My Top Stories of 2018
Every week is a mixed bag as a reporter. One day you’re sitting in the dim office writing story after story and fielding call after call, entering the weird flow state where you essentially become a human transcriber and typewriter. Other days, you’re out walking the edge of crime scenes, interviewing the mayor, or taking pictures as flames rip through a building.
It’s a job with many unknowns. The best journalists are the ones who can take those unknowns and turn them into something that people can learn from and understand.
I’m still new to this job I’ve chosen to spend my life doing, but 2018 was a great year, filled with some very exciting, depressing and life-altering stories.
Before we get into the best of the best, I want to mention that I switched jobs in 2018! If you’ve missed out on the details, you can read more about that in my previous post, right here.
Otherwise, happy 2019! Here’s a quick look at a year’s worth of work.
A tough way to start the year. A couple of days were spent standing in the cold at the edge of caution tape watching as police and firefighters combed through the wreckage of a house fire in downtown Oshawa. The blaze killed four people, including two young children and their mother. The fourth victim was a man who charged back into the burning building trying to save others.
I covered this story closely for The Oshawa Express.
The fire debate (SPECIAL SECTION)
A tribute to a man I met during my first council meeting in Oshawa. A former councillor himself, Dave passed away late in 2017. He was a tireless advocate for the city of Oshawa, even in illness, and fought to uncover some of the lingering controversies that have plagued city hall. It was one of these investigations that he didn’t get to see through until the end. I felt it was only right to pick up where he left off and see what could be found.
As a reporter, you are fortunate enough to get to do a lot of things, and get access to a lot of things, that you wouldn’t have otherwise, like getting to see the inside of a nuclear power plant.
Early in 2018 I was fortunate enough to cover the status update on the $12.8 billion dollar project that is refurbishing the Darlington Nuclear Plant’s reactors just outside of Oshawa. It was a pretty wild experience.
The Dafonte Miller case dominated headlines in the GTA when it first came to light that an off-duty Toronto police officer had savagely beaten a Black-teenager in Whitby. The ensuing investigation by Durham Regional Police (or lack thereof) poured more gasoline on the fire that was this story. In March, Dafonte, the young teen who was assaulted, took the witness stand to share his side of the story. I was in the courtroom to follow along. The case is still ongoing.
I’d heard through a couple local sources that the Durham Regional Police’s Human Trafficking Unit was having troubles. When I reached out to them, it was in fact the very opposite, and I was able to get a great story about the transition of the new head of the unit and develop a great source. Many people in Durham Region don’t realize how prevalent the problem is. It’s literally outside their front door with pimps trying to recruit girls at local malls and online.
I first met Linda, the curator of Oshawa’s prestigious Robert McLaughlin Gallery, when I started at The Express in 2014. I was honoured that she agreed to be interviewed ahead of her retirement. We talked about her career and the changing climate in the arts in the years to come. The portrait I snapped of her for the story is also one of my favourite photos of 2018.
A great new initiative was launched in Oshawa to help inform and improve the lives of those living below the poverty line. Christeen is an incredibly caring and dedicated advocate for Durham’s vulnerable populations. I was happy to do my part and shed some light on the amazing work she’s doing.
During my four years at The Express, I covered the opioid crisis locally quite closely, winning an award for one of my stories in 2015. Covering these topics closely, you interview the same people many times and build great relationships. It was through one of these relationships that I was able to write this in-depth look at the Opioid Strategy drafted by Lakeridge Health. It’s a great document with lofty plans to improve Durham’s response to the opioid crisis. Now it all comes down to the action.
A story I’ve been following pretty much since day one at The Oshawa Express saw some real results in 2018. Centered around a controversial purchase of land for a new Oshawa works depot. Through the tireless efforts of a select few local residents and the reporting of The Oshawa Express, a police fraud investigation into the purchase was initiated. This is one of those stories that reminds me why journalism is important, and the power that local residents have if they only pay attention (and show a little patience, grit, and file a few clever FOIs).
A saga indeed, the full spectrum of my coverage on this issue for the Express (or as much as I could dig up anyway).
Depot to be occupied next month - March 2015
Depot projected to be over budget - April 2015
Transition to new depot almost complete - July 2015
Depot budget remains in the dark - December 2015
Documents kept secret - December 2015
Commissioner orders release of emails - January 2016
The fight for transparency - January 2016
Debate over city hall emails continues - February 2016
Will the city’s depot savings be realized? - February 2016
IPC ruling a first step - March 2016
Further emails linked to depot saga could exist, IPC says - November 2017
Questions continue to swirl around depot land purchase - August 2017
Paper trail needs to be a priority - August 2017
Calls renewed for OPP investigation at city hall - June 2018
Depot documents to be made public in future - June 2018
Something about heritage stories always grips my attention. I think it’s the passion and dedication the advocates put into preserving something that so many people take for granted. Those two elements, in my opinion, make for excellent stories. This is one of them.
One of my last big assignments for The Oshawa Express. I drove down to Ottawa to spend a day following, interviewing and photographing Durham MP Erin O’Toole. It was a whirlwind day filled with numerous security checks, Question Period, and several committee meetings discussing everything from Arctic sovereignty to the tariff war with the United States. The thing that captured my attention, and became the skeleton for the story, is that much of the day, hours in fact, is spent preparing for the brief 30 seconds an MP has during Question Period.
