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title Up Front

October 8, 2001 Issue Full Text

by Colby Cosh

An unexpected afterlife

Even before September 11, the late journalist Gordon Sinclair (1900-1984) was a familiar face to Canadians over the age of 50. But he was only remembered by younger people, if at all, as one of the professional curmudgeons who guessed the identity of concealed newsmakers every week on the CBC television show Front Page Challenge. No one could have imagined the bizarre circumstances that suddenly made his name a household word in the United States in the year 2001.

On June 5, 1973, Sinclair stamped into the CFRB studios in Toronto to do his daily editorial broadcast, Let's Be Personal, as he had most days since the Second World War. He was probably unaware in his indignation that he was about to guarantee his immortality. For months, the veteran newsman had watched the world lacerate the United States for its conduct of the war in Vietnam. The American dollar was reeling, the Mississippi was in flood, tornadoes had already struck 59 American towns that season, and the American Red Cross had just run out of funds for domestic relief efforts.

"This Canadian thinks it is time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least-appreciated people in all the earth," Sinclair told listeners. When natural disasters struck abroad, the Americans were always first on the scene with aid. When Europe lay prostrate after the Second World War, the Americans provided the capital to rebuild. "I am one Canadian who is damned tired of hearing them kicked around. They will come out of this thing with their flag high. And when they do, they are entitled to thumb their nose at the lands that are gloating over their present troubles. I hope Canada is not one of these."

The tape of Sinclair's broadcast was replayed on U.S. radio, and before long he found himself deluged by accolades from the south. His editorial was read into the Congressional Record and he was made an honorary citizen of North Carolina. A vinyl record was made (albeit too late to outsell the bootleg version), with proceeds going to the Red Cross. But in time, Sinclair's words were forgotten. Then, a couple of weeks ago, came the suicide attacks on U.S. cities. In the Internet age, it took no time at all for someone to unearth "The Americans," and for it to be copied and pasted to thousands of Internet sites. From there, it made its way once again into newspapers and onto the airwaves.

If Gordon Sinclair can see us now, the old gent is probably surprised at his new-media resurrection. He must have written and broadcasted over ten thousand episodes of Let's Be Personal, but his legacy is now built on just one--a near-afterthought, probably dashed off over breakfast, that has become emblematic in a country not Sinclair's own. You can read and hear Sinclair's piece at

Time Traveller

A reprise of stories from this magazine

December 11, 1981:

Every city's worst nightmare is an aircraft collision with a major building, and the nightmare came true for New York City September 11. The mind-numbing scale of the carnage in NYC made it unlikely that Edmontonians hearkened back to their own 1981 brush with fate. Surprisingly, the crash of a Mitsubishi MU-2J into the Royal Alexandra Hospital took only one life. But if not for the patient labour and courage of Edmonton firefighters, the toll could have been a lot higher.

Investigators never found a clear reason why the "Rice Rocket" belonging to North American Road Ltd. rammed into the penthouse of the Alex late in the evening of December 6. Pilot and Second World War vet William Gieg had received clearance to turn right and make his final approach to the Municipal Airport north of Edmonton's downtown, but instead he simply disappeared from the radar. Controllers only realized what had happened when they saw an ominous dust plume rise from behind the hospital.

The million-dollar turboprop had punched its nose twenty feet through a wall of the hospital. "Through the still-intact windshield, two faces could be seen," wrote reporters Douglas Sweet and Ric Dolphin. "The air was pungent with the stench of jet fuel." The fuel tanks were leaking right into an airshaft, and the liquid had spread all the way to the second floor, to say nothing of the fumes. Police cordoned off the hospital, as staff frantically put out the word to extinguish cigarettes and open flames, and firemen went to work with foam and fabric. One spark would have turned the whole place into an inferno.

"Somebody pointed out that, had the plane hit six feet lower, it would have blasted into Ward 62, a room with 30 occupied beds," reported Messrs. Sweet and Dolphin. As firemen tried to cut the injured fliers free of their plane, the hospital was evacuated. In the end, the only life lost belonged to pilot Gieg, 63, whose aorta had been torn open by the impact; 30-year-old passenger Edward Burton survived with crushed feet. The crash temporarily reopened a 60-year-old debate on whether the airport should be moved away from midtown, but small aircraft still use the facility today. The reporters asked Alderman Paul Norris what would have happened if the downed plane had been a fully loaded jetliner. "Oh, Lord, I think it would make a substantial difference in the way the city regards the Municipal Airport's future," the alderman replied.

The memory hole

After September 11, evangelical leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell opined that the hijackers of the doomed planes were agents of God's judgment on a dissolute America. Much patriotic wrath ensued, and perhaps rightly. In the interests of political balance, however, we feel obliged to quote comments made on the 12th by a much-respected U.S. leftist, the filmmaker and TV personality Michael Moore:

Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right.

