Monday, August 29, 2011

Rypien's death in vain, the media and the league support the stigma

The surprising and rather shocking, unsuspected death of 27 year-old Winnipeg Jet Rick Rypien took the city off-guard. This wasn't just another hockey player to us, we saw him play with the Manitoba Moose, we saw him grind it out trying to make it as a full-time NHL player with the Vancouver Canucks. And then we saw him return to play for our brand new team. A Cinderella story in the making, it can't get much more romantic than that.

Much of the talk in the media surrounding his death is about his “dark emotions,” and about how we have to “end the stigma” regarding mental illness. Except nothing has been done about it, and the media, particularly local media, has done nothing but support the current culture of “stigma” as people like to call it. I call it ignorance.

I am in a unique position to comment on this as I am intimately knowledgeable about the mental health community, what goes on, what people's reactions to illnesses are, and the once-in-a-while heavy heart that arises when someone commits suicide, only to turn back to their old ways after exiting our very short-term memories. My favourite saying goes something like “everyone has a mental illness these days.”

After initial shock, media raced around to obtain quotes and statements from players that knew or roomed with Rypien. All were the same. That he “seemed like he was in a good place” and that he “seemed happy” and etcetera, etcetera. Winnipeg Jets GM stated he felt that they were “making progress.”

No media outlet even dared breathe the word “depression” initially, it was like a rumour. Even though his agent, and at least two GM's were fully aware of Rypien's problems.

The CBC reported that Rypien battled personal issues, with an abominabally irresponsible statement from his agent deflecting the question, saying “sometimes we forget everyone has their own issues to deal with on a daily basis.” What makes this irresponsible, is making the connection between everyone's daily problems, and someone with major depression on the brink of ending their own life. See how gravely ignorant “everyone has a mental illness these days” can be?

A Metro headline read, incredulously, Rypien seemed happy in weeks before death, which is strait out of the “how a depressed person portrays themselves 101” handbook. Gary Lawless in the Winnipeg Free Press headline read “Ultimate teammate hid his dark emotions” and only in the subheadline mentions depression. Hiding emotions and seeming happy go hand in hand.

Two days after his death, Gary Lawless, playing the part of an ignorant stigma-purpotrater to a T, pens a column linking Rypien's death to his on-ice fisticuffs. They go “hand in hand,” he says, the link is “undeniable,” Lawless tells us.** Without class, Lawless uses this baseless asumption that fighting in all cases leads to depression, to opportunistically lambaste Don Cherry. Ludicrous. Disgusting, from my point of view. What Lawless, or Rypien's agent, or anybody won't confirm, is what we really need to know, the first step to – really – ending the “stigma,” that Rypien committed suicide.

A 27-year old professional athlete does not drop dead for no reason. Had it been a heart condition or medical problem, it would have surfaced right away. Had it been an overdose, as in Derek Boogard's case, it would have also come out. But the real reason is too much of a hard truth, and the “stigma” remains just that. It is intentional to keep this hidden, nobody wants to talk about it. Five days after his death, it is still reported as “not suspicious.” Nobody wants to confront it. And the truth is, hard truths are difficult to tackle.

Rypien had depression for at least a decade.

You aren't cured from depression or any mental illness in a handful of weeks or months. It is ongoing. There are regressions. Setbacks. Medication. Therapy, change in therapist, change in doctors, change in medication. And that is if everything is going just fine, in a safe, secure environment. Rypien's was far from safe and secure.

Bouncing around the NHL, AHL, between cities, away from any support networks he might have, would have only exacerbated his situation, inhibiting any possibility of a solid recovery. The lack of a real friend, not just a roomate. But at ten years, it can easily be said that this kind of depression, is not the kind that ever gets cured. This was no doubt a lifelong illness.

Rick's best bet was to take time off, visit and stay at a mental health facility, such as Selkirk. The very same one that houses Vince Li, the very same facility that many an outraged Manitoban insisted a permanent wall or fence be built to keep the mentally ill imprisoned inside, circa 19th century Russia.

The horror. As the CBC reported in June 2010, “Currently, there is not even a fence around the grounds.” Not even a fence!

Here's a hard truth-ism for everyone. There is little in this world that is more horrifying or personally tragic than personally knowing somebody who has comitted suicide. It is unexpected, and many won't even be aware of a mental illness-related infliction. One day you're a 27 year-old professional athlete. The next day, you aren't around. The weight of how horrifying and tragic this is can be “measured” almost in a qunatitative fashion if you will, by the extent of the media coverage on the incident. Especially here, in Winnipeg. It was as if we lost a member of our own family.