Everyone knows my affinity for the avian species. I met Jim Richards while doing research for an article on the Second Marsh, a wildlife area in Oshawa that Richards fought for and eventually got protection for against aggressive plans to expand the nearby harbour. During our conversation, it came up that Richards was an avid birder and photographer, which I quickly realized from all the amazing photos inside his home. He told me he travels to Nunavut often, and was in the process of writing a book on the birds of Nunavut. Journalists like firsts, and so I set out to write about that too.
Another one of those great relationships I mentioned paid dividends with this story. Larry Ladd, a man who knows more about Oshawa’s waterfront than any living person, mentioned that he used to fish with his father off a sunken ship in the Oshawa Harbour. The top of the boat used to stick out of the water and he says the waves used to lap against their feet as they fished. When I started looking into this a little closer, nobody could answer whether that ship, having sunk twice in the harbour, was still down there.
The largest feature of my career
Nothing like going out with a bang. I left The Express at the end of August, but not without completing a massive feature series on human trafficking in Durham Region. The four-part series ran over four weeks in The Express, and consisted of interviews with survivors, advocates, police officers, and a ride-along with the DRPS human trafficking unit during a sting operation. It’s not only the longest feature series I’ve completed, but it’s probably the story I’m most proud of in my career. It sheds light on a big issue that is affecting countless young women and men across the GTA.
Modern Day Slavery: Human Trafficking in Durham Region
Katie has a lot of stories about her rock bottom.
For years, all she wanted was compassion. Another person to hold her hand, wrap their arms around her, caress her cheek and say I love you, say those three words and really mean them.
Instead, she was met with men who abused her, raped her and sold her for sex. It indoctrinated her into a life of darkness and twisted her brain into believing that these men, the same men who forced her to have sex for money then took it all away, actually cared for her.
The need to be loved eventually was washed out by the need to just end it all. However, even death proved as elusive as love for Katie, just another failure.
“It’s really difficult to wake up and be like, ‘shoot, it didn’t work, again,’ and then feeling like a failure and trying again,” she says. “It’s almost like there were invisible bars. I wasn’t locked up, but I was trapped.”
The street is alive with cars grinding through traffic, people waiting for the bus, or out for an afternoon walk. A seven-storey office tower stands tall across the street, filled with workers sitting at computers, filling out documents or attending meetings, perhaps even taking a break for a late lunch.
In the hotel next door, a man is looking to buy sex.
Across the road, parked on the edge of a parking lot, behind a stand of trees, sits Acting Det. Dave Davies with the Durham Regional Police Human Trafficking Unit.
He’s leaned back in the driver’s seat, a cell phone in his lap, a radio in one hand, the cord snaking down to the console installed between the seats. A recent flurry of chatter from his other officers has just gone silent.
Something is about to happen.
There were too many drugs in her system, she knew it.
Her body was raked with seizures and Katie turned to the man she was with, a familiar client and asked for help. She needed to go to the hospital, she said.
He had another solution.
“He just said, if I have sex with you that will take your mind off of it, and then he raped me,” she recalls. “That was kind of a constant thing.”
It was 2014, and her nightmarish trip to Calgary with her former “boyfriend” was long behind her. However, a brutal relapse had forced Katie back into the sex trade. The man she was with was one she had seen before, but things had started to go from bad to bottom of the basement terrible. Bad drugs, bad tempers and coercion mixed and once again, Katie was trapped in a situation she saw no way out of.
Katie looks down at her hands as she speaks. She sees the ghosts of all her stories blowing behind her eyes like white lace on a window.
“I still am baffled that all this stuff has happened,” she says, her head shaking slightly from side to side. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be, for one, sober, and for two, alive. I’m supposed to be dead, with the amount of things that I’ve done and have happened to me.”
She’s shared it all — the terrible trip to Calgary where she was forced to have sex with men for money, controlled by a man who she thought loved her and was her boyfriend. There were the relapses, the suicide attempts, and then finally the man who held her captive in his apartment, sick on bad drugs, hallucinating and being raped when she should have been taken to the hospital.
Then after it all, there was the torturous court process that saw her take her story to the judicial system, which resulted as a non-starter in one case, an acquittal for another, and one man still at large.
Despite the end result of the court case, the horror, the trauma and the struggle, Katie knows that she won in the end.
In one of my first assignments for The Pointer after our initial launch, I sat down with Brampton’s mayor (now the former mayor). During my research ahead of the interviews, I realized there was absolutely nothing written about Linda Jeffrey’s life outside of politics. I’m not talking about really personal stuff, just really anything at all aside from her work as Brampton’s mayor, there was nothing. For our interview, I tried to open things up a bit and talk about a wide array of topics, and try and get some of those more intimate details. The end result is a story that looks at not only Jeffrey’s run to retain her mayor’s seat, but a looks at a politician that has battled a lot during her time at city hall, including MS.
Another of my initial assignments for The Pointer, I took a deep dive into the issue of high-order transit in the city of Brampton. Digging into the historical maps, I took some inspiration from the ever-changing state of the debate in the city, comparing it to a flowing river, similar to the one that previously ran through downtown Brampton. I definitely had some fun with this one.