Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fun With Highlighters - Parsing The Ford Apology Rough Spots

Here is the full text of Rob Ford's apology to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale made earlier today.

Without going into commentary on why each part could be seen as lacking the direct, sincere and unequivocal apology generally required to mitigate defamation (most of them are obvious), I simply highlighted some of the phrases that clearly take away from the apology by blaming others, or worse, continuing to sow doubt about Mr. Dale's own actions.

(click to enlarge)

A Word About Apologies...

Rob Ford has taken his no doubt stern legal advice and has apologized - sort of.

[NOTE: Correction to my earlier correction. While Ford used the services of a lawyer for his previous defamation case, his general lawyer Dennis Morris appeared at Mayor's office this afternoon and said to Globe & Mail reporter Ann Hui that he doesn't believe there's any other lawyer involved "anymore". Morris said earlier to Hui that he had not known about Ford's statement earlier today (but said he and Ford had spoken about options last night), so it may be that Ford drew up his statement himself, which is all the more believable given the problems with it.]

In Ford's statement about Dale there was a lot of blaming of others for his belief, he expressed disbelief that people "insinuated" that he meant Star reporter Daniel Dale was a pedophile (see my post below) and he took the opportunity to point out how unfair everyone was to him, especially The Toronto Star. The Star has posted the text. Here is a video of Ford's apology in City Council Tuesday morning.

Ford decided to go with "it's what I thought at the time and it was reasonable in the circumstances", even though he repeated it without qualification several times recently and when given the opportunity to clarify or soften he took the "I stand by every word" approach. The apology also doesn't admit any wrongdoing - only that his words led people to the wrong conclusion, and that he was sorry for that. There were also a number of complaints in Dale's notice that Ford left unanswered.

So an apology - saying "I'm sorry" - ends the Daniel Dale / Rob Ford slander case, right?

Not really. An apology (even a good one) is not a full remedy - it is just one of many things a court will consider in assessing damages for slander. (See: Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, [1995] S.C.J. No. 64)

Canadian courts generally do not have jurisdiction to order a defendant to apologize for a libel or slander, however, a court will take an apology and retraction into account when assessing the amount of a damage award. A good, heartfelt and widely publicized apology can go a long way to keeping your cash damages to a minimum.

A poor apology - one that tries to avoid blame, place it elsewhere, or offer "explanations" - will fall short of the mark and is likely to be considered both unsatisfying to the plaintiff and to the court when it comes to assessing a cash award for damages.

There is also the question of the publication of the apology to make sure it reaches the widest possible audience, at least on par with the original defamatory statement. No doubt Ford's statement in City Council will be picked up by media outlets and rebroadcast, but there is also something sneaky about Ford making the apology unannounced in Council with no notice to Dale as plaintiff. The venue chosen by Ford, as opposed to calling a specific press conference with Dale present, also will go to judging the sincerity and completeness of the apology.

Does Rob Ford's apology meet the standard necessary of unqualified completeness and sincerity to make proceeding with Dale's lawsuit unnecessary or not worth pursuing? I have my doubts.

Stay tuned for updates.

UPDATE (as promised)

Predictably - for all the reasons I mentioned this morning - Daniel Dale has said that Rob Ford's apology is lacking and he is proceeding with the lawsuit.

There will be no doubt those people who cry The Star is picking on Ford, and he apologized for God's sakes... But for all the reasons I mentioned above and Dale himself says below, Ford's apology falls well short of what might be expected to purge the slander or make the pursuit of damages pointless through mitigation.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Libel, Slander & Incomplete Sentences

Although VisionTV has had the good sense and almost certain legal advice to take down the video, and has ordered it removed from YouTube, most people have heard of Rob Ford's description of Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale.

For those who missed it, in an interview Conrad Black asked Ford to recall the most "offensive events" that have been "perpetrated" on him or his family by the media. 

Ford said: 
"Well, I guess the worst one was Daniel Dale in my backyard taking pictures. I have little kids. When a guy’s taking pictures of little kids. I don’t want to say that word but you start thinking, ‘What’s this guy all about?’”
In the words of Edward Keenan of The Grid, the facts of the incident are actually as follows:
"Daniel Dale, as previously confirmed by police, was not in the mayor’s backyard. He did not take any pictures of the mayor’s property, nor of his family—a fact also confirmed by police. It was not dark outside at the time, as Ford claims, it was almost an hour before sunset. He was not, as the mayor also claimed, standing on cinder blocks, or peering over the fence—which police confirmed after viewing the mayor’s own security camera footage."
Of course everyone knew what Ford was insinuating when he said "I don't want to say that word." By saying "I don't want to say that word", Ford invited his listeners to fill in the blank with the first and most logical word that comes to mind, illustrated by the fact that the immediate and widespread reaction on traditional and social media was that Ford was calling Dale a pedophile. A few more generously-minded people softened it to the slightly better but still offensive word "pervert".

Either way, calling someone a pedophile or pervert with an interest in "taking pictures of little kids"  would clearly be slander and actionable (i.e: worthy of a successful lawsuit). But what about simply implying it without saying the magic, offensive words themselves?

The question here is, since Ford didn't say the actual word, can he be found liable for defamation of Dale by slander?

