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Ahead by a year: Remembering the Hip’s last show

Michael Barclay | posted Tuesday, Aug 15th, 2017

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde looks on as Lakota Sioux Donnie Speidel (left) honours singer Gord Downie with an eagle feather and name at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday December 6, 2016. Downie was given the name “The Man Who Walks Among the Stars,” during the ceremony. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This time last year, the Tragically Hip were entering the final stretch of their 2016 tour, an event coloured by singer Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. It all culminated with their final show on Aug. 20, 2016, in the band’s hometown of Kingston in front of 6,700 people in the K-Rock Centre and 25,000 in Springer Market Square around the corner; at least 11.7 million Canadians watched the CBC broadcast of the concert. Over the band’s 32-year career, the Hip became mentors to generations of Canadian musicians. In an exclusive excerpt from my upcoming biography of the band—due in early 2018—22 of the Hip’s peers reminisce about where they were and what they were thinking on that unforgettable night.

Allan Gregg: principal, Earnscliffe Strategy Group
Relationship with the band: Co-manager, 1986-94

I watched it on television. My kids literally grew up on Gord’s lap, at band meetings in my basement. I brought them to the Air Canada Centre show [in Toronto]. We didn’t go backstage. The show was remarkable. I should’ve felt deadeningly sad, but I didn’t—because Gord didn’t. He looked like he was having the time of his life. I told my kids that they’ll be singing “Bobcaygeon” 50 years from now. That will be Gord’s legacy: the songs. Those songs will be here forever and part of the Canadian fabric when you’re an old, old man.

Colin Cripps: guitarist, Blue Rodeo
Relationship: guitarist in Crash Vegas, which opened for the Tragically Hip from 1991 to 1993

I was playing at the Molson Amphitheatre [in Toronto] with Blue Rodeo that night. We played “Bobcaygeon” as a tribute. Somehow [the tech crew] got a feed to show [the Hip] playing live on our screens, and they were also doing “Bobcaygeon.” Total f–king fluke. We had no idea that was happening. Suddenly people started going crazy, and we looked up and there’s Gord. It was an amazing Canadian moment. People were crying. We were emotional. It was fantastic. You couldn’t help but feel all the history you have together.

I watched about a third of [the Kingston show] later. I couldn’t watch the whole thing, to be honest. I went to two of the shows, one in Toronto and one in Hamilton. I stood at [guitar tech] Billy Ray’s station at the side of the stage. It was an amazing show, both times. I was blown away. That was enough for me. The last show was too much. They’re my buddies and I’m a big fan. If I was watching it in the moment, it would be different. But to go back and watch it? No. It was a communal experience of religious proportions. People were celebrating the Hip but also all of us being a part of that community, and feeling that through music, which is such a powerful thing.

Michelle McAdorey: singer
Relationship: Singer in Crash Vegas, which opened for the Tragically Hip from 1991 to 1993

I was at the Blue Rodeo show. That was really intense, for so many reasons, for me, personally. Backstage at this Blue Rodeo gig everyone was watching the Tragically Hip show. Then Blue Rodeo did their Tragically Hip tribute [by playing “Bobcaygeon”], and I had a friend there who was so riddled with cancer—and that was the last time I saw him. There were so many emotions. I’d watch a bit of the Hip show, then a bit of the Blue Rodeo show, then I’d be talking to my friend. That was an overwhelming day and night. It was such a gorgeous moment, that “Bobcaygeon” moment. But it was hard to watch.

MORE: In search of the Tragically Hip’s mythical Bobcaygeon

Chris Tsangarides: producer
Relationship: produced Fully Completely (1992)

I was here [in England], in my studio, watching it through the tears. To watch him break down, you felt his pain. Everyone in that room felt the anguish and unfairness of it all. One of the worst things that can happen is knowing you only have so much time to live. That must be godawful. I don’t know how he could carry on. The best way about it is to go when you don’t know, because then you carry on in your merry old way. Then a few months later I saw the blanket ceremony [where Downie was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations], and I broke down watching that. I have a real thing about Native Americans, an amazing people with an amazing ethos. It brings it home just what a bunch of s–theads we were to these people all these years ago, and still are today.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde looks on as Lakota Sioux Donnie Speidel (left) honours singer Gord Downie with an eagle feather and name at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday December 6, 2016. Downie was given the name "The Man Who Walks Among the Stars," during the ceremony. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde looks on as Lakota Sioux Donnie Speidel (left) honours singer Gord Downie with an eagle feather and name at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday December 6, 2016. Downie was given the name “The Man Who Walks Among the Stars,” during the ceremony. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Dave Clark: drummer in Rheostatics and Dinner Is Ruined
Relationship: Played drums in Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles, 2001 to 2010

I’d been watching it on my TV [in Toronto], and it sounded amazing in the house with the windows open. I went outside to see what the city’s doing. Everybody had their windows open. People all over my neighbourhood, no matter where I walked, it was like a living boom box. Then bars and cafés and courtyards on College Street were hanging bedsheets and projecting it outside. It was blasting out of wide-open doorways. It was amazing. And putting the Prime Minister on the hot seat in front of Canada—that was a really good thing. Whether you like the Hip or don’t like the Hip, man, you can’t deny that stuff. That night that they galvanized Canada. It was a really special national moment. I was glad to witness it. It made me cry.

Bruce Dickinson: former A&R executive
Relationship: Signed the Tragically Hip to MCA Records in 1988

I’ve had my own medical issues in recent years. That afternoon of the show, part of having been ill, I was very dizzy. I fell off a bus and landed square on my chin. I went into an ER at Columbia Presbyterian, a few blocks from where I live [in New York City], with a mild concussion and my shirt was covered with blood. They looked at me and said, “You’re going to need 14 stitches.” I looked at the doctor and said: “Here’s the deal. I have to be walking out of here at 7:30.” “What if we want to keep you here for observation?” “No. I’m walking out of here at 7:30. Do what you have to do so that can happen.” Because the show was going to start at 8 o’clock! I came home, kind of woozy, and watched the show on my Mac. It was very bittersweet. I was extremely proud of the guys. They were phenomenal. To see Gord Downie be able to summon what he did to do that show—my throat is catching as I describe it to you. It’s part of what makes him a great artist. He’s got that inner drive and that inner spirit.

I saw that right away, way back at [the first time I saw them, at] Massey Hall [in 1988]. This is a guy who will not be denied. That’s what you need. You need an artist who will grab you by the lapel and go, “I have something to say and you’re gonna listen.” And you could see the love and support from the other guys. When Gord might have about to falter on some words, Paul [Langlois] could see it coming and he was right up there next to Gord, doing a harmony so the lyrics came through. [Rob] Baker and [Gord] Sinclair were watching Gord throughout the show, ready to do whatever needed to be done to support him. When they did the encores, Johnny [Fay] was literally carrying Downie down the steps at the back of the stage. All of that stuff added up to one of the most powerful things—if not the most powerful thing—I’ve ever seen on a stage.

