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  • They fought for a country that sent them away

    07/29/2014 12:43 PM

    A century ago, my grandfather did something remarkable.

    He signed up to defend Britain, a country that had found no place for him and banished him as a young child to servitude on a farm in southern Ontario.

    A story in today's Free Press tells of a long overdue commemoration of the contribution and sacrifices of thousands of British Home Children in the First World War, which began 100 years ago this week. Hockey commentator Don Cherry lent his support to the effort, as his own grandfather was a home boy who fought in the war.

    The Home Children were British orphans, or children whose parents could not care for them, who were sent to Canada in the later 1800s and early 1900s to placements primarily as farm hands and domestic servants.

    There are horror stories about the treatment of some of them. I know few details of the experience of my grandfather, Arthur Francis Wilding. He died in 1923, less than a month after my mother was born.

    But I know enough to understand that it was not easy for him. He was, apparently, born out of wedlock in Victorian England around 1883 and sent to Canada a decade later by the Fegan Boys' Home in London.

    He ended up on a farm near Guelph at the age of 10, worked as hard as you can imagine working on a farm in the 1890s, and, as an adult, found work with a railway as a fireman on locomotives.

    He settled down to raise a family in Palmerston, Ontario, and had four children by the early stages of the Great War.

    Nevertheless, he went into the recruiting office in Palmerston in 1915 and signed up for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, as Canada's field service was known in the First World War.

    Whatever his experience had been -- an outcast child in England, sent to a land he'd never seen -- his sense of duty and partriotism overcame all of that.

    In fact, almost all 10,000 home boys in Canada at the time signed up to fight in the Great War, pulled by the same forces as my grandfather.

    He returned to Canada at the end of the war, had two more children with his wife, Margaret, and then died a young man at age 39 after a life of hardship, duty and sacrifice.

    I'm glad the war contributions by him and thousands of others are being recognized -- it's about time.


  • Pot decriminalized in the heart of the U.S.A.

    07/21/2014 1:56 PM

    Get caught with a small bag of marijuana in the heart of the capital city of the United States and you are in store for an unusual punishment -- a $25 fine.

    On a visit to Washington, D.C., last week I was surprised to read in my morning Washington Post that a law passed by the local council for the district went into effect to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

    Surprised because the U.S. federal government remains staunchly against decriminalization or legalization of pot, even though it can now be legally purchased in Colorado and Washington state for both medical and non-medical use and a number of other jurisdictions have also loosened rules.

    Washington, D.C., is a microcosm for the debate and the dilemma over marijuana use in the U.S., and an example for Canada where pot is almost certainly going to be a big issue in the next federal election.

    Washington city police will now simply issue tickets that carry a fine less than the one imposed for littering.

    But possession is still illegal under federal law. And many places in Washington are policed by federal authorities.

    So you could, in theory, face nothing but a fine for walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with a bag of pot, then get arrested if you walked across Constitution Avenue to the National Mall, the national park that is home to such iconic sites as the Lincoln Memorial.

    Washington council is not alone. A number of U.S. jurisdictions have opted to change their approach to drug laws, especially in light of evidence showing the most likely people to be charged with minor marijuana offences are young black men, even though use of the drug is much more evenly distributed in the population.

    The district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently announced that his office will no longer prosecute minor marijuana offences. And there is proposed legislation in New York that would decriminalize possession across the state, turning it into a violation comparable to a parking ticket.

    So why is this similar to Canada?

    What the U.S. experience shows is that there is popular support for loosening marijuana laws and change is happening regardless of unchanging federal drug laws.

    In Canada, public opinion surveys have shown for some time there is substantial public support for decriminalizing possession of marijuana and majority support for legalizing the sale of the drug.

    Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supports legalizing pot and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government opposes it.

    Here we are going to see the same debate being played out in the U.S. take a central role in the federal election campaign, expected next year. Stay tuned. Just as in Washington, it's going to be interesting.


  • The spam flood continues, despite new law

    07/4/2014 9:55 AM

    Great news! Today I learned I have won the INTERNATIONAL SPECIAL RAFFLE and am entitled to a payout of 17 million euros ... so long as I provide some personal details.

    I also received a rare business opportunity to help a nice Egyptian gentleman free up $12.5 million that he put in a European securities firm while serving as chief security officer to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

    And a United Nations organization has informed me that $10 million has been released from the Federal Republic of Nigeria and will be deposited to my VISA card ... so long as I provide some personal details.

    Much as these offers are tempting, I have a strong suspicion that they are scams, filling my email inbox with unwanted spam.

    Today, in other words, was pretty much the same as every other day for the past several years, even though we are now living under the umbrella of Canada's new anti-spam law, which is supposed to stop unwanted commercial electronic messages from getting through to my email.

    Unfortunately, that's not happening.

    The sad fact is that Canada's new rules -- touted as among the toughest in the world -- will have little impact on the steady flow of crap that flows electronically into our lives, ranging from the merely annoying to the outright illegal.

    The main effect will be to impose new obligations and costs on Canadian companies that were, generally, already policing themselves and using responsible practices for communicating with current and prospective customers. And Canadian taxpayers will have to foot the bill for enforcing it all.

    Most of the spam stream -- 95 per cent by some estimates -- originates outside Canada. While the Canadian law can be applied to anything entering a Canadian destination electronically, it's next to impossible to enforce outside the country.