Well, yes.

First of all, a definition of defamation. Defamation can be by either written words (libel) or spoken statements (slander). Words are defamatory if they impute improper and disreputable conduct, moral fault or personal characteristics considered disreputable by reasonable persons.

In a series of cases the courts have determined that whether 
any particular statement is defamatory may be determined from the “natural and ordinary meaning” of the words. The words’ natural and ordinary meaning is the meaning they would convey to the typical representative of the reasonable community, “the ordinary, reasonable, fair-minded reader”. The reasonable reader is a person who would read the words with common sense, general and ordinary knowledge, and a general and ordinary understanding of words in common use. 
"Libel In A Nutshell" 2012, P.A. Downard, p. 3

But what about when you don't actually say the "magic words" that cause offense? There has been much chatter that since Ford left the magic words unsaid, he can't be found to have slandered Dale. Unfortunately for Ford, this schoolyard logic doesn't hold up in court:
The “natural and ordinary meaning” also includes any implied, inferential, or indirect meaning a reasonable reader would draw from the words... The plain and ordinary meaning thus includes the general impression a statement is likely to create in the mind of the ordinary reader upon a first reading, not a later analysis or legalistic dissection of the words. The courts appreciate that a person intending to defame another may seek to veil his or her meaning in the hope of evading civil liability.
 "Libel In A Nutshell" 2012, P.A. Downard, p.4

Ford is in particular difficulty since the meaning attached to his statement has been widely interpreted as calling Dale a pedophile. It has been repeated in the media as the inescapable word he "didn't want to say". The sixth grade "I can't help what you're thinking" defence doesn't work in court.

Given the opportunity to correct, apologise, explain or soften his statement, Ford has rather doubled down  the Tuesday after the interview aired and said: "I stand by every word I said with Mr. Black in my interview," knowing what the popular interpretation had been. Rather than apologise, Ford affirmed the alleged slander knowing full well what the public took his meaning to be.

A further distinction without a difference is the suggestion that in speaking with Black Ford was merely "reliving the moment" when he confronted Dale and expressing what he was thinking at the time. The facts as found by the police don't support Ford in his belief that Dale had taken any photos of Ford's children, so it was not a reasonable belief to being with.

It is hard to see how it is any better for a slander action for Ford to say that it was at the time of the confrontation he thought Dale was a pedophile, and in his interview with Black he was just recalling it without saying he no longer believed it to be true. Ford has never apologised for such a mistaken belief and has now repeated it and says that he stands by it. To say that he was merely repeating what he was thinking at some time in the past doesn't excuse a present slander if he leaves the door open for his audience to think he hasn't changed his mind.

Finally, the facts as found by the police in their investigation also don't help Ford in the limited defence to a lawsuit for defamation, which is claiming that the statement is true. All the evidence points to the fact that Ford's version of the events (including his own security camera footage reviewed by the police) is not true. Asserting that it is true in spite of the evidence is not reasonable. Even if there was any evidence that Dale did take photos on Ford's backyard (which there isn't), that is far from proving that he has a perverse interest in Ford's children and is a pedophile, which is where the damage lies.

Trying to assert the "truth" of what Ford said in his Black interview is a defence that will go nowhere and would likely only lead to greater damages being awarded to Dale from an impatient court. Courts have recently held that damages may be increased by the defendant persisting in a plea of justification with knowledge that the words complained of were false (Sutcliffe v. Pressdram Ltd., [1991] 1 Q.B. 153 at 184 (C.A.), per Nourse L.J.).

Regardless, unless there is a full and abject apology forthcoming, Rob Ford has a difficult legal road ahead with few rest stops along the way.

Canada Post To Issue Final Commemorative Stamp

With the surprise and non-nonsensical announcement this week that Canada Post will end home delivery - making Canada the only developed country without it - I felt that a commemorative stamp was in order.

Of course, with the price of a letter going up to $1.00 soon, you'll need two.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lawyers Club Past Presidents' Dinner

Last week was the Past Presidents' Dinner of the Lawyers Club. It is an annual tradition to welcome the current president (and future Past President) into that august body. Some of Ontario's greatest jurists were presidents and I had the honour to meet them decades ago when I was much younger and they were still alive. At one point being president of The Lawyers Club was the fast track to an appointment as a judge. Sadly, no more.

At least I got to wear my new fancy velvet dinner jacket from a recent trip to London and see some old friends. One of the oldest traditions is the Past Presidents' Cup, which is filled with champagne and passed around until it reaches the newest Past President (welcome John Mclellan) who has to finish it before giving his speech. The addition of up to 32 oz (!) of champagne has made for some memorable speeches (for the listeners, anyway - some of the speakers may not remember what they said).

If you look closely, you can see my name on the Presidents' Cup from 1997.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ford Family Top Ten List

I'm actually in London, England at the moment, but there is no escaping the Rob Ford fiasco. First it was on the BBC, which can't understand why he hasn't stepped down, then I catch CP24's jaw-dropping interview with Rob Ford's mother and sister on the Internet.