Dale Morningstar: guitarist, Dinner Is Ruined
Relationship to the band: guitarist for Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles, 2001 to 2010

I was at [my spouse’s] mother’s house in Manitoulin Island. Her whole family was there: brother, stepdad, sister and her husband. We were all down in the basement. They knew I had an association with Gord, but they didn’t know how close. We’re watching it, and I’m saying, “The best part of it is when the band leaves the stage and Gord delivers a soliloquy. It’ll drive you to tears.” As soon as the band left the stage, there was a storm, and—boom—no signal. It was like, “Wait, what?” The timing was impeccable. The TV kicked back in for the last song of the last encore. I went out for a swim after, alone. It was still storming out. I was just yelling at the sky.

Ian Blurton: guitarist and singer, Change of Heart, Public Animal
Relationship: opened for the Tragically Hip multiple times, from 1991 to 1997

Not all of it, but I did watch it, yeah. I was at home. I thought they way they did it was great, and calling out Justin Trudeau was a stroke of genius. But it was hard to watch.

Steven Drake, guitarist and singer, the Odds
Relationship: opened for the Tragically Hip, 1994-95; mixed Trouble at the Henhouse(1996) and Music @ Work (2000); produced Gord Downie’s Coke Machine Glow (2001)

I kinda watched it and didn’t watch it. I’d just seen them a few weeks before in Vancouver. I had the broadcast on while I was doing other things in the house. I think I was building a telescope or something. I couldn’t sit there and watch it; it was too intense. But I couldn’t turn it off.

José Contreras: guitarist and singer, By Divine Right
Relationship: opened the Tragically Hip’s 1999 tour, played on Coke Machine Glow

I didn’t watch it. Friends of mine from Edmonton, the Wet Secrets, asked me to play a show at the Drake in Toronto. No one checked the calendar; we only realized 10 days before that it was the same night of the Hip show. I called the Drake and said, “Can we broadcast the show, 8-10, and then play our show after?” They said they had an event and couldn’t do it. I was really torn up. Then I realized I got this gig for the same reason I played with the Hip: because a friend offered it to me. I’m a working artist; that’s what I do. I don’t have management, a label, or a booking agent. I take what comes to me. It sucked, loading into the Drake, bumping into friends, who asked me, “What are you doing?” “Um, loading into the Drake.” “Okay, weird. Bye!” But you know what? We had a great show. Lots of people there. I took a picture of the Wet Secrets during their set, when they hit that moment when they were great. I remember thinking: this is worth it. This is music. This is life. This is my life.

Crowds watch the Tragically Hip's last concert on an outdoor screen outside City Hall in Kingston. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Crowds watch the Tragically Hip’s last concert on an outdoor screen outside City Hall in Kingston. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Sam Roberts: bandleader, the Sam Roberts Band
Relationship: opened for the Tragically Hip more than any other act, beginning in 2002

One of my relatives from South Africa was here last summer when the concert was being broadcast on the CBC. We had a big party at another cousin’s house: brought the TV outside, speakers out. It was a very emotional time. I’m watching my cousin, who has never heard this music before, going, “What is this about? What am I listening to?” But after half an hour, 45 minutes, there was definitely the dawning of something [for them]—which to me suggests that [the Tragically Hip’s music] is not just this impregnable fortress, where if you’re not literally born to it that you’re not going to understand it. Whether it was the music itself, or the delivery, or the performance, or Gord’s character coming through. I don’t know what it was, but it left an impression.

The grief [for the rest of us] was very real. Very deeply felt. It was not a superficial grief in any way, and it was collective. I don’t know what people’s expectations were in terms of what they were going to see on that stage. The fact is the band went out once again and went far beyond even what I’ve seen them do before—in terms of the depth of their commitment on stage. Maybe we take it for granted because they’ve done it so consistently over the years. It takes a great deal out of you to be able to do that.

Bry Webb: guitarist and singer, the Constantines
Relationship: opened for the Tragically Hip in 2006

I watched it on TV. The most moving thing about it was Gord’s vulnerability and his response to his own vulnerability, or his own fight—the guttural release coming from him in moments of that set, and the look of peace and bliss and enlightenment on his face. Two minutes later, he would be bestial, just catharsis and release. It was everything I value about him and performance and art—it was all there. It was pretty punk, from five men kissing each other full on the lips before taking the stage, to watching him drop a few lines and be aware of it and just say “f–k it!” There was a lot of great punk rock energy to that show. The shout-out to JT was full of intent and was a really interesting decision. I read it as putting the pressure on. It wouldn’t make sense, in terms of the energy of that moment, to say “f–k you” about this issue. It was him saying, “Here’s some energy. I’m putting a spotlight on this at the moment, in a way that I can.” Knowing the intention with which Gord does things, I felt that was what was happening at that moment.

Kate Fenner: singer/songwriter
Relationship: backing vocalist on the Tragically Hip’s 2000 tour, one of only three guest musicians to have ever toured with the band in 30 years

I couldn’t do any of those shows. I didn’t see any. Just couldn’t. [My family and I] went to Greece and Malta. I was born in Malta, but I’d never been back. I was on a rock in the middle of the Mediterranean. I got a coffee and opened the paper, and—motherf–ker!—the Times of Malta had a huge picture of the last show. It was unbelievable.

Brendan Canning: co-founder, Broken Social Scene
Relationship: Opened for the Tragically Hip as a member of hHead in 1994 and as a member of By Divine Right in 1999; opened as a solo DJ during 2015 tour

I went to a Toronto show and thought it was sweet how tight they were on stage. And it was nice to hear new material as opposed to just all the old songs again. But the last show? I wasn’t interested. I’d been on tour with them in 2015. I’ve been watching them play since 1989. I didn’t need to see another Hip show. Everyone was talking about it, and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I get it.’ I was in [the Hip’s studio outside Kingston], with Broken Social Scene that night. Kev [Drew] went to the show. I’m not one for fanfares of that regard. It’s a heavy emotional thing—which is the understatement of the year—but I don’t need to be there for it. Any chance I can be at the studio without a bunch of people around, I’m going to take it.

Shannon Cooney: choreographer
Relationship: Worked with Gord Downie on a dance piece in 2002

I watched it [where I live] in Berlin, where there is a six-hour difference, so it started at 2 a.m. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to watch it, because CBC video content is usually blocked outside the country. But then I realized I couldn’t miss this, and the CBC unlocked it. All of Berlin was sleeping while I watched this show until 5 in the morning. I danced in my living room. But then I was kind of emotionally destroyed for the next few days. It was hard to explain to my German boyfriend just how much Canada loves Gord and that whole band. They could have broken up long ago; Gord could have been a solo artist, but he’s a loyal member. What a show! It was political: he was talking about strong women, and he called out Justin Trudeau on our dirty, dark secrets that we didn’t all know we had until the reconciliation process. Music is present, but it’s also a marker of time. We went from the late ’80s until now with this presence, this poetry that you either completely love or you push up against because you don’t like it, but it runs through these generations. It has personal resonance; it’s not just about watching these people on stage.

