Opening Notes

Tanya Davies,Susan Oh,John Nicol November 22 1999

Opening Notes

Tanya Davies,Susan Oh,John Nicol November 22 1999

Opening Notes

Tanya Davies

Brr-inging in the New Year

Spending New Year’s Eve in a tent pitched on the frigid, windswept Plains of Abraham in Quebec City wouldn’t be everyone’s choice for greeting the new millennium. But thousands of boy scouts and girl guides from as far away as Tahiti, Burkina Faso and Paraguay have warmed to the idea. From Dec. 27 to Jan. 5, close to 4,000 teenagers are expected to camp on the Plains as part of a gathering called the Jam des neiges. The brainchild of the Quebec Scouts Federation, the international jamboree is the first to be held in winter, according to Claude Despatie, the event’s director general.

The frosty experience does not come cheaply: it costs $450 to take part, not including transportation. And for scouts and guides from warmer climates, a clothing kit consisting of a snowsuit, hat, mittens, boots and a sleeping bag can be purchased for $325. Despatie admits that “the question that comes to us the most are fears about the cold.”

Organizers had hoped to attract 10,000 hardy teenagers, but by early November only 3,300 scouts and guides had signed up from 43 countries. “It’s not a disappointment,” insists Despatie, “but we would have liked to have had a few more.” The smaller crowd hasn’t made staging the event any easier, though. Organizers will set up 125 tents equipped to sleep 30 people each over a 1.2-km area. Each tent will be

heated to 14° C and meals will be provided in a cafeteria. And 650 volunteers will help plan activities that include skating, skiing and sightseeing.

What surprised Despatie was the level of interest shown by scouts and guides from temperate climes. The Mexican delegation, for example, numbers almost 170 people. Says Despatie: “I think it’s the adventure that appeals to them.”

A judge takes aim

Wally Oppal, a justice with the British Columbia Supreme Court thinks an unacceptable number of people are being wrongly convicted—and he is not shy about making his views public. Last week, Oppal chose an audience of lab technicians to unload a broadside at his own profession, and at widely held misunderstandings about it. “A criminal trial is not an inquiry into truth,” Oppal told 150 people attend-

ing the British Columbia Society of Laboratory Science’s day-long workshop on forensic science in New Westminster. “It is not a contest between victim and offender.” It is about reasonable doubt, and Oppal believes that many juries do not get an adequate explanation of that concept from judges. Where reasonable doubt exists, accused people must be set free, he insisted, “even if it is probable they did it.” Instead, Oppal said, “I see cases where I think there is reasonable doubt, where people are going to jail. People are getting

convicted that shouldn’t be convicted.” Oppal also levelled his guns at “expert” witnesses, particularly psychologists who have persuaded the courts in recent years to expand the definition of allowable testimony to include such alleged phenomena as “repressed memory syndrome.” Said Oppal: “We’ve had so-called truth experts.’ We let that evidence in and people have been convicted. More recently, we’ve had another body of psychologists come and tell us that that is hooey. What do we do with the people who are in jail?” Some lawyers may soon be thinking of calling Oppal as a witness—for the defence.

A screenwriting sensation

When Toronto screenwriter Annmarie Moráis accepts her Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship in Los Angeles this week, she will have much to be proud of. Her screenplay Bleeding, a rivetting family drama, beat out 4,000 entries from 26 countries to win one of five coveted $25,000 (U.S.) prizes. At 26, Moráis is the first Canadian—and non-U.S. resident, for that matter—to win in the awards 14-year history. It was the second year in a row that Moráis entered the same script into the prestigious competition, which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and open to anyone who has s not sold a screenplay or s teleplay for more than ^

$5,000 (U.S.). Although | she didn’t win last year, being one of 10 finalists gave her screenwriting career an immediate

boost. “Before I submitted the script to the contest,” says Moráis, “I sent it around Canada and it wasn’t even read.” Since then, Moráis has received more than 70 calls from Hollywood agents, producers and production companies interested in getting Bleeding to the big screen.

