CanCon 2017: Main Post
I attended the CanCon (Canadian Content) Literature Conference in 2017… as well as in 2016 , in 2015 , in 2014 , and in 2013 . This post will chronicle my path through the 2017 convention, with a particular focus on the panels about NaNoWriMo, Magic Systems, Star Trek, and Bribery; other panels will be their own posts. Yes, as per usual, it seems to take me close to a year to have time to edit the Con files. Largely because being a teacher, it tends to be a summer affair.
First, a note about the setup this year. Con badges were Roleplay centred, much like last year, but unlike last year they were card sized, geared for Str, Dex, Int, Wis, Cha and Con only. I was Level 5 (see previous attendance) and chose to be a Bard (+1 Dex, +1 Cha). (I was a Wood Elf bard named Rolen Amastacia in a recent D&D 5th ed game, plus I have the whole math/music parody songs thing going for me.) There were still experience points based on what you did, as well as random Quests in various places around the Con (the reg desk, con suite, etc.) I’ll touch on a lot of that again at the end.
I aimed to get to the convention around 8pm Friday, after doing the usual day of teaching. My first encounter after registration was actually with the cousin of one of my students, so apparently I’m recognizable now? Go figure. Then I headed to “Countdown to NaNoWriMo”, having participated in 2016 (the year when I was off work).
There were maybe 10 other people there, plus the panelists: Kaitlin Caul, Kim McCarthy, Angela S. Stone, Helena Verdier, and Chris Kelworth as moderator. The first four are the MLs (Municipal Liaisons) for Ottawa, Chris having been an ML for Hamilton in 2012. Apparently in Hamilton they do waffles on November 30th, which was seen as being a good idea.
I don’t have a lot of notes here, but it was remarked on that Ottawa is the fourth most active NaNoWriMo in the world, behind only Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York – putting us ahead of London, England. Last year 15.3% of people reached 50,000 words. But the overall goal is really to enjoy the experience. In fact goals could be individual – like “write every day, regardless of the amount”. And if the goal isn’t motivating you, change it. The website was written up, and the forums were mentioned.
Also, 75-100k words is seen as novel length (60-75k for romance novels). I’ve written “stampede of creativity”, but am not sure if that meant the panel, or the NaNo experience. (Or both.) Helena addressed some of “how do you find time”, as she’s a full time student working part time with the government. Kaitlin has a book coming out (Black Squirrel Books, October 28th) which had a genesis in NaNo. For Angela, I’ve written “Mr. Van der Van”, which was possibly a tip for increasing word count, but I’m not certain. Kim spearheads Camp NaNos, which take place in months other than Novembers.
At the end, they had little keychains, engraved with “you fail only if you stop writing”. (For the record, I was motivated to try NaNo 2017 despite working. I put a dent in my time travel story, even though I didn’t reach the 50k.)
From there (after talking to Filk people in the hall) I went to the panel, “No, You Can’t Actually Do That With a Computer” ; I semi-transcribed that one, and put it out in it’s own post . When that ended at 10pm, I went to the ConSuite, where I ended up talking some time travel with Joe Mahoney. Also saw Kari with some people, beer was spilt, I left about 10:20pm. Total for Friday, 40 XP.
On Saturday, I had to deal with some school related things (though I might have been busy with other things too, yet I recall having marking with me), arriving a little before 2pm to check the Exhibitor’s Room, then going to the 2pm panel, “They’re More Like Guidelines: Rules of Magic.” The room was full! The panelists were Kari Sperring, Gregory A. Wilson, James Alan Gardner, Amal el-Mohtar, and Violette Malan as moderator.
Violette: Should there be rules?
Amal: It depends. Need a philosophy, not “coin in the slot and magic comes out”. Versus very strict rules of contracts and exchange. “I love asking questions of your magic system?” Do you want it coherent or incoherent.
James: Do what serves the story best. Putting magic up against weird science, I have to have different characters for both. Practicing one is different, with emotional resonances.
Gregory: Agreed. The main thing you’ll hear is consistency. If the consistency is that it’s inconsistent, you need internal consistency. What system would develop from that world, or if you have the magic system first, what would be built up around one that type. Fireballs and explosions don’t work for being inconspicuous. There’s also sound based. One organically proceeds from the other.
Violette: There’s different systems in different books for Kari.
Kari: I’m the outlier here, using the early medieval period. Magic is part of how people define and explain the world. Some have to do with faith, repeatability, fear, geography… so consistency does matter, but what matters for me is that it’s coherent within the context of that character. “The right blood”, “not fully human”, “it’s the ether” depending on the character. Same weight as what people eat, or kinship systems. Ritual or willing something, it has to work in that context.
Violette: Not magic to the characters themselves, it’s their world.
Violette: Any issues with later books, should have done something differently earlier?
James: If it’s established, either you are consistent, or you have the holy s**t moment and the people who can “use system two” show up.
Violette: So you deal with it when it comes up.
Gregory: If you’ve developed enough weight around the system, then when it’s altered, it should have a big impact. The concern is when you are unintentionally doing that. The term coherency is a good one, dealing with circumstances when they are altered. The danger is when those shifts happen too many times. Know a bit about book two and book three to not run into this. I’m not sure you can get away with radical shifts one or two times – sure there’s some exceptions – as it begins to undercut the foundations of the world you established.
