Showing posts with label mary fernando. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mary fernando. Show all posts

10 December 2023

Peace and Order

At a dinner party I was once told by an American, that while Americans strive for 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, Canadians get the very unsexy ‘Peace, Order and Good Government’.

At the risk of sounding dull as dishwater, I’m a big fan of peace, order and good government. It’s reassuring. Although peace and order in the Constitution Act of 1867 refers to large issues, most of us understand it as it’s exemplified in everyday life. The quiet way we line up to take our turn or stop our cars at a crosswalk to let children cross. The peace of quiet walks and stopping at a favourite store and getting some food. The way all my neighbours wave and chat.

Since the October 7th Hamas attack against Israel, we are hearing more and more about Canadians being shouted at on the subway by mobs, shootings at schools and defaced places of worship. The places we shop owned by Jews and Muslims are being targeted by mobs and vandalized. Many Canadians are frightened by how the peace and order of everyday life has been shattered by violence and disorder.

People are saying that they simply aren’t safe anymore and where is the legal punishment for this? 

There are three separate hatred-related offences in Canada: advocating genocide, publicly inciting hatred, and willfully promoting hatred.

For all three offences, there is no minimum punishment. Imprisonment, probation, or fines are possible. 

However, a provision in the Criminal Code addresses crimes motivated by hatred and allows increased penalties when an offender is sentenced for any criminal offence “if there is evidence that the offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” So theoretically, these crimes should carry harsher punishments. 

Interestingly, and applicable to today’s crises, “In 2009, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism was established by major federal political parties to investigate and combat antisemitism - particularly what is referred to as the new antisemitism. It is argued that this form of hate targets Israel, consisting of and fed by allegations of Israeli "war crimes" and similar claims. Anti-Israel actions that led to the formation of a Parliamentary Coalition included boycott campaigns on university campuses and in some churches, spilling over into attacks on synagogues, Jewish institutions and individuals.”

So, how is this playing out? Police forces are asking people to come forward and report, and many are increasing the officers dedicated to hate crimes. In Toronto, Chief Myron Demkiw said there has been a "staggering" increase in hate crimes since the Hamas October seventh attack,  most of the hate crimes - 40% of them - are antisemitic hate crimes and “the force's hate crime unit has been expanded from a team of six to 32. And that since Oct. 7th, the unit has made 22 arrests and laid 58 charges.” This type of communication with the public, encouraging reporting as well as communicating that arrests and charges have occurred, goes a long way to making people feel safer and it needs to be communicated more. 

Perhaps part of the problem is that many hate crimes are shared on social media but without follow-up, so there appears to be no accountability. A widely shared video showed an Indigo store with posters and red paint, the posters depicting an image of the company’s Jewish CEO Heather Reisman and accusing her of “Funding Genocide.” There were, however, consequences for those involved. So far, eleven people have been arrested, charged and the investigation remains open. We have yet to hear what their punishment will be and if there will be jail time.

This dramatic rise in hate motivated crime is testing our laws, our police response, legal system and things may have to change to meet the challenge. We haven’t seen this level of hate crimes before and just like police forces are adding officers trained to deal with hate crimes, perhaps we need to finally ask if our legal system can properly charge those involved? Will the punishment serve as a deterrent to others who might want to embark on similar hate crimes? Will the police response to arrest people be swift enough to make people feel safe or are more tools needed?  Do we need strict minimum sentences to serve as a future deterrent? 

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions – just a fan of peace, order and good government who is very worried.

12 November 2023

October 7th

I listened to an interview with Rachel Maddow, host of the MSNBC The Rachel Maddow Show on her research on the rise of antisemitism and she explained this:

When people tell you that a minority group are evil and they’re the reason things are bad, they are saying that some people among us are dangerous and these people shouldn’t be part of our democracy with rights to vote. We need someone to protect us from these people. So, its not just about telling us who to hate, it’s about undoing democracy and Maddow says we shouldn’t stand for it. It’s a powerful video.

This certainly fits with what we’ve seen with Anti-Asian hate and LGBTQ-hate – there are many narratives explaining why they’re ‘dangerous’ and shouldn’t have the same rights as everyone. Essentially, they shouldn’t be part of our democracy.

Now we’re seeing the rise of antisemitism and the same narrative holds. This topic is large, the events unfolding in the Middle East complicated and well beyond the scope of my small article. Further, I lack the expertise to talk about the history and lack the military expertise to talk about the war. I will write about only one thing: the October 7th slaughter in Israel.

Over three thousand young people gathered to dance at the Supernova Sukkot in the desert, approximately 5 km from the Gaza Strip and near Kibbutz Re’im with a population of around 430.

The rave was billed as a celebration of "friends, love and infinite freedom” and attendees were prohibited from bringing weapons including guns and sharp objects. Sound like the kind of thing many young people we know, including our own children, would attend.

In the morning, Hamas came at the attendees from all directions, killing at least 260 people and abducting dozens as hostages. The massacre and hostage taking continued at nearby Kibbutz Re’im and in the end, over one thousand were slaughtered and hundreds taken hostage.

Hamas insurgents recorded their own deeds with GoPro cameras and that, combined with surveillance footage, has been aired to many including seasoned journalists who found the footage so gruesome that many had to leave.

"The worst part was the glee," Sabrina Maddeaux, a political columnist for the National Post, wrote in a piece published Monday, describing the apparent joy Hamas fighters took in their rampage across communities and at a music festival in southern Israel last month. Reporters described seeing images of burned babies and children, along with other indescribably graphic scenes.

There are still over 200 hostages in the hands of Hamas. We have seen a woman hostage naked and beaten on a truck paraded through Gaza. The terrorists have a baby who is 10 months old.

We have seen videos of people denying that these events happened and we’ve seen photos of the kidnapped torn down as ‘propaganda’. For those who wonder how people can deny the Holocaust, we’re seeing the denial in real time today.

There will also be people who may not deny these events but only want to talk about the ‘lead up’ to them and the war that followed them. There is no ‘lead up’ to justify this brutality, nor can you justify brutality by referring to any actions that followed it that were unknown at the time.

As Maddow said, this is identifying some minority as bad, dangerous and unfit to have democratic rights – human rights – whether it’s citizens of Israel or Jewish citizens of other countries.

On this Memorial Day 2023, when we honour those who fought for and preserved our democracy, I wanted to write a small article about the big events of October 7th, 2023. In a democracy, all of us are equal, can vote and participate in the shaping our society and our world. If we exclude certain groups from these universal human rights whether it be those far away in Israel or Jewish citizens at home, we demolish the foundation of our democracy.

08 October 2023

On Our Streets

We have a rise in hate crimes in Ottawa which, while being the capital city of Canada, has always felt like a quiet place.

With a 23.5 per cent increase in hate incidents in 2023, Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs said, “Across North America and really the world, we’ve seen this trend of hate crimes on the rise.” One of the targeted groups was the LGBTQ community.

This gave me pause because many of us have been talking amongst ourselves about the shocking changes we are seeing. Canada has had a history of supporting LGBTQ rights by decriminalizing being gay as early as 1969, legalizing same sex adoption in 1995, legalizing same sex marriage in 2005 and making LGBTQ discrimination illegal in 2017.

Recently, however, in Canada we’ve had marches called, “Leave our kids alone”. Under the guise of protecting children against learning too much about sex, they actually want them to learn nothing good about the LGBTQ community. So, in reality, we had anti-LGBTQ marches on our streets. Some of the hateful things said left many of us reeling. 

What is also worrisome was the fact that they went to great lengths to look like a bunch of concerned parents, organizing organically at the local level. However, in reality they were supported by a big tent of far-right groups aligned with groups holding these “Leave our kids alone” marches in the United States.

In typical Canadian fashion, many people came to show strong support for the LGBTQ community as well. What was heartwarming about the support was most of it was from neighbours, friends and family of people who happen to be LGBTQ simply saying to them: we know you, respect you, care for you and will stand up for you. 

