Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • How close is WSD to dysfunction?

    04/24/2015 2:00 PM

    Winnipeg School Division board and trustee Mike Babinsky have only 42 months more to not work together.

    Not that anything would change in the 2018 election, should Babinsky choose to run for a seventh term — he’s about as entrenched as a politican can be.

    His performance Monday evening was mind-boggling at times.

    One week after being censured for the fourth time in his school board career, and second since the new board took office in November, Babinsky had something to say to every delegation that appeared at the public access meeting, an awful lot to say to most of the 10 delegations, and only some of it within the rules which chair Mark Wasyliw had laid out for the public gallery.

    In the public meeting, he uttered nary a syllable about his behaviour behind closed doors a week earlier, when he reportedly stormed out of the meeting and left the building after strong outbursts directed at trustee Cathy Collins, who was chairing the closed-door session, tirades which allegedly included F-bombs.

    Two issues drew delegates this week, the impending upheaval of kids and schools in the south end of the division to accommodate enormous growth in French-language learning, and the latest futore over the provincially-enabled right of parents to have their kids take part in Bible studies with an evangelical group over the lunch hour.

    Wasyliw explained that delegations could speak for up to 10 minutes each, then trustees could pose questions of clarification — no debate.

    As if.

    Babinsky openly argued with some delegations, cajoled others, pandered to some, tossed up lob ball pitches that a delegation could hit out of the park. He had speeches galore in search of a question of clarification. The meeting lasted close to 210 minutes.

    Trustee Lisa Nayor and Wasyliw pretty much did the same arguing and haranguing with one delegation, David Hudson of the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Manitoba.

    But for Babinsky, it was an evening-long performance.

    There are due diligence and transparency and all the other buzzwords, making sure questions get asked and answers given. And then there are obstructionism and showboating and sticking it to your colleagues for hours on end.

    Defending the CEFM against allegations that its beliefs are homphobic and thus violate WSD’s values, Babinsky declared, with no sign of posing a question of clarification to the delegation, "You can believe in god, you can believe in gay, you can believe in both, you can believe in one."

    Maybe in the long history of WSD there has been a more bizarre all the board meetings I’ve covered, I’ve never heard one.

    Our veterans get used shamelessly for many a politician’s posturing, rarely so cringe-worthy as when Babinsky said that brave men and women had gone to war to defend the right of parents to have their children do Bible studies in a public school.

    But topping everything was Babinsky’s repeatedly asking Hudson if the child evangelists had ever considered filing a human rights complaint against Winnipeg School Division, repeating it when Hudson chose not to hit Babinsky’s first offering out of the park, and even providing possible grounds, telling Hudson that the evangelicals would have a case for the division’s violating their freedom of religion. Babinsky stopped short of offering Hudson a ride down to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and pulling out his own pen for Hudson to fill in the complaint form...barely stopped short.

    I half-expected yet another censure motion. How often have we ever heard of an elected member of a public body urging a member of the public to take legal action against the public body on which he or she sits?

    Maybe the rest of the board felt there was no point in going through it all again.

    Is this the way to oversee the best possible quality of education for 33,176 students?


  • Forsyth now acknowledges she worked here

    04/21/2015 2:16 PM

    Stephanie Forsyth’s profile on LinkedIn now acknowledges that she was president of Red River College.

    However, that change in her on-line CV is pretty much all the information she lists about that job.

    Not that one would expect Forsyth to go into great detail about the expenses and firings scandal that led to her departure, but there is nary a syllable about her accomplishments as president, whereas there are oodles upon oodles of details about all the jobs she previously held.

    One curious thing — Forsyth says she was RRC president from September of 2010 through September of 2014. We’ve been told repeatedly that she left Aug. 30, 2014, through mutual agreement.

    On to other things...

    Today is the 10th anniversary of Safe Schools Manitoba’s having severed all contact with me and with the WFP. I still maintain that I have done nothing professionally or otherwise for which I have any reason to apologize.

    A succession of education ministers has apparently been OK with paying Safe Schools Manitoba’s budget without having its programs, guidelines, events, and advice shared with Manitoba’s schools through the province’s largest print medium.


    We turned down another request for me to speak at a school.

    It’s just not realistic, given staffing levels and the amount of assignments I could cover every day, to expect that the paper would agree to my spending four hours on the road to address a single elementary school class.

    Sorry. I hope you can find someone a tad closer to the school.

    And seamlessly seguing...

    A while back I went through one of the umpteen daily news releases from the communications empire at U of M, and one intrigued not only me, but also Big Editor (not his real name).

    A prof had won an innovation award for a really nifty way of engaging elementary school kids in the principles of science. An article was merited.

    Off I went to the campus and talked to the prof. Through a particular set of circumstances, his great idea is already in use in classrooms in Grand Forks, and could come here next school year. The prof also told me about another super-neat science project in which he’s involved with schools, and I successfully pitched both to my superiors.

    Pause while I tug at my forelock.

    I would get an exotic junket to Grand Forks to conduct diligent journalistic research, and I would cover his second project locally.

    And the prof would get back to me with dates to pursue both stories. And after a while, I reminded him, and he said he was working on it, and after another while I asked him again, and again he said he was working on it. And now, my last couple of emails have gone unanswered.


    I got an email early Monday morning from someone named Morgan at Uproar PR, who told me, "I’m not sure if you’ve heard already, but a parent at a school in Winnipeg was recently arrested for stealing $24,000 from the lunch program. I’d love to set up an interview for you with Chris Johnson about how Permission Click could have stopped this crime from happening."

    First off, yes, I have heard, since I wrote that story. Secondly, I checked through your phone number and learned that you’re based in a rural county in Florida, where you might not be aware of how our justice system works, namely that we have a presumption of innocence, and here it would be "arrested for allegedly stealing" and "stopped this alleged crime".


    I’m wondering how Morgan’s company flagged down this story on the Internet, somehow she both found the article and then found me, yet she and her software didn’t notice that my byline was on the article. Permission Click appears to be some kind of digital school permission slip that her client is flogging.

    And now for something completely different...

    Mayor Brian, I had no idea what the envelope was when it arrived, and when I opened it up, I was really flabbergasted to receive the certificate and the kind words. Thank you.

    Leaving all of you wondering what that’s about...

    I was live-tweeting Monday evening’s WSD public delegations board meeting, filing tweets galore and regularly updating the web coverage to a breathless world — I’m sure that everyone at the MTS Centre had one eye on the ice and the other on his or her device — when one person replied and told me I needed to re-send everything this morning, because no one was paying attention Monday evening.

    Um...I guess maybe there’s something I don’t understand in the ‘live’ part of live-tweeting.

    I did find out that trustee Lisa Naylor can multi-task, she was RTing and favouriting me while listening out of the corner of her eye to trustee Mike Babinsky.

    You young people might want to try this social media stuff, it’s kind of hip and fab.


    The Supreme Court ruling on prayer at municipal council meetings reminds me of the time back when I covered Winnipeg city council in the early 90s...the 1990s....hmmph. We’d sit way up at the top of the public gallery, and when they’d start to pray before the meeting, I’d just push my seat back where no one could see me, and not take part.

    Until this one meeting, when a radio reporter — you might be surprised at which network he represented — got furious with me, and ordered me to get up on my feet and show respect and take part or he’d call a security guard. No, he wasn’t joking.

    So rather than become the story, I chose to leave for a minute, and thereafter would wait outside in the hall until they’d finished praying.

    Which, it goes without saying, could be seen as a violation of my rights.

    I sense a great disturbance in the force as the anonymous trolls reach for the reply button...


  • 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...


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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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