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"Impeccable journalism; vivid narrative; Curt Petrovich takes us behind the scenes in a ten year legal saga to reveal how the justice system can abandon basic principles of justice when political and bureaucratic interests are on the line."

Linden MacIntyre, journalist, author, The Bishop's Man

  • Writer's pictureCurt Petrovich

Does Art owe a duty to Truth?

Ten years ago this month, the last of 91 witnesses to weigh in on the death of Robert Dziekanski rose from the witness chair, leaving retired judge Thomas Braidwood to make sense of what happened.

As someone who sat through every day (but one) of testimony at the long-running public inquiry, I committed a lot of the evidence to memory. It is difficult and disturbing to be so intimately familiar with the last moment of someone’s life and the events that lead up to it. I took on the unpleasant task of absorbing those details because as a journalist I owed a duty to truth. While it may appear self-serving to say this now, I also felt I owed a duty to be as sober-minded yet empathetic as possible when it came to relaying those details. But journalists – the good ones anyway – are not mere stenographers. Yes, our job is to report facts. But facts without context, without checking, without questioning, are worse than unhelpful. Allowing significant but false details to creep into a story, has the potential to stain the public’s understanding and distort history. Sometimes with critical consequences. Case in point: the persistent and demonstrably false notion amplified by many that the RCMP’s public spokesperson outright lied about what happened, ultimately lead to him to take his own life. Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre’s suicide is one of the reasons why I wrote Blamed and Broken.

Indeed, by the time Braidwood issued his final report, it wasn’t hard to find online comments bluntly wishing death upon the officers who confronted Dziekanski and those seen as their apologists or defenders. So in 2010, when Braidwood declared that in his “view” the use of the Taser on Robert Dziekanski was unjustified, and the Mounties “approached the incident as though responding to a barroom brawl”, the esteemed former judge confirmed what many people already believed. Details and evidence to the contrary was discredited, discounted or simply discarded.

A bar room brawl? They had been called to Vancouver airport by panicked 9-1-1 calls about a man going berserk. Yet the first officer to make contact with Dziekanski uttered a congenial and sincere “How’re you, Sir?”, followed by “How’s it goin’ bud?” As for the Taser and whether the officers were justified using it, Braidwood relied heavily on the horrible video of Dziekanski’s last moments alive. Braidwood, like everyone else who’s seen the video had one thing the officers did not: knowledge of how it would end. Braidwood concluded that regardless of how the officers had been trained, they should not have used what AT THAT TIME was considered to be milder than a baton, pepper spray or even physically grappling with someone. I won’t go into it more about that here. If you don’t believe me or you disagree, read the book.

However, regardless of what you think happened, the actual facts are still important. Picking and choosing a few, or making up details might make you feel more confident and righteous about the opinion you hold. But it neither serves any good purpose to history nor dare I say the legacies of those who’s lives were lost or devastated.

It is with that in mind, I stumbled on news this past week about the American debut of a Canadian opera about the life and death of Robert Dziekanski. The opera was written and first performed in 2012 and apparently resurrected in 2015, before disappearing from the stage until this week when a theatre company in Chicago mounted performances.

The story of the opera’s new-found audience appeared in The Globe and Mail, arguably Canada’s newspaper of record. As I read, my curiosity and interest as a journalist turned to frustration. The opera’s creator and librettist, J. Andrew Wainwright is heavily quoted, matter-of-factly insisting that:

“If that cell phone video hadn’t been there, everything would have been covered up...I mean the man had his hands up in the air and he’s holding a stapler at the end of his life.”

First, the Pritchard video, as it’s known, wasn’t “cell phone video”. It was a high quality digital camera recording seized by the police who immediately knew their entire encounter had been captured. There is simply no evidence – nothing – to support an opinion that “everything would have been covered up.“ This is the same false conspiracy theory that contributed to Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre’s death a year after Mr. Wainwright wrote his operatic tribute to Robert Dziekanski.

Secondly, Robert Dziekanski’s hands were not “up in the air” - the implication being he was in full surrender when the Taser was deployed. In one hand he brandished an open stapler he had suddenly grabbed from a counter. To the police, it was a weapon. We can argue about how much of a threat that weapon constituted – as Braidwood did - but that’s not the point. Dziekanski’s other hand was a closed fist held at chest height. This was not surrender posture. What’s more, all of this happened in a second.

