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Mary Agnes Welch's Gripe Juice

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Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first covering city hall and then the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter. Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school. She has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category.

She was a Southam journalism fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College in 2012-13, where she studied indigenous issues, urban planning and political science. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and has served on several boards.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.

  • Muzzling those who know

    Like any reporter should, I cringe at anonymous sources. In many cases, I worry it's lazy journalism that allows people to take swipes at rivals with no consequences or manipulate a story in secret. Anonymous sources also make it hard for readers to judge someone's credibility and motivation for speaking to the media. It's up to the reporter to ask "why is this person really talking to me? Is there a reason that undermines the information they're offering?" In the race to be first with a good story, we may not always ask that enough. I've tried, in recent years, to avoid using anonymous sources, especially in political stories. In fact, when Shelly Glover was named Manitoba's federal minister, Bruce Owen and I made a little deal with each other to only quote people on the record for a short profile we were assigned. (The result was kind of a boring story, unfortunately, which also illustrates why unnamed sources can be hard to resist.)
     
    But what should reporters do when people who know the most about a complex and troubled system are barred from speaking publicly? That's the case with child welfare, a system always under scrutiny, again since the death of Tina Fontaine. 
     
    In the years since Phoenix Sinclair's murder, I've talked to probably two dozen child welfare workers - some for hours, some for a few minutes, some over and over, all off the record. I don't think I've ever quoted one by name. When they're hired, child welfare workers sign gag orders barring them from speaking about their work. They say they would face discipline or termination if they spoke to a reporter, and their union agrees. They often give me information I can use to question the province or child welfare agencies, but sometimes I resort to the familiar "sources said."
     
    This blanket gag order protects the agencies, the authorities, the government and even First Nations chiefs who have some degree of control over child welfare services. I can't see how it protects children.
     
    I can understand barring CFS workers from revealing private, deeply personal information about kids and families in care. In my experience, CFS staff are incredibly careful not to do that. I once had a long and detailed conversation with a social worker from a northern agency who referred in passing to a death review done on a child she'd had contact with. I asked her which child, figuring I'd recognize the name. She would not tell me anything - not the gender, age, where the kid lived, whether we'd written about him or her before. She got mad that I even asked.
     
    Privacy, I get. What I don't get is why child welfare staff can't talk about the system - staffing levels, funding, programs, political interference, corruption, their own safety. Given the problems we've seen for a decade in child welfare, and the huge cost both in money and misery, there is a public interest in hearing from the people who know the system intimately and who might help us fix it. 
     
    Today, I did a story quoting two anonymous support workers who staff group homes. They raised fears about the quality of service provided by Complete Care, a for-profit firm that backfills group homes. I got two more phone calls this morning from group home staff who echoed all the same fears, which assuaged some of my anxiety about building a story around nameless people. The value in reporting their detailed experiences, especially in light of mounting evidence about Tina Fontaine's last days, outweighed my qualms about quoting them anonymously. They had credible, valuable, interesting first-hand information we couldn't get quickly any other way. 
     
    By the same token, social workers often feel, quite legitimately, that we pick on them, that they are blamed when things go wrong. Off-the-record conversations have been invaluable to me in mitigating some of that, in helping me understand the pressures, the case loads, the profound damage done to kids that no one worker can fix. On-the-record conversations with a face attached would help me explain that to the public.
     
    If real people were allowed to come forward, it might spur the kind of change we need in child welfare. It might prompt public support for the cash to invest, for example, in skilled shelter workers who are paid a decent enough wage to stay for a while, instead of contracting kids out to a temp firm.

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  • Sopuck's smoke screen

    Tory MP Bob Sopuck says Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wants kids to buy pot at their local 7-Eleven.
     
    That's such a silly accusation, it sounds like an Onion headline. But that's the gist of a flyer mailed out recently to voters in Sopuck's Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette riding. In the flyer, which features a moppy-haired pre-teen lighting a joint, Sopuck declares Trudeau wants to display and sell pot in local stores and make it easier for kids to smoke marijuana.
     
