LONDON, ONTARIO – “That all those affected by the tragedy in Humboldt, Saskatchewan be comforted by the prayers and support of those across our country – we pray to the Lord.”
As the second reader at the 10:30 Mass this Sunday at St. Peter’s Cathedral, it fell to me to read out the prayers and intentions at that service. There was a slight catch in my voice as I declared those words (perhaps my wife caught it; I doubt anyone else did) because like millions of other Canadians I’ve been suffused with feelings of pity and helplessness for the bereaved families who are struggling to find a way to carry on after sixteen (so far) members of that community’s junior hockey team died following the collision of their touring bus with a tractor trailer.
I use the word ‘community’ defiantly. A few months ago I was telling a friend how much I loved Hugh Kingsmill’s observation that a sign reading ‘No Exit’ was unfailingly good news because it always meant that there was one; they just didn’t want you to use it. “Mmm,” he agreed and went on to add, “And I’ve noticed the opposite thing with ‘community’. Whenever you see the word ‘community’ written up on a sign – ‘community living,’ ‘community information,’ ‘community centre,’ ‘community help desk’ – it’s a word that’s only invoked when there is no ‘community’ to speak of.”
All of the stories I’ve been reading out of Humboldt since April 6th – about how this town of less than 6,000 built the 1,900-seat Elgar Peterson Arena as a base of operations for their junior league Broncos who’ve won two national and ten provincial championships over 40-some years, about all the households that take in players from out of town for the duration of the hockey season in a billeting program whereby they all but adopt these 16 to 21 year old boys and men as part of an extended family – indicate that this small Saskatchewan town really does know how to pull together as a community.
Like so many other Canadians, I’d never heard of Humboldt until this calamity fell their way. And like very few other Canadians, I am congenitally indifferent to the wonders of our national game or, for that matter, any other sport. But as a human being who remembers the thrill of adolescence and early adulthood when you first get a taste for something you do reasonably well and want to develop that further and see where it takes you . . . and as a parent who was given the opportunity to help guide three brand new souls along life’s treacherous path until that point where you have to let them make their own way forward and can only pray that nothing goes catastrophically wrong . . . I have been haunted and rattled by the devastation caused by that collision at a badly laid-out intersection called Armley Corner.
One theory as to why this tragedy has touched so many people from coast to coast is that every parent has known the experience of putting their kid on a bus for a field trip or a concert or a sporting event and at least fleetingly struggled with the morbid consideration that if the very worst came to the very worst, this whole venture could go sideways. I remember the time we took our firstborn to the Western Fair and plopped her on her very first ride in Kiddieland – a miniaturized carousel with pastel-coloured helicopters instead of horses – and my wife wouldn’t leave our three year-old’s side; saying reassuring things as she walked around this gentle ride’s circuit for a couple dozen revolutions at a not-so-blistering speed of maybe 1.5 miles per hour. Yes, I married the world’s very first helicopter parent.
Perhaps perversely, a lot of people have been uneasy with the fact that the Humboldt accident has affected them as much as it has. We can’t pretend that we’re going through even an infinitesimal fraction of the anguish that now racks those at the centre of this storm. And the last thing we would ever want to do is intrude on other people’s grief by shoving our way into a funeral where we don’t belong. But we still want to express condolences and our concern. And that’s where prayers come in for a lot of us. Others have made a point of wearing hockey sweaters to commemorate the tragedy, or have fashioned spontaneous memorials with hockey sticks formed into crosses or just set up outside the front door. And – at this highly digitized moment in our social history – that’s also where the GoFundMe campaign kicks in.
As I write, more than ten million dollars has been raised to help the Broncos’ families with funeral and medical costs. I don’t imagine that anyone who’s contributed even a thousand dollars to this fund is under any illusion that they’ve made anything much better for those poor suffering families. But however imperfectly or clumsily or even crassly expressed these gestures and gifts may be, I am heartened that so many people have tried in their different ways to show their support to some fellow Canadians who are reeling from the full force blow of the very worst that life can throw at any of us.
And I was similarly heartened by the simple humanity expressed in this Sunday’s prayer at St. Peter’s. That prayer called me back to a very old truth that in moments of distracted weakness, I had found myself starting to question: Is it really a good thing to share the grief of others to the extent that we can? Could it possibly be the case that in showing our solidarity with the people of Humboldt, a broad swath of the Canadian populace are actually exhibiting signs of racism and sexism?
Insane as such a proposition sounds, that is the thinking of Toronto-based freelance writer, Nora Loreto. Though she occasionally lands articles in top Canadian publications like Maclean’s, The Globe & Mail and The Walrus (where she flogs away at her favored theme of uncovering systemic oppression everywhere she looks) Loreto wasn’t really a household name until she sent out a tweet last Monday that quickly went viral and pushed her social media readership into the stratosphere. It was little more than 48 hours after the horrific collision that shook the country, when Loreto decided that this was the message she wanted to share with her followers on twitter:
“I’m trying to not get cynical about what is a truly devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.”
