Category Archives: Lead Story

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.

Immigration courts – are we blind to justice?

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

TO paraphrase a US government representative, immigration courts might appear to be a great deal of boring admin, but the future of where people live the rest of their lives is hugely important.

The systems that make decisions about future lives in thousands and tens of thousands of lives every year should be some of the most watched and monitored of any country. They are the opposite.

I have now reported on the judicial or quasi-judicial systems for immigration in three countries – the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. They differ in many ways but are consistent in being ignored by reporters, sometimes with a dangerous and highly dubious deference to the governments running the systems. That is a fundamental clash with Tomorrow’s core principles and is the reason for our recent coverage.

Canada’s system is a near absolute failure in being open to any scrutiny.

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada hearing offices in Toronto, Ontario.

The Refugee Protection Division is designed to be private by default. Anyone can apply to observe a case but it must be done in advance and then get approval of all parties. I was told at the front desk on floor four of the tribunal hearing offices of 74 Victoria Street, Toronto, Ontario, that even the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) would have to apply in advance. According to 11 pages of government legalese explanations of just the differences between public and private hearings that would be enough to deter any potential visit, only the government’s own immigration officials can attend at any time. That means the system is not only secret, it is beyond even international spot checks.

[Tweet “The system is not only secret, it is beyond even international spot checks.”]Similarly, at the end of a full day attending public Immigration Appeal Division hearings, the press officer for the overarching Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada appeared a couple seats away from me and introduced himself after the hearing. He pointed out reporters tell them before attending, just as the US immigration court system “strongly” recommends on its website that reporters notify the press office before attending.

Informing one side in even a tribunal system that the press will attend is a fundamental breach of our core principle of independence (#3) and is a deference to government that would not happen in almost any other context.

Would you expect a food inspector to announce a spot check of a restaurant? The cleanliness can have life and death consequences. A court system or quasi-judicial system making decisions about the future lives of the same human beings who might go to that restaurant. To trust the system is functioning without ever bothering to report on it is a dereliction of duty on the part of the media who know full well that “justice must be seen to be done”.

In the case of Toronto, the following media outlets are nearby (distances in a straight line according to Google Maps):

  • CityNews – 567m
  • Toronto Sun – 948m
  • Toronto Star – 1.01km
  • CTV – 1.05km
  • CBC – 1.08km
  • Globe and Mail – 1.76km
  • National Post – 2.3km

I have found no stories of their attendance at cases in the past year, but welcome any correction to that fact should they offer it.

In terms of openness, Philadelphia courtrooms had generally open doors with appointed judges and the names of individuals appearing on display in the waiting room, regardless of the type of case.

In Toronto, a quasi-judicial, administrative tribunal system, doors are closed whenever cases are on and you could only find out names by asking at the front desk. Any case involving refugees, even if the government were to argue that the person could safely return to their country of origin, cannot be disclosed. That is contradictory and hints at a scrutiny that should be provided into how the Canadian government is assessing the legitimacy of refugee claims and threats they may or may not face.

So while a reporter could almost always sit in on testimony from a rape victim even though that person’s identity would never be revealed, an identical case within the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada system would be blocked from any scrutiny other than that of the very government deciding the legitimacy of the case.

And make no mistake, Tomorrow has the firm principles of being a safe harbour and comforting the afflicted so this is not about identifying people at risk. This is about seeing how they are treated by a country that proclaims to be a beacon of human rights and freedoms. Surely one of the greatest tests of that is to examine how the government treats those claiming sanctuary after following that beacon through the darkness, to examine the effectiveness of counsel for refugees, to seek out the holes in support systems for refugees and all the other elements that cross paths in these small administrative rooms.

Reporters are not testing these systems enough, they are showing deference to power, and justice is not being seen to be done.

[Tweet “Reporters are showing deference to power and justice is not being seen to be done.”]I hope through Tomorrow’s recent coverage – and this will in no way be the end to it in years to come – that I am not only meeting this site’s core principles but am also explaining why they matter and why these immigration courts and tribunals matter in civic society and modern reportage.

Toronto immigration board: No more ‘I love you’s’

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada hearing offices in Toronto, Ontario.

A COUPLE who couldn’t remember when they first said “I love you” have had their marriage declared a fraud to get the husband into Canada from Vietnam.

The 26-year-old wife was appealing an earlier rejection by immigration officers who questioned the validity of the union as a sham for the purpose of obtaining the status and privilege of permanent residency.

Van Kim Pham went before the Immigration Appeal Division (IAD) of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in Toronto, Ontario,1 in a continued hearing, four years on from the original failed application for Hong Phuc Nguyen to move to the country.

But dozens of pages of evidence, supporting documents, photographs and hours of testimony from four people were all dismissed by presiding board member Vandana Patel as not credible.

The key was an inability for Mr Nguyen to offer even an approximate period when he first told his then potential bride that he loved her.

Member Patel concluded that although relationships could be looked at “through the cultural lens” and the impact of saying “I love you” might differ, both husband and wife asserted that there was love in the relationship. Given that both individuals were young and in a long-distance relationship, Member Patel said that the issue of when they first expressed their love would be more important.

Ms Pham, of Brantford, Ontario, first met Mr Nguyen at the airport when she travelled to Vietnam with Mr Nguyen’s aunt in September 2008. The aunt was subsequently with Ms Pham on future trips and even at a medical appointment last October for medical documents to support the appeal, after the first part of the hearing in July 2014 and before the second part on February 17, 2015.

Speaking by teleconference and through a translator, Mr Nguyen told the hearing that his aunt had not told him anything about Ms Pham coming on the trip and their meeting was coincidence.

The 27-year-old said: “After the first meeting, I really liked my wife because she’s really cute. She has a nice shape.”

Mr Nguyen said he subsequently spent some time with Ms Pham and that they both liked music, movies, live show performances and Vietnamese dishes.

He was repeatedly asked by the Canadian government’s representative, Vanessa Mayer, when he had fallen fell in love with his eventual wife and did not offer an answer.

She asked him: “Do you remember when you first said, ‘I love you’ to your wife?”

He said: “I don’t remember the date but I remember the date I proposed to her.”

[Tweet ““Do you remember when you first said, ‘I love you’ to your wife?””]Member Patel then asked again. She said: “You cannot remember when you told her you loved her. You proposed to her and a wedding was planned with 300 people attending the reception. I find it surprising that you cannot recall when you told your wife that you love her and I also find it surprising that you decided to move to Canada only when you registered your marriage.

“You’re both young. You claim to have fallen in love. You don’t live in the same country. It seems unlikely that you would not have talked about moving to Canada until the day your marriage is registered.

“Would you care to explain?”

Mr Nguyen replied: “The first time I told her that I loved her and she accepted that, I don’t recall exactly the date. But I remember the proposed date because I want to have a happy family with my wife.”

Earlier in the hearing, Ms Pham said she had memory problems and there were very long silences after some questions and she was subsequently unable to answer. She became visibly upset when asked about what she did in her spare time.

She replied: “Honestly, I don’t have spare time. I work seven days a week just so I can bring my husband over. It’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t have to work this hard.”

Mr Nguyen subsequently said that his wife sent him $200 a month last year but anything he had left over, he would save and convert back to Canadian dollars to bring into the country should the appeal be allowed on his rejected bid to move to Canada.

He said: “My wife sends money for me to spend for living. That’s my wife’s love to me.”

Ms Pham’s mother said that her daughter had learning difficulties that she believed were because of surgery to her head as a baby while living in the United States, but there was no supporting documentation about the operation. The only evidence of the memory loss was from a doctor’s assessment last October.

The mother also said repeatedly that she first met her son-in-law in September 2009, even though she was at the engagement celebration in June that year.

Mr Nguyen’s aunt was also challenged on a timeline of meetings between the couple.

Since the application for permanent residency in Canada was made, sponsored by Ms Pham, and the couple interviewed in 2011, and its rejection that year, the pair saw each other in 2012 but there have been no trips since. Witnesses asserted that they still spoke several times a week.

Is justice blind?

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

In closing arguments, Ms Pham’s counsel, Ann Crawford, said that the original rejection of the application suggested that the couple were not compatible as one was from Vietnam and the other one from North America and that this was not a substantial reason. She asserted that the couple’s meeting in the airport was coincidence and on the balance of probabilities, the marriage was not entered into for immigration purposes.

Ms Mayer for the government said the witnesses were not credible and that there was no substance why the couple wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. While interests in movies and music were “nice for a friend”, there was no specific knowledge about each other.

