Learning the Language of “Woke”

One of my writing influences in my much younger days was the journalist Edwin Newman, a long time broadcaster for NBC. A foreign correspondent who travelled and reported from around the world, meticulous in how he wrote and the use of language, and would say nothing if nothing needed to be said. He was in the truest and best sense a reporter of the “old school”. His love of the English language and its use was clearly a subject near and dear to him, eventually writing two books about the proper use of language: “A Civil Tongue” and “Strictly speaking”. The books were attempts to sound the alarm and possibly curb our language from turning into a pablum of double speak and mediocrity; which he believed would ultimately irreparably damage the role of journalism. That was 1976.

Some 45 years later we seem to have reached that pinnacle of mediocrity, a total loss of objective reportage, the polarizing and prejudice of any political discussions and the outright abuse and misuse of the English language. Mr. Newman’s take on the new “woke” language would undoubtedly have been harsh.

In this age of auto-correct and on-line editing tools, is it even important that we adhere to definition and the proper use of a word?

It may actually be now more important than ever. The use of language is central to our seemingly fragile democracy and the institutions within it. Maybe now more than ever there is a more pressing need to be clear and concise in our language as we get pulled into and transported along the information highway and immense reach of the digital world.

Language allows us to express, to inform, and to reason, and we humans have the unique capacity to use complex language. We need it to communicate with others and even to construct and maintain our social world.

When many take liberties with the language or re-define its meanings there is a greater tendency to misconstrue, confuse, or obliterate the original meaning and therefore our understanding.

Being firmly cemented into a limitless broadband of narrative the endless bombardment of information seems to be have had the affect of dividing us into our own fragmented segments of society. Forcing people into their own space, a safe space, free from examination. We are becoming a mosaic of information sources, not a blending of our interests and goals. This lack of a central common interest seems to also lend itself to endless claims of disenfranchisement and victimization; of never being part of the majority. Politicians being politicians, now busy themselves with answering and catering to these endless slivers of society not the middle majority.

These separate groups of the like-minded– communicate within their group, often resorting to new terminology or a warping and blending of meanings. The translation of these newly formulated words is often unclear especially to those outside that immediate sphere of special interest.

An example of using language as a tool by a special interest group and the ramifications of when language is not clear has recently come to public light.

For the last number of years, every government and public forum was encouraged to open up any public meeting with an announcement that they were giving thanks to the local indigenous for allowing us to be on the “un-ceded territory of …”

This was of course aimed and perpetrated by the special interests of the Indigenous, and from the outside seemed relatively harmless. So our political leaders championed this clearly scripted genuflection and the word went down the Federal government line to the Provinces and local city governments. All quickly followed suit –not wanting to be left behind in this progressive narrative, or worse, branded part of the systemically racist Canada. But, it now turns out the language matters.

“Un-ceded” is not actually a word by the way, but “cede” means to give up power or territory.

When everyone in unison was saying “un-ceded territory” the implication could loosely be interpreted to mean that the Indigenous had from somewhere, clearly acquired “territorial and property rights” to the land. The more sinister gravamen was that land had in fact been taken from them and therefore an implied need for compensation for property or territory lost.

It was politically astute on the part of the Indigenous –the use of the term “cede” and “un-ceded” was a purposeful use of mis-leading language which could eventually form a foundation for an admission of political and economic responsibility on the part of the majority of Canadians.

The political and legal warning light has finally gone on in New Brunswick.

Justice Minister Hugh Fleming has ordered that staff stop making Indigenous land acknowledgements. The Indigenous, you see, are now claiming title to over 60% of the Province and the Province now finds itself in a series of legal arguments and land claims. The Attorney-General’s department has told the government workers that they should not make or issue “territorial acknowledgements”.

Predictably, the Six Chiefs of the Wolastoqey in the Province have countered by saying that they have “un-ceded Aboriginal title in the Province of New Brunswick”. They said land acknowledgements by the Provincial government were “a symbolic gesture but represent a starting point toward building and improving a relationship with First Nations”. Clearly, there is now some legal advice being given to the lawmakers of New Brunswick that the language being used is misleading at best and could be politically motivated.

The word term “reconciliation” being used and trumpeted by all the political woke is a very similar term and will likely prove to be equally misleading, and possibly equally legally detrimental.