Neal Osborne: guitarist and singer, 54-40
Relationship: Peer

In the 1980s, we were in Saskatoon at some festival: it was Spirit of the West, us, and Tragically Hip. I hadn’t seen them much until then; I knew they were starting to grow a following. It was really rainy. Spirit went on and it was drizzly and rainy and I felt bad for them. Then for some reason, for us the clouds broke and it was all nice and the sun was setting. Then a storm came in and just poured, and there was lightning, and Downie was out in front just givin’ er, and I thought, “Okay, I get it. This guy is committed.” That’s when I became a fan. I always think back to that gig, because both those guys [Downie and Spirit of the West singer John Mann, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s] have gone through some trials. [On the night of the Hip’s last show] we were playing in Saskatoon again, actually. We did a shout-out to them and then we managed to catch the last couple of songs in the hotel lounge; we finished our show early enough to do that.

Jim Creeggan: bassist, Barenaked Ladies
Relationship: Peer

I’d already seen one of the Toronto shows. I watched a bit of the final show on TV. I was on a family vacation, sleeping in a cottage on P.E.I. Down the way, some neighbours were blasting it. The ocean wind was blowing, and it was this ethereal Hip experience. It was good, because then I had time as I was falling asleep and listening to the sound blowing around, to process how I felt about it. It was a good time to reflect.

Jennie Punter: journalist
Relationship: Covered the band extensively in the ’80s and ’90s for the Queen’s Journal,the Kingston Whig-Standard, Impact Magazine

My husband doesn’t really like that kind of music, so we had plans to go to the Markham Jazz Festival to see Lonnie Smith that night. We had to eat first, so we went to a pub. They had the show on, and it was just starting. I could imagine what it was like to be in Kingston, because the Whig-Standard building used to be right there, off the square. I didn’t feel like I wished I could be there. But I was very emotional inside. I was with my husband and my daughter, so it was a very private thing for me.

It was a surreal experience: I was in a bar in a town I never go to, going to an event I’ve never been to, in a pub I’ll never go to again, in this festival setting with ice-cream booths and people tying balloons and all the stuff you see on a street closed to traffic. Then there’s this event that all of Canada is watching, and I’m not one of those people. It made me aware of how big an event it was. If I’d watched it at home alone in a room with the door closed, I wouldn’t have thought about that factor.

Musician Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip performs on stage during "Man Machine Poem" tour at the Air Canada Center on August 10, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (GP Images/WireImage/Getty Images)

Musician Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip performs on stage during “Man Machine Poem” tour at the Air Canada Center on August 10, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (GP Images/WireImage/Getty Images)

Virginia Clark: Kingston promoter, the Grad Club, Wolfe Island Music Festival
Relationship: Friend

I was sitting in the family section at the venue [in Kingston], and there was a lot of crying—pretty much non-stop for three hours. It was crying but also elation and joy, not just sadness. All the feelings! I’d never felt this way during any performance, ever, and how many shows have I seen in my life? Countless. I held on to that show for at least a week with melancholy. I was depressed and exhausted. I don’t know how to describe it.

Steve Jordan: founder and director, Polaris Music Prize
Relationship: At CKLC in Kingston in the late ’80s, he was the first DJ to play the Tragically Hip on Top 40 radio; MC’ed many early gigs

I don’t go back to Kingston often. My wife and I walked up and down Princess Street; every single place was blasting Hip songs. Went to Zap Records. [Owner] Gary [LaVallee] was playing some bootleg he had from ’88. The gravity of it was getting weird. Went to [Kingston venue] the Toucan for some pre-drinks. All the people I’d see at the shows all the time back then, that was their HQ. Right upstairs, in [a room once called] the Terrapin, was the first time I saw the Hip, capacity: 40. The reality of it started to kick in. I couldn’t help but drink.

When the band went into “Courage,” I thought, “This is the last time they’ll play this song—ever.” I collapsed. Started bawling. I felt like I was crying out of my pores. It was such a weird sorrow. I’d never felt anything like that before. Then the crying subsided and I tried to live in the moment. On that tour, I had a new appreciation for the band that I didn’t have before. They’re a proper f–king band, an excellent band. It’d be an easy show to have collapse around you, and those guys held it all up. Then I got sad again, cried out of my pores again. But it was definitely joy in the room. It wasn’t just undistilled sadness. It was every strong emotion in one cocktail. And I’m just a guy who sort of knows them, who was lucky enough to see the very early beginnings. That’s what was informing a lot of my emotion: “I’m not in the band. How are they even doing this? How did they do this for three weeks?”

Jake Gold: CEO, the Management Trust
Relationship: manager, 1986-2003

I saw six shows on the 2016 tour, including two in Vancouver and the show in Kingston. I hadn’t seen them play live since I [last] worked with them [in 2003], so: 13 years. It was great to watch them as a fan. It was good. It was interesting. While I think for others there was melancholy, I saw it as a celebration. I completely saw where Gord was coming from. He was saying goodbye to everyone he loved. That, to me, was how I walked in the door. It was really emotional, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t shed a tear until the day after the Kingston show. Kingston was so beautiful the day of the show. It was everything you want for a Hip show: hot and sweaty and sunny out all day. The next day I woke up and it was pouring rain. I broke down and started to cry. But it didn’t happen until that day.

Rich Terfry, a.k.a. Buck 65: rapper and CBC radio host
Relationship: opened for the Tragically Hip in 2006, hosted CBC Radio broadcast of the Aug. 20 show

Through the night Gord is communicating in two different ways: with the microphone and his words, but with the rest of his body as well. I don’t know if what he’s feeling is being translated in that way, or maybe there’s something he’s taking from us that he’s reflecting back. I was never sure. I’ve seen Iggy Pop and Tom Waits and James Brown and Bruce Springsteen—I’ve seen them all live. But I’ve never seen anything quite like that, ever. It’s hard to imagine that I ever will.

Are universities doing enough to support mental health?

Aaron Hutchins | posted Monday, Apr 24th, 2017

University isn’t meant to be easy, but it isn’t supposed to be this hard: since November 2016, the University of Guelph has lost four students to suicide.

After the fourth death, in mid-January, the school sent out another statement reminding staff and students about the counselling services available to them. For recent grad Connie Ly, it wasn’t enough. “I really just questioned how useful the services were, given that they were so overwhelmed already,” she says. Ly launched a petition on Change.org, since signed by 2,500 people, demanding to know how the university is spending government money allocated for mental health services, how those services have changed over the past five years, and specifically how it has improved the student-to-counsellor ratio. “The point wasn’t to point fingers at the school, but I felt nothing would happen if there wasn’t push from students,” Ly says.