But make no mistake, this has shaken us. Canada has always been a tolerant country, largely insulated from the far right hateful shouting elsewhere. To have these same slogans – at times screamed out by children – was horrifyingly unCanadian. Many I spoke with were tearful at the thought of LGBTQ children hearing this vileness in a country where many had worked so hard to make them feel respected. For LGBTQ adults who had seen grimmer days of intolerance recede and lived in hope one day it would be gone, this rise of hate is disheartening. 

Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs talked about the hate seeping in from our southern neighbours, but some is homegrown or brought in from people who now call Canada home, but were raised in a hateful environment elsewhere.  It was a warning to us that we are not immune. It is literally on the street where we live. 

What is uniquely Canadian is a history of calm and civility. Americans sometimes make fun of the ‘nice’ Canadian, suggesting we are prone to naiveté and cluelessness. They misunderstand. It’s actually a steely determination not to get caught up in anger and drama but to choose, instead, to chat with people as we meet them. It’s not soft. Nothing is stronger, more adult, than refusing to engage in childish shouting, drama and anger -  this is the fodder for extremism and hate. These are the things we have tried to have a steely resolve to avoid. That’s the backbone of who we are and I hope, the civility will once again win. We have always had intolerance within our borders and knocking on the doors of our borders. We conquered it with civility.

My parents came to Canada when brown-skinned people were few and far between, particularly in small town Waterloo. Many, who had never met anyone who looked like my parents, chose to chat as they met in the neighbourhood and, more often than not, extend an invitation for coffee. At school, children hung out on the playground, invited me to their homes and some became lifelong friends. This is why civility is highly underrated. It allows everyone to meet and talk.

What we saw on these marches was the antithesis of civility. 

The far right extremism may seem big, well-funded and so loud that they will drown us. We must fight them in big ways - online, through enforcing hate laws, increasing rules in workplaces - but one way to drown them out is to chat. Quietly. In a friendly way. Being the quintessential nice Canadian, with a spine of steel, who is civil to anyone we meet on our streets. 

Those of you who have read some of my previous articles know that I strongly champion empathy in all its forms.  To the shouty and the angry, to the political and crass, I may seem like a naive fluffy person. In response to that caricature, I would like to tout my credentials - after much more than a quarter of a century of studying and clinically practicing in the area of mental health as a physican -  what allows for normalcy, decreases violence and prevents mental illness is my lane. I can say with utter certainty that empathy is crucial for a highly functioning person and a highly functional society. 

We need to get back to empathy and civility. On our streets. 

10 September 2023

Grift, Misinformation and the Long Arm of the Law

We often hear about the long arm of the law, suggesting that the justice system has far-reaching power. There is one place that the justice system doesn’t appear to be reaching: grifters who put people’s lives at risk.

These ‘influencers’ spread misinformation about snake oil cures for everything from diabetes to cancer. People die. No one pays the price. 

So, we’re learning that lying and killing people with lies isn’t a punishable crime. 

Mystery readers like myself have an innate need for justice to done. We want the arm of the law to be long enough to reach those who harm people, particularly if they kill them.

We’ve seen the rise of anti-vaccine misinformation reach so far into people’s psyche that not only are they eschewing COVID vaccines but also all vaccines - children are now dying of vaccine preventable disease like measles. For goodness sake, the news recently cited pet owners who are refusing vaccines, including rabies, for their pets because of autism fears.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has focused on the educational aspects and points out that, using various methods, 850,000 YouTube videos with harmful or misleading COVID-19 misinformation videos have been removed. However, this is a drop in an ever filling bucket. 

The WHO has joined various organizations asking for legal polices to stop misinformation but stop at outlining these policies - because it’s complicated. 

Legislators in various countries have made many attempts to rein in dangerous misinformation through regulation of tech giants. There have been suggestions of legal interventions that, “criminalize the dissemination of medical fake news”  The latter is so fraught with definitional problems that it’s not a good option, but certainly speaks to the increasing concern about putting people’s lives at risk.

So indulge me while I spitball some legal ideas with no legal training at all but with a strong sense of ‘what the heck can we do’? 

What if we start very small? What if there were some cases where people were harmed and they then sue? A few of those might make a dent in the growing rise of grifters. Nothing like fear and case law to stop wrong doing. 

Here’s a sample grift and my fantasy. The grift is real, you can find it here.

picture of scam message

Now, this may seem like a small problem compared to many other forms of misinformation and certainly, the reach of this is much smaller. But starting small makes it easier.

This woman claims to cure eyesight, so what if someone was ‘cured’ and then got into an accident driving? What if they sued her for damages? 

One small victory against grift might start a snowball effect. It’s a simple grift - eyesight cure - and a simple test - either eyesight is better or it’s not. I’m a fan of starting simple. 

It also is the extension of existing laws protecting people. If a doctor gives medical advice or therapy in the form of pills etc. and a patent is harmed, that doctor not only risks the loss of their medical license, but also jail time. So why not extend this to all medical therapies? 

While I’m spitballing and fantasizing, here’s another one: drugs for every disease need to follow rigorous testing guidelines. What is stopping legislators from demanding this from all ‘cures’ for all diseases? Then the grifters could be held legally liable for damages or even sued for putting their ‘cures’ in the public domain. This simple levelling of the playing field for all cures is fair, understandable by the public and simply extends existing laws around medical interventions. legal and regulatory measures.

I know this seems simple – nay, simplistic – but there may be a place for simple, clear solutions that start small, alongside looking at large scale changes to social media content. There is less support for stopping misinformation when it is an abstract concept and just the word ‘information’ gives an opening for demands for freedom of speech. To be clear, medical intervention is not covered under free speech protection, nor are drug manufactures able to claim free speech regarding the claims they make for their drugs. This also fits a justice model we are familiar with: if someone causes harm or death to another by any means, they are criminally responsible. This is one small way that the long arm of the law can extend its reach. 

13 August 2023

Fodder for Great Crime Stories: Amateur scuba divers

Recently, stories have appeared in the news about amateur scuba divers helping solve missing persons cold cases. 

In Florida, the team of Ken Fleming and Doug Bishop found 60 submerged cars statewide. Also, the controversial Youtube sensation, Jared Leisek, an Oregon entrepreneur who heads Adventures with Purpose, works with volunteer salvage divers to help families find their loved ones. 

Amateur scuba divers solving cold cases has all the makings of a new series of crime novels. I wish someone would write these because they’ve been bouncing around in my fantasies for decades.

About thirty years ago my husband talked me into learning scuba diving. He was trained by an army scuba diver, so he’s extremely competent and also has a great deal of talent. I got trained at a resort, and that, along with my lack of natural talent, made me a competent but not even close to excellent diver. When the children came along, they got the scuba diving fever and certified at eleven and twelve. They have their father’s talent and scuba diving became our family sport.

Over the years, we’ve had wonderful dive adventures and often, as I putter behind my elegant family of divers, I’ve fantasied about helping solve cold cases by discovering guns and bodies by diving expertly to places other divers haven’t gone. This is exactly what I do when watching gymnasts, where I picture elegant tumbling moves while trudging to the kitchen to get more popcorn.

A childhood friend and English teacher recently bemoaned her lack of writing skills by saying, “Those who can do, those who can’t, teach.”. This quote by Bernard Bernard Shaw from his 1905 stage play Man and Superman is often taken out of context and wasn’t meant to demean teachers per se. In fact, as a daughter of scientists - even though I loved Shaw in my teenage years - I also knew this quote is inaccurately used when applied to teachers, because the best scientists, the most competent researchers, taught.

I do think that, for me and maybe me alone, a riff on this quote would be accurate: Those who can do, those who can’t, write about it.

