Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • Warm and fuzzy feeling not enough for this donor

    12/17/2014 1:56 PM

    I’ve said before that the harmless, positive stories can often create more problems than do the ones mired in controversy and allegations.

    Saturday’s paper featured an interview I did with Alexa Yakubovich, a new Rhodes Scholar who’s graduated from Grant Park High School and the University of Manitoba, and who has already done a master’s at the University of Oxford, where she’ll pursue a PhD.

    Full disclosure, I was an organizer and chaperone at Yakubovich’s safe grad, but she was not among my daughter’s close friends.

    Yakubovich is a brilliant young woman who has immersed herself in the arts, and in raising money for cancer research; she’s conducted academic research into AIDS and the barriers to health care that women in poverty face, into homophobia in schools, into the lack of water on Manitoba reserves.

    The story ran as the weekly In Conversation With, a feature in which we have a short intro about an individual, with whom we then do a Q&A and publish our back and forth as a transcript.

    The focus was on Yakubovich’s achievements, what she’ll do with this gifted potential, how hard she’s worked to get where she is.

    Inevitably, outstanding students win a lot of awards and scholarships along the way. The story was about Yakubovich, the person she is, the person she may become.

    So, after the article ran, I received an email from a community group, a non-profit organization which had awarded Yakubovich financial aid. This community group demanded to know why there was no mention of it and its generosity in the article, had Yakubovich not told me about it, or had I chosen not to publish it?

    I told the group that it could talk to Yakubovich, and it could talk to my editors, but that we don’t discuss the details of our interviews with third parties. I gather she’s getting some grief — Yakubovich is an empowered, highly-educated adult, and she can decide how she wants to handle this.

    But it leads me to ask, why did this particular group choose to provide her financial aid — was it to help out someone who has the potential to make a real difference in the world, or to have the community commend its members for their selfless generosity?

    The story was about an outstanding young woman, and it was not a list of every award she’s won and every group or individual or organization or institution that has provided her with money and assistance and support along the way. That list would probably take up more space than the article I wrote.

    This is not the first time I’ve encountered such behaviour from a tiny minority of philanthropists and community volunteers.

    A while back, I was invited to be a speaker at Crossways in Common, advising inner-city non-profits on how to get media coverage. And as is my wont, I seemingly disgressed and told a story about what we’re likely to publish in certain situations, a story whose eventual point is appropriate in this current context.

    This would be back in Stratford in the mid-70s, when I was in the Perth County bureau for The London Free Press. There was to be a warm-and-fuzzy event, in which a community group had raised money and was presenting new wheelchairs to two disabled young girls.

    I duly attended, taking my prehistoric camera along, and having sat through the ceremony, prepared to take a photograph of the two girls in their new wheelchairs.

    The group was collectively horrified and outraged.

    This was a women’s group which people had to be invited to join, as I recall — whoops, sorry, my bad, that should be a ladies’ group, gentleladies in fact, members of the noblesse oblige gentry and all FOOFs (fine old Ontario families).

    Could I not get it through my thick head that the story — and accompanying photograph — was to be about the group, listing the names of all the members involved in the project, with special attention paid to the president of the group and to the chairs of the committes which had played key roles in doing this deed for which the community-at-large should overwhelmingly display its everlasting and public gratitude?

    To get out of there in one piece, I took a huge group shot, but I also photographed the two girls with their wheelchairs, and that’s what ran in The London Free Press, and the story talked about who these two girls were and how the wheelchairs would help them. And, of course, it hit the fan, and freeps city editor of the day, the late Jim O’Neail, is one of those editors in my career whom I remember fondly.


  • Somewhat bizarre correspondence

    12/15/2014 5:11 PM

    It was hard to keep score on what brought me more derision and scorn, my writing about the suspension of a high school teacher over attacks on natives posted on his Facebook page, or my Saturday Special on the move away from Christian-themed Christmas concerts in public schools.

    Not that the backlash, most of it from anonymous trolls defending the teacher or defending Christian traditions in public schools, surprised me.

    One guy, who apparently lives in the Interlake, did sign his name, in a rather odd email.

    He wanted to know why I would write about the teacher, when I allegedly don’t write about Ben Levin, the former deputy education minister facing child porn charges in Toronto. He said that ‘political considerations’ should not deter me. And he copied his message to me, to a whole bunch of people whom he didn’t identify and of whom I have never heard.

    A subsequent email that one of his recipients copied to me leads me to believe that they’re on the lookout for anything that could cast a negative light on aboriginal people trying to get into politics, but maybe that’s just my misinterpreting and taking stuff out of context again.

    Anyway, I replied to my initial correspondent that one situation had nothing to do with the other, that the amounts of relative column inches of disparate stories have no connection, and that I have, in fact, written about the charges Levin is facing, back in the summer of 2013 when the charges were laid.

    By the way, Toronto Star court reporter Alyshah Hasham tells me a trial date could finally be set when Levin next appears in court Jan. 9.

    Back to the email... I told this guy he should elaborate on what he meant by my being deterred by political considerations, and if he had some shot to take at my integrity, he should just come out and say it.

    Oh, heavens no, says he, the political considerations were that Levin has been a deputy minister of education in both Manitoba and Ontario.

    And why would that possibly deter me? He won't say.

    At least he had the gumption to sign his email.


  • All the no-news that's fit to print

    12/8/2014 3:56 PM

    I’m overdue to update you on stories on which I have absolutely nothing to report.

    It’s less than four months since former Red River College president Stephanie Forsyth left under a mutual agreement on which no one has ever elaborated, so what would be the big rush in starting a search for a new president?

    I keep bugging RRC, I keep getting told that the search plan and applicants’ criteria will be along one of these days.

