Sammy Yatim and Toronto’s finest


I have to interrupt the flow of my posts to write about the murder of Sammy Yatim, the young Toronto teenager who “drop(ped) the knife” (these were his last orders) only when he was shot nine times and tasered once by a member of Toronto’s police force while 22 of his colleagues stood close by in their bullet-proofed vests.

I have viewed a video recorded by a citizen bystander several times, most recently only thirty seconds ago, and I feel compelled to add one more detail about this horrifying encounter that also deeply disturbs me but hasn’t been voiced by many yet, or at least I haven’t heard anything.

It concerns the calm manner displayed by the cops at the scene, several of whom have guns in their hands or fingers close to holsters. They appear remarkably undisturbed by the shooting even in the moment it occurs. Surprise, perhaps, can be glimpsed on a few faces, but even that is difficult to locate.

I don’t understand this at all. Is it merely training? And if so, why couldn’t training also be as effective in the realm of de-escalation?

The officers bumble about looking confused, like a bunch of children playing cops & robbers. They’re not entirely certain what they’re doing, or to whom, or why. This is particularly apparent seconds before the gun is fired and then–and then, after shots split the air

(I jolt in my seat every time).

“Drop the knife!” an officer shouts through the open streetcar doorway where the young man stands. “Drop the knife!”

“You’re all pussies,” says the teenager.

Bang bang.

Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang.

Another thing that doesn’t quite sink in for me is my own reaction to this video.

This isn’t The Wire. Not the Sopranos. Nor is it police brutality from away. This is murder happening, again and again, right in front of my eyes and on a familiar street corner in the city’s west end.

But there is some kind of common denominator here, I have to admit, a stubborn, inexplicable insensitivity perhaps.

Or is it shock?

Watch for yourself and try to take in what you are, in fact, watching.

(By the way, take note of the impact that “You’re all pussies” might have had on the shooting.)

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How funny is death? SPOW Conference Part Two

Or is that really the question I want to ask?

I am forever niggled by something having to do with writing obituaries and it has, partly, to do with the reactions from womenfolk and menfolk, children folk too (although less so) who inappropriately, in my opinion, respond when I tell them what I do.

They snicker; I niggle. We stumble past or I challenge them. Depends, it always depends on what side of the bed I (after all, I still live to rise) get out of on that particular morning.

What the hell am I saying?

Stumble indeed.

People, I am discovering, joke about death–often employing ragged clichés or exhausted platitudes. Nothing that lends comfort. They say: “Hope you’re not writing mine!” or “Wow, how creepy can that be?”

I roll my eyes, sometimes. At other times I verbally challenge them while wanting to smack them around a little.

We are called “the dead heads”; the award for excellent obituary writing is referred to as a “the grimster.”

So we held the Society of Professional Obituary Writers’ 2013 conference here in Toronto a couple months back. Naturally, I posted it on Facebook, hoping to marry Facebook friends with obituary-writing pals, and just to blow my horn about the hard work done to get this thing happening.

What happened was a barrage of gallows humour…and I looked like a poor-sport-sour-puss pooh-poohing their fun & games.

Here is some of the one-liner Facebook dead jokes:

Guess you and you buddies will be having a few stiff ones.

Or knocking back a few cold ones.

They can do that in the departure lounge, I’d wager.

What’s this conference called? Interment camp?

 Love to see the minutes to that. They must be famous last words.

And, when I intervened in my sour, school-marmish way I got this:

That’s true Noreen, You have to dig pretty deep to find a good dead joke.

Okay, okay. I admit it, they are pretty funny, but it’s not so much the joking about death that irks me–that I understand, it’s nerves and all, a relief of sorts–it’s the way in which these jokes demean my craft. It’s insulting, that’s what it is, and I will continue to react critically.

I work damned hard on these pieces and prefer to view them as tiny historical narratives,  thoughtful reflections on an individual’s life, rich in anecdotal detail and memorable,  poignant moments.