I've tried to highlight some of the main points they seemed to be making in this handy top ten list:


10. Friends who seem nice when they are brought around the house, but turn out to be wanted men.

9. Not having a driver so you can get around when you're drunk.

8. Kentucky Fried Chicken's many handy locations.

7. The media and its obsession with reporting "the truth".

6. Minorities homosexuals People who don't celebrate Toronto's diversity.

5. Whomever keeps slipping vodka into his Tim Horton's cup.

4. Doug telling him constantly, "Are you going to let them get away with that?"

3. Lack of parking lot men's rooms.

2. Chiefs of Police who are easily offended by elected officials consorting with criminals.

1. The fact that cheap video cameras are everywhere.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Chicken Soup Book Signing

Lots of fun last night meeting with fellow contributors to the newly-released "Chicken Soup for the Soul: O Canada - The Wonders of Winter." About 28 of us signed 300 copies chain-gang style, and every single one of them was sold by the end of the evening.

Many thanks to editor / author Janet Matthews for organizing the book and the event.

Getting writer's cramp. I'm pretty sure by the end I was signing "Stephen Harper."

With fellow contributors Elizabeth Smayda and Bill Bell.

With Janet Matthews, author and editor of Chicken Soup for the Soul: O Canada
The Wonders of Winter.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Signing - Nov. 5th

On Tuesday, Nov. 5th, over 30 of the contributing authors of "Chicken Soup for the Soul - O Canada: The Wonders of Winter" (including me) will be at a massive book signing launch at the Keating Channel Pub, 2 Villiers St, Toronto, near Cherry St (south) & Lakeshore Blvd.

It starts at 7:00 pm and signed books will be available at a discounted price of $18 each (or 2 for $30). Hope to see you there, even though I don't make a nickel on sales.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Chicken Soup Surprise

Lookee what just arrived - a box full of Chicken Soup! As a contributing author (check chapter 5) I get 10 free copies. I know what everyone in my family is getting for Christmas, like it or not.

Next week (Oct. 5th) is the massive contributing author book signing. I'll post details closer to the event. Should be fun.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Meeting Royalty

Last Wednesday I had the honour of meeting HRH Anne, The Princess Royal, at a gala charity dinner put on by the 33rd Signal Regiment Foundation at The National Club.

Although it will come as a shock to my many progressive friends, I have a semi-secret life as this year's President of the National Club. As President, my official duties included greeting the Princess Royal on her arrival earlier in the day at the Club and on her departure the next morning.

The dinner itself was a spectacular success raising about $75,000 for veteran and military family charities, and I was very proud of the many compliments I received on behalf of The National Club's staff, food and our beautiful heritage building, which had been cleaned and polished within an inch of its life for our special guest. On her departure The Princess Royal had warm words for the National Club's hospitality.

My thanks to event photographer David Batten - I missed my photo as HRH mingled with guests and he kindly obliged me with this one as we chatted later.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Harper Halloween Headstones

Fresh from the grave of the evil that will not die, here is my growing collection of headstones just in time for Halloween.

Friday, October 25, 2013

How Can You (Legally) Remove A Senator?

While anyone who has read my tweets on the subject, I have less than no sympathy for Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau.

Actually, that's not true. In the murky world of Conservative power politics and greed, it appears that they are on the short end of a very short stick. More than likely they were just following orders, doing exactly what Harper appointed them to the Senate to do - be the money-raising celebrity show ponies of the Harper government. I do believe them when they say that their actions were vetted, approved and well known to the very powers that now disavow and disown them and throw them to the curb.

But that's politics. Especially Harper politics.

More troubling is the current Senate schoolyard brawl where the Senators - more than half of whom have now been appointed by Harper - are either (a) anxious to prove their relevance and integrity to the public by ousting them, or (b) make the problem go away for Harper by getting the Conservative Senators to gang together at the direction of the PMO and shove them out the door in the hope that the issue can then be falsely labelled as "resolved" and Harper can move on to less toxic problems, like the faltering economy.

The problem with the rush to expel Harper's menage a trois of Senators is that no one seems to care what the Constitution of Canada says about it. It always comes as a surprise to Conservatives that there are rules about these things. That is because, as I have said before, Harper's Conservatives do not believe in the Rule of Law, a fundamental underpinning of our society. 

Whether it is mandatory minimum sentencing or reforming the Senate, Harper and his CPC absolutely reject the notion that they, as a government, are bound by the rule of law. They refer to the idea of the "Supremacy of Parliament", but don't acknowledge that in a Constitutional democracy the government has legal boundaries about what it can and can't do. That is why they lose so many Charter challenges in court on their proposed legislation.

In the current Senate cat fight, the Constitution Act 1867 is very clear about the grounds needed to expel a Senator from office.

Constitution Act 1867 - Section 31

The Place of a Senator shall become vacant in any of the following Cases:

(1) If for Two consecutive Sessions of the Parliament he fails to give his Attendance in the Senate:  (2) If he takes an Oath or makes a Declaration or Acknowledgment of Allegiance, Obedience, or Adherence to a Foreign Power, or does an Act whereby he becomes a Subject or Citizen, or entitled to the Rights or Privileges of a Subject or Citizen, of a Foreign Power:  (3) If he is adjudged Bankrupt or Insolvent, or applies for the Benefit of any Law relating to Insolvent Debtors, or becomes a public Defaulter:  (4) If he is attainted of Treason or convicted of Felony or of any infamous Crime:  (5) If he ceases to be qualified in respect of Property or of Residence; provided, that a Senator shall not be deemed to have ceased to be qualified in respect of Residence by reason only of his residing at the Seat of the Government of Canada while holding an Office under that Government requiring his Presence there.The sections that are most likely to operate to remove a Senator are sections 31(3) - bankruptcy - and 31(4) - a felony conviction. In Duffy's case, section 31(5) might also operate by being deemed to not live in the province he represents.
Until and if Duffy, Wallin, and/or Brazeau meet any of these conditions, they cannot be expelled from the Senate, as badly behaved as they may have been.

