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David (Consumer) defeats Goliath (Loblaw)

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Welcome friends, grab yourself a ‘Cup of Joe’, pull up a chair and let’s chat about how ‘David’ successfully slew ‘Goliath’ (Loblaw) this week (and beyond).

Earlier in the week news media and social media were abuzz about Loblaw Ltd.’s decision to discontinue stocking the shelves of their grocery chains across Canada with French’s Tomato Ketchup. However, within days of this decision, Loblaw Ltd reversed their decision.

As reported on the Biz X website, “After being hit with a torrent of client complaints regarding their decision to discontinue carrying French’s Ketchup in Zehrs, No Frills and the Real Canadian Superstore, Loblaw Ltd. has reversed their decision and will continue stocking their shelves with French’s Ketchup”.

In the Windsor Essex County region, social media exploded with disbelief and anger to the initial news with threats of boycotting these grocery chains. The news that Loblaw would no longer carry French’s Ketchup hit this region particularly hard since it is Essex County grown tomatoes processed at Leamington’s Highbury Canco plant that is providing the paste for this product.

So, just in a matter of days, David (the consumer) successfully slew Goliath (the giant Loblaw corporation). Other expressions come to mind: power to the people, or the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It was an impressive show of how people committed to a common cause can take on even the biggest of giants and be successful.

Have you ever had your own personal David vs Goliath experience? I’m sure you have; I know I have had many. But, my greatest confrontation with Goliath happened 13 years ago, March 19, 2003.

Let me give you some background.

In 2002 I put my name forward as a candidate for Windsor City Council in Ward 2 in a by- election called to fill the seat vacated by Brian Masse who successfully won the federal election in Windsor West to replace the legendary Honourable Herb Gray, who was retiring. At the time, Brian had one year left to serve in his council term.

Many of my friends urged me to run for the seat knowing of my great affection for West Windsor where I had grown up as a youngster. At the time of the election, one of the major issues facing Ward 2 residents was US bound border truck traffic clogging up our city streets.

At the time I was working as a superintendent with CBSA (Customs) and had first-hand knowledge of the problem. I also believed that I had some workable solutions to the truck traffic in our neighborhoods. It is for these reasons that I chose to run for City Council.

I took a leave of absence from work using my own personal time and during the summer months of June, July and August knocked on close to 15,000 doors in the Ward Two neighborhoods. What a thrill, honor and privilege it was to meet so many amazing Windsorites.

On the Friday night before the Monday election I received a phone call from Gord Henderson, opinion writer with the Windsor Star.  He wanted to interview me for his Saturday column. Among the many questions he had for me, he asked why my campaign literature failed to mention that I had been a Catholic priest 20 years before, and also property manager in the mid-1980’s for JP’s, a gay bar on Riverside Drive West.

I told Henderson that these events were 20-30 years ago and had no relevance to issues facing Ward 2 in 2002.  Henderson disagreed. When I finished my conversation with him I had an ominous feeling that all my hard work over the previous three months was about to collapse.

In his column the next day Henderson chose to endorse Caroline Postma as his preferred candidate – as was his right. In doing so he spoke against both Ron Jones and me (Postma, Jones and I were considered the frontrunners of our slate). He saw Jones and me as the ‘anointed’ of the NDP and Liberal establishment, respectively. In addressing his comments about me he wrote,

“As for McParland, I don’t understand why his campaign literature didn’t mention that he’s a former priest and that his background as a property manager in the 1980s included helping manage JP’s, a controversial Riverside Drive gay strip club. After all, strip clubs have been a big issue in Ward 2.”

When I picked up the Saturday paper and read his column, I was sickened. He managed to link up the words “former Catholic priest and controversial Riverside Drive gay strip club” in one sentence. In doing so he suggested something seedy or nefarious about my past – almost like I was deliberately trying to hide something – which, of course, I was not.

This was at a time when the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church was making national headlines. It wouldn’t be too great a stretch for his readers to read into his words about me the possibility of something like this. I was devastated. And since the paper came out on Saturday morning with the election on Monday, I had no chance for rebuttal.

I later found out that the advanced polls leading into the election had me in a strong second-place position. However, the final election results placed me in a distant third-place position behind the winner Ron Jones, and runner-up, Caroline Postma. Something had happened in those final days before the election that caused me to go from a second-place to third-place finish.

That Saturday and Sunday I still had many homes to visit in the ward before the election on Monday. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I felt shamed and embarrassed by Henderson’s words. I wore a baseball cap and in an attempt to hide my identity. I was unsure how people would react to me after reading Henderson’s column.

It didn’t take long for my worst fears to be realized. At one door, after introducing myself to the homeowner, he said to me,” if you’re that pervert priest, get the f— off my property.” He’d read Henderson’s column.

After the election I went through a period of depression. I became extremely reclusive and it took me months to get back to my normal self. A lawyer friend of mine arranged for me to talk to one of Canada’s finest libel lawyers, Julian Porter, about what had been written about me.

In a telephone consultation Mr. Porter advised that I had a case for defamation, but to win the case would cost me close to $20,000 in legal fees and the best remedy I could expect would be an apology by The Windsor Star. He strongly advised against this course of action.

