The racist face of disease

[I literally forgot I wrote this for Maclean’s during SARS, many years ago. A watchful reader posted it on Twitter, so here it is again.]

THE MORNING SUBWAY is usually jammed with bodies. Dozens of Toronto commuters stand wherever they can find a few inches of space, swaying as the train heads south. Seats are hard to come by during rush hour on the Yonge Street line—but not today. In a subway car packed to the doors, there are more than a few places to sit. And all of the empty seats are beside people of Asian descent. An explanation of sorts is found in a tabloid headline, on display for all to see: “FOURTH SARS DEATH IN GTA.”

The unspoken calculus is simple. SARS originated in the Far East; most of those afflicted with it, to date, have been Asian. Ipso facto, empty seats on the crowded subway; once-bustling Chinese restaurants virtually deserted; trips to Chinatown avoided or put off.

Welcome to the SARS Spring of 2003: in Toronto—as in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, where confirmed or suspected SARS cases have been reported—Canadians seem less preoccupied with faraway Iraq, and more with the affliction bearing the name severe acute respiratory syndrome. “To Canadians, it feels like a dangerous, uncertain time,” says John Wright, senior vice-president of the Ipsos-Reid polling firm. “There is a deep anxiety. When there is a great unknown, like SARS, you will always see great anxiety.”

By now, most of us have read and retained the relevant SARS facts. Over 2,000 cases identified in more than a dozen countries. More than 80 deaths, with China and neighbouring countries hit the worst. Seven SARS deaths in Canada. The Italian doctor who first warned the world about SARS was, chillingly, killed by it. And, as documented in every Canadian newspaper and broadcast, the disease arrived with people who had been in Asia.

Of the little we know about SARS, it is known that it will make anyone sick, given the chance. It does not discriminate. Unfortunately, people do. In recent days, SARS has made life more complicated for Canadians of Asian descent. It is seen in the discreet shunning of people of Asian descent on subway cars, in airport lounges and hospital waiting rooms.

Says Cynthia Pay, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council: “Broader society is scapegoating this as a Chinese disease—and within the Chinese community itself, people are afraid. It’s making Chinese Canadians feel very vulnerable, that they’re not in the mainstream.”

SARS is manifesting itself on the unpleasant fringes of Canadian society, too. The Freedom Site is the principal Internet home for neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Canada. It attracts thousands of cybervisitors every day, drawn by its nauseating menu of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, homophobia and intolerance. Operated by a supporter of the pro-Nazi Heritage Front, the Freedom Site has seized upon SARS with a vengeance, pointing to the disease as justification for its anti-immigrant polemics.

In one recent posting, a far-right leader calls SARS “another pernicious Oriental import.” He writes: “Remember next time you’re sitting in an airplane, riding a bus or huddling scrunched in a Toronto subway car and find some Oriental horking or hacking near you. IMMIGRATION CAN KILL YOU!” The white supremacist then goes on to demand “monitoring” of Asian travellers to Canada.

The same tone is being adopted elsewhere. On the largest far-right Web site, the U.S.based Stormfront, a female Canadian skinhead enthusiast writes: “[Close] our borders! This wouldn’t have happened if border security was stronger, and it wouldn’t have happened if there were immigration laws that affected more than whites!”

Fanning prejudice with fears about epidemics is nothing new: disease and discrimination have worked in tandem throughout human history. For centuries, occurrences of leprosy, plague and syphilis have been manipulated to legitimize expressions of hatred against a given society’s favoured victims of the moment. Following their rise to power in Germany, for example, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party aggressively promoted what they called “racial hygiene.”

A by-product of the eugenics movement, racial hygiene was a pseudo-science that identified and studied biological factors the Nazis felt were potential threats to the purity of the Aryan “race.” Under Hitler’s 1933 eugenics law, thousands of men, women and children were forcibly sterilized (or murdered) because they suffered from schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychoses, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, blindness, deafness, severe physical deformity, even alcoholism.

The Nazis are largely gone, but the racialprofiling impulse is not. Most recently, gays have been stigmatized due to the AIDS virus, with their access to jobs, benefits and international travel limited. Says pollster Wright: “The perception is that SARS is contained to one group of people. It should be remembered that pathogens know no race or creed.”

Will that fact be recognized? Wright doesn’t know for certain, yet: his firm was awaiting the results of its first poll on SARS.