This year’s victory puts the York University film graduate into some select company. Previous finalists include Jim Uhls, who wrote the script for the current hit movie Fight Club, and Ehren Kruger, whose thriller Arlington Road was released in the summer. Morais’s script is in the same provocative vein. Bleeding tells the story of a relationship between two sisters; one claims to have been raped by their stepfather, the other possesses a different memory of what happened. “The story is really about truth,” says Moráis, “and the ramifications of dealing with the truth head on.” And what’s the truth right now for Moráis? She is hitting Hollywood head on.

Lessons from the past

For 30 years, Neil Postman has been one of modern North America’s most trenchant critics. The New York University media professor has authored books railing against a televisionobsessed, irrational society enamoured with technology for its own sake. Now, in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century (Knopf), he makes his case for turning to the Age of Enlightenment for guiding principles. Postman does not idealize the century of Thomas Jefferson— many of the United States’ founders owned slaves, he notes—but he does admire the humane rationalism of the age’s leading writers. That discussion leads him to plea for educators to emphasize children’s critical thinking abilities over their practical skills.

Explorer

Lean, green driving machines

Environmentally friendly cars aren’t that far from reality in North America. This year, Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. introduced a concept minivan called the HV-M4. This hybrid fourwheel drive combines a gas engine and two electric motors. When the gas engine is running, it recharges the battery— which has been a problem for electric cars because they need to be plugged in overnight to keep charged. Toyota was the first to mass-produce a hybrid gas and electric eco-car, called Prius, which has been on sale in Japan since 1997, and hits North America next year.

The Japanese bought 20,000 Prius vehicles last year alone. The car burns 3.5 litres of regular unleaded gasoline per 100 km, emitting half the carbon dioxide of a conventional car with the same size of engine, and drastically less nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide, gases that contribute to global warming. A 288-volt battery can also be used to power the engine. While the Prius already meets strict current Californian emissions requirements, Toyota plans to refine the car to comply with the state’s even tougher standards set to take effect in 2004. New York and Massachusetts— all important car-buying markets—are planning to adopt parts of the same emission criteria.

The tightening of U.S. standards is a trend the other major carmakers can’t ignore. Ford Motor Co.’s 2000 models of SUVs, minivans, F-series pickups, and the Focus and Lincoln LS car lines cut in half the smog-forming emissions produced by other automobiles. Ford sank $600 million into research for vehicles powered by fuel cells that use hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, which other car manufacturers are also

pursuing. “People are increasingly concerned with the impact their cars have on the environment,” says Blake Smith, director of environment, energy and vehicle safety for Ford Canada.

In the Tokyo area, both Toyota and Nissan have also started testing systems in which drivers share emission-free mini-cars on public roads. Designed for short-range, inner-city driving, the cars are picked up and dropped off at charging stations around the city.

Online mediation

In 1996, two trial lawyers in New York City faced each other on opposite sides of yet another insurance-claim dispute and couldn’t come to terms on a setdement amount. Well aware that the average claim drags on for 30 months, the two men devised a blind-bid system. Each wrote down a set of confidential offers, and handed them to a law clerk who was to give the thumbs-up if the figures were within $5,000 of each other. Within minutes, her thumb rose and the claim was settled without costly litigation. The lawyers, James Burchetta and Charles Bronfman, were so happy with the process that they formed a partnership and Cybersettle.com was born in 1996.

This is the world’s first online dispute brokering service and it is aimed at international insurers, claimants and corporations who want to settle money matters. To take part, each side types in its blind offers—the parties have three

tries to strike a match—and if they come within 30 per cent or $5,000, the case is settled. Defendants, usually the insurers, start the process for a fee of $30. Each side pays $250 if the claim is settled.

So far, 14 corporate clients have signed on, including one of the world s largest insurers, London-based Royal & SunAlliance. Cybersettle ran tests with actual cases for potential customers. (Royal & SunAlliance signed up when the system settled a number of two-year-old cases within days.)