As the taboo around talking about mental health crumbles, students are demanding more resources on campus, and many post-secondary education institutions are struggling to keep up. When Maclean’s surveyed more than 17,000 students at almost every campus across the country last year, 14 per cent said they were in poor mental health, 10 per cent rated their school’s mental health services as either poor or horrible, and 31 per cent said their mental health was affecting their ability to succeed. Meanwhile, when asked what kept them up at night, several members of the Maclean’s presidents advisory board said at a June 2016 meeting that the demand for mental health services was weighing on their minds.

“The demand is increasing—and we take those demands seriously—but we’re not funded as a mental health services provider,” explains Christopher Manfredi, vice-principal (academic) of McGill University. “We’re funded as an educational institution. Trying to find the resources within our budget is a big challenge for us.” The other problem is figuring out when to reach out and when to let go. “What’s the balance between support and spoon-feeding?” asks Ollivier Dyens, McGill’s deputy provost of student life and learning. “This is a very delicate balance, and I haven’t found it yet.”

Among other things, McGill is trying out an initiative where if, say, a student is often distracted in class or frequently absent, a professor can send an “expression of concern” to the dean of students, who is tasked with following up and offering help if it is needed.

The University of Calgary, meanwhile, tapped anti-stigma expert Andrew Szeto to head its Campus Mental Health Strategy, which tries to identify mental health problems early and, by partnering with resources already available in Calgary, make sure help is available 24-7.

“What if students need services at 1 a.m.?” asks Szeto. “They can call in to the same line for the campus wellness centre and they have options to be directed toward services at the Distress Centre (a 24-hour support line) or Wood’s Homes (a non-profit children’s mental health centre).”

But campuses in smaller cities and towns simply don’t have the same community services to draw upon. At Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., (pop: 5,500) most of the few psychologists associated with the school’s wellness centre are based 50 km away in Moncton, N.B., according to Shaelyn Sampson, the Jack.org chapter co-lead at the school. And it’s a visit they don’t make every day. “I know one [psychologist] comes in Wednesday afternoons from about 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.,” says Sampson, who gets an hour every month or two. Allot one hour per appointment, and exactly four students get seen each week by that counsellor.

Sampson runs educational events each semester with Jack.org, a youth advocacy group with chapters across Canada, to promote positive mental health and break down the stigma that stops people from even talking about their own mental health.

When Sampson’s anxiety and depression reached the breaking point two years ago and she called the centre, she waited a month to get in. This semester? “We’re seeing wait times of six weeks and up to three months,” she says. “When a student is in a rough spot and having severe mental health issues, you don’t necessarily have three months.”

Some don’t even call, thinking someone else might need help more, Sampson adds. “You shouldn’t have to reach that breaking point to feel that your reaching out is valid.”

Feeling Overwhelmed
The top 15 universities where students reported feeling overwhelmed on a daily or weekly basis. In addition, the top 15 areas of study across all of the surveyed universities where students said they felt overwhelmed at a minimum of once every week and sometimes on a daily basis.


Overwhelmed (by University) %
Mount Royal University 59.0
Victoria University 59.0
University of Winnipeg 58.9
McGill University 58.1
Ryerson University 56.7
Wilfred Laurier University 56.3
Memorial University of Newfoundland 55.5
Trent University 55.2
University of Ontario Institute of Technology 53.8
Mount Saint Vincent 53.5
York University 53.3
Queen’s University 52.9
Concordia University 51.8
University of Manitoba 51.1
St. Thomas University 51.0


Overwhelmed (by program area) %
Women and gender studies 67.9
Archaeology 66.7
Design 65.8
English 61.7
Drama 61.3
Architecture 61.0
Sociology 58.7
Art 58.7
Anthropology 57.3
Linguistics 56.4
Neuroscience 56.2
Philosophy 55.2
Psychology 55.1
Cognitive science 55.1
Law 54.9

The problem with Facebook’s plan to teach you how to read news

Colin Horgan | posted Friday, Apr 7th, 2017

Facebook thinks you should be better at reading the news. In an effort to help, starting Friday, you’ll notice a post appear at the top of your Facebook news feed prompting you to click through to see tips on how to spot “false news.”

“Our purpose here is just to raise awareness about how to think about information critically online,” says Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada. “This is a first step in our efforts to deal with this challenge—it is on the news literacy side.”

To that end, specifically, Facebook has partnered with MediaSmarts, a Canadian media literacy not-for-profit that has developed a new list (available via the Facebook tips page) of the well-known journalistic “Five Ws.” MediaSmart’s Five Ws suggest readers of online news ask questions like why a certain post is being spread around, who posted it—and whether they have an agenda—or where else they might be able to verify information they’ve seen.

“Of course, there’s no way that we can authenticate everything that comes to us through social media, so the first question is when we should authenticate. When do we double-check?” says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts. One time we should double-check, he says, is “when something seems too good to be true.”

Facebook seems very aware of the position it currently occupies in the greater cultural discussion about news—and, to some extent, facts. It’s not a flattering one.

When the immediate fallout from the U.S. election in November was examined, the most radioactive particles were broadly determined to be so-called ‘fake news’ stories—those shocking headlines so dripping with maximum partisan outrage that well-meaning people on all sides of the ideological spectrum apparently couldn’t help believing and sharing them with their social media networks again and again.

Whether ‘fake news’ really did swing the election toward Donald Trump—or simply away from Hillary Clinton—has yet to be conclusively determined. But, in the weeks following the election, Facebook took seriously the criticism it garnered from having been the primary distribution tool for these posts replete with misinformation or quasi-information.

In an open letter posted in February, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that, in its quest to weed out misinformation, Facebook noted that “in general, if you become less likely to share a story after reading it, that’s a good sign the headline was sensational,” but that “if you’re more likely to share a story after reading it, that’s often a sign of good in-depth content.”

This very well might be true. We don’t know for sure, as Facebook didn’t release any data publicly to support Zuckerberg’s observation. (When asked for it, Facebook pointed to this blog.) But really all that matters is that Facebook has determined it to be true. Chan repeated the same thing, nearly verbatim. And he added that “over time what we’ll want to do as we understand this stuff, is to make sure that where there is something that’s going viral and people are sharing it without having engaged with the content, then those things get severely down-ranked on News Feed.”

On the surface, this seems antithetical to both Facebook’s raison d’etre—as a place to share things with people—and its bottom line. But Chan refutes the idea that Facebook’s ultimate goal is to create a lot of activity around a post, without ever worrying whether people click through to see the story.

“I think that would be the opposite of what we want. What we want is for people to have good content, reliable authentic content that they can engage with on News Feed,” Chan says. “We very much value good engagement and good content on Facebook, so definitely one of our priorities is to make sure that where there is false information, misinformation on our platform, that we understand how it behaves and that we are able to take appropriate enforcement action.”

Missing from this conversation about how to either eradicate misleading or false information posing as news from Facebook, or reduce sensationalist, clickbait-y headlines from reputable news outlets is, of course, the fact that much of the reason all of it exists in the first place is because of Facebook. It’s longstanding ability to make something go “viral” incentivized the very thing it now hopes to squash.

