Discover more from Paul Wells
How to write an odd little book
Featuring a response to my critic
The Writers’ Festival is in town
I’m delighted to be at the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival on Thursday for a panel discussing the Freedom Convoy. Ottawa readers: tickets are still available. Obviously part of the point of the event, and of writers’ festivals everywhere, is to drum up interest for books. Here’s mine. You can buy direct from the publisher, Sutherland House, at that link, or from one of Canada’s great independent booksellers or this big chain or that.
An Emergency In Ottawa has been on sale for three weeks. Sales have been strong, online customer reviews generous. Non-fiction writers wish all the time that there were more broad public conversation about their books. I feel it too, although I didn’t expect more. Almost no publications discuss books any more. (The books keep getting published, and read, just not debated.) And mine’s odd. And slim. And the national consensus for turning the page that followed the February publication of Paul Rouleau’s Public Order Emergency Commission report was so resounding you could hear the thud. I sure did.
But hundreds of you have already read An Emergency In Ottawa. More soon will. I wanted to share some thoughts about what I was trying to do with this book.
• Partly this is because I have colleagues who think about writing books, and I always want to encourage that urge. Perhaps demystifying the process will help. (This post is filed under the “To the Trade” rubric of this newsletter, reserved for journalism shop talk, for a reason.)
• Partly it’s because this 100-page essay is an odd duck I’ve grown fond of. I want to make a case for it.
• Partly it’s because one reader with sterling credentials didn’t like it much. I think he deserves a response.
Prof. Wark dissents
The reader is Wesley Wark, a veteran academic historian who’s advised prime ministers on national security. His Substack newsletter has been in my Recommendations list for months, and vice versa. His take on my book appeared the day after publication in April:
As profs have been saying since they were marking my undergrad papers, Wark finds my book an entertaining read that doesn’t say much. (I think profs have always meant the “fun read” bit as a pejorative. I have long declined to make the desired adjustments.)
But once past the fun, which is mostly provided in pen portraits of some of the key participants in the Commission hearings and some right-on witticisms, there is a puzzle, at least for me.
The puzzle is, what did Wells actually make of it all?
He goes on to complain that I don’t assess whether Justin Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act was justified and, in fact, I don’t say what I thought of the convoy in general. He clearly thought the people in the convoy were terrible and wishes I were more solidly on his side.
I made a point of not replying to Wark immediately because his post is obviously fair comment. I expected somebody would say what he says. I expect to hear variations on his themes at Thursday’s book event.
I’m so tired of people who respond to criticism by dropping a house on their critics. I won’t do that here. I just want to point out that, while I wrote half the book very quickly (as my publisher Ken Whyte entertainingly relates), I thought about the damned thing for close to six months. Often while watching testimony at the Rouleau commission. Often during walks at night. (Chapter 4, the chapter on policing, got a complete rewrite, one of the most thorough self-edits I’ve done for any project. One day I might show you the original and revised chapters so you can compare.) Everything in it is the result of a choice, often driven by the constraints of the short-book form, always with the goal of saying fresh and useful things. Here’s how that went.
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The problem of abundance
The first thing you notice at a public inquiry is that people talk a lot. Commissioner Rouleau heard more than 70 witnesses over six weeks. Transcripts of each day’s hearings often ran past 300 pages per day. So that’s 10,000 pages of transcripts. There were also thousands of documents, including memos and emails exchanged during the crisis at every level of government; contemporaneous minutes of meetings; exchanges of collegiate humour via text message between cabinet ministers; Zoom chats; and more. Academics wrote background papers. Commission staff produced detailed chronologies of events before the Convoy, while it was happening, and around the world.
It was fantastic. My first reaction was that much of it, especially at the federal-government level where I work, was a glorious chance to see how decisions are actually made that contrasted starkly with the happy-crappy “communications product” the Trudeau government seems to think people believe. Decision-makers stood exposed as imprecise, scared, angry, funny, forgetful, sometimes heroic figures who got handed a hard job when they were already tired of being tired.
It was a ten-ring circus, with similar tableaux playing out in the federal government, in provincial governments in Ontario and Alberta, at Ottawa City Hall, in multiple police forces, and among the protesters. And it was more than words. If there was any point in showing up at the hearings (as I did often but not every day), it was to convey the feeling in the rooms, the mood, the tones, gestures and reactions. Within days I recalled, and quoted here, Don DeLillo’s line about the Warren Commission archive as “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.”
But I wouldn’t get to write a megaton novel. I had 100 pages. One-third of a single day’s testimony transcript, or one-twentieth of Rouleau’s final report. I liked the challenge! But it was a challenge.
