Category Archives: Features

Revolutionary ideas: From Che Guevara to Bernie

Is your chosen hero the correct type of rebel?

Bernie as Che

A variety of t-shirts and other items are available online with public figures; such as Bernie Sanders; portrayed as Che Guevara. This photo, of an online sales site, is Creative Commons, but the product itself may have copyright elements.

What do US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the past two leaders of Scotland and Star Wars stormtroopers have in common? They’re all revolutionaries like Che Guevara. According to what could be described as the original meme.

The desire to be seen as a revolutionary, or to portray your chosen political leader as the correct type of rebel, has driven an increasing use of a single image for a very diverse set of leaders from a spectrum ranging from Communist to neoliberal arch-conservative.

The image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary and major figure in the rise of Communist Cuba, has now become so widespread – particularly on T-shirts – that experts question what it actually means, if anything, to voters.

An original 1960 photograph by Cuban fashion photographer Alberto (‘Korda’) Díaz Gutiérrez was “posterised” by Irish photographer Jim Fitzpatrick and since been used widely and without any copyright issues. Mr Fitzpatrick in recent years has said he was keen to restore some measure of control over the image so the the Guevara family could see some income from it.1

Bournemouth University senior lecturer in creative advertising Rutherford2 said the image continues to be divorced from the revolutions it originally symbolised. And as time goes on, and the further you get from Latin America, the less it has anything to do with revolutions.

“Increasingly, the image seems to be used less and less as a means of identifying oneself with a radical left political ideology,” he told Tomorrow by email.

“There is reason to believe that an increasing proportion of those who sport the image have little or no idea who ‘the revolutionary guy’ is or what he stood for. But, like so much in an increasingly consumerist society, [where] a desirable or attractive persona can be acquired simply by buying the ‘right stuff’, the image is seen as – and so has become – a way of implying that one is not a conformist.

Originally associated with anti-capitalist and ‘anti-establishment’ policies, as we get farther in time and space from 1960s America, it seems that the image is less often used as a means to express solidarity or allegiance with the policies and practices of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist Latin American revolutionary groups with whom ‘Che’ was associated.”

T-shirts easily available online with a Che-like image include left-wing UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, nationalist Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond, British TV personality and right-wing columnist Jeremy Clarkson, musician Frank Zappa, the Planet of the Apes, right-wing UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, late UK Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a meerkat, Pikachu, pop “princess” Britney Spears, the animated Homer Simpson, Democratic US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Super Mario, band U2’s Bono, musicians the Sex Pistols, hacker group Anonymous, musicians Bob Marley and Morrisey, fascist leaders on the right and left such as Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge, scientist Professor Stephen Hawking, fictional TV character Alan Partridge, Star Wars and the original Che set against various national flags.

Be like Che

Collage of some of many T-shirts for sale online using style of Che Guevara image. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

Neil McGuire, a Glasgow-based graphic designer,3 said the original red of the manipulated image symbolised the political message of the man. But now it can make a point about the opposite politics.

“It’s kind of a viral image before we understood viral in the same way as we do now with the internet,” he told Tomorrow by phone. “It was a pre-meme meme. People can knock it about and do whatever they want with it, without it really damaging anything or changing the original image. 

[Tweet “”It was a pre-meme meme. People can knock it about and do whatever they want with it””]“Some people use it with a full understanding of the original intended message. But if you don’t understand that, you can still use it on just a very basic level – like this person is anti-establishment or a rebel or stands for revolution in a very general sense.

“I think that’s part of the reason it’s so popular. You can access it on a whole load of different levels.”

Mr McGuire said some images, such as the Obama “Hope” poster of the 2008 presidential campaign or the CND logo, can be widely used and recognised, but Che is unique.

“There probably are equivalents in the digital world in terms of how things get appropriated but it wouldn’t be that kind of image,” he said. “I think that kind of image is probably synonymous with a particular time because it references how it was made and that’s changed a lot. 

“I think images like the Che Guevera one have more latitude in them to be used in different ways. I’m not sure that flags quite have that. I think it’s very difficult for flags if used in designs to not, on some level, sort of relate to nationalism. There’s taboos around how you display flags and it can have different meanings in different contexts – it’s more difficult. People do use flags but they’re not going to have the same latitude within them to be adapted.”

If almost anyone’s face can become “revolutionary” Che Guevara, what should the public make of their political messages? Are the politicians actually rebels?

“You’re always encouraging people to dissect what they’re seeing,” said Mr McGuire. “People are very media literate and they understand what Photoshop is and that images can be put together in all sorts of interesting ways. Don’t take anything at face value and assume someone somewhere has manipulated the image you’re looking at. Ask questions about why that might be or what that might be saying.

“Particularly when things are on T-shirts people do understand it’s not official messaging as such.

“I think people understand that they’re made up in terms of what they’re saying – kind of like a moment in time.”

  1. Mr Fitzpatrick said he re-copyrighted the image according to his website and a posted comment. An attempt was made to contact him but Tomorrow received no reply.
  2. University profile page for Rutherford, his only name.
  3. LinkedIn profile page for Mr McGuire.

The Raccoons: An animated story

The Evergreen Forest, as remembered 30 years on by the artists who drew the trees


This is story of The Raccoons: unique, successful, Canadian. That is, until television changed.

Life would be simple in animated forests except for, technology. And tech might be overwhelming for the industry except everyone still remembers the creativity of The Raccoons.

The television show, following three specials, premiered in 1985 and was given prime time space on Canadian screens and picked up around the globe.

When it first debuted, the half-hour programme was so popular it pulled in three quarters of Canadian eyeballs aged two to 11 – a market share that would make advertisers giddy today.

But putting together a show didn’t just involve animators. Storyboard artists, background artists, inbetweeners, opaquers, matchers, layout artists, colour checkers, final checkers, xerographers, as well as sound and music staff and those providing voices to the characters and others were all vital. And it was all under one roof, to this day one of the only such set ups alumni experienced – and appreciated.

“It’s wonderful how The Raccoons, its fingers of delight, have stretched out into so many communities,” Kate Wallis, an assistant on the production, says looking back.

“How wonderful it is to have that Canadian cultural touchstone, like Littlest Hobo or Beachcombers. Raccoons is right up there with Canadian classics.”

Tomorrow looks back three decades to the start of The Raccoons, how it changed lives and how animation has changed even as the passion remains.

“Run with us”

The Raccoons,1 created by Kevin Gillis, was a first job for many straight out of Sheridan College in Toronto, Ontario,2 or after a drought of unemployment in the early 1980s. Car loads of graduates drove to Ottawa in 1984 for interviews for a new production.

Most started out assisting or “inbetweening” – if an animator would do drawings one and five in a sequence, then an assistant would do drawing three and the inbetweener two and four. The more images in a sequence, the more straight forward it is, and you can get promoted as you learn, explain alumni of the show.

Gerard de Souza,3 a self-professed “animation nerd” remembers at the age of six declaring he wanted to be an “animated cartoonist”. By junior high, his dream had evolved to “cartoonist”, living just down the road from Sheridan College.

Armed with the naivety that life would be “9 to 5” based on the example of his parents, Mr de Souza discovered the animation course at Sheridan – they didn’t have one for cartoonist. After graduating in 1984, aged 23, he was one of the many heading to Ottawa to work for Atkinson Film-Arts.

Robert Waldren4 graduated from Sheridan College in 1983 and the next summer got recruited to start work in October, a year before the show eventually premiered in Canada.

Nik Ranieri5 also headed up to an interview with fellow Sheridan graduates, and remembers a bumpy start.

My first job on The Raccoons was actually in layout and that lasted about a week,” laughs Mr Ranieri by phone from California. “I did one layout and they were like, ‘Okay this isn’t going to work’ and I’m like, ‘Good because I didn’t enjoy this at all and I’m not really a layout artist’.

“So they put me in inbetweening and assisting first. I was right out of college so I don’t think they really thought of me as an animator at that time. But of course I really, really, really wanted to animate, so I would do everything I could just to work my way up.”

Mr Ranieri only worked on the first seven of 11 episodes in the first series before he moved on, but still remembers the living quarters – in the same building as the second floor studios, the Colonel By Towers.6

“A lot of my memories of Raccoons were just, it was freezing in Ottawa, and waiting for buses, and the fights for higher wages.

“And even within all that I still managed to save a good sizeable amount of money so I was able to travel to England to get that first job on [Who Framed] Roger Rabbit because actually I pretty much lived at that studio – and I mean literally lived at the studio.

“Some people, you never left that building for weeks – they’d sleep, they’d come back down in the morning and go to work. It was such a bizarre situation having an animation studio in a residence.”

Colonel By Towers

Colonel By Towers from Bronson Avenue in Ottawa. Many staff lived in the floors above the studios.

Colonel By Towers

Colonel By Towers, with a Scotiabank on the ground floor, The Raccoons studios on the second floor, paper covering the windows to be able to better see the art.

On the ground floor was a Scotiabank branch and, while cashing his pay late one Friday as the bank was closing, Tim Deacon7 was confronted by two robbers.

“I turned in the line to stare down a revolver barrel,” he says by email. “The follies of youth sometimes make you feel invincible but I kept my cool and studied his features. Seeming unnerved he motioned everyone into the walk-in safe and both quickly left with the alarm blaring. I quickly began sketching up both men and went police to station to identify them later.”

But amongst more fond memories was the ball hockey rivalry between the animators and the background artists.

“This went on for many years in the form of cage match tournaments for the coveted ‘Raccoon Cup’ trophy and bragging rights,” adds Mr Deacon, who was a layout artist designing and drawing in pencil scene locations and camera moves. “All the artists were a close-knit group sharing as much fun time outside the studio as possible.”

Animated hockey

Most Canadian photo ever? The ball hockey players who animated The Raccoons.

Carolyn Gair8 was another Sheridan graduate and had risen from being an assistant on Care Bears specials before starting at The Raccoons.

“Being a junior animator on The Raccoons,” recounts Ms Gair by email from California, “I remember thinking that I’d wished we had more animation training at Sheridan.

“The three-year course that I enrolled in 1979 taught students how to make an entire film, from story concept to animation and layout, to cell painting, filming, sound mixing and editorial.

“When we graduated in 1983, it was into a world where there was an animation job drought. Many of my classmates took what expertise they learned during the filmmaking process and took jobs in other departments, camera, sound, editorial, layout, background, special effects, as there just were no jobs in animation itself.

“Also, we were largely unprepared to join the job market as, yes, we could make an entire film from start to finish, but we had no idea how to be animation assistants or clean-up artists – the entry level jobs that would get us into a studio.”

Kate Wallis9 was already in Ottawa but started her TV life at the opposite, yet equally cartoonish, world of politics on Parliament Hill. Working for the morning programme Canada AM, she applied for a starting position at The Raccoons.

And it was a wonderful experience there,” she says. “It was wonderful to be working in the days [before] we were sending digital images around the globe to save money. I remember the first time we decided to send cell to be opaqued overseas. We sent them by FedEx after the inking was done and they came back by FedEx but they hadn’t been sent in the right shipping area of the airplane. And when those boxes were opened, all the paint had popped off all the cells so we had boxes and boxes of cells, essentially unpainted, and paint chips – pound and pound of paint chips.”

“We remember Rocket Robin Hood,” she adds. “We remember stuff we saw as a child the way we remember nothing else. And I wanted to be a part of making that really good.”

Mr Waldren says the first episode, treated as a special, allowed plenty of time for junior animators and assistants to learn and get it right, from storyboards and recording, to splicing, cell painting, backgrounds and more, before it became cheaper to send work to the Far East. Gradually a library was built up of backgrounds and character expressions that could be reused as the series went on, streamlining the process.

Storyboards were pinned up around the studios so everyone knew what they were working towards, with the first episode taking up to four months – everyone remembers it taking a different length of time. There were self-deprecating and show-deprecating sketches as well.

A team of eight writers put together the scripts with funders CBC and Telefilm Canada having approval of shorelines. The Raccoons reportedly took hockey advice from Hockey Night in Canada’s Danny Gallivan and the New York Islanders’ Mike Bossy.10

And the music for the TV series, as with the three specials that came before it, was from the National Arts Centre Orchestra, led then by John Gazsi, who died in a car crash in 1984 and was the origin of the dedication still seen at the end of all the first season episodes, now sold around the globe. Gazsi’s name also lives on in the Friends of the National Arts Centre Orchestra John Gazsi Memorial Award, presented annually for 30 years at the Kiwanis National Capital Region Festival. It was won this year by Ethan Balakrishnan.11

Nik Ranieri

Nik Ranieri – and the real one next to him in 1985.

From ball hockey to bank robberies, animating for The Raccoons was about more than technical skills – it offered life lessons as well, as Mr Ranieri admits.

“There was a lot of things that had to be sort of excised from your expectations,” he says. “I eventually did get promoted to animator just like some of my colleagues as well. But for the first one or two shows I think, I was still an inbetweener. I was very cocky. It was one of those situations where I would rate the animators on how they did – I felt I knew it all and didn’t need to learn anything.

“Basically the head of the assistants department, Roger Way,12 came to me one day and he said, ‘Look Nik, you have an ability to animate, but if you’re going to get anywhere, you’ve got to change your attitude and you’ve got to start being a little more respectful’.

“And I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong at the time, obviously. But in hindsight, you just don’t treat people like that. From those experiences I learned people skills and I was able to take that into my next job as well. 

“There was a point in time in the Raccoon show, I think it was episode seven, I was working on a Cyril Sneer scene and he was in a boat and he was yelling at somebody and grabbing the pig and shaking him or something like that and I brought the scene to [storyboard artist] Chris Schouten13 and he looked at it and he goes, ‘Nik it’s a really good scene, I really like it, but there’s just too many drawings’.

“And at that moment I knew it was time for me to leave and I knew I needed to expand my knowledge and I went as far as I could on that show, as far as honing my craft.

“I wanted to work on fuller animation that was bigger budgets, features. At that point we were all gung ho – a lot of us were really jazzed about animation.

“A bunch of us got together during the production and we actually wrote a script for the show and we submitted it and gave it to Kevin Gillis, who rejected it. But we spent evenings writing this thing just because we thought, ‘Let’s try to make this show something cool and we had this great idea and maybe he’ll buy it’.

“They didn’t want to hear from us. And then after that happened, a lot of us got discouraged and we started to look elsewhere.”

Was it truly Canadian?

The first appearance of Bert, Cyril and gang was in The Christmas Raccoons in 1980 after Mr Gillis and Ottawa lawyer Sheldon Wiseman sold it to CBC and stations in the US. A huge success, it was followed by The Raccoons On Ice in 1981 and The Raccoons And The Lost Star in 1983 before a first series gained a reported $4.7 million in funding from Telefilm Canada, the Walt Disney Co, Embassy Home Entertainment and others.14

Airing first in the United States, the first episode of the 11-part run debuted on October 21, 1985, and achieved 1,734,000 viewers in the prime-time, 7.30pm slot, according to Nielsen ratings published at the time.

By the second episode on October 28, the numbers climbed to 2,280,000 million, of whom 1,710,000 were aged two to 11.

Raccoon backgrounds

The backgrounds captured the beauty of the Evergreen Forest.

At the time, Kevin Gillis15 – the show’s then 35-year-old creator who wrote much of the music and oversaw the scripts, colours and merchandising – said raccoons became more human than rodent: “The characters grew from childhood memories of what certain people reminded me of – as well as looking at my own personality. You tend to hold your characters around people you like and people you wish you were like.”16

Mr Gillis recently announced he was looking to restart the show for a new generation. He did not reply to an interview request for this feature.17

Sheldon Wiseman at the time argued the show wasn’t Canadian, just the quality.

He told the Ottawa Citizen in 1984: “There’s nothing distinctly Canadian in the show. It could be Northern Ontario or South Dakota. But there is a Canadian perspective to the production. It’s the same quality that has caused a disproportionate number of Canadians to be successful in American television and films.”18

But did the soft environmental message – the various storylines about protecting the forest from money-obsessed, cigar munching Cyril Sneer – make it Canadian? Or was it the setting in a forest or animals? Why did that work for international audiences?

“I think what is distinctively Canadian does connect with people,” Ms Wallis tells Tomorrow by phone from Ontario. “It was distinctly Canadian – its messages.

“And it seems The Raccoons – I hesitate to characterise Canadians as wholesome – it was kind and big hearted and funny and not without an eye to the evilness of Cyril Sneer and capitalism and ulterior motives. But I think in the end the messages were of kindness and acceptance and inclusion and, I think that that’s certainly what Canadians like to think of themselves.”

She adds: “Maybe part of the reason that the show had the impact it had was the tremendously high quality of the animation. It was done by excellent animators – not that there aren’t many overseas but I think often times there’s a communication break that lessens the fine interpretation of expression, of body movement.

“If you send a tobogganing scene to Korea, you don’t get the same subtlety of understanding that you do from a tobogganing scene done in Ottawa where half the year they’re tobogganing. It’s our human experience to do winters and to do those things. I think it benefited from that and I think people felt that and recognised that, even at an intuitive level.”

Robert Waldren doubts The Raccoons, if made today, would be Canadian.

“I kinda doubt that. It would be set in Vermont now, not in Gatineau Hills,” he says by Skype. “It has to be recognisable around the world and you have to worry about your markets in the Far East and everybody knowing what you’re talking about. There are still people who don’t know that it’s set in the Gatineau Hills and that sort of thing, but it was. It was designed that way to be a Canadian show.”

“We’ve got everything you need” – almost

It was “truly a golden age in the Canadian animation industry” says Tim Deacon. Ever since, the animation and games worlds – and a few other professions – have been full of Raccoons alumni.

After Raccoons, Carolyn Gair worked in Vancouver for a few years but before animation took off in the city, returning to Toronto to work on the Babar TV series with Nelvana and then productions in the US.

Nik Ranieri says many on The Raccoons focused on getting work in the US and he eventually made it to Disney, working on some of the most well-known animated characters of his time. His 25 years there came to an end in 2013 when a team was made redundant but found a role with The Prophet,19 out in the US on August 21, 2015. He is now involved in the gaming industry, producing World War Toons.

Gerard de Souza left for a period and then returned in 1988 to the show, later working for Disney Canada when it expanded north for a period, worked in gaming for the company that became Electronic Arts Canada, taught and most recently worked on The Prophet with Mr Ranieri.

“But I’m kind of an odd duck,” he adds, “because I’m 53 years old and I’m working with people who are my childrens’ age, in their early 20s, and co-workers – they’ve been a great help to me technically and I go off on tangents telling them my curmudgeonly philosophies.”

Robert Waldren says animation is making a comeback, particularly with networks such as Disney XD, Cartoon Network and Teletoon insisting on “lively animation”.

“It’s cheaper to be done here rather than overseas,” he explains. “It’s gone back to more of the spontaneity that really was lost for a while. It kbecame very homogenised.”

Karen Munro-Caple

Karen Munro-Caple, then an animator.

Karen Munro-Caple was picked up for The Raccoons while volunteering at the International Animation Film Festival in Toronto, rising eventually to the role of animation director, learning both animation and diplomatic skills. After The Raccoons she worked on TV and film productions such as Babar and The Railway Dragon. But she later turned to a different path.

“I loved the people and the expansive creativity that those studios encouraged,” she tells Tomorrow by email. “I did grow weary of other people being in control, over producing, no money, they want it yesterday… after a while I had enough and started my own massage therapy business.”20

The camaraderie, almost growing up together as young animators, has kept connections going for three decades, say animators. Ms Wallis is currently production managing Dark Sunrise, a live-action film from Hilary Phillips and Greg Gibbons, who both worked on The Raccoons.

“I don’t think I’m romanticising it at all,” insists Mr de Souza. “I have a lot of fond memories of it, and I was too stupid to worry about what I was getting paid and I have a lot of fond memories of the people and the work.

“And I’d be saying this even if I didn’t reconnect with them on Facebook – we seem to be buddies for life. A lot of warm memories, a lot of things, and I think it informs a lot of my opinions of animation and I think a lot of animation today is overworked and over-produced and a lot of redundancies, that I didn’t experience when I first experience, like I keep going back to that and liking it to be that way.