Not that long ago, it thought the full-on democratization of ideas was pretty good.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen on stage during a town hall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California September 27, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Menlo Park, California September 27, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

Back in 2012, as Facebook prepared to go public, Zuckerberg wrote another letter—this one to potential investors. He highlighted what kind of world we were living in at that time: one in which a majority of people, via the internet or their mobile phones, had “the raw tools necessary to start sharing what they’re thinking, feeling and doing with whomever they want.”

Back then, Facebook wanted to help people form connections in the hopes that it could “rewire the way people spread and consume information.” The world’s information infrastructure, Zuckerberg wrote, “should resemble the social graph—a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date.”

By giving people “the power to share,” he wrote, “we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a number of different scale[s] from what has historically been possible.” Those voices, Zuckerberg predicted, would only increase in number and volume: “They cannot be ignored.” Over time, he continued, “we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.”

It is possible that Zuckerberg’s vision has been realized. A massive, global sharing of ideas has indeed happened. But, being a sharing of ideas between humans, it was naturally going to be privy to human conversational failings: hearsay, conjecture, specious arguments, baseless proclamations, just to name a few. In other words, not good or reliable content.

Is it any wonder that we are where we are? It was essentially all part of the plan, in that the plan encouraged people to speak their minds. It just turns out that a lot of the time, people don’t know what they’re talking about.

So what now?

This latest effort by Facebook to change direction—in effect to reverse the tide—is interesting. But there are two things to note.

First, Facebook’s plan does nothing to change the importance given internally to quality content. “Good reporting,” as a report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism put it in March, is still “not currently algorithmically privileged.”

That leads to the second point, which is that this particular move puts the onus on users to figure things out. Facebook might have made a mess of things, it might have—in its design and in what posts it has naturally promoted for years—rewired information consumption, but it’s left up to us to set things right again. Whatever that might mean.

Yet, perhaps that’s the way it should be, for other moves Facebook is making to combat “fake news” could lead us to even weirder territory than we’re in now.

Recently in both the U.S. and Germany, Facebook began testing a flagging system that alerts users to content that might be misinformation. As The Vergereported in December, if at least two fact-checking organizations take issue with a story, users will see a banner reading “Disputed by 3rd Party Fact Checkers,” along with links below it to debunking articles.

Which could mean, with this fact- and news-checking feature in place, and thanks to its incredible size and clout, that Facebook could become the opposite of what Zuckerberg once said it was. We might see things swing entirely the other way. Rather than the disrupter of top-down information, Facebook would become the enforcer of it; the de facto portal through which people feel they must consume the news. For, where else might they be told what information should be read and what should be ignored? Where else in this world will news reading be safe?

When, and if, that tool comes to Canada, it may be trumpeted by Facebook as a thing that will rewire information dissemination again. As a thing that will save us. As a thing, maybe, that seems too good to be true.

But in that case, at least Facebook’s media literacy push will have taught us to double-check it.

An earlier version of this piece contained the suggestion that Facebook is promoting its media literacy effort as a cure-all for ‘fake news’. This piece has been amended to clarify that Facebook is not promoting its current media literacy program as such.

RCMP admits to using cell phone tracking technology

The Canadian Press | posted Thursday, Apr 6th, 2017

OTTAWA – The RCMP confirmed Wednesday what civil liberties groups say has been an open secret for them for some time: that the Mounties use so-called mobile device identifiers, also known as Stingrays, to identify and locate cellphones.

In a rare disclosure of police tactics, the national police force acknowledged in a statement that it used the technology 19 times last year, but insisted that it did so in compliance with the law and with judicial authorization.

The Mounties say the devices can identify and locate cellular devices, such as a mobile phone, enabling police to identify and apprehend a criminal suspect or locate a missing person.

The RCMP does not intercept phone calls, email or text messages, contact lists, images, encryption keys or basic subscriber information, the statement said.

The disclosure, a rarity for the RCMP, followed a CBC report that someone in downtown Ottawa has been using a device known as an “IMSI catcher,” which can intercept and identify cellphone metadata.

The CBC report found the device being used in recent months in close proximity to Parliament Hill and the U.S. and Israeli embassies, among other locations.

Brenda McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the technology casts far too broad a net to be used by police, since it captures the data of innocent people who might be in range of the device.

The federal privacy commissioner’s office acknowledged Wednesday that it is investigating the use of the IMSI devices following a complaint by OpenMedia, a self-described crowd-sourced civic engagement platform for the Internet community.

The technology works by momentarily connecting to cellphones in its immediate proximity, before returning them to their own networks. It collects metadata associated with the phones, allowing the operator to identify the phone used by the suspect.

“There are a limited number of authorized and trained RCMP operators who can use MDI technology and its use is subject to very strict rules, senior management approval and judicial authorization prior to deployment,” the RCMP statement said.

Except for cases where there is an immediate threat of death or serious harm, police must obtain warrants to use the devices, it added.

McPhail, the association’s director of privacy, technology and surveillance, said the RCMP has long refused to confirm or deny that it used Stingrays.

“These devices are not about targeted surveillance, they’re indiscriminate,” McPhail said.

“They mimic a cellphone tower and they scoop up the data of everybody who has an active cellphone in a large area. In order to find the information of one suspect or a small group of suspects, you’re capturing the information of thousands of innocent bystanders at the same time. So it’s a dragnet.”

She said since the Mounties refused to admit they used the technology, there was no way to discuss the implications.

“Canadians have a right to know when it comes to invasive surveillance technologies not only that they’re being used, but that they’re being used lawfully,” McPhail said.

Added Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia: “Now that the RCMP has come clean, can we finally have the public debate about privacy and accountability that Canadians deserve?”

How to break the vicious cycle of hazing

Meagan Campbell | posted Wednesday, Mar 22nd, 2017

When students get hazed, they endure the treatment under an unwritten contract that they themselves will one day be hazers. Perhaps they, too, will threaten rookies with paddles, make them eat onion-flavoured vomit, or think up their own games with horrific creativity.

However, as universities, coaches and advocates try to phase out hazing, the hope is that a generation of students who were hazed themselves will get past the seeming unfairness of not paying the barbarianism forward. “It’s called going across a subliminal space,” says Hank Nuwer, an anti-hazing advocate in the United States. “By doing it to someone else, it gives it legitimacy. Now they have to say, ‘It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t the honour I thought it was.’ They’ve been deprived of this [reciprocity], but it has to be done.”

This disconnect is one of the toughest barriers in the decades-long campaign to stopping hazing—an effort given new urgency by the investigation of basketball players at McGill University, which back-tracked on its claim of being a “hazing-free environment.” Although students might learn how the ritual is dangerous and worsens team performance, the previously-hazed people—who may have sacrificed their dignity during initiation—will unavoidably get an unfair deal. “Maybe some of them lost their eligibility,” says Nuwer. “Maybe some of them got expelled. Now we’ve eliminated it and it seems, ‘what I went through that I was so proud of was a foolish and ridiculous and potentially dangerous act.’”

