The terror beat

Michelle Shephard, who has spent nearly a decade on the Toronto Star’s
national security and terrorism beat, talks about Guantanamo detainees,
the fall of foreign bureaus and the consequences of applying a Western
philosophy to global problems.
Dana Lacey reports.
Michelle Shephard

When Michelle Shephard was still a j-student, some politician announced that being homeless was a choice. In response, Toronto Star veteran Joey Slinger put out the “Happy Hobo” challenge: $1,000 to anyone that can bring in a genuinely happy homeless person. Shephard brought along John Dunn, a jolly character that was well-known in the city — the folks at Bay Bloor Radio liked him so much that they gave him a remote, so he could come by at night and watch TV from a bench outside. Duncan fit the bill. Slinger handed over a cheque, and Shephard gave part away. “For a student journalist — well, for any journalist — $1,000 was a lot of money.” Shephard spoke at a Toronto Dollar Supper Club event last night about her experience on the terror beat.

Shephard has worked full-time for the Toronto Star for 13 years. She started, as most cub reporters do at the Star, slogging it out as a general assignment reporter before moving onto the education beat (“Coming from a family of educators, they were ecstatic — but I was miserable.”) She started writing about crime, mostly gangs, and then 9-11 happened. She was one of a trio of Star reporters that rushed to New York on news of the first plane crash. Stuck in border traffic, she flashed her laminated Toronto Star pass at a guard — “We’re press, we have to get down there!” — and, to everyone’s surprise, the police let the car take the emergency lane, a gesture Shephard says would never happen in Canada. Even as traffic was streaming the other way, they drove, and then literally ran, to ground zero.

The attack on the Twin Towers threw Shephard into entirely untested territory. “I was a 29-year-old crime reporter. I’d written about the Bloods and Crips, not Al-Qaeda and the Middle East.” Shortly after, she was part of the team of investigators that published the Star’s high-profile racial profiling exposé. “At one point, [then-Toronto police chief, now Vaughan by-election winner Julian] Fantino kicked me out of his office. It seemed like a good time to get off the crime beat.” She switched to covering national security and terrorism.

Nearly a decade later, she’s still trying to make sense of the complex and ever-evolving beat, which has plopped her in political hotspots like Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia (Canada has a massive Somali diaspora, while Somalia boasts many Canuck expatriates in political positions, which has opened a lot of doors for Shephard) as well as the notorious US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which she’s visited 23 times. She admits it’s hard to relay the complexities of a world an ocean away within the confines of newspaper columns, and some stories have to be told again and again to resonate with readers. She’s right now working on her second book, which will share stories of her life as a national security correspondent, including all those layers of detail that get glossed over or summarized in the newspaper — her first draft deadline is fast approaching.

Her first book, Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, about a Toronto-born 15-year-old accused of lobbing a grenade at U.S. soldiers and then forced to face puberty in shackles, displays shades of grey in what most Canadians approach as a black and white, right vs. wrong story. “I’ve never hated or loved a story more,” she said. “Fear is an incredible motivator for disastrous policy decisions.”

She wasn’t able to meet Khadr himself — that’s against prison policy — but she’s watched him grow up, and has interviewed just about everyone connected to him, who all say he’s grown into a calm and intelligent young man. She hoped the book would help elevate the level of discussion about terrorism and the fate of the detainees. Based on the discussions she hears again and again, she figures she failed.

“One of the things that have stuck with me is how we always look at Western solutions to these problems,” Shephard said, which is typically a version of the idea that a group of men that have been tortured and imprisoned for years without conviction will return home with a dangerously fierce hatred of the US, and would then ignite the population in revolt. This story is gathering heat in Yemen, where a lot of the detained men who are in a legal gray area — detained without enough evidence to convict them — are from.

“In Yemen, for every detainee we hold, we’ve created a group around him so angry at the West for this policy… by holding someone without trial, what are you doing for the next generation? I see this over and over and over.” Guantanamo’s prison is a somewhat warped way of approaching a problem that involves real human lives, especially considering it’s not typical Western practice to hold unconvicted people in jail (it’s certainly against our constitutional rights). “If our traditional sense of war and law doesn’t work anymore, let’s decide that as Canadians. We don’t have that discussion in Canada.”

In addition to travelling, Shephard relies on foreign bureaus for on-the-ground reportage: the Star has active bureaus in Washington, Beijing and New Delhi, while their London and Jerusalem bureaus are currently dark — a not uncommon condition for Canadian and US bureaus. “This puts us [as journalists] at a disadvantage,” Shephard says. “We must keep foreign bureaus open. We need reporters that are completely immersed in the issues. It’s really important to have that Canadian angle we wouldn’t get from the New York Times or BBC.” Because of the increasingly dangerous environment in Somalia, she got her first taste of embedding reporting in Mogadishu, where she previously could go on her own, which comes with its own set of complications: “you only see what the army wants you to see.”

While she is always careful to be mindful of local customs, Shephard has found the occasional advantage to being one of very few women on the beat: she has access to an entire half of the population that is closed off to male reporters. Sometimes, there’s an advantage with male interviewees too, like when she visited a remote Pakistani base camp that had never had women visit before. “The officials were trying to impress [my female colleague and I], and told us more information than they would have given to male reporters, because they didn’t take us as seriously.”

Wanting to end on a somewhat less dour note, Shephard says, “I have good news. Well, it’s a warped journalist sense of what good news is, but I consider it good news.” In Somalia, she met a 17-year-old named Ismael, who had been kidnapped after declaring to the powers that be that he preferred school to soldiering. He was tortured by insurgents for three weeks, and then thrown into a stadium full of spectators: He passed out when they amputated his hand, and woke up to find his foot missing, too. When Shephard met him he was living with a group of young boys who’d faced similar trauma. Spotting her tiny maple leaf pin, he begged her to take him to Canada with her — not a rare request in her line of work. She left him there, which she admits was heart-wrenching, and wrote his story for the Star. “It’s one of those rare stories that touched people, and it created an underground movement — a sort of underground railway called Project Ishmael — to get him out.”

Ismael is now in Nairobi, where he is temporarily safe, at least, and should be in Canada soon. “You can get pretty cynical on this beat, but then you meet people like Ismael, who is just this incredibly kind and loving person, despite everything.”