She added that Mr Nguyen’s aunt’s involvement in the development of the relationship “is certainly a concern”.

Member Patel said Ms Pham, her mother, Mr Nguyen and his aunt were “not credible or trustworthy witnesses” and rejected the limited medical evidence about memory loss and learning difficulties.

She said: “Even if I were to accept that she has a medical explanation, I still have to consider the other evidence that I did hear. And I still find that the other evidence was not credible.

“I would expect a mother to keep medical reports about surgery done to her child’s brain.”

On the issue of when they discussed Mr Nguyen moving to Canada, Member Patel said: “[Ms Pham’s] testimony was very clear that she does not want to move to Vietnam. In that situation I place even more importance on the discussion on who is going to move where and when those discussions took place. For a person motivated to stay in Canada, I would expect that to be up front and discussed before they got married.”

She concluded that the marriage was not genuine and was primarily for the purpose of immigration.

Member Patel said a more “fulsome” written version of her decision would be sent to the appellant but its substance and the conclusion would remain the same. Ms Pham’s appeal was rejected.



No relevant issues on principles 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 or 10.

1. Freedom of expression: Open courts and tribunals can be openly reported in the absence of specific orders on particular cases. There were no such orders in this cases and so Tomorrow asserts its freedom to report the proceedings.
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: No details were led of potential risk to the individuals involved in this case 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 tribunal system works in Canada? 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. Information about the system is available on the Canadian government website.

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 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.

What are we wearing – Part 1

Thread bare

What are we wearing

What are we wearing, by Jason Skinner, artist in residence. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

What on EARTH are you wearing right now? And where was it made? And where are the materials from? And how much of what you paid went to the local economy?

Even if many consumers might pose the first question to their friends or family, they rarely if ever ask the latter ones.

Textiles are more than just clothing: from our wallpaper and floor coverings, bedroom and bathroom decoration, to stage and screen costumes, they include practically everything around us.

Tomorrow has investigated the state of the economy in the Canadian province of New Brunswick and what role textiles play or could play.

Could examining buying habits, agriculture and production and the assumptions made by economists lead to a textile economy? Could an area with an historic strength in crafting material and goods once again lead?

Over more than four months, Tomorrow interviewed dozens of businesses, farmers, artists, economists and others from across New Brunswick and as far as Hong Kong, Scotland and Saskatchewan.

The investigation found historic expertise and budding talent in the province, but significant and severe disconnects within government and between key players. And serious questions will need to be asked by the public about what future they want for the area and how their buying habits control whether that potential is used or abandoned.

History, economics, agriculture, land use and land rights, optimism, realism, sustainability, localism, consumerism, industry and industriousness are all bound up in the subject of textiles. And the future of a province could hinge on a mix of government action, business ingenuity and personal choice.


The long-lasting thread

Briggs & Little produce yarn.1 They’ve been doing it for more than 150 years, making them Canada’s oldest woollen mill, selling their generations of skills to generations of customers. But it’s getting harder.

“People have to realise that there’s a reason why their kids or grandkids, nieces or nephews are travelling to Alberta,” said John Little, co-owner of the family firm that employs 23 people in York County, New Brunswick. “People aren’t supporting enough local stuff. And how can [anybody] compete with the oil patch anyway? It’s almost impossible.

“If you’re a small industry and you think that you’re going to try and change people’s habits, it’s going to be a lifelong journey. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. People are so used to shopping for the dollars and cents price, they don’t necessarily think of the social price that they’re paying in order to save those pennies or dollars.”

Click to download a two-page summary of this investigationBriggs & Little keeps moving forward, trying to find new markets and appeal to new trends, but there is a long-term struggle.

“They used to say the highs and lows in textiles are every seven years,” Mr Little told Tomorrow by phone. “Well, that was maybe true up until the ‘80s but since then, there haven’t been five highs since 1980. So the cycles are a lot more than seven years now.

“Our mill burned 20 years ago and when we rebuilt, it was a big decision. If we had known then what we know now, how long it would take to get back, you’d have to wonder if you would do the same thing over again.

“I’m third generation in my family, and my son works here, so we’re really trying to keep it going and wait for people to realise that they have to support more things in their back yard if they’re going to still be there next year.”

For every elder and prolific knitter that retires, the business needs to find three or four new young knitters to replace them as their need for yarn is lower for less output. And their demands are changing just as the supply moves ever further from New Brunswick.

All the wool comes direct from producers or a wool-growers co-op in Ontario and Mr Little said they have tried to vary their output over the years, including softer wools to appeal to those seeking just merino yarn, considered the best thanks to marketing, as we will report in Part 5. New Brunswick accounts for 25-30 per cent of their sales, followed by Newfoundland.

Making items at home has been a way of coping during tougher times and economic downturn, but there is so little time in most households now, particularly in two-income families and a multitude of choices for leisure activity. And Briggs & Little depends on that leisure time for their business to survive.

“That’s what it feels like,” added Mr Little. “You’re working to maintain the volumes that you have.”


The alpaca thread

To the south east in Sussex is one of New Brunswick’s newest textile firms, Legacy Lane,2 working predominantly in alpaca fleece since September 2006 and cited by nearly every single interviewee for this investigation as an example of the future potential of the sector.

Legacy Lane

Legacy Lane textile mill in Sussex, New Brunswick.

Co-owner and production manager Alyson Brown and her sister Amy Tonning won a $25,000 New Brunswick Innovation Foundation prize in 20073 after completing studies in textiles and business administration respectively in the province. They had originally considered fibre farming, specifically of alpaca, because it was new and luxury and appealed to those looking for a hypoallergenic option. But they realised it was processing that was needed in the Maritimes, not more farms.

What are the bare threads of the business?

  • You get 2–3lbs of fleece per alpaca animal, generally only producing once a year, from the end of May through June
  • 25–30lbs needs to be processed per day for the business to run
  • Just 3–5 per cent comes from New Brunswick
  • Another 5–7 per cent comes from the rest of the Maritimes
  • 85–90 per cent comes from the rest of Canada

There are fewer farms than when Legacy Lane opened, said Ms Brown, and large farms of 300-head would be needed to develop a full clothing line.

But transport, already a challenge in New Brunswick between a lack of public transit and ever rising fuel costs, has made business harder for Legacy Lane – a “continued thorn”, says Ms Brown. And if mills pop up between Sussex and producers in Ontario, shipping costs guide those producers to the closer mills.

Legacy Lane, employing eight or nine people depending on the season, processes fleece through to October and November for farmers who need fibre back for production in a hurry.

A farmer would tell the mill how much fleece they were sending, booking a set number of days for its processing before being sent back as finished fibre. But if not enough raw material comes in, the business struggles to meet its operating costs and they have expanded into producing wholesale lines for yarn shops and fibre enthusiasts to offset the ups and downs of farms.

Legacy Lane

Yarn from Legacy Lane textile mill in Sussex, New Brunswick.

“Had we only stayed just on fibre producing, I think we would probably be out of business now,” explained Ms Brown. “We have small retail space now – we’re trying to develop products and it seems to be taking off – people want to have beautiful yarns.”

Ms Brown’s education came at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design (NBCCD),4 a centre that turned 75 last year and has become internationally reputed for their textile work.

Rachel MacGillivray is an instructor there, and someone who moved into the province even as hundreds regularly move west for high-paying energy sector jobs.

She grew up on an eastern Ontario dairy farm before going on to study fashion design at Ryerson University in Toronto. She went to work for one of the country’s largest family-owned companies as a designer in what is known as “fast fashion”, where clothing can go from concept to store rack in 15 days.

Working with large Canadian brands and their factories in China and India, Ms MacGillivray said she realised the job was not for her.

“The whole way that the fashion industry works, I had a really hard time with,” she said by phone. “The model most in use is very much [to] convince people that what they have is no good so they’ll buy more, and make as much stuff as you can, as cheap as you can so you can sell a tonne of it. There was a huge value-disconnect for me.”

It was then that Ms MacGillivray discovered the NBCCD textiles programme, moving there to learn to weave and planning to study microeconomics and developing countries in the fashion world. But the hands-on work was what she missed about fashion, leading her to stay and study fibre arts and textiles, then work as a technician and finally get taken on as an instructor.

“I’m a really avid spinner – kind of like the old fairytales,” she explained.

“I exist in the world of textiles. I’m definitely not ignorant to economics; I enjoy concepts of economics, but I’m not an economist.

