Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • Everyone wants to hear the firefighter or pilot

    04/13/2015 7:49 AM

    A particular school wanted me to take part in a career day, telling me that I had been singled out and chosen to represent my profession.

    The time involved, getting there and back, would have pretty much wiped out the day. And it’s not my time, it’s the paper’s time, and we all know how invaluable I am to filling the wrapping for the next day’s fish and chips.

    Turns out that’s provincial budget day, so I won’t be going to the career day.

    I did point out to the organizer that if you’re going to tell someone that he’s been personally selected to be a mentor to students, that the email should start with the person’s name, not with "to whom it may concern."

    And I’m still dubious by the claim that it’s the only high school career fair to be held anywhere in Manitoba this school year.

    But it can be fun for the kids, even if most of us can’t really compete with a firefighter or a pilot in uniform.

    Career days are one of those things that high schools have, as though somewhere in the curriculum there’s a requirement. Top question is usually — pause for suspense — how much do you make?

    I’ve rarely met students who were keeners about the profession, as I rolled through the four or five sessions you have at these days. I know such students exist, because there are J-schools across Canada, and lots of competition to get into crecomm at Red River — it’s just that I’ve never met such people at career days. Or maybe I did, and they hadn’t considered a career in print media before hearing my inspirational story and the wonders of the glorious future for daily newspapers....

    There was one guy, I think it was at Transcona Collegiate, who wanted to know how he could be one of the people on TSN and get to go to all the games. And while the way I entered the profession in 1971 is completely irrelevant now, I do know what to tell high school students about the requirements, and more importantly, about the aptitude they need. We may no longer use the manual typewriter I had in 1971, but there are timeless skills for writing and content. Hint: language arts and history teachers like my talks.

    I remember once at St. James Collegiate, I had to sign attendance forms — the students had to come to four sessions to go into a draw for Green Day tickets.

    I won’t mention where it was that I told a student she had to wake up from her nap, or where it was that I apologized for talking so loudly that two guys at the back had to practically shout to carry on their conversation. I did point out that I’d been asked to come, I had not arbitrarily imposed myself on them.

    Another time I spoke at a school in Seven Oaks, think it was H.C. Avery, and after a full morning, they treated all of us to a really nice lunch. The school was in a residential neighbourhood, I’d found a street with all-day parking around six blocks away, but many of the other speakers had been ticketed and a few had even been towed.


    Then there was the mystery person somewhere in our building who decided for a while that it was my job to go to a school whenever anyone called the paper looking for a school speaker for any reason.

    Which led to my getting a call one day from a teacher at a school we’ll hypothetically call St. Norbert Collegiate. Despite its being maybe a 45-minute drive each way from our office, she wanted me to come to the first period of the morning, then back again in the afternoon, to talk to students about careers in journalism. We settled on one session, one trip. When I got to the school, it was photo day, and every five minutes, off would go the PA and several students would get summoned, and up they’d get and head off. Not too much continuity that day. Anyway, back to the teacher and her initial call, and as I was hanging up, she said, "Wait, wait, one more thing I need to know...who are you?"


    I had a full-pager on high school fields a week ago Saturday. Thanks, sharp-eyed reader, I am aware that the fields on Leila on which Garden City Collegiate has sometimes played are not next door to Kildonan Place Mall; yes, I am as surprised as you to read that in my story.

    One thing you didn’t read in there was any comment from the official opposition. The Tories had been miffed about a story I’d written recently, on which I didn’t email them for comment, and they told me they expected to be asked on every education story.

    Never mind that I’ve rarely heard back when I do get in touch. Anyway, I emailed two of Pallister's people on the Monday about the story that would be running Saturday, the response came back of availability for comment just before noon on the Friday, which was a stat; alas, the story had been handled and laid out on the page. Yes, of course, it’s my fault for not setting a precise deadline for getting back to me.