Like the one I wrote that’s in today’s paper, about a German foot soldier who fell in love with a Polish woman while tramping through mud toward Moscow.

He lost her to the Nazis, who transported her to work as a maid somewhere in the Fatherland, and he (my subject) took months to track her down and escape with her to Austria, where they married in 1946.

That isn’t funny.

Enough said about all this humour or not-humour in death for now. I will continue in the next instalment, at which time I will also link you to a CNN article from whence I borrowed the illustration above. And I will “discuss” this article blog-style.

The article was written by Anne O’Neill, one of my obit writing colleagues and a conference attendee. Stay tuned and thanks for allowing me my pesky little opinions that go against the grain. And remember: I, too, have a sense of humour!

p.s. That’s me, in the drawing, toasting over the corpse with a glass of fine wine.

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Timbits and dinosaur poop


Writing the lede to a piece of journalism can feel like dangling from a rope over the abyss. I’m there now, puttering up to write another obituary, sitting in a Queen Street coffee shop while rain thunders down, trying to direct my eyes to the dreaded screen not to the umbrella-sheltered passers-by. I am thinking, thinking about that abyss.

Robert Kerrich, Earth scientist. My newest subject. Okay, here’s a story about the real abyss.

Dr. Kerrich kissed his wife goodbye in Saskatchewan and set off for a conference in Hawaii. While stashed in a room full of other scientists, cluttering his mind with paperwork and Powerpoint, he accepted a proposition and high-tailed it out of there.

From a Howard Johnson’s to the mouth of a volcano, literally.

He was lifted by  helicopter into a volcano to capture gases, an offer he simply could not refuse.

Here’s his wife, Bev:

“He said, well I had to get into this asbestos suit with a bunch of jars strapped to my waist by a kind of tool belt, and he was lowered into the volcano. This is valuable research.”

“Weren’t you afraid there would be one of those lava bombs?”

“Yes, of course,” he said, adding that it was sweating hot in that suit and his first terror was dropping the samples.

Robert Kerrich.

I like the title “Earth scientist” and I like that Earth is capitalized. It adds lustre to a much-maligned and degraded planet.

Dr. Kerrich dropped into volcanoes.  He also chatted with little kids about that solid thing they stomp on in the playground–again, I refer to Earth.

For one class of first graders he popped into Tim Horton’s on the way to the school and picked up a box of timbits, as a prop, gathering the kids in a circle for their lesson.

He also handed out fossilized dinosaur poop, borrowed from the Natural History Museum of Regina, transporting his crayon-hefting pupils more easily back to Precambrian days and teaching them the distinction between meat-eaters and veggie-eaters.

And now, here I go, finally launching into telling Dr. Kerrich’s life history.  I’m set to make the dive.

Read on anon in the (nearly extinct) newspaper.

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Society of Professional Obituary Writers # 1

SPOW_finalphotoChris is not an anachronism, although he looks to have stepped from the pages of a Hardy novel and named Jude or some such. No, not Hardy and not Jude but Chris, circa 2013, printing copies of William Lyon MacKenzie’s The Colonial Advocate, circa 1824.

Chris works at Toronto’s MacKenzie House. I went there to research the history of this man, who not only published the news but also became the first mayor of the city. I wanted to know more about this, about how Toronto could move from having a radical journalist and publisher, and leader of the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, as a mayor–from that noble beginning–to Rob Ford.

You see, I was hosting the opening event last Friday night for SPOW, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, at our annual conference just up the street from MacKenzie’s former domicile, north on Jarvis Street towards Bloor.

I needed arsenal in order to debunk our much-maligned reputation vis-a-vis elected officials down at City Hall. There were many Americans among our delegates bursting with laughter already and wanting to know: Is it true? In Canada?

Speaking, briefly, of Toronto city hall and obituary writing…here’s a moment in time. I’ll take you back a couple of weeks, shortly after the news broke about Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine etcetera etcetera ad nauseam (disclaimers intact always.)