“And I would love to work again where everything happens under one roof and everything is sympathetic towards the animation, talking department wise, artistically. It was a very positive experience. And friendships that seem to have lasted a lifetime.”

Animation – “Sinking in quicksand”?

“You’re just so happy to see your name in lights, as corny as that is, for a ‘stupid TV show’ – you see your name and your family sees your name and years later people see your name. It was a thing,” Mr de Souza says.

“There’s the people who do the layouts, and then people who do backgrounds and people who do character animation, people who do the inbetweens and people who paint the cells.

“So many hands touch a scene and my brother tells me the story my dad was watching it and says, ‘Hey, is this the show Gerard worked on’ and my brother goes, ‘Yeah it is’ and like 10 minutes later my dad’s going, ‘Yeah, it looks like his style’. Like he thinks I did the whole show or something.”

But the pay wasn’t glamourous, he says. When he started in 1984, he was paid $5.50 an hour, rising later to $7.21, scraping together enough money for rent with his wife working as well. Assistant animators or inbetweeners on The Raccoons got salaries, as did background artists and layout artists such as Tim Deacon. Others, such as Carolyn Gair, were paid by the foot. As she explains it, a foot of animation was 16 frames or eight hand-drawn images; one second of animation was a foot and a half or 12 images. An average animator could put out about 20 feet a week, as Ms Gair did. Mr de Souza boasts he remembers once animating 99 feet in a week, but thanks to a great deal of stock and reused material.

As well as the mix of approaches to pay, there were machinations of production firms. Atkinson Film-Arts, which had worked on the first TV specials, did the animation for the first series, after which Hinton Animation Studios took over, and pulled away many of the Atkinson staff. Atkinson was shut down in 1989 over debt problems. Hinton, later Lacewood Productions, eventually suffered the same fate.

“I can’t bemoan animation or hand-drawn too much because we’re not the only ones that are facing extinction,” says Mr Ranieri. “My feeling has always been that just because somebody invented the camera, doesn’t mean people stop painting. I’m hoping, eventually, people will understand that and that 2D can survive.”

Carolyn Gair

Carolyn Gair at The Raccoons after colleagues crossed her desk with 16mm film as a joke.

Ms Gair adds: “I wish there was more of a future for Canadian animation, but mostly these days it’s outsourcing for American productions. I wish there was more of a film movement there, though I’m pretty happy as an ex-pat at small successful American studio.”

As well as changing production methods and studios, the pay for writers has declined in recent years, explains Ms Wallis. Where 15 years ago a project might pay $5,000, it now offers between $1,000 and $1,500. If people are paid less, their input is valued less.

“I think that it’s too bad television in general – and children’s especially because there’s such a wonderful scope for creativity – suffers very greatly from the tentativeness of finances to back a new idea instead of just producing a book for the screen,” she says. 

“I really would love to see the days where someone would take a chance on something called The Simpsons or still take a chance on The Raccoons and do something really original and unique.

“And with the internet and with the advent of technology, if I wished to sit down at home with Flash and make my own animated series and everyone in the world could see it. . .that’s an advantage. But I’m an old-school girl and I miss the television slot with the good, good animation in it.

“If you look at early animation of The Simpsons, it’s just awful, technically, but the scripts and the performances are really the core. The story and the voices we hear telling that story are really the very core and and basis of excellent television, of any sort.”

What’s up with the aardvarks?

“The forest. . . and the aardvark – I don’t know what the hell the aardvark. . but I think it’s part of the charm, the incongruous of aardvarks in a castle, in Canada – it just stays with you, like what the hell?” says Mr de Souza.

“There’s something a little bit smarter about it. There was this kind of insipidness there of other properties like Care Bears, the Rainbow Brights and the My Little Ponies – very sweet and safe and the first thing I thought was The Raccoons was a little smarter in its writing and stuff. There was some corny stuff, but a little smarter and something a little different and not as formulaic I felt.

“Nowadays it’s just normal – it’s almost synergistic now: it’s not a toy based on a TV show, it’s not a TV show based on a toy, it’s just kind of all in one.”

Mr Ranieri admits he is surprised at the enduring popularity of the show, but wonders if it’s the power of memory from childhood.

“I never thought it was that great a show,” he says. “In fact we used to mock it while we were on it – because it was limited animation.

“I had this experience when I went up to Canada to work on The Prophet. There was a production manager there, and you know, I worked for Disney for 25 years, I worked on Beauty And The Beast, Little Mermaid, Roger Rabbit, Pocahontas, all these things, but she was mostly overwhelmed by the fact that I worked on The Raccoons. And I’m like, ‘Really?’

“I have no idea why it’s as popular as it is. That’s a mystery.

“I mean, it’s ok – it’s not horrible, as shows go.

“Here’s a good example: a lot of things you see as a kid, you take with you and sometimes you look at these things years later and, ‘Oh that’s pretty lame but I was just a kid’.

“But other things you look at and you still like them, even though they might not be very good, there’s a fondness there. It all depends on what you grew up with.

“If I were think about it now, I guess the attempt on The Raccoons was to at least make shows that had some sort of different story about it every week, that tried to have a little bit of social comment in it or something like that. Kevin Gillis seemed to be a person who really cared about the show.”

TV production schedules required that shows had to be turned around faster than a feature film, leading to fewer layers in the animation and some “wonkyness” as Mr de Souza describes it. He sees a beauty in the imperfection and limits of The Raccoons.

In one example, the Xerox process for cells could melt and stretch them a bit, leading to a certain wobble in some of the shows.

While some of the rough edges were caused by technology, animators would also slip in their own styles. Mr Ranieri says he and others played with stretch drawings as students and on the show would see what they could get away with. In one episode where Bert Raccoon was playing pirate and says, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of pop”, Mr Ranieri added a “snarky look” from the pigs then hiding behind a building. “Social commentary on the writing,” he says.

“I probably should have stopped when I left,” he adds. “One of my most embarrassing things I did when I got to Disney was I actually did [a stretch drawing] on one of my first Ursula scenes and to this day I see it on The Little Mermaid and I regret doing it because it seemed so out of place for a feature. For TV animation, it worked fine.”

Mr Waldren says it’s a mix of qualities that has helped The Raccoons endure, from characters and storylines that mixed crocodiles and aardvarks and raccoons in the Gatineau Hills, to slapstick and songs.

“But it had a kind of a sincerity I guess you would call it, that still seems to work,” he says. “Because there were animators who were running the show, they allowed for spontaneity, especially from their star animators, and so there’s always a little, in most of the shows, there’s something a little extra and a little funnier and a little different looking as well as the overall kind of homogenised look that keeps the story going. I kind of like that.

“It has a personality.”

“I see passion in your eyes”

Raccoons alumni have moved with the times and learned different types of computer animation, but never abandoned their love of the traditional that has kept them going since their first working days 30 years ago.

“There’s something beautiful about traditional,” describes Mr de Souza. “And computer animation back then did have a too-perfect, smooth reputation. It was chrome balls and checkerboard patterns and robots moving robotically.

“Computer’s become a necessary evil I had to do to make money and support my family.”

The technology has changed the relationship between the animator and the image, he says. As a student and later on The Raccoons, you would shoot the animation, hope it matches with the lip-syncing, go back and make changes, shoot it again, and keep working at it.

“When you’re working on the computer you’re getting all that feedback, not to mention also the easy access to references for animation,” says Mr de Souza.

“You’ve got whatever you want – type it in into Google and you’ve got a reference to how this animal moves or how this person runs or this person walks. And I kind of mourn this loss of many of the really great animation out there, even the cartoon stuff. It’s very reality based. It can be more exaggerated.

“Whereas before you had access to that reference, you had to think, ‘Ok, I saw a guy run once, how did he do that?’ And you get a very impressionistic thing happening when you’re finished with it.”

Ms Gair is a storyboard artist for the upcoming film Rock Dog21 featuring the voices of Luke Wilson and J K Simmons. And she creates a stop-motion animation every day for Instagram,22 as she did for this article.

“For me, my stop motion films for Instagram are ‘instant gratification’. I come up with an idea, I execute it, I edit the timing, add music and, Bam! Post. I have created a miniature film. I do it because, ultimately, I have created another world. And I invite people to look in and be a part of something that only exists in the realm of imagination. Animation is the suspension of disbelief – my favourite place. I make life out of the inanimate, like growing clouds out of thin air.”

“There’s nothing to compare to the experience you get with actually handling animation, and I mean pencil and paper, flipping it classic style,” agrees Robert Waldren. “To go in and draw the characters, moving in space, that’s what we did for almost eight years in Ottawa and you can’t duplicate that experience.”

Animation is personal, organic even for the artists, and for the audience. Mr Ranieri says after working on Meeko, another raccoon, on Pocahontas, he was sent a news clipping about how a boy saved his brother’s life from drowning in the bathtub by pushing his stomach, just as Meeko does to Flit in the film.

“Every now and then stories like that come up and you’re just like, ‘Wow, these films have an effect on people’. And usually it’s just entertainment but every now and then there is a lesson to be learned. In that way, it’s been pretty rewarding,” he says.

The quality of The Raccoons might not be consistent from scene to scene, admits Mr Waldren, but they were learning as you went along and the originality in the shows was a good thing.

“There’s a lot of scenes that are very spontaneous,” he adds. “There are tones of scenes where you can tell exactly who worked on them because they drew the character a certain way and their animation was a certain way and it had an individuality. And I think it’s part of the reason why the show itself is still very popular. It looks handmade.”

  1. The Raccoons, 1985-1992.
  2. Sheridan College’s faculty of animation, arts and design.
  3.  Gerard de Souza.
  4. Robert Waldren.
  5. Nik Ranieri’s public Facebook page.
  6. The Colonel By Towers building.
  7. Tim Deacon at Smashing Animation.
  8. Carolyn Gair.
  9. Kate Wallis, as Laura Kate Wallis.
  10. Mike Bossy’s NHL career.
  11.  Ethan Balakrishnan and Friends of NAC Orchestra.
  12. Roger Way.
  13. Chris Schouten.
  14. The Ottawa Citizen reported funding as both $4.5 and $4.7 million in articles in 1985.
  15. Kevin Gillis’s current production firm, Skyreader.
  16. ‘The Raccoons’ steal a few lessons from life”, TV Guide, October 19, 1985.
  17. Press coverage of planned reboot.
  18. Film company skating on solid ice”, Ottawa Citizen, November 2, 1984.
  19. The Prophet movie.
  20. Karen Munro-Caple, massage therapist.
  21. Rock Dog film.
  22. Carolyn Gair’s Instagram animations.

The unquiet quiet of moments of silence

Waiting. Waiting. Watching seconds pass. Time drifts on, seeming to drag.

In a world of noise, waiting for 168 seconds of silence to end becomes uncomfortable.

And it’s meant to be jarring, one second for each person killed in the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995 at 9.02am Central Time.

Ever since, and again for the 20th anniversary this year, the loss is marked with this distinct timed silence. It is also used before the annual marathon where more than 25,000 runners and the crowd pause for two minutes and 48 seconds.

It is not the longest public memorial silence and by no means alone as pauses have become a default when death is mourned.

But what does a moment of silence mean? Are the moments too short? Does the length of time rank loss? Are these public acts attempts to reclaim quiet and reset the body and mind? And do they actually help to focus groups of people on serious issues and memorials, or make them too easy to avoid?

168 seconds – gone in an instant

“We want people to feel like it takes a long time because that’s the impact of the loss,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of Oklahoma City National Memorial.1

The bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building claimed 168 lives and injured more than 680 others when a third of the structure was destroyed in an instant, at the time the worst terrorist attack on US soil.

A moment of silence was held a week after the destruction and one second for each life became the standard marker each year. The memorial marathon started in 2001 with 5000 runners and now welcomes 25,000, with the silence at the starting line.

Ms Watkins said they don’t apologise for the length of the silence – it is a large number and it takes time to mark it.

“We felt pretty strongly about making sure people didn’t just sit there,” she told Tomorrow by phone. “You get a little uneasy at the two-and-a-half minute mark, thinking, ‘When is this going to end’ or ‘what is taking so long’. It’s not comfortable. It feels like it takes forever.

“I think people are always surprised at the length of it. You see people start to fidget towards the end – I mean gosh, 168 seconds, people say that it takes so long. Well, if you have a second for each life, that’s 168 seconds – there’s no other way to do it. The biggest part we work on is making sure that people understand that those are a lot of lives. Two or three are too many. 168 are. . . so we just make sure people understand the length and the depth of it.”

Sometimes noise might mark the end of the silence at the race, such as applause or bells or a dignitary speaking, said Ms Watkins. A baby’s cries broke the silence during the first anniversary at the memorial in 1996.2

“The silence just marks a pause, a stop, to remember, to reflect and to look at where we are today and where we’ve been,” added Ms Watkins.

[Tweet ““The silence just marks a pause, a stop, to remember, to reflect and to look at where we are””]

Individuals can mark a moment of silence in the memorial site to the Oklahoma City bombing, but Ms Watkins said it is different from when people come together.

“It’s different because you’re more sitting in remembrance in peacefulness. When we do that during the anniversary ceremony,  that silence is part of making sure we don’t forget why we’re here. The April 19 mourning is an important time to appreciate the fact that we’ve come this far in 20 years but also just to reflect and remember what we’re doing.

“I think meaning is personal. It’s a very personal thing to everyone who’s in the audience.”

How much time is a life worth?

The month of April also sees a moment of silence for victims of the Rwanda genocide in 1994. With a death toll of 800,000, an equivalent silence would take nine days. Instead, it is just one minute, and it took 10 years before the United Nations General Assembly approved it. According to spokesman Aaron J. Buckley for the UN, about 20 nations mark it.3

Remembrance of the July 7, 2005 bombings in London has received both one-minute and two-minute silences for the deaths of 52 civilians.4 Spain observed five minutes of silence on the first anniversary of the March 11, 2004 Madrid bombing that took 191 lives.5

The 129,000-246,000 estimated deaths caused by the first atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 get one minute, as do the lives lost during the Warsaw Uprising.6

Remembrance Day ceremonies get two minutes of silence, the historic origins of the idea of public ceremonies pausing to remember loss. But the time for World War I has remained static through the additional losses of World War II and decades of conflict since. An attempt by Democrats in both the House and Senate of the US Congress in 2013 to create a matching two-minute silence for Veterans Day has yet to progress beyond the bill’s tabling.7

The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel is in silence except for names being read out, to acknowledge the loss of young lives during the Holocaust.8 A minute of silence is recognised by Israelis annual on Yom HaShoah as sirens blare. But with 6 million murdered in the genocide, which would equate to more than 69 days of silence, can there be a temporal measure of the horrors?

Despite a vast religious history background to concept of silence, its public ceremonial origins are distinctly 20th century.

Before World War I even ended there was pause in Cape Town, South Africa, with a minute to give thanks for the living and a minute for the fallen. Then on May 8, 1919, Australian journalist Edward George Honey, in a letter to the London Evening News, suggested two minutes of silence: “All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”9

Steven Brown, professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Leicester,10 said there was a unique problem after the end of World War I with a tremendous loss of life and returning soldiers. And the resulting initial silences weren’t always respectful affairs.

“Historically around this period,” he told Tomorrow by phone, “there was a lot of concern about possible Communist revolutions or Bolshevik revolutions and you had a large demobilised former group of soldiers who might have a legitimate grievance against the state. So there was a big concern to sort of publicly commemorate their sacrifices and efforts and try to bind it together into a story about British identity and British statehood in the aftermath of the first world war.

A lot of them did involve huge groups of soldiers coming down to London, doing the [two] minutes silence and then getting riotously drunk for the rest of the day. It’s sort of interesting that the silence was part of a package of activities that aren’t always as sombre as we think of it.”

Prof Brown said moments of silence, because of their religious history, can transport members of the public observing them back to a faith experience even if they are not themselves religious. But silence, as a public act, may no longer work as effectively as it once did.

“When you see silence at football matches or more often a televised image of a public silence, the previous idea of a city going silent was quite a powerful experience,” said Prof Brown. “In 1919, 1920, the reports of the early silences, the city goes silent for a moment. The idea that you could accomplish silence being performed across a whole country is a technological innovation because you’ve got to have the capacity to make that work as well as synchronising timetables and clocks, which is a comparatively modern invention.

“However, there’s a real difference between stopping where you are and being caught up in your own thoughts, which is how it’s supposed to work, versus standing in a group of people who may or may not be quiet, and you’re sort of caught up in the experience of monitoring other people’s silence.

“And that’s really heightened when you have video screens at football matches where the camera will be panning around capturing how sad the players are looking on the pitch.

“It’s far more performative. It was never not performative but the performative aspect of it has been very much intensified by the introduction of media and particularly broadcast media, live streaming and playing it back to the people who are participating in the silence. [That] makes it a very different kind of experience than it was before.”

[Tweet “”You’re sort of caught up in the experience of monitoring other people’s silence””]

Prof Brown said silence in a small group, say for a work colleague who has died, can be very powerful because of the pre-existing relationships between people and the space where the pause is taking place. But most public silences lack those connections, sometimes without a lead in or lead out of the silence to put it in context. Combine that with monitoring behaviour of those on screen or around you and there of questions about what is an acceptable silence and behaviour during it, and how do you police that.

In 2008 there was a dispute over how best to honour the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash when Manchester City wanted to use a minute of applause but Manchester United, whom they were facing, voted for silence.11

My purely personal view,” said Prof Brown, “as a structured activity that we might engage in which does some work of binding us together as a collective, I don’t think [silence] works terribly well for these big occasions. It seems to me a technology that has been dislocated from its origins and is inappropriately applied. There might be better ways of doing things.

“It’s particularly acute with a minute’s silence. A minute is usually a token marker of respect and it’s a tricky one to manage because it’s not quite long enough for anything meaningful to happen and the start and end of silences are a bit messy usually as well. It takes a while for people to get into gear.

“The two-minute silence in the UK at least is the war silence because it’s come out of that Armistice Day roots. To stand silent for three or four minutes is very tricky and it risks all kinds of difficulties of trying to police that length of silence. But [those lengths] have often been used on occasions where you don’t necessarily want to use a war silence but you want something that’s more significant than a one-minute silence.”

He continued: “In terms of every significant either public tragedy or conflict, there is always a kind of a weighing up and a making distinctive of the event and that’s quite understandable. If you are involved in commemorating an event, you want something of its uniqueness to pass into it.

“As with applying a calculus to any kind of tragedy, the downside of that is, no amount of silence is ever going to be enough. The minute you treat what is fundamentally a difficult qualitative problem in quantitative terms, it’s always going to be unsuccessful to some extent.”

Prof Brown suggested looking to physical memorials for examples of ways to move toward more meaningful ways to get the public to remember and learn. Silence has become an almost “instinctive response” to events. Doing something else is less easy.

“The nature of public commemoration itself and how modern western societies do commemorative work has shifted dramatically in the past 30-40 years,” he said. “It’s partly being driven by things like Holocaust memorials which have sort of thrown up all sorts of interesting problems about how you balance the tension between events that you want to project into the future in perpetuity, things that we should never forget, but at the same time how not to create a future that’s entirely dominated by the historical.

“How can you represent or do justice to things that are thought to be utterly unrepresentable? So the quantitative solution: if we make it distinctive either through the amount of time we spend in silence or we make it distinctive through the amount of money we spend on the memorial, if you play that game, it’s quite unsatisfactory.

“And the alternative solution, particularly around Holocaust memorials and to some extent with the 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park for the 2005 London bombing, and to a certain extent some aspects of the 9/11 memorial in New York and most certainly the Holocaust memorial in the centre of Berlin, what you notice about them is that they are non-representational spaces to some extent. They are quite peculiar spaces where through manipulating various architectural codes the idea is to create an experience for the visitor and set up a kind of experiential puzzle. What is it I feel about this event?

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany. Photo by Tristan Stewart-Robertson. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

“The fact that it’s not easy, you have to work it through for yourself. There is an architectural tradition now of thinking, that’s the best way we can commemorate, by inviting people to think about what this means without programming the nature of what it ought to be. This is important for you to think about but we’re not going to tell you necessarily how to think about it.

