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Public editor: The 'first' airplane hijacking in Canada

Patrick Dolan Critton pulled off the first successful airplane hijacking in Canada, in which all 83 passengers were allowed to get off at Toronto before the DC-9 flew on to Cuba. There the hijacker, a black-power radical, disembarked and vanished.

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It can be risky to write about an incident or person being "the first" or "the only." Even if you are quite convinced you are right based on extensive research, there should be a slight doubt.

A Moment in Time feature in the paper on December 26 was very careful in describing an airplane hijacking on that date, Dec. 26 in 1971. The article said a passenger slipped a note to a flight attendant on landing in Toronto. The note said: "Take me to the captain in the cockpit. We are going to Havana. This is no joke." The article said that while hijackings were a problem in the U.S. in those days, this was the "first in Canada to be carried out successfully."

That qualification made the article correct. It also implied that there had been other hijackings that were not carried out successfully, as in the hijacker did not make it safely to his destination.

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In this case the hijacker flew to Cuba and disappeared and in a fascinating twist, 30 years later an Ontario detective found the hijacker's name on the internet and found him in his native New York. He was arrested on Sept. 10, 2001, But the problem was the headline went one step too far in saying: First Airplane Hijacking in Canada.

While that hijacking was the first carried out successfully, it was not the first and so this clarification ran on page two: "A Thursday Moment in Time headline said a 1971 plane hijacking was the first in Canada. While the article correctly says this was the first successful hijacking, there was at least one earlier hijacking that was thwarted."

As often happens, it was a Globe reader who caught the error. In this case, the reader also had first-hand information about the earlier hijacking.

He wrote: "The first plane hijacking in Canada was not on December 26, 1971, but over three years earlier on September 11, 1968 – a direct flight from Saint John, N.B., to Toronto, which was rerouted to Montreal. The hijacker was Charles Laverne Beasley, a Black Power activist from Texas. I know because I was on the flight."

In my search online I saw two spellings for Laverne/Lavern, but it too was an interesting tale of a hijacking. Here's a link to one, which tells the story of the flight from Saint John to Toronto. Mr. Beasley held a gun to the head of a stewardess while demanding to be flown to Cuba. The airline convinced him they needed to stop to refuel in Montreal, where he was convinced by the RCMP assistant commissioner to turn himself in.

The best detail of the story was one passenger reporting Mr. Beasley "had these real noisy heels."

Must have been terrifying, I noted to our reader, and here's what Michael Wennberg told me: "I understand the hijacker was wanted for a Texas bank robbery. I remember noticing him in the Saint John airport, but that was the last time my Spidey senses worked. The first I knew we had been hijacked was in the Dorval lounge. I think I was the only blissfully ignorant passenger on the plane."

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So not only is it important to correct, but there was a great back story too.

If you would like to contact me you can do so at PublicEditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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