Rather, he and another lawyer friend of mine suggested that I file a formal complaint against The Windsor Star with the Ontario Press Council (OPC) in Toronto. This could result in Henderson and the Windsor Star being judged by a jury of their peers.

In researching this option, I discovered that “a Press Council adjudication represents the collective opinion of a publisher’s conduct shared by people from a broad cross-section of Ontario society and from the journalism field.” The OPC requires that media members make their decisions public and published.

In my research I also learned that the OPC annually receives more than 100 complaints about the media/press throughout the province. Of these complaints they generally choose to adjudicate approximately 20 to 25. And of the ones adjudicated by the OPC, less than a dozen are founded. I didn’t think my odds of being heard by the OPC were very good

I presented my formal complaint to the OPC and a few weeks later heard back from them that they would hear my complaint. Close friends of mine, Professor of Law at St. Clair College, Pat Papadeas, and Ron, worked tirelessly with me in putting together my presentation. In December 2002 I attended before the OPC in Toronto with them and presented my case before their board.

Henderson and John Coleman (former editor of The Windsor Star) attended to respond to my allegations. This was a daunting experience for me. It was the biggest David versus Goliath moment of my life – Joe vs Gord Henderson and The Windsor Star.

Two and a half months later I was notified by the OPC that their decision on my case would be released on March 19, 2003. March 19th is the feast of my patron saint, St. Joseph – also the patron saint of Canada. I felt very confident of what their decision would be – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The OPC ruled in my favour asserting that The Windsor Star unfairly condemned me by innuendo and upheld my complaint.

On March 19th The Windsor Star published the following on page two of it’s newspaper:

Joe McParland vs Windsor Star

A complaint that a column in the Windsor Star unfairly condemned a municipal election candidate by innuendo has been upheld by the Ontario Press Council.

The column by Gord Henderson, published Sept. 7, 2002, two days before a by-election, referred to Joe McParland in two sentences that read:

“As for McParland, I don’t understand why his campaign literature didn’t mention that he’s a former priest and that his background as a property manager in the 1980s included helping manage JP’s, a controversial Riverside Drive gay strip club. After all, strip clubs have been a big issue in Ward 2.”

McParland, who was defeated in the by-election, said he found the words “harmful in the extreme and devastating to me as both an individual and a candidate.” He said he decided in 1984 to voluntarily leave the Roman Catholic priesthood after four years of active ministry in which he experienced doubts about his vocation and an emerging awareness of his gay sexual orientation.

Noting that the words “former priest,” “controversial” and “gay strip club” all appear in one sentence, McParland said the innuendo is reprehensible; that readers inferred from those comments that “I am dishonest, deceptive, a child molester, a pedophile, etc.”

The Star said readers deserve to know the background of anyone running for office and that while candidates decide what is to go into their campaign literature, the newspaper’s job is to deal with issues that it sees as important.

The columnist said the priesthood is still a respected profession in Windsor and he thought it would be beneficial to be identified with it. He disagreed with McParland’s contention that strip clubs were never an issue in the campaign. And he said he couldn’t believe readers would assume a person is a pedophile from reading the reference to his former calling as a priest and management of a gay strip club.

The Star’s editor said he viewed the reference as “harmless” and added that he couldn’t imagine how anyone might jump to the conclusion that the column was “slyly impugning your character.”

Noting criticism of the fact that the column appeared on the last publishing day before the election, the Star said it’s common practice to wait until late in a campaign before writing an overview of an election.

In dealing with McParland’s complaint, the Press Council gave consideration to its long-held policy of extending to columnists wide latitude in expressing controversial or unpopular opinions.

But it decided that in this case that policy was overridden by the preamble to its constitution which says, in part, that through the Press Council readers can call Ontario newspapers to account for unfair conduct such as “condemning people by innuendo.”

TEXT OF THE ADJUDICATION (March 19, 2003)

Joe McParland, a candidate in a municipal by-election in Windsor in 2002, complained that two sentences in a Sept. 7 column in The Windsor Star led readers to infer that he was “dishonest, deceptive, a child molester, a pedophile etc.”

The sentences, part of an article published two days before the election, read: “As for McParland, I don’t understand why his campaign literature didn’t mention that he’s a former priest and that his background as a property manager in the 1980s included helping manage JP’s, a controversial Riverside Drive gay strip club. After all, strip clubs have been a big issue in Ward 2.”

McParland said he voluntarily left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1984 in good standing and for no other reason than “an emerging awareness” of his gay sexual orientation. He described as “reprehensible” the fact that the words “former priest,” “controversial,” and “gay strip club” all appeared in the same sentence.

The Star responded that the columnist was merely expressing surprise at “key omissions” from McParland’s campaign literature, that reference to his years as a priest would have been viewed as positive by many voters in a largely Catholic city and that strip clubs are a contentious issue in Windsor.

Given the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, the Ontario Press Council sees the reference to McParland’s departure from the priesthood juxtaposed with his business involvement with a gay strip club as unfairly condemning him by innuendo and upholds the complaint.

That, my friends, is, and always will be, my proudest David defeating Goliath life experience.