So what can be done? Aside from Winnipeg Jets GM insisting he will take steps to adress these issues, whatever that means. What can really be done? There are a few things that need to happen, and when these things do (and they most likely will never) happen, the media and even maybe Gary Lawless in particular, can do their part as journalists and redirect the public perception of mental illness and alter the direction of “stigma” talk in professional sport.

The first step, is to admit that Rypien committed suicide. His family, his agent, need to communicate the end result of his battle with major depression.

From that, the media and journalists can communicate how serious of an issue this can be, and that the consequences are more than serious. It could result in a hockey player never realizing his full potential. Or ending his career. Or worse, ending his own life. The focus cannot be on “how happy he seemed” and other such things from casual observers. All the stereotypical responses can start to be deconstructed and taken apart. “Everyone has a mental illness these days” is simply a joke. Say that to Rypien. Say that to Hannover goalkeeper Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009.

To help the media, some basic numbers might be of assistance to highlight just how thick a rug these things are being swept under. Not the “undeniable” medical opinions of sports journos. Conservatively, depression affects 9% of the population of the US. Of that, 3% of those people commit suicide. Let us translate these numbers to the NHL, using just the number of players a team can dress, at 20. That would mean the pool of NHL players we're talking about is 600. Nine percent of that means that approximately 54 players are living with depression as per the US National average. And of those 54...1.6 are at risk of committing suicide. In other words, almost two players per team are “hiding their dark emotions,” and at least one player at any one time in the NHL, could be on the brink.

Lastly, the most important step. Someone in the NHL, a player, an alumni, a GM, a coach, needs to come forward, enter the spotlight, and disclose their personal story of how mental illness has affected them as a person and as a player.

Not a single NHL player has come out and said that they themselves also live with depression, or any other mental illness that affects their day-to-day lives.

Not. A single. Person.

You'd think with all the players running charities for kids with cancer and poverty and the like, somebody might step up for the mental health comunity in a big way.

Nothing would be more impactful than to have an NHL player talk about their condition. Not only to other players with similar stories, but to a nation that follows hockey more closely than we follow our country's politics. This would do more than any, ANY sports journalist claiming to want to end the stigma, to address the problems, then move on to lists of quotes from teammates about how happy someone seemed to be. And, it would do more to put a huamn face on the plight of mental illness, to break down the barriers between people with more serious mental disabilities. Nobody would dare suggest Rick Rypien be housed in Selkirk for treatment...if only it had a barbed wire fence around it.

See how far just one person from the NHL acting as a spokesperson could be...

Like Clara Hughes. Almost un-arguably Canada's most decorated athlete.

More relevant to hockey however, let's remember one of the greatest players of the game. Another Winnipegger. None other than the legendary Terry Sawchuk. These people's struggles shouldn't be in vain. But they are. And it will take the community of sports journalists across the country, Rypien's family, his agent, the management of the Winnipeg Jets, and at least one current player stepping up, to reverse course.

I'll end this piece with a quote from Vancouver GM Mark Gillis, which puts so many things into so succinct a statement.

“ For everything he had accomplished in his life, it's remarkable that that's how powerful his illness was."

**Lawless, in his short-sightedness, conveniently forgot to talk about another recent enforcer death, Bobby Probert. Probert did not die of depression-related or fighting-related conditions. And Probert, one of the most legendary fighters in the game, probably threw and took more punches than Rypien and Boogard combined. Guess that “undeniable link” has some holes in it. Back to med school, Gary.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Winnipeg Sun promotes dehumanizing perceptions

Mark Horvath, the homeless awareness activist travelling the continent (and currently Canada) has just been bitchslapped by the Winnipeg Sun for all his hard, humanitarian work.

The Winnipeg Sun is running two stories on "bums" and "aggressive panhandlers" with the front-page headline "BUM RUSH." Which is exactly the kind of bullshit that Mark is fighting to change. Perception of homeless people.

Everything the Winnipeg Sun published today is put to shame by this video, shot not ten minutes before my first meeting with Mark, in Winnipeg.

Yeah. This guy is a fuckin' menace to society.

Enforce them bylaws. Tom Brodbeck is scared.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Winnipeg Free Press buries Cathy Rushton firing

Buried? Ignored? Or maybe editor Margo Goodhand decided that Rushton's firing for some reason, wasn't news worthy?

The Free Press decided to say something about it today even though Rushton, largely responsible for the silencing of The Great Canadian Talk Show, was fired....

...At the end of May.

Almost 3 months ago.

Suspiciously concordant with this well-timed breaking-news story about Rushton getting sacked, is a story about how Stephanie Forsyth wants to build sports complexes as part of Red River College.