But, what prompted this blogger to an examination of the use of language was not the politically astute Indigenous.

It was my recent discovery of a “glossary of terms” provided by the Association of Chiefs of Police. Prepared, no doubt, as a service to those working in the real world and not safely ensconced in an inclusion seminar in a government meeting room. The clear purpose here is to teach officers on how they should speak and write so as not to offend, a believed need to teach the language of the “woke”.

Before I go further, there is no offence intended, but police officers, at least in my experience were not always the most prolific writers or the best practitioners of the English language. It was often a supervisory life and death struggle to get officers to write reports that were lucid and properly explained the who, what, and where of a particular offence.

Reports to Crown Counsel was often a through the looking glass experiment as at the end of an eye watering read, one would be unsure as to meaning and point of the narrative.

There was the police tendency to write in your best imitation of a learned academic or a lawyer– he “stated” rather than he “said”. “Observed” rather than “saw”.Warrant applications were often long, redundant, with superfluous language designed to heighten the status of the writer rather than to communicate a message. Internal reports and other court applications were often measured and termed to be well done judged by their length rather than their content. The copy and paste function has now allowed obsessively long narratives to expand to the point of farce and is in and of itself proving to be a burden to the entire justice system.

So now, the poor police officer sitting at two in the morning, typing madly away at a search warrant, now needs to be concerned with the language of the “woke” and apparently needs to be armed with the glossary of language on his or her desktop.

Here are just a few of examples the police officer should take to heart according to their leaders. Starting with the “A”‘s


“ableism” – is a belief system that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration.

“agender” – is a person whose gender identity does not align to the traditional system of gender, who does not have a personal alignment with the concepts of either man or woman, and/or sees themselves as existing without gender, sometimes called “gender neutrois”

“Classism” – the cultural and institutional set of practises and beliefs that assign value to people according to their socio-economic status

“Co-gender” – is a term with at least three known possible definitions ( I will only just give you the first) is the mathematical union of two gender, as opposed to vengender, the intersection of two genders. A co-gender person is okay with being identified as either of the two genders.

“Deadname” – generally refers to the birth name of a transgender person that they no longer use.

“Demisexual” – refers to a person who only feels sexual attraction once a strong emotional bond is formed

Closed Quote.

Obviously, I could go on for quite some time, in fact all the way to Z. As a matter of interest, the last definition is of “white” which they say is a “social colour” only “indicating the majority” of Canadians. It is recognized that there are “many different people” who are white but who face class discrimination; because of their class, gender, ethnicity, religion, age etc.

The glossary also gives you examples of problematic language which you need to avoid and gives better alternatives that one should be using. For instance, you should not refer to anything which has “man” in it. Mankind, manpower, man hours, all are inappropriate. Biological sex should become “assigned sex”, and wife or husband should always become spouse or partner. It is not appropriate to say “caucasian” any more, you need to say white people, or European Canadian. (think of all the police forms that need to change). (I guess they didn’t realize that by saying European Canadian they were actually going against the “white” definition they had given earlier.)

So where does this leave us? Are we destined to all sink in this quagmire of ridiculous definition and narrative? Quite possibly.

Will it lead to an inability to communicate with the “majority”. That seems equally obvious.

Alternatively, maybe we could all take the Master Class offered on Clear and Concise Writing. There is a couple of fundamental rules which they all seem to profess. Avoid wordiness and distended sentence structures and to use shorter sentences and simple words. These authorities by the way all point an accusing finger at the biggest offender– government.

Mark Twain ” a strong advocate for simplicity and clarity, said “when you catch an adjective kill it”.

This glossary by the Chiefs was a glossary of adjectives that Mark Twain would like you to kill.

Of course, it would be a safe assumption that the Chiefs who authored this glossary didn’t actually write it. They themselves would likely not know half of the definitions. It was simply a check in the box of inclusion and diversity, a sacrifice to the Woke God to whom they now all pray.

Photo Courtesy of Alby Headrick via Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved

Personal Story #2 – “Nick”

As I went up the dirt and tree lined driveway,  I became aware of people following on foot in the wake of the slow moving police car. It was forty-five minutes after midnight on a relatively warm August 15th, 1979, when I arrived at 282 Brown Road.

