Doug Rutherford

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Online news site posting boards

December 2011
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I am becoming constantly amazed at the level of debate on news web sites, such as that of the CTV, CBC, National Post, Globe and Mail, etc. Really, I’m amazed more at the lack of the level of debate.

Everyone has the right to their opinion. Everyone has the right to express it. I am more than willing to agree with this. However, many people have a tendency to public express opinions of subjects on which they have little or no knowledge and base this profound prose on things like old wives’ tales, political party affiliation, or just plain ignorance.

I’ve read comments on the recent housing crisis at Attawapiskat and wonder why some people feel the urge to offer “their two cents worth.” If you do not have even a little knowledge of northern reserves, the Indian Act, and how financial administration works for First Nations on reserves, you probably shouldn’t be offering your “wisdom.” Bluntly, it has been hard not to respond to most of these comments with the suggestion that they are giving inbred, white trash a bad name. Many of these comments are blatantly rascist and many approach the bounds of hate speech. I’ll spare you the comments as there are lots of examples from lots of online locations to choose from.

Why can people feel so easily about expressing such drivel? It’s easy, since most of these online bulletin boards allow people to post anonymously. While the idea is essentially a sound one in theory, it has fallen down in practical application. Many abuse this process and political parties/lobbyists frequently hire marketing companies to post on them. The federal government has used public funds for this purpose.

These are often easily discernible when the language of such posts are worded in party talking points and often contain substantial amounts of grammar and spelling errors so they look like the handiwork of “regular Canadians.” I don’t so much mind this marketing ploy. After all, if I was the leader of a political party and my communications director wasn’t doing this, I’d have a different communications director rather quickly.  My issue is the demeaning idea marketing companies have that regular Canadians can’t spell.

I think now that it is time that online news agencies change their online board posting rules so that people can only post under their own names and that their identity be verifiable. Maybe people wouldn’t be so quick to put forward stupid comments when it was obvious who they were. Maybe people would be a little less willing to describe the problems of ethnic groups in terms of stereotypes. And maybe, just maybe, the boards could actually function in a manner for which most were originally intentioned, a venue for informed debate on current events. Until such time, they are useless…



  1. Krysta says:

    You know, Doug – I think we actually see a more accurate picture of actual opinion sometimes on these comment sections. With real names, in real life, people are shot down as racist to even consider questioning the actions of a First Nation government. Ezra Levant (Sun News) described the situation very well in that respect. It is very difficult to have open dialogue and debate when faced with the potential racist labelling. And while it is true that many posters do not have a full understanding of every issue, I would argue that nor do most Canadians – on either side of any issue.

  2. Anonymity only permits people to perpetuate rascist stereotypes without having to back up their commentary. Are you suggesting that the comments that first nation governments are all crooked, that all first nations people are too lazy to earn a living, etc., are in any way valid. Why should such opinion be given any public venue.

    Keep in mind also that Ezra Levant probably isn’t the best source, since he isn’t really a credible source at all. He’s Sun News’ version of Don Cherry, paid only for controversy and absolutely not for content.

  3. I agree that there MUST be a better way. And the sooner the better.

  4. Krysta says:

    I don’t concur with the comments you’ve described, such as “all first nations people are too lazy to earn a living, etc”. Far from it. However, further into the moderate side of the spectrum, if I dare to suggest that some scrutiny be given to the financial management of one particular First Nation I am declared racist. There seems to be a politically correct stance on these issues, and any deviation from the norm or attempt to engage in healthy debate is shunned as discriminatory. And, while I am a moderate fiscal/social conservative, I have heard real life commentary from friends who do hold more extreme views in the matter of Attawapiskat. If we simply do not agree with them, should we not allow them to publish their perspectives on news comment feeds? I have vehement opinions on other matters, but welcome people with opposing views to post their thoughts. It is a matter of free speech.

  5. When their opinions qualify as hate speech, no. Rather, the news organizations should take a great deal more responsibility for their content. And, if you aren’t proud enough to put your name on your opinion, why would it be worth expressing?

