us to the much larger issue that is at play here and that explains why this group has been the target of a number of complaints to the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman since this disgusting incident occurred.
If this was an isolated incident with this current administration of regional government, one might be more inclined to accept the apology, as much a violation it was a news reporter’s rights, and “move on,” as one of the regional councillors, Bob Gale, so bluntly put it during a recent radio interview.
But it is not an isolated incident. It may be one of the most disgusting and dangerous examples of bully behaviour and an arrogance of power at play at the regional level of government in Niagara yet, but it is part of a pattern of conduct that has grown like a cancer at the regional level since former St. Catharines regional councillor Al Caslin was sworn in as the region’s chair three years ago and a cabal that makes up a majority of like-minded others on the council circled around him.
The hits, as they say, have kept on coming, from the deplorably insulting way that the CAO of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, Mishka Balsom, was treated was treated by members of the council, in September 2015, she raised the idea of a chair elected by voters across Niagara rather than by regional councillors – an idea that has since been made law by the Ontario government, by the way, and will first come in to play in the October 2018 municipal elections.
- There was the verbal slamming or shutting down and, at one point, even erasing from the record, of presentations St. Catharines citizen Ed Smith made or attempted to make to the region’s council on reasons why he and many of his fellow citizens want a fully independent, forensic audit done on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA).
- There was the involvement of a sub-group of the regional council, sitting on the NPCA board, in censuring Bill Hodgson, a respected representative of the council for the Town of Lincoln, and repeated declarations from them that he committed some serious breach while refusing to disclose the details of what it was that Hodgson did – all after he made an effort on the NPCA board he later resigned from to get a motion for a third-party audit of the Conservation Authority.
- There was the shameful, condescending way some young Brock University students were treated when they came to the regional council last winter with some ideas for (of all awful things) planting more trees to keep a health canopy of them in Niagara.
- There was the smear job done earlier this 2017 on Niagara area MPP Cindy Forster (who just so happens to be one of the more vocal critic of the NPCA in provincial politics) with accusations that is accepting of anti-Semitism in her NDP riding association.
- There was the trail of back and forth emails that Jeff Burch, executive director of the Niagara Folks Arts Multicultural Centre, had to endure between himself and Caslin, through the regional clerk’s office, over Burch wanting to address the council about messages St. Catharines regional councillor Andy Petrowski was circulating through social media and others means that some minority groups in Niagara found offensive.
- There was the way another resident, Haley Bateman was interrogated by one of the regional councillors earlier in 2017, as if she was a crime suspect, for apparently having the audacity to speak to the council about code of conduct rules for the region, with no one ever standing to call the badgering out of order.
- There was the smear job a majority on the regional council carried out this year on the Town of Pelham and its finances.
- There were the repeated times that David Augustyn, who is Mayor of Pelham and has a seat on the regional council, was told he was out of order or saw the issue of Pelham’s finances deferred when he stood to defend the town.
- There was the Niagara area developer who went so far as to wave a cheese for $50,000 in front of members of the region’s audit committee, offering to pay for an audit of Pelham’s finances, and that was never called out of order.
- There was the decision by the region to send a memorandum to the Town of Pelham’s financial lenders warning them about the town’s finances, just days before auditors for the private accounting corporation KPMG tabled the results of their audit on the town and cleared it of wrong doing. (If you are wondering if that move may have done any damage to the town, imagine a body like the region accusations about the way you handle your finances to the bank you may need to go to for a mortgage or to borrow money to finance your business or to buy a car.)
The list could go on and on, and if you have trouble taking my word for how disturbing or breathtakingly disgusting this conduct is, go to the regional government’s website and spend some time watching videos of council and committee meetings over the past three years. Or watch for Youtube clips of some of these dark and ugly moments to be replayed online, as I am sure they will, in the months leading up to next October’s municipal elections.
For my part, I sat in the council chambers witnessing many of these sorry episodes and watched many others over the past three years on my computer or on cable TV. And as someone who has been following municipal politics in Niagara since I was first hired at The Standard in 1979, I have never witnessed anything as depressing and disturbing as this term of regional council under the chairmanship of Al Caslin.
Which brings us back to the incident that occurred this past December 7th when Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk’s computer and notes were seized and kept until a lawyer for his newspaper finally contacted the region to have them returned, and Sawchuk was ordered out of what is supposed to be a building that belongs to and that welcomes us.
For those who may wonder what is the big deal here? It’s just the media reporting on what happened to the media, consider this.
Newspapers and other media outlets send journalists to meetings of our elected representatives to report to you and to all of us, (who can’t necessarily attend the meetings) on what these representatives are doing with millions of dollars of our tax money. So an assault on a reporter, or any attempt to stop them from doing their job, is, by proxy, an assault on all of us.
Consider the seriousness of a government body seizing a journalist’s computer or notes. How do we know that all the information the reporter has on his or her computer or notes isn’t being downloaded or copied during the time they are being held in custody. What if, as is often the case, some of that information was given to the reporter off the record by a local citizen or a source in government who hopes the reporter can use it to get to the bottom of some problem issue the public should know about?
Imagine what kind of a chill is sent out to anyone in the community who might want to take a chance and trust a reporter to protect their confidentiality if there is a fear that the reporter could then walk into a government building and have all of his information seized?
That is why what happened to Sawchuk and his computer and notes at the Niagara regional headquarters this past December 7th constitutes such a grave breach of a journalist’s rights and freedoms as spelled out in Canada’s constitution.
It strikes at the heart of the values we, as Canadians, should all cherish and protect in a free and open democracy, and that is why I hope that The St. Catharines Standard and its corporate owners employ every legal means possible to expose and punish those responsible for this breach.
A clear message needs to be sent out that in this region, and in this province and country, this kind of behaviour will never be tolerated in a free and open democracy.
It is also good that the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman has launched a full probe of its own of this incident, and if members of regional staff are found responsible for committing acts that violate Canada’s charter, then without question, heads should roll at the regional government level.
Those responsible for this assault on our freedoms have disgraced the offices they have been entrusted serve in.
Finally, there is the something very important that the rest of us who live across Niagara have to do help put an end to the power-tripping arrogance and bullying that poisons this term of regional council.
The October 2018 municipal elections could not be more important to the health and welfare of the communities we live in. Each and every one of us of voting age must make a New Year’s resolution to get engaged in what is going on at our municipal level of government, encourage good, caring people to run for municipal offices and throw all of the bullies and their enablers out.
It will be a big job because at the regional government level in Niagara, the bullies and their enablers currently make up about two thirds of the 31 seats (including the chair) on the council.
The good news is that there are some mayors and directly elected councillors now sitting on the Niagara region’s council who deserve to be re-elected. Here is my list for now (you may have a list of your own you wish to share) of who the good one I would urge voters to re-elect are –
They are regional councillors Brian Heit, Kelly Edgar, Debbie MacGregor and Tim Rigby from St. Catharines, Bill Hodgson from Lincoln, Grimsby Mayor Bob Bentley, Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn, Niagara-on-the-Lake regional councillor Gary Burroughs, Welland regional councillor George Marshall, Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop, and Thorold Mayor Ted Luciani and a regional councillor from Thorold, Henry D’Angela, and that is it.
The rest, I would argue, have either been instigators or willing enablers of the dark, divisive and disturbing pattern of behaviour I have outlined above.
For the sake of the health and welfare of our Niagara region, THEY HAVE GOT TO GO!
We have a very important year ahead of us in this region, boys and girls. Get ready to buckle your seatbelt and Stay Tuned!
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