Kari: If I say “okay reader, let’s take a step and say this is not reality”, it’s an alternative, lets us suspend disbelief. If you’re a really good writer, you can step outside those rules. “We can’t fly today, because the winds are too strong.” The will to fly is undermined (British writer mentioned). Telling you about YOUR magic, not the character’s.
Gregory: I don’t know that I could go along with shifting about that rapidly.
Kari: Oh, exactly.
Gregory: But the idea of not having the will [to fly] can be built in from the beginning. It’s a character moment.
(Some talk of things like losing strength when the sun goes down.)
Violette: Slight change of subject. Any magical systems you feel are “used up”? As in “Oh, here we go again”.
Amal: No, because I think sometimes we get a little caught up in the idea of something being played out or used up. I’m more interested in seeing the “played out thing” done super well. As far back as Terry Pratchett, we had Women’s Magic and Men’s Magic, and that to me is played out… yet reading “Uprooted” it made so much sense. It was also computer programming, resonances of code. It should have been cliche, but it wasn’t. The same things that make it “played out” is what makes it affect us when it’s done well. It takes a deliberateness and an awareness.
James: Amal mentioned “Starlight Wood”(?), and there’s fairy tales we’ve heard for hundreds of years. But we have different takes on them and on the characters.
Violette: Craft trumps cliche.
Amal: Yeah. Unfamiliar with the “Craft Sequence” series? It’s amazing. Max Gladstone, start with “Three Parts Dead”, all the titles have a number in them to show their place in chronology. But they’re all great. Premise is, a world where there were Gods, then sorcerers challenged them over the ability to do magic. And the sorcerers won, and now they’re literally lawyers. All magic is done with contracts. There’s a book where the villain is student debt, but with magic, connecting contracts to capitalism.
Violette: It’s taxing, kind of.
James: Contrast with a divine based system, and those who want to hold onto it.
Gregory: Yes, Gods are literally socialism.
Kari: And the Calvinist attitude to money.
Gregory: That is such a good point, never thought about that before.
Kari: About your basic D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) magic? If I have to read another book where wizards have to read all the spells in the morning [and forget]… you can do it if you’re David Eddings, the first, and it’s of his time. But I think it’s mechanical magic, it doesn’t have a coherence in rooted culture. The origin is Gary Gygax, and thinking what if Napoleon had magic.
Violette: It isn’t organic.
Amal: I agree with your saying it being frustrating, but there is a place where magic can be an intrusion [into the world].
Kari: Precisely, yes.
Amal: Where you have to carry the books around with you. And magic manifesting in moments of grace. I grew up with “World of Darkness”.
Kari: The many worlds hypothesis, high energy physics goes beyond comprehension. Again, it’s an intrusion, suddenly the world is overrun with elves and demons.
Amal: I was intimidated by the idea of writing SF until I read a bit of quantum physics and realized it’s basically magic.
James: Physicists, calm down.
Amal: I’m familiar with these from philosophies of magic and sympathy. It has a logic to it, at the borders of what we know. Epistemologies, systems of knowledge, how we know what we know.
At 2:25pm, the panel was opened to questions.
(About games, and game balance. Things that work well for a game, less well for storytelling?)
Gregory: Book 1 of “A Wizard of Earthsea”. Things are mundane, send rain somewhere else. Over time there is an impact, the lack of understanding of consequences and gradual growing awareness. (Ged, a teen with more or less a tactical nuke on an island.) When in fact the *greater knowledge you have, the LESS you can do, because there’s a greater impact on the world* .
(Magic as intrusion again, Council of Wizards effect.)
James: That’s something we haven’t talked about. Magic sometimes creates the Mages College, and social structures. Itself a source of story or commentary.
Gregory: It goes back to asking those questions. Rules that exist of magic, versus rules we impose to control magic we already possess. Cultural requirements.
Kari: Wizards trying to get rid of environmental protection laws.
Amal: Dislocating, consider new technologies before we took them for granted. Treating the act of reading as magical and disruptive. People who could inscribe runes – it was magic because it was writing, not because it was runes. Been reading articles written about the internet in the early 1990s. Some utopian views, some dystopian, who got it right, who didn’t, leads to alternate histories.
James: Real life magic as psychological technologies. You have a funeral, and now you’re confident that granddad will go to heaven.
Kari: Witch wars, and hexes, and curses, and she says “oh stop it”. We have this terrible tendency if we’re white and western to think it’s something we’ve grown out of.
(Thinking of power structures. Who gets to control magic may not be the wizards.)
Kari: Mages enslaved by elves, and controlled because of their power, and tied to vampirism.
Amal: People who rescue the world over and over are enslaved.
Violette: And pariahs.
Amal: The “Broken Earth” Trilogy by Jemisin.
James: They sit at the sweet spot between Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Amal: Starts out with magic working a certain way, and you change it, she does it brilliantly. It’s thermodynamics and then something they call “magic” comes out instead.
Gregory: For broken Gods, “The House of Shattered Wings” is an example. Angels fallen, and power is used by gangs in Paris.
Kari: And there are dragons.
(Larry Niven’s “The Magic Goes Away”, magic as a non renewable resource.)