“My husband and I, we’re currently looking for land to build a small farm on, to have a fibre flock. And I think that part of that business model for me is getting tours on to the farm, so people can see, okay, this is where fibre and material come from.

“When you can help people make the connection between this material which was made by these hands, it came from this field, which supports this community or it came from this animal, then people start to be more willing to pay more and then also treasure that thing, so they need less. So it’s not, ‘I’ve got to spend $200 for four sweaters every four months’.

“Connect the producers of fibre and fibre animals with the people who have the nous, the process and the equipment, the hobbyists, the knitters, weavers, and then also the people who can do it on a small-scale commercial scale to make products and sell [them].”

Ms MacGillivray said that drawing on the example of the local food movement and a backlash against fast fashion, could bring success to New Brunswick.

She argued that education, marketing and a strong local presence from farm to weaver to designer, would be key.

“Fifteen years ago there was an attitude of people, ‘I just want the cheapest stuff I can get’,” she said. “The stereotypical answer to ‘where does my food come from?’ from people in the cities was, ‘Well, from the store’.

“And then the local food movement did a really job of educating people as to why buy local, why pay more, and elevated their product into a health product that supports your community. It also has a bit of a luxury kind of feeling to it. And I think that’s what we need with textiles.

“Fashion has evolved along the same lines as fast food.

“That, I think, is a really unsustainable model, just in terms of the amount of waste created by that model. We see the horrors of that industry in the news with the factory collapses in Bangladesh because the producers are sort of forced into more narrow margins by the companies that are selling the stuff.

“And I think that that is not what we need in New Brunswick. We need a really good PR campaign to get people away from buying cheap – which is actually low quality and it’s not going to be good in six months’ time – to spending more money, investing in the community. And if you can see that this is supporting New Brunswick, there might be more of a drive to do that. Spend a bit more money but have a piece that will last longer. And you can wear it for 10-20 years.”

What would a local economy look like in NB?

Illustration by Artist in Residence Jason Skinner. Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported


Will local sell?

Briggs & Little and Legacy Lane are emphatically local, but source raw materials for weaving from further afield and sell to further afield because there isn’t enough production or sales in New Brunswick. Could changing the local system, from farm to shop, help?

Alex McIntosh oversees business and research at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts London, and is also managing director of fashion brand Christopher Raeburn.5 The centre does education, consultancy, business development and research into how fashion can exist within ecological limits and deliver better lives for those working in the sector.

Mr McIntosh, having a business himself, said that while he likes and encourages the idea of localism, it isn’t something he would force on businesses. In the case of Christopher Raeburn, the UK no longer has the skills or manufacturing base for technical, sports-wear focused items, meaning the work is best done outside the UK while they focus on heavy wool outerwear made at home.

“I also recognise that fashion is a massive global economy, for good and for bad,” he said by phone from London. “And certainly I never assume that working locally is automatically a more sustainable option. It is if you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re doing it in the right way, and if it really is about connecting to your community and finding the skills and the materials and the resources you need. I don’t assume that that is always the right option for a business.

“You have to be clever and you have to think about the real specialism or a particular geography. What can that place deliver? What resources are available?

“If you’re going right back to the farm, and flax and linen, I’ve looked at this a lot in the UK and we have a big problem because we simply don’t have the technology or the machinery in place, or available affordable workforce to be able to engage in a human-resource heavy textile industry like linen production.

“It’s really hard to make it financially viable when you set it against the cost of producing some of the things in the East Asia. I don’t necessarily think that’s good, but it’s the reality.

By contrast, John Little said that people love the idea of buying local, but when push comes to shove, and consumers could save a dollar on something from elsewhere, “More than likely I think a lot of them would save the dollar”.

“Even if it’s developed with the idea of local, you’re still going to have to export out of here probably to make it viable,” he added. “And that isn’t really easy either. We’re so far from everywhere, from bigger markets. It’s the same for things coming in as well as going out too.”

Mini mills, said Mr Little, can produce the uniqueness of wool from one farm or area, but the cost can be 5–7 times the going price of similar commercially produced yarn. That has a market, but a lesser one. Everything was local at one time, with a mill for processing wool every 40–50 miles in New Brunswick, he said. Transportation has changed all that. It has made it easier to get products in, and so North American production, of wool and also dyes, has gone east.

“Our local stores in the little community we live in now, they’re basically just convenience stores,” he lamented. “People don’t buy their week’s worth of groceries at the local general store anymore. Everybody goes to Fredericton – it’s a 45-minute drive from here, so they are going to one of the big chains. And that’s the bulk of their supplies and then they just buy the fill-in stuff through the week at home.”

Alyson Brown said part of the problem is that local crafting has been confused with “crafts”, either the cheaper goods sold in tourism stops, or the quality goods that consumers perceive to be beyond the range of their wallets. You don’t need to be from a higher social class to celebrate industriousness and industry of craft.

“It can be an everyday thing,” she said. “Make it more accessible to people, have it more celebrated, have more fairs and more funding to things that celebrate it. Educate people on the history of it and how things were done.

“Even in New Brunswick we’ve got a pretty strong textile industry if we look at Briggs & Little. If we could somehow get people learning about the history of textiles, from where it was and where it is now, and doing that full circle. . .

“I am positive. I think there’s real promise for it and for craft in general, not just the textile industry. I use the word craft a lot because I feel like I understand its meaning. The unfortunate thing about the word craft in the rest of the world is there’s two different kinds of craft: there’s fine craft and hand-made art, and then there is kraft with a K, the tole painted birdhouses and the glued stones, the not-real-silver rings. And I don’t mean to be too harsh in that, but I think that’s kind of the importance of craftsmanship.”

Ms Brown is emphatic that there is an “absolute necessity” of pairing natural fibre with the textile industry, in New Brunswick and beyond.

“A lot was lost when the industrial revolution happened and we started working with the synthetic fibres,” she said. “Sure, a lot was gained too, but unfortunately we lost a real sense of an age-old craft and tradition that happened in homes all over the world.

“All of our clothes at one time we created by use of two sticks or a loom or a needle and thread. This is an age-old craft. To abandon that and leave the hand-made behind is just a really sad thing.

“We just don’t know where anything comes from anymore.

“Have that connection with ourselves, what we wear and what we eat, put on ourselves and put into ourselves – if you want to get corny, interweaving of people’s lives – growing something and raising something and harvesting it and transforming it.”

What is New Brunswick’s connection to textiles beyond the businesses operating today? The heritage is worth remembering.

PART 2 – The fields of blue, and ‘Scratchy as hell’

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.

Reading Rainbow ‘Check it Out’: 30 years on

The team behind the music video in the TV show’s first episode talk about the performance and literacy in America today

"The Ringmaster"

Richard Seltzer Snr as “The Ringmaster” in “Check It Out”

What do a Transylvanian toad, a ringmaster, a New Jersey library and America’s stagnant literacy rates have in common?

For 30 years, a children’s TV show – and its now tablet app descendant – have been trying to convey a joy of reading and the adventure to be found inside a book.

Reading Rainbow debuted on June 8, 19831 with the episode “Tight Times”, centred around the book of the same name by Barbara Shook Hazen2.

A young girl beset by boredom and a lack of money is introduced to the library by host LeVar Burton.

Original Reading Rainbow logo

Original Reading Rainbow logo. Courtesy

The resulting musical number shows staff and readers of all ages sitting on bookshelves and transforming into magical characters, darting in and out of the stacks, and running down the curving staircase shouting in praise of libraries in voices far louder than you’d ever hear in a library.

The song, “Check It Out”, brought together a Broadway choreographer, a young composer and actors at the start of careers that would later lead to top shows such as Treme and The Sopranos.

“Little did we know,” Mr Burton told Tomorrow, “that that little music video would be a part of the new way of story telling on TV in terms of matching imagery with narrative, either sung or, in the case of Reading Rainbow, spoken.

“We were just looking for ways to flesh out that idea that in tight times there are things that one can do to enhance one’s opportunities in life, and the library – at least in 1983 – was chief amongst those assets.”

Thirty years on from that music video in the first Reading Rainbow episode, Tomorrow tracks down those who made it happen and what it meant to them, and to reading. And we ask why child literacy rates remain stagnant, even as the number of libraries has risen.

“Check It Out” from Reading Rainbow from MARC ARAMIAN on Vimeo.