“You can see within the silence there is some of that idea because it’s meant to be a space for private reflection. But that space of private reflection, at least my argument would be, has been lost because of the changing social conditions in which it’s enacted. There is far more interesting stuff to be done in exploring these sort of non-representational spaces of commemoration.”

Disorientating or calming silence

The 1952 three-movement piece 4’33”12 by American experimental composer John Cage was meant to redefine what is sound and music. Pure silence is nearly impossible to find on earth.

That is, except in places such as the Anechoic Test Chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, in the US state of Minnesota. Given the Guinness World Record on October 18, 201213 as the quietest room in the world, the company’s founder and director Steve Orfield said it takes $100,000 worth of equipment to measure the silence.

“Although we could record it, if you played it accurately, no-one could hear it or even come close to hearing it. The broadcast systems couldn’t handle it.”

In the anechoic chamber, Mr Orfield recommends a person doesn’t speak and the lights are off, and so you begin to hear your own body, from lungs inflating and deflating to the heart beating, your joints moving and buzzing in your ears.

“It usually makes them nervous and they’re usually not hearing the space at all,” he told Tomorrow by phone. “You’re used to walking through space and hearing your feet move and hearing the reflection of your voice on the walls and that’s all gone. You’re not hearing your own voice and you’re in the dark so you don’t have any visual cues to counteract the lack of any acoustical cues.

“You tend to lose your balance, you can tend to feel claustrophobic. You always feel like there’s pressure on your ears because what there really is is a lack of pressure on your ears. So you’ll feel that there’s not enough things going on surrounding you to be in the real world. Some people like that, some people find it extremely uncomfortable.”

The anechoic chamber is used to test products that are quiet or do experiments with sensory deprivation. That can be used for therapeutic purposes, said Mr Orfield, effectively resetting an individual’s ears.

But you don’t need a chamber for that – going for a walk in the woods, where there is reduced stimulus or the stimulus such as rustling leaves is pleasant, can be calming.

“Most everybody has the experience of being able to be reset and to become more peaceful in natural environments,” he said. “You don’t find populations who don’t enjoy that experience. But you find people who aren’t getting that experience much.”

In February, the World Health Organisation recommended that people should not listen to more than one hour a day of music14. They warned 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults were at risk of permanent hearing damage.

Mr Orfield said you might be the same as your parents or grandparents, but by dosing yourself with higher levels of media, your perception of noise and silence changes. And then it becomes harder to settle yourself away from noise.

“People may like loud music,” he explained, “but it doesn’t settle them down. Their heart rate is faster, their blood pressure is higher, their physiological response to loud sound, even if it’s stuff they intend to listen to, it’s clear – their body is being affected by it.

“The meditation movement around the United States is extremely supportive in the notion that people find peace, they find all kinds of measured physiological changes when they take themselves out of noise.

“And it’s true in multiple domains. If you’re in a bright city and you go out into the darkness of the countryside, that calms you down. If you’re in windy area and you go to a calm area, it calms you down. You can be stimulated and cross-stimulated in a whole series of modalities and the dominate stimulation is the one you’ll focus on. And if you bring the background perceptual noises down to a large degree, you’re settling people out.

“If you’re in the real world, you’re never settling out to the point of real silence in any of the domains but you’re settling into an area of perceptual comfort.

“The anechoic chamber is an extreme, but reasonable levels of silence tend to cause people relaxation, to be more reflective, to have things occur to them mentally that wouldn’t in noise.

“The introspection that people have when they’re not in high levels of stimulus tend to be useful, and that’s what meditation plays off of. Many people believe that they’re kind of displaced to an entirely different experience when they’re doing that and I think that’s true.

“A lot of the physiological measurements of people who are meditating and a lot of the neurological measurements of people who are meditating show that there’s not only relaxation but things are happening in different places in their brains.”

Silent Times

Silent Times, by Jason Skinner, artist in residence. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License


Spoken prayer or silent reflection?

World religions have a long association with silence – but is it always appropriate? In 2014, the town council of Brampton, Ontario, Canada, voted to stop reading the Christian Lord’s Prayer before meetings in favour of a non-denominational statement. Some public outrage and a petition of 5000 signatories ensued and an eventual compromise resulted in a moment of silence.15 For campaigners, that silence is in mourning at the loss of the spoken prayer.

Susanne Guenther, of the town’s Salvation Army and the voice who founded the online petition, told Tomorrow by phone that the Lord’s Prayer “never hurt this country in any way shape or form” and its loss was “tragic”. She argued the prayer remained suitable in a diverse society because it became diverse under the umbrella of Christianity.

“To say we’re going to have a moment of silence,” she said, “is what we say when we’re remembering those who fought for us on Remembrance Day, when we’re mourning a certain event – that’s what a moment of silence is, was meant for, right? If you look it up in any kind of a dictionary or something, that’s the definition you’ll find. I view it [as a] better replacement than saying some sort of generic text that they were using.”

Ms Guenther said basic values such as empathy and forgiveness are missing from much of society but present in the Lord’s Prayer, a “corporate prayer” that “encompasses everything that is really good and helpful to all – it really doesn’t exclude anyone or any faith or any person at all”.

“There’s no other non-denominational prayer that could be worded as perfectly as it’s already been done,” she continued. “And we’ve been using it for over 100 years. This country has flourished under the faith that it embraced when it first began. It is the reason why so many people come here.”

A corporate prayer is when two or more people are gathered, and “there is power in that”.

“When we pray silently for ourselves, things that are kept in quiet are usually more self-centred, not as broad – it can go either way, but the whole point of saying a corporate prayer is the agreement that people can come to and join their hearts and minds in to some words that they all agree are something that we’re sort of giving up,” said Ms Guenther.

“The whole aspect of prayer is first of all the notion that there is a higher power. It’s not people of other faiths that had a problem saying the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really those that don’t believe that there is a higher power in the first place that found it redundant to corporately agree on some very basic things that just sort of make living in this society more safe, more harmonious, more kind towards one another and all that.”

The tension between spoken and silent prayer, as well as its timing and duration, has endured within faiths and caused marked splits between denominations.

Chapter 73 of the Qur’an recommends that the best time for a voluntary silent prayer – the Tahajjud – is in the early hours before dawn, when the world is quiet.

It reads: “Indeed, the hours of the night are more effective for concurrence [of heart and tongue] and more suitable for words.

“Indeed, for you by day is prolonged occupation.”16

Evelyn Underhill was a 20th century prolific writer, self-educated scholar of Christian mysticism, an active leader in the retreat movement and later pacifist. In her last book, Worship, published in 1941, she examined the difference between corporate prayer – said to and/or by a congregation – and personal prayer.

She said the worshipping life of a Christian was “profoundly personal”, but as a “member of a group”:

“The corporate life of worship has therefore an importance far exceeding the personal salvation or blessedness of the individual worshippers, or the devotional opportunity which it gives to them.

“Moreover the personal relation to God of the individual – his inner life – is guaranteed and kept in health by his social relation to the organism, the spiritual society, the Church. What is best for the All, as Plato says, turns out best for him too.

“Corporate and personal worship, though in practice one commonly tends to take precedence of the other, should complete, reinforce, and check each other.”17

Underhill also wrote that Quaker worship was a “demand for a personal religious sincerity so drastic that no word may be said or sung which is not true for each individual worshipper”. The positive side of that, said Underhill, was as a “noble experiment in corporate contemplative prayer”.

She continued:

“Quaker worship is a powerful corrective of those faults to which Christian institutionalism has always been specially inclined: the tendency to ritualism and to formalism, to emphasize expressive worship, neglect the interior prayer which should inform it, and be satisfied with the routine exercises of the organized cult. It keeps alive the charismatic strain; that docile and realistic waiting upon the Spirit which was central to the life of the Primative Church, but sank more and more into the background with its development.

“It points past all signs and symbols to the Invisible Holy, and perpetually reminds us of the awe and humility, the pause, the hush, the deliberate break with succession, with which man should approach the great experience of communion with the living God.”18

The Evelyn Underhill Association19 has been hosting an Annual Day of Quiet Reflection since 1990, each June near the anniversary of her death, where up to 20 people join together in silence at Washington National Cathedral. Plenty of activity might be going on around the group but they have lengthy periods of quiet of 45 minutes to an hour throughout the day.

Kathleen Staudt, secretary and treasurer of the association, said the difference between spoken and silent prayer is often down to the temperament of the individual.

Some people are drawn to words and some people are more drawn to silence,” she told Tomorrow by FaceTime. “We certainly have people who come to the Underhill day who would describe themselves as deep contemplatives. They even spend a lot of their time on their own in solitary silence and sharing that with others is part of that experience.

“I’m a word person. But I find the silent times freeing cause they allow me to be in a deeper place where I can leave words behind. But liturgical prayer can sometimes have that effect, particularly if they’re such familiar words that it’s almost like a chant. You’re not necessarily paying attention to the meaning of the words, or the meaning of the words can also direct your prayer – that can sometimes be helpful when you don’t know what you have to say.

“Being silent in a community means that you are aware of people around you. There is a sense that maybe everybody is in conversation with the same god, even if our language wouldn’t be the same about that.”

Two minutes of silence and a full day share an intention of bringing people together. But Ms Staudt said there was also a “real yearning” for silence, not just as a “refuge from the brokenness” but to find healing and deepen compassion.

It’s a mix of people who attend the quiet days, explained Ms Staudt, but the silence is what’s shared in common, even if some might sit, or walk around or read, and to escape the “busy-ness” of the world. Short periods of silence can work, but don’t usually allow enough time to adjust.

“It is where everyone feels at home,” she said. “That’s what people always comment on, the richness of the shared silence is something that is spiritually nourishing.

“Five minutes seems like a long time for people who aren’t used to silence, and a very frustratingly short time for people who are.

“It takes time to settle in, get used to where your body is, and to decide how you’re going to be in the silence. There’s something about the sense of open time that makes you feel like you’re completely out of your usual life. It’s just such a different thing from what we’re mostly used to, to be in silence with a community. It just takes you into another dimension of experience.”

Remember forward

Public moments of silence are held at the same times every year, as calendars cycle around to past anchors. Time takes a broader meaning in Aboriginal Australia, where events in the past hold life-defining lessons for the future.

Willy Stevens is an Aboriginal research and astronomer at Sydney Observatory and liaison between the University of New South Wales and Sydney Observatory.20 He said western culture, particularly in the realm of astronomy, can learn a great deal from indigenous lessons.

“The position of certain stars are going to tell us what time of year we could go hunting for a certain animal or go fetching eggs from a type of bird and such,” he explained to Tomorrow by phone.

“We’re nomadic in our culture, we move along the land with the seasons, so it’s part of our culture to move where the season is going to determine us to go next.

We don’t exactly have days in the month as such, it’s more dry season’s coming, wet season’s coming and such. When we know those seasons are coming, we are preparing ourselves for them. So that’s why we would move to different locations where it would be suited for us to survive.

“The way that we approach the cycle is determining where we are going to be living, in particular areas. We might not even stay within our own country – we might go into another Aboriginal country with their permission.

“It’s all about preparation in our culture – we’re always preparing ourselves for changes. That’s how we learn from past events.”

When 20 countries in the world cycle back to the annual minute of silence for the victims of the Rwanda genocide, it is not intended to be just 60 seconds. The title of the globally approved day is “International Day of Reflection”.

Even then, it’s not just a question of the length of time you intend to consider a subject, possibly in silence, but what you’re used to.

Steve Orfield said the anechoic chamber and silence generally has different effects on people.

“For example,” he said, “if you’re a person who goes to church and you go to a large church and if that’s habitual, then fairly quickly after you sit down you begin to have the experience of that kind of silence. If you’re a meditator, within five or 10 minutes you could be in a meditative state.

“It has a lot to do with whether you’re trying to move toward it or whether you’re trying to fight it. So many people are trying to fight it. So many people cannot tolerate silence because they’re so addicted to noise.”

The Evelyn Underhill Day of Quiet Reflection is meant to creating a mini experience of the monastic lifestyle, once so common, said Kathleen Staudt.

It’s about entering the silence that’s waiting for you,” she explained. “It’s not about what you’re not doing, it’s about what you’re making yourself available to. It’s not that you’re not speaking to each other, though you’re not, it’s that you’re making yourself available to something greater than each other, but that each other is experiencing.”

Prof Steven Brown said silences can have a completeness that can become dismissive – silence marked, let’s move on. But memory doesn’t work like that.

“By its very nature, [a moment of silence] emphasises that there’ll be a start and there’ll be a conclusion to that particular bit of our reflection,” he said. “And that’s very different to saying, ‘Well, this is something actually where we need to treat this as an ongoing matter of reflection’.

In saying that we shouldn’t use silence, that’s not saying that we shouldn’t be respectful or we shouldn’t commemorate at all. It’s that when we think about how we commemorate, it’s a live, ongoing problem.

“That’s what commemoration means, to see the past as not something that’s sorted out, but something we need to keep thinking about in the present. Exploring the possibilities of practices or monumental forms that say to us, ‘This isn’t done, you need to keep thinking about this’ really is the most respectful position to adopt with that.”

Kari Watkins in Oklahoma said the museum, memorials, marathons and all the other activities are meant not just to look back to the past, but to understand the impact and senselessness of violence. There is “job to do” to remember the past and ensure the memorial space remains relevant to future generations.

“Silence is so rare,” she told Tomorrow. “Just think about how bombarded we are with messaging today. And silence is so rare that I think people are amazed that we can do it.

[Tweet “”And silence is so rare that I think people are amazed that we can do it.””]

“The anniversary doesn’t really surprise me as much as the marathon – you’ve got 25,000 runners who have spent six or eight months being prepared for it and they stop and pause and you watch them do that and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh’. And then you get their emails or their notes saying that the 168 seconds of silence is one of the most powerful things [they’ve] ever done.

“When you’re on that stage and you look across the faces that have lost so much, that 168 seconds is a long time.

“When you hear their names called and you see the pain still on their faces 20 years [on], even though they may have moved on and done remarkable things in the past two decades or been a great help to the community to rebuild, that loss is still there.

“No silence, no void, no action is going to take away that loss. It’s so personal to so many, you realise that, how I interpret it and how you may interpret it will be two different things.”


  2. Report of first anniversary.
  3. United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/58/234, without a vote, on December 23, 2003. UN page for International Day of Reflection.
  4. Two minutes was marked a week after the attack in 2005 and in 2006 and one minute two days after the attack and in 2013.
  5. Madrid anniversary.
  6. Hiroshima and Warsaw memorials.
  7. Democrats introduced the Veterans Day Moment of Silence Act to the House for two minutes silence at  2.11pm Eastern on November 11, and the Senate for two minutes silence at 3pm on Memorial Day. The House version made it to sub-committee stage.
  9. BBC backgrounder on silence origins, referenced by the Imperial War Museum.
  10. Prof Steven Brown university profile.
  11. Manchester United statement from 2008.
  13. and
  15. The original petition can be found here and in a statement after the moment of silence was imposed, Ms Guenther wrote that silence was “Very fitting considering that a moment of silence is used as a gesture of respect, particularly in mourning for those who have died recently, or as part of a tragic historical event. The loss of our Canadian heritage of 133 years is a tragic historical event; and at least at every Council meeting it will be given the respect it deserves.”
  17. Underhill, Evelyn, “Worship”, James Nisbet and Co Ltd, first published 1936, p83-84.
  18. Ibid p311.
  20.  UNSW indigenous astronomy team.

Philadelphia Immigration Court: Where numbers rule

US Court House in Philadelphia

The United States Court House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the Immigration Court for the city sits. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

I-130, I-210, I-212, I-213, I-589, I-601, I-751, a 245 with a 24H waiver, a 42B.

“We do everything by numbers,” Judge Rosalind K Malloy explains to a immigrant without a lawyer and how she needs her “alien number” at all times.

In Judge Malloy’s courtroom #2 of the Philadelphia Immigration Court, individual hearing slots are as far away as 2016 as files of paperwork two, three, four or more inches thick travel by mail trolley back and forth from the US government and the small rooms.

One of Judge Malloy’s colleagues, Judge Miriam K Mills, is off ill for the month of February adding to further delays and a backlog of thousands of cases in Philadelphia, a fraction of the nation’s 400,000 “aliens”.

Natally Natisha Harry-Lovelace, the only one of the “pro says” to turn up in the Robert Nix Federal Building Courthouse on February 10, 2015, meaning she has no lawyer, is patiently told to take a white form, a green and a blue from the table.

She is from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where the language is English, but the government forms state her language is “unknown”.

“I don’t believe this,” states Judge Malloy.1

The veteran immigration judge says the white form lists recognised immigration lawyers, firms and agencies, the green is to give the attorney when selected, and the blue is the all-important change-of-address form.

“If you hire a lawyer from out of state,” continues Judge Malloy, “which a lot of people do, just know you will have to pay their transportation fees, you pay for their hotel, for their meals.

“I would urge you to get a local attorney but you can hire anyone you want.

“Whenever you move, even if you stay in the same building and change your apartment, you use that form to do it.

“Do you know what it means by your alien number? Every document you receive from the court will have your name and your A-number.

[Tweet “”Do you know what it means by your alien number?””]”I have gone through this so quickly. Have I missed something? I’m going to continue your case in order for you to find a lawyer. I will put this on for July 28, 2015. Do everything possible to get an attorney by that time.

“The US government says you are here illegally and should be removed. A lot of people don’t understand that. There are applications that will allow you to stay in the United States.

“If you don’t come here on that date, I can order you removed on that date.”

Judge Malloy also adds a warning to Ms Harry-Lovelace to avoid individuals who pretend to be immigration lawyers because “their clients end up in a lot of trouble”.


Justice’s delays

A “victim” of another lawyer is luckier later that brisk Tuesday morning.

Silvestros Jonaitis, originally from Lithuania, was one of those helped by David Lynn, who made millions as head of an asylum fraud conspiracy and was jailed for just 40 months.2

Mr Jonaitis’s case has been going since 2004 and gets delayed twice just on February 10 when first the client is missing, then the lawyer has to go to another court building, then returns but wants to speak to a different government representative, Charles Ireland.

Is justice balanced?

Is justice balanced? Illustration by artist in residence Jason Skinner.

“This is a case where a 589 clearly involved fraud,” says Mr Ireland, adding that there is a question of whether Mr Jonaitis was a “victim or complicit”.

The man has two children in the US, has not been arrested since he entered, pays his taxes.

But there is “no way he could not have know what was going on, speaking English, having worked on a cruise ship”.

“If you choose to grant that waiver, I would not appeal your decision in that regard,” he says.

Judge Malloy says: “I agree with the government. I believe everyone working with David knew what was going on.

“I believe the equities outweigh the behaviour so it [the case] ends today.

“I don’t buy that people didn’t know.”

The I-212 waiver was granted.3


Language barriers and ‘Good luck’

Philadelphia, though it was then the fourth largest US city, only got its own immigration court in 1996 and judges traveled to Pittsburg, but not in the winter months.

Now the court’s four judges – or three currently – can have slow days or one January session with 104 juveniles in front of Judge Steven A Morley. Each judge has a “master calendar” on a different day of the week. It is effectively the arraignments where cases can be concluded or kicked into the long borders grass to accommodate missing paperwork, or simply missing “aliens”, or a lawyer who slipped outside the building and was badly injured.

At the end of the morning on February 10, Judge Malloy deals with the in absentias. One has seen his notice to appear returned for the second time as the wrong address. The court can issue an in absentia order but Judge Malloy points out that without a proper address, “I can send 100 in absentia orders but they will just come back to the court”.

Bill Lore, for the government, offers to do a bit of investigation using the individual’s social security number and other details in the case file in hopes of finding a correct address to be able to serve a notice to turn up and then take the case forward.

The next case does have a change of address form – for Mongolia. The woman has moved to the capital, Ulan Bator, and Judge Malloy recommends an “admin close” but because of a detail involving the woman’s husband seeking protection from her, the woman is instead ordered “removed from the United States”.

One man has volunteered to return home.