Amal: Kind of a spoiler, Mishell Baker’s “Borderline”. The second book’s even better. Very drawn out of “Changeling: The Dreaming”, gorgeous prose, there’s reveals about magic in the first book that brings in an ethical question of using magic at all. Deftly done. Protagonist is a bisexual women with borderline personality disorder, having lost her legs, who uses prosthetics.
Kari: A book where the cost of magic is blood, it’s old. Mages have to bleed themselves dry to do magic. It’s a scary world.
Amal: Or magic done by taking yourself as close to death as possible.
Gregory: Costs of magic and collateral damage – and ethical systems. That’s also important. At it’s worst, D&D doesn’t do enough of that, not enough of a cost. More is needed to give it weight, to have it matter when people do something.
(Seeing magic is tech, or as a nebulous thing – versus thinking of magic as craft or art, a creative making process?)
Amal: Brings to mind Mary Robinette books, “Glamourist Histories”. There’s an overlap there between tech and craft, they’re more connected than we say. Playing pianoforte is important. Manipulating shadows and light, it’s a gendered thing, pretty when a woman does it but art and tech when a man does it.
Gregory: Two things come to mind. First, being able to break it down by strings of notes, “Swann’s Way”(?). Marcel Cruz for pages, sense of music is indistinguishable from magic. Second, we talked about “Shadowshaper”, using street art and graffiti one can draw spirits from the walls. The better artist you are, the more capable you are of controlling them and understanding what you’re looking it. White male industrialists challenge something like this.
James: The second book starts to bring in other systems.
Gregory: Haven’t read it, sorry.
James: The shadow shaping latino community, and other ways of approaching magic.
Amal: I think at the end of the first, she starts recruiting, and her friends find other ways, and it’s all connected to art. Channeling the spirits is an act of resistance to dominant paradigms.
Gregory: I would make the argument, as I do with my students, that freestyle rap for them is magical. Not hyperbole, it’s a challenging that draws on strengths from classical music.
Kari: The British graphic novelist Terry Gilliam. Every 90 years, a group of Gods reincarnate in young people aged 12-20, and after 3 years they will all be dead. They’re a part of the subculture and counterculture, very gender fluid.
Violette: We are technically out of time. Last observations?
James: I will say that resonance is important. Archetypes and rap, what it means to practitioners, some sort of passion.
Kari: If it feels comfortable when you’re writing, you’re probably on the right track. So you’re not going “hang on a minute, where did he get this from”.
Gregory: Also as an act of will.
TREKKING TO TREK
When that panel ended, I went to “What Makes Romantic Chemistry Between Characters?” . It was even more full (a couple people on the floor). I transcribed that one a bit better, and have separated it into its own post . Following that, at 4pm, I went to a Reading . It was Robert J. Sawyer, followed by Eric Choi.
Robert has published 23 novels since 1990, and was reading from his 24th. It’s in progress, the working title is “Tube Alloys”, the code name of the British/Canada programme to develop nuclear weapons during World War II. Robert’s applied 12 times for a Canada Council Grant, always mentioning Science Fiction. All – or most – characters are real people, the premise of the novel being an extrapolation from a pivot point. When people left the Manhattan Project to teach in September, there were issues like the fundamental instability of fusion in the sun, destroying us in 100 years. He’s researched, knowing things like the term “luminaries” for physicists, considerations when the Germany target became Japan, and Oppenheimer losing security clearance. He read three sample passages.
Eric (“how about that for an opening act”) spoke a bit about quantum computing and encryption, as background for his short story. There’s the idea that someone tomorrow could crack security (even without quantum computing), and then everything would be known stretching back into the past. D-Day was Decryption Day. His story (“Decrypted”, which appeared in Analog Science) looks at the effects on one individual, and includes some subtle details, like the restoration of the postal service (can’t trust online anymore).
At 5pm, I went to Trek Out with Robert J Sawyer & Steven Erikson.
Early on in the panel, it was mentioned that “If you only gave us more we’d watch” is not true, as “Star Trek Continues” (web series) has professional actors and episodes that are free. On the 18th of October, the first of the two-hour long finale episodes debut, which Robert J. Sayer wrote. Robert mentioned the first episode of Trek he saw wasn’t first run, it was “Devil in the Dark”, the Horta. When they went off the air, it was syndicated 5 times a week.
What do you love about it? The presentation of humanity in the future, being better than we are now. Which is something the series has moved away from; watching “The Orville” these days is more respectful and reminiscent of the original series than Discovery, or even the penultimate movie (Star Trek: Into Darkness). A mistake, letting the cynicism of modern age infuse Trek. (Robert thinks Yes.)
Robert mentioned how he had the dual identity of Spock in the 60s, American and Canadian, feminist mother and father who believed in inclusivity. “I did love Lost in Space when I was young but have come to appreciate how truth to power the show was.” Kirk has become a parody of a womanizer, he was never that. Fourth episode, “Naked Time”, start of women’s liberation and civil rights. Riley is going “one more time” on the comm, Kirk goes to Uhura, “Try to shut him off!”. Captain in position of rank, superior as a white man and physically bigger and looming over her. She yells back at him, “If you think I could do something…”. What they’d would dismiss as uppity, and Kirk’s next line is “Sorry”. He was in the wrong. Forget what you thought were the power dynamics. What matters is, if you’ve been a dick, you apologize for being a dick. In 30 seconds, aspirational.