    Meanwhile, acting president David Rew is still mulling over his review of how that marble from the culinary arts building ended up in the kitchen of the former president’s former home on Wellington Crescent.

    And meanwhile meanwhile, Advanced Education Minister Peter Bjornson 2.0 is still working on the review of RRC that his predecessor James Allum launched, that investigation into allegations about the finances and morale and employment practices at the college.

    So, there, do you feel better informed now?

    A day or two after the election, my colleague Aldo Santin interviewed Robert-Falcon Ouellette, in which the surprisingly strong mayoral candidate talked about his plans to establish an elite, private university in Winnipeg for indigenous students.

    I’ve asked Ouellette for an interview twice about his proposal, and twice he’s said he’ll get back to me when the time is right.

    And I have asked UM how it feels about a fairly senior university administrator with responsibility for indigenous students working on his own time on something that would, at least on the surface, appear to be in competition with his day job. UM says it hasn’t had a talk with Ouellette yet, as far as anyone knows.

    Seguing seamlessly....

    You wouldn’t have been aware of this one, but a senior labour leader contacted me right after the election, someone whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met — so you know it isn’t Manitoba Teachers’ union boss Paul Olson — who wanted to talk to me about the local school boards, with some context about the labour support some candidates received.

    We agreed to meet for coffee, but he cancelled at the last minute. I’ve emailed last week to see about trying again, but have had no further word.


    I and several of my colleagues received a lengthy email from a local student, who wants us to do a story on her, based on her having gotten accepted by a prestigious school in the UK amidst international competition for spots, and being only the second generation of her family to go to university.

    So here you have a bright young woman, who attended an academically-strong prestigious private school in Winnipeg, comes from a family of learned professionals, and got into a school overseas...all sorts of Winnipeg students get into the Ivy League or Oxford, and surely there are some as smart as I who also got into York, and probably a few who got into Trent or Victoria as did my kids, and we don’t do stories about all of them.

    And she figures she rates a story.



  • Today's news from the Babinsky bureau

    12/5/2014 3:07 PM


    If anyone is hanging around the International Court in The Hague, and spots WSD school trustee Mike Babinsky walking up the front steps with an armload of documents, let me know, eh?

    Babinksy has struck out everywhere else he’s tried so far in his bid to get someone, anyone, in authority to launch a criminal investigation into Winnipeg School Division, even though he flat-out absolutely refuses to allege that anything criminal has occurred.

    Education Minister Peter Bjornson 2.0, Justice Minister James Allum, and now the Winnipeg Police Service have all declined to do so.

    Babinsky says that the Public Schools Act has been violated repeatedly, which he kind of thinks that maybe sort-of that someone may think was somehow done in a criminal way, though, of course, he’s not saying that — he wants some public body, any public body, to investigate whether it should conduct a criminal investigation.

    His allegations involve kids waiting a long time to be picked up by school buses last winter, and the long tradition in the division of doing enormous amounts of business behind closed doors.

    This all goes back to last year, when Babinsky raised legitimate concerns about how long some kids were spending riding buses in WSD, and how long some kids had had to wait at bus stops on very cold days. He also raised legitimate concerns about the school board’s going behind closed doors to award a raise to bus drivers after they made the transition from being employees of private First Student Canada to being WSD employees.

    Come June 2, and Babinsky raised a notice of motion to discuss at the June 16 meeting his demand for discipline — pretty serious stuff — against anyone in WSD found to be responsible for the kids waiting out in the cold. Come June 16, his motion was defeated behind closed doors.

    Now, I should explain that I didn’t see any of the school board action first-hand. I wasn’t going to board meetings all that often, having explained here a few times that there wasn’t much point to sitting through 20 minutes of public nothing, and then camping outside a closed door for three or four hours. As well, these events happened when I was off on vacation, attending both kids' convocations a week apart in other provinces.

    So, does anyone get a whiff of anything criminal’s having happened?

    Board chair Mark Wasyliw — along with Cathy Collins and Babinsky, one of three veterans on the board now — says that Babinsky’s notice of motion got ‘generalized,’ not altered and hidden and concealed as Babinsky alleges, because it identified an individual employee and left the division vulnerable to a lawsuit.

    This week I got a call from Suzanne Hrynyk, who retired in October to take a run at city council, and who was board chair last June when all of this went down.

    Hrynyk disagreed with Wasyliw’s version of events. Nothing was altered or generalized, Hrynyk said.

    Notices of motion must be in writing, and there’s no debating them the night they’re tabled, they get placed on the agenda of the next regular board meeting, usually a fortnight hence.

    Hrynyk said that Babinsky brought up his notice of motion verbally, with nothing in writing to share with the board. When she heard it — emphasizing that verbal statements do not go into the minutes — she realized the sensitivity of conducting debate in public about punishing employees, and ruled that Babinsky’s matter would go to the closed-door session, at which he could present a written motion.

    That’s what happened, and when it was heard behind closed doors June 16 and defeated, that was the end of it, said Hrynyk, and there was nothing in the public minutes to be altered or generalized.

    Anyone else want to present a version of events? Five other retired board members? Cathy Collins?

    Though I never digress, I’ll make an exception here and muse aloud about how all this would have been different, had the board already been livestreaming its meetings and archiving the tapes online, as it’s looking at doing soon.

    One other thing Hrynyk said to me... while the type of confrontation I witnessed Monday night between Wasyliw and Babinsky was quite beyond what has happened in public in recent memory, Hrynyk said it was typical of the closed-door interchanges involving Babinsky; what jumped out at me was Hrynyk’s saying that Babinsky may find himself at the board making motions about all sorts of things, and maybe not getting a seconder, and thus not being able to even discuss them on the floor of the school board.


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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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