Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • No invite for me, and oodles of disparate stuff

    02/27/2015 4:19 PM

    I’m away until March 9, so you anonymous trolls will have to save up your vitriol until then. I’m sure you’re quite capable of building up a considerable stockpile.


    This is what, four or five years in a row now that no school has asked me to take part in I Love to Read Month, after years in which I regularly received several requests? I have no idea what I did to turn everyone off, I’m nowhere near as bad a person as the anonymous on-line trolls would have you believe.

    As I’ve said recently about my approach to refereeing, I strive always to remain avuncular.

    Moving on...

    Liberal leader Rana Bokhari recently tweeted that Manitoba schools need more time devoted to physical activity. Sure, I encourage physical activity, but I replied on Twitter, and asked Bokhari what would make room in the timetable for more physical activity. I haven’t heard back from her yet.

    Last year, it took me ages to get an interview with Bokhari on her party’s education platform, and even though I was quite emphatic that I only wanted to talk to her if the Liberals have specific positions on issues, all I got were broad generalizations and cliches.

    I understand that the Tories and Liberals both have taken the position that the NDP is evil, but what has either party said so far about what it would do with and for education?

    Switching gears....

    I blogged recently about people who can’t understand why I don’t drop everything I’m doing to look into their personal situation, people who believe that we should ignore Martian war machines landing in Transcona, so that we can devote all our resources to checking out their individual complaint against public education.

    Sometimes there’s sufficient substantiation or potential newsworthiness for us to devote time and resources to individuals. Sometimes. And it all has to be weighed against other major breaking stories, and often I’m totally swamped with systemic issues.

    The latest in a long line of outraged people is a father who advocates medical marijuana, who alleges that an addiction counsellor speaking to his child’s class, called the dad a liar and a crackhead to his child’s face in front of the whole class, that the professional knew absolutely nothing about marijuana, and that she represented a Christian front.

    He provided no substantiation, and the organization — you’d recognize its name in a heartbeat — has no religious affiliation or agenda of which I’m aware, and is highly-respected.

    And he’s very, very angry and astonished that I am not devoting every minute of my time to report his story. I can think of some public institutions that would probably wish I’d spend a week or three exclusively on the man’s allegations, but I digress.


    I know I’m not the only one who noticed Monday night that WSD trustee Mike Babinsky patronized a public delegation by telling the single mother who’d made a presentation that she’d been very well-spoken. Babinsky did not tell retired teacher/public delegation Terry Clifford that he was well-spoken. Since Clifford is very articulate, it begs the question, why did Babinsky single out the woman?

    Someone who agreed with my tweets on the subject wasn’t in a position to speak up, but I’m wondering why no one else on the board called Babinsky out on it.

    Deftly changing subjects...

    There was the night at adult soccer, proving there’s a first time for everything — a coach erupted in anger at me for getting hit by the ball.

    Had I stood on the goal line and prevented a goal? No, this was a harmless play in the middle of the field, when the player with the ball had open teammates to whom to pass the ball, and instead turned and inexplicably drilled the ball at me from about five yards away, a ball that would otherwise have gone out of play, to no apparent advantage to her team.

    I guess the coach would have preferred that I call the match from centre, turning in small circles with the play, or trudging along 30 yards behind the ball, instead of running and staying close to the action.


    Tim, I appreciate your keeping me in the loop about your constant advice to government. But, and I mean this kindly, are you not aware that The Hon. Nancy R. Allan, as you address your messages, has not been the minister of education for quite a while now?

    And in another increasingly-rare education reference, I wrote a story about a proposal from the U of W Students Association under which it would be compulsory for students to take a compulsory course in indigenous culture by 2016 — oops, redundancy alert. Neither the UWSA nor the UW administration had any trouble with my story, but a freelance journo complained to my bosses and demanded corrections to the story.

    And back to soccer:

    I know it’s really bad form to report praise and compliments people have made about me, that it can seem totally arrogant and self-serving and egotistical to do so, but hey, people tell me I’m great, and I have to share it. As Joe Willie Namath said, or maybe it was Dizzy Dean, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

    Thus, I’ve got to tell you, coach, you were really making me blush out there on the pitch, as you spent the entire match turning to your players and proclaiming, "This referee is unbelievable!"