No Senator has been expelled in recent history, and there have been some pretty bad examples of behaviour by members of the place of sober second thought. Of those Senators who have left prematurely, they have all resigned rather than face possible criminal prosecution and expulsion under section 31(4).

Can a Senator be expelled for fiddling their expense accounts and collecting a housing allowance they are not entitled to? Only it appears if criminal changes are involved and only if and after they are convicted of a "felony" - i.e. an indictable offence.

So it pains me to say this from a purely partisan standpoint, but there are no grounds (yet) under the Constitution to expel Duffy, Wallin or Brazeau. 

There may be if charges are pursued and successful, and in the past suspect Senators have had the good sense, shame or skin-saving instinct to resign first, but if they want to hang on to their tainted seats, they can for now.

Some commentators and even some Senators in the current debate have said that "the Senate has the right to govern itself", which is true, but only to a point.

The Senate does not have the power to decide who gets to remain a Senator, except in accordance with the Constitution, any more than the House of Commons gets to decide who is an MP. 

Imagine the danger of the Senate or House of Commons acting like a tree fort clubhouse where the majority makes and changes the rules to suit, and gets to band together to kick out anyone they don't like regardless of the Constitution. That is Harper's mistaken vision of the "Supremacy of Parliament", which is nothing more in reality than arbitrary tyranny.

So what can the Senate do?

Well, they can cooperate fully with any criminal investigations into any allegations against Senators. If it leads to a conviction, that Senator can be removed under s. 31(4). They can hold a hearing to see if a Senator is disqualified due to residency requirements under s. 31(5) and then declare that person (or ask the Governor General) no longer qualified and declare the seat vacant. They can do what they should have from the beginning and scrutinize Senators' accounts and cut off financial abuse at the source.

But expulsion? No.

Not yet, anyway, because we are still a country under the rule of law. 

And the law applies equally to scoundrels as it does to saints.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book SIgning - Nov. 5th

We have a date for a massive author book signing launch of Chicken Soup for the Soul: O Canada The Wonders of Winter (101 Stories About Bad Weather, Good Times, and Great Sports).

One of my stories (The 10 Commandments of Canadian Winter) appears in this new collection in the immensely popular series.

The book launch and signing will be held on Nov, 5th at 7:00 pm in Toronto at the The Keating Channel Pub & Grill, 2 Villiers Street, at the bottom of the Don Valley Parkway. I'm told there's lots of free parking.

Many of the authors will be on hand to autograph books for sale.

Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Harper Gets A Brazilian?

Documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden purport to show that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC - pronounced "SeaSick") allegedly hacked into the Brazilian mining and energy ministry. It was further reported that CSEC also participated with CSIS and the RCMP in secret meetings in Ottawa where various Canadian security agencies briefed energy corporations.

All part of the "we'll do anything for the oil and gas business" attitude of the HarperCons.

Interestingly, a while back Harper also changed the reporting structure of CSEC from his own National Security Advisor to National Defence - handy way to keep yourself officially out of the loop, although it is impossible to believe that CSEC would undertake custom industrial spying without clearance at the highest level.

There was some lamer than usual attempts to explain away the alleged spying. The Globe reported: "A former high-ranking member of Canada’s spy service says he suspects the leaked documents that purport to show Ottawa was spying on Brazil are in fact part of a pretend 'wargame scenario.'”

Maybe they'll try to convince us that someone in the PMO must have simply misheard Harper who was asking if anyone knew anything about a "Brazilian", since it was "starting to look like a jungle down there..."

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Column - My fellow Canadians

By Stephen Lautens

The 2015 election will soon be upon us and we will soon be gathering in church basements, town halls and in front of the TV to hear the candidates tell us why the country will go to hell in a handbasket if we don't elect them instead of their opponents.

To save both you, the voter, and the hundreds of candidates across the country a lot of time and effort, I thought I'd write down the same speech most of them will probably be giving.

All you have to do is cross out the words that don't apply:

* * *

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this all candidates meeting today.

It is a pleasure being here with my voters today instead of in (Ottawa / fact-finding trip to Paris / jail).

I stand before you today to say that the government's record personally makes me (proud / embarrassed / outraged / confused / sleepy).

As your candidate in this federal election I can promise you (more of the same / a complete change / criminal charges will be brought when we find out who's responsible).

As your member of Parliament, I pledge to you that if elected I will spend (more time in the community / more time in Ottawa / more time on a beach in the Caribbean).

Here in the community, my constituency office will be there to help you (anytime you need it / alternate Thursdays between 2 and 3:30 p.m.).