    I don’t ask the Liberals for comment very often, and probably won’t, until they’re ready to answer with specifics.

    Look, I know that the standard responses from either opposition party are, "The NDP are evil." and "We would do infinitely better." Both statements may well be true, but when I ask for comment, I’d like it to include some concrete idea of what you would do, specifically, if you were the government.


    One disgruntled reader took me to task over the recent convention of the Manitoba School Boards Association. One of the many resolutions was about keeping kids from attending public school until they’ve been vaccinated, and like some of the resolutions, it got voted down by quite a margin after very little debate. But this reader was shocked and appalled that I would not have ditched everything else going on with the trustees and written an in-depth story on the motion.

    Moving right along....

    I know that many of the people whom I encounter on the education beat have been told not to talk to the media, but I can’t remember before having seen notices posted about it. I was running Saturday and went into the conservatory in Assiniboine Park, to use the water fountain and to use another facility anything further on which would be TMI, and there was a posted notice out in the hall, telling the conservatory’s volunteers that they are not to talk to the media, and that if the media come in asking questions, they are to be referred to a number listed on the notice.


    What in the world could be going on in the conservatory that we ink-stained wretches and the TV types would descend in our hordes to investigate? What in the world is going on in the conservatory that the authorities don’t want us to know? Are they growing triffids in there? Is it a little shop of horrors thing, are there visitors who go in and never come out?


    Despite Game of Thrones starting Sunday night, and the temperature's heating up enough to go running outside in shorts, I’m feeling cranky, so let’s have at it...

    BMW, you know, and I know, that I’m never going to buy one of your vehicles, and you don’t care what I think about your commercials. But let’s be clear about how you think you can sell more cars: there is nothing funny about dementia in the elderly. Absolutely nothing.

    Chevy Colorado, you know, and I know, that I’m never going to buy one of your trucks, and you don’t care what I think about your commercials. I’m strictly the guy with the sensible compact whom you want everyone to despise.

    But the way in which you depict women in your commercial is loathesome. The women look at the two photos, and one says, the guy with the sensible compact is the one your mother wants you to marry, he's the the guy you dump so you can run away with the guy with the truck...depicting women as vacuous, shallow airheads may help you sell trucks, but that doesn’t make it OK.

    Wendy, listen up, eh, as soon as the asiago commercial comes on, I hit the remote for another channel. Same with that "Livin’ large, my friend" commercial you show 87 times during every game. He sure would be livin’ large if he spent his days in a comfy chair watching TV and scarfing all those calories.

    Finally, there’s CBC promoting itself, which is fair game, Peter taking about how good a job the network does, which is pretty well accurate. Peter touts his own people without dissing anyone else. I've never thought it a great idea to promote yourself by putting down others.

    Then there’s CTV, in which Lisa not only says her people do a great job, but do it far better than anyone else. While others are trying to figure out who (sic) to call, her people have the story on the air. And why? That’s because the people in Ottawa on whom they report are also their neighbours.


    It’s pretty standard to remind people that reporters live in the community too — Big Editor (not his real name) does that about us — but to say you get the story because you live next door to the people in the story? I wouldn’t want to be reporting the good and bad on the people next door or just down the block, people who are your neighbours and in some cases your friends, people with whom you socialize and take care of each other’s plants when you’re away, that would be really awkward and uncomfortable and lead to all kinds of problems and ethical issues. Try getting babysitters if you’re reporting the latest scandals about their mom or dad. We still have a neighbour who hasn’t spoken to me for maybe 15 years or so, and who stares straight past me when we pass on the street, because I didn’t include her daughter in a science fair story.

    On the other hand...Greg, the two Brians, Annette, David, various ministers, Devon, how’s about we all move in next door to you? Wouldn’t you like to have me, Mary Agnes, Bartley, Aldo, Gord, Jen, affable and amiable Dan, living next door, so we can lean on our snow shovels and chat over the fence, while you tell us all the secrets?

    And again, harumph.


