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a nation's paper

In exposing how our courts and prisons work, The Globe has helped fix institutions and free innocent people. But sometimes, it has landed on the wrong side of justice and history

This is an excerpt from A Nation’s Paper: The Globe and Mail in the Life of Canada, a collection of history essays from Globe writers past and present, coming this fall from Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

What was then the longest murder trial in Canadian history almost ended with the conviction of an innocent man. In April, 1985, police arrested Guy Paul Morin and charged him with the rape and murder of his nine-year-old neighbour, Christine Jessop, whose skeletal remains were found three months after she disappeared from her home in Queensville, Ont. A nearly decade-long criminal proceeding followed, marked by cascading incompetence and bias – doctored police notes, missing evidence, viable suspects ignored, key testimony withheld.

In January, 1995 – after Morin had already been tried, acquitted, tried again and convicted – a DNA test fully cleared the man police were so convinced had done it. But by then, many Canadians had been made aware of just how sloppy investigators had been, largely because of the work of a single Globe and Mail reporter: Kirk Makin. Over the course of hundreds of articles (and, eventually, a book), Makin painstakingly detailed the flaws in the case, shifting public opinion to an extent that arguably changed the story’s outcome. (In 2020, DNA evidence proved Makin right again when it helped investigators identify the killer – a friend of the Jessop family who took his own life in 2015.)

Makin’s work provides a textbook example of often-glamourless crime and justice reporting, a beat that offers perhaps the clearest insight into a newspaper’s inner workings. No other area of coverage has so frequent and thorough a convergence of journalism’s most challenging issues: unreliable and often conflicting information, massive asymmetries of power and the visceral human reaction to violence. It is precisely because of these challenges that crime and justice reporting can become such a clarifying prism through which to view and understand a newspaper – its strengths, blind spots and the diversity (or lack thereof) of the people who write, edit and decide what’s worth covering.

One of the defining features of The Globe’s crime coverage, almost since the paper’s inception, has been a focus on the relationship between crime and institutional justice. The country’s national paper believes it has a duty to examine not only the details of individual wrongdoing, but how a nation’s legal systems address that wrongdoing. The Globe’s crime reporting has led to some of the finest journalism the paper has ever produced – stories that launched national inquiries and helped get innocent people acquitted. But it is also behind some of the paper’s failings.

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Christine Jessop's mother, Janet, turns to look at Guy Paul Morin in 1998, after a news conference about the public inquiry into his wrongful conviction for Christine's murder. Between them, Globe photographer Fred Lum can be seen among the corps of journalists.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

In 1846, just two years after The Globe’s creation, founder George Brown was already using the pages of his nascent newspaper to call out institutional failings in the justice system. He detailed horrific conditions at Kingston Penitentiary, where even children were routinely whipped or put in solitary confinement. In 1848, Brown headed a commission on prison reform, whose recommendations included banning excessive corporal punishment and hiring professional inspectors.

Decades later, The Globe took issue with a different aspect of prisoners’ rights, perhaps with less success. In the summer of 1935, officials granted early parole to notorious bank robber Norman “Red” Ryan – sometimes described as Canada’s Jesse James – who had served 11 years of a life sentence and claimed to be a changed man. The institutional injustice in this instance was that the prison had allegedly denied Ryan access to years’ worth of letters his wife sent to him. He received the letters only upon his release, by which point his wife had died.

“There will be few to find excuses for a prison system or prison officials capable of evolving and enforcing regulations of such dull and purposeless cruelty,” The Globe’s editorial said. “So long as there is stupid brutality where there should be justice and humanity, this country’s penitentiaries will continue to be crime schools, and not institutions for the reform of criminals.” But the sympathy for Ryan was somewhat misplaced. Less than a year later, he and an accomplice ended up in a shootout in Sarnia, where Ryan killed a policeman before being shot dead.

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First Nations inmate Adam Capay became the focus of a Globe investigation into solitary confinement.

More recently, The Globe again called for reform within the Canadian legal system with a series on solitary confinement led by reporter Patrick White. Among the cases White covered was that of Adam Capay, a 26-year-old from Lac Seul First Nation who spent more than 1,600 days – nearly 4½ years – in solitary confinement after being charged with murder in the stabbing death of Sherman Quisses. A judge later stayed the charge.

“Canadians would like to think that, if a major crime is committed, our justice system can find the accused, detain them in humane conditions, lay the proper charges and carry out a fair trial within a reasonable amount of time,” read a January, 2019, Globe editorial. “Yet in the case of Sherman Quisses and Adam Capay, the system failed on every one of those counts. It failed the accused, it failed the victim and it failed Canadians.”

In November of that year, Ottawa announced an end to solitary confinement in Canada – though whether the practice continues to this day under different names is still a matter of fierce debate – a story White and other Globe reporters continue to cover.

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This Globe headline from Oct. 17, 1946, would prove premature: Evelyn Dick was not executed for the killing of her husband, but instead acquitted on appeal.