I have been asked where I stand on some of the vital issues of the day.

Let me tell you that I am strongly against (raising your taxes / reducing your services) and we need to (increase / decrease) spending on government programs.

The less-fortunate in our society (need our help more than ever / need a kick in the behind / need to pray more /  need to move to Ontario).

I would also like to go on the record to state that we need to (seriously fund / reinvent / send out a search party to look for) our military.

Air Canada should be (saved / scrapped / made to eat their own in-flight meals).

The gun registry is (dead / worth every penny / not going to pry my grampa's .22 out of my cold, dead hands).  Because after all, registering guns is just the first step towards (fascism / socialism / a responsible society with fewer bullet holes in people).

I don't need to remind you that our province has (done so well / been screwed by) Confederation. It was the (best / worst) thing that has ever happened to us.

Like you I (hate Toronto / hate Ottawa / hate Toronto and Ottawa).

If our country has any problems, we have no one to blame but (ourselves / the French / the English / immigrants / the voices in my head).

With crime continuing to fall to historically low levels, now is the time to (hire more cops / build more jails / keep scaring people needlessly to get their votes).

My party goes into this election with a new leader, and I am excited because (he's smart / he's inspiring / he's got to be better than that last guy).

These are difficult times, and that is why it is (time for a change / no time to be making changes).

We need people in Ottawa who will bring (experience / a fresh approach / their own lunch) to the job.

And so I ask you to vote for me, and send me to Ottawa were I can (do the most good / do the least harm / get some well-deserved sleep).

© Stephen Lautens

Saturday, September 21, 2013

That's All Folks (for now)

Loyal readers of my column in the Calgary Sun (all six of you) may have noticed I’ve been missing in action for the past two weekend papers.

About ten days ago I got a call from my editor. It is never good news when your editor calls you. Sometimes it’s not good news about your editor – in my almost 17 years at the Calgary Sun I have outlived at least six editors by my count.

In this case, it was about the dreaded cutbacks the newspaper industry has been going through since about forever. Newspapers everywhere are convinced they can cut their way to prosperity. I lost my last editor to staffing cutbacks.

“You’re one of our more popular columns,” my editor told me, “and I know I’ll get letters, but I’ve been told to cut back on freelancers.”

The funny thing is that even though I have appeared weekly in the Calgary Sun every Saturday since 1997 in almost 900 columns, I have never had a written contract or agreement with them. I declined to sign their standard freelancer agreement on several occasions since it was one of those “here’s your smallish cheque – we now own everything you create” type legal documents. I was told there were only two of us in the whole Sun chain who got away with declining to sign over all rights in our columns.

Still, the Calgary Sun was always very good to me. My editors were all nice and supportive people. They let me write about anything I liked and never censored me. Mostly, I never heard from them. I just sent in my columns and they were printed. If I haven’t said thanks to them, let me say it now – thanks.

They didn’t even mind that I was from Toronto – a fact I never hid but never really emphasized either.

They even let me be me – a tolerant small “l” liberal. And the oddest thing happened – I discovered that Calgary is full of like-minded people who don’t always fit the perception of some of the noisier Sun-reading Calgarians seen in the rest of Canada. Ezra – I’m looking at you. 

And no - my departure wasn't about my politics, which I don't think anyone at The Sun took any notice of, in spite a couple of dedicated right-wing basement bloggers who felt my mere presence at the Calgary Sun was an affront to right wing nut jobs everywhere.

Even though being a columnist has never been my day job, it does become habit forming. Before the Calgary Sun I wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Sun, the London Free Press and The National Post going back to 1993. 

I have to say I’ve enjoyed not writing to deadline the last couple of weeks, but I’ve missed it too.

I’m also pleased that I’ve already had another paper express an interest in picking up my column. We’ll see how that goes.

Plus there’s this blog, Twitter and an unfinished novel or two. I'll post some of my favourite columns on this blog and maybe even assemble them into a book. My last collection of columns published in book (and e-book) form was in 2005, so I have some catching up to do.

Anyway – thanks to my readers and the Calgary Sun for a great run. You guys are great.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Have a seat

 I was walking in the Church and Queen area of Toronto today and wandered past the park in the corner of the church yard. Years ago my family got (ie: paid) the city to have a bench installed with a little brass plaque in memory of my dad, Gary Lautens. 

It was a lot of red tape for some reason, but we finally got it put in on the northwest corner of Church and Queen, which my father passed every day on his walk down to the Toronto Star.

About a month later a car driven by a drunk driver jumped the curb and smashed the bench to toothpicks.

That was about 20 years ago.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that the bench had been replaced by the city along with the brass plaque.

So if you're ever in the neighbourhood of Church and Queen, drop in and have seat (bottle of cheap booze in a paper bag optional).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Towers

I figure I’m entitled to one serious story a year, so this is it. 
It’s not a story I’ve told before, not even to many members of my family, but I think about it every anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. It’s a story about good timing and plain dumb luck, and how a single decision can change your life.

A few years ago my day job was with a software company. It was a great little company. Nice people, fun work. Everyone worked hard to get us on the map. The technical people were very bright. Not being that bright myself, I looked after sales.

We went to all the trade shows, and managed to have more fun than most other people there combined. And none of it involved booze, flirting or staying out past ten o’clock. We just loved what we were doing.