  • Remarkable women still defined as 'wife of'

    03/24/2015 9:27 PM

    I was working on the story yesterday of Janice Filmon’s appointment as lieutenant governor, and was quite dismayed to see on Twitter how many commenters, including some mainstream media, were leading their stories by defining Filmon’s most important quality as being the wife of former premier Gary Filmon.

    And then I opened my newspaper this morning, turned to my story, and discovered to my surprise that I had done exactly the same thing.

    Janice Filmon holds the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba among numerous other awards given to only the most extraordinary of Canadians and Manitobans, all for exceptional personal merit; she has a science degree in home economics from the University of Manitoba, she chairs the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation board, she’s on the airport board, was founding chair of Winnipeg ALIVE (A Leadership Initiative in Voluntary Efforts), there’s her work with the Nellie McClung Foundation, she’s a recruiter of volunteers and a mentor of young people who give their time and energy to helping others, charitable and philanthropic and volunteer and community leadership work forming so long a list that the mind boggles.

    She is a remarkable person.

    But now I realize in reading what appears under my byline that the most significant aspect of Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon, is that she is married to a man who was premier for a period of time until 16 years ago, a man whose greatest public accomplishments were in the last century, before some of the people who I hope read my story were born — and that whatever Janice Filmon has done and will do, she is most appropriately identified in terms of her relation to her spouse.

    A reporter gets used over 44 years to having his news judgment brought into question from time to time, and recognizes that, fortunately, others will catch and rectify my mistakes more frequently than I like to admit.

    I had recounted Brian Pallister’s anecdote about his family consulting Janice Filmon in 1992 about what life is like for families of politicians; that’s when Pallister first considered running, and the Pallisters approached Janice Filmon because, at the time, her husband Gary was Manitoba’s premier. That seemed to me to be an appropriate time to first inform readers that Filmon has a spouse, given that LG's spouses accompany them to events and ceremonies on occasion.

    There are times when it can be pertinent to name a person’s spouse prominently and early as an essential part of a story. I obviously did not understand that this was one of those times.

    I was wrong, and I apologize, and I am grateful that my embarrassing blunder did not make it into print.

    Of course, it goes without saying that we always identify men up high in our stories as ‘the husband of,’ and I will continue in every story to so identify Peter Bjornson, Paul Olson, Greg Selinger, Brian Pallister, Mark Wasyliw, Mike Babinsky...


  • Blame Koshelanyk for doing his job

    03/18/2015 11:35 AM

    Rookie trustee Dean Koshelanyk is causing big problems for the Winnipeg School Division.

    You people in his ward, you people who elected him and let him loose to create havoc — was he open and transparent about his penchant for doing his homework, did he disclose fully and honestly during the campaign that he reads documents and reports, was he up front with you about his diligence?

    Or did he try to hide it, until he was safely in office, and then — boom! — out he comes with all kinds of stuff, ambushing everyone with information that no one ever saw coming.

    The division is going to need a bigger fan by the time Koshelanyk gets through throwing facts and hitting the totally-inadequate fan they’ve got.

    Case in point, the latest religious turmoil within the division over the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s annual petitions to conduct religious exercises and/or Bible studies in a handful of schools in which parents of at least 25 children have signed petitions allowing their children to participate.

    This has been going on for years, and the parents have the right to do so under the Public Schools Act. Trustees have always given the CEF a hard time, holding one of the three readings of the enabling bylaw each month, after staff have counted the names and verified they all have kids at the particular school.

    But Koshelanyk is the first one to venture into the land of the bureaucrats, and ask to see the petition, in this case for Greenway School.

    And when Koshelanyk beheld the petition, he was aghast at its form and detail and specifics, or more accurately, the considerable lack of such. He alerted the board, the majority of whom rejected the application on the basis of unacceptable documentation, and who have now tasked a board committee with working with the CEF to develop a petition template that meets the newly-awakened trustees’ standards.