Schools are still far from eliminating hazing. Although McGill declares itself a “hazing-free environment” on its website, its deputy provost admitted it does not uphold the promise. The concession came in an interview with The Globe and Mail regarding a recent report on the hazing of an 18-year-old basketball player in 2015. His head was pillow-cased, his hands duct-taped to a bottle of vodka, and his experience happened to mark the 10th anniversary of a notorious incident in which a McGill hockey rookie was forced onto hands and knees and assaulted with a broomstick.

McGill has become just one hazing crime zone. In universities across the country, not only senior athletes but also senior students in programs from nursing to engineering have initiated newcomers with gagging, hair removal and other acts approaching the cruelty of the 2005 attack on the McGill hockey player.

While American schools tend to treat each incident as one-off misdemeanours or crimes, Canadians have come to recognize hazing as an epidemic. Mike Havey, athletic director at the University of Windsor, says the school holds mandatory anti-hazing workshops to convince seniors not to perpetuate their own suffering. “I think that’s the cycle we have to try to break,” says Havey. “Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it right.” Given that hazing can make teams perform worse, Havey says the workshops try to “appeal to their competitiveness,” rather than present new hazing restrictions as “a loss of opportunity to get revenge.”

Vengeance is a motivating force for many hazers. “It vindicates them from being hazed,” says Jay Johnson, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Manitoba who has studied hazing among more than 1,000 students. “You’re going to have people who were hazed and are waiting to be the hazers, but when the change comes down or is adopted, the transition has to be made.”

The transition period must offer alternatives. Johnson has taken teams on canoe trips and high-ropes courses, in hopes that the ziplines and obstacle courses will fulfill the need for team bonding, as well as give the seniors some power over rookies. “Sport operates as a dictatorship, from the coach down,” says Johnson. “Doing something like tweaking the culture is really tough. You can involve the military aspect of it, do something where the rookies are not still in control.”

Although a coach might prevent athletes from subjugating rookies on buses or at practice, Johnson says athletes are finding new methods. “They have become pretty sophisticated at working around the system,” he says. “Young people are savvy enough to protect themselves, so people who shouldn’t hear about it don’t hear about it. That’s where we get into dangerous territory.”

Dangerous territory, in recent years, has included a frat house at the University of Alberta where students in 2010 were threatened with wooden paddles, made to eat onions, vomit, and eat those onions again. The fraternity faced little punishment except the loss of its status as a student group. Similarly, the men’s and women’s basketball teams at McGill were merely put on probation, with the terms of the probation kept confidential.

Still, the end of hazing may be on the horizon. Tristen Giusto, a first year football player at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., says his welcoming involved only the encouragement to stand on a public bench and sing. He felt no pressure to do so, and he doesn’t understand why any rookie would tolerate abuse. “You’d have to be pretty stupid,” he says, “to get yourself in a situation to get hit by a paddle.”

Why anti-Trump travel boycotts won’t work

Nick Taylor-Vaisey | posted Wednesday, Mar 15th, 2017

Banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, as President Donald Trump has decreed by executive order, is a blunt instrument that makes life hell for innocent people. Personal travel boycotts, a trendy reaction in Canada and around the world to the ban, are just as blunt—and easier to impose. They’re also a terrible antidote to whatever ails our American friends.

Canadian academics are boycotting conferences south of the border. Canadian authors like Linwood Barclay are calling off public appearances. Canadian tourists are taking a break from visiting, say, the Grand Canyon until the next president’s inauguration. These boycotts are well-meaning nods to the less privileged among us, typically people whose recent lineage traces to red-flagged countries—the six nations targeted in Trump’s executive order, but of course many others around the world—and who are given much grief at the border because of how they look or sound.

We’ve recently learned about Fadwa Alaoui and Manpreet Kooner, two Canadian citizens denied entry into the United States and incomprehensibly told they required immigrant visas. Alaoui wanted to give her son, stricken with cancer, a change of scenery for the day. Kooner wanted to visit a spa. Both were left understandably shaken, and neither found any justice at the end of their nightmares.

We all know someone who’s now more nervous crossing the border than even just a few weeks ago. Boycotts in solidarity are a natural response, both on principle and because of our perceived spending power. Maybe a united world could repeat the perceived effect that boycotts and sanctions arguably had on, say, Apartheid in South Africa. Withholding a couple thousand dollars in delegate fees, sightseeing adventures or duty-free liquor could add up, if only tens of thousands of us would join forces and punish America for its president’s destructive immigration policy.

But that’s a big “if only.” In 2014, Canadians tourists spent 23 million nights and $21 billion in the U.S. It would take hundreds of thousands of individual boycotts to make a dent in that flow of travellers. On top of that, the broader Canada-U.S. economic relationship—our exports to the U.S. totalled $392 billion in 2016—would dwarf the impact of even the most ambitious border boycott imaginable.

Last year, the Freakonomics podcast mused about the effectiveness of consumer boycotts. The episode’s basic conclusion was that they can maybe sorta work, but mostly don’t work. That said, Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University, argued that focused boycotts, even if they fail to financially drain their targets, can at least hit a company’s reputation where it hurts.

But whose reputation do travel boycotts threaten? All Americans? Or are they meant to force change at the polls in four years? That’s a long time to pack up and abandon the sort of exchanges that, in the meantime, help us better understand America’s struggle to come to terms with itself—and even lend an ear.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 file photo, a car approaches the United States and Canada border crossing in Lacolle, Quebec, south of Montreal. In April 2013, in its 2014 fiscal year budget proposal, the Department of Homeland Security requested permission to study a fee at the nation's land border crossings. The request has sparked wide opposition among members of Congress from northern states, who vowed to stop it. A fee, they say, would hurt communities on the border that rely on people, goods and money moving between the U.S. and Canada. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)

Spend any time south of the border, and it’s impossible not to trace a quiet struggle there—less a resistance than an attempt to live adjacent to, if not precisely within, Trump’s vision of the country. A counterculture gone mainstream that might come to define many American lives.

Visit San Diego and hear from an airport-shuttle driver who lives in Mexico but works five days a week in the city. He’ll tell you that his traditional run-around at the border has worsened since January, but somehow sounds cheerful—and appears to be plugging away at a mock citizenship test sitting in a pile on the passenger’s seat.

Head to Grand Canyon, which will remain intact in four or eight years—even a bellicose president is nowhere near as mighty as a river that’s spent five million years carving a mile-deep gorge—and keep in mind that the non-profit Grand Canyon Association, which supplements threatened federal funding for educational tours and trail maintenance, counts on all those tourist dollars spent on magnets and postcards.

Strike up a conversation with a Navajo artist at the Four Corners monument where Utah and Colorado meet Arizona and New Mexico at a tidy crosshairs landmark. She’ll tell you how Navajo tend to vote Democrat, but some voted for Trump because of an apparent aversion to women leaders (a so-called “buckskin ceiling”). She’ll also tell you that her kids, who are headed to college, can’t understand their grandmother’s language. And then she’ll tell you she’s a Washington Redskins fan, and she’s wearing that toque not to reclaim the logo, but because she kind of likes it.