Alberto Tellez-Beristain, through his lawyer, says he will go back to Mexico and Judge Malloy warns him, repeatedly, that this is final. He is sent away to consult with his lawyer and returns later in the morning.

“I will give you the maximum amount of time that the law allows, that’s 120 days, which means you must leave the US on or before June 10, 2015,” she instructs Mr Tellez-Beristain.

“If you do not leave, this voluntary departure order will automatically convert to a removal order.

“For 10 years, you would not be able to receive certain immigration benefits and those benefits include cancellation of removal, adjustment of status, voluntary departure or any other form of relief. You would also be subject to paying fines of up to $5000. You are willing to leave on or before June 10?”

Mr Tellez-Beristain confirms he understands.

[Tweet “”If you do not leave, this voluntary departure order will automatically convert to a removal order.””]Judge Malloy continues: “I’m uncomfortable doing this without the government having a file. Are you aware someone paid $11,000 to have you release from York? [detention facility]”

Mr Lore, who is normally based at York, says he will accept the representations of Mr Tellez-Beristain’s lawyer. His client confirms he has a valid passport and will be able to purchase his own departure ticket. He has one DUI from his time in the US.

But the procedure doesn’t end there. Judge Malloy has written “I-210″ at the bottom of a form for Mr Tellez-Beristain.

“This is the name of a form that you must take with you to Mexico,” she explains through an interpreter. “Before you leave the United States, you must report to the building with your passport, a bus or airline ticket and this order.

“Make sure they give you this form [I-210]. This form has two important purposes. When you take it with you to Mexico, you will hand it over to an American embassy or consulate, whichever is closer. It’s very important that you turn this over to an embassy or consulate. This will prove you have obeyed the voluntary departure order. You must appear in person and produce the form.

“They will also notify the Department of Treasury and then the officials there will return the $11,000 to the person who posted it for you.

“You understand everything?

“These proceedings are concluded. Good luck to you.”



No relevant issues on principles 2, 3, 4, 6, 9 or 10.

1. Freedom of expression: Open courts can be openly reported in the absence of specific orders on particular cases. There were no such orders in these cases and so Tomorrow asserts its freedom to report the proceedings.
5. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent: In this case, the complacent are the public and media who do not normally observe many courts, particularly those relating to immigration. While many going through such systems may have been afflicted in their original home countries, those details were not part of these court proceedings and coverage of the proceedings should be according to the principle of open justice (#7) first.
7. Justice must be seen to be done: Most members of the public never attend court hearings as observers. While reporters can, in practice, represent the public, they also may rarely attend certain types of courts or cases. Statistics about the courts offer little information about the mechanisms of these courts and so open justice requires at least periodic observation by outsiders.
8. Be a safe harbour for the public and staff: Similar to #5, no details were led of potential risk to those individuals going through the immigration court system on this date. Court reporting must maintain a certain distance from what consequences of reporting might exist in the future, to ensure that justice is seen to be done.
11. Promote responsible debate and mediation: How do you think the immigration court system works? Have you ever attended a hearing as an observer or as an immigrant yourself? How should the media best ensure scrutiny of the system?

  1. Reports on the Philadelphia judges can be found through the TRAC project at
  3. A list of many of the forms can be found at with the I-210 at

Pointing fingers: Part 1 – ‘Find out who is to blame’

Pointing Fingers

Pointing Fingers, by artist in residence Jason Skinner. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

TYPE “who is to blame” into the world’s dominant search engine and there are 32.7 million results. The word “blame” comes up 26.3 million times in the Google News filter.1

One of the world’s most visited news websites,, has 155,000 articles with “who is to blame”, amidst more than 1 million uses of the word blame.2

It is now a leading part of news and opinion, and a top question from the public: who is to blame. But is there always some one person responsible? And are responsibility, accountability and blame interchangeable? Is the media at fault for the trend? The public? Or lawyers?

While recent research in Australia found the media driving a lust for blame, Tomorrow finds a close, even circular interweaving of the public, media and justice systems, and asks if there is a way to break free from the “blame game”.


Four years ago, in December 2010 and into January 2011, devastating flooding in the state of Queensland, Australia, left 35 people dead, more than 200,000 people across 70 communities affected, scores made homeless and $13 billion (AUD) in damage to the economy.

As well as unprecedented rainfall, the destruction was made worse by releasing water from the Wivenhoe Dam, held back initially because of severe drought in the state.

The dam and its procedures was one of the main focuses of the 266-page interim report of the Queensland Flood Commission of Inquiry3, released on August 1, 2011. It included recommendations before the 2011-12 wet season. The 658-page final report on March 16, 2012, looked at land development and how that contributed to the severity of the damage.

Dr Jacqui Ewart and Dr Hamish McLean, both of Griffith University’s school of humanities and members of the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, analysed coverage in national newspaper The Australian and regional paper The Courier-Mail, both owned by News Corp Australia.

In “Ducking for cover in the ‘blame game'”, published in the journal Disasters, researchers used definitions of “news frames” on what is selected, emphasised and left out by reports.4 They then looked at the 29 news, features and opinion articles across both papers on the interim report, and 21 on the final report.

Based on how far forward in the newspapers the articles appeared and the language used, researchers concluded that both news outlets focused on the failure by the reports to find someone to blame.

The researchers stated: “The problem with framing the story of the release of the reports and their findings using the lens of failure, as well as the associated quest to lay blame, is that ultimately this shapes public memory of the disaster. . .  The Australian helped to mould the cultural memory of this event as a tragedy with few, if any, ways of preventing a similar catastrophic reoccurrence. The Courier-Mail’s readership may have perceived its coverage of the two reports differently because of its consistent focus on the frames of failure and reform.”5

The study considered possible drivers for the blame game, such as those in the political world seeking to “deflect, deflate or diffuse” blame during negative events.6 But blame could also be driven by the understandable emotions of individuals affected by tragedies, and by the media creating “hypes” about victims and villains.

The Australian carried out investigative reporting prior to the interim report, which then addressed questions of failures of the SMS emergency alert system and the dam’s operating manual.

In an editorial, the paper then summarised the interim report, which did not assign blame, by asking who was to blame:

“Another crucial finding of the report was that Wivenhoe Dam’s flood engineers breached their operating manual by failing to take forecast rainfall information into account when they were determining the volume and timing of water releases from the dam at a critical stage. That finding, and the question of who bears responsibility for it, opens the door to potential damages against the state as the legal indemnity for the dam’s operators, SEQWater, relies on the manual being followed.”

The Courier-Mail in an editorial stated: “Anyone looking for scalps would have been disappointed. So, too, anyone looking to score political points.” And even though it acknowledged the report did not assign blame, it still called for “penalties” against “deliberate failure to perform”.7

By the time of the final report, The Australian made the focus a legal one with hopes for compensation claims. The Courier-Mail focused on the recommendations for reform, while still seeking who was to blame.

The researchers said it was rare for blame not to be assigned after disasters and concluded that The Australian may have found it “more interesting and newsworthy” to highlight the conflict and drama of the inquiry rather than the 177 recommendations about planning development, management and other issues.

The authors stated: “While the quest of The Courier-Mail and The Australian to reveal who was to blame could be viewed by some as a relatively exceptional example of the media fulfilling its fourth-estate role, the focus on seeking who is to blame for a disaster may not be especially useful or productive as it precludes public discussion of why a disaster occurred and, more importantly, how to prevent an event of similar magnitude occurring in the future.”8

Dr Jacqui Ewart

Dr Jacqui Ewart, of Griffith University’s school of humanities and members of the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance.

A former regional reporter herself, Dr Ewart, speaking to Tomorrow by phone, admitted that freedom of the press ensures newspapers can make subjective word choice. But she said analysing those professional judgements considers whether reporters and editors could have created something different.

“What does their word choice actually do in terms of how they get their message across to the people who are reading those stories?” she asked.

“And certainly in this case, the story was really framed in the kind of language used by The Australian [that] was very much around issues of trying to find somebody to blame.”

The most recent update on progress made on the 177 inquiry recommendations was released in October 2014 and has yet to be reported by either paper or other media outlets, two months on.9

Journalism requires active instead of passive voices and grammar, and technology such as search engine optimisation forces media to use similar language for events, such as “blame” and “victim”.

Dr Ewart said: “You have to have the doer, the action and the subject. It does tend to make people demand for action on something, instead of the ability to step back and say, ‘Ok, we’ve had this event, how do we prevent that in the future’ because that is a very passive way of speaking and of writing.

“If we think about news values, conflict is always going to be the primary news value in a story like this. A story about disaster is about conflict, which is where you get to this blame. Perhaps we also need to rethink those news values. Is the conflict the thing that we need to be focusing on, or is the resolution the thing that we need to be focusing on?

[Tweet “‘A story about disaster is about conflict, which is where you get to this blame.'”]“If you look through studies about how much focus there is in news media on conflict versus how much focus there is on resolution, the stats show that it’s conflict that wins out every time and resolution, quite rarely, gets a primary spot within the news media as a story.”

Dr Ewart, who said she prefers the term “people who are affected by disasters”, argued that referring to people as victims will “victimise people who don’t necessarily see themselves as victims”.

“It’s almost a closed loop in some ways,” she continued, “because you then get communities going, ‘We’re being victimised by someone, someone must be to blame, come on media, find out who is to blame for this’.

“Perhaps journalists thinking about the way they talk about people who have been involved in these events is another important factor here.”

‘It’s understandable, but it’s very shallow’

Tomorrow reached out to both The Australian and Courier-Mail on December 16 for any response to the research and the subject of blame. Nobody from the papers or parent company News Corp Australia has stepped forward.

Craig Brown is a reporter for The Scotsman newspaper10 and said blame is not something he particularly thinks about assigning – it’s merely something that raises itself.

I don’t think there is always blame to be had in a news story,” he said. “There are natural disasters and events that nobody could have predicted – lessons may be learned, but not necessarily blame attached.

“But if there is an element of blame within a story it will be grabbed with both hands. As a journalistic trope it gives a story a powerful, straightforward top-line and narrative: event, blame, scandal, reaction, and, if any, an outcome.

“Certainly, when it does start pointing the finger, the press is conforming to, and satisfying, public expectation: somebody must be held to account. Things can’t ‘just happen’.

“Social media is really just a new way of letting the press doing the same thing it always has for ‘blame’ stories: it provides instant outrage and angry quotes, usually pointing a finger at somebody, for newspapers to build a story on.”

Mr Brown said the difference between “blame” and “responsibility” is a philosophical question, not one for journalism.

“Accountability and responsibility are, by all accounts, the same thing,” he explained. “If you are accountable then you are responsible; if you are responsible then you are accountable. It follows then that the person who has these things is the one who will, inevitably, be blamed.

“It’s why politicians and campaigners love to call on government ministers to resign because it signposts ‘blame’ clearly for the press: this person is in the firing line and must be held to account.

“In court, you report the case as it was presented. If, such as in the case of child deaths, there are wider societal causes raised by campaigners or whomever, I would look upon that as either a second element to the story, certainly not as a leading line or maybe as a side-bar.

“If there are strong quotes or a contentious view that attempts to lay blame on a wider societal problem, it’s a follow-up story. The hard and fast facts of a case trump the broader societal considerations to which there are no easy or straight forward answers.”

Victor Pickard, author of America’s Battle For Media Democracy and assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania,11 said media ownership is a factor in how news organisations report. And non-profit media can be more accountable to the communities they serve, whereas newer commercial outlets are finding more ways to harvest information to sell to advertisers.

“Ideally journalism would provide a public service by providing context for complex social issues in ways that get at the structural roots of the problem instead of sensationalising them,” he said by email. “Ascribing blame can be productive if it is done responsibly, and in a way that empowers the public with information that could lead to constructive action. In other words, the story should include a ‘what is to be done’ element that treats audiences as active agents within a democratic polity and not simply passive consumers of news products.

“Although there is a grain of truth that media try to ‘give people what they want’, it is probably more accurate to say that often they are more concerned with giving advertisers what they want.

“Commercial media help condition our tastes by providing us with some kinds of media and not others so that we are not exposed to alternatives.

“Ultimately, for-profit media are just that – profit-seeking institutions that are more concerned with making money than informing society.”

[Tweet “‘For-profit media . . . are more concerned with making money than informing society.'”]Albie Sachs is a retired justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa12 and survived his car being blown up by South African security forces while he was in exile in Mozambique in 1989 as a leading anti-apartheid campaigner. He worked to put together the country’s new constitution, now 20 years old, and his attackers went in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Albie Sachs

Albie Sachs, former justice of the South Africa Constitutional Court, at a symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, Scotland. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Speaking to Tomorrow in Glasgow before a talk on the art and architecture of the Constitutional Court,13 he said newsworthiness of disasters and big events is actually trivialising them.

“What I’ve noticed that when disaster hits,” he said, “the media look for someone to blame and they look for heroic survivors.

“And in a sense, by reducing the epic nature of disaster to the scale of individuals at both ends, it becomes both more manageable psychologically and more interesting, because of the detail involved. And I think it’s understandable, but I feel it’s very shallow.

“And I feel it’s become almost predictable and routine. So now, whenever there’s a mudslide or an earthquake, I’m waiting for the baby who survived, the person who is trapped for 36 hours who got through. And then I feel rotten with myself that I’m becoming cynical.

“I’ve been a survivor myself. But there’s something in that routine search for points of light that I find needs to be contested, and that maybe there are deeper, more meaningful ways of responding to disasters and calamities. I’m not even quite sure what they are.”

So is the public leading the media? Or vice versa?

Dr Ewart admitted that a loop of media influencing the public and the public leading reporters has evolved, and that this requires change on both sides.

She said: “Part of that being resilient as a community is not to feel like you’re a victim and to feel like, ‘Ok, something has happened, now where do we go, how do we rebuild, how do we prepare for the next event’. It would be great if members of the public would think more critically about the way the media covers this story, but not to get into this loop of going, ‘Ok, we’re victims, who’s to blame for this’.

“And we need to encourage the media to talk about what are governments doing, what are departments doing to make sure this kind of thing either doesn’t happen again in terms of the extent of damage, or we somehow manage to put things in place so that the extent of the damage is as limited as it can be in some of these disasters.”

Moving beyond the victim

Dr Chris Sarra knows as much as anyone in Queensland how bad the floods were. His mum was evacuated from the back steps of her house in the early hours of the morning. But he is also familiar with the tendency for pointing fingers, cautioning against blame in his capacity as founder and chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute14 and the blame apportioned by white Australia against Aborigine communities, and within those communities themselves.

“Once the raw emotion dies down and the initial shock of the tragedy or what have you, there seems to be this phenomenon where we look for someone to blame, which I find a little bit bizarre,” he said by phone. “The floods were no different. Once the emotion and people have gotten past the initial trauma of the catastrophe or the shock, then there is this observable kind of search for somebody to blame.

“If you look at the Aboriginal context, the notion of blame is a dynamic that works for people. For white Australia, if they can blame Aborigines for the toxic circumstances in which we find ourselves today, then that means that they’re not culpable for anything. So it works in the sense that it enables them to abrogate their own responsibility for creating the toxicity that exists in our relationship.

“And from an Aboriginal perspective, embracing victim status or sinking-the-boot-type status works for some Aboriginal people who choose to engage in that kind of behaviour, because it attracts the attention of corporate and political masters.

[Tweet “‘The notion of blame is a dynamic that works for people.'”]”And so we’ve seen Aboriginal people who get handsomely rewarded for sinking the boot into their own people and booting or blaming the victim. And their political and corporate masters of white Australia are attracted to that because it lets them off the hook as well.

“Sometimes I think there are circumstances where our clinging to the need to blame somebody else can sometimes stifle our own capacity or our own ability to reflect on our own sense of agency.

“That tendency to cling to victim status, or blaming somebody else for the circumstance we find ourself in, can ultimately be inhibiting and ultimately stop us from being the best that we can be if we let such negative circumstances define who we are.”

Dr Sarra said the approach from his institute is about rejecting a victim status and for Australian societies to reflect on how blame has been used.

“And I suspect,” he continued, “a solution lies in articulating how we ask the question, in order to avoid such circumstances recurring, as opposed to asking the question so that we can feel good about having somebody to blame.

“It may well be that when we ask the questions, that there are rightful consequences, but it may well be the case that when we ask the questions, we find that these are just tragic circumstances that have happened.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, said Dr Sarra, was the only way for South Africa to move forward, and Australia needs a similar level of honesty and transparency. Even if Aboriginal Australia is finally recognised in the country’s constitution – as has been proposed again this month by PM Tony Abbott15 – white Australia will need to “flush out” its own despicable behaviour over the past two centuries.

The need to blame and to embrace victim status, both of which are sometimes justified, said Dr Sarra, ultimately don’t serve a positive purpose in the long time.

“And so we’ve got to find ways to transcend that so that we can make our individual lives more purposeful,” he said. “In terms of the day-to-day rhythmics of time, that really stinks that we have to do that. In a natural world, you just want justice to prevail for Aboriginal people as it does for everybody.

“But we are confronted by the reality, with historical form if you like, that that just isn’t the case. That we’re not afforded justice in the way that white Australians are. And so yes, that’s wrong, but trying to do something about it, in a day-to-day sense, could end up doing us more harm than good.”

Are we pointing fingers simply because we’re mad at someone? Would transparency free us from the blame cycle?

Part 2 – A ‘place to hide out’

  1. Screenshot of Google search from December 22, 2014.
  2. Screenshots of Guardian search from December 22, 2014 for blame and “who is to blame”.
  3. Commission of Inquiry website with links to all reports.
  4. Ewart, J. and McLean, H. (2015), Ducking for cover in the ‘blame game’: news framing of the findings of two reports into the 2010–11 Queensland floods. Disasters, 39: 166–184. doi: 10.1111/disa.12093. Download the paper. Dr Ewart on Twitter.
  5. “Ducking for cover”, p17.
  6. “Ducking for cover”, p3.
  7. Courier-Mail editorial, published August 2, 2011, p20, as cited in “Ducking for cover”.
  8. “Ducking for cover”, p16.
  9. Queensland government update from October 2014, tabled in November. Tomorrow has not been able to find any coverage of the update in The Australian, Courier-Mail or other major news outlets.
  10. Craig Brown on Twitter.
  11. University of Pennsylvania department profile. Website and Prof Pickard on Twitter.
  12. Constitutional Court of South Africa profile of Justice Albie Sachs.
  13. CCA symposium programme in Glasgow.
  14. Institute website and Dr Sarra on Twitter.
  15. Proposal for referendum in 2017 on constitutional change, reported by the BBC.

Pointing fingers: Part 2 – A ‘place to hide out’

Assigning Guilt

Assigning Guilt, by artist in residence Jason Skinner. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

JENNIFER THOMPSON was a 22-year-old North Carolina student when she was attacked in her home and violently raped in 1984. Since then, she has seen a man accused, convicted twice and, after more than 10 years, freed after DNA revealed that, in good faith, she identified the wrong man.

She and that man, Ronald Cotton have learned how human memory and a flawed US justice system led to the mistake, and written the New York Times bestseller Picking Cotton about the redemption.1

Speaking to Tomorrow by phone from her home, Ms Thompson is unequivocal about the damage of blame.

“The big thing is just trying to explain to people that blame is so counterproductive,” she said. “At the end of the day it doesn’t add any value, it doesn’t give us what we want, it doesn’t create change.

“It causes people to bury deeper down and hunker down and defend themselves, and it just doesn’t create collaboration, it doesn’t create partnerships, it doesn’t create anything that we really need, that could potentially inform us and educate us and create change. It’s a human condition that we need to be really very acutely aware of and guard against it.

“Human beings have this gut reaction to find somebody that we have to blame, somebody has to be responsible, somebody has to be held accountable. And sometimes the answer to that is not a single human being that’s responsible or to blame.”

Ms Thompson has spent more than a decade speaking to audiences from high schools to federal judges about the systemic problems that lead to wrongful convictions. And her conclusion is that the responsibility lies on everyone’s shoulders.

She does some work within prisons, talking to inmates about why they ended up there. All accept responsibility for their crimes, but by “omission or commission”, society has to carry some of the weight instead of just pointing fingers at others.