The first Canadian office opened in Toronto last month. And Cybersettle has branched out to Montreal and Vancouver in the past two weeks. Offices in Calgary and Halifax are slated for early next year. “Basically, the parties on each side know how much a claim is worth,” says Toronto-based Gary Winston, vice-president of Canadian operations.

“What this does is cut out the posturing and allow both parties to get down to business.”

Sociable sites on the Internet

TurboShuttle Inc., a Markham, Ont., company, last week launched HomeFreeWeb.com, the first national Canadian service to offer no-charge unlimited Web access and e-mail. The firms software roams to find the fastest and most efficient local Internet service provider, which means minimized downtime and fewer busy signals.

To become an instant philanthropist and help feed the world, log on to thehungersite.com—a Web site that benefits the United Nations World Food Programme. All a user has to do is click

on a button and somewhere around the globe a hungry person gets a free meal—at no cost to the user. The food is paid for by international corporate sponsors whose logos appear on the Web page.

Lost touch with your former schoolmates? Gradfinder.com boasts more than one million members and lists more than 100,000 schools and universities from 60 countries. Once signed up for the free membership, a user can also add contact information, upload a photograph or create photo albums—all for free. The site includes an impressive list of Canadian educational facilities from an elementary school in Grande Prairie, Alta., to a small college in Prince Edward Island.

Susan Oh

The Canadian connection

When Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, in the role of veteran 60 Minutes broadcaster Mike Wallace, turns down the chance to investigate the Mounties’ role in the Oka crisis because Canada is too boring, audiences in this country have broken into chuckles. But Wallace’s then-producer, Lowell Bergman, who is played by AÍ Pacino in the hit movie The Insider, did not propose that story in real life (and it was the Quebec provincial police who were at Oka). Bergman, however, does have his own strong connection to the Great White North: he told Macleans that he spent early career years teaching at the University of Saskatchewan’s Regina campus.

Bergman was part of a wave of radicalleft American instructors, who came to Canada under a teacher-exchange program. Saskatchewan, with its population of Mennonites, Métis, Doukhobors and Hutterites, intrigued Bergman, and he jokes that he “learned about mukluks and why it is that young men in Canada don’t have front teeth.” The Prairie winter also left a lasting impression-—it was so cold the mbber weather-stripping of the Toyota he bought in California crumbled.

Bergman, now 54 and a producer and reporter at PBS’s Frontline and a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, remembers the lengths to which he would go to engage his Regina sociology students: “A sculptor friend of mine had made an adultsize, white-wood high chair. I delivered a lecture on infantile amnesia sitting in the high chair. I even had a giant [baby] botde with a little Scotch in it.” To discuss deviant behaviour, Bergman invited a local motorcycle gang to class. The gang, which had 18 members and one motorcycle, also came to his house “with a box full of oranges shot up with vodka,” he recalls. “One guy got drunk and threw an orange through the window, which was not a good idea when it was 30-below.”

A fellow instructor, Bernie Cohen, remembers that Bergman “exuded a brash self-confidence. Students who had come from small towns, or just off the farm,

were astonished at what would come out of these left-wing Americans. The students were either fascinated or repelled.” Bergman got his start in journalism at an underground newspaper in San Diego, Calif., then worked for Rolling Stone magazine and later ABC News. He started at 60 Minutes in 1983.

Bergman is quick to remind people that the struggle to get his 60 Minutes exposé on the tobacco industry to the air differs somewhat from the movie. “Some things are fictionalized, some are dead-on accurate,” he says. For instance, Pacino’s heroic portrayal is not totally accurate because many people stood behind Bergman in real life. Normally, he says, those who stand up to bosses on principle “don’t survive. I just got lucky because a lot of people helped out, and things worked out.”

And what does he think of his former employer today? Bergman says 60 Minutes still compares well against shows that “just want to do blind-man-saved-by-dog or what’s the best hair-replacement treatment.” But he wishes it was “a little more enterprising, and not so fat and happy.”

John Nicol