If more direct resistance is your thing, drop in to Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe, which tracks donations to the Standing Rock protest (“$360 sent to Water Protectors Legal Collective, 2/1/17”). They can use the cash visitors spend on organic scrambled eggs and avocado salads. Just more Americans who live behind enemy lines in their own country.

No boycott can replace a genuine exchange of ideas between a Canadian trying to make sense of the world and a hard-working Mexican who aspires to be American or a non-profit conservationist who can explain the genesis of Grand Canyon or a Navajo artist who defies assumptions or a cafe that wears its activism on its cash register.

And no boycott can dismantle the crooked fairy tales of bigots, born out of bitterness in a country they no longer know. “Feels like the calm before the storm, doesn’t it?” says a man filling his gas tank at a station outside Albuquerque. “All these shabby businesses, run by Arabs.” Had he paid inside the store, he’d have encountered a white cashier, and if he’d bothered to ask, he’d have learned the station’s owner was a (white) Mormon who lived out of state. Witnessing that remarkable detachment from the truth, packed in such baldly erroneous assumptions, reveals one pocket of a nation so divided people are unwilling even to talk to each other.

Admittedly, it takes a certain kind of obvious privilege to be in a position to call for constructive engagement with Americans, let alone answer it. The sort of person who goes to the airport and, instead of answering a barrage of probing questions, typically endures harmless small talk about the reason for their trip—a baseball game or a road trip or some other slice of American life.

That experience reeks of unfairness. Set against that preferential treatment, who could be blamed for refusing to cross the border in solidarity with Muslim people? But any collective cold shoulder would invite a tragic conclusion: we’d no longer hear those countless voices that tell the modern American story in all its beauty and ugliness.

As that country tears itself apart, we could all stay away and congratulate ourselves for the strength of our conviction. And we could stick to chatting up American tourists when they pay us a visit. But an honourable boycott won’t change much. And we’d all be more ignorant for it.

Deadline trauma: Why teens procrastinate their big decisions

Maclean's | posted Thursday, Mar 2nd, 2017

Sophie Kelly’s last day at high school was full of all the usual nostalgic sentimentalities. “All my friends were posting, ‘I’m going to miss you so much! Have fun at Queen’s or Western or wherever!’ ” The 18-year-old from London, Ont., felt distinctly excluded. “All I thought was, ‘Oh, I’ll just be here again.’ ” Though her arts school had reminded her of the Ontario-wide university application deadline in January, Kelly had flip-flopped between arts and medicine, enthusiastic about both, but the deadline came and went and she applied for neither.

Every year around this time, prospective university students slave over applications to their preferred programs and schools. In Ontario, almost 90,000 bombard the Ontario University Applications Centre (OUAC) in Guelph with a total of 480,000 applications by the end of January. A few keeners submit early, the majority will apply in the few days leading up to the deadline, and the rest wait until the very last minute.

Luckily, the centre is prepared for the procrastinators. “They’re high school students; they’re going to leave it to the last minute,” says spokeswoman Deanna Underwood, who stresses that graduate students are no better.

All humans do it, says University of Calgary psychology professor Piers Steel, “and yet nobody quite procrastinates like young adults do.” For that, blame the brain. “Procrastination is the interplay between the limbic system—what feels good here and now—and the prefrontal cortex that cares about the future and the abstract,” says Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation. Applying early would be a wise plan formulated in the prefrontal cortex, but the limbic system suggests it’d be more fun to surf Twitter. “You want to do something and simultaneously don’t want to do it—two systems playing against each other,” explains Steel, adding that the teen brain is still growing up to the early twenties. “Last to develop is the prefrontal cortex, so sometimes that voice just isn’t yet strong enough.”

It can be tempting to fall into stereotypes about teens as irresponsible, unfocused and immature, but it’s not so simple. “Procrastination is never just laziness, even if it sometimes looks that way,” says Mary Frances Fitzgerald, a retired Edmonton guidance counsellor who spent 18 years at high schools big and small. “Most kids are somewhere in the middle, but I’d guess 15 per cent of kids have a plan and are ready—they don’t even need talking to. About a quarter need to be reminded and pestered and re-pestered.”

Hardcore procrastinators usually fall into two camps, she says. Some students just aren’t ready. “Those students often do well to take a year, or two or three, to explore the work world and decide what they’re really looking for.” Others have so many choices, they have a hard time choosing a program. Used to excelling, they deeply fear missteps. “They’re often operating under the myth that if they choose and change their mind, that’s a failure,” says Fitzgerald.

Sophie Kelly was a bit of both. A well-rounded student with a 93 per cent average, the options were daunting. “I thought this choice would determine my marks, which would determine my job, which would determine my income, which determines the rest of my whole life,” she says. “The truth is, I was scared and overwhelmed, but instead of saying so, I just said, ‘Forget it, I’m not going.’ ” Kelly’s mother supported her decision. “I thought not applying was a mistake,” says Leslie Garrett, “but I also think by the time kids are this age, we need to get out of their way. It’s not our job to make it happen for them.”

Parents should resist the urge to micromanage the application process, which is common. Dalhousie requires a declaration that all information is filled in by the applicant. As education costs climb higher, parents have a larger stake in their kids’ success, but “too much parental involvement gets problematic very soon,” warns Dalhousie registrar Adam Robertson. “We want students to do the soul searching and make these decisions themselves and apply for all the right reasons.”

Still, students shouldn’t panic if they miss a deadline. Instead, pick up the telephone, like Kelly did in August when she decided she was ready for university after all and wanted to study environment and urban sustainability at Ryerson. With the help of the dean of admissions and program manager, they worked some magic and found her a spot. Despite all the procrastination in the world, says Ryerson registrar Charmaine Hack, “it’s never too late to check if it’s really too late.”

Schools are teaching values. But whose values?

Meagan Campbell | posted Thursday, Mar 2nd, 2017

At W.J. Mouat Secondary School in Abbotsford, B.C., “character class” is mandatory. Its teacher, Lisa Marie Fraser, spends 120 hours a year on units called caring, respect, responsibility, teamwork, awareness and integrity, dissecting each and devising community service projects. There’s a lot of “thinking about thinking”—one of the course’s goals—as students work through the material. Fraser grades students according to their reflections on their thoughts; as the capstone project, they review their reflections and contemplate any changes in their attitudes.

“I’m 100 per cent convinced this is something that needs to be here,” says Fraser, who also teaches English and drama. “When you get kids in Grade 9, they don’t even know what a value is. They say, ‘I value my cellphone, I value my Nintendo’ … They’re learning pretty cool stuff.”