But one thing is beyond dispute: as we make our way onto the subway or bus tomorrow morning, we should know that SARS is more than a test of our science: it is also, increasingly, a test of our values as a people.

Author and lawyer Warren Kinsella writes often about hate. To respond:

High school buddy speaks out

#TBT: ten years ago! Tommy Stinson! The Mats! Me!

…it was ten years ago tonight, Facebook tells me.

That is me, beside the Replacements’ (and Guns and Roses’) Tommy Stinson. THE Tommy Stinson.

He came with his girlfriend to an SFH gig at the Bovine Sex Club on Queen West, and he decided he would start selling our merch for us. So he did!

What a night.  I love punk rock.

Hole-y: CNN is now covering the stupid doughnut thing

And I’m amazed CNN spelled “doughnut” correctly. Usually they spell it like these guys do.

PS: this proves that (a) we’re lucky that this counts as a scandal, when you consider what is going on right now in the U.S. Senate and (b) the world is crazy.

Washington (CNN) — A photo of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Winnipeg-based doughnut shop has proved to be a lightning rod among pastry-enthusiastic onlookers online.

The confectionery controversy began when Trudeau tweeted a photo of himself carrying boxes out of the Oh Doughnuts shop in Winnipeg. “Picked up some of Winnipeg’s best to keep us going through another full day of Cabinet meetings,” the Prime Minister wrote. “Thanks for the fuel, @OhDoughnuts. #shoplocal”

The doughnut shop responded to Trudeau’s post with its own tweet thanking him for his visit. “We can confirm he carried these out the door. Pretty sure Health Canada would agree everything is okay in moderation,” the shop said. 

Some rushed to praise the Prime Minister, celebrating his support for a local business. Others criticized him for what they viewed as an overly “expensive” doughnut purchase.

Trudeau appeared to be carrying five large boxes of doughnuts with two smaller boxes on top. According to Oh Doughnuts’ website, an assortment of 12 “regular doughnuts” costs $35 Canadian ($26.61 in US dollars), with assortments of 12 “specialty doughnuts” running as high as $47 Canadian ($35.73 USD).

Those prices rattled some social media users, who chided the Prime Minister for not favoring a cheaper alternative.

Barton out at National, Hanomansing continues to be underused

Sounds like the CBC.


Hello all,

We are delighted to announce that a formidable editorial weapon is being added to CBC’s political reporting arsenal: Rosemary Barton moves into a new multiplatform role as the Ottawa Bureau’s chief political correspondent, the first female journalist in this role for CBC News. The title might sound familiar but this is a 2020 version of the role and in many ways will be an evolution that makes sense from her current role. Rosemary will lead special coverage, host political specials, conduct headline interviews and provide analysis, contextual reporting and documentaries for The National and our destination radio programs. The growing audience for Party Lines will welcome Rosemary back when the show is relaunched next week and her digital profile will expand to include regular analytical texts. She will do all this while continuing to shepherd the weekly televised and digital offering of At Issue on The National. Rosemary will be joined in the bureau by Phil Ling whose producing and reporting skills has served the bureau and the entire report in immeasurable ways. Phil will also be pivotal to the developing of a new top-flight political presence for Rosemary for CBC News. These additions represent a considerable muscling-up of our political reporting. The aim is to provide value-added news that complements the robust reporting coming from Ottawa ahead of a Conservative leadership race and a minority mandate that will see the Liberal government perched on a knife’s edge. Rosemary has already shown she is a wise mentor and editorial leader. I will be counting on her leadership to help make this bureau the best place to work in journalism. She will take on these new duties immediately while reporting jointly to leadership in Toronto and Ottawa. Let’s congratulate Rosemary and Phil.