    Try finding any person or business responsible for sending notices about an international lottery scam. Then try laying a charge or extraditing someone from a country that has no similar legislation. It's highly unlikely to happen.

    Even quite legitimate non-Canadian enterprises are continuing to send commercial offers unbothered by the new rules. Right above my Nigerian offer was one from PBS to buy the latest season of Endeavour, the smashing prequel to the Inspector Morse series.

    PBS has never sought my consent to send me commercial electronic messages. And that is what firms must now do. Such consent is required for any commercial message sent by any means of telecommunication, including a text, sound, voice or image message. A commercial message is one that involves offers pertaining to the sale of goods or services.

    Canadian firms rushed to send out requests for consent prior to July 1 when the law came into effect. I received dozens -- the vast majority from organizations that don't send commercial messages, but are terrified at the scope of the anti-spam law and the substantial penalties of up to $10 million. The concern is understandable -- it's even illegal now to send a message asking for consent.

    Most of this was not necessary. I was willingly getting messages from virtually all of the groups that contacted me. They all allowed me to unsubscribe at any time. I wasn't bothered by what was sent to me by these legitimate organizations.

    They include non-profit groups that merely send updates and press releases -- like the Winnipeg Humane Society -- even though such groups are supposedly exempt. Interestingly, I receive almost daily press releases from the Prime Minister's Office, and have never received a request for consent from the PMO. So that should take a bit of the pressure off some organizations.

    At the Winnipeg Free Press, we are also being ultra cautious to comply with the new law.

    We have always followed responsible rules for electronic communications, contacting only people with whom we have a relationship and ensuring anyone who does not want to be contacted again is taken off our list.

    The anti-spam law does not cover commercial messages sent to anyone who has an ongoing subscription, membership, account, loan or similar relationship and this covers most of the people we contact.

    But we are going further and, prior to July 1, we contacted anyone whose email we have on file to determine if they consent to receive electronic messages from us.

    We will, as required, keep a record of all contacts regarding consent, and follow all other rules under the anti-spam law. We are a responsible company and we comply with the law.

    But that won't change the fact that the new law is like every other attempt to control the Internet -- akin to trying to use a rowboat to paddle up and over Niagara Falls.


  • CBC should focus on broadcasting

    06/27/2014 1:57 PM

    If the federal government set up an agency to publish publicly funded newspapers to provide news and information across Canada, the move would be met with almost universal opposition.

    There’s no need to pour tax dollars into something that the private sector is already doing without a subsidy, unless the goal is propaganda.

    So why is the CBC promising to turn itself into something that looks a lot like what newspapers are already doing in every community across the country?

    CBC President Hubert Lacroix could have been mistaken for a newspaper executive when he outlined the public broadcaster’s dilemma and its solution. The traditional model of broadcasting is broken and the new model of digital media doesn’t generate enough revenue to make up for lost funding. The solution is a leaner organization that does mobile first, targeting smartphones and tablets to find an audience.

    Perhaps Lacroix missed the first few lines in the document outlining the changes, entitled "A Space For Us All." It spells out quite clearly – and correctly – that "CBC/Radio-Canada was created to ensure that this country would have a place on its own airwaves."

    The CBC was started to ensure there was a place in the scarce resource of the airwaves for Canadian content and that it was not drowned out by dominant American broadcasters.

    Personally, I love the CBC as a broadcaster, think that Canadian radio listeners are among the luckiest in the world to have CBC radio and that CBC TV does a good job and would be even better if it tried to provide more of the unique content we hear on radio.

    The thing is, CBC was not set up to be a publicly subsidized media company. It was not set up to compete with newspapers that existed 80 years ago, or for that matter any media that have come along since that time that do not do over-the-air broadcasting.

    Yet it is now proposing to do just that – exactly the same thing The Globe and Mail or the Winnipeg Free Press is doing, only we do it without a public subsidy.

    I totally understand the problem for the CBC. It once had a special and publicly subsidized part of a scarce resource – the airwaves – but that position has become a smaller and smaller part of the media world. Cable now provides space for a massive number of television outlets. Satellite makes radio universally available. The internet makes unlimited media available all the time to anyone with a connection. You don't need the CBC to watch hockey games.

    Lacroix says the solution is to provide news, information and other material for digital first , that Canadians need a space of their own in the crowded media universe and that CBC will be at the heart of that space.

    You have to wonder how much time Lacroix has spent studying new media. The main characteristic of the modern media world is that each one of us is at the centre of our own media space – we build our own personalized use of media, much of it constructed around our own space on any number of social media platforms. Individuals provide their own content, take things from an unlimited number of sources, share with friends, watch shows in a variety of formats when and where they want to, etc.

    The idea that a single media provider could be at the heart of that space is laughable.

    All media companies are trying to find their own place in this new universe. Newspapers such as the Free Press are adapting by doing what we have always done – providing strong, quality coverage of what is happening and what is important in our community – and using old and new media platforms to reach our audience.

    There is, in fact, no shortage of news and information being provided digitally all across Canada, no danger that this unique content won’t be available. By focusing on this area, all the CBC will be doing is expanding in an area where this is little justification for it to be, and less reason for public support.

    And that’s the real danger with the CBC’s new focus. There’s still a huge need for distinct Canadian public broadcasting. It deserves robust public support, which will be lost if all the CBC does is try to become less of a broadcaster and more of a digital content provider.


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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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