They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, D.C., and the planes' destination of California--these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!

This paragraph was soon deleted from Mr. Moore's Web site (no apology necessary that way), but we have preserved it for the benefit of American readers who live in "flyover country." One question, though--we knew Mike was stupid, but can he really think the Pentagon was full of Al Gore voters?

Duly Noted

Three Edmonton members of the "Edible Ballot Society" were charged September 5 with wilfully destroying ballots at an advance poll in the last federal election. As one might expect from their society's name, the protesters, who are anarcho-granola types opposed to the "centralized" electoral process, put their ballots in a blender with a banana and some soy milk, liquefied the concoction, and drank it down. Sounds harmless enough--a lot more harmless than voting Liberal--but one shudders to think of other uses to which ballot papers might be put if this sort of thing were permitted.

The Globe and Mail reported early on the morning of September 11 that Conrad Black's long-awaited elevation to the British peerage was "imminent" and that an announcement could come later that day. The newspaper titan left Canada earlier this year after the Chretien government used diplomatic roadblocks to keep him out of the House of Lords. Unfortunately, after the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the ennoblement of Mr. Black--we may still address him as "Mr."--must await a more suitable hour.

Reuters reported September 18 that a Mississippi psychiatrist, Dr. Gregory Ordway, has found that cigarettes behave in the brain much the same way prescription antidepressant drugs do. "This may contribute to the high incidence of smoking and difficulty to quit in those who are depressed," says the doc. Ostensibly, this is reasonable: it has long been known that depressed people smoke more. The problem is that people who are taking prescription antidepressants do not have any trouble quitting them. Indeed, after an initial period of contentment and productivity, users of Prozac-class depressants frequently chuck the things in the trash. Smokers, by contrast, can only be persuaded to do so by exaggerated fears of lung cancer.

In other drug news, Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffee emporium, denied September 10 that its Tazo Chai Tea contains the dangerous natural stimulant ephedrine. The Council for Education and Research on Toxics had claimed in a lawsuit before the Los Angeles Superior Court that the company was adding the controlled substance to the tea, thus violating Food and Drug Administration regulations. But those desiring to damage themselves with ephedrine can take heart. It is available in the majority of "health food" and "natural nutrition" stores, and most merchants are not even aware it is illegal. The "anti-toxics" gang might do better leaving Starbucks alone and chasing after these peddlers.

The Ontario Court of Appeal entertained arguments September 10 in a hearing on whether section 43 of the Criminal Code, which allows parents to spank their children, is constitutional. The legal challenge was brought by the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth, and the Law, which exists largely to criminalize the discipline of children; no surprise there. The real fun is in seeing where the interveners line up.

Appearing against section 43 is the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies--which is to say, a professional association for social workers. Let no one say that these citizens have a mercenary interest in unleashing an army of hired spankwatchers on Ontario--no, they just love children a whole lot. But teachers love children too, and the Canadian Teachers Federation, perhaps fearing an eruption of classroom chaos that even Ritalin cannot control, is appearing in defence of section 43. Whatever are we to think?

Two Saskatoon police officers were convicted September 19 of unlawful confinement in the case of Darrell Night, an Indian who was given the infamous "starlight tour" of the city's outskirts in -22 degrees Celsius weather last year. The officers, who "showed no emotion as the verdicts were read," according to the Canadian Press, were acquitted on charges of assault. The jury's suggestion seems to be that it was unlawful for the officers to "confine" a drunken, belligerent man, but not a particular problem that he was placed at risk of freezing to death. Surely it should be the other way around?

Low-level violence continues off Burnt Church, N.B., where Indians are still demanding, and attempting to exercise, the right of uncontrolled access to fish stocks. In some cases, the doughty sea-going aboriginals are defying federal fiat in boats purchased for them by the federal government.

Matthew Coon Come, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told the CBC September 19 that Natives must become more "economically self-sufficient." He went on to explain that he means the kind of "self-sufficiency" whereby the federal government sets aside fisheries for your self (presumably after they buy your self a boat) and gives your self a portion of public revenue from lumber and other resources.

WestJet CEO Clive Beddoe proved September 19 that he believes in a different kind of self-sufficiency. When told that Air Canada CEO Robert Milton was requesting $4 billion in aid from Ottawa to cushion the blow to airlines from the September 11 terrorism, Mr. Beddoe had a simple answer: we do not need the money. "We are seeing some reduction in bookings, but it is not horrific," he told the CBC, urging Air Canada to shrink if it cannot survive at its current size. He even rejected having the federal government cover the costs of airport security. Evidently at least one airline believes in taking responsibility and letting the market decide whether the carriers provide a safe enough service. We knew Mr. Beddoe was a good businessman, but we have seen good businessmen line up at the trough before. He is a national treasure.

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