I joined the scrum at city hall, muscled in with the crowd of journalists hoisting huge cameras, and said to my colleagues:

“I am the most important journalist here today.”

“Why?” many of them asked.

“Because I am an obituary writer,” I said.

I’m twirling off in all directions in this blog post but promise to return order in the posts to come. Because I’ll be telling more stories about how our conference went–fabulously. It was a lot of work but the pay-off in connections with fellow writers, and historians, was well worth it.

Next up: The history of a radical mayor from a couple of centuries back, as told to us by historian Danielle Urquart.

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Yvonne Brill and the Stroganoff Debacle


There was controversy in the obituary world last month following the death of pioneering rocket scientist Yvonne Brill.  The debacle was discussed in “What’s an Obituary For?” an article written by Megan Garber and published in The Atlantic.

I’ll borrow generously from this article and urge you to read the fuller version as well. “The controversy started, as it so often does, with beef stroganoff,” leads off the discussion.

Yvonne Brill was given a send-off in the New York Times. Here’s the lede Douglas Martin wrote on this remarkable woman’s life:

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”

She was Stroganoffed, wrote the Atlantic writer.

“There’s the gender issue, first of all: the fact that it’s nearly impossible to imagine a male scientist of Brill’s standing getting stroganoffed in this way. (“Oh yes, by the way, Number One Mom Yvonne Brill, Preparer of Divine Beef Stroganoff, Cleaner of Messy Diapers, also invented a little system that helped make satellites work.”)

Garber said the first sentence of an obituary is not only prime memorial real estate but also coded real estate — a sentence-long summation of somebody’s broad impact on society.

“Obituaries are fundamentally different from other kinds of journalism. They are not, strictly speaking, profiles. They are not news stories. They don’t necessarily aspire to be comprehensive — which is, when the “story” is somebody’s life, impossible.

“They don’t necessarily aspire to be balanced — which is, when the subject is a recently deceased person, insensitive.

“Obituaries function not just as good reading, but as structured morality tales, their interfaces subtly guiding human behavior. This is how to be. This is what we prize. The obituary is a life made normative.

“And so we read about Yvonne Brill, after her death, not because she is interesting (which she is), or because she was loved (which she was), but because her life reflects — in a broad and collectively calculated way — what we have decided to value, publicly and explicitly, as human accomplishment.

“Obits denude, by design. They are not eulogies, or even elegies, but object lessons: They strip away almost all the facts of somebody’s life so that the life may be refigured as a fable. They turn humans into allegories.

“Brill’s obit violated, on top of everything else, the formulas that allow for that transformation. And that was the broadest, if not the biggest, problem with the Stroganoff Sentence. Within the first line of this inky monument to achievement — within the context, as it were, of no context — stroganoff was, in every way, too meaty. The obit tried to humanize Brill, but it did so without first making clear why we were reading about her in the first place. Babies! Beau! Beef! (And also rocket science!)

Under pressure, Martin re-wrote the lede.

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A toast to James Pon’s grandfather

James Pon’s grandfather filled my mind during this rail trip from Montreal to Toronto last month. It was he, along with hundreds of other Chinese workers, who built this railway–although on the other side of the Rocky mountains.

Last month, I wrote an obituary on James Pon.

PON, James G&M April 17, 2013

To promote awareness of the Chinese contribution to our country, he established a group to erect a statue commemorating the unification of Canada through the building of the railway by Chinese workers.

James was actively involved and became the symbol for the Canadian Government’s 2006 Redress for Head Tax and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.

While researching James’s obituary I came across this Earle Birney poem. The excerpt wouldn’t work on the page in the Globe so I’ll share it here instead. And I’ll remember sitting by the window, watching the landscape shift into green, and toasting the Pons.

Towards the Last Spike

by Earle Birney 

They tickled her with shovels, dug pickaxes

Into her scales and got under her skin,

They lowered them with knotted ropes and drew them

Along the face until the lines were strung

Between the juts. Barefooted, dynamite

Strapped to their waists, the sappers followed, treading

The spider films and chipping holes for blasts,

Until the cliffs delivered up their features

Under the civil discipline of roads.