Where does one begin to plumb the depths of the ideological blindness, the prejudice, insensitivity and smug self-regard that drips off those 31 words? How numb, how tone deaf must you be before you would send out such an appalling sentiment for broad public consumption? Before the doctors could identify for certain these piteously mangled athletes . . . before the bodies of the dead had even been buried . . . Nora Loreto thought it would be useful to point out that it was really quite understandable if you were starting to feel cynical about all this howling over a bunch of smashed up people because, after all, they were just white males.
She knew none of the victims or their families or the actual circumstances of their lives in a town where the median household income is $40,000 a year. But scanning the photographs and images in the media coverage – all that exasperating whiteness, all that enervating maleness – she was able to deduce that these dead or badly mutilated chaps had all been enjoying the unearned privileges, the free ride, the complete and utter cakewalk, which are the automatic lot of those who are born with pale pigmentation and penises. The lucky stiffs. The unconscious oppressors.
A few days after sending that infamous tweet, a female trainer succumbed to the injuries she sustained in the crash but there was no word from Loreto about whether she would have to adjust her cynicism regarding the victims now that one sixteenth of them were female. Perhaps no tweaking was necessary because this latest distaff corpse was also, alas, irredeemably white.
No, Loreto had much bigger fish to fry than that. Not too surprisingly, such a breathtakingly ugly tweet got recirculated far and wide and while Loreto did receive a couple notes of approval from social justice robots as braindead as herself, the vast majority of responses expressed outrage and fury and hatred. Gosh, who could have predicted that when you slag accident victims as honky oppressors who don’t deserve all the hoopla, that people might bite back?
On Friday the 13th, one week after the collision, the CBC News Network used the furore that Loreto had provoked as the springboard to present an earnest panel discussion about the descending level of discourse and debate on social media. Loreto didn’t appear on the program but host Carole MacNeil opened the thirteen and a half-minute segment by reading out our least favourite scribe’s latest tweet in which she portrayed herself as the real victim in this whole squalid debacle:
“As a writer who tackles systemic oppression (racism, sexism, etc.), no one who follows my writing was surprised by my tweets. Inequality follows us in death as it follows us in life. But my tweets have been misconstrued and smeared into the faces of so many in mourning, and I am so angry and so sad that this has caused other’s [sic] pain. No one should face what I have: tens of thousands of messages, death threats, threats to my family, phone calls and threats to my various employers. The messages have been mostly vile. This is the cost of daring to mention systemic racism in Canada and it shows that we have some deep reflection to engage in once we allow for the necessary space for mourning.”
If you want to watch the segment for yourself, here’s the link:
I’m actually impressed that the CBC hasn’t taken down the discussion in embarrassment at the shameless lack of diversity in the opinions expressed. Talk about a herd of independent thinkers. Neither Jeremy Diaz (Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity), nor Brittany Andrew-Amofah (Senior Policy Research Analyst at the Broadbent Institute) nor Michael Coren (author, columnist and incorrigible church-hopper) contested the validity of Loreto’s contention that Canada is a seething hotbed of systemic racism and sexism and that the evidence for this is manifest in the pronounced public reaction to the Humboldt tragedy compared to other more diffusely regarded atrocities like the disappearance and murder of indigenous women and the recently uncovered mad gardener murders of gay men in Toronto.
The closest they came to criticism of Loreto was the panelists’ unanimously wistful agreement that she probably tweeted too soon and that the value of what she had to say was lost in the ensuing melee of vicious tweets and counter-tweets. These dolts actually seemed to believe that Canadians would have been much more amenable to ruminating on the validity of Loreto’s poisonous claims if she’d waited until the last hearse returned to the funeral home garage before sliming the Humboldt Broncos as dead white males and those who lamented their shocking deaths as bigots and hate-filled enablers that only express concern for their own kind.
How sweet it would be if program producers at our publicly-funded national broadcaster had even one pundit on speed-dial with the guts to suggest that maybe one reason why Canadians turned out in such numbers to show their support for these beautiful young men cut down in their prime was because they weren’t being hectored to do so by a pack of joyless jackals dressed up as quasi-civil servants and media drones.
And with the appointment earlier this month of Catherine Tait as the CBC’s “first ever woman president,” you know that the same old diet of dismal, box-ticking gruel will continue for the foreseeable and quite unwatchable future. The exciting conclusion of the CBC’s press release announcing her appointment reads: “Tait said CBC/Radio Canada needs to ‘reach deep’ to tell the stories of women and new Canadians, as well as people from the Indigenous and LGBTQ communities.”
Ah yes, ‘community’. There’s that non-word again. Excuse me while I make my way to the ‘No Exit’.