It forced choices. Even the daily news reporters had to ignore almost everything that happened each day, in favour of picking a single news hook per day, one moment of confrontation or revelation that seemed to matter. At first my plan was to do the same. The fabulous smorgasbord of crisis sociology would have to go. I’d treat the entire commission as a Justin Trudeau witch-dunking. Was he legally justified in using the Emergencies Act? Yes or No? Show your work.
Then I started to second-guess myself. What would I be throwing out? Was there value in what I planned to keep?
Skipping the CSIS Act test
The second question became easy to answer. In one of my regular posts from Rouleau testimony, I wrote: “Ask yourself whether you think Trudeau was right to use the Emergencies Act, and then ask whether you’ll change your mind if Paul Rouleau disagrees with you. See? Everyone else is like you. Stubborn.”
Debates are so polarized these days. The people who are most eager to “debate” are least likely to even hear contradictory evidence. When I asked whether Rouleau’s answer would change anyone’s mind, it wasn’t a throwaway line. I started to brood on it.
When Rouleau’s report came out, even he didn’t really seem interested in the question of the Act’s appropriate use. Sure, he builds a multi-part test, spends a few pages applying it to federal actions. But it feels listless. On the day he published his conclusion — the feds passed every part of the test with flying colours! — he admitted, almost in the same sentence, that “reasonable and informed people could reach a different conclusion.”
And then nobody in Canada proceeded to argue over any of it. I count myself as one of the reasonable people who reached a different conclusion, but Rouleau took the fight right out of me. As he points out, none of the charges laid at the end of the Convoy was laid under the emergency regulations. Frozen accounts were soon unfrozen. Charter rights protect the arrested, who are having their day in court. Rouleau’s opinion is not dispositive in law; trial judges will feel free to reach different conclusions.
I decide early that this debate wouldn’t be all of my book. By the end it had vanished entirely.
Life’s rich pageant
I was left with DeLillo’s megaton James Joyce novel. An unprecedented moment in the country’s life. Tired politicians, tired cops, frightened city, mechanized rolling mob. None of them hearing any of the others. Hundreds of people ignoring or denying or disbelieving obvious things. A century of social unrest in reaction to vaccines. A planet of civil unrest in reaction to COVID restrictions. Hundreds of governments around the world coping with this terrible thing that had wrecked their beautiful plans. Praying they were getting it right. Maybe the tiniest bit defensive.
I thought: Maybe some of this is interesting.
I keep models in mind when I’m working on a big project. I always pick better writers, musicians, even athletes. I’ll fall short but I’ll stretch on the way. How do the best in their fields juggle themes? How do they use rhythm, structure, mood?
Slowly, in bits, I’ve been reading the script of Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels In America, watching the HBO TV adaptation. I always thought it was a play about AIDS in the Reagan years. Turns out it’s about everything. Politics, mentorship, fear wrecking love, the immigrant experience, murderous hate, family lineage, middle America vs. the coastal metropolis. Kushner’s subtitle is A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. His parents were musicians. He knows a fantasia is a composition that doesn’t follow a strict structural model. I told Ken Whyte I wanted to write a not-particularly-gay fantasia on national themes. He stopped asking me for updates.
I still had only 100 pages, but if I could nod at a bunch of the themes that got raised in the commission room, I could give a sense of the breadth of both the commission and the historic moment it studied. The text of the Act requires the public inquiry to study “the circumstances that led to the declaration being issued.” Very well, then. A book about circumstances.
But neither is the whole book just faffy atmospherics, I hope. It engages large areas of policy debate that will certainly arise many times before the Emergencies Act gets used again, if it ever does.
Chapter Two seems at first to be just a whirlwind recap of the whole pandemic, but if if were only that I’d have wasted 10 pages. The first point it makes is that governments’ response to the pandemic was chaotic, changed far too often, and scapegoated public-health officials for politicians’ decisions. Rouleau’s commission staff notes that the Ontario government issued 200 orders-in-council in respect of the pandemic in 2020 alone. I call that “a perfectly asinine level of information to dump on any citizenry.” The second point it makes is that by the end, specific measures tightening restrictions led directly, twice within a day, to specific acts of backlash by segments of the population.
Chapter Four on policing is, I think, more important than anything I could have said about the threshold test for invoking the Emergencies Act. This is the stuff about “police liaison teams” that meet protesters before the protest event, stay in touch while it’s happening, and compare notes after it’s over, always with a goal of “de-escalating” by “giving everyone a win.” That was the material we gave to the Globe as an excerpt before publication. It informed my interview, the most detailed I’ve seen anywhere, with Ottawa’s new police chief.