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Dick, dubbed the 'Torso Widow' by The Globe, was convicted of manslaughter for her infant child's death.The Globe and Mail

While The Globe can be lauded for taking a stand on the poor treatment of inmates, its crime coverage hasn’t always been so high-minded. The lure of the lurid has often run through the paper’s pages, from Ryan’s killing to the case of Evelyn Dick, who in 1946 became the defendant in one of the most famous murder trials in Canadian history.

Police arrested Dick in Hamilton and charged her with the murder of her estranged husband, whose torso was found by five children on the side of the Niagara Escarpment.

Dubbing Dick the “Torso Widow,” The Globe latched on to the case’s many sordid details – which included the discovery of a dead infant in her attic – and ran dozens of stories on the court proceedings, beginning with Dick’s trial for the murder of her husband. “The cause of death could not be determined by the postmortem,” a reporter wrote, “but it could be presumed that death was caused by injury to the missing head, the pathologist told the court.”

In 1946, Dick was convicted and sentenced to death, but her lawyers appealed, and a new jury acquitted her. The following year, she was found guilty of manslaughter in the case of the dead infant and sentenced to life in prison. In 1958, she was paroled and, under a new identity, largely disappeared.

Coverage of the Dick case pales in comparison with perhaps the most notorious Canadian crime story of the past half-century, which began in The Globe with a page-one article by Tim Appleby and Donn Downey on Feb. 18, 1993: “Man charged in girls’ slayings.” For many Canadians, it was the first time they read the name Paul Bernardo.

Bernardo and his estranged wife, Karla Homolka, would eventually be found guilty of some of the most horrific crimes ever detailed in a Canadian courtroom, including the confinement, violent sexual assault and killing of 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy and 15-year-old Kristen French.

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Karla Homolka, shown in 1993, aided in horrific sexual crimes with her husband, Paul Bernardo, though a plea bargain left her with a less severe sentence.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

In the days after Bernardo’s arrest, the case was marked by an unpleasant combination of saturated coverage, limited information and publication bans. That secrecy is reflected in myriad Globe stories; for example, when police made it clear that there was a second suspect but would give no further details, at least one Globe writer assumed the suspect must be a man.

In an effort not to jeopardize Bernardo’s looming trial, the Crown issued a strict publication ban on the trial of Homolka, who had taken a plea bargain before a series of gruesome videotapes made clear her level of involvement. But that led to an even greater media circus. In one bizarre incident, hundreds of Canadians drove across the border to get their hands on editions of U.S. newspapers that listed details covered by the ban, while Canadian Customs officials – acting on orders from Ontario’s attorney-general – confiscated the papers at the border.

It wasn’t until May 18, 1995 – almost two years after Homolka was sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter – that Bernardo’s trial formally began. For three months, The Globe’s coverage, led by Makin, contained some of the most chilling details ever printed in the paper.

Atop one front-page story in June, 1995, describing the videotaped assault of one of the victims, editors published a rare cautionary note: “Readers are warned that they may find the following report on evidence presented yesterday at the trial of Paul Bernardo deeply disturbing.” It wouldn’t be the last time that note would appear.

On Sept. 1, 1995, Bernardo was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, ending perhaps the most graphic and traumatizing court case in Canadian history.

“Those of us who were together for the entire three months shared the camaraderie of trial veterans, if only because the things we know were often too searing to convey to friends and family,” wrote Makin, who estimated there were 45 or so reporters who covered the entire trial, plus another 20 or 30 who covered it occasionally. “Particularly in the beginning, the mind was unwilling, the tongue unable.”

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Five Toronto 18 suspects appear in court in 2006, from left: Ahmad Mustafa Ghany, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, Amin Mohamed Durrani, an unnamed young offender and Jahmaal James. Charges were later dropped against Ghany and Jamal.Marianne Boucher/CityTV

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Surveillance footage shows two of the suspects, Saad Khalid and Saad Gaya, unloading fertilizer on June 2 before police swooped in to arrest them.Supplied

Crime reporting is, by its nature, community reporting. Even the most isolated violence ripples outward in time and place. In this way, nothing exposes a newsroom’s wealth or dearth of experience like a crime story.

This became abundantly clear at The Globe in June, 2006, after one of the biggest anti-terrorism raids in Canadian history. Late on the night of Friday, June 2, heavily armed officers swept up a crew of mostly young men who, it was alleged, had grand and violent plans to do everything from blowing up the CBC’s Toronto office to beheading the prime minister. Eventually, the case would come to be known as the “Toronto 18,” after the number of suspects. But on that Friday night, it arrived the way almost all crime stories arrive to a newsroom – a terse police statement, a burst of incomplete information.

The following day, news of the arrests made screaming headlines all over the front page of the Toronto Star, where reporter Michelle Shephard had been quietly following the lead-up to the arrests. In The Globe, it was a minor story on page 2, and didn’t even make some editions.