    The flyer is one of the infamous ten percenters, and arguably the most ridiculous one yet. The Tories are prolific abusers of the mailing privileges that allow MPs to use taxpayer funds to blanket their ridings in hyper-partisan flyers, most of which only demonize the opposition and do little to promote Tory policies.
     
    Sopuck's mailer is one the Tories have been using for some time, in various forms. It popped up in the recent batch of Ontario byelections and in a New Brunswick riding. Closer to home, the Tories used Trudeau's pot policies to bludgeon the Liberals in the Brandon-Souris byelection late last year. And, most recently, a Tory MP sent the very same mailer to voters in her Vancouver riding.
     
    The CBC did a good job debunking some of the more egregious falsehoods here, including the charge Trudeau visits schools to promote legalization, a charge that originated right here in Manitoba. I won't redo the debunking except to say there is absolutely no evidence, not even some ambiguous gaffe, that Trudeau wants kids to smoke pot or buy a dime bag at the Swan Valley Co-op. In fact, Trudeau has said the exact opposite. The flyer takes what's true - Trudeau smoked pot as an MP, and, like most Canadians, favours legalization - and uses it to make lies sound plausible. 
      
    So why would Bob Sopuck put his name on such baloney? He's a partisan, who often rises in the House to rag on media elites and left-wingers who can't manage the economy or who coddle communists. But, as I've written before, he's also a smart, experienced, scientific guy who has spent much of his life in public service and has a warm and affable demeanour. And, he's an adult. Most adults find this kind of behaviour cringe-worthy. Plus, he represents one of the safest Tory ridings in Canada. D-SR-M did go Liberal in the Chretien years, but it's hard to imagine it going Grit again, despite the close call south in Brandon-Souris. Sopuck doesn't need to diminish himself and his relationship with his constituents this way.
     
    So why did he?
     
    Sopuck said he has genuine concerns about the health effects of widespread marijuana use he says would follow legalization, and Trudeau hasn't been taken to task for the implications of his idea. In fact, he said Trudeau is an intellectual lightweight whose few policies go unchallenged. 
     
    "What does concern me is this policy lightweight is rarely ever scrutinized," said Sopuck. "I'm a policy person, and I want to challenge the opposition parties on their policies."
     
    But, the MP could not point to any evidence Trudeau "wants to display and sell pot in local stores" or that "his agenda would make it easier for kids to get and smoke marijuana." Instead, the MP who values evidence and reason relied on conjecture and exageration.
     
    "Once the availability becomes much more widespread, it will happen," said Sopuck. "Obviously, kids will get it."
     
    That's not obvious at all, and it's not the point, anyway. What is obvious is the Tories long ago traded real debate for laughable fearmongering and it's time decent MPs like Sopuck, even hyper-partisan ones, refuse to play along. 
     

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  • Rumble in Elmwood

    It's been a season of fun nominations and tonight could be the mack daddy. New Democrats will gather at Club Regent for what's already been a fairly petty battle for the party's nod in the federal riding of Elmwood-Transcona.

    That's the riding held for decades by NDP elder statesman Bill Blaikie. The party lost it, embarrassingly, to Lawrence Toet's Tories in 2011 and hopes to recapture it next year. Seeking the nom is rogue MLA Jim Maloway, who made a brief leap to Ottawa and then lost to Toet, and Daniel Blaikie, son of Bill. Also running is lawyer Chad Panting, who is relatively unknown to Dippers in the riding but who appears confident of victory tonight.

    Over the weekend, both Maloway and Panting sent out somewhat combative emails to members, fueling the perception the riding's NDP politics tend toward the childish.

    Panting styles himself as "the only candidate to insure Victory 2015." In his email blast, Panting took swipes at Maloway for losing the constituency in 2011 and accused Blaikie of riding his father's coattails and being "worthy of being included in the dictionary under 'status-quo'." Panting has, in the past, also taken issue with the media calling Blaikie an electrician when he is not yet a journeyman.

    Maloway also sent out some cryptic emails to members -- links to short stories about his departure, and the Wikipedia entries, cut and pasted without comment, for his 2011 election result and Rebecca Blakie's result in Winnipeg North that same year. The juxtaposition was either meant to remind area New Democrats that a Blaikie can't win (Rebecca is Daniel's older sister) or designed to reinforce the notion that Daniel is the party establishment's choice (Rebecca is national party president and Quebec campaign director.)