    I’ve been following the coverage of the updated sex-ed curriculum in Ontario, and saw a tweet from The Toronto Star that linked to what was taught in the 1940s about venereal disease and waiting until marriage.

    I wasn’t in school in the 1940s. No, really, you can check the records, I’ll waive FIPPA.

    I went through the Ontario public school system, in Scarborough and Etobicoke and Georgetown and what in 1953 was still a Wolseley-like neighbourhood near Yonge and the Davisville subway station, and I don’t recall a single moment of sex-ed. Nothing in health class, not ever, nothing anywhere else in any other subject.

    On the other hand, thanks to the Manitoba family life curriculum, my kids were able to explain a couple of scenes in American Pie to me that I didn’t understand.

    And now for something completely different...

    I need to issue some apologies for my behaviour at Reh-Fit. Yes, obviously your bag needed that single chair far more than I needed to sit down to put on my boots. And to the serious young body-builder, it was very selfish and insensitive of me to want to use the bench in the locker room for getting on my gym stuff when you needed it to spread out the contents of a pharmacaeutical warehouse.

    I hate being a living stereotype, but I do seem to get in everyone’s way all the time, now that I’m a senior. I spend a lot of time doing so at my favourite fruit and vegetable shop, where it makes far more sense for shoppers less than half my age to just stand and glare at me, instead of wasting energy saying "Excuse me," since I probably wouldn’t even notice anyway.

    And in grocery stores, where I am constantly annoying, naturally it’s up to me to wrestle a cart around you when you come straight at me, much more sensible than for a perfectly ambulatory 20-something to take a step to the side.


    Our favourite Safeway having become something else, I tend to shop at the local Sobey’s now that it has Air Miles, but occasionally my quest to cash in 100 Air Miles coupons takes me into stores where I don’t usually shop, wherein seniors’ moments await.

    One place, I stop at the deli, where two staff are behind the counter chatting, and a third is visible in the back. And I stand..and I stand...and I stand. Best case scenario, seniors don’t eat much, so serving me isn’t worth the effort; worst case scanario, I’m Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense. And then, because I fall into the crotchety spectrum of seniors’ stereotypes, I rudely ask if someone can serve me. The two look up from their chatting, yell to the one in the back, she looks up, goes back to what she was doing, the two at the counter shrug, and go back to chatting. I leave without any deli meat.

    Seguing seamlessly....

    I’m wondering while watching The Americans, since they’re often not sleeping alone but also not with each other, don’t they ever talk in their sleep, or get suddenly awakened, by a noise or the phone, and what are the chances that they wouldn’t come awake, even once, speaking Russian?

    And while we’re on TV, I must acknowledge I didn’t see that coming on Ascension. But I still don’t see how a generation ship would look so sparkly and fresh more than five decades into its voyage, and everyone maintaining a strictly-segregated social order. I was in high school in the Kennedy years, and if the U.S. had had that kind of technology, the Americans wouldn’t have used it for a generation ship, and if the Soviets had known the U.S. had that kind of technology, they would have shot first.

    I watched Alan Shepherd and John Glenn go into space in a little tin can — thanks, David — and I knew even then what incredible amounts of energy it took just to get that little weight into orbit. And here you have an enormous generation ship that 51 years later is down to its last 25 bottles of bordeaux, not to mention the infinite number of white shirts and an endless supply of hair spray.

    Speaking of feeling old, I’m listening to 1290, and Brian Munz is urging people to check out The Joe before another of the grand old arenas is gone, and I’m going, like what did he say? I remember going to The Joe just after it opened, after years of trips from LondonOnt to the Olympia, with its wonderful memories and weird angles and seats built all over the place, though we won’t get into the guards in the parking lot, itself within a barbed-wire fence in a really iffy neighbourhood. And then there came The Joe, fresh out of the box, straight across the river from Windsor, close to Cobo Hall and hotels and the restaurants of Greektown, one of the few places in Detroit with lots of people on the street and activity at night.

    I remember going there to see the Red Wings play, and I was talking a little while later to Dave Cooke, an N-Dipper MPP from Windsor, and both of us had found that the Peschke’s Polish Hot Dogs tasted different at The Joe, and we speculated that it was because they were starting out with a clean grill.