All – Today we are announcing changes to The National which will further position and support the broadcast as Canada’s nightly destination newscast. Television news viewership is driven by consistency, both in format and in presentation. Our audience told us they want to know what they can expect night to night: who will bring them the news and how it will be delivered. We listened. This season we have slowly introduced measures that lead to a more consistent program – including tweaks to our format and sharpened hosting roles. The National will now be broadcast from the Toronto studio with co-hosts Adrienne Arsenault and Andrew Chang, Monday through Thursday. We quietly made this change weeks ago. Effective immediately, it is permanent. Adrienne will continue to bring viewers to the heart of major stories, with frequent hosting from the field – as we’ve seen this season with road shows in Hong Kong, Halifax, Washington, Montreal, London and – this week – St. John’s. When Adrienne isn’t hosting on location, she brings the world home with in-depth reports, hosting alongside Andrew in studio. Andrew Chang skillfully guides viewers through the news of the day, with a special focus on stories that play out in the daily lives of Canadians – from health news to tech trends – and a renewed focus on newsmaking interviews with notable Canadians. Ian Hanomansing will solo-host the Friday and Sunday editions of The National from Vancouver and contribute special reports across the week, with a spotlight on Alberta and British Columbia. Ian and the Vancouver team will also continue to ensure we can update the program with breaking news in later editions – as we saw recently with the downing of Flight 752. And, as announced by Rob Russo today, Rosemary Barton is taking on a cross-platform role as CBC News’ Chief Political Correspondent. In this new position, Rosemary will bring her unmatched political insight to all of CBC News – including digital, podcasts, radio, and television political specials. She will continue to bring analysis to The National, including contextual reporting, long-form stories and key political interviews. Rosemary will also continue to host At Issue. The success of The National will be measured by our journalism and its ability to connect with Canadians. In these early weeks of 2020, viewers have turned to us to make sense of significant news events. These changes – effective immediately – will support that crucial work.

Chad Paulin Executive Producer, The National


Of doughnuts and beards and the like

The Conservative Party – back when it knew how to win, and when it was preoccupied with winning more than whining – was pretty good at symbols.

Symbol-wise, ten years ago, the Conservatives’ communications strategy always came back a single theme: that Michael Ignatieff out-of-touch and from Mars – while their guy, Stephen Harper, was intimately familiar with the day-to-day reality of an average Canadian’s life, and was in fact just like the guy next door.  “Everything they do, every speech, every photo-op, every avail, everything they do every single day – it’s all aimed at making people feel Harper understands their life, and Iggy has never lived their life,” I said to some Iggy folks.

For example, I said, look at the Conservative regime’s laser-like focus on (the cherished Canadian sport) hockey – and (the cherished Canadian coffee and doughnut franchise) Tim Horton’s.  Harper seems to be obsessively preoccupied with both, even though he had been photographed furtively drinking Starbucks on the campaign trail, and no can recall ever seeing a photo of him in a pair of skates, ever.

“They’re political Everyman symbols,” I said, “and he’s brilliantly swiped both of them.  He’s an economist, for Chrissakes – he’s just as much of an intellectual as Ignatieff, but he’s terrified of people finding that out.  He wants our guy to be the brainy geek; he wants our guy to be the snob.  So he goes after Joe and Jane Frontporch with hockey and Tim’s, and it works.  Tim Horton’s hockey Dads, voters get.  Harvard human rights professors, who don’t do sports and who hangs out with other pinheads, they don’t get.”

None of this was new, or exceptionally insightful.  As early as 2007, smart folks were noticing how Harper was fixated on political symbols like hockey.  The progressive folks at Straight Goods, for instance, wrote back in 2007 that “hockey is an important part of the frame of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.  Since [2004], Harper has strived to court for the vote of the urban working middle class – people earning under $50,000 in trades, service industries, small business or sales.  Establishing himself as a hockey-loving tough guy is intended to play to this demographic.”

To that end, Harper was frequently photographed cradling a cup of Tim Horton’s at hockey rinks, or chumming with National Hockey League all-stars.  He even let it be known that he was writing a book about hockey, even though I can’t remember if it ever came out.

None of this happens by accident.  Symbols aren’t part of politics – symbols are politics. Pierre Trudeau’s rose and pirouette; Jean Chretien’s Shawinigan handshake; Justin Trudeau’s baby-balancing and whatnot.

So, accordingly, I understand why many Conservatives dislike Justin Trudeau so much.  First, Trudeau is way better at symbols than them.  Way.  And, second, Trudeau swiped symbols from them.  It drives them crazy.

In their effort to get back at him, Cons overreact.  They see a beard, they start posting memes that his father was Fidel Castro.  They see him carrying doughnuts for his cabinet, and they actually go on websites to calculate (falsely) how much the doughnuts cost and (without proof) claim he expensed them.  They see him periodically without a wedding ring, and spin tales about the state of his marriage.  And so on.

I’m not saying political symbols don’t matter – they do, a lot.  It’s just that you shouldn’t be swinging at every damn symbol that comes along, like some latter-day Don Quixote.  You shouldn’t treat every photo op as a war crime.

Pick your targets.  Keep your powder dry.  Don’t overreact.

Symbols matter, a lot.  But not everything is a symbol.

Now go eat a doughnut.