Steven asks, so what happened to Star Trek? Robert feels it lost it’s way, the motion picture was the last time Roddenberry had any real say. But, Steven points out, Roddenberry insisted on no real conflict on the Enterprise, which unplugged dramatic potential. The outsider became the threat, and that notion of the outside threat begins to permeate everything else. No Kirk and McCoy, or McCoy and Spock having different world views clashing. Robert remarks that Roddenberry did have Alzheimer’s.
Steven’s favourite episode of the original series was the one with Balok, “Corbomite Maneuver”. (First one actually filmed after pilots.) Robert’s was the one with Flint, “Requiem for Methuselah”. He thinks the single best scene was at the end, Kirk is demoralized, destroyed emotionally, and has summed himself up with enormous candour to Flint. He’s not a womanizer, he’s a lonely sad man, and he admits it in front of the only person he could, Spock. And the scene continues, McCoy comes in, eternal triangle, then Spock performs the ultimate act of love, leans in and says ‘Forget’. Taking on, or relieving his friend’s pain. Great scene for all characters, including McCoy with the soliloquy about love. (Written by Jerome Bixby.)
Steven adds that “Corbomite” embodied everything that Star Trek would become, an outside force that was threatening, and when you meet it, it’s a benign alien entity. Friendly first contact, that’s fantastic. Original series optimism. “That’s what I regret the loss of.” At least we’re getting the Klingon point of view now, but it is the great enemy, the unknown. They talk a bit about William Shatner, and how he was the only cast member to win an Emmy, for “Boston Legal”.
Steven asks for Robert’s thoughts on “Star Trek: Discovery”?
Robert: “I love it. There are enough little nods to the original series that make me think they know what they’re doing. I think Michael Burnham will turn out to be Pike’s “Number One”, and from DS9, when Kor, Kang and Koloth show up they were seeking the Albino – Voq?
Steven: “You know about the spores? We’ve already got holographic communication, my suspicion is those spores are going to force a retrograde of technology, to return things [to TOS]. I may be wrong.”
Robert: “The clue you’re right, is [in the intro] they show you the blueprints of the ship, and a phaser from Pike’s era which had three turrets at the front, and a communicator. We’re heading in the right direction. I’m trusting these guys, I’ll be furious if they don’t.”
From the audience, thoughts about the controversy on “Voyager”.
Robert: “I love Kate Mulgrew, I loved her from Mrs. Columbo before. But Voyager did not work for me. Ultimately I loved Robert Picardo, a little one note in the first season, and Jeri Ryan. The rest of the cast actively irritated me, particularly Paris.”
Steven: “Oh yeah.”
Robert: “I’m sure it’s the writing. Robert Beltran famously would curse out the writers on the sound stage. And Neelix, I would have let him off at the first airlock. I liked every character on DS9, sometimes good scripts, sometimes not, but formula got established – seven main characters.”
Steven: “I liked Voyager, but it frustrated the hell out of me. You set out these two groups, with Maquis, that’s where drama comes from. But no, it became the usual group hug of command. But the potentials of it, and some eps were phenomenal – the Saurian species.”
Robert: “Stolen from my novel ‘Fossil Hunter’. I love Brannon Braga, we worked on Flashforward, but man, when I saw that… I got fewer emails when I won the Hugo than “Did you see Voyager that night?”.”
Steven: “Not an uncommon story, the amount of theft. Like Kes and Ocampa. One person noticed a pile of scripts, looked at the first, top page was ripped off. Realized it was one of his clients, they’re stealing the entire script… calling them out on it to pay the writer. It was appalling.”
Robert: “Appalling. But Voyager had it’s merits, even if it’s the least attractive ship.”
(Kaitlin in audience remarks that “The Orville” ship was based on it.)
From the audience, a remark on Starfleet in DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight” to the new “Discovery”.
Robert: There’s a real ambiguity about whether Star Trek is military or not. Sometimes Kirk says he’s a solider, other times it’s not a military ship. So, wars, Xindi war in Enterprise, and now this one in Discovery. What would Trek be like in wartime, not peace time? Reason I’m keen on it in Discovery is, Burnside has stood up and said she’s lived by Starfleet principles and will die by them. She’s fighting the battles the whole ship used to fight.
From the audience, about the new reboot movies.
Steven: I liked the first reboot movie. I thought Karl Urban [McCoy] was fantastic. Less so the Spock character.
Robert: I like Quinto.
Steven: “They wrote Spock out of Spock. He’s a treacherous guy who puts bombs on shuttles when Khan is not actually… everything about that second film is infuriating. Hollywood seemed utterly obsessed with creating echoes of the twin towers coming down, now superhero films and Trek involve massive destruction of landscape and cities where you don’t see the bodies. Almost a whitewashing of the image that repeats, perhaps to desensitize the viewers. … And where did the science go, it’s just disappeared.”
Robert: I’m not averse to recasting, was done on “Star Trek Continues”. And who’s your favourite Sherlock Holmes, mine is Jeremy Brett. Why should Star Trek be the one where you can’t recast it? … [and] of course we want better [bridge] screens, we can build them now.
Steven: I love the notion of rebooting.