I might have conceded the conspiracy argument had the firing been, say, last week, and Forsyth's ambitions came out today. But this isn't the case, Rushton was fired nearly THREE months ago.

Forsyth also comments on the Union Bank Tower building, and how some of it is behind schedule. According to my sources, Rushton was terminated because of gross mismanagement, lack of oversight and major delays on the Union Bank project. No comment about this is in Nick Martin's piece, just in the "Rushton was fired 3 months ago" blurb.

Once again, the Free Press reports history.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Farewell to Aqua Books; a message from Kelly Hughes

Aqua Books and Eat! have reached a sad end.

This letter is from owner Kelly Hughes, which he sent out a couple of days ago. It is something that was written honestly and you can tell this was not an easy decision, or one that Kelly even wanted to make.

Kelly and Candace are two examples of true heroes in Winnipeg. With their hard work, investing not just their money but insane amounts of time and energy, they helped make downtown a place that a lot of us want to spend a lot of time in. Without people like this, local trailblazers, local entrepreneurs, our urban core would be as rotten as it was in decades past. "A tasteless donut" as I described it in my bio, for when Kelly invited me to be a guest on his live talk show, Kelly Hughes Live.

Aqua will be missed. There's just nothing else like it. It wasn't just a book store and a little restaurant. It really was the cultural city hall of Winnipeg, with all the events and promotion that was done for the arts community, it was a magnet for like-minds. There simply is no replacement.

Winnipeg is slightly less rich now without this institution. People with vision and the determination to create something out of nothing are few and far between, and Kelly and Candace succeeded in cementing themselves as part of the fabric that makes up our little prairie community.

Thanks Kelly, thanks Candace.

* * * * *
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Anyone who's had a crack at Grade 11 English will be familiar with the first line of A Tale of Two Cities. It also fits as an opener for what I have to tell you, with apologies to Mr. Dickens, and apologies to You.

Candace and I are, quite honestly, pretty devastated to announce that the doors of Aqua Books and EAT! bistro will be closing forever. We 've had a great ride, but unfortunately the financial burden has become too much.

I started dreaming about doing what I'm doing now almost two decades ago. What Candace and I and our team have been able to realize here at 274 Garry Street is exactly what I envisioned. Great books, great food, creative people coming together and sharing their passion, their art and their knowledge. It's the kind of place I would want to go (if I ever had time to go anywhere).

But this dream was a big swing. 8400 square feet in the heart of Downtown Winnipeg (in a rundown old Chinese restaurant) with a bookstore, a restaurant, event spaces, a bar, writers' studios....And if I'm going to continue to work the baseball metaphor, let me also misquote Kinsella: "If you build it, they will come." We built Winnipeg's Cultural City Hall, and they came. You came.

You came, and you made it what it is. And for my part, I've done whatever I had to do to keep the dream alive. And finally, under the weight of too many bills, we've come to the end of the road. (And I'm willing to take responsibility for that. I hate it when a business closes, and it's everyone's fault but their own.) It's good to finally fill you in on the situation. I owe you that much.

It's certainly always been tough to be in the book business, and things have only become more difficult with time. When McNally Robinson closed half of their stores, they named e-books as the big culprit. True, you can't sell e-books unless you're Amazon or Chapters. But folks that are e-reading are still readers reading. They are likely to buy a book now and then.

The real problem with bookselling is something I have alluded to in the last couple of months. It's a cultural shift away from reading. Smart phones, Facebook, and The Internet are all part of what has replaced reading time. I won't beat it to death, but it's an irreversible change in people's habits. You may still read and love books as much as you always have, but you are now in the minority. Book sales here have dropped 30% in the last year. (That's why McNally seems like it's all saltshakers and aprons these days.)

Making the decision to pull the plug has been a tough place for me to get to. Putting Winnipeg's Cultural City Hall together was the biggest, most difficult thing I've ever done in my whole life. I've spent 56,000 hours trying to create and maintain what you see here. It's been tiring at times, even for me. But I feel like Candace and I have created something bigger than ourselves. We've created an artists' village in the heart of Winnipeg that doesn't belong to just us anymore.

Unfortunately, the ultimate responsibility and fiscal load does belong to us alone. But unlike Sysyphus, I can't keep pushing this giant rock up the hill for all eternity. The beige-ification of our communities by corporate money is a steep hill indeed. We have won awards, and mentions in MacLean's and Quill & Quire, and even a few hearts and minds, but turning all of this goodwill into enough cash to support such an ambitious project has in the end eluded me.