With the pandemic, we haven’t been diving in years, but one of our last dive trips set off a fantasy of a perfect crime, fostered by my fury. We were diving in the Bahamas where, I learned afterwards, they were also feeding sharks. So, when we all innocently did a back roll water entry, an entry where you sit at the edge of the boat with your back against the water, with your regulator in your mouth, held in place with your left hand while your right hand holds the back of your head to prevent your skull from smacking into the first stage regulator when you hit the water. Then, point your chin toward your chest and gently fall backwards. You do a little somersault, pop right back up but it is a tad disorienting.

We headed down into the water and when we were about 30 feet down, I turned to check with my designated ‘buddy’, my son, and saw a shark between us. I looked up, and there were sharks, I looked below and there were sharks. It was simply awful.

We have seen sharks previously, but they keep their distance and leave quickly. Never have we had sharks surround us for a dive. When I got back on the dive boat, I was not just frightened, I was perplexed by the unusual behaviour of the sharks. When I asked about it, our dive master – who looked about twelve years old - explained cheerfully that they feed the sharks to teach divers how friendly they are and, by making friends with sharks, it helps with their conservation.

I was raised by a biologist father who took me on many field trips and he and his colleagues spoke often about conservation. It made me not just an animal lover but also a conservationist. To truly protect animals, you need to also listen to the experts studying them and not anthropomorphize them. Sharks deserve to be protected and can be best protected by not misunderstanding them. A shark is not your friend when they are swimming beside you in hopes of food. It takes one woman on her period or one inadvertent coral cut to put blood int the water and turn you into prey. I’m not a biologist, so I’ll use a term I hope is also used by experts to describe this behaviour: it’s nuts.

As we headed back to shore on the dive boat, my fury gave rise to a plot: chum the waters near a cheerful, far too young dive master (who might be an heiress to millions), and you have a perfect crime.

As I said, those who do, do, those who can’t write – or in my case – fantasize.

On our next dive trip I ensured that the country we went scuba diving banned shark feedings – many of them have – and we had lovely dives where sharks kept their distance.

So, from solving cold cases to creating a perfect murder scenes, amateur scuba diving provides a wealth of story ideas. I’m sure I’ll think of more stories the next time I putter behind my elegant family, pretending I am them.

09 July 2023

Synopsis and Poisons

No conversation about submissions to literary agents is complete without a discussion about writing a synopsis. There are many professional and calm articles about this topic but this article is neither for one very important reason: I’m married and have children.

The many excellent articles explain how to write a synopsis in simple terms. Summarize the novel’s plot (status quo, inciting incident, rising action, crisis and resolution) main subplots, characters and none of this should read like a dry summary. It should include characters’ emotions and reactions to what’s happening. All of this should be done in 500 - 800 words (preferably 500).

Most of these articles are written in a way that encourages writers to tackle this task with confidence. They explain how this is a doable task and would even help identify any plot holes. I appreciated all this help and encouragement.

So, armed with the criteria, I started writing a synopsis. I ended up with a synopsis of a couple thousand words that barely touched the surface of my over 80K word book. So, I needed to cut the word count and make it more thorough at the same time.

No problem, I thought. I can do this. So, working hard I got rid of about 1,000 words and still had too many words and now also had a very dry synopsis.

I went from being delighted with all the advice, to resenting the encouragement about a task that’s clearly impossible. Increasingly, my mood became foul and my language became fouler. This is where my marital status and family enters the story.

My husband, trying to be helpful, told me that I’m a good writer, he’s sure I can do this and would do a great job. He sounded like the encouraging articles. There are moments in a marriage where your partner says all the wrong things. This was that moment. Sometimes I can shrug it off, mostly because the children are very fond of my husband and would miss him if anything happened to him. However, determined to fulfil his role as my support, my husband went on. And on. When he stopped to catch his breath, before he launched into more encouraging statements, I asked him if he could please help. He was delighted to be asked. I requested that he find my book of poisons - I hadn’t seen it in years - while I get a shovel. He said he’d look later because he needed to take the dogs for a walk first.

I went back to work with no more encouraging interruptions.

The upshot is that my synopsis is now down to 500 words. It needs work but it’s mostly there. Better than that, writing it did help me identify a plot hole and helped me be much more focused on plot when editing my manuscript for the trillionth time. I do think writing a synopsis is actually useful.

At this point, you probably don’t care about the synopsis at all and are asking different questions. Did my husband ever locate the book of poisons? Is that really gardening I’m doing in the backyard? When was my husband last seen? How are the children?

I actually did buy a book for writers on poisons many years ago. I cheerfully showed it to my husband who was uncharacteristically quiet. Oddly, I must have misplaced it because I have not seen it since. I didn’t even get to read it. My husband has looked for it diligently and cannot find it.

My husband is walking the dogs right now. All the neighbours can see him. The children are fine. My garden remains woefully untended but I have some herbs, thanks for asking.

I highly recommend writing a synopsis. Don’t be fooled by the encouraging articles. I doubt I’m the only one who was frustrated with the task and baffled why I was the only one incapable of doing it. It’s not an easy task. It’s very hard. It’s also worth it if you get someone wise to hide the book of poisons before you begin. Think about the children.

11 June 2023

The Last 300 words: A Query Letter

I wrote a 80,000 word book that got shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for unpublished novels and then, decided it needed work so, I did what any sane person would do and wrote a whole new 80,000 word book. 

I’ve done my final edits and my editor will do her grim reaper work on it and then it’ll be done. 

Writing the book is the best part - it’s full of long mornings getting up before the sun and quietly writing. Even when I’m not writing and, perhaps sitting for lunch with my family, a part of the book comes up that I need to add to or edit, I replay it in a few different ways and often slip away to write it. Sometimes things are maligned by saying they’re child’s play but writing is child’s play in all the best ways - it is the total immersion into a world of your creation that’s so real that the real world can sometime pale in comparison.

Now I’ve hit the next step: the query letter.

The purpose of query letter is to seduce an agent into reading your book. An agent can’t read every book sent to them so a short letter is how they choose what to invest time into and what to reject. However, the whole process of writing a query letter has my heart racing, my mouth dry and in this state I couldn’t seduce my own husband let alone a complete stranger. But sure, let’s be seductive.

Did I explain that there are sections? Yes, sections. In 300 words.

I can barely say hello to an old friend in less that 300 words and that’s with no sections. 

First, there is a warm greeting to the agent and an explanation of why you want to work with them. For the agents I want to work with, I would need the whole 300 words to explain why they’re amazing, it would be an honour to work with them and why a future of having tea and chatting about books is both of us living our best lives.

Ok, maybe just me living my best life. 

Then I need a hook to get them interested in my book. A hook is a sentence or two to make them want - nay need - to dive into my book even if it means neglecting their children, pets or dinner in the process. This is the ultimate seduction and I’m not sure I’m up for that.

Can I beg off with a headache? 

Then I need to summarize my book. Summarizing a 80,000 word novel would take me (checks notes) 80,000 words.

That’s why I wrote the darn thing in the first place. 

Then there’s a little bit about me. I am down with that part and can do it in a few words. It’s the rest of it that’s driving me around the bend.

I have always loved reading. I can’t remember even a day in my life where I wasn’t immersed in a book and, whenever I finish all the books by an author I love its almost as bad as a death in the family. These constant companions of mine, writers, have always been my heroes who create worlds from nothing but ink. I have a new found respect for authors because they also they managed to wrangle this dreadful beast called a query letter. It is no small feat and may well be a bigger feat than writing their books in the first place.

This leads me to my next problem: should I write the query letter or just write another book instead? As an escape from the anxiety of the query letter, I’ve already mapped out another book and it’ll take less time and be less stressful than writing a query.

A summary of my writing experience is this: the first 80,000 words are a delight to write but the last 300 words are hell.

09 April 2023

Koalas and Crime Scenes

During my late-night-I-just-cannot-sleep internet wanderings I stumbled upon a surprising fact: koalas have fingerprints.

Well, that changed everything. I went from cannot-sleep to must-not-sleep. My childhood stuffy was a koala so I have a special attachment to these adorably cute fur-balls and, although my stuffy is long gone, this exactly how I picture her.