There was more back and forth with audience members about JJ Abrams wanting to make Star Wars not Trek, and that the new movies hadn’t earned the Kirk-Spock relationship. Robert agreed with that.
Robert: The question people always ask is “what’s the tone of the show”. Define it in one or two words. “Dark, cynical, edgy, romantic” … Trek is sometimes dark and edgy, sometimes light and funny, sometimes an action adventure, sometimes a moral story. An anthology. You can recognize an episode title because each is so different from the other. With Battlestar Galactica, they’re all so unrelentingly similar.
Steven: It’s true, it allows the writers to have room to do stuff. If everything’s being channelled into a particular tone or atmosphere, it limits writers. Networks thought they had the power, but didn’t, Roddenberry was often winning his arguments. And paying for it later.
Robert brings up Stan Robinson, in first generation of African American executives. As the network exec for the first two years, Stan “got” Star Trek and wouldn’t let them be lazy about it. “The disconnect the audience had with The Motion Picture is that Roddenberry spent 10 years telling people his version of the future, and lack of conflict, and when he made it, where’s the space battles.” Roddenberry had convinced himself of his own truth.
It’s like Brian Williams’s tale from Vietnam, every time you tell a story, you reinvent it, that’s how memory works, and twenty years later, Brian was in the helicopter shot down, not in the one watching it get shot down. “Roddenberry forgot all the things he didn’t want to remember.”
I chimed in here! I asked about their opinions on the Trek Animated Series.
Steven: Here’s the thing wrong with that. 16 episodes in the first series and 8 in the second. Eliminate the ones that are direct sequels or direct remakes – “How Sharper” is a remake of “Requiem” – and you have very little that’s new and fresh. The bit that was, was significant… in Star Trek Discovery, they’re still playing off of DC Fontana’s “Yesteryear”, Spock being young. Though there’s a third kind that you kind of have to dismiss – “An episode where someone becomes a giant/everyone becomes old/becomes tiny/young/a monster”, these are are things we can do cheaply in animation, but this is not justification for a story. Should have said “what should season four look like”, not “how can we nostalgically look back”.
From the audience, Star Trek as propaganda machine?
Robert mentions the Tricorder XPRIZE, a contest for a device that had to identify three specific medical conditions plus one more from a list, without breaking the skin. No blood samples, etc. The prize was a million dollars, the winners, it cost more than that to make.
Steven: Many things were production solutions to things we couldn’t afford to do.
Robert: You could not show a hypodermic needle breaking the skin in the 60s. Rigid code, people were squeamish. So air-spray hypo came from that.
An audience member adds, people at NASA who were recruited by Nichelle Nichols.
Robert: Absolutely. Minority recruiter. Soviets had the first woman in 1965, but never in United States, not even someone who was not Christian. By 1980s, everyone realized what a mistake that was. Nichelle was hired with a mandate for reaching out, come be part of the journey.
Mae Jemison mentioned, first African American woman in space, had a TNG cameo as a transporter officer.
Steven: So if you’re 9-10 years old now, and watching Trek now, is that going to have the same effect? I wonder. I wonder if that dark vision [of Discovery] is too nihilistic or dystopian. As opposed to inspiring a sense of wonder. I think “The Orville” will do it more.
Robert: “Orville” does have that spirit. Seth MacFarlane is the star but Brannon Braga runs the room.
An audience member says they see the new Discovery series as hopeful.
Robert: You and I were separated at birth, my friend, I will gladly take on your katra when you die. Here it is: 15 episodes of Discovery, we’ve had 4. If it’s the “Doomsday Machine” writ large, we’re at the point where Kirk says to Decker, “There is no fourth planet.” & “Don’t you think I know that? There was!”. It’s dark as hell half of the way through that episode. At the end, Kirk is saying it’s the first time a nuclear device has been used for peaceful purposes. If they don’t, I’m falsely predicting an ending, but I think that’s what we’re going to get.
A final question about favourite captain had Robert say “James Tiberius Kirk”. Steven adding that Scott Bakula is a really cool guy, and given a chance, “Enterprise” could have done amazing things.
I ran briefly into my friend Scott as I headed out; the ConSuite was closed for an appointment, Exhibitor’s Room was closed too, so I did a couple more Quests in the entryway and left a bit after 6pm. One quest gave me +5 XP, to go along with the +20 I’d amassed from two other quests. Total XP on Saturday of 155.
Sunday I got there as things were starting up at 10am, partly for the panels, partly because I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself in the afternoon worrying about things that needed to get done. (Were progress reports due for the first time since I returned to work maybe?)
I went to “Snakes and Ladders of Self-Publishing” at 10am, which was a panel of four, and then “The Writing Life: Past, Present and Future” at 11am, which was a panel of one, that being Robert J. Sawyer. I’ve put both of those panels into a separate post .
The last panel I attended was “Anatomy of bribe: What every writer needs to know about bribery and corruption”, a presentation by Sergeant Pat Poitevin. One of those things that might be useful to know to keep up with Scott Delahunt’s serial story “Unruly”, featuring a school that caters to those sorts of people.
Pat Poitevin noted that he was a sergeant as of 2 weeks ago, with 35 years of experience, the last six years specializing in anti-corruption. It’s a “passion of mine”, subject matter. Everyone here has seen a lot of headlines, can’t read a paper, see Donald Trump, without thinking of lack of ethics. So corruption is rampant. When we think about corruption, we think of what?