  6. Krysta,

    Many of the comments – on both sides of the issue in question – are based on opinion, seldom supported by facts. Opinion absent of evidence is ignorance. While I agree that it’s sad that you have been branded as racist, why call for scrutiny to be given to the financial management of one particular First Nation when the information is already out there? Why not ask if that information exists instead of assuming that they’ve done something wrong and need to prove themselves “clean”?

    I don’t mind ignorance if it’s not backed by opinion (I’m not implying that you’re ignorant, just referring to my previous point about most comments being based on opinion devoid of facts or evidence). Ignorance with an open mind is a good thing – the ignorance can be rectified. Ignorance with a closed mind (often backed by a firm and all-too-often vocal opinion) is how we get ourselves into all sorts of messes. It’s probably one of the worst flaws of human character – if not the worst.

  7. Krysta says:

    Michael, I don’t know if the information is conclusively “already out there”. Our own Prime Minister has expressed concern in the financial management of the Attawapiskat First Nation. I don’t think it is unreasonable for average Canadians such as myself to wonder also.

    Do you not agree that there has been a great deal of ignorance with a closed mind on the part of the Charlie Angus-style NDP folk who immediately assume that, if there is a problem in a First Nation community, it must be the Federal Government’s exclusive fault? I think calling for financial scrutiny IS, in fact, the open minded approach. I don’t assume the Harper government is at fault any more than I assume the First Nation is at fault.

    Doug, as for putting names to comments. The aforementioned reason of being labelled a racist is certainly one. Also, political affiliation or employment situations can be prohibitive in this respect.

  8. If you’re asking about the financial information on Attawapiskat, the audited financial statements from the band going back to 2006 is on their website. And why would you suggest that Charlie Angus “automatically assumes” it’s the federal government’s exclusive fault? He became involved on request of the band when they declared a state of emergency and received no government response for over a month. His call is to fix the immediate housing crisis, a direct result of underfunding for housing infrastructure on the reserve.

    As for Stephen Harper’s approach to the issue, throwing blame at the situation instantly on the band administration is deflection and indicative of how unsuitable he is for his position. Investigating the situation, or actually responding when the request was first made, would be the reaction of a real prime minister.

  9. I ask (because I don’t know) if the PM’s concern regarding the financial management of the Attawapiskat First Nation is nothing more than a political ploy to deflect blame from the federal government (rightly or wrongly deserved)? Or perhaps it’s his own bias regarding First Nations. It is not hard for the PM or his Minister to access the annual audits that are conducted on the First Nation. Based on my experience, First Nations are held to a much higher fiscal standard than most governments, businesses, and NGOs. That’s not to say that every First Nation has their financial house in order – but it’s not hard to find out what the auditors have had to say about Attawapiskat.

  10. Krysta says:

    I suspect that Charlie Angus is simply drawing attention to himself through exploitation of the circumstances of a First Nation. Independent auditors have raised concerns about poor financial reporting in those financial statements, and I listened to an accountant give a pessimistic overview (Yes, with Ezra Levant) of their financials.

    How do you KNOW that their crisis is a direct result of underfunding? You state that as a fact. Is it not possible that available monies could have been diverted from the real housing needs of the people into, say, a new arena or a brand new zamboni, etc..? If this were simply a non race-based municipality, would it be wrong to consider the possibility that the mayor/council/administration may have been inept. Or worse, corrupt?

    Should I brand your unsupported opinion, stated as fact, as closed ignorance? No, I’d rather allow you to express it here, and elsewhere on news comment sections. Because I am open to debate on this issue and I have not fully formed my opinion. I could be swayed to support Charlie Angus or the CPC government’s position, but will reserve final judgement until all the facts of the matter come out through independent audit and third party financial management.

    • Why would you say that? Do you have any proof that Charlie Angus is doing more than his job as their MP? His job in opposition is to hold the government to account. The saddest part of the story of Attawapiskat is that there are probably 40 or so other northern reserves in Canada in equally dire straits… unfortunately, most of these are represented by government MPs who will not speak up in the circumstances.

      My opionion comes from reading the actual audited statements provided by a licensed chartered accounting firm in Timmons for the band. Remember that only about $5 million has been allocated for housing over the last five years. Attawapiskat has an immediate requirement for 280 houses to meet existing demand. Each will cost $250,000 to build, half of which is transportation costs for the building materials alone. Attawapiskat is only accessible year round by air, with a winter road available during January to March. They have no port facilities so materials cannot be shipped by barge.