Armed with my trusty computer, I started grilling the internet for information. Here is how that conversation went:

Why do koalas have fingerprints?

The answer appeared to be, ‘back up a bit, Mary, because we first need to ask why do any animals - including humans - have fingerprints?’ “what would make fingerprints useful from an evolutionary standpoint?…while fingerprints may not build friction on their own, they may help maintain grip by working in conjunction with sweat glands… And fingerprints may also provide crucial sensitivity in our fingertips.”

So why are koalas the only non-primate with fingerprints?

“Koalas are famously picky eaters who seek out eucalyptus leaves of a specific age… koala fingerprints must have originated as an adaptation to this task…the friction and sensitivity fingerprints afford may help them simultaneously hang onto trees and do the delicate work of picking particular leaves and discarding others—but hopefully not near a crime scene.” 

This led me to an intriguing question: can koala prints mess up a crime scene?

“Oddly enough, the fingerprints of koalas are nearly identical to human beings, and even under a microscope, they are basically impossible to tell apart. The shape, size and ridge patterns are bizarrely identical, even moreso than the similarities between primate and human fingerprints. However, while human beings have “dermal ridges” on their entire fingers and across their palms, koalas only have fingerprints on the tips of their fingers, where the majority of their gripping force occurs.”

A visual on that: 

I simply couldn’t believe that they can be mistaken for human even on close inspection. But the internet continued relentlessly on this path:

“The loopy whirling ridges on koala fingers can not be distinguished from humans, even after a detailed microscope analysis. Koala fingerprints resemblance is even closer than the fingerprints of close human relatives such as chimps and gorillas.”

I remained unrepentantly sceptical and searched till I found this from Chantel Tattoli, a freelance journalist researching fingerprinting.

“In her research, she came across media reports of koala prints fooling Australian crime scene investigators. However, a NSW fingerprint expert told her the reports had been exaggerated.

"Anybody who is really a specialist in fingerprints can read the difference," Tattoli said.”

Since this is the only mention I found of koala fingerprints not being able to fool experts, I was sceptical of this as well.

What about primates? Their fingerprints aren’t as close to human as koalas, but are they similar?

“Gathering dust in police files is a dossier containing the fingerprints of the most unlikely criminal gang - half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orang-utans.

Their dabs were taken during police raids at the Ape House at London Zoo and at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire. The operation, by fingerprint experts from Hertfordshire police, took place in 1975 at a time when there was growing concern over unsolved crimes. It concluded that chimp dabs looked exactly the same as ours, but did not link them to any specific offence.”

My late night conversations with the internet led to another conversation with my imagination - and hopefully yours as well: is there anything useful in this for a mystery writer? Maybe fingerprints at a crime scene of a koala or even a primate that baffle investigators? More believable if they’re partials? The problem is why would a koala be at a crime scene in the first place, because they’re law-abiding and not prone to fits of murderous rage? This character analysis comes from a close relationship with my childhood stuffy. Let’s assume the koala is innocent. Please. Maybe if the story is set in Australia or in a zoo, koala fingerprints could be found at the crime scene.

12 March 2023

Art theft: Churchill and Zelensky

Around December 2021 the famous Yousuf Karsh 1941 photograph of Winston Churchill was stolen from the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and replaced by a forgery. The heist was about 2 months before Russia invaded Ukraine. The Russian invasion is not related to the photograph but also, very related.

The photograph is perhaps one of the most widely reproduced photos of all time. Prime Minister Churchill's belligerent expression exemplified the British resolve to win against Hitler, who many believed to be invincible.

Karsh at that time lived in the Chateau Laurier and was a friend of the Prime Minister of Canada - William Lyon Mackenzie King - and this is how he was able to take the photograph and why it was hanging in the Chateau Laurier.

The photograph is aptly titled ‘The Roaring Lion’. The roar behind the photograph has a story, some parts moving and some parts simply hilarious. Just prior to the photograph being taken, Prime Minister Churchill had given a rousing and defiant speech to the Parliament of Canada. In fact, if you look closely at the photograph you can see the speech peeking out of his pocket. It was a speech to an ally in Parliament but Churchill knew it was a speech that would be shared with the world. I picture him writing the speech by reaching deep within himself into places where hope and belligerence met.

After this speech, and probably carrying the mood of the speech with him, Churchill was brought into the Speaker’s Chamber. Here he found Karsh waiting, with his camera and lighting equipment. The Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, hadn't told Churchill he was to be photographed so Churchill roared, "Why was I not told?” I suspect that the look captured on Churchill’s face was present at that moment. Churchill gave Karsh two minutes to take the photograph and this is how Karsh described the two minutes:

“Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”

The title of the photograph came, inadvertently, from Churchill himself, who told Karsh, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.” So Karsh named the photograph 'The Roaring Lion'.

This photograph, as much as Churchill’s speech, helped bolster the resolve to continue fighting during those difficult days.

Almost 80 years – perhaps even to the day – after Karsh took this photograph, it was stolen. Then two months later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Russia believed it would win the war quickly because it was a much more powerful nation than Ukraine. It felt invincible, just like Hitler did. However, Russia faced two potent forces: history and Zelensky.

History taught Europe and North America that appeasement doesn’t work and the only thing to do when one country attacks a sovereign country is to fight. Churchill’s photograph embodies this fight.

After the 1938 Munich Conference, then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared his appeasement of Hitler had obtained “peace for our time.” When Chamberlain resigned in disgrace, Churchill - who had argued against appeasement - became the Prime Minister, outlined a bold plan of British resistance and declared Britain would “never surrender.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned down an offer from the United States of evacuation from the capital city Kyiv, by famously stating, "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride," and with that statement, Zelensky became a wartime leader and, his own ‘Roaring Lion’.

This is because human stories of history never stay in books about the past - they are relived by every generation.

Listening to Churchill’s 1941 speech in that Parliament of Canada and then, Zelensky’s 2022 speech to the Parliament of Canada - although they are very different - one can hear similar themes: both spoke to the courage of their people and the brutality of their opponent. Both were unbowed and pugnacious in their resolve. Leaders give speeches for their allies, for their enemies but, most of all, for their own people because of the personal costs of war. We see that now in videos of Ukraine. We know that more from stories of WWII. My mother-in-law told me half of the young boys she grew up with were killed in the war. I think of that incomprehensible loss when I see videos of the devastation in Ukraine. During wartime, leaders must be roaring lions to keep up the spirit of their people and play down the invincibility of their enemy.

Even though the original stolen photo, The Roaring Lion, has never been recovered, there are copies of this elsewhere, to remind us of a time back then and how easily back then becomes now. History never stays in books - as long as there are people, history is relived by each generation. Apparently, art continues to be stolen by each generation as well.

11 December 2022

Justice delayed but not denied:
Investigative genetic genealogy

It’s that time of year when people think about interesting presents to give and you might have hit on a unique idea: DNA testing. Perhaps you want family and friends to find out about health risks. Perhaps you saw an advertisement and thought this saves you from going into crowded malls or because someone you know is a history buff and this is what they want. Whatever the reason, by getting DNA tests on yourself or others, you’ve joined millions of people around the world who send off a swab of their cheek or a saliva sample and get information using their DNA.

With your DNA test you’ve done something that you probably never thought you’d do: help catch criminals by solving cold cases. 

In December 1983, Sean McCowan and his brother stayed overnight at the apartment of his sister, 22-year-old Erin Gilmour, "She … would do that frequently, we would sort of go over there and spend the night and just hang out with her and then we'd all climb into bed together and watch movies and eat popcorn," said Sean McCowan, who was 13 years old when his sister was killed. "It was five days before Christmas, and so … we all woke up the next morning. Erin drove my brother Kaelin back … to my mom's house. And I ... went out actually to do some Christmas shopping. And we said our goodbyes and that was the last time I saw her.” 