Can start with grand corruption. In Russia and Turkey, it’s embedded from the political sphere, it’s systemic. “Grand Corruption” involves everything that transpires within an organization/country. And Canada is not immune to this. Transparency International (TI) have a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) every year, rating countries on how likely it is for a person going to that country to be asked for a bribe. Businesses, people, and organizations look at these metrics to determine the risk. (Holds up page) This map is too small, but is basically red everywhere except a few places, which is high corruption. Shows it’s incipient everywhere. Sometimes very overt, sometimes very hidden. How do you define it? What would you define it as?
(Audience offers some answers)
Someone profiting from not doing their job, that’s one. Bending rules everyone else has to follow, influencing outcomes for benefit of one or both parties… There’s institutions, politicians, public servants who have authority over a process. There’s rules, corruption is for a business to get a personal benefit that others would not get in a fair and balanced, level playing field. It’s to force a person of authority to do something or NOT to do something to benefit an organization/company.
An executive wants to get a contract, they go to a public official, and depending on amount (could be minister if it’s millions, or lower functionary if less), they pay or give benefits to obtain that contract against all other bidders. When best quality and price should win. I’m not saying he’s corrupt, but he wants a contract, I’m a public official, I’ve got a wife, three girlfriends, you think I’ll do it for $20? The other two contractors had better services, but he gets it, and the product sucks. Other companies lose, he stole it, but who pays the price? If it’s building a bridge or a high-rise, to make up money [from low bid] what does he have to do? Inferior materials, pays vendors or pays engineer to look away from stuff he’s not putting in.
Corruption is theft of business opportunity . Is that just in money? What is a bribe to you? That’s what I’m looking for. It’s not just about exchange of money, dark glasses and a bag. You still have that, yes, but a lot of the time now, electronics through cyberspace and bitcoin, it’s not just about money. An example, you come to me as a contractor, you got a great service that my country wants. I need the bridge to be built, but what happens is it’s supposed to be a million, it costs ten million, so now a hospital isn’t being built. You come to me, you’re from Canada, and I have a son/daughter who are university age, and you have good universities there. Through your company, you’re sponsoring me, I still get a benefit.
An interesting case, Griffiths Energy, is public domain. Was in oil and gas. They went to the Chad ambassador in Washington, can you help me, I want a concession there. They sit down, you’re going to have to help us help you. Started a consulting firm, the President happens to be my cousin, don’t worry about that, I want the contract. Chad ambassador says he will set up the company, pay me 2 million up front and 20 million shares of the company. Is this illegal? He’s the ambassador. Lawyer from the company said he can’t do that, so within 24 hours, changed it to the Ambassador’s wife. Now it’s indirect, so the owner of the company said good. Then company owner dies.
Griffiths Energy now under new management, they want an IPO (Initial Public Offering), need to open the books, what do they find? A bribe. They call us, providing all the information, want the market to know that WE’RE clear, we’re ethical. (Company giving us the info usually doesn’t happen because of lawyers declaring privilege. Lasts 5-7 years, an international corruption investigation, versus this one that came to us on a silver platter.) Issue: Payer is dead, do have Chad ambassador. There was an agreement. Under Corruption Foreign Officials Act, all I have to prove is that you as an owner have a “success fee” (a bribe). That is the offence, we don’t have to prove the money was exchanged, just that you agreed it would be paid.
When we do a search, we take everything. Maybe not your dog, but your computers, phones, records, interviews. If there’s unethical executives and you’re employees, and you see the RCMP come in, you’re afraid. I just say “you going down for them?”. They’ll talk to you. We don’t know the lay of the land yet, have no bias against the company. They need to be clean for an IPO or the market will tank them.
Here, they pled guilty, and because they cooperated, it was a 10 million dollar fine and they show implementing controls. Griffiths Energy Company was bought out, worth billions now, so it paid off to come forwards. Dead owner was under the bus. The Chad Ambassador we went after for proceeds of crime. For 5 years, your fancy cars and trips, we assess all this – 20 million or 50 million on top of the initial bribe. So, is it worth it for them? No, but it’s a risk management, it takes time for us. I can tell you that a very large number (a majority) of people want to make things right. They’re employees like you, looking at consequences and cost, and at night want to tell their kids about making things right. But, still a high number focussed on money, those are ones we’re after.
In a marketplace where competition is twisted due to corruption, the ones that lose call the RCMP. Because of internet, and social media, and the millennial generation, for young people there’s a sense of justice out there. It’s more in public eye. Civil society’s pushing back on it. It’s easier for us to get information, harder for corrupt officials to hide, because Twitter and Facebook are amazing. They’re more and more under the light.
But the ones holding the light are getting shot, like in Turkey. … So it’s dangerous to speak out. Difficult. But in terms of authors? Think of the sense of drama. The storyline coming from there, it’s organized crime with a $5000 Armani suit.
Question: The case with the Ambassador, still in that position – what if he wasn’t. Protected position?