The call was to some vaguely described “fight” which had happened according to dispatch, at this rather broken down residence, and that someone had been “hurt badly” As I pulled up, with only my headlights leading the way, an eerie sense came over me, a sense of something not being right, of sides closing in, of my mind involuntarily narrowing its focus. A survival sense in some ways. A sense of being acutely alone even though there were clearly people gathering now,  watching my every move, which in itself was rather unexpected.

Parking in front of the small dwelling, I walked up the couple of steps to the front door.

I found out later that this was the well worn, dilapidated residence, of a male named Nick Dugay, but there were many other transients who often sought shelter here for all the usual homeless reasons.  As I walked the two steps up to the porch, the battered screen door was slightly ajar, and the inner, once white door, was open slightly, angling and pointing inside. I called out, but there was no answer coming from the darkened rooms. There was no electricity, no lights to turn on.

My shiny yellow plastic RCMP issued flashlight, provided a dim beam, but it was enough to show the first five feet inside.  On the floor in front of me, my beam caught what appeared to be a human form, in the middle of the room. Two open imploring eyes stared at me. It took a couple of seconds, as my brain tried to absorb what I was seeing. Focus and process. But the eyes didn’t seem human.

As my eyes  slowly adjusted to the darkness, and the dank room smell alerted my other senses, the form became more distinct.  In fact what I was staring at was not a pair of eyes, but two nostril holes, part of a mostly disappeared nose. I assumed the nostrils were still attached to a head but I could not even be certain of that because of the state of what was before me.  I forced myself to look away a bit, and take in the rest of the rummaged room. As my light struggled to light up the rest of the residence, the single bedroom residence had obvious red splatter everywhere. It was as if a child had got out of control finger painting. On the walls, with no design, in some haphazard, helter-skelter styled message. In every corner, and on all the dirty white wall space, literally every square foot, including the ceiling, had what I now realized was blood, in various stages of drying. Coagulated, blackened blood was pooled around and pointed to the ravaged body.

My eyes continually returned to the body as some sort of reflex. It looked like a scarecrow with its stuffing mostly removed, and weirdly disjointed, as if the legs and arms were trying to get away from the torso. There were marks on the floor like incisions. The head was virtually gone except for some brownish curly hair, and one arm looked like it had been dissected from the body.

As my breathing slowed, at least to a more manageable  pace, my eyes began to tell my head what to process. I spotted an axe near the door, somewhat propped up against the wall, quite distinguishable from the sparse furniture.

I made an effort to check the rest of the very bare residence, although the house was very small and it was unlikely that anyone else could have been in there. There was no sound other than my now bloodied footsteps as I walked through the spartanly furnished house.

Just as I finished checking the single bedroom, Constable Renaud Bourdages came through the only door, and the one that I had entered, making me jump slightly. He looked at me with an apprehensive and nervous smirk; taking in the scene which I stood in the middle of, and then in his heavy French accent, and resorting to the usual black humour of policing declared, to me, his captive audience, that “this ain’t no suicide!”

His presence and statement was reassuring, and now made me realize that I was there for a reason, everything was indeed real, and not some grotesque dream. I stepped over the body, and I passed the axe, and went outside to my police vehicle to radio for assistance.

So how did I get to this place, looking over this horrific scene?

I arrived in the area in February 1978 fresh from the RCMP Training Center in Regina. Leon Spinks had just gone 15 rounds and defeated Mohammed Ali; Ted Bundy had just been re-captured in Pensacola Florida; and Roman Polanski had just skipped bail and headed for France after pleading to having sex with a 13 year old girl.

I was freshly scrubbed and had been now schooled in the finer points of the RCMP.  Of course that wasn’t true, I wasn’t really prepared for anything other than maybe an ability to follow orders and maybe some cursory knowledge of theoretical law.

This is where for me, police theory as it existed back then, and the law would meet reality for the first time.

It was an impoverished area with layers of religion mixing with unemployment,  and lives revolving around the expansive Miramichi river and the bridges that went over it. A small society enveloped in poverty, and as is often the case, it had become a petrie dish for violence and crime.