Jennifer Thompson

Jennifer Thompson, co-author of Picking Cotton.

“When you listen to their stories,” she explained, “and you sit down and break down who they were as children and where the failure was and how they ended up incarcerated at the age of 18, 19, 20 years old, for me I really start struggling with how easy it is for us as a culture, as a society, to wait to the end game and then say, ‘Alright, mistake, let’s lock him up and throw away the key and for the rest of their lives’, where it would have been, on some level, easier if we had started when these children were three or four years old and society was failing them in school and failing them in healthcare and failing them in the community, failing their families.

“There’s a chance we could have saved them at that point. We could have turned their lives around. But that becomes part of society’s ignoring and not being responsible and responding to issues of poverty or inner city violence or racism or whatever it is that is occurring. For some reason it’s easier for us to ignore, wait ’til the end and then lock these people up.”

‘No-one, even lawyers, likes to see a crime go unpunished’

The public and the media, quite rightly, always want a perpetrator to be identified and punished,” said Greg Curtain, a senior counsel solicitor in Sydney, Australia.2 When he compares how the justice system and media look at judgements, there can be an over-dramatising or over-simplifying that creates an image of judges being “soft on crime”.

The justice system deals with events objectively in a way that non-lawyers might not fully understand, and so it fails to meet a public emotional response, he said.

“Unfortunately,” he explained, “not every perpetrator is caught, or proved to be guilty, because the criminal justice system requires proof beyond reasonable doubt (preferring some perpetrators to go free rather than some innocent people being punished if a lower standard of proof was required).

“No-one, even lawyers, likes to see a crime go unpunished, but it is unsatisfying on an emotional, human level. Thus, when the public/media see a trial for a horrendous crime, and yet the accused be judged “not guilty” (and there being no other suspect) there can be an unsatisfying reaction to the criminal justice system as it is (wrongly) perceived to be allowing a perpetrator go free, or a convicted accused too lightly punished (in the eyes of the public/media).

“This arises, at least partly, because the public does not see and hear all of the evidence, and the media is complicit in that it doesn’t report all of the evidence (particularly that which favours the accused).”

Return to Part 1 – ‘Find out who is to blame’

In the cases of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York, where grand juries decided not to seek indictments against white police officers, and similarly the podcast Serial about a possibly wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed,3 society says that the court answered the question of guilt incorrectly – “the law is an ass, as it were”, explains Barbara Fried, William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law at Stanford University.4

“Obviously there’s anger about wider societal injustices of which this is just a small part. But the triggering event and the core of it is the law got the law wrong,” she said.

Prof Fried said a central problem is not that the public can’t understand complex arguments or events, but that they must rely on intermediaries to process and present all the relevant information. She used the example of the early debate over what was dubbed Obamacare and the Republican charge that “death panels” would be set up for “grandma”, where politicians don’t feel they can take nuanced views of moral responsibility and instead reduce the debate to either-or and us-them arguments. And while for their part the media don’t ask the right questions, philosophers don’t deal with the realities of policy either.

She said: “A jury gets a lot of relevant facts; but if we’re talking about policy determinations, like incarceration, the average citizen, indeed almost all citizens, lack relevant facts to make a judgement that would be common sensical from their own standpoint.

“And therefore they are held hostage to intermediaries who frame these issues, whether it’s the press or philosophers or politicians. All three groups have not done as responsible a job as they could have in guiding people’s intuitive responses in these situations.

[Tweet “‘They are held hostage to intermediaries, whether it’s the press or philosophers or politicians.'”]”We’ve got politicians on one hand, in this country at least, who over the last three, four decades, have reduced the whole issue of crime to a soundbite – ‘You’re either for us or you’re against us’ – and tied it to a kind of atavistic response, that ‘You did the crime, you do the time’.

“And the question is, who’s going to save people from that simplistic version of what they’re getting from political discourse? I think the media has an incredibly important role to play in this, but generally doesn’t play it. Generally it just feeds the flames of political rhetoric. Is it impossible? Is it intractable? I don’t think so – I really don’t. But maybe I’m wildly optimistic here.”

She added: “If I would hope for anything from the intermediaries who are going to translate all of these issues for the general public, it would be to focus not just on the story right in front of them, but to get them to think seriously about what the consequences would be of acting differently.”

The moral question of blame

In an example used by Prof Fried,5 there is an example of a bus driver who hits a child who darted in front of the vehicle. There was nothing the driver could have done differently. But are they still morally responsible for the death?

The philosophical concept of “moral luck” says that they are. But the counter argument is that otherwise nobody would be held responsible for any actions because there were factors beyond their control.

“If the answer is, ‘We think they should do exactly what they did’, then I do not understand what people mean when they say they are nonetheless morally responsible for having done it, unless it is just a statement of, ‘We’re still mad at them. The bus driver ran over a kid, we’re still mad at them.'” said Prof Fried.

“Maybe it’s a powerful emotional response we have, but what is its moral content? How is it morally defensible that we’re mad at people for doing things that we would not have wanted them to do otherwise when they did them.

“There are many good reasons to hold people accountable in one form or another for having murdered somebody, whether we think they are morally responsible for them in a strong sense, but the reasons are all utilitarian, both to specific deterrents by incapacitating people who we think are very dangerous, general deterrents, rehabilitations [and] a number of other motivations.”

Prof Fried said that the law takes a more limited interest in questions of whether someone is morally responsible for a crime. “Blame” isn’t separate from responsibility for a “bad act”.

“Questions of blame underlie the structure of the law,” she explained. “But it’s concerned about whether someone acted wrongfully, and if so, what sorts of punishment are appropriate. Wrongfully has two meanings built into it, or two possible implications.

“Is the act itself one that we wish the person would not have done? Is it transgressive of values we hold dear? And the second is, was the person morally wrong in doing what they did?

“In law, holding somebody responsible can be a synonym for convicting them or, if it’s a civil suit, finding that they’re libel to pay a judgement to the other side. That’s just a statement of the outcome of the case and nothing more.

“We could go further and say, ‘We’re holding you responsible for these actions’, that is, ‘The reason we’re convicting you is because we think you were morally responsible for doing the actions that you did’ and we might generally assume that actions are deliberately taken, etc. And so the finding of moral responsibility follows directly from – in the criminal code at least – a conviction.

“But we sometimes pull them apart and talk about the concept of moral responsibility as blame separately in the law. I think that outside of the law, these terms are never used with precision and it makes it very hard to get a hold of the arguments.”

Prof Fried said the law and legal language has not sufficiently influenced society and philosophy to give clearer definitions about holding somebody accountable for what they did or what happened. Is the person responsible? Should they bare the consequences of their actions, and how?

“I actually think that one lesson that philosophy has to learn from law, or at least an example it might follow, is to try to think about statements like, ‘He’s morally responsible’ in operational terms,” she explained.

“What are we really saying when we say that? What do we expect of him? What are we going to do to him? Be it just blame him at one extreme, throw him to prison for his life at the other extreme? What are the consequences of saying somebody is morally responsible or blameworthy for their actions?”

In the concept of “soft determinism”, explained Prof Fried, saying someone is morally responsible means they are responsible because they could have done otherwise. There are situations where someone might be incapacitated or it would be otherwise impossible for them to have acted differently. And as more is learned about how genetics and upbringing affects individuals, that will further complicate the debate.

“If your instinct is a want to punish people for doing bad things,” she said, “then I think it’s indefensible to do that unless you think in some meaningful sense, they could have done other than they did.

“There’s a long philosophical tradition called compatibilism, which essentially holds otherwise. And it’s the dominant view in philosophy now and I think is, by default the dominant view in society: if you did something you shouldn’t have done, people’s first reaction might be to think, ‘you could have done otherwise’ .

“If you’re going to face up to facts, the reality of the limits on all of our capacity to direct our own lives and our own actions, I think you have to approach the question of blame with skepticism about whether it’s appropriate to assume that people who act wrongly actually had the capacity to do otherwise in a robust, meaningful sense.

“If I would hope anything changes in people’s responses, it would be to say, ‘Okay, what would I have done in this person’s shoes if I were really in their shoes? Could I have controlled my anger? Would I have realistically known about this and that risk? What do we know about people who were brought up in the way this person was brought up? How many people in that situation actually act otherwise when presented these kinds of provocations? How many people’s biological make-up precludes the kinds of responses we would expect of them?

“I think coming at that question with healthy empirical skepticism would be a really good thing and would tone down the kind of cheap moralism that infects a lot of areas of public policy and get people to think more realistically about what we can expect from each other and how we can help produce it in people who really don’t seem very capable of doing the right thing right now.”

You started it! No you!

From media to public to lawyers, from public to media to lawyers, from the law to the public to the media – is it a closed circle without escape?

“I think that’s a really interesting question,” said Jennifer Thompson. “When you look at Ferguson right now, the people want someone to be held accountable. The media comes to that and says, ‘Gosh, this creates a really great media story’ and I think it does follow each other.

“The media plays on, whether you want to call it a witch-hunt, this human need to draw and quarter somebody and it just makes us feel better at the end of the day if we can blame. Because then it takes the responsibility of our our shoulders.

“And this is what I talk about a lot: the responsibility can either be by omission or commission. Whether it’s because voters voted in the wrong district attorney or because voters didn’t let their voices be heard and they didn’t go out and vote. . . there’s all different kinds of human nature issues when we look at this.

“Which came first the chicken or the egg? Does the media incite the community or does the community incite media to come and create some huge story? I don’t know what’s first.”

Dr Jacqui Ewart

Dr Jacqui Ewart, of Griffith University’s school of humanities and members of the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance.

Dr Jacqui Ewart at Griffith University said sometimes media do follow the “noisy voices” tweeting about a subject, rather than those sitting quietly at home.

“People who are more rational and level in their discussion and debate won’t be going on Twitter to be a noisy voice,” she said. “So it’s things that aren’t being said that are just as important as the things that are being said, and I think journalists forget that.

“Sometimes it will be an agenda that a particular news media organisation has, and we’ve certainly seen that in recent months in Australia.

“You can’t really say it’s the chicken or the egg – sometimes it’s the chicken and sometimes it’s the egg that came first.”

Ms Thompson said the media can do a very poor job, particularly on criminal justice, crying out “Why’d you do it?” to the person in court in handcuffs and an orange jump suit. And the television audience automatically think, “Well gosh, they’ve arrested him, he must be guilty.”

But one particular problem with blame, of an individual or perhaps an entire district attorney’s office, is to force one or many people into self-protection mode, she said. It’s natural to defend yourself.

Since Ronald Cotton was exonerated, the media has sometimes referred to Ms Thompson as “the victim who falsely identified” the man responsible, implying it was in some way malicious. Would someone step forward to admit a mistake if they knew they would get blamed?

“Responsibility is different,” said Ms Thompson. “If a person feels that they can be truthful and transparent and they’re not going to be bludgeoned and drawn and quartered and burned at the stake, then it creates a safer and more secure environment for a person to come forward and say, ‘This is where we might have failed, this is where the investigation probably went in the wrong direction, this is something we didn’t have the information at the time or the training at the time but we now realise this is a potential problem. Let’s uncover it, let’s be honest and then let’s learn from it and be better for it’.

“But blame I really think does create this place where we got to go hide out.

“And honestly that’s one of the reasons you will not find many victims and survivors and family members from wrongful convictions doing the work. Because why would you? If you’re going to come forward and. . . people in general, the community, want to burn you in effigy? Why would you ever come forward?

[Tweet “‘If people want to burn you in effigy? Why would you ever come forward?'”]”Knowing what I know now as a survivor of a violent crime and a wrongful conviction, knowing the things that I have had to go up against, I don’t know that I would do it again.

“Because I’ve had death threats, I’ve had people say the most egregious things you can possibly imagine to me, who was almost killed? I was brutally raped and then almost killed? Because I had the audacity of being a human being and making a mistake in my memory and a series of events took place that would encourage me to pick the wrong person out of a line-up because the actual culprit was never there, because I had the audacity of being a human being. And then to come forward and say ‘I’m sorry’. And then to go beyond that and say, ‘Gosh, is there something I can do to help educate and inform about how the memory works and the mistake I made so perhaps other cases across the country can be uncovered and innocent people can be released.

“Because I had the audacity to come forward and be honest. You can not imagine the things that have been said to me.”

But transparency alone won’t solve the cycle of blame, replied Prof Fried, because the public would still rely on intermediaries such as the media and politicians. She gave the example of the process in litigation of one or both parties releasing millions of pages of “relevant” documents in a bid to deter opposing lawyers going through everything.

“The same thing is true with the government,” she said. “Complete transparency about all facts will be useless to people. We need some kind of responsible filter for figuring out what facts are important to communicate to people. It comes back to intermediaries: responsible politicians, responsible press, responsible pundits, responsible academics. We are all the intermediaries in those very, very important ways for people.”

Pointing fingers at human beings

When the public is presented with flawed stories or arguments from those intermediaries, it becomes difficult to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, imagining one’s own actions in similar situations.

Albie Sachs

Albie Sachs, former justice of the South Africa Constitutional Court, at a symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, Scotland. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Albie Sachs, anti-apartheid fighter and former justice of the South Africa Constitutional Court, wondered if the movement he belonged to might have overdone blaming the system alone. But he still considered it better in the long run, “a more fruitful way of making the world better and reducing the amount of cruelty and inhumanity in the world than simply going for people who’ve been responsible for the cruelty”.

Changing culture, values and the way things are done was part of Mr Sachs’ work as a judge.

“In traditional African jurisprudence,” he said, “the idea of restoring the ruptured community, of reintegrating the offender into society is very pronounced. So whole families get involved. To my mind, that’s potentially far more powerful and enriching than advocating, attributing blame to an individual who then gets, in the worst cases, killed, in other cases segregated, locked up.

“Apology plays a bigger role. Things of practical reparation play a bigger role. But of course that came after a finding of guilty based on the normal due process of law, evidential principles. “

“Behind every single one of those stories is a human being. And a family. And there’s loss,” concluded Jennifer Thompson.

“And I think that’s something that we just seem to have forgotten. Behind every single one of those cases, there’s a mother. There’s stories and we don’t seem to want to gather the stories and understand the human beings that are behind them and why they made the decisions they did or why they are where they are.

“We’ve lost that. We really have.”



No relevant issues on principles 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 or 10.

1. Freedom of expression: Published research papers are a matter of public interest and should be reported as such.
3. Independence and accountability, and 6. A duty to openness (jointly under both principles): Reporter Tristan Stewart-Robertson has previously sold freelance stories to and been published by News International papers in the UK, the British arm of News Corp Australia, publishers of The Australian and the Courier-Mail, the two newspapers subject to the research. Tomorrow checked with both researchers on any previous work. Dr Ewart said she had not worked for News Corp Australia in the past. Dr McLean said he had worked for the Daily Sun  from 1986 to 1990 when it was owned by Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp. Tristan is also a shift reporter for the Scotsman newspaper.
11. Promote responsible debate and mediation: How do you attribute blame in your life? Do you feel you do so fairly? Would your take be different if you were presented with different or better information by the media and others?

  1. The book, and further articles about the case from PBS, the Innocence Project and past interviews.
  2. Greg Curtain SC, Level 22 chambers.
  3. The New York Times has all the documents considered by the grand jury in the Michael Brown case  and a limited release of details is available in the Eric Garner case. All episodes of Serial can be found at
  4. Stanford University departmental profile.
  5. This example was used in a Boston Review 2013 feature and responses on the subject of blame.

Shipping containers: 60 years in the box

Camp Bastion

Shipping containers in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, ahead of the draw down by British forces in 2014. Photo taken by Liz Perkins in August 2014. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

ON August 26, 1954, a patent was filed at the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Malcolm P McLean of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.1

Sixty years later, the modern shipping container is everywhere and is responsible for much of the clothing on our backs, the shoes on our feet, the umbrellas over our heads, the furniture in our homes and the digital devices on which you are currently reading this.

Shipping container patent

Cover page of original patent for modern shipping container.

“My present invention relates to water-borne freight movements and more particularly to a means for stowing cargo aboard an otherwise single purpose vessel whereby the pay load of such vessels may be greatly augmented without materially detracting from the primary load carrying capabilities of the vessel,” opens the application.

“Cargo” has included most recently 35 Afghan Sikhs, including children and one man who died, were found in a shipping container in the British port of Tilbury2. “Intermodalism” has changed lives as well as the world.

Containers, defined as 20-foot equivalent unit (or TEU), are mostly 2 TEU, or 40 feet in length (also called FEU). Drewry Maritime Research, which sells data on containers and their contents, said that there were 32.9 million TEU during 2012. The World Shipping Council said 120 million container loads of cargo were transported in 2013.

That’s a long way from the 58 aluminium boxes loaded on to a ship in Newark, New Jersey on April 26, 1956, bound for Houston, Texas. The Ideal-X is credited as the birth of the shipping container, but it took decades to gain the agreements and standardisation across industry and government to make them as dominant as they are 60 years on.

Mr McLean’s efforts became SeaLand Services, followed later by Matson Navigation Company and many others. Not all containers arrive at their destination, with disputes over just how many may be lost at sea, ranging from 350 a year to 10,000. Those can pose significant risks for smaller vessels, many floating just below the surface, but also for the environment, dumping goods on beaches around the globe.

To mark 60 years since the original patent was filed, Tomorrow collected seven voices with very different perspectives on shipping containers and how they have changed the world, and individual lives.

The longshoreman

Gene Vrana, 71, was born in New York City and moved west to start working on the waterfront in San Francisco in 1968. He registered on the longshore workforce in 1969 as a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)3 and became their education director after getting an injury on the docks in 1984. He retired in 2010.

Gene Vrana

Gene Vrana, pictured in the bandana, working on drums cargo at Pier 32, San Francisco, 1980.

“I knew that I wanted to work in the waterfront. I had been drawn to work on or near the sea but also I was drawn to the traditions of the union on the waterfront.

When I was a kid, my father would talk to me occasionally about how being a merchant seaman or working on the docks was an honourable occupation with a militant, proud history. And being around New York City and New England a bit, I just had that sense of the sea and then I started reading and I was drawn to Jack London and, I don’t know, Moby Dick? It’s a combination of life experience and literature growing up that I was predisposed to be working out of doors at a hard, physical occupation that was connected with a certain political legacy that was still dynamic. And I wanted to be part of that.

There was a quick learning curve required because of the hazards on the job. But in terms of how the men – and at that time it was all men – related to each other on the job and how they talked about their lives and their feelings about the union were things that fit.

The first jobs I had in 1968 were as a casual worker – I was in the warehouse division at the ILWU and if there were extra longshore jobs on a given day and you were sitting in the warehouse division hiring hall, you had a shot at those.

I picked up a few of those in ’68 and they were mainly in the East Bay and containerisation was mainly at SeaLand and Matson Navigation – Madison was starting to refit their sugar ships to and from Hawaii to accommodate containers. And SeaLand, which was born on the east coast, was just beginning to take off.

It was Vietnam that pushed it – within two years there was much more construction or reconfiguration of the ports of Oakland and San Francisco to accommodate what, at that time, were mainly 20ft containers.

In many places they were still small enough to use existing docks. But then the terminals, especially in Oakland, which had the acreage, just began to take over and replace the terminals where break bulk or general cargo had been handled. By the end of the Vietnam War – we’re talking essentially about a five-year period – the technology was there and it was changing work rapidly.

Those guys with the lowest seniority by the mid ’70s were getting the lashing jobs on board the container ships, working the new technology on the deck and on the shore to secure or unsecure the containers with lashings and all that. And that took the place of what had been the grunt work of throwing cargo sacks or boxes of apples or whatever.

My generation, the guys that came in in the mid to late ’60s, just saw it change right before our eyes. Not only was the technology changing but the relationships on the job changed because you were no longer working in a gang of eight to 12 guys. You were working maybe two together, or even solitary, dealing with different aspects of either machinery or gear associated with machinery for moving the containers on and off the ship.

With the change in the social aspect, along with the technology, it just felt that the work experience within any day was just not the same.

I worked in a gang that only worked the old general break, bulk cargo up until ’82. Those of us that were in a gang and working with 12 other guys and talking politics and talking family and whatever, had a very different work life than guys who were driving cranes or other container moving technology where they were isolated during the work shift.