Mr. Wainwright, an accomplished and notable author and professor, says his work was the result of seeing “night after night Robert Dziekanski being tasered and dying on television.” As Blamed and Broken makes abundantly clear, the Pritchard video was for many, the first time they’d seen any real-life use of force by Police. Further, knowing before you watched it that a man dies, almost certainly obliterated any curiosity for facts that might temper the visceral feeling that it shouldn’t have happened. By the time the Pritchard video was made public in November 2007, just a few weeks after Dziekanski’s death, the narrative was already well-established: the Mounties tasered a man to death for no good reason and tried to cover it up. More than decade later, Mr. Wainwright apparently still believes this.

The Globe piece goes on to quote Mr. Wainwright lamenting that no Canadian opera company is interested in mounting a production of “I will fly like a bird”. “And now it’s ironic”, he told The Globe, “that an American company has picked it up. I think it has much to do with that Donald Trump narrative of ‘go back where you came from.’”

Let me be clear. There is plenty of fault to be found when looking for reasons why Dziekanski ended up on the floor of an airport instead of safe at home with his mother. But there is simply nothing to support the notion that he was subjected to any kind of xenophobia. Attempting to forge a link – or even hint at one - with the rise of the right and fear of “the other” currently running roughshod in the US and Canada now, is frankly preposterous.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen Mr. Wainwright’s 55-minute labour of love. From what he has volunteered and has been shared by its promoters and reviewers, it appears to be a musical dramatization that relies on a narrative which is at best, flawed and misleading.

The Thompson Street Opera company is certain that Dziekanski was “tazed to death”. And lest there be any doubt about it, the Chicago Classical Review published a glowing critique of opening night by author Lawrence A. Johnson who describes the opera as a “true” moving story dealing with “immigration and police brutality.” For reasons I’ve already described, the facts of what happened to Robert Dziekanski simply do not include any evidence of either brutality or anti-immigrant sentiment. Yet, here we are, ten years after Braidwood shuttered his inquiry, and these are the false take-aways this artistic work is inspiring. Johnson goes on to educate his readers about the tragedy: “four RCMP officers tased Dziekanski five times in less than three minutes, including after they had handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground.(Emphasis, mine). This is simply not true. It is worse than false. It changes the entire nature of the encounter in a way that leaves no doubt the Mounties were malicious and malevolent. But as I discovered in writing Blamed and Broken, the seductive narrative of four bad cops who callously killed a man needs these kinds of falsehoods to survive. For the record, I flagged these errors to The Globe which promoted both the play and the review. For reasons unknown to me, my concerns went unacknowledged.

I will fly like a bird” does not dwell on the true nature of the call that brought police to what they thought might be a routine arrest for mischief. It does not explore the reasons why police might quickly try to deal with a man smashing furniture and equipment against a glass wall – at one point perilously close to a passive bystander who’d been trying unsuccessfully to calm him down for 20 minutes. The officers are not even portrayed in the opera. They are merely implied as Dziekanski is stunned. One of the reasons I wrote Blamed and Broken was precisely to find out who these men were beyond the terse statements they were compelled to give at the inquiry. The opera also ignores Pierre Lemaitre’s suicide after years of scurrilous public defamation and bullying by his own beloved RCMP. Ironically, the opera and its promotion appears to perpetuate and endorse the same false distortions that drove Lemaitre to take his own life.

Knowing the more complex truth of what happened doesn’t make the death of Robert Dziekanski any less tragic or dramatic. On the contrary, it is a tragedy in the truest sense, with a cascade of failures from a number of actors. There were numerous mistakes and fatal flaws in multiple characters, including Dziekanski himself. As much as Braidwood rejected any attempt by lawyers to examine the role Dziekanski played as the co-author of his own fate, even Braidwood conceded medical evidence showed Dziekanski’s heart had been weakened by alcoholism. Did it make a difference to his ability to sustain multiple stuns from a taser when he appeared to be combative? No one can say for certain. But not even Braidwood was comfortable attributing Dziekanski’s cause of death solely to the use of the Taser.

We live in a woeful era of fake news and conspiracy theories and Orwellian lies from public officials. Truth is a constant casualty. Sometimes from laziness, willful blindness and confirmation bias. Sometimes by deliberate acts of propaganda. But rarely by accident. History becomes distorted until it’s forgotten or disbelieved.

One might argue that an artist such as Andrew Wainwright has the right, and perhaps even the obligation, to craft his work as his own impression and view of what happened and its consequences. Fair enough. Theatre – in this case opera – isn’t journalism any more than a TV show such as The Walking Dead is a documentary. The difference here is that no one is claiming the weekly saga of a dystopian post-apocalyptic America is true. The lives devastated and destroyed by the false and misunderstood interpretations of the events of October 14, 2007 are real, and I will fly like a bird, relies on truth as a full-fledged member of the cast. There should be no taboo in questioning the authenticity of a work of art, especially if lives and legacies continue to sustain damage from it.

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