Unemployment rates were broaching 20% throughout the Province of New Brunswick, but this Miramichi region was the poorest of the poor. The religious overtones created a perversive warp, which cannot be easily identified, but was palatable to those policing it.

David Adams Richards, a celebrated novelist and a former resident of the area, writes about an “underlying anger” which infuses the area.

Just outside Newcastle, sits the small village of Chatham Head, where I found myself this particular night.  A bailey bridge spanned the Miramichi river and connected Newcastle to Chatham Head. If Newcastle and the nearby town of Chatham seemed to be a simmering melange of the criminal elements, then the small community of Chatham Head which lay in between the two major town sites, would be one of the boiling points. It was termed at the time by the locals as “little Chicago”.

The use of fire to cover ones criminal tracks was common, and knives, and axes were often a weapon of choice. Of course, hunting rifles were prevalent whether in a corner of the house or in a rack at the back of a truck.

Liquor and drugs, the usual fallback panacea for the poor, were often acting as the motivation, or providing the courage to fight, or steal. It was a time when driving while impaired was not a stigma.

Fighting was a rite of passage both for the public and the police. Physical policing, unlike now, was a prerequisite, considered by some to be a necessary characteristic of any self-respecting officer. “Community Policing” had not been heard of or imagined. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms had not yet been passed.

So this was my environment, with its underlying community futility, and a distrust of the police that I faced in emerging from the house.

There was little I could do now with just the two of us, other than protecting the crime scene, stringing the usual yellow “Police” tape, and await for reinforcements. By now quite a few people had surrounded my police car, but they were not wanting to get any closer; almost as if they knew something further was going to happen. No one was saying anything, they just watched in silence. They seemed to be anticipating something, but what that was, certainly wasn’t obvious to me.

While standing there, I did find and spoke briefly with a man named Art Leblanc, who was part of the crowd, and as it turned out was the one who had directed me up the lane to the house.  Also there was Jean-Guy Savoie, who I later learned was the person who had called the police.

As I approached Jean-Guy and began speaking, he answered, but in hushed subdued tones, clearly not wanting to have the others hear what he was saying. This was not abnormal, and to be seen to be talking to the police, especially in Chatham Head could bring about some problems for you. So I had to bend down to hear him.

He said that a woman had called him asking for a flashlight.

More significantly, he went on to say that a teenager named “Robbie Cunningham” had told him that “someone” had “attacked him” and that he “hit back” and the guy was bleeding and ‘hurt”.

Now I happened to know Robbie Cunningham, even though I had only been policing the area for about a year. About a week before, Cpl Ben Walsh and I had picked him up for firing off a rifle in a Provincial Park, and we had transported him to the local jail.

Robbie Cunningham, was a petty thief, always in trouble, and had grown up hard as they used to say. He was only 18 years old.

As I scanned the crowd there stood Robbie Cunningham; trying to blend in it seemed, standing by his father Vince. Vince was a well known local character in his own right. Allegedly,  Vince would often employ his sons in the passed down tradition of thievery. One of the “godfathers” of Chatham Head so to speak.

“Come her Robbie” I said as I walked over to where he stood, on the other side of the yellow tape.

He stared at me and didn’t respond.

The crowd of people present seemed to fall silent. A group imposed hush, no doubt wanting to also hear what was being said by this young police officer. I could feel all eyes watching and following me as I approached Robbie.

Now,  Vince, normally is a very vocal supporter of his kids, and would have no problem under any circumstance telling the the local police to fuck off, and then would quickly transition into a lecture as to his rights. But Vince didn’t say anything.

“Robbie come here” I said a little more emphatically.

Robbie looked straight ahead, seeming to twitch a bit,  agitated, but still refusing to look toward me.

“Robbie come here” I said once again.

I got closer to him but this time, I reached out, grabbing his arm, and began to pull him towards me. I was expecting a possible full out fight as I steered him to the car but it never materialized. He feigned resistance as would a small child, but he came under the tape, and once back at the car got in the back seat. Vince maybe tellingly continued to remain quiet.