That evening, Erin was brutally raped and murdered in the same apartment where she and her brothers watched movies and ate popcorn the night before.

Four months earlier, in August of 1983, Susan Tice, 45, was also brutally raped and murdered in her Toronto home.

”My mom was supposed to have dinner with my aunt and uncle and when she didn't show up, he went to the house to find out where she was," said her daughter, Christian Tice, who was 16 at the time. "We had like the best family… we were very, very close… we did everything together. We were one of those houses where everybody else's friends were always over… And everyone called my mom Mrs. T or Ma.” 

In 2000, DNA technology showed that one person was responsible for both crimes but police were still unable to identify the man.

In November 2022, almost four decades later, Joseph George Sutherland was arrested and charged with these two brutal crimes. 

How were they able to identify and arrest Sutherland? 

“In 2019, police began using a technique called "investigative genetic genealogy” to identify the suspect's family group. The process involves cross-referencing DNA found at crime scenes with DNA samples voluntarily submitted to services like 23andMe or and then uploaded to open-source databases.”

Essentially, this arrest was made possible by the millions of people who got DNA tests for many reasons but none of them to finally jail a brutal rapist and murderer.

So, when you buy a DNA test for yourself or someone you care about, you’re not only finding out interesting things about health and family history. You are helping find criminals who would otherwise have walked free. 

Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith, lead investigator on the cold case, “called the investigation the "most complex" case he's worked in his 25 years on the force and credited the recent development to genetic genealogy. He said that Sutherland had never previously been a person of interest in the killings. "If we hadn't utilized this technology, we never would have came to his name.”

There have been many valid privacy concerns about the DNA databases of companies that provide these tests. However, the use of these data bases to catch criminals, in my opinion, is not merely fair but also just. Sutherland has walked freely among us for over four decades while those who loved his two victims have had justice denied to them. Using databases to finally arrest and try Sutherland is fair and just to his victims and their families.

The most powerful argument to support using these databases in this way, are the pictures of Sutherland’s victims. These photos are over 40 years old. Both Erin Gilmour and  Susan Tice should have had many more photos taken of them since 1983, when they became frozen in time because they were brutally murdered.

13 November 2022

What happens in Gatineau doesn't stay in Gatineau

"By day he worked for the Canadian government as an IT specialist.

By night, he worked as a drug trafficker and becomes a federal government employee  hacker, extorting companies and others around the world as a part of a criminal ransomware gang, amassing millions of dollars in bitcoin by threatening to expose the private digital information of victims who didn't pay up.”

For those who don’t know Gatineau, its a rather sleepy community in Quebec, so near the capital of Canada, Ottawa, that many federal civil servants live there because it’s lovely, nestled in nature, and much cheaper than Ottawa. Who would have thought that an international criminal in ransomware - masquerading as a 33-year-old simple bureaucrat - lived there? He has an addiction to making money and is very dangerous.

What is ransomware? It’s a form of malicious software that blocks access to a computer or computers until a ransom payment is made.  The ransomware criminals hold sensitive information on the locked computer and threaten to release the information publicly if the payment is not made. How much? Millions of dollars. In bitcoin that can’t be traced.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Fifth Estate, it’s an amazing CBC investigative journalism program. Here is the link:

My summary:

The hacker, User ID 128, has a name: Vachon-Desjardins. He doesn’t live big, he lives in a small home in a sleepy community. He just wants more money. And then, even more.

He attacked universities and health institutions during COVID-19, their most vulnerable time, to extort millions. He threatened them with losing their valuable data and releasing personal information on patients. Why? For money. “He told me … he was having an addiction to money. He always wanted more and more and more. He [didn’t] know where to stop,”

Vachon was charged in Canada and, after the FBI got involved via the ransomware attacks in the United States, he was extradited and charged there too. “I think that a lot of individuals who commit these crimes don’t think that they’ll ever stand trial in the United States. I think that the 20-year sentence was a very good deterrence piece to prevent others who might consider committing this type of conduct, that maybe they should think twice.”

Vachon-Desjardins remains in Pinellas County Jail in Clearwater, Fla., as he awaits his next hearing set for January, when restitution for his victims will be decided. He will then be assigned to a federal prison.”

Does crime pay for those who need more and more money? At first, it sure looked like it, “When police raided Vachon-Desjardins’ Gatineau home and arrested him on Jan. 27, 2021, they seized $742,840 and 719 Bitcoin, valued at approximately $21,849,087 at the time and $14,463,993 as of today.”

Today, he’s in a federal prison in the United States, serving a 20 year sentence.

What happens in a small home, in a sleepy community like Gatineau Canada? A lot apparently. And what happens in Gatineau never stays in Gatineau. It isn’t Las Vegas. Thank goodness.

Threatening institutions in Canada and the United States during COVID-19 should have a price — 20 years seems hardly enough.

11 September 2022

Medicine and Mysteries: Justice Served

Medicine and mystery novels have much in common and this pandemic has highlighted one commonality in a very tragic way.

Many doctors I know are mystery readers. Many mystery writers the world knows are doctors, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Josephine Bell, Daniel Kalla and Tess Gerritsen.

Readers of mysteries are often greeted with a person facing a serious situation, or a tragedy, often from the first page or shortly thereafter. The rest of the book is all about unraveling the complexities of this story – the pain, the fears and, often with many clues – finally finding out whodunnit.

In medicine a person comes carrying a serious story and through listening to the story, unraveling the complexities of their story, their pains, their fears, we often add some tests and hopefully lift the burden of their story with a treatment once we’ve identified the disease or - in mystery terms - whodunnit.

The focus on the story, the complexities of people and the determination to find whodunnit: this is what mystery readers (and writers) and doctors share.

There’s something else they have in common: a sense of moral beliefs and justice being satisfied – as much as they can be – is part of this commonality.

Physicians go into medicine to help people – to deliver just and fair care to patients. Oddly, one can look on medicine as a means (within limits of science) to rectify the wrongs of disease. It is an attempt to give back the patient the best life they can have for as long as they can have it.

Readers approach mystery novels with a sense of righting wrongs and a sense of of justice delivered.

Imagine a mystery book where everyone throws up their hands and claims that they will never find a murderer because they don’t care or can’t be bothered. Where not even a smidgen of justice is served and the smirking murderer goes free. Now, of  course this may make an interesting plot but, let’s face it, it’s not the normal fare served by a mystery novel. In fact, I would argue, that seeing evil get their comeuppance is part of the satisfaction of reading a good mystery. Yes, we must often tolerate suffering of the innocent but suffering of the many innocents while detectives shrug their shoulders is certainly not the norm and would leave readers disappointed.

Now, imagine being a doctor during the pandemic. At first, physicians were swamped with patents they could not help because COVID-19 was a new disease. Not only did we lack vaccines and treatments, but we were woefully short of the knowledge and supplies to use masks. Then, vaccines came in, and when one waned, we had more vaccines and the promise (now fulfilled) of better vaccines. We had good quality research to show that masks work to prevent infection and even ample supplies of good masks, not just to protect healthcare workers but also the public. We now have rapid antigen tests - although they aren’t perfect, they give an indication of who is infected, allowing them to isolate and prevent further infections.

All of this good stuff should make being a doctor better than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. So, why are many doctors burning out, quitting their jobs or suffering from various mental health problems, including depression?

Part of it stems from the behaviour of the public. Many are eschewing updating their vaccines – or refusing vaccines altogether – and refusing to wear masks. If they get infected and hospitalized – there are some treatments. However, putting a COVID19 patient in a hospital bed may mean that a cancer patient doesn’t get their surgery or a patent in pain doesn’t get a hip replacement. The doctors caring for cancer patients who can’t get a hospital bed, can’t offer them optimal treatment and watch the unnecessary deterioration of their patients. As we add more patients with COVID19 and LongCovid, and lose doctors, physicians at times cannot get their patients access to the help they need for specialist care. Some physicians have been subjected to abuse – verbal and physical – from increasingly frustrated patients. 