The Choreographer

Sammy Dallas Bayes3 was in high demand after the film adaptation of the musical Godspell and his Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof. Nominated for a 1969 Tony Award for best choreographer for Canterbury Tales, Mr Bayes was doing corporate work when he was asked to put together a song and dance number for the new PBS show, Reading Rainbow.

“It was basically a walk in the park,” he recalls in a call from his home in New York State. “It all sort of fell into place, and kept very simple and child-like, telling the story, and how you best get young kids interested in the library.

“They loved to go to the movies and see comics so my thought was what we do is set it up in a working library and transform it into fantasy. Everybody who was in the actual library, whether they worked there, whether they were reading books or checking out books, really became part of the fabric for the young girl.”

Shot in Millburn Free Public Library in New Jersey4, Mr Bayes said the location was ideal for turning a functioning library into a fantasy world.

“The book stacks had been there for years and were pretty large and I guess bolted to the floor,” he said. “All we had to do was get a high crane shot to just get above it. We looked at locations and that was one of our concerns: how easy would it be to shoot in the space we had?

“Having that area above the book stacks really made the decision for us because it completely opened up where I could put the camera, without being close to the ceiling. So it was a blessing more than anything else. It just gave it a different look.”

A year after “Check It Out”, Mr Bayes appeared himself in another Reading Rainbow episode, centred around the choreographing of a musical number “Teamwork”. He remembers both his daughters seeing the episodes in school and when he watched it again after being contacted by Tomorrow, he said it still works.

“It seems to be the kind of subject matter and vision that teachers in grade school can turn to as guidance, by using ‘Check It Out’ or ‘Teamwork’,” said the 74-year-old. “Imagination was brought out by what you could find in the library, by reading a book.

“I had not looked at the piece in such a long time and I thought, ‘oh, what a nice idea that was’. It’s simplistic, it’s something a young mind can follow, and you can see the idea of what a library would do. I felt very good about it. I enjoyed doing both of those pieces. It was a very good experience for me.”


The Composer

Mr Bayes asked a then young composer, Marc Aramian5, to put together the music to achieve the library vision. Mr Aramian admitted he was surprised that his linguistic experiments worked.

But when he recently showed the video of “Check it Out” to his daughter, she said, “That’s the goofiest thing I’ve ever seen”, he recounts.

“There’s a mixture of pride and embarrassment when you see some of your early work,” he said. “Watching it brought back this flood of memories.

“It was a real labour of love. I regularly contribute to causes and I was proud to be considered for something like that. I was the novice in the whole crew and it was very kind of them to think that I could handle it. And I think they were pleased with it. It was the first TV show that I ever did and my first Broadway-type thing.”

Speaking via Skype from his home in Los Angeles, Mr Aramian said: “My mandate was to create a track that would help tell the story about what was great about the library. So I wrote the lyrics and the music for this tune and did a demo and passed it around – everyone liked it.

“I really went out on a ledge I think because I was doing some wild things lyrically, talking about ‘open up your eyeballs wide’ and the bridge section about the ‘Transylvanian toad’ and the ‘equatorial road’ and all those kinds of things were just sort of flights of fancy that I never thought they’d like. But they liked them. I was really pleased about that.”

Mr Aramian said that LeVar Burton’s vocal part had to be him, while the other characters could be recorded from local singers. The actor, who went on to host Reading Rainbow until 2006 and continues to guide the parent company RRKidz6, flew to Atlanta where Mr Aramian collected him from the airport, took him to dinner and then to the recording studio the next day.

“Some of things were a bit out of his range so he talks some of it – you know, the Rex Harrison method of singing,” he said. “But he did it with such enthusiasm.

“Back in those days you didn’t have digital playback so you had to have a special playback rig that remained in sync while everybody lip-synced to the action and so there were technical hurdles that had to be handled.”

Mr Aramian had a number of jobs before turning to composing. After a degree in industrial and systems engineering from Georgia Tech, he started a plastics manufacturing company with his family, ran the IT department in an insurance company, then bought out a partner at a customer furniture firm. He got involved in amateur opera and a retired composer-conductor taught Mr Aramian to read music. But his first attempt at composing wasn’t profitable and he went to work in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia before returning to the US to try music again.

After two years of pounding the pavement before getting his first job, it was while doing the corporate work with Mr Bayes that the “huge draw” of PBS arrived.

“Sammy had some notoriety and he was kind enough to include me in this thing,” he said. “I was carving out a career in Atlanta at that time and I wasn’t a huge fan of Broadway. My background was more in pop, with a pinch of R&B and I wanted to bring that sensibility to the track rather than the Broadway style that was popular at the time. I was really just starting out in my career.”

Mr Aramian has continued composing full time since the Reading Rainbow gig, including the Flag Ceremony at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, feature films, records and more than 90 TV documentaries.


The performers

Marc Aramian was not the only one at the start of his career during “Check It Out”. The young girl battling boredom, played by Cassandra Murray, did an early Cosby Show episode. Donna Smythe, who played the flame-haired librarian in the number, would later appear in the role of Gia Gaeta in The Sopranos. She passed away in September 20127.

Venida Evans8 flew down the stairs as the “Fairy Queen of Books” at the start of three decades of work, including Mrs Brooks in HBO’s Treme and the award-winning film Transamerica. She also made a $8000-winning appearance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and was “The Muse” – or “the Ikea lady” in the Swedish firm’s ad campaign starting in 2008. Ms Evans was not available for interview for this piece.

Dick Seltzer Snr played “the ringmaster” in “Check It Out”, marking the start of his second career after a long contribution to education.

Mr Seltzer, now 90, had a stroke in 2009 and is unable to speak, but his children said he always remembered the role fondly. After serving in World War II, he had gone from teacher to superintendent of schools in Rockville and Baltimore, Maryland, Plymouth, New Hampshire, and the suburbs of Philadelphia where he was superintendent in Bristol Township, Huntingdon Valley, and Columbia. He was also dean of Plymouth State College in New Hampshire during his career.

When he retired at 55, he decided to go into acting, something he continued until he was 85.

Richard Seltzer Snr

Images of Richard Seltzer Snr in assorted acting and performance roles, courtesy the Seltzer family.

Richard Seltzer Jnr, who himself is involved in books and runs an ebook publisher9,  said: “I remember when he did that, and we have a tape of it. I don’t believe he was paid for his work in the pilot. It was a way to showcase his talents, with the hope that he might get a part in the show.

“Dad was always involved in education, so it was a perfect role for him.”

Daughter Raven Sadhaka Seltzer, an author and reiki master10, added: “I was actually just going through my father’s acting portfolio the other night and he had some still shots in there from this ‘Reading Rainbow’ segment. The make-up they created for his ringmaster character was quite amazing.

“I think I was in college when this was produced. I know that my dad really enjoyed being part of the production and I’m sure it was appealing that it was for PBS. Our father was an educator by profession and was always interested in ways to help people learn and devoted most of his professional life to that end.”

LeVar Burton laughs when he recounts the styles of 1983.

“There’s certainly a dated aspect – outfits, hairstyle, you name it,” he said by phone from California. “However, at its core, as innocent and guileless as it was, it was an attempt to really connect with kids around the idea that the library is a great place to check out.

“It has become for a generation one of those seminal pieces of media, like the ‘Teamwork’ video. People remember those Reading Rainbow dance numbers, as corny as they were. People remember them and they had impact over time. It was an honest attempt to connect to audiences.”


The Library

Milburn Free Public Library, where “Check It Out” was filmed, was stripped of identifying marks to give it more of an “any library” look.

Children’s librarian Patt Kent, who worked at the 25,000+ square feet, 1976 building at the time of the Reading Rainbow visit, said it had a positive impact on reading and the library.

She said: “People recognised our library from the show and came to see it in person. Also, town residents joined the library in increased numbers.

“We purchased all the books that were featured on the program, so we had increased circulation. I think the program in general helped make reading into a much more fun activity. It wasn’t just for nerdy kids.

“Also, meeting LeVar Burton and talking to him about the importance of libraries and reading in his life was inspiring to us all. The kids just loved that he loved reading, and so they loved it too. It was a great experience for us all.”

Check It Out

Screen grab from the end of Check It Out in the Reading Rainbow episode “Tight Times”, filmed on the staircase of Milburn Free Public Library

Milburn Free Public Library

Milburn Free Public Library, New Jersey, looking down the staircase used in “Check It Out”. Courtesy Michael D Banick, library director.