Once in the back of the car, Robbie seemed to feel free to talk. His speech was somewhat slurred, but not the common fuzziness brought about by alcohol.  He launched into a running monologue, of mostly indiscernible mutterings, incomprehensible statements not following any particular thought process. Our conversation, if one could call it that was not helped by the plexiglass shield which separated us. I opened the small window insert, and Robbie continued to go on, clearly only making sense to himself.  He was clearly distressed. But I furiously and dutifully wrote down what I could. But then, out of the ramblings, Robbie said something about an “axe”.  There was no mistake that he said it, it was clear and concise. And I had never mentioned an axe.

Staff Sargent Dale Swansburg, and Corporal Ben Walsh arrived, just as I was beginning to conclude that a coherent conversation with Robbie was out of the question, and I could no longer keep pace in any event with what he was saying.

Leaving Robbie in the car, I re-visited the scene (somewhat reluctantly I will admit) inside the house with Dale and Ben, pointing out what I could.

Dale was the head of my detachment, smoked a pipe, and reminded me of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. One time he had even set his paper money in his pocket on fire while walking around the office after sticking a too hot pipe into his pants. More importantly I looked up to him, and saw him as a mentor.

Years before, he was the primary investigator along with Greg Kalhoon who had solved the murder of two Moncton city police officers, a sensational and horrific case that had rattled the entire country. The two officers had been killed in front of each other and buried in shallow graves.

He was calm, unshakeable despite the carnage, and puffing on his ever present pipe as he surveyed the scene; like an architect or landscaper, quite unlike the rookie cop who was almost bouncing beside him.

He asked who I had in the back of the police car, and I told him Robbie Cunningham and that I thought he had something to do with it; describing the initial call, and Robbie’s blurting of the word “axe”. Dale asked that Ben Walsh and I take Robbie back to our office, and that we should try and get a statement from him, so at 1:20 in the morning we headed back to the office. This may not seem like much, but to have a senior officer with the reputation of Dale, allow me, a rookie cop, to continue to be involved in this way was a true signal of confidence, which I remember to this day.

Once back at the office, as I predicted, trying to take a statement from Robbie was an exercise in futility; Robbie at times falling out of his chair. The ramblings continued, and I continued my futile attempt to write down anything that I thought could prove significant. Clearly he was high, but he did not smell of alcohol or of marihuana. I booked him into the cells for the homicide of Nick Dugay, but I will admit the grounds to arrest and keep him were thin, based on a a single word, and his presence and mention by others at the house.

But the case continued to grow, as they sometimes do when the Gods are smiling down on you. Cst Bourdages who remembered that Robbie had a sister in the area, went to the house, and recovered Robbie’s bloody clothes which he had gotten rid of, inside their washing machine. The washing machine had not been turned on, and the clothes were in a pile on top of other dirty laundry.

The usual flow of statements obtained by other officers, placed Robbie at the scene, and one theory that had surfaced was that Robbie had stored stolen property at the residence which Dugay had pawned or sold, and an argument over the monies led to the one-sided “fight”. In the parlance of the day, Nick was a “wino” who would often let the various thieves in the area hide their property at his place, in exchange for the odd bottle of booze.

It was estimated that Nick probably lived for 60 seconds of this attack. That is hard to imagine.  This was my purest example of the inhumanity of man as he had in fact been struck by the axe a total of  87 times; as those were the number of axe marks that went through his flesh and into the floor boards of the residence. The cuts in the body made it appear that at some point the killer had tried to dissect the body, striking several times were the limbs joined, in an attempt to dismember it.  We also found burned out matches on parts of the body.

As the evidence rolled in, over the next few weeks, Dale continued to allow me to be the presenter of the case,  prepare the reports, while he discreetly looked over my shoulder. Typed reports with carbon copies, hammering away on the single Smith-Corona available to investigators. All the reports were eventually submitted to Crown Counsel Fred Ferguson.

There were two difficulties with the case. Identifying that the body which was found was in fact Nick Dugay; and putting Robbie at the scene of the homicide. The case was weak in terms of putting Robbie swinging the axe.

We were able to eventually prove it to be Nick Dugay because of an operating room staple that we could see on X-Rays, and then were able to compare it to an operation he had undergone years before.

As to the second more perplexing problem as to how we could put Mr Cunningham at the crime scene we learned of a “new” investigative technique, which was being explored by a Doctor Bastarache in the Toronto Metro Police Crime Lab.