    The emails, combined with Maloway's use of his MLA mailing privileges to send flyers throughout the federal riding, has prompted some frustrated fist-shaking among New Dems in the neighbourhood.

    Despite this nonsense, and as much as many would like to see the back of Maloway, he should not be underestimated. He whips up support using relentlessly parochial issues such as Plessis Road, manages his memberships effectively, maneuvers supporters onto his riding association board and is fired up by an us-against-them mentality.

    It is also not clear Blaikie has done what needs doing to defeat Maloway, and may be relying too much on the considerable cachet of his name. One New Dem told me a Maloway victory tonight would not be a surprise, even though local party members are growing increasingly tired of the veteran politician's antics.

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  • D for Data

    It’s always heartening when independent research confirms the reasonableness of one’s frequent desire to use one’s pile of FOI rejection letters to start a small bonfire in the parking lot and dance around it naked until someone calls 911.

    That’s what happened today with the release of Newspapers Canada’s tenth annual freedom of information audit. This year, the audit focused on data, the reams of information kept by government that are supposed to make it smarter and more efficient and that can help us hold them to account.

    Researchers, led by University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones, fired off the same access to information requests for databases and documents to governments across Canada and then compared the results.

    Manitoba and Winnipeg did crappy. Here are the highlights:

    • Manitoba earned a D grade because it was slow and stingy with information. For example, it was asked for briefing notes prepared in advance of a premiers' meeting and applied "a kitchen sink list of exemptions" in order to avoid releasing information.

      That sounds familiar. Often, my denial letters from the province are longer than the actual documents I asked for.

      Manitoba would also not release a full list of government employees or complete details about deputy ministerial travel.

    • The report condemned the aggravating trend among governments to print out entire databases rather than release them in electronic form, like an Excel spreadsheet. Or, governments turn a database into a PDF, which can’t be searched and sorted without a huge hassle that mires you in mistakes.

      Governments never want you to fiddle with data because that's how you might find out they suck, so they release long lists of information in a form that entirely thwarts all attempts to actually analyze it. That frequently happens here, but it’s no relief to know we’re not alone.

    • The report hinted at what I’ve long suspected – the Manitoba government’s database software is from the Atari age. Several requests that other provinces were able to fulfill were outright denied by the Manitoba government or came with hefty processing fees.

      Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation denied a request for data about bridge repair and inspections, saying it would need to print out the database and then take a black pen to it to censor the private stuff. What’s private about bridge maintenance is a mystery, but whatever.

      Same with Manitoba Justice, which I find the most obstinate department to deal with. It said it could not reasonably produce a database of inmate complaints. Doing so would mean manually going through the individual files of 2,400 inmates.

      I have often heard the province's database software is among the most outdated in Canada, so, even if a culture of openness prevailed (it doesn't), it would be thwarted by terrible technology.

    • Winnipeg was quick to respond but awful at actually releasing information. It got a D, too. The city said, for example, it would cost $300 for the details of travel costs to a national municipal leaders’ meeting. And, it would cost $40 for the parking ticket database they gave me for free a few years ago.

      The police did well in releasing overtime information. But then the city wanted to charge $26,000 - the cost of a very nice Toyota Corolla, noted the report - for property inspection orders.

      Even if someone had deep pockets, I know from past requests the city will not release the most important part of inspection orders - the address of the property at fault. Despite much arguing, Manitoba's ombudsman sides with the city on that, that releasing the address of a filthy or dangerous property is a privacy violation. That’s despite the fact that other cities, such as Saskatoon, Moncton and St. John's released the information in full.

    Why does this matter?

    This is not just a bunch of self-important reporters asking for data to be annoying. The information government keeps belongs to its citizens, and we have a right to see nearly all of it.

    Openness makes government better and more efficient. It allows entrepreneurs to do cool stuff with data that government can’t even imagine. And it allows citizens to really see for themselves whether their elected officials are doing what they promised.

    Openness is fundamental to a functioning democracy, and it’s eroding.

     

     

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