A more unpredictable schedule was more common with the container ships. The ships would come in and turn around – and we’re talking now about the ’70s and ’80s – in between 32 and 36 hours, max. The overtime shift occurs on the last shift in order to finish working the ship, getting it ready to sail.

So if they’re sailing with more frequency, the frequency of working late is greater. That kind of thing had more of an effect than on the old fashioned ship that would be in port for 7-8 days and you would go to the same ship and even the same hold of the ship day after day working from 8 ’til 5.

We were the younger guys until the early ’80s when they started bringing some new men and women into the industry. Not only had we been through the 1971 strike, which was the first major strike after 1948, but we also had been involved in the union and the workplace where the steward system, where many of the active union members were. Those who came on board in the late ’70s and [early] ’80s didn’t experience any of that and they were presented with conditions and benefits and wages that were far beyond what any of them had experienced before. They didn’t have any personal connection, because the oldtimers had retired. That’s how they were getting hired, was to replace those that were being retired.

There was a shift in the generations that happened to be concurrent with the technological change, but is also a loss of generations and generational memory that had a lot to do with the change.

I would that say I maintained my pride, partly, working in a gang until the early ’80s, because I wanted to stay working in that older kind of environment, the more socialised environment. That was conscious.

But the other part too was being active in the union. So that later on, when I got injured on the job and I couldn’t continue working on the waterfront, I went back to school and I got a graduate degree in archives management and then I went to work for the international headquarters of the union, running the archive and research library.

Then I became the education director, which was mainly leadership development programmes for the last 15 years that I was there. Part of my intent – and this was with the encouragement and blessing of the officers of the union – was that we had to develop an education programme to overcome the gaps of new people who were not part of the struggle and were no longer coming from families that were steeped in the struggle. There was no longer a passing along from generation to generation of the occupation of being a longshoreman; because of legal reasons in order to achieve diversity on the waterfront, depending on what port you’re talking about, whether it’s by gender or by race, that had to randomise the selection process.

You no longer had from father to son to brother to nephew to son or that kind of chain, which had been the case for several decades. Trying to meet that challenge was what we tried to address in the education process, which I personally found to be really meaningful, to try and find ways to recapture and replicate the values and understanding of the attitudes of the generation that had built the union, so that a new generation, who were stepping up into leadership but often without a compass – a political compass, definitely they had a moral compass – but an organisation sense of how do we achieve this in a democratic but yet militant fashion.

Gene Vrana

Gene Vrana, pictured in the bandana, working on drums cargo at Pier 32, San Francisco, 1980.

I don’t think that there is a deep or concrete sense of connection to how product is created and distributed and the people connected with it. The idea of identifying and preserving the history of the people who did that kind of work on the ship or on the dock was, to me, something that become a sense of a mission.

But I think the connection between who does the work and what kind of work it is that moves those goods is something which is not well understood. There have been some efforts, like the Smithsonian and in some of the Pacific coast maritime museums, to show the kind of work that it takes to operate the crane technology or the intermodal technology to move the container and to get the goods into the container and out of it.

The technology is NOT, in and of itself, an evil thing. There’s a whole strain in the history of the ILWU with coming to terms with containerisation. You had Harry Bridges and those that were in support of him who viewed much of longshore work as being dangerous and backbreaking. And he felt not to romanticise it and that mechanisation, if done properly, could lighten the load on the individual worker and prolong their life and health by doing that.

I don’t know if he could have envisioned what we’re seeing now, which is robotic terminals. But now the issue becomes the longshore workforce doing as much with moving information about the freight as it is moving the freight itself. And are we going to gain jurisdiction over computer maintenance and repair and innovation and implementation of even newer technologies? Or are we just going to be cut away, cut away, cut away, because they don’t need human beings anymore? At least not human beings that come out of the union hall. That’s part of the struggle that’s going on right now.

I’m going on here – for some reason you pushed my buttons.

There’s no such thing as unskilled labour. At any point in the movement of goods, from one place to another, from manufacturer to distribution, from one mode of transport to another, involves a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge for it to be done safely and properly. And it doesn’t matter at what point in the timeline of technological change you point your finger, but at that point, it took a lot of skill to achieve that movement and distribution.

Think about that. Because I think one of the things when people think about whether it’s truckers or dock workers is they think that they’re overpaid and doing something that anybody with any IQ could do.

As long as cargo moves from waterborne ships or devices-not-yet-built to land, longshore workers are going to be essential to do that and their importance to the national and international economy should be understood and respected.

Longshore workers benefit from all forms of international commerce. While we don’t see the product being made here, because so much of it is being produced overseas, everything that goes into the container is made by someone somewhere for somebody’s benefit.

And at some point we need to ask what are the conditions under which people are creating the product, and what’s the consequence of having it produced somewhere else other than the United States, or without the kind of labour standards that are deserved by anybody anywhere who makes those things.”

Vietnam, capitalist utopia and The Wire

Dr Alex Colas is a senior lecturer in international relations at Birkbeck College (University of London)4 and co-hosted “The Ship of Empty Boxes” conference in January5 Amongst the participants was the Delta Arts group connected with co-host Dr Sophie Hope. The event examined imperialism, globalisation, the “social life of things” and the aesthetics of not just shipping containers but the sea on which they travel, and within which they are sometimes lost. The film The Forgotten Space was also shown.


A shipping container in use at Grand Canal Dock, Dublin, Ireland.

“The hidden space is more about the sea itself and the forgotten space is the space of the maritime.

I think it works with reference to containers as something that seems to be taken for granted because it’s just a vehicle, a freight technology that carries stuff. I guess people like the director of the film, The Forgotten Space, and many of us that come from more radical perspectives, want to emphasise that that is just an appearance. Because actually, in the content of those very boxes, are a set of unequal social and international relations between workers and corporations, between the actual seamen that work within the container ships and the captains. And if you prise open the box, try to check its biography, all sorts of unequal social relations come up.


Shipping containers are used for storage for Wakedock, Ireland’s first cable wakeboard park at Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

In a way, that’s a device for thinking through what appears to be a purely neutral and universal exchange – this is just a box that carries stuff – actually then opens up all kinds of other, more complex, social relations. That’s the starting point.

At one level, there’s a very banal and superficial narrative – ok, there’s a technology that we take for granted because it simply met the increasing need for people to trade in goods. Nations like to trade and therefore you invent a technology that facilitates that.

But actually I think it was a much more complicated story. It’s less about the market and less about competition, and it’s much more about water and logistics with relation to Vietnam. It’s much more about banging heads together amongst industry, regulators, amongst politicians, in the US in particular. It’s about international cooperation in creating a standard that eventually became the 20-equivalent unit.

My take on these things is that far from being a result of a natural tendency to truck and barter, actually the container is a consequence – I’m not saying it’s some tidy story – of various political manoeuvres to facilitate trade.

It’s both a box and much more than a box. It just encapsulates a series of political decisions as to how the world should be organised economically and the key was it’s the flattening of space, basically, to put it somewhat abstractly.

The fact that it was SeaLand is telling – the idea you flatten any geographical or physical material realities and you just create a smooth space that can transition from anywhere, from land to sea, but also from anywhere in China to anywhere in the US and anywhere in between.

It’s a smooth vehicle of universal exchange. And that literally is a capitalist utopia. That’s really what an ideal of capitalist markets should be, one where there’s absolutely no interruption to the flow – there’s a constant circulation.

I think this is where is gets difficult because I wouldn’t want to say for a minute that it is exclusively causal – it’s not the reason why there’s globalisation. In many respects the box is a product of globalisation. It’s both a cause and a consequence.

Camp Bastion

Shipping containers in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, ahead of the draw down by British forces in 2014. Photo taken by Liz Perkins in August 2014. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

And I think very clearly in certain junctions, like for example in the Vietnam War, the container plays an important role in facilitating US presence in South East Asia. Now, obviously, US presence in South East Asia isn’t there because of the container, literally. But at a certain juncture the US army and navy had a serious problem of logistics because they simply couldn’t deliver the amount of material that they needed, be it military or support of their military operation there. And then the container becomes a way of solving that.

The primary reason for being there is much more geopolitical, but this particular freight technology facilitates that. In certain contexts like that, the box participates in a world order. You don’t need a war for the container to operate. As we know, about 90 per cent of trade is through the container and in some respects it is a very pacific, non-aggressive technology. It just conveys things from one part of the world to the other.

That’s just a superficial manifestation of the box. Underlying it are all kinds of other much more unsavoury, exploitative, oppressive kinds of relations. The guys who create our mobile phones in factories in China, they are part of the box; and we are related to them in one way or another through the box as well. If suddenly you abolished containerisation, let’s imagine, that kind of exploitation would not disappear. But it certainly would be different.

The second series of The Wire tells a story about all kinds of violences: gender violence, racial segregation, political antagonism, class struggle and whatnot. All those kinds of social relations I think the container acts as a vector for that. Arguably you could do that with all kinds of other things. But in this case it just happens to be a container.

In Shoreditch, UK, they’ve got a small shopping mall made up of containers and there are containers as Pizza Huts in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. This is a perfect metaphor, literally, as in the carrier of capitalism, because it’s something very universal. Everybody can recognise what it is, each port across the world will have an equivalent 20 TEU. And yet, it is deeply specific or it can be used for specific purposes and that tells us a lot about capitalism.

People often think, ‘Oh this is just a box for Christ’s sake. What else is it? It’s just a mechanism for making certain goods cheaper’.

But actually, if you follow the social history of this thing, then there is much more in it.”

The beachcomber

Tracey Williams, writer, beachcomber and creator of the Lego Lost At Sea Facebook page,6 stemming from items collected on the beaches of South Devon and Newquay washed ashore from one of many containers that fell from the Tokio Express in 1997.

Lego dragons

Items collected on English beaches, washed ashore from shipping containers lost from the Tokio Express. Photo by Tracey Williams / Lego Lost At Sea.

“We’ve been picking up toothbrushes, lighters, cigarettes, tiny plastic toy wheels and intravenous drip bags – all from cargo spills.

A great deal of debris ended up on our shores when the containers fell off the Tokio Express. The coastguard reported at the time that there were 100,000 lighters littering Cornish beaches. Quantities of methyl methacrylate monomer, inhibited – a hazardous substance – also reached the shoreline.

We still don’t know what was in all the other 60+ containers that fell off the Tokio Express, though wheelbarrow wheels were said to have been in one. Many people were thrilled to find the Lego though – and still are.


Photo by Tracey Williams / Lego Lost At Sea.

Back in the late 1990s I used to spend many happy hours beachcombing with my children. We used to have treasure hunts – we picked up hundreds if not thousands of tiny flippers, spear guns and scuba tanks. The holy grail was always the Lego dragon or octopus. It wasn’t until years later that I found out quite how much Lego had been spilled and the impact it had had on the environment. We still find it virtually every day.

At the time I wasn’t aware how many containers fell into the ocean every year. It’s only in recent years I have discovered the scale of the problem. The state of some of our beaches is shocking. It’s not just container spills though – we pick up huge amounts of fishing debris and global garbage thought to have been dumped by ships.

One of the biggest problems on the beach are nurdles or mermaids tears – the tiny pre-production microplastic pellets. Billions wash up. I picked up more than 10,000 of these from one tiny rock pool one day – a rock pool that had once been teeming with wildlife. Many of these nurdles are thought to come from cargo spills. They threaten marine life and can choke small creatures. They can also act as sponges and carry micro pollutants and have been found in the digestive tracts of marine creatures.”


Before and after photos of a rock pool showing the damage from plastic nurdles washing ashore with the tide. Photo by Tracey Williams / Lego Lost At Sea.


Items collected on English beaches, washed ashore from shipping containers lost from the Tokio Express. Nurdles, the plastic bits left from the manufacturing process, are common items found. Photo by Tracey Williams / Lego Lost At Sea.

"10,000 nurdles"

Items collected on English beaches, washed ashore from shipping containers lost from the Tokio Express. Nurdles, the plastic bits left from the manufacturing process, are common items found. Photo by Tracey Williams / Lego Lost At Sea.

The changes to the port, and us

Saskia Sassen is a Dutch-American sociologist focusing in globalisation, global cities and international human migration.7 She is currently the Robert S Lynd professor of sociology and co-chairs the committee on global thought at Columbia University.


“Containerisation enhances consumption. You can move anything from anywhere to your city. But in the space of the port—which may or may not be near a city, such as Hamburg or Rotterdam – it has brought in a whole new industrial and logistic function to cities, unloading those huge containers form ships, storing them, and then distributing the goods. But it is done with fewer workers. Ports used to be far more labor intensive. Now they are extremely machine-intensive.


Shipping containers are used for storage for Wakedock, Ireland’s first cable wakeboard park at Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Containerisation and the ease of transport have generated a sense that we can get X no matter where we have to get it from. This is clearly not good. The worst part is that once you have these huge costly systems in place it is difficult to change. We are very much, in many different ways, captives of the advances in transport engineering and computerised logistics that constitute forms of knowledge we admire.

It has changed how we think about ‘stuff’. It started by astonishment: ‘We can get it from anywhere in the world?!’ And now it has degenerated into expectation: ‘Well of course we can get it from anywhere in the world’.

I can’t help but think of this wonderful artist from Spain who did a three-year project on containers. And then I remember in a show in New York where I was asked to be a co-curator, one of the artists we brought over from Japan had done this amazing installation in a container. And he insisted that the container had to be brought from Japan. And we did, because it was a way of accentuating and telling another story about this massive apparatus being transported. And then it was in the show – and it was spectacular. Now that I think about it, I have had more intersections with containers than I realised.”

The restaurant

Ska Brewing Co in Durango, Colorado opened The Container Restaurant8 in August 2013. The space opens on to their tasting room and is easily warm enough in winter from the pizza oven in the container downstairs acting as a kitchen. Marketing manager Kristen Muraro describes the idea from co-owner Matt Vincent and how the community has taken to it.

The Container Restaurant

The Container Restaurant, Ska Brewing Co, Durango, Colorado. Contributed photo. Copyright remains with the original photographer.

“Originally we had a local Mexican food restaurant in an Airstream trailer parked out in our beer garden.

We were more focused on the tasting room and the beer side of things and we’re not a restaurant or a brew pub. It was self-sufficient and self-sustaining. And then they moved on so we lost that food option.

The Container Restaurant

The Container Restaurant, Ska Brewing Co, Durango, Colorado. Contributed photo. Copyright remains with the original photographer.

We’re very limited on space here and one of our three owners, who is kind of the mastermind behind our design and our building and the plant engineer, has always wanted to make something with shipping containers. It’s just something he’s seen for years and years and thought that they’re very versatile and he liked the idea of repurposing something, which we do a lot of here.

We have a lot of sustainable focus on our building itself. We use blue jeans as insulation in the walls and in our tasting room the tables are made out of recycled bowling alley lanes and the bar is as well. So they brought green, sustainable building practices here – the shipping containers worked in perfectly.

We had to get creative on a lot of things. Trying to fit everything in there and making sure everything’s up to code, sprinklers and everything else that has to go into a kitchen, it was definitely creative but they made it work. The top one is longer than the bottom – we had to cut about a 10ft section off to fit the space we needed to put it in, but then we used that 10ft section as our walk-in freezer.

I think they enjoyed creating the space and doing it.

This particular space and what they’ve done when they built the building and some different things that we’ve tried, it just kind of fit in with the overall thinking outside of the box, so to speak, approach to being creative.

The Container Restaurant

The Container Restaurant, Ska Brewing Co, Durango, Colorado. Contributed photo. Copyright remains with the original photographer.

Matt has looked at containers as useful for years. He’s looked beyond what the normal person would think of a shipping container and he’s educated all of us to that. And we’ve seen all these other cities and towns worldwide where there’s apartment buildings, communities built out of them, and seen how nice they can look and how much can be done with them.

Now people in this area are seeing what can be done with them too. We’re far from any place else. Denver 6.5 hours away is probably the closest place where people have used shipping containers for other uses so it’s not something you see every day down here.

I don’t think there’s any other shipping container here in the Four Corners [area] or in Durango. I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Oh, I can put one of those on my property and turn it into a little studio apartment’. The public have come in and seen what can be done with it and I think we’ve educated them on the usefulness of repurposing what some people might consider ugly boxes.”

The Container Restaurant

The Container Restaurant, Ska Brewing Co, Durango, Colorado. Contributed photo. Copyright remains with the original photographer.

The music video director

Filmmaker Noble Jones9 has worked with Taylor Swift, Mary J Blige, Seal, Michael Bub and Natalie Cole and was the second unit director for The Social Network. In 2010 he directed the music video for the song “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That” by Robert Randolph and The Family Band.

I got the idea for the video from listening to the lyrics and thinking of an interesting way to make social commentary tied to a strong visual signature. The interior of a shipping container looks like a backlit corridor, always a cool image. Many sci fi and mystery movies have proven its effectiveness countless times.

The idea of America shipping its culture all over the world was the subtext/text of the idea (Music Videos don’t often allow for subtlety) so naturally showing them ‘shipped off’ at the end was the obvious conclusion to the video. Couple that with the singer saying, ‘Let it go!’ over and over again, like a funky foreman at a dockyard and there it is.

The sense of scope and impact, the spectacle of it all is something any filmmaker often wishes to achieve if budgets allow. In this case, I think we got a smart video with a bit of spectacle for much less than one might expect.

The only challenge using them was time. Moving them around required a day in itself. The actual filming was easy because I could suggest the inside of one container is any container in the block we created.

The shipping container is iconic, finding it’s way into the popular culture because of its versatility. It suggests a one-size-fits-all approach to our modern world that can be both liberating and constricting. I suppose that what creativity is all about.”

The stunt double

Peter Kent, 57, is a former stunt man for Arnold Schwarzenegger and now runs Peter Kent’s School of Hard Knocks,10 teaching future generations of stunt doubles.

In 1996 on the set of Eraser, staring Schwarzenegger and Vanessa Williams, he was nearly killed filming some of the final scenes involving a three-tonne shipping container.

Peter Kent

Stuntman Peter Kent pictured in a scene in the film Eraser in 1996. The following scene in the movie involved a stunt that nearly killed Mr Kent and two others.

“The box was 100ft in the air on a gantry crane, the box itself, and Arnold’s character is supposed to smash the gear and the box is supposed to drop with us on top of us it.

Somebody – it wasn’t us, the stunt guys were never even consulted really on it – just said, ‘I think the stunt guys can do this’.

Initially we would fall 90ft or whatever with the box and then the wire on our backs would pull us off and it would look from above with the camera like we rode it right to the ground.

They had cable cutters on each corner of the box, which were designed, supposedly, to fire all simultaneously, thus making the box drop level and flat. And these were apparently the same cutters that they used on the space shuttle.

We had a bad gut feeling about it – all the stunt guys and the girl as well. You can’t call a $100,000 gag on a bad feeling, or you never work again. But of course you never work again if you’re killed either.

We were watching the effects guys and they said, ‘Go away, don’t bother us right now, we’ve got a lot on our plate here to deal with’ and we’re all watching them do it.

So we got up there and I was expecting to see the box fall beneath my feet flat and then feel the wire jerk.

And all of a sudden the next thing I felt was CRACK across my back and I was going toward the wall of the warehouse about 65-70ft away. And I reached the end of my wire and it all of a sudden yanked and spun me around. I looked back and there was the box now spinning by one cable.

What had happened was they wired it in series instead of parallel. Instead of one-two-one-two, they wired it one-two-three-four. And so it went bang-bang-bang-click because there wasn’t enough voltage to fire the last one.

And so it was spinning and it wrapped my wire up in it because I had the longest wire.

The guy who was doubling James Caan just kind of slid down the box and was out of the way, and the girl who was doubling Vanessa Williams was actually cabled off to the gantry part of the rig up high and so I took the beating. It just wound my wire in and it just kept hitting me and hitting me until basically the inertia of it hitting me was gone.

I broke collar bone, scapula, top three ribs and that was it – came to rest sort of underneath the box, and at that point had that cable [on the box] finally cut it would have just driven me right into the ground.