I think I've fought the good fight, but we may be heading into a brave new world (look at me and all my book metaphors) where bookstores don't really a have a place. As we go dark, please continue to support the few remaining small ventures and community-based businesses that are holding the tide back. Pollock's Hardware Co-op, Tallest Poppy and Neechi Foods Co-op are just a couple that leap to mind.

Thanks so much to all of you who have supported us over the years. We look forward to seeing you in the next few weeks as we wind down. (More words will follow. Until I tell you different, we will be on regular hours, and all scheduled events will go forward as planned. We want to have more of a wake than a funeral.)

Candace has been pleased to make so many regulars happy, and to help so many people with allergies and food issues feel normal about doing one of the most social things - eating. I think that she would still like to do some catering after this if she has the opportunity.

As for me, I can't express how grateful I am to have met and worked with so many wonderful people. (In truth, even though I seem to be losing my mayoral seat, I'd love it if Winnipeg's Cultural City Hall could outlive Sam Katz's Hall of Horrors. Any ideas?).  Although I'm headed into an uncertain future, I've had a great run - all the way around the bases and back to home.  Not sure what waits behind the plate, but I've had the chance to do, for a moment, what I wanted to do. Not everyone gets to do that.

And I'm happy that what I've wanted to do has also been what so many of you wanted to come and do, too. Thanks for that.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Interview and Downtown walking tour with Mark Horvath from

Continuing my three-day blogging blitz for CDI College's event tonight at 6:30 honoring Mark Horvath's work on homeless awareness/activism, I spent a couple hours today giving Mark a walking tour of downtown. Mark is a great conversationalist. With his 8 years of personal homelessness and struggles, his two @invisiblepeople tours across America, and now halfway through a Canadian tour, he has a lot of experience and knowledge to draw from.

Mark is a one-man show. He's his own crew, his own camera man, his own video editor, website updater, and his own tweeter-er, at his own account @hardlynormal as well as the @invisiblepeople account.

Meeting at Twist Cafe downtown, as a blogger, I didn't want to ask him the easy loft questions like "how'd you get started" and "why are you doing this" and these sorts of things. Decided to go right for the jugular, and described the situation in Winnipeg. The urban situation. The negative way in which the 740 000 or so people who don't live downtown view downtown. The irrational, strange fear that people have of panhandlers, poverty, and homelessness.

Mark took to the more conversational "interview" well and immediately took up the offer to talk more in depth about perception and perspective.

"If I have to look at homeless, I have to take responsibility. And if I have to take responsibility, that means I have to solve it."

Why take on all that work if you can just drive back to your suburban home and pretend you didn't see anything? Or continue silly just-get-a-job diatribes? Mark opined further on that.

"Urban living isn't for everybody. It isn't for a lot of people," referring to how living in an urban environment appeals to few. Most people, especially here, embrace the suburban home. People gravitate to areas where they are comfortable, where there are other people like themselves. "In any city, any downtown I'm in - I love being downtown, in urban places. Any downtown I'm in, the thing that jumps out to me the most, the first thing I look for, are the lofts. Like how cool would it be to live in the penthouse in that building?"

It sure is unusual to hear something like that around these parts. A small contingent of people aspire to or look forward to moving downtown. The hip, chic, young professional type crowd. What draws Mark to these areas? The mix and diversity of people who live there. That on the same block, live the person in the loft, the person in the apartment, the shop owner, and street people.

I told about what I think is the most fascinating place in Winnipeg: the Portage Place food court. The diversity, the mix. Then he said something no 'Pegger would ever say. "You tell me about this mall, and the kind of people that are there, and I want to go see it. That's a place I would feel comfortable."

Strange hearing an outsider's perspective eh? As I'm working on this piece, blogger colleague Rob Galston happens to be squatting at the same non-crappy-hotspot wifi cafe I am, and figures at best, 30%, maybe 35% of Winnipeggers might say they feel comfortable at the Portage Place food court.

So away we went. As we passed a group of African immigrants in the food court, he quickly identified them as Sudanese, the reason he was able to do so is because before he was homeless, he filmed in Sudan during a period when he wasn't even legally allowed to be there for political reasons between the Sudan-American governments (as I said, his depth of experience has given him a lot of knowledge and perspective on all walks of life). I explained the history behind the creation of the mall, among other factoids about downtown. From there we ventured to Central park.

As we stood in Central Park, I remarked how many people I know including my mother, would be concerned for me if they knew where I was standing at the moment. Mark was perplexed. Children were in the fanciest splash pad in the city, and not 30 metres away was a homeless man sleeping on a bench.

We walked down to the Exchange, to show him the area of downtown I was most familiar with. Sure enough we ran into some of the homeless regulars I recognized. Mark walks right up and introduces himself, asks if they would like to share their story on video. A native man showed us his heavily bruised collar bone and shoulder, telling us that he had panhandled all day yesterday, and was only able to buy a single king can. He was jumped and beaten for it.