Response: It doesn’t matter, no. The only thing to change would be our ability to get information from that country. A high level public official sitting in a government that’s in place, it’s hard for us to get info from authorities, they’re protecting their own. We have to vette certain things – we can’t trust it, must be confirmed. If opposition now in place, we get the information the next day. Ambassador, I think he’s in London now, and all assets are frozen. Asset recovery is a big problem still. Canada is backwards in terms of transparency, shell company and shelf companies.
Clarification: Shell company, you can go online right now and start one within 15 minutes to hide your money. Is there a valid reason to have an anonymous company? Yes, in terms of negotiations, to buy out someone else. If you know you’re dealing with a big conglomerate like IBM, money goes up. A shelf company is different, it’s established by same law firm, but has directors and meeting minutes. All bogus. Can seem six years old, can demonstrate to regulators that there’s board meetings, give a sense of legitimacy if I do a limited background check. This is where the drama comes in, the plot or twist. It is the technique used to hide the money, and sophistication in approaching someone for a bribe. It’s not, I want $4000 every week. (Same account? Thank you.)
The approach now is more sophisticated. To say it overtly, it’s illegal, and it is surreptitious too, they don’t want to be seen. “There’s three other companies that want this, that guy brought me a coffee.” We have fees, it’s very complex, I’m very very busy, but might help you – success fee, or I have this great charity that helps build schools and hospitals, if you want to contribute. What is the name of that charity? My Vacation Fund. They hide, they don’t usually come in and say “give me money”, very seldom there’s an email “we want a bribe”. The vast majority of the time you never use that word, it’s a business transaction, “It’s just the way we do business”.
(Audience member asks about splitting a company into two to get away from corruption, Pat says he’ll come back to that.)
Question: How often is it dealing with corruption where it’s more a private citizen? Someone wants into a hospital.
Response: Those are “Facilitation payments”, it’s “B to B” or “business to business” corruption, as what you’re talking is still called commissions. No country in the world has bribery being legal. Now, is it acceptable, a part of daily life? Yes. Small “petty corruption”, versus political corruption, which is a minister or middle level people who can circumvent laws. Or bigger is rewriting laws. Petty is more the lower level, functionaries who give out licenses.
Licenses cost $50 or $200, but what does it say about the institution? If you have to do this whenever you want a permit? In India, $50 is months of salary. It’s not acceptable, it perpetuates, and it’s changing very, very slowly. The domino effect, if you start here, with a culture of corruption, a school can’t be built. The funds are going to the pockets of the elite, or it’s no longer in the budget, or you’re spending 10 times what it’s supposed to cost.
I go to other countries because their population is sick and tired of it. To get a job in India, you need to pay a bribe just to enter the building. The pay is so low that they can’t feed their kids. It’s easy to blame them for being corrupt, but the system is such that they don’t have a choice. I don’t blame them, they’re tired of living in that environment. Buying yourself into the police or a judge, then going to a sergeant and paying him to get choice spot on the highway where you can stop people to ask for bribes, that’s the reality. How can we help you? We’re not perfect, but we are more transparent. With US in the dumps, now Canada is being asked to help other countries. There’s many that do want to change.
In terms of stories, whether it’s in Canada or outside, business is now global, a global economy. Must accommodate for this, to send services or goods, via Amazon or other ways, we need to have a more level playing field. It’s a collective effort, not just by police. To investigate we need information, and if you’re not trained to recognize it, you won’t be able to tell us. Starts with education. “This is what it is, and this is what it does.”
Money sent to acquire baby monitors or other items that save lives, they checked it, it was in reality for a table like this, and a lamp. Where did the money go, raised by people like you? That’s what happens with corruption. There’s even genocide related to corruption. In Congo, called “Democratic”, there’s nothing democratic there. It’s a clan that gets the money, the pockets of the elite, and when a Canadian company goes in with a contract, paying a bribe, they perpetuate that. I have a problem with it, and so do you.
Canada controls 70% of the mining in the world. Along with Australia, we’re the best. In the past, a lot was unethical, mom and pop shops whose dream it was to be bought out by big guys. Need more transparency, money from the government has to be published, so at least the population is aware. And all G20 companies except China and Russia do this. I work with companies, health and safety is becoming daily lingo. We need to build trust for sustainability, and when we leave, you have a benefit for education.
Question: Is that coming out of Canada or society?
Response: Both. Companies understand that they need a corporate license to operate, a CSR license (Corporate Social Responsibility). At the PDAC (Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada) conference every year, I go in a red RCMP outfit with a stetson and ask CEOs, “What do you do to mitigate corruption?”. Most of them say this and that, or if they don’t, I say here’s what we can do. “We can’t afford —“ “No, you can’t afford not to. You don’t want me knocking on your door.”
There’s still a couple people, like operating in Congo, who say it’s just the way we do things. I’m a mountie, they don’t take it seriously! Still have work to do. But the companies will never be bought out or have a merger. Big ones won’t want to touch them, they’re stupid, and I tell them so. We’re trying to change things. [Connection to splitting a company above?]
Question: People with instant tickets. More your department, or up to the top?
Response: No, in the past we had units with no transparency or accountability. Unit was successful, so many arrests, can’t do that any more. Do we have crooked cops? Yes, like any country. If I find one, he or she will have huge trouble with everyone else. The acts of one reflect on everyone else, I hate it with a passion. Does it happen? Can’t eradicate it, same with murders, child molestation. But more checks and balances.