At that point everybody was screaming and freaking out. I remember hearing some of that because I was kind of dazed. And they came in a cherry picker with wire cutters and cut my cable lose so I could crawl into the cherry picker.

I looked up and April [Weeden] – who was the girl doubling Vanessa Williams – was hanging upside down and I thought she was dead. And I said, ‘Get up there – let’s get her right away’ and we got up there and she was unconscious. I thought she was dead for sure. I was shaking and saying ‘April April’ and she woke up screaming. And I cut her cable and as soon as she fell into the cherry picker I blacked out.

My recovery was about a couple of months.

On Last Action Hero I did all kinds of stuff – I did an accelerator down the side of a 20-storey hotel, did crane work at least 30 storeys in the air hanging off of a crane. I did a couple of high falls from some 10-15 storeys up, which was pretty much the height you used to go in those days. The concern [on Eraser] was more that there was a three-tonne box involved, which basically I got married to by virtue of my cable tangling up in it, and then it just beat on me.

I did stunts for 15 years and I’m the longest running double in Hollywood basically for one actor and I’m in the Hollywood Stuntman’s Hall of Fame because of it. But what kept me alive all those years was just paying attention to what was going on and not sitting in my trailer.

On Eraser we all knew something bad was going to happen, we just all felt it. I’ve always been one to come out of my trailer and if they say this is the gag, if I can see it first, great. If it’s an explosion I’ve got to be involved in it – I want to see how that’s going to work. Don’t just put me in place and then set it off. I think that a lot of that is contributed to my longevity. Literally. Just being proactive with your own safety, and I teach that, I expand that quite a lot for my students.

Did anyone learn anything from that stunt? I don’t think so. It’s a typical Hollywood thing where everyone’s told to hurry up and get moving and get it down and under pressure, a lot of safety stuff gets ignored. What I found was a little ridiculous was that the effects guys – the accident was basically 100 per cent their fault – and nobody even ever apologised for it. Nobody even had the guts to say, ‘Shit, you almost died – sorry about that’.”

And would Mr Kent recommend stunt doubles avoid working with shipping containers?

“Watch your ass is what they say. Check it out and if it is wired in series, then don’t do the gag.


A shipping container in use at Grand Canal Dock, Dublin, Ireland.

There was nothing they could use of our shot because it went sideways instantly. We were all in the hospital and there was no way to go back and do any of it – and none of us would have gotten back up there again anyway. So they had to use the CGI version of it. It looks ok. Some of the CG in that movie was a little bit weak, like the alligators – I found the alligators were a little bit sloppy.

Basically it was the end of my career. I just looked at that and said, ‘You know what? This is basically god’s unsubtle tap on the shoulder that it’s time to go’.

And I realised at that point that I had been doing it a long time – 15 years – and I think it’s time to get out of here while I still can. So that’s what I did. I just quit at that point and I moved back to Vancouver and started up my school and all that.

In retrospect it was a good thing – it’s probably what needed to happen. And now I’ve got my two five-year-old twin boys running around here like maniacs. And they both try to do all the same shit daddy does.

One of them’s a bicycle fanatic and the other one’s already split his mouth open and gotten a bunch of stitches in his lip from falling out of the tree fort. They’re hot on my heels, much to my wife’s concern.

Guys, calm down, stop jumping on the furniture. Daddy’s on the phone.”

Have you had an experience with shipping containers? How have they changed your life, your business, your world? Please share and engage.

The Common Wealth Living Room

On Friday, August 1, 2014, while the Commonwealth Games were under way in Glasgow, Scotland, Tomorrow visited the Springburn area in the north east.

Five of the Red Road flats there, once the tallest buildings in western Europe, were to be brought down during the opening ceremony of the games until petitions and protests forced a rethink by organisers. Only one of the towers would remain, currently inhabited by asylum seekers and refugees.

In the shadow of the towers is Tron St Mary’s Church where Tomorrow met Molly, originally from Uganda. She took us to her living room, bringing in neighbours, friends and family to watch the sporting action.

“The Common Wealth Living Room” features David, Molly, Allan, Melvin, Mleny, Wayne, Hillary, Gerry, Elle, Sani and Karen, and the nations of Scotland, Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Canadian reporter Tristan Stewart-Robertson. The congregation of Tron St Mary’s, attending a social celebrating the games and the community, also lend their voices.

Berlin museum collections: Moving into the future?

Museum collections

What do museum objects mean to visitors, curators and the original communities from which they come? Artist in residence Jason Skinner explores different meanings. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

The current Ethnologisches Museum1 in Berlin, Germany, is home to 500,000 objects from world cultures but isn’t on the map available for one euro at the airport, courtesy of Visit Berlin. The guards and staff in each room of the galleries tend to equal or outnumber the visitors.

The sheer vastness of the collection combined with its present out-of-the-way location is one of the main reasons for the move, come 2019, to the centre of the city and the tourist expanse of Museuminsel (Museum Island).

Tomorrow visited the current home, in Dahlem, in the city’s leafy southwest, to find out what is in the collection and how it is already changing before getting a new home.

Collecting like a “vacuum cleaner”

Curators certainly hope to increase the number of tourists at what will be called the Humboldt-Forum in the Berliner Schloss2, the rebuilt residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty on Museuminsel. The Mitte borough island, just southwest of the Alexander Platz hub and a direct line down the Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate has been the main destination for visitors since the reunification of Germany and Berlin. Dahlem has not.

Monika Zessnik

Monika Zessnik is curator of the North American collection at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Monika Zessnik, curator of the North American collection of 30,000 objects, says there were opportunities to consider the Northwest Pacific coast and Alaska indigenous communities from the perspective of the original collector, and also from the point of view of the modern heirs to the land.

The German-American anthropologist Franz Boas3 was one of many collector-donors who contributed to the Berlin collection, specialising in the west coast of North America in his early career. But the continent’s items are just a fraction of the half-million total. On top of the ethnographic and archaeological objects are 140,000 sound recordings, 285,000 photographs, 20,000 films and 200,000 pages of written documents, according the museum.

“The museum collected until the First World War like a vacuum cleaner – they took everything to Berlin,” says Dr Peter Junge, curator of the Africa collection.

The sheer number of items has largely prevented extensive research, he said. A curator at the Berlin museum began working on the 21,000 items from eastern Africa just two years ago.

Only a scratching of the entire collection is currently accessible online4, as researchers filter through decades of inaccurate information and colonial and European biases.

Ms Zessnik says many items only have the collector’s name on the label, not the person or group who produced it or what ethnic group it might belong to.

Dr Junge says in one example from the eastern Congo, objects sold to European museums were labelled as being from a particular ethnic group, when the word translated from Swahili means to “these primitive countryside people”.

“There are so many steps to do to decolonise [an] anthropological museum, even the Berlin one,” says Dr Junge. “When you try to individualise the producer of the objects, you get a totally different image because anthropological museums always contain this colonial construction of Africa consisting of ethnic groups and ethnic groups are closed systems which produce art and have a religious system or family structure.

“And this is a construction and this construction is still very vivid in anthropological museums and it starts with these small steps, to say, ‘This object was produced by a workshop in the Bamileke area’ [in Cameroon], but it was not produced by THE Bamalik, because this is a construction’. [These are] very small steps which are very important to decolonise a museum.”

The perhaps assumed story of European powers pillaging countries of their cultural heritage is not quite so straight forward. Items were produced in many instances for the visitors from aboard, the equivalent today of offering souvenirs to gullible tourists. Modern tourists can easily outnumber staff researching the history of objects, and those items outnumber the visitors.

Dr Peter Junge

Dr Peter Junge is curator of the African collection at the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem in Berlin, Germany. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Dr Junge says that in the case of figurative tobacco pipes from the Cameroon grass fields, collected during colonial times, many were never smoked. Similarly, masks produced before the First World War were sold in “huge numbers” to colonial officers and collectors.

“Because of course African artists, or village heads, easily remarked what was interesting on the market so they produced objects for museums,” he says.

“There should be a lot of research done to find out what was made for museums. The idea of making objects for tourists, collectors, is not an invention of the 20th century.”

The Berlin museum collections are not simply historical items “taken” from what are referred to by museums as “source communities”. Many of the larger items in Berlin are models of boats or totem poles carved in materials that would not match originals in North America.

Ms Zessnik said one of their collectors, Norwegian-born Johan Adrian Jacobsen, reported that “all the time they are just selling objects – he’s aware that he had already been too late to get the real indigenous originals”. And sometimes objects were made for him, not simply taken from indigenous people to a colonial museum.

Dr Junge adds: “This is also one of these post-colonial constructions, having on one side the evil European colonialists and the other side, the Africans or Americans which are passive and sitting in the bush after having produced a mask and then somebody comes and steals the mask.”

The world’s hoard of historic objects

There is no estimate of the total number of objects from other cultures in museums and private collections around the globe, but as details emerge and questions are asked, there can be clashes between the institutions and descendants of indigenous communities from which the objects were taken.

Sources: UK museum objectsIn April it was reported that the Zuni in New Mexico were seeking the return of objects from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France, and the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin5.

The tribe has sought out ceremonial items more than many other communities, and has done so particularly from US institutions, which have a legal obligation to meet repatriation requests.

But many indigenous communities do not have the time or resources to explore historic collections half a world away, and many have more pressing concerns at home, particularly living conditions and health matters.

Dr Junge says the there is also rarely a fixed history of “source communities”, making communicating with and researching through modern nations all the more challenging.

“I think it’s a very European construction thinking source communities are something like homogenous group that have an eternal knowledge and everybody shares this knowledge, maybe some people more than other people,” he says. “They are part of historical processes.

“The traditional is not fixed – it’s changing. These simple constructions that there is a source community who knows everything and the objects are here and we just bring them together and then this is something like a healing process after colonial crimes – this is an illusion.”

Berlin has a track record of helping muddy the waters of history, hosting the Berlin West Africa Conference between November 1884 and February 1885, negotiating the future of the Congo River basin, home to many of the items in the city’s museum collection.

Humboldt Forum

The Humboldt Forum on Museum Island in Berlin is due to be finished in 2019 and will house the Ethnologisches Museum. February 2014. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Humboldt Forum

The Humboldt Forum on Museum Island in Berlin is due to be finished in 2019 and will house the Ethnologisches Museum. February 2014. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Many of the objects currently in Dahlem were never intended to move again from their current home, such as boats, and will have to be placed in the 590 million euro Humboldt Forum before it is completed.

Ethnologisches Museum

Some of the objects in the Ethnologisches Museum are so large they will have to be moved into the new Humboldt Forum before it is finished. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

A guide to the projects admits “expectations are high” and themes of the new displays wlll be ‘”the present,’ “multiperspectivity’ and ‘the audience'”6. It will also feature visible storage, a now common approach in museums to show off more objects without giving the public any intimate access.

Dr Junge says the Humboldt Forum offers opportunities for the African collection, focusing on how the continent had much more contact with the globe long before its alleged “discovery” by Europeans. The Berlin collection includes Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic coins found in eastern Africa, as well as broken Chinese porcelain drawing a connection around the Indian Ocean.

The ethnology was a colonial construction of Africa as being a “counterpart to civilised Europe”, he says.

“It was more a projection of self-construction and we will focus on what is called entangled history,” says Dr Junge. “We will show how European history was very much entangled with African history.

“This is how we react to these post-colonial discussions, showing no longer that Africa is an exotic continent.”

Similarly Ms Zessnik says part of the process in developing the future of the collections is to “provincialise” Europe, demonstrating connections and the role of Europe during the period of colonisation, but also pointing out the connections that existed elsewhere [in the world – DELETE] long before and independent of Europe.

Visitors from around the globe might expect all the upcoming exhibitions to acknowledge the present; but bringing together people and objects of history is not simple.

Dr Richard Haas

Dr Richard Haas is deputy director of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem in Berlin, Germany. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Dr Richard Haas, deputy director of the Ethnologisches Museum, says that even in cases where source communities work with the museum, the collections are so large that a few days is not enough to document everything.

He says the museum had a visit from two members of a tribe from central Brazil who were shown pieces from that tribe that curators hope to display at Humboldt.

“I asked them about these pieces – they couldn’t answer,” he says. “They don’t have the tradition. These pieces are 100 years [old]. They were curious to know some special things about pieces we are showing now, but they couldn’t say more than we have in our documentation because they are too young and the tradition is lost.

“If you work together with source communities, you have to know with whom you want to work who are aware of the tradition.

“In the case of Amazonia, we are expecting a group of Venezuelan indigenous people – this will be a project to. . . test to see if it’s possible to work together in the preparation or organisation of the Amazon exhibition in the Humboldt Forum.

“We try to do this but only in special cases. I think it’s not possible to do it for all exhibitions.”

Dr Junge says there are differences in the amount of contact with source communities depending on their role in their home nations. The bulk of the contact with Africa is through the King of Benin and the National Commission of Museums and Monuments, working with the “four or five biggest European museums”.

Talking to 200 former kingdoms would be impossible, and many would not be interested in working with museums. By contrast, there is more contact from North American and south Pacific communities, where indigenous communities “play an important political role within the country and they are also much more active addressing museums”.

“It’s impossible to write letters to every community,” he says. “In Africa, only our Benin collection we have these contacts. But this is for Africa still an exemption. The situation in Canada or Australia or New Zealand is completely different because of the political influence of these groups.”

He adds: “We have a lot of contacts and visitors. Many, many, many people come to visit the collection and they are very fond of finding all these objects here, but the discussion of doing joint exhibitions don’t play a big role in these discussions.”

Ethnologisches Museum

The Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin includes displays that curators say is intended to show the colonial constructions about indigenous people in North America. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

"Downtown Vancouver"

The Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin includes displays of contemporary indigenous art. “Downtown Vancouver” is by Lawrence B Paul (Yuxweluptun), Coast Salish, 1987. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

The films of Karl May

The Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, Germany, includes a display of posters for films by the German director Karl May featuring the character Winnetou. The museum said this is to show the colonial constructions about indigenous people in North America. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Ms Zessnik says indigenous artists and curators at a Northwest collections conference in Berlin were invited to contribute to the Humboldt Forum but had more pressing issues.

“They said, ‘Well we have our own things to do. As long as you keep them in a decent way and everything, it’s fine with us’,” she recounts.

“A lot of critics say we don’t talk to them – it’s not always like this.”

She says the collection, largely from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, can be presented as how people lived in the past, or with photos and film of the present, but there is “not one single right way”.

“Cultures are different and the working approaches are different and when it comes to all this new museology and post-colonial theories, it affects our work, but maybe not in this kind of very strict way,” she adds.

“I think it’s also more about transparency,” she continues. “You should tell the public what you’re doing, who’s doing it and why you are doing it.

“If you go to North American or the Dutch museums, there will always be who was the curator, who was working on this exhibition, etc – that’s what we for a very long time didn’t do. German museums after the Second World War kind of said, ‘We’re not political institutions’, which is of course not true; of course we’re political institutions because we’re constructing, well, not truth, but different opinions.

“And that’s what we have to make obvious, I think.

“There’s still a lot of things to do, but I think the interesting thing also in Berlin is that you have a lot of interest groups here, constituent communities you can work with. Not every group is interested to work with us and that is also what we have to accept.”

Moving towards the exit of the current museum’s home, there are film posters depicting the stereotypes of indigenous “Indians” of North America, colourful and animated but looking entirely dated. It is part of the task of looking back at the assumptions about the rest of the world and recognising the mistakes.

The number of objects, the way they’re exhibited, the role of today’s living descendants and the staffing and financial demands to put it all together are the invisible parts of the construction on Museum Island. That work remains behind the scenes in the quiet Dahlem site.

“Not every indigenous [group] has the same knowledge about objects still,” says Ms Zessnik. “I’m Austrian – if you asked me about objects here in the museum of European Cultures I wouldn’t be able to tell you about everything. So we need quite a lot of different knowledges. There are a lot of things still to be done, to be researched.”

  1. The Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin.
  3. A short bio of Franz Boas.
  4. Berlin’s online collection.
  5. NYT coverage.
  6. “The Humboldt-Forum in the Berliner Schloss: Planning, Processes, Perspectives”, published by Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, 2013, pg80

Veteran support: the hardest battle?

Veteran support

Armed service personnel and veterans are part of a family, but are the public and government supporting them? By Jason Skinner, Artist in Residence. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

This story includes the subject of suicide. If you need someone to speak to, please contact a support service in your area.

THERE are five standard news media images of military personnel and veterans: soldiers firing weapons; Remembrance Day services at cenotaphs in public squares; soldiers returning from Afghanistan, either welcomed by loved ones or in flag-draped coffins; yellow ribbons fluttering in the breeze; and more recently, the shattered families left behind after serving or former armed service personnel have taken their own lives.

Public understanding of the issue of support for veterans is confined to those visual records, and to whatever political reaction there is as the first response to all stories.

But the history of pensions, care and support in Canada, the competing internal arguments about how best to look after veterans and their families and the unspoken conflicting public demands for funds are all at play underneath. Is there a covenant or contract or duty to veterans?

The Canadian flag was lowered in Afghanistan on March 12, 20141 to signal the end of the 12 year mission in the country, leaving questions for decades to come about the actual effect on foreign soil and back home. A total of 158 soldiers lost their lives since deployment started in late 2001, as well as a diplomat, a journalist and two civilian contractors. More than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan in that time.

At home, there have been 12 suicides reported by serving or recently retired Canadian since November 2013. While officials dispute statistics,2, the loss of life is not in question. The statistics on wider problems in the military and veteran community simply don’t exist.

“It is a crisis,” says Mike Blais of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.3 “People are getting divorced, families are being broken, terrible things are happening.

“Yes we hear about the deaths but we don’t hear about death by a thousand wounds prior to that final culmination. We don’t hear about the family discord. We don’t hear about how many times that woman has cried herself to sleep or huddled outside of the house terrified with their children until their husband came back to normal or the flashback ended or sanity prevailed. We have to make sure that these resources are there for these people.”

Since November 2013, there have been a number of high-profile reported deaths from suicide:

  • Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast (November 25, 2013)
  • Master Corporal William Elliott (November 26, 2013)
  • Warrant Officer Michael Robert McNeil (November 27, 2013)
  • Master Corporal Sylvain Lelievre (December 3, 2013)
  • Retired Corporal Leona MacEachern (December 25, 2013)
  • Corporal Adam Eckhardt (January 3, 2014)
  • Corporal Camilo Sanhueza-Martinez (January 8, 2014)
  • Lt-Col Stephane Beauchemin (January 16, 2014)
  • Warrant Officer Martin Mercier (February 2014)
  • Retired Sergeant Ronald Anderson (February 24, 2014)
  • Master Corporal Tyson Washburn (March 15, 2014)
  • Corporal Alain Lacasse, 43 (March 17, 2014)4

But suicide can be caused by any number of factors or circumstances, and the rate in the armed forces is lower than in the general Canadian populace, unlike in the US.

Veterans Affairs Canada, the federal government department that is responsible for soldiers after they finish their service, insists that help is available to veterans and families who are affected by PTSD, depression or “other operational stress injuries”.

Parliament Hill

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

In a statement by email from the department,5 media relations officer Simon Forsyth said “case management” is a key part of their “frontline” service in developing a plan for the “needs and goals” of veterans and their families.

Veterans Affairs Canada has come in for criticism as it closed eight local offices6, though minister Julian Fantino7 has repeatedly insisted the government is committed to helping the armed forces and veterans.

Mike Blais is not convinced by government action, as proven by the need for his own organisation.

In a phone interview with Tomorrow, he says: “We base our activities on need and pain and suffering and there are so many who need, who are in pain, who are in suffering, and I’m talking about wives and husbands and children who are collateral damage from the Afghanistan war and deployments in the former Yugoslavia and the horror of genocide in Rwanda and Somalia and elsewhere.

“The obligation is there, and if we don’t step forward, if we don’t provide this help, the treatment, it’s inevitable: bad things are going to happen. It may not always end with death, at least immediately, it may take 20 years, a family destroyed and hatred for that person and alcoholism and all the horrors and the spiral of decay that happens when that wound is not treated and it infects the mind and runs free.