The Canadian Medical Association has identified moral injury as a serious and growing problem during the pandemic:

“In the context of health care, when physicians are unable to uphold the oath they took to deliver the best care and put the needs of their patients first, they can experience moral injury. Moral injury is not considered a mental illness; however, those who experience moral injuries often develop negative thoughts about themselves and others, and these symptoms can lead to the development of mental health conditions.”

Moral injury is not a new problem for physicians, but it has increased during this pandemic. A pre-pandemic paper described the dilemma accurately:

“Moral injury describes the challenge of simultaneously knowing what care patients need but being unable to provide it due to constraints that are beyond our control.”

To not be able to properly care for patients is like a lousy ending to a mystery novel – except it’s worse. Much worse. These are real people. With lives, loves and people who love them. To not be able to help a patient because medical science is not up to the task is always sad. However, to not be able to access the care we have and allowing patients to suffer is immoral and unjust.

14 August 2022

Fingerprints: Not So Elementary

Can a character in a mystery and crime novel have no fingerprints or altered fingerprints? This would make for a fascinating plot twist.

Fingerprints are used to identify people because each one is unique. Formed during pregnancy, fingerprints remain the same throughout life.

Fingerprints are also usually a durable identifier. In one famous case, a gangster in the 1930s, John Dillinger, tried to destroy his fingerprints by burning his fingertips with fire and acid. In the end, his skin regrew and his fingerprints were still intact.

However, details on fingerprints can be temporally changed

Some jobs, such as bricklayers, dishwashers and those who work with chemicals such as calcium oxide, may lose some details in their fingerprints but the ridges grow back once these activities stop.

Some medical conditions can impact fingerprints temporarily. Skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis may cause temporary changes to the fingerprints, but upon healing the fingerprints will return to their original pattern.

Other medical conditions can leave people with no fingerprints at all.

A genetic disorder, adermatoglyphia, causes a person to have no fingerprints. Scleroderma is a disease associated with changes in skin elasticity, hardness, and thickness and eventually make a patient with scleroderma a “fingerprintless person”.

Some people treated for breast or colon cancer with the chemotherapy drug capecitabine may have a side effect called “hand-foot syndrome,” which sometimes can lead to loss of fingerprints.


What about a criminal who wants to change their fingerprints? One interesting option is surgical, “using plastic surgery (changing the skin completely, causing change in pattern – portions of skin are removed from a finger and grafted back in different positions, like rotation or “Z” cuts, transplantations of an area from other parts of the body like other fingers, palms, toes, soles.”

There’s an interesting case proving this actually works. A woman used this surgical method, “skin from her thumbs and index fingers were reportedly removed and then grafted on to the ends of fingers on the opposite hand. As a result, Rong's identity was not detected when she re-entered Japan illegally.”

Maybe we are entering a whole new era where we now have the knowledge that fingerprints aren’t as reliable as they once were, can even be changed and we now could have new plots twists.

10 July 2022

Crime and no punishment: Public Health

When Leigh kindly invited me to write crime/mystery articles from a medical viewpoint, he certainly wasn’t expecting me to colour wildly, and enthusiastically, outside the lines of my mandate. Both he and Rob have been infinitely patient with me and I owe them an apology, because here I go again.

In my defence, crime can be seen through many lens: breaking the law, injustice and even awful things that happen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about awful things that are happening. They’re not a crimes in the sense of breaking a law. They do, however, result in death and, from a certain point of view, can be seen as murder. Mass murder.

What are these awful things?

Lousy Public Health decisions.

Public health is defined as the organized effort to keep people healthy and prevent injury, illness and premature death. This field was once relegated to textbooks, articles and conferences enthusiastically attended by nerds in the field.

What is this Public Health thing that most of us happily ignored for so long and why is it messing with our lives?

The reality is that Public Health has always messed with our lives. From the 1800s, the sanitary reform movement, spurred on by new understanding of disease transmission, helped create sewage treatment infrastructure alongside water filtration systems to provide clean drinking water. This sounds very technical, but imagine drinking water filled with feces and urine— it’s a great way to spread disease and, seriously, totally gross as well.

From food safety standards to policies for disease mitigation, from mass vaccination to public education, Public Health has been there for us. Before mass vaccination programs, diseases like smallpox, polio and diphtheria were rampant. Before changes in hygiene standards, your surgeon would operate with bare, unwashed hands and your food was prepared and served without hand washing too. Again – gross.

What seems self-evident now, was not always so. In fact, when the Canadian Public Health Association was created in 1910, the early founders were determined to bring about change, “come hell or high water.”

Sounds like fighting words to me and suggest that, even then, the pushback they faced was serious.

Fast forward to 2022 and we see many Public Health decisions move from the ‘hell or high water’ fight to a ‘paddling in leaky canoe and ignoring the tidal waves’ approach.



In my home province of Ontario, we have a surge in the new omicron variant, BA.5 and yet, public health has removed masks mandates, even for hospitals, allowing our most vulnerable patients to get infected. We have vaccines but anyone under 60 is being denied their fourth dose, despite the fact that third doses have long since waned for most people. Allowing BA.5 to infect our citizens by refusing to institute even the minimum of mask mandates or updating much needed vaccines is harsh and unethical. People will die. My statements are mild in comparison.

During COVID-19, decisions that endanger and kill people are being made not just in my backyard - they are being made all over the world.

Some will ask, “Isn’t this politics?” Yes. Of course it is. But here’s the rub: all of these decisions are presented to us by a M.D. who is the Chief Medical Officer. His M.D. gives him credibility – imagine how many would listen to him if he had a botany degree? So, these are Public Health decisions presented by a M.D. and this makes all the difference. If a doctor makes a decision knowing this will endanger or kill a patient, they can and should lose their licence. If a doctor makes a decision that endangers or kills many - give them a title of ‘medical officer of health’ and they have impunity.

Even a non-MD who makes a decision knowing others can be harmed or killed is held accountable - think of a driver who is drunk, drives a car and hits a pedestrian. We hold them accountable for the harm and death they cause. Crimes that can be legally prosecuted apparently are very different than awful things that happen to people. Mass harm and mass murder are O.K. if they are a ‘policy’ decision.

In 2020, I was concerned but optimistic. In 2021, I was worn out and somewhat discouraged. Now, I’ve reached the level of being sad and furious.

Awful things knowingly dumped upon us by Public Health should be crimes.

They are not.

And that is a crime.

08 May 2022

COVID-19 Mystery: Based on a True Story

The mystery: ten friends gathered for a weekend pre-wedding party. After spending the weekend together, only five of them got COVID-19.

Why did only half of the people get infected?


It is highly likely they were infected with the omicron variant – the dominant variant at this time – which is very contagious.

“The Omicron coronavirus variant was likely the fastest-spreading virus in human history. One person with the measles virus – a standout among infectious microbes – might infect 15 others within twelve days. But when Omicron suddenly arrived this past winter, it jumped from person to person so quickly that a single case could give rise to six cases after four days, 36 cases after eight days, and 216 cases after twelve days.”

So asked another way, how did five party goers avoid getting omicron?

Let’s set the stage with what we know of protections against omicron

First, all those at the party had three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine – so there was no difference in vaccinations between those who got infected wth COVID-19 and those who didn’t. However, they were all about 5 months past their third dose of vaccine and vaccines wane, making them vulnerable to be infected at this point in time. 

None were eligible for their fourth doses because they were all in their twenties – too young for fourth dose eligibility.  

However, they took a very important precaution: understanding they were vulnerable to infection they all did rapid antigen tests on Friday morning before meeting on Friday afternoon. All of them tested negative.

Did the rapid antigen tests miss an infection? How reliable are rapid antigen tests? Research suggests they aren't entirely accurate, “Medical experts continue to warn that a negative result on a rapid test doesn't necessarily mean you don't have COVID-19." New Swiss research, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, suggests some rapid tests have "significantly lower sensitivity" to Omicron than to the Delta variant.