    Oh look, there’s something shiny!

    I was in a care home and spotted a copy of a provincial guide of services for seniors. Figuring this is right up my alley, that it’ll have lots of stuff pertinent to me, I picked it up — and saw that the minister’s greeting was from Larry Desjardins.

    That would have potentially come in handy for protection, since Tory leader Brian Pallister warned earlier this week that the NDP is conniving to manipulate me and my fellow seniors. But I — wait, sorry, what was that you just said, Greg, what is it that’s hiding under my bed?


  • Red River College tells me to 'play fair'

    02/19/2015 11:07 AM

    Red River College told me last night to ‘play fair’.

    What ethical boundary had I supposedly crossed?

    Well, after the short public portion of the monthly meeting of the college’s board of governors, I asked vice-chair Kathy Knight, in the absence of board chair Lloyd Schreyer, if she’d step out in the hall with me to answer a few questions before the closed-door session started.

    Knight initially agreed, out I went, and then the doors closed for the in camera session, with Knight still inside. An aide told me that I could go back to my office, submit questions in writing, and Knight would look at them later in the evening and get back to me.

    And when I said no, I wasn’t going to do that, that Knight is an empowered, educated adult, and she could listen to my questions and decide how and if she would answer, that’s when I was told to play fair.


    It was obvious after sitting through the 45 minutes of a pretty uneventful monthly board meeting that the whole scandal over the spending and firing practices of former president Stephanie Forsyth, the enormously-critical provincial review of the college, and the public questioning of the board’s actions, or lack of action, in the whole affair, that the scandal is just a minor blip, a blip that would go away, if only the media would let it go. No crisis of confidence here, nothing to see, keep moving.

    The board of governors meets in public session, but that comes with a large but.

    The board’s website advises people that they have to let the board know ahead of time that they want to come. That, says RRC, is a formality to ensure that there will be space for visitors, and that the access doors will be open. Same thing at U of M, said the college, though that’s never been my experience.

    Board meetings are held on the seventh floor of the executive suites in building C, that big tower back behind the bus loop, the floor on which Forsyth’s former office has a magnificent view of the airport and a lot of prairie.

    The elevator runs to the seventh floor, but the access doors get locked, so you can’t just wander in to sit and watch your tax dollars at work. And you can't just decide to head up at the last minute to watch the governance of your education, if you’re a student.

    I’d been asked several times why I was coming, and forgive me if it wouldn’t have been obvious. Nor did I see any reason why I had to explain to anyone why a member of the public wanted to attend a public meeting. Yes, I know that’s being disingenuous.

    Inside the boardroom, there were two extra chairs and agenda packages set out along the wall, for me and for the communications staff person who accompanied me. The other three spectators were union reps, who appeared to have had dinner with the governors and executives. I was offered cheesecake, which I declined.

    Only eight of the 12 governors were present.

    What didn’t happen in the public session was far more interesting than what did happen.

    The public session lasted all of 45 minutes, most of it taken up by acting vice-president academic and research Christine Crowe’s walking everyone through what sounded to be a very successful academic year last year. I was taking notes, and have a couple of story ideas to pursue.

    The other featured speaker was chief advancement officer Kim Jasper, the only one of eight executives without the word interim or acting ahead of her title. Jasper advised the governors that the overall media coverage of the college was ‘slightly negative’ in January, an anomaly, and that was all due to three days of coverage of the provincial review.

    It seems that Jasper reports every month on media coverage, which is almost invariably positive. Her report includes a thermometer-like graphic, with red and green sections, and a needle tipping last month just a hair into the negative side.

    Red River has also worked out something called Earned Media Value, which places a dollar figure on what the media coverage is worth to the college. In January, it was $104,230.

    No one had any questions.

    Elsewhere on the agenda, there was a printout of a story in the student newspaper The Projector, which reported how the governors were co-operating with the province in implementing the review’s 45 recommendations. Nary a syllable of any other media coverage, in which the WFP would be prominent.

    Interim president David Rew reported that the college is making good progress on those recommendations, and hopes to have them all in place by June.

    Did any governor have any questions?