Then one day a new customer appeared - at the time one of the biggest software companies in the world. They liked what we were doing so much they wanted to buy the company, even though it wasn’t for sale. Eventually they made an offer that no one could refuse (this was before the dot-com technology bubble broke and people were paying stupid amounts for software companies), and in the beginning of 2001 they arranged to buy the company.

As luck would have it, since we were such a small company there were only two of us in sales - the president and me. The president decided early on that he would be leaving the newly purchased company for fresh challenges. That left me. 

The new owners decided they needed someone to run the Canadian operation, and offered the job to me. To go with the job, they were going to make me their newest Vice President. The position came with a bigger salary than I may ever see again, stock options and the works.

The new owners all talked about their private airplanes and personal helicopters, or the multimillion dollar homes they were building for their very early retirement. There were week long seminars in Tuscany and Paris, and bonuses that were bigger than what most people paid for their houses. They even announced that I was their new Vice President.

I hemmed and hawed for a while. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay on without my friend, but it isn’t every day you walk away from a job as Vice President of the fourth largest software company in the world.

Still, that’s what I did. 

It sounds stupid now, but I didn’t think the job would be much fun and the people I would have been working for seemed a little too sharp for their own good. Eventually I'd also likely have to move to the US, and I don't think I could leave Canada for mere money. 

My friend the former president said I was welcome to join him in his new venture, so I said so long to the golden carrot dangling before me and instead went with my friend.

About six months later I watched the unimaginable as the World Trade Center crumbled to dust with so many people inside.

When the dead were finally given names I realized that one of them was the new senior person in the Canadian office where I had worked and had been offered the job. He had been on a company seminar in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, and managed a brief cell phone call to a loved one before he died.

Would that have been me? Who knows. Maybe, maybe not. It’s not something I really want to think about too much, but he had taken the job that I turned down.

On 9/11 I know where I was. After watching that horrible morning unfold on TV, my wife and I kept an appointment for an ultrasound, where I saw my unborn son curled up and oblivious to what was going on in the outside world.

And if that’s the last bit of good luck I ever have in my life, you won’t hear me complain.

© Stephen Lautens 2003

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Column - On Her Majesty's Secret Office Furniture Service

Sept 7, 2013

by Stephen Lautens

A good friend of mine brought me back a souvenir from his recent visit to a science fiction convention in Toronto.

Usually he can be counted on for a pair of rubber Spock ears or a Battlestar Galactica action figure.

This year he came back with something completely different for me.

“Here you go,” he said handing over a small brochure.

At first glance it looked like a Canada Post pamphlet for a new stamp, maybe honouring Bill Shatner, the greatest Governor General we never had.

“It’s from CSIS,” he said. “The Canadian Security Intelligence Service had a recruitment booth at the science fiction fan convention.”

Sure enough, the little government brochure he handed me is called “CSIS Smart Career Choice” and advertises the “over 100 specializations” that Canada’s spy agency is looking to fill.

At first I wondered about CSIS having a booth at a nerdy science fiction fan convention.

The clean cut intel types must have stood out in the sea of Star Trek velour uniforms, Star Wars Imperial Storm Troopers, Walking Dead zombies and guys and gals with rubber foreheads.

When I thought about the logic of it, I was genuinely pleased Canada’s Security Intelligence Service had the actual intelligence to set up shop to recruit at a SF convention.

Being of the nerdy persuasion myself, I like to think of science fiction as having more than its fair share of creative, imaginative people.

To me it shows a commitment to hiring brainy types in addition to the muscle of law enforcement.

Plus those fans who still live in their parents’ basements will be used to the close quarters of stakeouts and hiding in closets.

Science fiction fans would also be especially useful if you’re trying to infiltrate the Klingon embassy.

The first thing I looked for in the 100 or so job descriptions in the CSIS recruitment brochure was a need for spies.

The words “spy” or “secret agent” don’t appear anywhere in their literature, which is a bit disappointing.

The closest I could find was “Intelligence Officer”, which is I guess what they are called by the industry, although if I was one I would definitely ask to have “Secret Agent” put on my business card.

The amazing thing was the other jobs CSIS offers to qualified candidates.

Of the traditional spy desk jobs, you can be a researcher or security analyst if you don’t fancy a field job with people trying to shoot poison-tipped blowgun darts at your neck while dancing with the ambassador’s wife.

Every spy agency these days needs computer people, so you could be CSIS’s next engineer, programmer or “Data Exploitation Analyst”.

As with all tech jobs, I’m sure the problem is that even if you work for CSIS cracking North Korean codes, your mother will still ask you to come over and figure out why her iPhone won’t sync with her contact list.

More surprising are the mundane jobs CSIS needs filled.

How disappointing would it be to tell people you work for Canada’s spy agency, but then explain your job is “Pay Verifier” or “Accommodation Officer”?

Still, they can’t be worse than the CSIS job listed in their brochure as “Furniture Policy Officer” — with all due respect to whoever does it now.

“The name is Bond, James Bond. I’m here to assess your need for additional filing cabinets — with extreme prejudice.”

Or I suppose you can be in charge of standing in the booth at science fiction conventions.

