Circle the scribes

Gordon Sinclair Jr. with Winnipeg Humane Society puppy photo by Carreen Maloney

Gordon Sinclair Jr. with Winnipeg Humane Society puppy
photo by Carreen Maloney

Anyone who has spent time writing understands it can be a lonely act. Especially true if you are writing a book. Particularly when you are trained as a newspaper journalist accustomed to the satisfaction and excitement of daily deadlines and continuous running feedback from editors and readers.

That feeling of writer’s isolation is compounded when people are actively attempting to block your work, although the extra resistance can serve to entrench determination.

One of the ways I’m coping with the hostility coming my way is by reaching out for support from other journalists I know and respect. As a group, they tend to be the most understanding about what I’m trying to accomplish here. One after another, the journalists have been supportive, encouraging me to finish.

They all furnish the same words of advice: “Just get the story.”

I repeat this mantra to myself when the clouds of hate and rage roll in. That simple but magical little sentence keeps my computer keys clicking despite the distractions and threats.

Last week, an iconic Canadian journalist showed up on the West Coast. He added his words of support for my project. In fact, he became the first person to read large sections of the manuscript, editing pen in hand. He’s already started making sage suggestions to improve the pace and flow of the book for the readers.

The journalist I’m referring to is Gordon Sinclair Jr., a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. I began reading Sinclair’s columns when he started writing them back in 1981. I was 12 years old. At age 17, when I expressed an interest in journalism, my mother drove me down to the Free Press newsroom and dropped me off to spend a couple of days watching Winnipeg’s most famous columnist at work.

By 18 I was fully bitten by the news bug. I traveled to Ottawa to attend Carleton University’s prestigious School of Journalism. But Winnipeg drew me back home each summer, where I cut my teeth as a young cub reporter at the Freep. That grew into a full-time reporting position following graduation. I saw firsthand how readers responded to Sinclair’s columns, which ran five times a week back then. His column continues to be immensely popular, and — at times — intensely controversial. There is an interactive, personal quality to Sinclair’s writing that draws readers in whether they agree with his opinions or not.

“To write about someone, you don’t have to agree with them — who they are, or what they are doing,” Sinclair said. “It’s all about informing and helping people understand humanity. It’s about understanding a story. It’s our job is to shed light on things. Sometimes the light needs to be shone in the darkest of places.”

When Sinclair’s book Cowboys and Indians: The Shooting of J.J. Harper was published in 1999, it generated a flurry of media attention and received rave reviews.

“Sinclair pursued the story of the shooting of J.J. Harper so single-mindedly and so painstakingly, he became a character in this remarkable story, and a target for the police,” notes the book’s inside cover.

Sinclair wrote and researched Cowboys and Indians on and off for 10 years. His diligence resulted in a magnum opus. Sinclair won a Manitoba Human Rights Award, and the book itself won the 1999 Ellis Award for best non-fiction. It also garnered Sinclair the first of three National Newspaper Awards — the Canadian equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize — for his columns on the Harper case. Cowboys and Indians has appeared on reading lists for a variety of classes, including journalism at Red River College, sociology at University of Winnipeg, native studies at University of Toronto, and policing at Douglas College in British Columbia. Even Manitoba high school students taking their diploma by correspondence can select Cowboys and Indians as a reading choice.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming Uniquely Dangerous will reach the same level of success as Cowboys and Indians. That’s a big act to follow. But with investigative journalists like Sinclair generously offering up their wisdom and encouragement, I’m not giving up on that dream just yet.

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Here’s how Cowboys and Indians is described on the book’s back cover:

When J.J. Harper of the Island Lake Tribal Council was fatally shot on a wintry Winnipeg street in 1988, the city police department was quick to absolve the officer involved from all blame. Less than a day after the shooting, Police Chief Herb Stephen announced that Harper had died during a struggle for Constable Robert Cross’s gun.

But the truth was not so cut and dried. Far from closing the case, Stephen’s remarks were just the start of this dramatic tale of sex, death, threats, flimsy charges, and a police force so out of control that a prominent lawyer, a senior Crown attorney, and a respected journalist all had reason to suspect they were being watched by the police.

Pursued doggedly by Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair Jr., the stranger-than-fiction story of the shooting of J.J. Harper points a finger at the growing disaster of race relations and policing in Canada’s inner cities.

About Carreen Maloney


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