All declined to share their stories on video, but that didn't stop Mark's generosity. To every homeless person he offers a new pair of socks, which are never turned down.

On the way back to the Delta, Mark explained that these are the - visible - street people. They can be found in any city, in any urban area. This is the face of homelessness that people recognize, but it isn't necessarily what he's searching for. He tours to find the homeless mothers trying to raise a family, homeless in the LGBT community, the - invisible - homeless population.

But his documentation and social media-driven awareness and activism project doesn't necessarily leave the visible out. Everyone is given the offer to share their story, and a clean pair of socks.

Before parting our downtown tour for his next appointment, Mark said that he wishes he could walk around all downtowns, in all cities, but rarely gets the chance to. He shared with me one more piece of information Winnipeggers should all be aware of. That all across Canada, through the rest of the West, he has heard rumours and grumblings about coming here.

Apparently we aren't just known as the murder capital or the car theft capital of Canada, but we also have a reputation for having a dangerous downtown where you are likely to get mugged. But on his walk with me to Central Park, down Ellice, to the Exchange, up Fort back to Graham avenue and to the Delta, he didn't see anything that concerned him or made him think that our downtown is any different from any other average downtown, despite all the warnings given to him.

CDI College has been streaming videos from Mark's site for the last couple days. Executive Director of the college Tahl East, says response has been amazing, that students and passers by through the lobby stop to watch and end up glued to the screen.

By watching and listening to the stories, one at a time, Mark Horvath is helping to raise awareness about homelessness and poverty. Giving these people a voice and the opportunity to be heard and listened to, is what it is all about.

And in that spirit, CDI College has created a new scholarship honouring Mark's humanitarian efforts. The "We Are Visible" scholarship will be announced tonight, at CDI College at Main and Graham, in the parking lot at 6:30pm.

Everyone is welcome. Come down and listen to Mark's presentation.

Monday, August 8, 2011

CDI College: "We Are Visible" scholarship

CDI's mission is to change lives through education.

They will do precisely that with a new scholarship in honour of Mark Horvath's inspiring activism bringing awareness to It will officially be announced tomorrow at CDI College on Main Street, outside in the parking lot, during a presentation by Mark. The event starts at 6:30pm and all are welcome.

The scholarship is aimed at people who have financial need and may not have access to education, and who demonstrate that they are using social media to change the world. Reflective of Mark Horvath's work, the award will highlight the importance overcoming misconceptions about social issues.

"We Are Visible" offers full tuition including books and materials for any of CDI's programs.

A special committee chosen by non-profit and NGO sponsors of Mark Horvath's "We Are Visible Tour of Canada" will review the applications and go through the selection process.

Again, the event tomorrow is at CDI College on Main Street at 6:30pm in the parking lot (...they DO have a purpose!) Everyone is welcome.

You can follow Mark on the Twitter, @hardlynormal and the Invisible People project here, @invisiblepeople

Sunday, August 7, 2011

CDI College sponsors new scholarship, raising awareness about homelessness

Progressive, good news.

CDI College on Main Street is teaming up with an activist for homeless people, Mark Horvath. Mark is currently on a long journey, travelling all across North America, to film and interview homeless people across the continent, to give them a voice, to let their stories be heard.

Mark's story is quite extraordinary. At one time, he had a great paying job in the film industry in LA. A few bad decisions and addictions later, he was homeless himself. He has since picked himself back up, and is using his experience to do humanitarian work.

The goal is education. All of us are only a step or two away from being homeless ourselves. It is easy to forget that.

"Invisible People" is the name of the documentary project. On the site, you can view videos of homeless people's stories.

I am hoping this rather remarkable project can have an impact in Winnipeg. Even if it is just a tiny little dent. People's attitudes towards people on the streets here is abysmal and more depressing than the issue of homelessness itself. These invisible people are often looked down upon and when discussing issues related to homelessness in our inner city and downtown, and to hear or read people discussing these things, often makes me think that somewhere amongst suburban-generated fear of street people, it is forgotten that they aren't actually people.

Which makes the title of the project incredibly fitting. And Mark's campaign an important, respectable, and noble one. To show the human side of a part of society that is all but ignored.

CDI College has decided to step up to the plate and create a new scholarship in Mark Horvath's honour. I'll be posting some details on the scholarship tomorrow.

Mark is on the Twitter @hardlynormal and the Invisible People project also has a Twitter account, here.

Come down to CDI College on Main at 6:30PM Tuesday to hear Mark's message and presentation.