Edward Greenspon, then The Globe’s editor-in-chief, summoned staff to an emergency meeting and began issuing directives: Go find the ethnic papers in the neighbourhoods where the suspects live; talk to community leaders; find family members; do something. For the delicate task of assigning reporters to visit the mosques where many of the suspects were regulars, he looked across the newsroom for any journalists with a Muslim background, a Middle Eastern background, anything that wouldn’t cause them to stand out like sore thumbs.

He found two people – Kamal al-Solaylee, at the time the newspaper’s theatre critic, and me, a 25-year-old intern who’d been hired full-time exactly one week earlier.

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Friends of one of the Toronto 18, Zakaria Amara, arrive at the Brampton court in 2009.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The Globe found itself with a serious deficit of cultural competence. For several days, in stories about the suspects’ first court appearances, Globe reporters repeatedly described the wives of the suspects as being dressed in “burqas.” They were not; some of them wore niqabs.

In a front-page column about the arrests titled “Ignoring the biggest elephant in the room,” Christie Blatchford argued that it was pure self-delusion to say the case had nothing to do with religion, when all the suspects were Muslim. “The accused men are mostly young and mostly bearded in the Taliban fashion,” she wrote. “They have first names like Mohamed, middle names like Mohamed and last names like Mohamed.”

I remember finding that sentence particularly ironic: My middle name is Mohamed.

In contrast, in February, 2010, shortly after serial killer Russell Williams began confessing to multiple murders, sexual assaults and other crimes, Globe investigative reporter Greg McArthur learned while interviewing Williams’s stepfather that the accused had attended prestigious Upper Canada College. While still on the phone, McArthur passed the detail on to his editor by e-mail. A minute later, the editor responded: “TOUCHDOWN!”

The Globe’s editors – white, upper-class Torontonians – couldn’t tell the difference between a niqab and a burqa, but UCC alumni were represented in the newsroom in such sufficient numbers that they were able to get Williams’s yearbook photos in an instant.

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Michele Monett wears a police-tape dress at 2018's Toronto Pride parade, to call out officers for their handling of serial killings in the city's Gay Village.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

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Bruce McArthur, shown in court in 2019, would plead guilty to eight murders.John Mantha/Reuters

When eight men disappeared from Toronto’s Gay Village between 2010 and 2017, Toronto police insisted it wasn’t the work of a serial killer – until they arrested Bruce McArthur, who eventually pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder.

As with Makin’s work on the Morin case, the stories written by reporters Justin Ling, Tu Thanh Ha and others on the Village disappearances represented a dogged effort to spell out the truth at a time when policing institutions seemed unwilling to do so. Even as investigators tirelessly pieced together clues and interviewed witnesses, their work took place under the massive, centuries-old shadow of institutional antagonism against Toronto’s gay community, and a department whose top brass went to great lengths not to use the phrase “serial killer,” despite mounting evidence.

“Sooner or later, Toronto police will have to explain how an alleged serial killer was able to prowl Toronto for years while missing-persons posters spread across the Village,” read a Globe editorial published after Bruce McArthur’s arrest in January, 2018, noting that most of the victims were part of one disadvantaged minority or another. “To wonder if those characteristics slowed the police response is inevitable, given the decades of accumulated mistrust between Canadian police departments and marginalized people.”

Globe journalist Robyn Doolittle explains the backstory of the Unfounded investigation into police's response to sexual-assault cases.

Much of The Globe’s best crime coverage shares this same tragic strain of warnings unheeded, of signs missed, care not taken, catastrophe that could have been averted. There is perhaps no more impactful an example of this kind of work than Robyn Doolittle’s groundbreaking 2017 series, Unfounded.

Over the course of 20 months, spurred by a victim’s story and relying on dozens of interviews and hundreds of access to information requests to police departments across Canada, Doolittle compiled a stunning indictment: Every year, potentially thousands of cases of sexual assault are labelled “unfounded” by police, essentially meaning the officers don’t believe a crime took place. Cases labelled this way are, in essence, disappeared. Doolittle’s reporting revealed that some police departments declare upward of 50 per cent of cases baseless.

“[What] has emerged is a picture of a system that is clearly broken,” Doolittle wrote in a piece describing how she uncovered the statistics. “Change isn’t going to come about immediately but there are tangible things that can be done to make it better.”

As a result of Doolittle’s reporting, police around the country initiated a review of more than 37,000 sexual-assault cases. Unfounded won two of the highest distinctions in Canadian reporting, a National Newspaper Award for investigations and the 2017 Michener Award for Public Service Journalism.

Whether covering such stories of systemic failure or cases of individual horror, Globe reporters have dedicated years of their lives to the slow collecting and detailing of evidence, the sometimes years-long process of attending daily court hearings – all to get the story right. In the muck of human misery, absent the thick veneer of media relations officers, the professionally vetted press releases and all the tools by which powerful institutions and individuals insulate themselves from honest accounting, crime coverage remains the most unadorned reflection of what journalism actually is – laying bare the character of both a newspaper and the society it covers.

Omar El Akkad is a novelist and former reporter at The Globe and Mail.

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Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

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