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Society of Professional Obituary Writers


June 7-9, 2013, Toronto

Here in Toronto we are thrilled to be hosting the fourth conference of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW)

We know how much fun they are. We know how important they are. And we know we need to gather together and talk about our business.

The Conference

It’s happening at Ryerson University, home of the largest journalism school in Canada, located in the heart of downtown Toronto.

Telling the Truth is our theme. It means getting it right. It means our president, Andy Meacham, leading us in a talk about how we handle suicide, dirty little secrets, sex, lies and yes, families who fight us all the way.

Telling the Truth means facing the future of obituaries. Do they have one?  Is the print obituary dead or dying in the face of the changing media landscape? Jade Walker has a lot to say – and show us – about this.

Telling the Truth means hearing about why Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, the Toronto Star, decided to run a blockbuster, 4,000-word obituary called Shelagh: The Beauty of an Ordinary Life and how a team of reporters led by columnist Catherine Porter pulled it off.

Porter will be our lead-off speaker on Saturday. This obit has also been produced as an e-book that will be available to conference participants.

Telling the Truth means challenging the myths about obituary writing. Sandra Martin, senior feature writer at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, writer and author of Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada, is going to do just that.

And there’s more to come. Check out our website:

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Loss. Regret.


Writing obituaries sometimes feels like an exercise in loss and regret. The subject has died, of course, and so I lack the opportunity to interview this person. Instead I must gather details of her or his life from colleagues, family, and friends.

But these individuals whom I am compelled to interview are often gob-smacked by grief and so I question with caution then must form an impression of my subject’s character based on their reminiscences and any relevant biographical material they lend me.

Loss: the absence of my subject.

Regret: I have never met them.

Sometimes there is a diary or memoir, such as with my most recent obituary of Dr. Edmond Boyd. The richness of his life seeped from the pages begging to be shared and I felt grateful to have them. But even with this first-hand record I ran into problems.

Dr. Boyd hated his father. The first words of his diary begin with this declaration. And so in my obituary I called his father imperious, suggesting he held onto his family like a dictatorial patriarch.

But his children remembered their grandfather differently: consumed by his work as a Harley Street physician but otherwise a warm man, protecting his son from a doting and possibly oppressive mother. They would have liked to have known him better.

With the obituary I am currently writing about James Pon I have encountered a similar problem. Loss, yes, and regret.

In researching Mr. Pon I have been generously given access to an oral history done a few years ago: 50 pages of articulate questions concerning his life as Chinese-Canadian immigrant who came to Canada at age five and was burdened by the financial weight of a head tax.

His grandfather was one of navvies who built the CPR line, risking his life to unite the country according to Prime Minister John A. MacDonald‘s national dream.

But there is a different issue for me in reading this transcript and it saddens me.

This 95 year-old man sounds incredibly sweet, generous with his time, and in-all-ways he is doing is best during this interview.

But his memory is fading. His responses seem almost by rote, like he’d been asked them time-a-plenty by journalists. Sometimes he seems to be led, or pressured, and at times he is even slightly teased or cajoled.

This assumed inauthenticity makes it difficult to mine the gold of his life.

One of the interviewers suggests frequent breaks; she is sensitive to the strain. But Mr. Pon allows for few of them. He plows ahead with his stories and he is wearying and now he is gone.

My article will honour him, and this is good, but he won’t know it.

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“Let him rest,” says his widow

Edmond Boyd April 1945

When I’m writing an obituary, I live among the family. Not literally, of course, but emotionally. It begins with reading the death notice, usually written by one of the deceased’s children, placed in a newspaper at great cost and twigging my interest: a life worthy of more newspaper inches. Then I make a phone call.

“The Globe and Mail” acts as a foot in the door and we’re off. I set up interviews, usually limiting them to one or two family members and one or two colleagues. Sometimes the subject of my storytelling no longer has living colleagues and so I hope, in these instances, the children flesh out details of their parent’s life and career well enough.