And why threaten my career because you’re greedy and stupid? If I see it, you’re going down. So in our country versus Indonesia, somewhere I’m well paid with good pension compensation, there’s no motivation to do this. But gambling problems or greed comes in, so from a story perspective, you can consider that. Mental health issues, PTSDs with first responders… my wife [Linda], an award winning writer, was a dispatcher of the RCMP. First two years, I was street undercover, I wasn’t there. But she understood, having had experience.
Question: What about money for a foundation?
Response: There’s a difference between lobbying, which is open, and corruption. In Canada, it’s much better controlled than in the US. Still, there’s problems, look at BC. But lobbying is okay, you can lobby me, anyone can lobby their MP… if it makes sense, lobby. It’s if it’s in a back room, not transparent, and this decision would not have been made unless this person/MP received a benefit, it’s corrupt. “Citizens United” in the USA [a nonprofit seeking limited government] say any company can give money in secrecy, don’t need to be accountable. It’s legalized political corruption.
Question: Didn’t you say bribery wasn’t legal anywhere?
Response: Because it’s part of the system, it’s not considered in the same vein. We see it as corrupting, but it is a political decision, an institutional decision. Once a senator is elected, the next week they’re on phone to get money for their next campaign. There’s rooms where senators are supposed to spend 3 hrs a day getting money for campaigns.
Question: On the nature of humanity?
Response: I should be the biggest pessimist, but I’m not. I also work with young people, at universities, a program called Global Anti-Corruption. I talk to millennials, I lecture, ask who wants to work with SNC (when in media), and no one raised their hand. I look at the change in mentality around the world, with our young people demanding things to be ethical. Because I have friends on social media in Congo. Be careful with millennials, they’re smart. I say, if you’re you’re not ethical, and there’s no ways to report unethical behaviour, they call me. If they do, you’ve failed. When I go to Columbia, Indonesia, I see the change.
But it’s not linear. It’s up and down. And shit happens. But civil society is creating momentum, raising awareness and consciousness. We don’t want to be messed up because our Brand gets mixed up. Collapsed building in Bangladesh, 1400 people died. No one paid a bribe, but they didn’t do due diligence on the supply chain, someone looked away when they added two stories. Boom, when it came out, Loblaws stock tanked, they were boycotted, paid millions of dollars to deal, all despite never paying a bribe. Hit their Brand.
Question: And the VW (Volkswagen) emissions scandal?
Response: Corrupt conduct, corruption is at the source of all human ills. It feeds and fuels terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking, everything is based on corruption. So if we don’t deal with that conduct, we won’t be able to change. It’ll take time. In Canada we don’t have the ability to have info on shell companies. Huge problem, we’re criticized, we can’t just criticize other people.
Question: What of the plight of whistleblower? Blackballed?
Response: It’s a problem that exists everywhere right now. It’s getting better slowly and slowly. In Canada, we have protection for federal public services, but nothing specific. There’s a criminal code offence, so if you’re a CEO of a company who threatens an employee, I can charge you. Never seen a charge laid, but we have it. The life of the whistleblower is destroyed, we don’t have legislation for proaction, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has criticized us for it. How can we criticize someone with ethics, when they have a mortgage, and will never be working in their field again.
The best companies have the best whistleblowing programs. Ninety percent of the calls is human relations issues, but it means people trust the system. By dealing with things openly and quickly to give trust to employees on small things, like culture or racism, can then trust on bigger issues. It’s not just about control and laws and politics. If you incentivize, “I want that contract”, get someone like me coming in and saying ethics. If sales manager says “we suck because we didn’t meet profit, I don’t care how you make the next contract”, the talk is out the window. If that same manager says “we’re going to do better this month, remember who we are and what we stand for”, it changes the mindset a bit.
We can have the best controls, but if not the proper culture, it’s zero. That’s basically it. Could talk for hours, I’m passionate, but look to storylines of individuals. Death, murder, mayhem it’s all connected, people want to protect their interest. “Thank you. I’ll take your payments before you leave.”
With that having wrapped up just after 12:50, I dashed up to the Consuite for one more adventure before the doors closed for an event. Then a last one by the elevators (failed that one too) before my 1:05pm departure. Sunday XP was only 45.
So, final total of 240 XP. Points that came from passing quests were #1 (Hurricane Marie), #9 (Murderer), #12 (It’s a Trap) and #16 (Wounded). Quests I failed were #2 (Storm the Castle), #5 (Sicilian vs Poison – but after failing I was OK), #6 (Excalibur, both fails), #7 (Sing for Supper), #10 (Wretched Hive), #13 (Snakes), #14 (Grimoire), #15 (Zombies), #18 (Story Pitch, lost charisma), #19 (Crippled God) and #20 (Windigo, lost HP). I never tracked down #3, #4, #8, #11 or #17. I must say, I do like that some quests involved multiple paths (else I’d have failed #16) or a second outcome (like #5), but you really had to roll high. (It’s about attrition.)
And that was my CanCon 2017 experience. For more reading, you can have a look at my previous years of CanCon posts, or the serial I update twice per month, or my webcomic archive . A reminder that attributions/quotations may have errors due to my typing speed, so don’t take them as fact, and mind the context. If you have something to add, do leave a comment for me! Thanks for reading.