I have so far failed to generate any public discussion over police methods. My consolation is that a nearly identical debate over police tactics in Europe was front-page news in Le Monde two weeks ago, and that Le Monde saw fit to translate its article into English for broader discussion. Oh, those journalists. Always suckers for fun reads.
In his critique, Wark is amused by my often-expressed wish that “the federal government” should “talk with the protesters.” “Talk about what, and talk with whom is never quite clear,” he writes. He adds: “Wells surely needed to do battle with the Prime Minister’s own reflection on the question of talking to the protesters—that they didn’t come to Ottawa to be heard, but to be obeyed.”
Well, if you insist. I’m careful to offer no sweeping criticism of the federal government in the book. They had a hard job. But on Wark’s narrower question, the Prime Minister’s “reflection” is bullshit on stilts. It fails at the first pronoun — “they.”
The policing doctrine that animated the OPP and that Le Monde faults the French police for ignoring was developed in parallel, while the OPP was coming up with the PLT model in the 2010s, in 12 European Union countries. As Le Monde notes again, in another article it translated into English again, the model was developed during a three-year field study called GODIAC, for "Good Practice for Dialogue and Communication as Strategic Principles for Policing Political Manifestations in Europe.”
A GODIAC handbook identifies four principles of good public-order policing: “education, facilitation, communication and differentiation.” Educate the police about who they’re policing. Facilitate peaceful protest. Communicate with all stakeholders, absolutely including protesters. (Just by the way, when somebody who’s spent his life in universities asks “talk about what” and “talk with whom,” I’m really not sure I’m the glib one.)
The fourth principle is “differentiate.” In other words, do not ever treat a crowd of protesters as an undifferentiated “they.” In Chapter 5 of my fun book, we learn that the Convoy’s ringleaders had, in many cases, never met before they got to Ottawa; that they disagreed about fundamental points of their argument and their plans; and that they reacted in starkly different ways to the same events. Police are learning through trial and study that such cleavages come in handy. GODIAC’s handbook: “Undifferentiated police intervention can instigate unification of crowd members against them, involving those with no prior confrontational intentions.”
The OPP was spurred to rethink its methods after Dudley George got shot at Ipperwash. In Europe, it was the anti-globalization donnybrooks at a series of summits in the early 2000s. I was at the Quebec City Summit of the Americas in 2001, a three-day sinfonia concertante for teargas canisters and riot shields. There was definitely a satisfying amount of “they” going on there.
I suspect I have had limited success making readers think about this because in Canada, educated people think cops are morons or worse. The funny thing is, when you stop patting yourself on the back for half a minute, you find many large piles of social-science research, produced by cops or at their behest in dozens of jurisdictions. The cop in downtown Ottawa who’d read more of it than anyone had a specific list of people to talk to and a specific list of topics to discuss, based on a decade and a half of study and experience. Sorry that wasn’t clearer in my fun book.
There’s more. Chapter 5 cites the work of Berkeley health-care historian Elena Conis, whose 2015 book Vaccine Nation tracks 150 years of resistance to public-health vaccination drives. Conis gets vaccines, believes they work, mourns disease and death among people who could have been protected. But she notes that different groups have found different reasons for refusing vaccines at different times, and that their reasons are often socially constructed. This suggests that every time somebody in a position of authority says, “By God, we’re all getting vaccinated now,” a bunch of other people will say no. Damnedest thing. Terribly annoying. But I’m given to understand that the field of human endeavour devoted to noticing that kind of thing is called social science.
By now I’ve written nearly an extra chapter about the book in its defence. Time to wrap up. A final note about tone. Some readers worry that I’m insufficiently censorious in the book about the Convoy protesters. Your mileage may vary: I do point out that the noise and exhaust fumes they kicked up easily meets my definition of violence against my Centretown neighbours, who had done nothing to deserve it. I have no problem with the arrests and the charges. The courts will sort it out, approximately as always.
But we are living in a stupid time, and to me one of the purest manifestations of the current stupidity is the number of people who seem to think that “I disagree with you” or “I think you’re wrong” or even “I think you’re dangerously wrong” are synonyms for “I don’t have to acknowledge you.” I’m not sure that sentiment has had a great decade. I look at what happened in the city I love in February 2022 and I’m not sure what would fix it is one more writer who’s really angry. Please don’t read my book if you can’t handle such thoughts.