Since the start of Reading Rainbow, new technology has frequently been heralded as bringing the end of libraries and the print book, but neither has happened. According to the American Library Association (ALA)11, the number of public libraries has actually increased by 14 per cent since 1983, but so too has the reach of those libraries, with 10 per cent more branches in communities. Those figures don’t include school, college, university or other libraries.

But literacy scores are still struggling. Figures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show measures for youngsters in grades four, eight and 12 to be virtually flat between 1992 and 201112. And 2003 estimates calculated that tens of millions of adult Americans lacked basic prose literacy skills.

Reading Rainbow infographic

Infographic of Reading Rainbow, libraries and literacy in the US

Download pdf of infographic here.

“It’s not only the number of libraries increasing,” said ALA president Barbara Stripling, “but the types of programming and the public outreach of libraries has really skyrocketed. What we’re finding is the use of libraries, even in a recession, has gone way up.

“Libraries are no longer focused just on resources and certainly no longer focused just on print material, and I think that willingness to think about libraries as places of conversation and learning and exchange of ideas and access to electronic information and e-books and places where families can come.”

Ms Stripling said with local capital investment, more libraries are becoming community centres, offering virtual programmes and attracting new patrons such as business people who might not have considered them before.

“Yes, we have all of this information, but it’s really too much to handle,” she said. “And it is not necessarily reliable information, it’s not easy to navigate, and our kids and adults need the skills to make sense of all of this, to find the good information, to evaluate it and then use it for whatever they are trying to do.

“Part of what we are trying to do is to change the definition of literacy, beyond basic decoding-type skills to literacy as an empowerment, that not only can you decode it but you understand it and then you can use that to draw your own conclusions or create your own ideas, your own product.

“We are trying our hardest. I find the NAEP scores to be very disappointing and there are certainly huge pockets of people throughout the US who are not at the level we want them to be. I believe part of that is that I think we try too hard to teach them to read rather than encouraging them to read on their own and become independent readers, which has a huge impact on the literacy rate. It is a struggle and every librarian of every type and every educator is focused on it.”

Sammy Dallas Bayes said the current “overdosing” on electronics is limiting people, but that children and adults will find balance again.

“I think we’re going through a phase with the electronics,” he explained, “where we’re becoming a short sentence, short paragraph, short story kind of living, not the full gamut of what we are capable of doing. I do feel there are a lot of times where the young are missing out with too many video games – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you can overdose on anything.

“There are times now where we’re overdosing on that and that’s taking away from literature and the gaining of any knowledge through literature. How much, I don’t know.

“I think there are good things that happen but I think there’s a lot being lost at the same time by lessening our connection with literature and with reading. I think we’re losing a lot because right now we are overdosing on the electronic world – it’s a really exciting thing that we’re all jumping on, especially the young.

“Somewhere down the road, the new approach and the old approach will even itself out.”

Marc Aramian said the state of literacy was “so sad” and that as many schools were struggling as were finding success.

“I think there’s an establishment in education which is trying to prevent change and there are many brave people who are trying to do what they can to make a change,” he said.

“There are so many entrenched interests in education that it’s difficult for a sea change to occur. And really it should be a return to traditional learning, but that has been lost in the name of loftier goals. I thought Reading Rainbow was terrific. It brought the excitement of reading to an audience that was stuck in front of TV.

“And while I make my living in the entertainment business, I think there’s been some grave disservice done to cultures around the world by distracting people from more important things, like learning. I think the human mind is going to gravitate to funner things, and when we have so many distractions, it makes it very difficult for parents and teachers to get kids to learn.

“I cheer the people who are trying to improve literacy.”

In 2011, LeVar Burton took on the Reading Rainbow licence and with business partners launched an iPad app in June 2012, becoming the top downloaded app within 36 hours13.

“Libraries continue to be a critical part of the infrastructure of universal access for all Americans, when talking about this digital divide,” said Mr Burton. “Libraries have managed to remain relevant in this conversion from the world of print to digital literature and I believe going forward we will continue to rely on them even more, as a source, a marketplace for content of all kinds, as well as a place we can guarantee universal access for all American citizens.

“We are beginning to expand our idea of the nature of literacy, not just the literacy of language and of reading, but we need cultural literacy, we need emotional literacy – these are all of the skills that one is required to have in order to be a successful human being in today’s world.

“We are faced with a challenge now of having to develop a balanced approach to how we consume everything, especially our information and our educational content. The choices are myriad and the opportunities to distract ourselves into oblivion are numerous.

“A steady diet of Grand Theft Auto is not going to get it done. If you do nothing but play Halo for 16 hours a day, you’re not going to be equipped with the challenges of living in the real world. We have to develop discernment in the face of a myriad of choices.”

Reading Rainbow has been so important in so many people’s lives, said ALA’s Barbara Stripling, lifting reading from the page to real people and real interactions.

“Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow – there have been a few that have been pivotal to people’s lives,” she said. “And there are lots of stories of people who learned to read by watching those shows, both in terms of motivation and also getting an understanding of how language works and why you would want to [read].”

Mr Burton said he will continue to champion literacy and reading.

“I’d like to think we made a difference,” he said. “I get the sort of feedback everyday in my life, on the street, that we made a difference, that we occupied a significant place in the lives of adults now, as they were growing up. We’re proud of that.”

Ms Stripling added: “Reading Rainbow has had a huge impact on libraries because it opens up the world of books, the world of discovery and takes kids into an interactive mode that they sometimes don’t get just from watching a regular television programme, so that they reach out and they are willing to be curious and to discover, and that certainly opens the door to reading and to checking books out of the library.”

  • Did “Check It Out” entice you into the library? What did Reading Rainbow do for you? How can America improve its literacy scores?

* * *

“Check it out”
(Music and lyrics by Marc Aramian)

First you need a card,
your ticket to the stacks,
If you check a book out,
you gotta bring it back.

Look around, check it out,
if you need a hand,
I’ll show you all the tools you need
to help you understand.

Check it out, check it out, check it out.
Don’t shout.
Check it out, check it out, check it out.

Books, books everywhere, find a place to hide.
Settle down and open up your eye balls wide.
Wish for all you want,
go for all you wish,
This is where you serve yourself your very favourite dish.

Check it out, check it out, check it out
Don’t shout.
Check it out, check it out, check it out

Feast on fantasy take a look inside.
Meet the fairy queen then take her for a ride
in your old jalopy on the Equatorial road.
Watch out for the flying fish
and the Transylvanian toad.

Open up your eyes and see the world for free,
Sail the crystal skies and skate the frozen sea,
These are more than doors that will open up your mind,
Take a look inside,
it’s up to you to find.

Stick your head inside these phones, records can’t be beat.
Flip your jets on these cassettes
with rock ‘n’ rollin’ beats
Magazines and movies comin’ out the walls.
Short, tall, rich, poor,
for one and all.

Check it out, check it out, check it out
Check it out, check it out, check it out

It’s all for free!
At the library!
Check it out!
Come and see!

Check it out!


No issues for principles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9.
10. Educate and entertain: Though a TV show is firmly in the “entertain” side, this piece aims to also educate on the way the first programme was made, and the literacy issues that continue to be a matter of concern and debate in the US and elsewhere.
11. Promote responsible debate and mediation: The issue of reading and literacy is larger than any single article. We encourage any comments or questions that will add to the discussion and evolution of the subject.

  3. A bio of Sammy Dallas Bayes.
  5. Mr Aramian declined to give his age.
  6. and
  7. An eBay auction of Ms Smythe’s headshots included a copy of her CV
  8. Venida Evans confirmed by email that she was the “Fairy Queen of Books” but was otherwise unavailable for interview.
  11. Number of libraries in 1983 and 2012: courtesy American Library Association, derived from 1983 Bowker Annual of Library and Book Trade Information (p337) using counts from the American Library Directory, and similarly 2013 Library and Book Trade Almanac (p359).
  12. School reading scores: NCES “fast facts” statistics answering, “How are American students performing at reading?” for intermittent years, obtained from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  13. and

The man who had a C-section

How one of Canada’s most important leaders and a ‘man of courage’ battled depression

● Instrumental in bringing ‘responsible government’ and modern democracy to Canada
● Opposed extending voting rights, debt and interest rates above 6 per cent
● Grandfather to Oscar Wilde’s lover and Canada’s first pilot

HE was one of the most instrumental figures in Canadian history, widely respected as a great leader. His grandchildren included the first Canadian to fly an airplane and Oscar Wilde’s lover.

And yet Robert Baldwin was a troubled and tortured soul, struggling with what today might be diagnosed as severe depression; a man stuck in a world eager to move faster than his traditional beliefs would allow.