So, could this have been a problem with one or more people being infected with COVID-19 but not testing positive on the rapid antigen test? Unlikely, because they all spent a weekend together, not wearing masks and doing what young people do – hugging, laughing, occasionally bursting into song and sharing bedrooms. Is it possible that half the people avoided infection given all this?

COVID19 is airborne, so a person gets infected “when infectious particles that pass through the air are inhaled at short range”, a process otherwise known as “short-range aerosol or short-range airborne transmission”… transmission can [also] occur through “long-range airborne transmission” in poorly ventilated or crowded indoor settings “because aerosols can remain suspended in the air or travel farther than conversational distance.”

If 10 young people share space with one or more infected persons, sharing the same air for an entire weekend, wouldn’t it be likely that more than half get infected? 

To answer this mystery, it’s helpful to fast forward to the end of the weekend. As all ten people were leaving, there were unmasked hugs, chats and laugher. Then 5 of the people piled into one car and 5 into the other. This is where the mystery becomes less baffling: all the people in one car got infected and none in the other car got infected.

Again – the question is why? What was in one car but not the other? What was in one car but not present all weekend long that infected everyone in the car only?

There are two important concepts to break down: the duration of safety with rapid antigen tests and the incubation period of omicron.

Rapid antigen tests, even if they accurately detect infections, are only useful for that moment in time. So, one can be accurately negative today and accurately positive tomorrow.


Here we need to look at the incubation period of omicron. An incubation period – for this mystery – is best seen as the time from the moment a person is infected to the time they are infectious. That time varies from three to five days.

So lets’s backtrack to the week before the get together. Someone got infected with omicron that previous week. They were asymptomatic when the weekend began and – very importantly – it was too early in the infection for the rapid antigen test to detect this early infection. As the weekend wore on, this person still remained infected but not infectious.

However, on the 2 hour long car ride home, this person went from infected to infectious and – with COVID19 being airborne and no one wearing masks – everyone in that car became infected.

We often say in medicine, timing is everything. It turns out, with rapid antigen tests and COVID-19, this still remains true.

10 April 2022

The Fog

The light of the sun is barely penetrating the early morning fog. Some trees are visible, some are hidden. It should be a warm spring day but instead it’s cold and there are still patches of dirty snow on the ground.

This is the weather.

This is my mood.

The pandemic is still raging on despite those who try to hide the infected and dead behind the fog of words.

The war in Ukraine is raging on and those who declare it is just another war are trying to obscure what is at stake.

Even if we can see through the fog created by today’s chatter, none of us can see how the pandemic or the Ukraine war will end.

When the pandemic first hit, I was naively convinced that we could manage it well by following advice by scientific and medical experts and that vaccines would come rather quickly.

The vaccines did come quickly but their durability is still problematic. I’m certain we’ll get the better, more durable vaccines. However, the hit to science, to medical expertise, I worry may also be more durable.

The Omicron variant was first detected in Canada in late November, a few months ago. Since then, we have had 53% of deaths in people 19 or younger and 20% of all deaths from COVID-19. Long covid - a disease that impacts the brain, heart and many organs - will be worsened by the increasing infections we are seeing with omicron and its new variants. Yet the narrative that this variant is ‘mild’ reigns, so people are removing their masks, interacting in unsafe ways because they are convinced that the danger of COVID-19 is over.

How can the ‘mild’ narrative be so persuasive when the facts prove it wrong? One of the main reasons is that the anti-science, anti-expert movement has gained great strength during this pandemic by feeding on its favourite food: fear. When people are frightened, science, with its nuanced and new emerging facts, is less enticing than the strong, definitive anti-science narrative where answers are clear and unalterable because they aren’t true. It’s easy to make up a narrative when it’s immutable in the face of facts, and it is the very rigidity of the narrative that appears to make it strong and a haven for the frightened - fear is reassured by strength, even if it is false strength.

Now that some people have been convinced that science and experts are the enemy - we can only hope that the numbers of people convinced are fewer than those who recognize that the truth - even with facts that change as new evidence emerges - is a better alternative than lies.

The future of how this will play out is unclear: the fog is thick.

The war in Ukraine appears to be a very different animal than the pandemic but they rub shoulders in a very important way.

Right wing, authoritarian ideology has been nipping at the heels of many European countries. The pandemic seems to have worsened this, particularly in countries where restrictions limited the number of infections, they were “sceptical about their governments’ intentions behind lockdowns, and are most likely to accuse them of using COVID-19 as an excuse to control the public”

The pandemic has, “eroded young Europeans’ trust in the political system could have long-term consequences for the future of democracy. Research by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University shows that – even before the crisis – today’s young people are the generation most dissatisfied with the performance of democratic governments. Members of this generation are more skeptical of the merits of democracy compared not only with the older generation now but also with young people polled in earlier eras.”

This merging of the distrust in science with a distrust in democratic governments is the birthplace of autocracy.

The war in Ukraine is a war waged by an authoritarian government against a democratic country. The suffering of Ukrainians has moved the world and also divided it. As Ursela Gertrud von der Leyen - the German politician, physician and President of the European Commission summarized during a visit to Ukraine:

“It is indeed a decisive moment … Will autocracy be dominant or will democracy be the long term dominant winner or will the right of might be the rule or will it be the rule of law. This is what is at stake in this war…it is these big questions that will be decided in this war.”

The rule of might is decisive and clear - a haven for those who crave certainty. The rule of law, like science, is nuanced and cumbersome, as evidence is weighed and considered. Justice, like science, is messy business but it is a crucial pillar of democracy. 

None of us can see how the war in Ukraine will end or what Europe will look like when it does. Nor can we see what the end of the pandemic will look like and what we will have become in response to it.

The fog.

It’s the weather.

It’s a whole mood.

13 March 2022

The Power of Ukraine

On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia expected to win the war in a matter of days since they are so much larger and better equipped than the Ukraine. What Russia did not expect was having Ukraine rally the world to help defend them.

Apart from the geopolitical importance of this invasion, one question is why are so many ordinary people gripped by the story of Ukraine? Because we are indeed gripped, watching the news constantly and protesting in the streets around the world. Something about this war has moved us all. It has moved countries to impose economic sanctions against Russia and send much needed military equipment to Ukraine.

One reason is that Ukraine’s plight is the universal story of the underdog fighting valiantly, like David fought Goliath, and humans are built to be moved by stories.

“The human mind is addicted to stories,” says Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal (how stories make us human)

“As you cross cultures and move around in history, you find the same basic concerns and the same basic story structure. The technology of story changes—from oral tales, to clay tablets, to medieval codices, to printed books, to movie screens, iPads, and Kindles. But the stories themselves don’t ever change. They have the same old obsessions. And that won’t change until human nature changes.”

This story - the underdog fighting valiantly - has been articulated by many Ukrainians but first and foremost by President Zelensky.

When Russia invaded, President Zelensky turned down an offer to evacuated from Kyiv. Zelensky’s now famous response was, "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

This is truly the story of David entering battle with Goliath, because David did not have to fight but he felt it was his duty to defeat Goliath and, in doing so, save his people from becoming slaves. Certainly, if Russia defeats Ukraine in this war, Ukrainians become owned and subjugated by Russia.

Malcom Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, dissects the battle in a unique way. Gladwell explains that Goliath is huge and frightening but David has the upper hand because he didn’t have the cumbersome armour of Goliath and could be nimble. Most importantly, David had a sling that can kill a target from two hundred yards away.

David wins the battle by doing the unexpected – he runs towards Goliath, who is immobilized by a hundred pounds of heavy armour, and kills him by hitting him in the head with a stone with a  velocity of thirty-four meters per second. (122kmph or 76mph)

Gladwell’s perspective is that underdogs win by fighting in unexpected ways that make their opponent’s strengths useless. Goliath’s size, armour and weapons were no match for David’s nimbleness with his lack of armour and heavy weapons, nor was his bare forehead a match for David’s lethal stone sent at high velocity by a sling.

