Tag Archives: Maclean’s

Toronto #terrortunnel on This American Life

Had lots of fun helping out on the opener for last weekend’s episode of “This American Life,” the U.S. public radio show. The piece is a riff on the Toronto tunnel story I wrote for Maclean’s magazine back in March, when I got to spend a few days with Elton McDonald and his family up at their home in the Driftwood Court public housing complex. Elton, who’s 23 now, and who works in construction, spent a couple of years building a sophisticated underground clubhouse in the wooded ravine behind his house, which is in one of Toronto’s roughest neighbourhoods. That tunnel caused quite a bit of worry when authorities uncovered it early this year—people called it the #terrortunnel on Twitter, speculating it was part of a plot to disrupt the Pan Am Games, some of which were due to take place at a nearby tennis stadium. But in the end it was just Elton, trying to get away from it all. Thanks to TAL producer Sean Cole for stickhandling the piece. And thanks again to Elton and his family for putting up with me as long as they did. I believe Elton continues to crowdfund his grass-cutting club for neighbourhood boys here at Eltons Tunnel Vision Fund.

An underground tunnel to the trial of the century

IMG_0053After a long adjournment in the trial of suspended Sen. Mike Duffy, as I sit here girding myself for Part II of that endless spectacle, I can’t help but reflect on how, one sunny Toronto morning back in March, I climbed down a ladder into the earth, ducked into a tunnel below York University, then emerged weeks later to find myself in the murky surroundings of Ottawa’s Elgin St. courthouse, hearing the strange details of the inner workings of the Senate of Canada.

That ladder in Toronto led to a weird place, like something from the One Thousand and One Nights, or the bandit’s lair in The Count of Monte Cristo. Really, I haven’t been the same since. You can find the story I wrote for Maclean’s magazine about the Toronto tunneler Elton McDonald here—I was thrilled to see Longform.org pick it up—and you can find the amazing Emma Teitel’s “Talk of the Town”-style update on Elton, also in Maclean’s, here.

My serialized coverage of the Duffy trial is available in all its eye-splitting totality here (just scroll down to the bottom to locate Day 1, when I had the chance to point out how Duffy “makes you think of a young king’s least-favourite eunuch“).

I’ll be adding to the Duffy chronicle with a nightly web dispatch throughout June. And Toronto-based illustrator Kagan McLeod and I will continue our weekly Duffy cartoon—find those strips here, including the above action portrait of Duffy training elephants in the art of memorializing “victims of communism.”

The first few weeks of the trial in May landed me on the CBC a couple of times—on The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti one morning, and on The 180 with Jim Brown, where I performed a version of my story about a particularly tedious day in Courtroom 33, which makes me sound like I’m on LSD.

Meanwhile, as I was covered Duffy, an investigative piece I’d worked on for six months, about the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School instructor Bruce Monk and his alleged habit of taking nude photographs of underage female students, came out in Maclean’s. That piece was based on the accounts of four women who attended the school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and who told me Monk had photographed them alone in various states of undress. A couple of days after the article hit newsstands, Monk lost his job. The piece also led a number of other RWBS alumni to step forward and tell similar stories. Luc Rinaldi, an assistant editor at Maclean’s, wrote this chilling follow based on those new accounts.


An inopportune time for a Myanmar holiday

In my final days in Myanmar before I embark on a reporting trip elsewhere, thought I’d update this page.

So far I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to work for a Myanmar news outlet—wonderful people in cramped quarters with betel-nut spittoons that runneth over—walked the streets endlessly taking photographs, and spent an inordinate number of hours in hotel lobbies subjected to the musical stylings of Filipino lounge acts. Billy Joel with sequins is tough on the noggin when you’re trying to write.

I’ll be back in Yangon in April, but I’m still sorry to leave at what’s turning out to be an exciting, troubling phase in Myanmar’s post-junta evolution.

When I got here in November this was still largely a place of optimism. Now there’s lots of evidence suggesting that, in the behind-the-scenes struggle between the government’s progressive camp and old-guard hardliners, the hardliners are gaining ground. Change came swift to Myanmar, and the backlash that’s underway, or at least appears to be gathering force may be just as intense.

One item is Naypyidaw’s bellicose stance on what did or did not take place last month in Maungdaw Township. Rights groups and the United Nations say dozens of Rohingya Muslims died there during Rakhine State’s most recent outbreak of sectarian violence. The government isn’t budging. When a Rohingya MP, Shwe Maung, repeated in a video news item accounts he’d heard from locals in the area suggesting police may have set Rohingya homes ablaze, President Thein Sein himself sought the permissions required for police to interrogate him.

That story is unfolding against increasingly casual anti-Muslim sentiment throughout Myanmar, where for example there is broad support for legislated interdictions against marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.

Meanwhile, a reporter with Eleven Media has been sentenced to three months in prison for what she said in an interview she conducted while working on a corruption exposé. And authorities have detained the CEO of Unity Weekly and four of its journalists after that paper published reports about a secret chemical weapons factory in Magway Region, central Myanmar.

Then there is the video of Ohn Myint, a former military man and now minister of livestock breeding, fisheries and rural development, upbraiding villagers who complained about access to water. Ohn Myint must have felt he could get away with flipping his longyi skirt at people, exposing leg—very likely a reflection of how his peers in government feel.

“I will attack anyone who insults the ruling government and if I cannot attack them verbally, I will throw them in jail,” he told the group, all of it captured on camera (you can watch it here in this delicious Democratic Voice of Burma piece). “This is how it’s done internationally—if you oppose the government, you go to jail and only come out when we’re out of office.”

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains largely missing in action on these issues—she’s busy campaigning for a change to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution that will permit her to become president if the National League for Democracy, the party she leads, wins the general elections in 2015. I wrote about this state of affairs late last year in Maclean’s.

But there are scenes of striking beauty here, and I’ve had the chance to write about that also—for example here in a piece I did for the Toronto Star about Myanmar’s magical national sport, chinlone. The above photo is of 13-year-old Mg Naing Tun, at a monastery in Mandalay, kicking a chinlone ball with his knee behind his head .

I mean, where else do you get to see that? I look forward to seeing more.


Classical music in China: “More popular than Jesus?” Well, not really.

Here’s the piece I wrote, for my old pals at Maclean’s magazine, on western myths surrounding the popularity of classical music in China. For the story I followed the National Arts Centre Orchestra around during the Beijing leg of its China tour earlier this month, and I talked to a lot of conservatory profs across the country, from Guangzhou to Chengdu. I shot the above in the concert hall at Tsinghua University, a prestigious school located in Beijing’s north end, just a few minutes before the NACO performance began.

You’ll notice that there are still many empty seats here. Don’t let this fool you: the halls in Beijing do fill up, but many spectators arrive after the music starts, likely a function of the city’s horrendous traffic. Even the NACO was late for this show. And yes, there were many more young people in the audience, here and elsewhere, than you’d see at classical music performances in North America and Europe. At the Tianjin Grand Theatre, on the coast just south of Beijing, I also saw many more people dead-to-the-world asleep in their seats.

The story spends some time on crowd-management strategies at Chinese concert halls, where ushers are equipped with laser devices to publicly shame unruly spectators. Wait for the security guards I describe at the Beijing Zoo, cordoning off an area around a trio of NACO musicians there to serenade the pandas: the bouncers were apparently dispatched to protect the instrumentalists from marauding toddlers.