Even while leading the country he had times when he hid from the world for months, bursting into tears when his co-leader1 came to visit him. But it was the circumstances of his death, and his “cultish” devotion to his dead wife, that cements Baldwin’s place as one of Canada’s most unique leaders.

A new book out this year will detail Baldwin’s struggles with modernisers eager to push the frontiers west, as well as with his own demons.

Michael Cross, emeritus professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia,2 says Baldwin should be seen as “courageous”.

“He is an extremely important person,” says Dr Cross, “and a very strange person, which made the appeal [for me] all the greater – someone who was as troubled as he was his whole life, was able to accomplish, basically, laying the groundwork for our modern system of government in Canada.

“Part of the man’s strangeness was that he spent the last seven years of his life after he retired from politics almost in complete isolation, except for his family. And much of it was spent organising his papers, copying papers, living in the past – his own past and in particular the past of his dead wife.

“She was the great force in his life. For 22 years after her death he saw his life as culminating when he was able to join her, so much so that it became a death cult really.”

He helped introduce the idea of “responsible government” – self-government and parliamentary accountability – and arguably founded the University of Toronto. But above all else, Robert Baldwin was brave. Not only did he stand up for ideas that were behind the time – such as a six per cent cap on interest rates and avoiding debt – but he probably never should have been a politician in the first place, according to the forthcoming A Biography Of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star Of Memory3. And the “absolute devastation” at the death of his wife Eliza4 flung him over the edge.

For two decades after Eliza died, he prepared himself to be with her in death and left strict instructions about his funeral and other wishes. But his eldest daughter, bitter at being prevented from marrying as she was expected to care for her father, ignored his wishes.

It was only a month after he was buried in 1858 that his son William5 found a copy of the instructions in the breast pocket of a suit jacket – Baldwin carried them with him in case he died away from home, says Dr Cross.

“What was to happen was he was to have an operation performed on his body, a Caesarean section, so he could have the same scar as Eliza did. They were to be in the family tomb, side by side, with her coffin on the left so she was closest to his heart. The coffins were to be chained together. He was to have her handkerchief on his chest and her letters on his chest when he was put away.

“So the son got senior male members of the family together with the family physician, they opened up the tomb which was in the side of the hill which is now Casa Loma, which was where the family home was. They opened the tomb, went in, opened his coffin and the family physician performed the operation on his corpse.

“There is simply a scrawled note by his eldest son saying, essentially, ‘We found these instructions and carried them out’.”

* * *

Baldwin was born on May 12,1804 in York in what is now part of the sprawling city of Toronto, Ontario. His aristocratic family had been important Anglican figures in Cork, Ireland who had tried to resolve the clash between Irish and English, and when that wasn’t possible, they moved to Canada.

Dr Cross adds that when Baldwin was almost 23, he fell in love with his first cousin, Eliza, then only 15. The Sullivan family sent her to relatives in New York in hope “their ardour would die”. It didn’t.

“They exchanged not only letters but vibrations,” he says. “They read the same passage of the Bible at the same time every day so they would be in kind of mental contact. She came home, the family gave in. [In] 1827 they got married, they had four children, they were deliriously happy.

“She was this idealised creature for him. If you look at her, there’s nothing there that is ideal. She was rather homely. Her letters were kittenish but nothing substantial. But to him, she was everything – this lonely young man who felt out of place among aristocrats who were sophisticated and worldly. For him, she was everything.”

Personally, he seems to have been happy – in their nine years of marriage, the couple had four children, two girls and two boys6. Politically, Robert Baldwin came last in his first attempt, in 1828. But in December 1829, he was elected in a by-election to the parliament of Upper Canada, replacing John Beverley Robinson to represent York, where the parliament was based, only to be defeated in the general election the next year.7

He then retreated to private life until 1836, when Eliza died.

“1836 is an example of this man’s courage,” asserts Dr Cross. “His wife died in January 1836. Six weeks later, a new lieutenant governor of the province, Sir Francis Bond Head8, came out with instructions from Britain to try to reconcile the differences that were tearing the Canadian political scene apart.

“So he decided to call people from all political elements together into his executive, among them Robert Baldwin.

“Baldwin was out of politics but he had this reputation of the man of not only substance but a man of great integrity. He was called to enter the executive and he felt it was his duty to do so, and six weeks after his wife’s death, he entered into the executive.

“Still grieving deeply, and yet, duty calls; he has to respond – for an experiment which lasted a couple of weeks because it was clear Bond Head wasn’t prepared to listen to the executive, so they all resigned and created a giant political crisis which contributed to the rebellion the next year.”

After the rebellion of 1837-1838, Baldwin suggested the concept of responsible government and became a member of the first executive council when Upper and Lower Canada – modern Ontario and Quebec – united to become the provinces of Canada West and Canada East in 1841. Baldwin would stay in the legislature for the next 10 years, twice as co-premiers effectively with Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, his friend and Lower Canada ally.

In the first parliament of the Canadas in 1841, Baldwin was elected in both Hastings and 4th York constituencies and chose Hastings, while LaFontaine represented York. When Baldwin was defeated in the 1842 election, he accepted a Lower Canada seat and was returned by acclamation in Rimouski the next year.

It was not until 1848, however, that the government introduced responsible government – Canada’s modern form of parliamentary rule.

Dr Cross credits this to Baldwin’s Irish heritage – it was a system that was conciliatory and would “bring political peace”.

Baldwin recognised French Canada was “central” and that “no political system could function without French Canadian support”.

Dr Cross says: “Even though he had no experience with French Canada [and] he didn’t speak French, he staked his whole political future on an alliance with French Canada, [and] sent his children to schools in Lower Canada, in Quebec.

“His daughters went to a convent in Quebec City, his sons to a school in Quebec City, so that, as he told them, they would not suffer the miserable embarrassment that he had at not being able to speak French.”

But despite his clear leadership on one level, Baldwin was far from a natural politician and had inherited a love for the law from his father, though he was not himself a particularly good lawyer.

“You have to feel sorry that he was, in many respects, cast into this role that he thought he was unsuited for – the role of political leadership,” says Dr Cross. “He wrote often that he felt that this was not the right role for him to play, that being in public was not a comfortable experience for him.

“His father was this larger-than-life character: a duellist, both a doctor and a lawyer, loved politics, loved running the law. So Baldwin loved the laws and institution and felt it was the kind of cement of society.

“I think he would have been happy serving the law. He didn’t have to work – he was wealthy. He could have spent his time running the benches of the law society. Certainly he was happy in the years between 1830 and 1836 when he was out of politics except to support interest groups, and spend his time with his wife.”

* * *

The Baldwins’ last child, Robert, was born by Caesarean section in 1834, an enormously dangerous procedure at that time. Eliza never recovered and died a year and a half later in the family’s Front Street house in Toronto.

Throughout the years he was hailed a political hero, along with LaFontaine, Baldwin battled nostalgia and anticipation of reuniting with Eliza.

Soon after the government collapsed just a few weeks after Eliza’s death, Baldwin went to England and then Ireland to examine places significant to the family history. He went to the graveyards of all the ancestors and took sod from each, carefully wrapping them up to be shipped back to Upper Canada.

This was Baldwin’s healing method. When he returned to Toronto, he kept Eliza’s room exactly as she had left it and allowed nobody to enter until his eldest daughter was 21.

And he began recreating their wedding on the anniversary annually, by first visiting the church, then back to the home, and picking a sprig of lilac from the same bush he went to on the wedding day. Baldwin would then spend the rest of the day in her room.

“Needless to say, given this mentality, he was a victim of severe depression throughout much of his adult life, and during the time he was running the government he was the victim of severe depression,” says Dr Cross.

The Baldwin Home

Today, Casa Loma in Austin Terrace, Toronto, is a museum. Building work began on this city landmark in 1911.

But almost a century earlier, it was home to the Baldwins. Spadina, as it was called,  was in the woods, up on a hill, well out of the city.

Dr Cross says that the property had a “goose walk” down to the street – a path which Baldwin’s aunt used to walk geese down to the water. Steps down the hillside led to the stream and a resting place, half way down, had a little book in which visitors or family were to write something, preferably poetry.

Baldwin grew vegetables and had fruit trees. He had a lemon tree that he kept indoors; he wrote home in his letters, complaining, “No-one has told me how my lemon tree is doing” when he was away running the government in Montreal.