      Also remember that any of the monies given to them for capital assests, such a roads, sewage systems, water systems, zamboni’s etc., must be approved to the penny by AAANC in Ottawa before those funds are released. Also remember that 2/3 of the capital infrastructure requests made by northern First Nation reserves since 2006 have been turned down by AAANC. This is a housing crisis and all direct oversight for housing funding lies in the hands of the federeal government.

  11. Krysta says:

    Doug, no I do not have proof that Charlie Angus is insincere. Hence my careful phrasing of “suspect that”. But this brings us to the crux of your original posting. It would be impossible to debate without stating opinions. And average, even well informed Canadians, are not going to be able to back up every opinions with fact. Sometimes, as in this case, the facts are not even available yet. Engagement through comment-based interaction should be encouraged even when we do not subscribe to the poster’s viewpoint. If nothing else, it is informative to learn the possibly flawed viewset of an citizenry.

  12. Krysta says:

    Also, with regard to your original post about spelling and gramatical mistakes, I just re-read my hastily posted replies and have found several blatant errors in each. 🙂 I am reasonably fluent, if I proof-read my writing, but we often don’t take the time in a comment scenario. Also, mobile-device based communication does tend to increase the incidences of auto-correct wording changes.

    • I got around to adding to my comment. And no, no one types well with their thumbs.

      My issue is not so much with discussion. My complaint is that many of the comments are racist. Even when another poster puts forward documented, cited fact, they revert to the “they’re all alike” school.

  13. Krysta says:

    I’m going to take a risk here, so don’t misunderstand me, please. Let me give you an example:

    Incarceration rates are higher for First Nations. Fact.

    Person A could argue this is because the law is unfair to people of Aboriginal ancestry and sentances them more harshly than non-First Nations.

    Person B could posit that, because the grandparents of these incarcerated individuals were victims of the Residential School System, they are not to blame for their actions.

    Person C could say that the statistic means that First Nations are more prone to criminality.

    All of these are opinions based around the same fact. But Person C would be branded racist and would have difficulty expressing that view publicly. I don’t claim to support any of those views above, but want to point out that unpopular positions are still felt by many in our population and they’re going to be more likely expressed through anonymous computer mediated communication, such as online news comment sections.

  14. Equally, the argument exists that without providing a venue for racist statements, they are less likely to be passed to others who have not yet come to such a conclusion.

    By the way, most people incarcerated in Canada are in jail for breaches rather than other crimes. I’m not sure how you’d fit that into A, B or C. And, opinion C is racist.

  15. Krysta says:

    I assume you mean breaches of probation? There are probably countless explainations for recidivism rates and I won’t pretend to know anything about that. Justice is not my forte. Nonetheless, I am entitled to careful expression of opinions on justice-related issues. For example, I am unafraid declare my full support for the Safe Streets and Communities Act, as it heads into our Upper Chambers now. But that is a debate for another day, my friend. 🙂

  16. Krysta says:

    Doug, could I ask a favour? Please don’t change your reply posts after I have responded to them. I don’t have that luxury on my end. Thanks! By the way, it is nice to debate you in greater than 140 character bites for once. 🙂

  17. Linda Leon says:

    Astute thought provoking blog, Doug. Thanks.

    I have long suspected that on-line comment sections were populated by partisan operatives but never suspected that bureaucrats were doing it on our dime.

    I don’t have a problem with people posting opinions; even ugly racist ones. But I do have trouble with the idea that there are political operatives out there spreading hate and deliberate misinformation. If the media forced commentators to provide verifiable real names; we would get to see how many ugly commentators there really are. And yes Krysta, cowardly racists would be inhibited somewhat. I don’t have a problem with that either.

    The case on reserves is complex. There are some reserves that are afflicted with entrenched corrupt band councils just as there are provinces and municipalities with entrenched corrupt governments. On some reserves, band council and government work may be the only way to make a living. Where people are isolated and without options; bad things can happen. (My opinion here is based on first hand observation.) I don’t think this is true of Attawapiskat since they’ve been transparent with their financial affairs.

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