© Stephen Lautens

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Privy Council Memo Paper - Soft & Not So Durable!

The Prime Minister's public government department is called the Privy Council Office (PCO), which is separate from the more familiar personal office of the PM known as the PMO. But you knew that.

It therefore came as a surprise when in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from news outlets the PCO claimed in June that it had no documents of any kind related to the ongoing Senate scandal or anyone involved in it (Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau, Nigel Wright, etc.).
"Documents" of course refer to memos, letters, emails, briefing notes, phone logs, legal opinions or even as someone pointed out, Post-It Notes.

The federal Justice Department likewise said it has no documents of any kind that mention the recent Senate scandal.

None. Nada. Zip. 

No one in these key Harper departments has written down anything since the scandal started.

I know - it beggars belief.

Harper and his PCO have gone completely paperless and now exchange important information through chats without taking any pesky notes that may be later used against them.

Or as I suggest in my illustration above, perhaps the Privy Council Office has taken to writing everything on toilet paper that can be flushed after use.

After all, that may be what the "privy" in Privy Council office stands for...

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Column - Wanna Raise a Kid, Cheap?

Welcome to the Ayn Rand Daycare, owned & operated by the Fraser Institute

Calgary Sun 

August 25, 2013

The Fraser Institute published a report this week that says the cost of raising children in Canada has been grossly exaggerated by parents, child welfare advocates and governments.

According to the author – who previously wrote a report that said poverty is not really a problem in this country – parents here only need to spend around $3,000 to $4,500 a year to raise a child. In fact, “it has never been easier, financially, to raise children in Canada.”

If you are an actual Canadian parent like me, that is when your morning coffee shoots out your nose.

Most studies and estimates place the annual cost of raising children at between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. According to the new Fraser Institute Report parents don’t necessarily need to spend money on things like a bigger house or apartment, so it’s not fair to count that towards child costs.

That is the point when you wonder if anyone at the Fraser Institute has actually met any children.

But it got me thinking. Are there ways to economize to get your annual child care costs down to the conservative think tank’s target of about four grand a year?

Here are some thoughts:

Encourage your kids to be atheists. That way you won’t have to spend a dime on Christmas presents. If you don’t teach them to read a calendar or let them have any friends, you can also get away with never having to buy a birthday present or throw a party.

Three words: Free range children. Let’s face it – feeding your kid nutritious food that he’ll eat is a major expense. Big bucks can be saved by letting kids scrounge for their own food in the neighbourhood. Encourages libertarian self-reliance too.

Home dentistry will also help keep your annual cost of child rearing under four grand. Last year my son had one perfect check up and one cavity. The cost? About $600. Of course if you cut out professional dental costs altogether you can save additional money on groceries since your kid won’t have any teeth to chew with.

Don’t waste money on orthodontics either. A severe overbite can come in useful later in life opening beer bottles or peeling oranges.

Make your own toys. In the olden days parents made rocking horses and soapbox racers out of spare lumber and scrounged parts for their kids. You can save a lot of money by carving your own Xbox console out of a block of wood and programming blockbuster video games in your spare time.

Encourage your children’s feet not to grow. I don’t know how much money I’ve thrown away on getting my son shoes that fit. Children are just being willful when they grown two sizes in a year and insist on shoes that don’t cause blisters.

The same with clothes. Instead of buying new clothes, just let them wear your old ones. Nothing helps a kid’s self-esteem more than wearing your old suit to school or a tee shirt from the ’80s that says “Where’s The Beef?”

Instead of costly summer camp, just drop your kids off in the woods for a month with a compass and pocket knife.

Tell your kids to not need any additional help with their school work. Parents waste hundreds if not thousands of dollars on tutors, just so their children can do things like read or write. Everyone knows struggling with a learning disability builds character, and not understanding something like basic math won’t be a problem later in life.

Maybe it will even lead to a job at the Fraser Institute.

© Stephen Lautens 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pot or Dope?

When Justin Trudeau said he had (barely) smoked marijuana since becoming MP there was much clucking of tongues from the Conservatives.

"Bad role model," intoned Minister of Justice Peter MacKay - until a photo surfaced of him drinking beer from a funnel at a college party. "He broke the law," MacKay went on. Except smoking marijuana isn't against the law in Canada - only possession and trafficking - something a lawyer and Minister of Justice ought to know.

My response? I'd rather have a Prime Minister who smokes pot than one who surrounds himself with dopes.

PS - For the record, I have no dog in this fight. I don't smoke pot and try not to surround myself with dopes.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Chicken Soup For All My Friends!

I just learned that a story of mine has made the final selection for the upcoming book: "Chicken Soup for the Soul: O Canada The Wonders of Winter". 

This will be the 2nd or 3rd Chicken Soup book I have been published in, which is pretty much like immortality since they stay in print forever...

It will be out this fall, so keep your eyes peeled. It will be in all the finer bookstores and airports.


Hand in the cookie jar...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Harper's Trained Seals

Every once in a while there's a photo on the Prime Minister's website that begs to be Photoshopped...