He was experimenting with blood “spatter” and what it could tell you. He was doing this by scientifically measuring the results of throwing blood on walls, and on floors, walls and floors made of differing materials. Dr Bastarache, would become our final witness at our trial, and testified that Robbie Cunningham, judging from his bloody clothes, was either swinging the axe, or was leaning over the body while someone else was swinging the axe.

Robbie was convicted of 1st degree murder, but in 1981 had the case reduced to “manslaughter” due to his level of intoxication. His sentence was reduced to 12 years rather than the 25.

My first directly involved homicide was over with a successful conclusion. The thrill under these circumstances is hard to explain. It is a combination of relief, anxiety and exhilaration which I never have been able to match unless under these same circumstances. It is this adrenaline which is addictive. Although in after thoughts and the usual press scrum, investigators talk about the welfare of the family, and the ability to bring closure to the family, for me, and if others are honest, it was much more, it is visceral.

Like many homicides there are a lot of side-stories, but in the interest of brevity I will not go into a lot of them in great detail at this time.

The most significant one worthy of mention is that Robbie Cunningham, in his defence, and in a later book, blamed the murder on a fellow named Allan Legere. Legere was Cunningham’s criminal mentor, Legere’s runner or go to boy, for menial tasks and criminal assistance.

This was not an insignificant person to point the finger at.

Legere would become infamous. He was convicted of killing a store owner in Black River by beating him to death, along with a Scott Curtis in 1986. However, while serving time for murder, he escaped from Sheriffs during a transfer. He would go on a killing rampage while on the loose, starting 25 days after his escape, with killing Annie Flam of Chatham. Five months later, he would kill Donna and Linda Daughney, and then five weeks after that would kill Father James Smith of the Chatham Head church rectory.  He was re-captured after a 201 day manhunt and  became known as the  “Monster of the Miramichi”. He was one of the first persons convicted of murder through the use of DNA.

So Robbie, by having Legere as a criminal partner gained misplaced stature in the community.

Five years before the Dugay killing, Cunningham and Legere were two of the suspects in the still unsolved murder of Mary Beatrice Redmond,  murdered in 1974, after coming home from church.

The 56 year old woman was stabbed over 80 times on her porch, never making it inside. In the same neighbourhood as Dugay.

Could Legere  have had something to do with the planning or execution of Dugay? It is quite possible that he may have orchestrated the event, but there is no evidence that he was at the scene of the crime during the murder.

The defence counsel for Cunningham trial for the killing of Dugay, also well known for his tenacious and sometimes impolite cross-examination, was Frank McKenna. McKenna would go on to be the Premier of the Province, and is now head of a committee seeking to determine the best candidate for the job of RCMP Commissioner.

Dale Swansburg, retired, is alive and well in New Brunswick, and in the last few months I had a chance to speak with him once again, and remind him of his impression upon me. He is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, but maintains a good spirit and is still as humble as he was some 40 years ago.

Ben Walsh, also retired,  is still going strong in Regina, but sadly lost his son to friendly fire while with the Canadian Forces. He will never be the same as the man who helped me on this case, but he too remains strong.

Cst Bourdages is still living in New Brunswick, having just recently retired, and having been a long serving member of the RCMP dive team; and he still speaks with the heavy warm French accent that I grew to truly appreciate.

I, on the other hand, after this case, had been instilled with a desire to do homicide investigations. This was my first where I could point to playing a meaningful role, and now I had the bug.

They had instilled in me confidence, made me believe that I could do the job. To see beyond the obvious, to look beneath the surface of the human condition. They showed me that there was a need to speak for the victim, as sometimes there was no one else who put any value on their life. It was a job that would take you to dark places, places where most people will never go.

They had shown me a team of people who wordlessly without direction came together; often with humour, a pride in their job, and with unbridled loyalty to their fellow officers. It was an environment of overwork, with each pulling its share without a negative word or comment, and then often helping the others without a need for applause. You needed to win at trial, there was no other option.

So, I did pursue this goal and would eventually be involved directly in over a couple of hundred homicides during my career. But, there is nothing like the first, and I always tried to mimic that unheralded crew who showed me the way.

Photo courtesy of the Author on a recent return to the area….the “new” bridge to Chatham Head from Newcastle over the Miramichi river..