    It was also Koshelanyk who asked me where on earth I ever got the idea the WSD feels entitled to a new school in the Waterford Green subdivision without even putting it on the five-year capital priority list submitted each year for provincial consideration.

    I told him that finance chair Sherri Rollins told me it wasn’t on the list, in response to my questioning her about it.

    You can guess the next line, eh? Koshelanyk told me that it’s not only on the five-year capital priorities list, but it’s been the division’s self-identified number one priority since 2013, and he sent me the proof which he’d found in public documents.

    You people thought life was interesting with Mike Babinsky? Prepare to tremble every time Dean Koshelanyk rises to speak.


  • Out-of-left-field layoff could get ugly

    03/16/2015 4:41 PM

    The last time that I can remember a school division’s laying off an assistant superintendent was Sunrise SD, and that didn’t turn out well at all.

    The province ended up doing a review of the problems within Sunrise.

    Now it’s Winnipeg SD that’s decided seemingly out of nowhere that it will ditch one of its five senior managers, none of whom has any plans to retire.

    That means one of chief superintendent Pauline Clarke, and the four area superintendents: Celia Caetano-Gomes (central), Karin Siler (inner city), Robert Chartrand (south), Fatima Mota (north).

    This could have been done a lot more smoothly a year ago when Dushant Persaud retired.

    But it also raises questions about why trustees are doing this. That would leave roughly one assistant superintendent for every 11,000 students, whereas the ratio elsewhere in the city ranges from 3,500 to 4,000 students for each assistant superintendent — a ratio that doesn’t seem to have violated Education Minister Peter Bjornson’s tighter controls on administrative costs.

    It could get really ugly depending on which superintendent gets shown the door.

    The main public controversy facing the division right now is the overcrowding at Ecole La Verendrye School, and the possible swap with Earl Grey School.

    The trustees put forward the swap, then rejected it, then put it back on the table, all in less than five months of office. Meanwhile, the potential solutions put forward by the board include breaking up the Earl Grey student population and moving the Grades 7 and 8 kids to one or more other schools, establishing a second French milieu school in the south end and changing La Verendrye’s boundaries, converting William Osler from an adult English as an Additional Language school to elementary, changing Ecole Robert H. Smith from a dual track English and French immersion school to a French milieu school... and changes also affect day cares within schools, and before-and-after school programs.

    The parents at Earl Grey School are especially bitter, and at the delegation meeting the other night, I could hear some of them personally attacking south area superintendent Robert Chartrand. The next day, anonymous readers complained to my editors that I failed to do my homework, by accepting as accurate the school capacity figures that Chartrand gave to the trustees.

    I have no reason to doubt those figures.

    The division has hired consultants to talk to the neighbourhoods, but this is ultimately a political issue and a political decision. Bureaucrats may get directed to report on how many children are in each program, how many kids each school can handle, what the impact will be of changing catchment area boundaries, but when trustees get that information, it’s their responsibility to make the decisions, not the staff’s.

    As I said, this could get ugly.

    Meanwhile, I’m told the budget only passed 6-3, and that there was a motion lost by a 7-2 vote to cut the 3.2 per cent increase to 2.4 per cent.

    Remember that new era of openness and transparency that trustees were raving about back in November when they took office? The final budget decisions were reached behind closed doors, and tonight’s agenda, while it did go on-line this morning, is almost totally bereft of details, nothing to indicate what the various committees are reporting to the board.

    And in another meanwhile, has anyone noticed how hot to trot the division is to get a new school built in the Waterford Green subdivision in the northwest corner, right on the border of Seven Oaks School Division, even though the board has yet to put that hypothetical school on its five-year capital priorities list for the province.

    There is quite the sense of entitlement manifesting, an assumption that because WSD has its first significant new housing in decades, that it should jump the line for new schools, a list that includes Waverley West, Seven Oaks, Brandon, and Neepawa.


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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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