Column: It's The Gift That Counts

By Stephen Lautens

Calgary Sun - July 5, 2013

Recently the papers and social media was abuzz with a story about a bride in Hamilton, Ontario, who was unhappy with her wedding gift.
In case you missed it, a bride named Laura invited a guest named Kathy to settle a dispute on Facebook whether her wedding present was adequate. Apparently the gift basket Kathy gave to the happy couple to help celebrate their nuptials was deemed poor compensation for inviting them to share the blessed day.
We all get crummy gifts at our weddings. I just had my 23rd anniversary last weekend, and the story made me think of some of the weird gifts we received. I wont mention any of them because Im still related to some of the givers, but there were times you looked in the box and wondered what were they thinking?
In the spat between bride Laura and wedding guest Kathy, it really came down to cash. Laura called out Kathy as the only person who didnt give an envelope of cash and complained in a sarcastic thank you note that she lost out on $200 covering you and your dates plate.
Thats when the two took it to the streets of Facebook to let the wise and wonderful public weigh in on the spat.
Personally, Ive never seen a wedding as a money-making venture. Its supposed to be a celebration with those you love, but then Im hopelessly out of touch with the way the world works.
Maybe all the bridezilla shows have ruined it. Expectations of a lavish wedding that include a horse-drawn chariot, acrobatic elephants and a fifteen course dinner for 500 are fuelled by TV shows where weddings have become a competitive blood sport.
Everyone wants no, feels entitled to a wedding that would put a Roman Emperor to shame. And that costs money. There are cultures where its a point of family honour to drive yourself to the brink of bankruptcy to impress friends and family with a wedding party that lasts less than day.
Fortunately, my family (and even more fortunately, my wifes family) never felt the need to impress their way to the poorhouse.
My own wedding was nice. We set a modest budget, invited only people we really liked and made sure it was fun and memorable. No gimmicks or Game of Thrones themes. No hysterics about designer dresses or cakes that look like the Taj Mahal, only bigger.
As for cash, I really dont recall receiving denominations of note from the guests at our wedding. Im sure there were some cheques, but we didnt stay up on our wedding night with a calculator trying to balance the books.
I do know I still have the barbeque out back we received as a shower gift. Ive had to rebuild it five or six times and the wood shelves are starting to grow fungus, but my wife is sure that keeping it in operation is a good omen for our marriage. Plus it keeps me cooking dinner for the foreseeable future.
We got the china and silverware that gets used once a year at Christmas, and a couple of useful things for our new life together, but we didnt get married or throw a party to get presents, let alone a big wad of cash.
We also didnt invite people to our wedding thinking that wed break even, let alone show a profit. Frankly, the wedding was expected to be a loss. 
Luckily, 23 years later the marriage continues to pay dividends
© Stephen Lautens 

Column: I Swear (Actually, I don't)

By Stephen Lautens

Calgary Sun - July 19, 2013

There’s a contest going on in my house.
On the kitchen counter there are two jars – one for my wife and one for my eleven year old son. They are the proverbial swear jars.
There’s a couple of things you need to know. First, you’ll notice that I don’t have a jar. That’s for the simple reason that I don’t swear much. I know all the words, and if push comes to shove I can put them together in creative combinations, but they don’t automatically spring from my lips in moments of distress.
The other thing you need to know is that in the case of my son, there are very few actual swears. This is more of a preventative measure to keep him from introducing more colourful language into his discussions, so he drops a nickel in the jar for what we call “near swears”.
The problem with near swears is that they are open to debate, and he is perfectly happy to spend twenty minutes arguing whether any particular word or body part should be on the list. I suppose I should be pleased that he’s learning the nuances of the infinitely expressive English language.
Oddly, half of the time he’s arguing in favour of something he said qualifying as a swear, even when it clearly isn’t.
“But I meant it as a swear,” he’ll plead. Then I have to explain to him that if intentions were illegal, we’d all be in jail.
Why does he want to have innocent words qualify as swears? This is where the whole swear jar thing seems to break down.
Instead of a swear jar being a deterrent to inappropriate language, my son has seen filling the jar with nickels as a challenge. More than that, with one for him and one for my wife, he sees it as a competition to see who can fill theirs first.
I’ve explained that’s not the idea of a swear jar, and that the first to fill theirs does not get a prize. They don’t even get to keep the money, because I think my wife promised that the cash collected will go to a home for non-swearing orphans or something.
And since I have a vested interest in remaining married, I won’t comment on my wife’s occasional resorting to salty language when in extremis. After all, she got through 37 hours of labour when our son was born without a curse touching her lips. As a woman of honour, there will be times however when she comes back from driving to the grocery store and silently drops a few nickels in her jar.
I clearly remember the first time I heard my mother swear. I was about twenty years old. She touched a baking dish in the oven with her bare hand and dropped it. Oddly, the burn didn’t cause the swear – it was looking at the resulting dinner all over the kitchen floor. That’s when she calmly uttered a single curse. After a second or two of silence, we both burst out laughing.
My father didn’t swear either. When he had to use a forbidden word when telling a story he always spelled it out.
The problem is casual cursing has crept into our day to day lives, and in spite of all the parental hovering kids will be exposed to it at younger and younger ages.
For now, I’m happy to charge for the near swears, although I’m still not sure he gets it.
“Dad, can I borrow some nickels? I’m going to play some video games.”
© Stephen Lautens