    Questions such as, which ones have been implemented, which ones haven’t, are any proving to be difficult to implement, is anyone balking at any of them, have you come across any necessary changes that go above and beyond what the province has mandated? Has there been any contact with or from the minister?

    Um, anyone? Any governor curious how the acting/interim executive is cleaning up the scandal?

    Apparently not.

    I’m just speculating here, but I’m pretty sure Rew is not putting golf shoes on his expense account. Nevertheless, given the furore over Forsyth’s spending — above and beyond her generous allowance, her discretionary no-questions-asked account, her claiming expenses often without receipts, or filed under someone else’s expenses — I would have thought that Rew might have been required to have a public report on his own spending, if any, and there might be some indication that the governors were keeping an eye on it.

    Silly me.

    Neither was there a single question for interim vice-president finance and administration Maura Leahy.

    Given that so much of the Forsyth saga involved finances, a multi-million-dollar deficit among other things, one might have thought that a governor or two would ask in public session how things are going.

    Again, silly me.

    Maybe all of this got discussed in the closed-door session.

    The governors are, after all, only stewards of a $179 million-a-year extraordinarily-valuable public institution. Why would the governors have anything to ask in their one public opportunity of the month?



  • Community use of school gyms not so simple...or cheap

    02/17/2015 11:35 AM

    I came across a receipt a few days ago for my Leisure Guide volleyball registration five years ago. I paid $68.25 for eight weeks of pick-up recreational volleyball, two hours each Wednesday evening at a city school gym.

    The current Leisure Guide volleyball session in which I’m enrolled costs me $91, which is exactly a one-third increase in five years, and puts the cost of participating well out of the reach of a significant chunk of the city’s population.

    I asked Winnipeg School Division secretary-treasurer Rene Appelmans about it at the last school board meeting, and I got the same answer as the last time I had raised it with Appelmans, that it’s more than a decade since the school division received any kind of an increase from the city in its joint use agreement for hosting Leisure Guide programs.

    So for that one-third hike in costs, I get... I get.... hmmm... the nets are the same ones, that have no tension and sag badly, that don’t allow anyone to play a ball off the net. Maybe there’s been a new volleyball over the years, but not so as you’d notice. And all the registration is on-line, so no additional staff sitting at desks in community centres taking a registration form and a cheque from me.

    Meanwhile, custodians’ wages have gone up, as have the costs of heat and lights, and wear and tear on the gyms and change rooms — thanks for the now-functional hand dryer at Lord Selkirk School, Sherri — but all those are school division costs, and they’re not getting covered off by my registration fees climbing well beyond the rate of inflation.

    I raise all this as my typically meandering way of getting at this whole notion of schools as community hubs, and the $1-million campaign to create a community active living centre in the new gym at Kelvin High School.

    I’ll leave for another day the province’s hypocrisy in declaring that we have equity in our public school system in our socialist workers’ paradise, even though neighbourhoods with deep pockets can buy better school facilities.

    The idea is that there would be an additional 2,000 square feet in the new gym to accommodate a track at floor level, and fitness centres at both ends, where the school’s exercise equipment, free weights, and weight machines would be stationed. The community would be able to use those facilities, especially seniors.

    All well and good, so far.

    I asked Kelvin vice-principal Joyce Wong if Kelvin would charge residents, including seniors, for coming in to use the facilities, and she hedged. I recognized that deer-in-the-headlights look that suggests this maybe hadn’t come up in the pre-announcement briefing about the fundraising campaign.

    She said maybe it would be like the Leisure Guide, and talked about developing community partnerships, but would not give me a straight yes or no on charging the public for access.

    Look, I know the province brought in policies on greater community access to school facilities, and WSD trustees will debate several motions next month on making facilities more accessible.

    School gyms may be labelled community hubs, but they’re still school gyms.

    The way the system works, the schools get first call on those gyms. When I play volleyball, it’s at 8 p.m. in an elementary school gym, but high schools have varsity teams, a lot of them, and their games and practices take precedence before and after school.

    Is a senior going to be able to come by in daylight and walk the track with the gym full of a gym class, or with 10 exceptionally-large basketball players thundering up and down the court a foot or two away? Can I go in to lift weights alongside dozens of high school students? What about having adult strangers able to come into a school with all those minors around?