Ideally, they’ll be able to excavate key research documents like news clippings, CVs, or if I’m really lucky, a sufficiently well-written memoir plump with anecdotes and colour.

With each tiny speck of fact I slide deeper into the story. I become a plant, as I said, within the family: circling the lore; expanding the mythology; rooting among untruths for accuracy. And always, always articulating history.

History of an individual but also factors that shape society and ourselves, that’s a goal and I often achieve it in the obituaries I publish about the lives that interest us. But there’s a microcosm entered, as I said, between myself and family members whom I also come to know, the life in the works, as it were.

It’s reflected in the mad-dash emails to-ing and fro-ing for the duration of the assignment: fact checking; clarifying quotes; detailing of the colour of a polyester suit he wore the day he was presented an Order of Canada; inspiration behind a famed collage hung in a gallery; the truth behind a love affair that threatened to shift my subject’s life back in the 60s; a hushed adoption.

I filed an article yesterday about a 23-year-old upper class Cambridge medical student on the front lines at liberating Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It brought me into contact with his adult children who hadn’t fully known about their father’s “Belsen Diary” before he died last month.

Hugely piqued, I asked them for exclusive rights to this manuscript for a period of six months, so I could explore a wider audience for what I believe has important historical relevance and should be known.

Yes, Yes!” say his children.

Let him rest,” says his widow.

And so I undoubtedly shall.

Intrusion, violation, and exploitation are far, far from my intentions, ever. But neither do I shy away from expressing a desire to preserve what must be remembered. His widow will decide.

The picture above depicts this man, and his young friends, in April, 1945, as they prepare to surrender to the world-as-they-know-it.

For Belsen.

Thank you, to his family, who also told me stories about this man’s post-Belsen attempt at a life and why it ought to be marked in a page, not merely a notice.

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Mrs. Journalist here

ML Knight Time and Gas Collection Henry Knight

My first “Mrs.”

In my copy, I mean.

I have never been nor shall I ever be a Mrs., but the Globe and Mail deigned to snap that honorific to the woman I profiled in today’s paper. It is hard, so hard for me to bear, to see, to own up to this non-typo.

And on International Women’s Day no less!

A bit of background.

I wrote about this truly amazing, inspiring, woman-loving Toronto artist and writer named M.L. Knight.

She is another person I could have been friends with; she was someone who probably would have gone some distance in mentoring me, as a writer. She certainly performed this role for countless other women.

In her visual art, she created whimsical and evocative collages telling all sorts of stories to all sorts of people, demonstrating creativity, imagination, humour, the ridiculous–and demonstrating feminist politics.

She called one collage “Fisted Rage.”

In it, she tore ads from a women’s magazine depicting tightly wound rolls of bathroom towels in every shade of pastel.

She then drew the viewer’s eye to the similarity between this basket of rolled towels and a tightly clenched fist.

I think she was commenting on the domestic situation that demands women pay attention to such trivial details. A kind of domestic rage inspired by Martha Stewart?

She also wrote about her childhood, a little bookish girl raised by a Disciples of Christ reverend and a missionary mother in Toronto back in the 20s.

Some of the marked irreverence she later slipped into her art, I think, came from living among this fundamentalist sect.

She described churchwomen who looked kindly on shell-shocked soldiers (First World War) and the unemployed (the Depression), but not on “stupid-looking domestics.”

She outed a congregation who literally ran a suspected homosexual music teacher from town and then, in an ironic twist, offered the teaching job to this shamed man’s male “roommate.”

She describes her mother’s struggle to clean the doleful blackish carpet that had been donated by the congregation. “Into that rug one’s spirit could be sucked,” she wrote.

And so how did this enlightened proto-feminist land as a “Mrs.” on the page? My very first Mrs. as it turns out.

Because her family insisted that’s what she would have wished.

And I respected her wishes.


I suppose Nellie McClung was a Mrs. too.

Happy International Women’s Day to you all.

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