“I truly believe this government will not take effective measures until the people of this Canada start standing up for our troops, our wounded and the families of those who are standing by them and will have to stand by them for the rest of their lives.”

Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada (Anavets)8 agree there is not enough support from the government, but pin this particularly on money available during transition out of the armed services.

Dominion secretary-treasurer with Anavets Deanna Fimrite said with the military outsourcing of many of the services they once offered in-house, and the number of injuries from deployments, there is less flexibility for the armed forces.

She said: “If you cannot deploy, you cannot serve – can they change that?

“What Veterans Affairs needs to do is help these people transition out when they’re forced to do so.

“We are concerned if you’re medically released and have need to be retrained, there are programmes to help transition but while they are in that, they are being paid about 75 per cent [of their pre-release salary]9. That’s not enough to help transition.

“If you live on base, you have tremendous amount of support and are then moving to an area [where it’s] every man for themselves. It’s a really stressful time when they’re transitioning out.

“We are trying to lobby the government to give veterans the best support we can when they are transitioning. Let’s give them 100 per cent of their salary.”

Ms Fimrite said armed service personnel who are not injured can normally spend up to two years retraining, and they need financial support during that period.

But for those who are injured or might suffer PTSD, a simple training programme might not be suitable.

She said: “You have to take a lot of things into consideration, not just past experiences but their aptitude and they’re interests. We find the department [of National Defence] basing a lot of decisions purely on experience and skills that [the veteran] had. You have to consider what they WANT to do. There is no point putting them in a job that’s going to trigger PTSD.

“We believe there’s a lot of opportunities like that that [the department] have to look at, and offer more money invested up front [for] care so they’re not worrying about how the kids are doing or finding a new family doctor. Give them 100 per cent of pre-release salary, then there would be less stress leaving the military and you would have more focus on getting better.


Contracts, covenants and “duty”

As Canada marks a century since the start of World War I, pomp and pageantry will play a major part. But the history of shifting attitudes and attempts to address the needs of veterans is complex.

In 1917, then prime minister, Sir Robert Borden told troops before the Battle of Vimy Ridge:

“You can go into this action feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance; that you need have no fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country in what you are about to do and what you have already done.

“The government and the country will consider it their first duty to … prove to the returned men its just and due appreciation of the inestimable value of the services rendered to the country and Empire; and that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.”10

By the end of the war, there were 50 military hospitals and sanatoria with 10,754 beds.

But by 1919, Mr Borden reversed his tune, stating: “Canada has done all she could for her soldiers…this country is face to face with a serious financial situation which will call for a rigid economy and careful retrenchment.”11

In its review of a century of veteran support, Veterans Affairs Canada referred to the “implicit social covenant that must be honoured”12 that was “never an issue in party politics”.

It continued: “There have been differences of opinion about the extent of programs and their administration, but not the fundamental concept of veterans benefits or the need for Canada to have a comprehensive benefits programme.”13

Dr Allan English served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Armed Forces and is now a history professor at Queens University and part of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.14 He has previously argued that rather than a “social covenant”, the relationship between Canadians and the military and veterans is more of a contract, “which can be amended”.15 There is no promise by government and Canadians, despite the perception.

Earlier this year, the government denied that there was even a “social contract”, in response to a class-action lawsuit by veterans filed at BC Supreme Court.

Lawyers stated: “At no time in Canada’s history has any alleged ‘social contract’ or ‘social covenant’ having the attributes pleaded by the plaintiffs been given effect in any statute, regulation or as a constitutional principle written or unwritten.”16

They argued that Borden’s statement was “political speeches that reflected the policy positions of the government at the time and were never intended to create a contract or covenant”.17

The ebb and flow of political tides are not new. Prior to World War II, there were changing department names and configurations, legislation, commissions of inquiry and debates about how much should or could be spent.

The attitudes – of the public and the government – also shifted when it came to veterans from indigenous communities, who initially were forced to choose between a status as indigenous, or as veteran.

Shell shock, what would now be classed as PTSD, and even the approach to suicide has changed. Mental health issues have continued to be an issue for soldiers, who the public see without outward injuries.

Dr English, in an interview with Tomorrow, points to the cost of veterans’ programmes and pensions being the second largest government expense by the 1930s 18, prompting public backlash when they could not see obvious veterans’ wounds.

By the 1990s, the image of vets at the cenotaphs was now deeply ingrained in the public mind. But at the same time, post-Cold War budgets were dwindling and there were high-profile failures in what was then perceived to be particularly Canadian spheres, United Nations peace keeping, in Somalia and Rwanda.

Since the mission in Afghanistan over the past decade, attention to and attitudes towards the military have shifted again. Though as a percentage of the population, it is not comparable to the end of the first world war, the profile is even higher.

“The idea that we’ve always treated our veterans shabbily is just not true,” says Dr English.

The original Veterans Charter, the term derived from the support programmes and benefits set in place during World War II, was updated in the New Veterans Charter (NVC) – the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act – in 2006.19 It has not been without criticism and a formal review was set up in 2013.

The Royal Canadian Legion issued a statement in March on the NVC, arguing that the government had a “moral obligation towards our injured servicemen and women”.

They wrote: “The NVC was adopted without a clause-by-clause review in Parliamentary Committee and in the Senate because of a perceived urgent need to adopt a New Veterans Charter before troops headed for Afghanistan, to better look after modern Veterans and their families, and to facilitate their transition to civilian life. The Legion, as well as other Veterans’ organizations, supported the NVC with the understanding that it was a “living charter” which would be amended as flaws or gaps were identified.”20

The Legion did not reply to repeated requests by Tomorrow for an interview or for comment for this story.

Dr English says there are, admittedly, parts of the NVC that are problematic, such as the awarding of lump sum payments to injured service personnel. But that came about because so many of those veterans needed significant changes to their homes to accommodate their disabilities.

“Now, admittedly, the lump sum might not be big enough and I think that’s a fair argument, and there are other issues about providing long-term pension care,” he says. “But the bottom line is a lot of the changes in the NVC were, I think, positive and intended to be rehabilitating young veterans and moving the charter from just warehousing people and giving them pension into getting them back into a productive life, which has been shown to be what the young people want, and is the best for their health.

“The NVC has lots of flaws, but it was always intended to be a living document and amended, and I think that’s one of the hang-ups with it, that it really hasn’t changed as much as it should have in response to criticism.”

Mike Blais says the changes brought with the NVC provided less support to the family of a veteran than the previous Pension Act.21

“That’s when this nation lost its way,” he says. “Although the NVC was to be a living document and there were issues identified, this government is not responding. It’s not stepping up to the plate.

“It’s put this NVC on life support. And only through a great deal of pressure, a lawsuit, a protest by veterans on Parliament Hill, only have we got to the point where minister Fantino announced a comprehensive parliamentary review, with the intent of, after the committee sits, bringing forth legislation that would address some of these issues.”

Veterans Affairs Canada insists the government is committed to supporting veterans and their families.

Media relations officer Simon Forsyth said in an email statement: “The New Veterans Charter is a comprehensive approach to helping our men and women injured in the line of duty. It is about providing Veterans with the help they need for as long as they require support.

“No amount of money can compensate for a life-altering injury or illness; however, the New Veterans Charter offers real hope. It provides financial security for as long as Veterans are unable to be gainfully employed, and it offers the programs that injured and ill Veterans need to lead more healthy, rewarding, and independent lives.”22

He said the review of the NVC follows “dramatic improvements” already made by the government, and the review announced on September 26, 2013, would place “a special focus on the most seriously injured, support for families, and the delivery of programs by Veterans Affairs Canada”.

Parliament Hill

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Ms Fimrite, with Anavets, says more changes still need to take place with the NVC. The system of managing veterans to what was meant to be more holistic. That is not working in all instances.

She says: “The government is doing a full review and they are interviewing a lot of different people. Some of the programmes could help but the eligibility requirements are so restrictive that we don’t feel they’re doing what they could be doing. There is also concern about lump sum payments – it is supposed to be strictly for pain and suffering – people don’t seem happy with that. It is hard to ignore veterans feelings on this.

“The lump sum is not working well, but it’s also not the only payment they’re supposed to be getting if injured in the line of duty. In a lot of cases, family only get support if it’s in the case plan for the veterans, but family need support in their own right.

“There are some gaping holes that we need to bridge.”

“This is the problem,” says Dr English. “Any government has to deal with the issues of their many stakeholders, all who want part of the national budget – education, healthcare, you’ve got the active military, and veterans, from their perspective, are jut another constituency. So it’s always a debate. When you see heartrending cases of people being sent home from emergency rooms because there’s not enough money for healthcare, well that’s in competition with the heartrending stories of the veterans that aren’t getting proper treatment. This is the dilemma that governments face – from their point of view, veterans are a constituency that have to be looked after, but they’re not the only one.”

Dr English says the changing tone of Borden is a typical example of government pressures.

“Governments will never … say ‘your interests will always take priority of the interests of other groups in society’,” says Dr English. “And this isn’t just governments. They do it because that’s the way the public sees it. By 1938, the effects of the Depression were still being felt and most people felt that veterans pensions were too generous because they were ok and a lot of them had shell shock, so they were apparently uninjured and they and their families were ok and other people were dependent on soup kitchens, so they turned around and said ‘no, veterans are getting too much’. Whereas in 1919, it was ‘oh no, we need to give veterans more’. The public’s perception of what veterans are due changes.”

In contrast to Dr English’s viewpoint, the Canadian government insists that support is at the top of the agenda.

Maureen Lamothe, communications advisor for the Department of National Defence said in a statement by email: “The care and support of ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and their families is a top priority for the CAF and the Department of National Defence.

“The CAF’s comprehensive approach to supporting our members takes into account all phases of treatment and rehabilitation – from the onset of illness or injury to the return to work or transition to civilian life.

“The goal of CAF support and care is to return personnel to duty as soon as medically possible. Following rehabilitation, and only if members cannot deploy and meet the exigencies of operations, they may eventually be released from the CAF. Upon release, care and support continue through Veterans Affairs Canada.

“CAF leadership is dedicated to ensuring each and every ill and injured member receives high quality care and support. Whether our personnel are on the road to recovery, rehabilitation, returning to work in the CAF, or transitioning to civilian life, support and guidance are available to them.”23


“Just get on with it”

The DND has used the term “universality of service” since 1985 under section 33(1) of the National Defence Act requiring that service personnel must “at all times. . . perform any lawful duty” in the military. If they cannot, they cannot remain in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Paul Hearn

Retired Lt Commander Paul Hearn, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Paul Hearn no longer meets that standard. He joined the Canadian navy when he was 23 and has been there for the past 25 years, rising to rank of Lt Commander, based with Maritime Command in Halifax. He originally worked as a swimming instructor and a maintenance supervisor after joining the Sea Cadets from the age of 13 until he was 17.

“I feel worn down by it,” he told Tomorrow just before he finished his time with the navy at the end of November. “It’s time to go; it’s time to move on.”

“For 25 years, there’s an inherent loyalty. You’re bred into this lifestyle.

“[But] it’s very naive to believe any organisation is looking out for you – it’s not necessarily looking after your best interest.”

LCdr Hearn was aboard HMCS Fredericton during Operation CHABANEL in April and May 200624 when he first felt the effects of rheumatoid arthritis in his hands. He was combat officer during the sting operation led by the RCMP that netted 22.5 tonnes of hashish and the arrest of three people. But the physician’s assistant on board could only prescribe Tylenol.

“I was taking Tylenol like they were candy,” says LCdr Hearn. “You just assume you’re getting older and see the medic – he is just immediate care – you just carry on and do your job. At sea, 18-20 hours [work] a day is not uncommon; things don’t stop. You’re trained to just get on with it.”

In 2007, LCdr Hearn was based in Portsmouth, England, and was referred to a specialist who diagnosed palindromic arthritis but didn’t offer treatment.

Once home in 2008, initially posted to Ottawa and then to Halifax, a “depressive element” started to set in. He spent two years on anti-depressants and only got to see a psychologist in October 2013.

LCdr Hearn says depression is looked down on, “especially in this kind of job”, and he reduced his workload in the past two years to three half days a week.

“Really they would rather I was not around,” says the father of three. “They are just getting the men out as fast as they can.

“I can see the hesitation to accept when you look at me you think there’s nothing wrong with me.”

The description LCdr Hearn says he would have applied to others in the past was “sick, lame and lazy” – and now he’s on the other side of the fence.

Dozens of former sailors from the HMCS Chicoutimi – that suffered fire damage and lost one officer while sailing from Scotland – have reported suffering from PTSD.25

LCdr Hearn says the rheumatoid arthritis is now “as good as it gets”. He owns and is landlord to 20 apartment units to keep him busy with his navy days done and will draw benefits for two years and a pension.

“We do have support,” he said. “Is it good enough? Maybe not. But if we don’t talk about it. . . It’s a cooperative issue – both sides bring something to the table and it comes down to the availability of money as well.

“We have to ensure that the Veterans Charter remains a ‘living document’ and keeps pace with changing needs and the current situation.”


“How the public feels about veterans”

With changing needs come changing governments. As well as image changes, such as the Liberal-led “Canadian Forces” terminology in 1968 and the Conservative return to “Royal Canadian” to the navy and air force in 2011, the 1959 demise of the Avro Arrow and the rise of the “Diefenbunker”, and repeated scandals – and disasters – involving military helicopters and procurement, spending varies between governments and between ministers.

And should the overhaul to the NVC not be complete before the next scheduled federal election in October 2015,26 as Mike Blais fears, they will have to start from scratch when a new government is formed, whatever the political colour.

“This is never going to see the light of day,” says Mr Blais. “There’s going to be an election. We go through these motions. I will be called to testify, so will the president of the Legion and other stakeholders who have vested interest, that need to speak to this committee to define the situation.

“But even if they come out with everything that we want, unless this government can expedite three readings and a passage within the senate within the course of a year, it’s not going to happen. It will fall the moment that the government does and that will be the end of it.

“We have to start at square one again. I find it frustrating. Here we fought so hard to get this, and yet the reality is they waited so long that chances of us actually affecting the changes needed through this process will be negated when the government falls. Who knows what will happen next time Without passage of legislation, nothing’s done.”

Dr English says the media will emphasise the story of the day, and veterans only get attention when something bad happens.

“It’s not a story, ‘system works well; people being looked after’,” he says. “I think as we’ve seen in Canada with a lot of mental health issues, there’s still a lot of stigma attached. The problem is in Canada there are a lot of people who deep down inside believe that shell shock, PTSD, are caused by weakness in the person. ‘So, why are we dealing with this?’

“And that’s exactly what happened in the 1930s. People were saying, ‘Look at all these people with shell shock, they look perfectly healthy to me and they’re getting this huge generous pension and I’m unemployed’. I think you see a bit of the same thing today. I think people are more aware now, but it’s still a huge problem even outside of the veteran and military community, the stigma around mental illness. ‘They couldn’t handle it.’ That’s a huge challenge in dealing with the issue.”

Mike Blais says attitudes need to change both within the military, and in the wider public. And the public must improve its actions towards armed service personnel, just as must the government.

“I think some people need a reality check,” says Mike Blais. “We’re a brotherhood and a sisterhood. These are wounds – this is what we have to instil in the minds and in the hearts of the brother and sisterhood. We are the first line of defence.

“We need a change of mindset and it has to start now. We have the obligation to our wives, to the children, to the serving member who’s wounded, and we have the obligation to treat them with the same damn level of respect as we would to anybody who has been wounded.

“Where’s the community spirit for those that are suffering from mental wounds? It’s not the same. And that’s symptomatic of the problem. Because these families need the same level of support. If you would reach out to a wife who has a husband who has lost a leg or may need some demonstrable injury that you can see visibly, well why can’t you reach out for those that you can’t see, who are suffering from mental wounds, who are confronting very serious medical issues and need our help?

“I think the civilian community must be prepared and understand that there are thousands of Canada’s sons and daughters that will soon be returning to our community. And that they will need our help. Not every wound is visible.

“DND can’t do this alone. Veterans Affairs can’t do this alone. They’re not in control anymore once these men and women come back to our communities.”

He adds: “If we don’t recognise their sacrifice, if we don’t step forward and make sure that the psychological, the medical and the social resources that they need to assimilate into our communities and thrive and be a part and live good quality of life, we’re failing them. We cannot afford to do that. There have been 40,000 men and women who have deployed to Afghanistan and we can’t afford to fail these people now in their time of need.”

LCdr Hearn says there was a “coming of age” in the military where personnel were being looked at as individuals, finally, after considerable time.

“There is still a reluctance to acknowledge that. I think we have to be more accepting,” he says. “They are coming around, slowly.

“The expression is, ‘if you’re not deployable, you’re not employable’. But if we keep showing these people the door, we’re not solving any of these problems. We have to be more focused on admitting that they’re people who need help.

“We are not going to undo it overnight. Look at World War I where we called them ‘yellow cowards’ and it took 80 years to get to accepting PTSD. There’s a lot of well-intentioned actions.”

Dr English says this is a constantly changing story, pegged to perceptions of the military and the roles they have carried out in different corners of the globe.

“In the 1990s, people held the military in very low esteem and weren’t prepared to do anything for veterans, except for second world war veterans,” he says. “It was a terrible attitude, but that’s how people felt.

“It’s not so much the government or ‘them’ as people say, but the general public. You can have a heart rending story about a veteran one day, and then you can have a heart rending story about the lack of medical care in the community and then these same people you turn around to them and say, ‘well of course we can address all these issues but we’re going to raise your taxes’. And they say, ‘No thanks’.”

What image do Canadians have of their military and veterans? With the end of the Afghanistan mission, what image will dominate the coming decades?

“I guess there’s a certain cynicism that I have as a historian, that the public on one hand is quick to show sympathy to the plight of anyone, and on the other hand when you ask them to raise taxes, ‘well no, we don’t do that’. It comes back to the fact that governments have to make choices amongst constituencies and sometimes the veterans are on the winning side and sometimes they’re on the losing side.

“We have to realise this: it’s not going to be all bad or all good, it’s going to be a continuously changing scenario depending on how the public feels about veterans.”



No issues for principles 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10 or 11.
5. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent and 8. Be a safe harbour for the public and staff: This is a joint issue. Under both these principles, it is Tomorrow’s style not to use the term “commit(ted) suicide”, and to encourage readers to seek help when reporting on the issue of suicide.

  1. Prime Minister Stephen Harper statement.
  2. Coverage of the dispute over which suicides are “counted”, here and here
  4. A list is available here and there are also reports from here and here. In a report by the Canadian Armed Forces on suicide between 1995 and 2012, they argued there was “no statistically significant change in male CF suicide rates” and was “lower than that of the general Canadian population”. It also stated: “History of deployment is not a risk factor for suicide in the Canadian Forces”. Read the report here.
  5. Read the full VAC statement here.
  6. Further details on the closure and reaction can be found here.
  9. Details of the 75 per cent pre-release salary, and recommendations to raise it, are contained in the Veterans Ombudsman report from April 2013.
  10. Quoted by Robert Fair, MP, House of Commons, Debates, June 14, 1944, 3816.  See page 3 of “The Origins and Evolution of Veterans Benefits in Canada 1914-2004”.
  11. Quoted from page 231 of “Shaping the Future”, referencing Desmond Morton and Glenn Wright, “Winning the Second Battle: Canadian Veterans and the Return to Civilian Life” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 124.
  12. See page 1 of “The Origins and Evolution of Veterans Benefits in Canada 1914-2004”.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Dr Allan English, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.
  15. See page 231 of “Shaping the Future”.
  16. Attorney General of Canada response to Amended Notice of Civil Claim, No S-127611, paragraph 100. Read the full response here.
  17. Attorney General of Canada response to Amended Notice of Civil Claim, No S-127611, paragraph 103.
  18. Page 233 of “Shaping the Future”.
  19. Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act.
  20. Royal Canadian Legion statement.
  21. 1985 Pension Act.
  22. Read the full VAC response here.
  23. Read the full DND response here and further info here.
  24. Operation Chabanel.
  25. HMCS Chicoutimi town hall meeting.
  26. 2015 election fixed date.