When Spadina was sold, Robert and Eliza Baldwin’s bodies were removed from the family tomb and were reburied in St James Cemetery, in Bloor Street.

“There is one, very vivid account of him in 1850, one of his worst depressions where he was incapacitated for several months. He was simply unable to function. He stayed in a dark room in his home. And his partner, LaFontaine, in a letter to another friend, said he came to see Baldwin, was ushered into this dark room and he was absolutely flabbergasted because Baldwin had this reputation as a very withdrawn, in many ways severe, unemotional man in public. So LaFontaine came in to see him and suddenly Baldwin burst into tears and couldn’t stop sobbing.

“And you could see through the letter that LaFontaine was absolutely flabbergasted, no idea what to do, when this monument was flowing tears. All he could do was try to urge Baldwin to at least let his family help him.

“Needless to say it damaged his government to have the head of the government unable to function for months at a time.”

Throughout this period, the public did not know what was going on, although there was speculation and rumours in the newspapers. Even his supporters wondered if Baldwin would return.

Dr Cross says the depression may have contributed to Baldwin’s final departure from politics in 1851, in a flood of tears after giving his resignation speech.

Author John Ralston Saul, in his 2011 book for the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series9 on LaFontaine and Baldwin, credits the pair with ushering in democracy in Canada.

But Dr Cross disagrees and describes Baldwin as more of a conservative man who inherited liberalism from his family.

“He opposed the abolition of primogeniture – that system where estates were divided among children,” says Dr Cross. “He still believed that the eldest son should inherit the whole estate so that property could be maintained.

“He was opposed to extending the franchise [for voting rights] because he believed that property was the only basis for independence. If you didn’t have property, you couldn’t be independent – you owed somebody and therefore you could not exercise political judgement independently.

“He opposed modernisation in things like usury. He opposed removal of limits on interest rates. At the time, legally, no interest rate higher than six per cent could be charged. And he tried to maintain that against those that wanted higher interest rates to allow capital to be generated.

“He opposed the removal of dower rights. Dower was a system that allowed a woman to have a claim on one third of her husband’s estate. And again, those that wanted a rapid turnover of capital saw this as a barrier. Women could hold on to land that could be instead turned into capital.”

The changes Baldwin opposed increasingly brought him into conflict with colleagues in the run-up to his resignation. As Dr Cross says, Baldwin could not come to terms with the modern direction of politics, particularly the railway age, which demanded the freeing up of financial capital. There was no room for somebody like Baldwin with his old-fashioned view of land and property.

“Politically the great irony of this man is that he created in responsible government a system which allowed these modernisers to come to power and simply wipe out his class and destroy his vision of the world,” says Dr Cross. “He was driven out of office in 1851and the railway promoters, the financiers took over politics.”

Baldwin’s colleague Francis Hincks, who succeeded him as leader, was “the moderniser, the hustler, the mining promoter, the guy who was always looking for the next buck”, eventually unleashing an “orgy of railway construction” that bankrupted municipalities and the province.

“Baldwin somehow never understood what his colleague was about,” says Dr Cross, “even though as early as 1843, Hincks wrote to Baldwin and said, ‘We are fighting now, the battle of the middle class against the aristocracy’. And here’s Baldwin – who if anyone’s an aristocrat in Canada, he’s it – doesn’t respond, doesn’t recognise the import of what Hincks is saying.

“Baldwin’s resignation speech to parliament, June 30, 1851, is full of his final recognition that things have spun out of his control, the control of his class.

“He says there’s a want of first principles in politics and in economics, as he understands it, his first principles, his set of understanding of how the world ought to operate.”

* * *

Dr Cross’s biography is the first full-scale attempt since the 1930s, adding new information and papers from France. But most other volumes on Baldwin are political biographies and Dr Cross says he was keen to re-integrate the political history into social history.

Baldwin's family vault

Contributed pic by Michael Stewart of the headstone marking the vault of Robert and Eliza Baldwin, in St James Cemetery, Toronto.

After Baldwin’s death, his children had mixed fortunes. Maria, the eldest, was prevented from marrying and died a “bitter spinster” in 1866. The eldest son, William, inherited the family home but frittered away the money and had to sell it, the property eventually being torn down. Robert Baldwin Jnr became a “religious fanatic and embarrassed the family by standing on street corners preaching”.

The next generation, however, found fame in different corners. Robert Baldwin Snr’s second daughter, Augusta Maria, married a politician and had a son, Robbie Ross. He became a journalist and, allegedly, Oscar Wilde’s first male lover.

Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, grandson of William, was the first Canadian to pilot an airplane, helping build the early experimental Silver Dart with Alexander Graham Bell, flown first in the US and later Nova Scotia.

Baldwin, despite Canadian “Heritage Minutes” on television over the years10, has not been as recognised as other Canadian leaders – his headstone in Toronto’s St James’ Cemetery had fallen down and was overgrown when Dr Cross visited while researching his book.

So what does the historian want readers to take away with them from the story of Robert Baldwin?

“I’m not sure people realise how complex political leaders often are in Canada,” concludes Dr Cross. “One thinks of Mackenzie King and his spiritualism, talking to his dead mother, his dead dog, and yet by consensus our greatest prime minister. John A Macdonald, desperately unhappy personal life, his excessive drinking, and yet obviously an enormously important and accomplished prime minister.

“There’s something about Canada that has given us very strange but very courageous and accomplished leaders.”

* * *

The book was published on September 20, 2012 – details here.

Other resources:
The National Film Board has a short cinematic telling of one of Baldwin’s most important moments during the rebellion of 1837. Robert Baldwin: A Matter Of Principle, 1961 by John Howe.

  1. Dr Michael Cross: “Baldwin formed the United Reform Party with LaFontaine when the Union of Canada, Quebec and Ontario, was launched in 1841. Baldwin deferred to LaFontaine to confirm his his commitment to justice for French Canada. So LaFontaine was called to form a Reform government in September 1842. However, they were really co-leaders of the ministry, as Attorneys General East and West. A similar pattern was followed when they resumed office in 1848, and they continued as co-leaders until June 1851.”
  3. Cross, Michael. A Biography Of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star of Memory. Oxford University Press, Canada. Expected publication, September 2012.
  4. Augusta Elizabeth Sullivan, born in Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, June 11, 1809. Died in Toronto, January 11, 1836.
  5. William Willcocks Baldwin, born May 20, 1830, died 1903.
  6. In order, Phoebe Maria (February 27, 1828 – 1866), William Willcocks (as above), Augusta Maria (December 13, 1831 – 1871) and Robert (April 17, 1834 – 1885).
  9. and see Christopher Moore’s review of the book at
  10. Two Heritage Minutes on Baldwin: and

Tea for the ladies who lunch

How decades of friendship carried on across generations

The Lunch Bunch

THE sandwiches are all different, in their small plastic bags or store packaging. From the counter overlooking the decorated table watch three pots of tea warming under bright cosies. The cups are filled constantly as dishes of sliced celery and carrot, pickles and olives pass around amidst a constant chatter and bursts of laughter.

Photos of children and grandchildren are handed around the long oval table to exclamations of “sweet” and “gorgeous” and the ladies settle down to lunch.

As the meal begins, Mary Ann Bibby recounts a story she heard on the CBC radio programme, As It Happens1, about a 550-pound bear found hiding in a basement in Hopatcong, New Jersey, last December2.

“Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that unreal? I thought that was good enough to bring to Lunch Bunch today,” says the 65-year-old.

“Well, that’s the second bear story,” says Jane Madsen, 69, referring to reports of a small black bear on the back of a dumpster truck in downtown Vancouver days earlier3.

This table is one of the area’s most stable communities, even if it has lost all its original members since first meeting on a Tuesday in 1984.

Most of its starting members had all graduated together from Saint John High School4 in the Canadian province of New Brunswick in 1932, and remained friends throughout the subsequent decades. At least two met on their first day of school, and knew each other for almost 90 years.

Nancy Davies, 59, started attending Lunch Bunch when her mother-in-law, Fran – one of those two childhood friends – lost her husband, Jack, and needed someone to drive her to the regular gatherings.

“I was a care giver,” Nancy says. “And Ruth very kindly said, ‘Stay – bring a sandwich’. So I did. And I’ve been coming ever since. And then even when Fran passed away, Ruth called and said she would like me to continue.”

Founder member and “boss” Ruth Brown, who passed away in 2008, was a Likely, a name that still continues in the group in the form of Barb Likely, 96, and Babs Likely, 93, connected through marriage. Ruth was also first cousin of David Likely Johnson, father to Elma Johnson-McKay, another member of the second generation Lunch Bunch.