Just like David, Zelensky fought Russia from the start in very unexpected ways. He didn’t flee. More importantly, despite the famed strength of Russia’s information warfare, Zelensky won the information war from the day he refused to flee. He did this by not speaking like a politician. He spoke with the emotion of a man who loves his country and his people. Rather than speaking of strategy, he appealed to the emotion we all feel towards our own countries, our homes and families. He used the most unusual and unexpected tactic of all when fighting a large military power: he asked the world to see themselves in the plight of Ukraine.

Ukraine is smaller, poorer and ill-equipped compared to Russia. To fight a behemoth like Russia seemed impossible but President Zelensky fought by making us all feel like every missile, every tank and every soldier in Ukraine was like a missile, tank and soldier in our country. This sent people into the street to protest the war and moved countries to sanction Russia. How do you fight a rich country? By making it poorer with economic sanctions. How do you fight a better equipped army? By moving the world to send you military equipment.

We are two weeks into a war that Russia expected to win in days and now some are suggesting that Russia might lose.

I know nothing about military strategy, but I do know the power of stories. From ancient times they have shaped our values and the way we act. The story of Ukraine is one of the reasons that the world values Ukraine and wants to act to protect it. They are the underdog, our modern day David, and we too are Ukraine, the underdog, the victim of Russia’s aggression. Every hospital that is bombed, every child that is killed, feels like ours and we all suffer with Ukraine. As we watch David running towards Goliath, fighting a battle in unexpected ways, we suffer and we hope because that’s the power of stories.

13 February 2022

Ottawa Protest: It's not what it seems.

Canada’s capital, Ottawa, finds itself in the midst of a protest and, like Alice in Wonderland, in a situation that gets curiouser and curiouser.

During my decades of living in Ottawa, protests have come and gone. Never has any protest disrupted the city and terrorized its occupants. There is something very different about this. 

There are presently about 400+ trucks in Ottawa and a group of people that varies from hundreds to a few thousand who claim they are protesting vaccine mandates for truckers who cross the border.

For perspective, Canada has 38 million citizens, and at least 85% have had one dose of their COVID-19 vaccine and over 80% are fully vaccinated. In Ottawa, 91% of residents have their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 88% are fully vaccinated. Further, I can walk into any grocery store or pharmacy in Ottawa and find everyone masked and happily shopping. As one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, Canada has also enjoyed one the most peaceful acceptance of mask mandates in world. 

So, what has changed? Is it just the rebellious 9-15% taking a stand against vaccine mandates for truckers? Maybe. But it’s doubtful. In fact they may not even be truckers, “90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents the industry in the country and does not support the convoy, has said most of the people in and around the protests “do not have a connection to the trucking industry.” 

It’s also important to note that the United States has its own mandate about vaccination - so getting rid of Canada’s mandates wouldn’t allow these truckers to cross the border anyway, but I digress. 

To understand what’s going on in Ottawa - a situation that has inflamed the world and resulted in copycat protests - you need to dissect it, look on the ground and look at how it evolved. 

When these protesters first came into Ottawa, it looked like any other protest. People with an opinion that differed from the federal government. They appeared to have a lot of support online and financially - this was to be proven incorrect. 

Our first sense of real trouble came from reports from Centretown - the area in close proximity to this protest, where 50,000 residents live. The protesters swarmed in on our largest mall, defying the mask mandates for indoor spaces, with large groups of them shouting at minimum wage store clerks to take off their masks and be ‘free’. What a store-clerk removing her or his mask has to do with vaccine mandates for truckers to cross the border is perplexing, but here we were. The mall shut down and remained closed to protect their employees. 

These protesters, angry about being shut out of restaurants with mask mandates, went to our most vulnerable and demanded food from soup kitchens. The frightened volunteers, unequipped to refuse, fed them. 

Reports started to flood in about gangs of protesters yelling at residents to remove they masks and join the protests. People started to hide in their homes rather than venture out. Many complained about the inability to sleep because of the incessant honking all night and those with pets told us about their animals cowering under beds, shaking from the noise. 

This is when Ottawa - a friendly and calm city - became angry. 

Soon reports came in from investigative journalists that the immense 10 million in financial support from Gofundme was not Canadian support, but largely foreign, “Donations from abroad are quite a common part of any large crowdfunding campaign,” Ciaran O’Connor, an expert on online extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told Politico. “But the scale of this one is unprecedented.” 

The Gofundme money was stopped - refunded I believe - and yet we saw the protesters go from stealing food from soup kitchens to setting up barbecues for everyone, beside bouncy castles for the children to enjoy. Yes, children, “Almost 25 per cent of the 418 trucks have children living in them — children who could be at risk during a police operation,” 

As well, the apparent online support was largely from troll farms: “groups that weaponize social media to spread misinformation, promote division and influence public opinion.”

As the normally sanguine city of Ottawa got angry, Twitter became full of many who denounced all COVID-19 mandates and others who decried the Ottawa protesters.

As a physician, I’m puzzled what a world without any COVID-19 mandates would look like. Do we have unvaccinated, unmasked healthcare workers looking after children with cancer? 

Even those who are against the protesters goals are at times worrisome - they are generating attacks on our mayor, our police and various levels of government for not being strong enough. It’s a distrust of the very institutions of our democracy at a level that’s new. 

Canada, being a robust democracy, does not allow politicians to direct the police. Thank goodness because this could be abused. So, what about the police? Again, in a democracy, the police have limited powers (again, thank goodness) and are constrained by the budgets elected officials give them, limiting their numbers. 

A democracy has certain tools and one of them is declaring a state of emergency. This allows the police more powers (not to be taken lightly) and also an increase in their numbers by drawing from other police forces. This is one thing that should have been done much earlier since the Ottawa police chief has been clear: he doesn’t have enough police to enforce even the laws he has at his disposal. We have never seen this large a group of protesters and Ottawa simply doesn't have the police numbers to manage to remove them. Rather than distrust the police, we should be giving them the help they have asked for repeatedly. 

Luckily, we now have a declared state of emergency in our city and province, to give the police more powers. And hopefully Ottawa will get more policing help. 

Michael Kempa - a professor of criminology at University of Ottawa - has helped to make a very curious situation much more understandable. 

He identifies two distinct groups involved in the Ottawa protest. The first group are the ones we have been seeing on the news, alternating between yelling at the citizens and the media, to grilling burgers and setting up bouncy castles. They are the public face of this protest. A diverse group - only a few actually concerned about vaccine mandates for truckers at the border, some concerned with any mandates from vaccines to masks, some bringing their own issues like the need to fly a Nazi flag. 

The group that worries Michael Kempa more are the ones we don’t see in the command centres of the protest. They are hard-core, long time anti-democratic organizers who fund, fuel and strategize for the protest in Ottawa and elsewhere. They don’t care about vaccines and mandates because they have been planning this trucker convoy since before COVID-19. Their goal is to damage our democracy by damaging our citizens trust in its institutions and to replace it with a far right, more authoritarian system.

With the new powers given to police under the declaration of a state of emergency both in Ottawa and in the province, Kempa is heartened that “Canada is starting to demonstrate that the institutions of democracy are strong, and capable of dealing the with the radicalized political threat…we cannot give the organizers the image that Canada’s institutions are too weak to handle their challenge of misinformation and mobilizing people to fight their battles for them at the front line of protest.” 

This explains why a protest about truckers and vaccines has gone so out of control and why it has spread so quickly. For the organizers this was never about vaccine mandates and they have been planning this attack on our democracy for a long time.

To regain trust in our institutions, police need new powers but they also need larger numbers. After years of police cuts, it’s time to put enough police in play to protect against this new threat and fulfil the promise of the Canadian Constitution: Peace, order and good government.