    School divisions have joint use agreements with the city for those gazillions of Leisure Guide programs. They have gym permit systems to accommodate the enormous and still-growing youth basketball leagues, club basketball and club volleyball practices and tournaments with voracious appetities for gym time, indoor soccer practices, adults with pick-up games... it’s a myth that school gyms sit empty just waiting for a few people from the community to wander in and use them.

    I’m a senior and I live near Kelvin. Chances are, I wouldn’t go in to walk the track, charge or no charge. I belong to Reh-Fit, I still run outdoors when the ice is gone, so I have no stake in this, but some of my fellow golden years types do. And I'm just speculating here, but I don't think a lot of seniors would be into going to a high school at 10 p.m. when the gym was not being used by others.

    This community hub thing needs to be spelled out. When does the community get to use these facilities, under what circumstances, and what will it cost?


  • Making great effort to disappoint everyone involved

    02/12/2015 2:57 PM

    To begin with, no, U of M marketing and communications executive director John Danakas does not write the stories that go out under my byline.

    I took some considerable heat for the second in the latest round of stories about the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ reports after its investigations into U of M, this one specifically the second story on the economics department controversy.

    One correspondent implied that he is a journalist — sorry, he’s young, I should have said journo — and that the way he was taught differs from my approach. Apparently, when he writes a story, it is only when the tale is assuredly complete in every detail and reflects all sides equally.

    The story which drew the criticism largely consisted of what UM president David Barnard told the campus — albeit in polite academic language, he told CAUT to get stuffed, which is pretty much what Barnard had said when we ran the original story a while back that the investigation was under way.

    The story also contained comments from the three economics professors who had subsequently contacted me about the original story — they, like Barnard, do not accept their national union’s point of view. Two of them also attacked my abilities on their blog, which they are free to do, of course.

    And the story summed up what CAUT had said about UM and its economics department.

    That, said my critics, was so one-sided that UM probably wrote it under my byline.

    UM might well have made the case that the initial story was too heavily weighted towards CAUT.

    And that might very well have been the case — CAUT released its report during the afternoon, and did not copy it, as far as I can tell, to UM. It was a breaking news story, UM chose not to respond that afternoon, and I included in the story what Barnard had had to say earlier about the investigation.

    There are significant differences between breaking news stories which develop over a period of time, and a story on which we can work for days or weeks.

    Not everything on a developing story is known in one day, not everything comes out in one day — stories tell you what’s new, they summarize what’s been known before, and the next day or the day after, more becomes known, or things develop as reactions to what’s gone before. CentreVenture, the fire halls, the PST, Evander Kane, no one sat on those stories until they thought every possible fact was known and every possible person with a perspective had been given an opportunity to comment.

    You don't re-run in every new story everything that anyone and everyone has previously said on the subject.

    There have been suggestions from the university that we give CAUT too much attention. I’ve had people tell me that I should not have written anything until I’d contacted every prof in economics and given him/her a reasonable amount of time to decide whether to say anything for publication.

    There are people who probably think that heterodoxy should be worthy of several pages of coverage.

    There’s also the simple reality that the CAUT reports are not the only stories on which I’m working, Big Editor (not his real name) may not have it at the top of the priority list for how my labour is to be exploited by the capitalist system on a particular day — would that be the interpretation of some of the profs whom CAUT is supporting? — though what matters to people is generally only the story in which they’re involved.

    I have at least three stories on the go that aren’t panning out, that may not ever see their way into print or get on the website, but there are people who believe I should be devoting all my time and energy to just one of those possible stories.


    I recently had a trustee chide me for not attending the meeting of the school board at which he was presenting a motion (unsuccessfully), a board I have rarely if ever covered.

    A community group wanted me at an evening meeting it was holding with local trustees. It was a piece of a developing story, but not enough of a piece to justify the time.

    My days of covering everything that occurs, of regularly working 16 or 18 hours, are long gone, and that decision isn’t necessarily based on my advanced years.

    We may make decisions on what will get in the paper and how much time, energy, and staff resources we can apply to individual potential stories.

    When you’re passionately involved in a story, we can never spend enough time on it, or cover it adequately or properly.



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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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