While politicians talk about screening immigrants for Canadian values, schools in every western province and Ontario are already teaching them to students. Whether using the terms “values,” “traits” or “attributes,” or emphasizing the importance of perseverance, lovingness or grit, schools are teaching what children were once expected to learn through churches and nuclear families. To test if these curricula are working, and to show children where they need to improve, schools between Ontario and B.C. are administering an annual survey to 7,000 students to measure their character.

Some parents are perturbed. They ask whose values are being taught and how much time teachers are spending on morals instead of math, and on gratitude instead of grammar. Critics wonder if character is even teachable, let alone measurable. And as universities and employers in some places begin paying attention to character scores, critics warn that will only add stress for children who already deal with sometimes dangerous amounts of pressure.

When W.J. Mouat introduced the Living and Learning with Character course in 2010, Fraser would interrupt math, science and language classes to teach the course to Grade 9 and 10 students once a week. Now, the school has introduced “flex time,” giving students a 40-minute block of free time every day. Each week, one of these is spent learning character.

The course aims to create helpful citizens. One class decided to plan fundraisers for refugees and create swag bags for new students. “I thought it was friggin’ awesome,” says Madison Hendry, who graduated last spring and is now in the pre-nursing program at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C. “Personally, I really liked it,” echoes her classmate Salar Jabari, who now studies engineering at Concordia University in Montreal.

Yet some students resent all the reflection, which they see as wishy-washy. They must write, for example, about genuine caring versus material gift-giving and watch theoretical videos. “You’d have to complete these really, really pointless assignments of how you did this and that in the community,” says Jabari. “They force you to make something up … and it didn’t make me feel like a better person. Sometimes they try to shove it down your throat, and that’s not how you should learn.”

Skeptical teachers, however, have come on board as the character curriculum shifts toward hands-on projects. “It’s like the best thing that I think could’ve happened,” says Karen Bowater, a math teacher at W.J. Mouat. “It’s part of what I think should be happening everywhere.”

It is. British Columbia’s Ministry of Education now includes character-building in curriculum beginning in kindergarten. School boards in Alberta and Saskatchewan have published kits to help schools encourage courage, decency, civility and other traits. And the Ontario government has requested that schools “embed character development in all subject areas.”

The movement began in Greater Toronto’s York Region in 1999, when school counsellor Avis Glaze watched news of the shooting of a student in Taber, Alta., and of the near-fatal beating of local high school student Jonathan Wamback. “We must do something now,” Glaze remembers declaring. Today, Ontario schools, including 110 Catholic institutions, have given out 1,350 character awards and assigned attributes to each month (October is inclusiveness; November, empathy.)

Preachers, not teachers, were the original guides of character, along with family members. Educators who support the teaching of values say children are spending less time with family and are instead poring over raunchy music videos and playing violent games. “It would be too dangerous to our society not to have it [taught] more pervasively,” says Glaze.

Not all parents are convinced. “There’s a tendency to see it as airy-fairy, New Agey BS,” says Yuki Hayashi, the mother of a student entering Grade 9 in Hamilton. “My concern would be, how much time is spent on this?” Yet, Hayashi agrees that schools should teach everyday skills and are trying to “mould citizens that we want to live next to.” Of course, not everyone agrees on the definition of a model citizen. One father told Glaze he didn’t want his son being taught to be honest because it would compromise his future as a businessman. “As a society,” counters Glaze, “we must have a few attributes that are non-negotiable.”

While Fraser believes she can teach character, she isn’t convinced she can measure the success of that mission. She often gives grades of 100 per cent. “The ministry requires me to throw down a percentage, which drives me mental,” she says. “It sounds ridiculous to fail a kid in character.” Karen Addison, director of the Character Community Foundation of York Region, agrees. “It’s not like there’s a thermometer and the level goes up, the level goes down,” she says. “It’s a very intangible thing.”

To formally assess children’s characters, schools between Ontario and British Columbia have begun distributing a questionnaire created by psychologist Wayne Hammond. “We’ve proven that the tool is statistically predictable,” says Hammond, owner of a Calgary-based human resources consulting firm called Meritcore. “I can tell you where your character’s at.”

The questionnaire, called the Resiliency Assessment Survey, contains 62 to 82 questions, depending on a school’s preference. Students rank how strongly they agree or disagree with statements similar to “I try to avoid unsafe things” or “I feel hopeful about my future.” The tool creates profiles of each student’s top strengths and weaknesses, such as acceptance, restraint or safety. The results belong to each school board and are used to identify at-risk students and trends within schools. “It starts to give them a round-up,” says Hammond. “Who needs resources? Who needs stretching?”

Alternative measures include the Character Growth Card, invented by American Angela Duckworth, a pioneer of the character movement. Duckworth argues that character, specifically “grit,” is the key determinant of student success. Her hard-copy questionnaire gauges attributes such as gratitude, self-control and zest (defined as approaching life with enthusiasm) by asking students and teachers to rank how often they’ve done things like “kept their temper in check” and “stuck with a project for more than a few weeks.”

A third tool comes from psychologist Mark Liston at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His online multiple-choice survey measures 11 character strengths in as many minutes, giving students and teachers percentage scores on attributes such as wisdom, empathy and “love/closeness” (one school in Denver had to remove the questions on spirituality because it feared a lawsuit from parents). The results compare each person to “national averages” derived from 1,000 Americans. Schools pay up to $500 per student to take the survey.

A “character portfolio” is another concept of Liston’s. It presents a student’s character scores through Grades 4 to 12, paired with extracurricular and community service hours, journal entries and mentor reports, decorated with personal statements and pull quotes. Liston plans to sell a portfolio program to schools and parents, for students to use in university applications. “When kids start seeing this will help them get into a better college, they’ll start to use it,” he says. “In the past, it’s pretty much been a reference letter. We can do more than that. We must do more than that.” Even if students lie about their empathy, kindness and optimism to buff up their portfolios, Liston says, “How long can you fake it before it actually becomes who you are?”

Alarmingly, some schools are taking character scores more seriously than the researchers intended. This year, nine school districts in California will begin to incorporate character assessments into school accountability, affecting their funding. “We’re nowhere near ready,” warns Duckworth in a column in the New York Times, “and perhaps never will be, to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools.” Duckworth notes that the new measurement tools may not be accurate due to cultural biases—for example, at one school, students from Korea ranked themselves lower on all attributes—and because students hold different standards for character indicators such as “comes to class prepared.” Regardless of the limitations, the measurements threaten to become “high-stakes metrics for accountability,” Duckworth writes. When a California teacher told her that she worried the school’s low scores would mean less funding per student, Duckworth writes, “I felt queasy.”

At W.J. Mouat, character grades range from 50 to 100 per cent, and final grades appear on student transcripts. Fraser hopes to learn more about the concept of character portfolios and their use for university applications. “I think it’s fascinating,” she says. Her students are currently spending their class time publicizing orange shirt day in remembrance of residential schools in Saskatchewan and planning an Aboriginal feast. Fraser expects character education to flood into Eastern Canada as schools show quantitative evidence of its success. “This wave is here,” says Fraser. “This wave isn’t going away.”

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