The connections were key to Ruth’s invitations to new members. “I kind of got to come for two reasons I think,” says Elma, 61. “Because I was dad’s child that lived here and took care of dad because he was blind. And I like history and I like to read and when Ruth realised that I liked books as much as she liked books I was in like Flynn, so they say. And so I’ve been coming ever since.

“Once, I didn’t come on a Tuesday because I had some kind of appointment and I always remember what Ruth said: ‘Why? Why would you ever schedule anything on a Lunch Bunch day?’ So from then on, I tried never to miss, although occasionally I do.”

Jane chips in on her mother Ruth: “She used to get so mad at Barb Likely because in the winter Barb Likely went to Bible study on Lunch Bunch day and my mother was an atheist.”

Mary Ann came along when she was visiting from her home in Edmonton, Alberta, and brought her mum, Mary Warwick, who lived near another member of the Likely clan.

Mary Ann says: “It got so when I was coming home I would look at the calendar and buy my airline tickets around when I would arrive at like 10 o’clock in the morning before Lunch Bunch at 12. I had to be here for Lunch Bunch.”

Did Ruth only invite people she liked? Jane says it was not completely selfish – Ruth thought about Shirley James, now 84, being alone in her house and about friends who could not get about much without help.

“But she was also pretty much a megalomaniac,” jokes Jane. “She wanted people to come to her. She didn’t very often go to other people.”

But the idea of Lunch Bunch is not local. According to Jane, Ruth was visiting another daughter Rachel in Liverpool, England, and was invited to a lady’s home where a group of women met regularly for lunch. The hostess did not work, but her friends did and would bring their sandwiches at noon and spend their lunch hour together.

From the opposite end of the table, Carol Sutton explains her connection to the group – via Ruth, who was editing a book on the history of the area written by Carol’s daughter, Susanne5.

Tea time

The tea keeps flowing for the Lunch Bunch

Carol says: “The original group were the group of ladies that Ruth graduated with in 1932 from Saint John High School. And I remember when she asked me, I said, ‘Ruth? Me? I wasn’t even BORN in 1932.’

“I can remember some of those women were just so proper and I just liked to act out. One time I was teasing your mother [Ruth] and here I was a young whippersnipper [sic] and your mother, an elderly senior, and some of these women just looked at me. And Marion [Barker] said, ‘Carol, that’s an awful thing to say to Ruth.’ And I said, ‘Ach, Marion, she loves it.’ And she DID. She loved being bantered like that. But these women, they were proper ladies.”

The ladies all bring their own sandwiches, with the tea and dessert provided by the hostess – originally only Ruth, but later expanded to some of the younger members who had large enough dining tables.

Even after her death, Ruth is still in some ways the lynchpin of the group. Seven of the original members have died in the past decade.

“I think Lunch Bunch continues because it is a way to remember Ruth,” says Carol. “She was such a fun and interesting person. I just loved Ruth. I’m always mindful of Ruth at each and every Lunch Bunch gathering.”


Grand Bay-Westfield is an amalgamation from 1998 of the smaller communities along the western bank of the St John River, with a population today of little more than 5000 residents, spread across nearly 60sqkm of land.

The lunch bunch idea fits perfectly with an area not only of closely related families, but also of quiet suburbia.

View Larger Map

Direct arterial links pull traffic from Highway 7 down to the main Nerepis Road, both running parallel to the river and all flowing north from the city of Saint John to the province’s capital, Fredericton. New roads and homes hint at a district slowly evolving from its roots as being largely holiday cottages for city residents. Visiting children, commuting on trains that have long ago ceased to toot their horns at the homes, grew up together, swimming, skating or fishing on the river. Close bonds and marriages were part of the evolution of the town of Grand Bay and the village of Westfield.

Original Lunch Bunch member Isabel Scovil, for example, grew up in Saint John’s Seely Street, adjacent to Gooderich Street6 which was home to other eventual Lunch Bunch members. She used to play piano duets with Ruth.

Jeanie Lambert was a schoolfriend of Ruth’s, while Irmon Faye Duschenes moved to the area in the 1950s and taught art and music in Westfield with Ruth. Barb Likely’s husband, Bob, was Ruth’s first cousin, and Babs married another first cousin, Joe.

Shirley James, 84, who in her youth was a pilot and flew a De Havilland Tiger Moth biplane, is another newer member with longstanding connections to the others in the group – her father became the “ice man” for the summer homes, and went on to grow squashes and potatoes in Ruth’s family’s back field.

Phyllis Durrant, 93, another current Lunch Bunch member, grew up as a neighbour of Ruth on Gooderich Street, and dated the man Ruth later went on to marry, Bob Brown.

The connections run deep between past members and have carried on to those still meeting every Tuesday.

By the time Ruth brought the Lunch Bunch idea back from England, many of her friends were widowed or lived alone, and unless you had a car, you had no way to get to the facilities and activities in Saint John.

Most of the members brought together were either from the high school class of 1932, or Mount Alison University7 class of 1936.

Before the lunch begins, Jane tells me: “At that time, mum had her own mother, and her ageing Aunt Jane living with her, and I think they all needed something to look forward to a couple of times each month. So the incentive for the group was probably as much a selfish one on mum’s part as an altruistic one.”

The hostess – usually Ruth – provided the pickles, olives, carrot and celery sticks and dessert on a table set with her best china and silver. It was “an event à la the 1930s/1940s” says Jane.

“And of course mum had her lovely garden as a backdrop, and that was something all the ladies really appreciated. A lot of them lived in city, without the gardening opportunities that we had here in Westfield.

“Those with cars drove those who had no method of transportation. Perhaps once a year or so, someone else would offer to host, or the group would go on an outing to a restaurant somewhere on the coast of the Bay of Fundy.”

Even as host for many of the Lunch Bunch gatherings now, overlooked by the portrait of her mother, Jane was a reluctant member initially. When she moved back to New Brunswick after a number of years living abroad, Jane felt she was being “coerced” and avoided the group on purpose.

But when she retired 11 years ago, she started to find some meaningful female friends and the group has become a source of strength.

“Now that I have them, they are very important to me,” she says. “The group is a good way to keep up on the goings-on in the neighbourhood, political as well as social. We can lend a hand if we learn that friends or neighbours are sick or need help, we can talk up issues from the town on which we feel strongly.”

Over lunch, Elma is more blunt and joking about how the group has continued. With a new generation of women – and even the generation beyond that with Jane’s 40-year-old daughter Allison Calder who lives in

Ruth’s old home down the driveway – the Lunch Bunch will continue every other Tuesday.

“The bottom line is none of us work,” says Elma. “Well, Alison will – she’s on maternity leave. So if it was a toss up between Lunch Bunch every second Tuesday or get a 9 to 5 job, I choose Lunch Bunch. I’m not getting a job if I don’t have to.”

The group erupts into laughter, not for the first or last time during the two-hour lunch. They turn to reading AA Milne’s King John’s Christmas, an annual tradition carried over from Ruth’s days, chiming in on the refrain, “big, red, india-rubber ball”8.

Others will eventually join the Lunch Bunch table, though the women acknowledge it is a reality that will sadly come as members pass away.

“It’s nice to have a full table,” says Elma, who then, with perfect comedic timing, describes those who attend Lunch Bunch but don’t host as “freeloaders”. Again, the table bursts into laughter over the clinking and refilling of tea cups, a mince pie ready to be brought out for dessert.


A few weeks after this pre-Christmas Lunch Bunch gathering, Nancy emails to explain what pulls this micro community together.

“It was as it is now – wanting to catch up on the goings on of each person,” she writes. “We are all really interested in each others’ lives – past, present and future. We don’t see each other socially other than the Lunch Bunch but we are now friends, and look forward to every second Tuesday.

“It’s a time to sit back, relax and enjoy the noise.”


Disclaimer: Reporter Tristan Stewart-Robertson’s grandfather was Fran (Stewart) Davies’ brother, and he holidayed as a child in the back yard of Bill and Mary Warwick.

  2. Screen grab of original brown bear story
  3. Screen grab of second bear story
  5. Sutton, Susanne Carol. Westfield: a History Told by Residents. Village of Westfield, 1997.
  6. Maps detail both Gooderich and Goodrich but interviewees insist it should be Gooderich.
  8. Milne, AA. Now We Are Six. London, 1927.