When even narrow objectives fall short

A  few months ago, Christie Blatchford released Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us. The best work in the book, writes reviewer David Swick, is thoughtful, well-researched, and delivered with punch.But what about the rest? And, why don’t we hear from one occupational leader in all 258 pages?

When aboriginals occupied a subdivision under construction in Caledonia, near Hamilton, Ont., in 2006, the OPP and provincial government responded by playing for time, by playing nice. The protestors’ barricades stayed up. Inside the barricades, more than 400 non-aboriginal families went without police services — for more than four years. Imagine this happening in your neighbourhood.

Christie Blatchford considers this troubling story in Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us (Doubleday). The best work in the book is thoughtful, well-researched, and delivered with punch. For example, Blatchford exposes — through email transcripts and by talking to numerous sources — that OPP Commissioner, now Conservative MP, Julian Fantino brought to the crisis plenty of bravado but a lack of subtlety and insight.

Also compelling are the few pages focusing on OPP Superintendant Ron George, at the time perhaps the most influential aboriginal cop in the nation. Blatchford suggests his leadership at Caledonia contributed to the confusion, and hints darkly at worse. This deserves more serious attention.

Turning a news event into a book provides a chance to go deeper into a story, to do more serious research, to provide context, to talk to all sides, and so reveal a nuanced truth. Unfortunately, not all of this happens in Helpless.

Blatchford makes her disdain for the aboriginals clear. Sarcasm is one weapon; even more effective is ignoring them. Never in 258 pages do we hear from an occupation leader. They are named, and that is all; if she tried to talk to one we are not informed. The result is that First Nations people exist, almost without exception, as cardboard cutouts, as one-dimensional characters whooping and hollering by the highway.

The non-aboriginal townspeople, in contrast, are portrayed with dramatic sympathy. Take Dave Brown, for example. “Brownie, as everyone calls him, was a man so happy in his own skin, his disposition so sunny, that his best friend, Jeff Byrd, says he was like a big old Lab, impossible not to love. Brownie like to party. He loved to barbecue and have friends over; he was the Q King. He worked hard, played hard. He was a loyal and reliable friend, a good teammate and a trusted employee. He loved his glamorous wife… was a stable man, content with his lot, not locked into the more-is-better cycle. He had all he wanted.”

Instead of shedding light on the story by discovering exactly why and how events transpired, great sections of Helpless read like one long, not particularly enlightening newspaper column. Aggrieved citizens vent. An occasional rumour is floated, unexamined. And Blatchford makes a declaration: the OPP — or feds, or province — screwed up again.

Mostly she delivers Just Plain Folks. She lionizes people like Merlyn Kinrade, a regular citizen who, we are told, “is disinclined towards patience, spin and the like.” She adores Gary McHale, who lived two hours from Caledonia but made it his mission to lead the townspeople in protesting police and government inaction. Only late in the book do we discover why McHale, who grew up in a violent, poor family, felt so compelled to lead. He was told to by God. Following God’s will McHale stopped going to work; he wound up losing his house. Some readers might observe that the Lord works in mysterious ways; Blatchford doesn’t blink.

What might have been a book rooted in serious research becomes a radio talk show. Local citizens (not all of whom lack patience or are on a mission from God) are handed a microphone to bash the government/police. The book’s title, on both the cover and inside, appears all in caps: HELPLESS: CALEDONIA’S NIGHTMARE OF FEAR AND ANARCHY, AND HOW THE LAW FAILED ALL OF US. Occasionally a lead opens that does not promote fear and anarchy — for example, when the local Rotary Club refuses to offer McHale a penny of funding. It is dropped, unexplored. Next caller, please.

I do not mean to belittle residents’ fear; you wouldn’t want a takeover of land in your neighbourhood. And bad things happened in Caledonia. Residents were forced to show makeshift “passports” to pass through aboriginal-manned roadblocks — just to get home. A Hydro tower was knocked to the ground, and an empty van pushed off an overpass. Innocent people, including Dave Brown, lost their houses, at tremendous financial and emotional cost. A couple of people suffered serious injuries.

The problem is that reporting that citizens were angry and afraid proves nothing, except that they were angry and afraid.

What we need is to understand how and why this happened. Blatchford’s thesis is that the provincial government and OPP, spooked by the memory of Ipperwash, lacked spine in front of hoodlum lawbreakers. What might have happened if the police had quashed the uprising is not considered. The book lacks an insider’s understanding of government and police options. And so government and police too become one-dimensional.

People who are angry at aboriginals in Canada will find plenty to enjoy. Blatchford even uses the word “Indians” once (mostly she says “natives”). And fans of her Globe and Mail column may be thrilled. Blatchford appears repeatedly, often sitting at one more kitchen table. Even devotees, though, may be mystified when she reveals that a minor character grew up in northern Quebec “(weirdly, just a stone’s throw from Rouyn-Noranda, where I was born and raised)”. This is not weird; it is a coincidence.

Fair warning about Helpless is given in the introductory Author’s Note. We are told the book is not about land claims, or residential schools, or the reserve system. It is only, Blatchford says, about the rule of law, and how it was abandoned in Caledonia. Even this narrow objective deserved a fuller report.

David Swick, assistant professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, has created CBC Radio documentaries including Ideas programs, written nearly 2,000 newspaper columns, and authored one non-fiction book.