They called him Bunny George


Last year, an elderly homeless man died alone at a “tent city” protest at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park. Despite being surrounded by hundreds, his body wasn’t discovered until the next day. Authorities searched for his next-of-kin for a month, finding no one.

Who was this man? What had happened in his seven decades and why did his life end that way, there in an East Vancouver park? My colleagues and I spent the last 14 months finding out, locating family members, friends and acquaintances, conducting dozens of interviews in three countries, two provinces and two U.S. states; we also reviewed his court and academic records, municipal files, yearbooks and genealogy websites.

The result is an 8,100-word story that runs from the ruins of postwar Germany to the surfing beaches of California, to the Air Force, to prison, and to the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. What the investigation found was surprising – especially to the family who never knew him.

Read it at The Globe and Mail.


How one of the world’s longest-living heart transplant recipients would fix Canada’s organ donation system

As COO, Keith helped transform the Nevada Donor Network from one of the country’s worst organ procurement organizations to one of its best. (Emily Wilson For The Globe and Mail)

As COO, Keith helped transform the Nevada Donor Network from one of the country’s worst organ procurement organizations to one of its best. (Emily Wilson For The Globe and Mail)


It is late afternoon on a sweltering day, and a group of doctors at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada has gathered around the body of a teenage boy. His accidental death days earlier cut short a life of potential – but his parents’ decision to donate his organs is giving a second chance at life to others.

In operating room 17, three teams of surgeons get to work. For more than two hours, eight white-gloved hands at a time carefully cut, position and irrigate as others look on. On a table behind them, silver bowls of sterile ice await. A cardiac monitor beeps.

After examining the organs and arteries for abnormalities, the doctors are finally ready to remove the heart. They administer a solution for organ preservation and an anti-coagulant to prevent blood clots. To one side, a team member calls the receiving hospital. “We’ve just heparinized and we’ll cross-clamp within five minutes,” she says.

At 7:29 p.m., doctors place a clamp across the aorta and sterile ice into the body cavity. No longer beating, the heart is quickly removed, cleaned up and packed for transport. There is a sense of urgency; the heart must be transplanted within four hours of removal.

It is rushed down the hall and into a waiting vehicle bound for the airport, where it will then be loaded into a private jet. In all, seven of the boy’s organs will go to five recipients between the ages of 34 and 68, in Nevada, California and Utah.

From the corner of the operating room, Simon Keith has followed the entire operation. He is chief operating officer of the Nevada Donor Network (NDN), the not-for-profit organ procurement organization (OPO) that brought together the doctors in the operating room today. And the procedures he just witnessed have personal significance: Nearly 30 years ago, Keith himself received a life-saving heart transplant. He went on to become the first athlete to play a professional sport after such a procedure, and today, at 50, he’s one of the world’s longest-living heart-transplant recipients.

Keith – who was raised in Victoria, B.C., but had to look elsewhere for his transplant – is now using his unique position to call for improvements to what he describes as a “fragmented” organ-donation system in Canada.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail 

Braving the Blazes

Will Grimm with the BC Wildfire Service doses hot spots after a controlled burn at a fire in Sechelt, B.C., on July 9, 2015. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Will Grimm with the BC Wildfire Service doses hot spots after a controlled burn at a fire in Sechelt, B.C., on July 9, 2015. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

In British Columbia, more than 2,300 workers are risking their lives battling upwards of 200 active wildfires. Reporter Andrea Woo and photographer John Lehmann joined one team putting out a blaze along the Sunshine Coast


Working swiftly, they march into the bush, yellowed grass and parched tree branches crunching under the weight of their boots.

They tip their drip-torches, spilling flaming fuel onto the arid land. The fires spread, racing across the carpet of tinder-dry earth, then upward, consuming trees that are 10 or more metres high. The heat – warm at first, then uncomfortably intense – forces others to hustle down the dusty logging road.

They are members of the B.C. Wildfire Service, one of several teams fighting more than 200 active wildfires in the province. They are conducting a controlled burn on the periphery of what’s being called the Old Sechelt Mine fire – a smaller blaze whose proximity to town has elevated it to one of B.C.’s highest priority wildfires. Creating a clean control line consumes fuel in the fire’s path, suppressing it.

It is the fire that claimed the life of John Phare, a logger of more than 40 years, who was much loved in the community. The 60-year-old, who was contracted to cut down trees near the fire, died last weekend when he was struck by a falling tree. Mr. Phare was to marry his fiancée soon; his daughter weds on Saturday.

“He was going to walk her down the aisle, but now her brother’s going to walk her down,” Mr. Phare’s brother, Lonnie, said on Friday. “It was the wrong timing for everything.”

More than 2,300 workers are handling B.C.’s wildfires, including 1,700 firefighters deployed throughout the province.

The tragic death – during an early wildfire season made more challenging by exceptionally dry conditions – is a reminder of the people who face tremendous risks to battle the flames and protect the communities they serve.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

More dire by the day

Beto Orozco, whose well ran dry more than a year ago, makes weekly trips the to the local fire station for more water. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Beto Orozco, whose well ran dry more than a year ago, makes weekly trips the to the local fire station for more water. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Stark images of cracked earth and fallow fields tell the story of the worst drought in California history. Reporter Andrea Woo and photojournalist John Lehmann travelled to East Porterville, Calif., where residents have made dramatic changes to their lives


ore than a year after the family well ran dry, Beto Orozco has learned by necessity how to conserve water at the ramshackle one-storey house he shares with 13 others.

When the taps first went dry, the former janitor would drive to a nearby cemetery, which is connected to a municipal water source, and bathe under the timed spray of the sprinklers. But more often, on days when it is warm enough, he takes a small quantity of his county-supplied non-potable water and washes himself by a tree in his front yard.

“I shower by the tree,” the 53-year-old says in a thick Spanish accent, “so the tree can drink the water.”

Mr. Orozco’s rural community of East Porterville, located about 120 kilometres southeast of Fresno, in Tulare County, Calif., is among the hardest hit by the state’s extreme drought, now in its fourth year. The situation has become so dire that Governor Jerry Brown in April imposed the first-ever mandatory statewide water restrictions, requiring urban water agencies to reduce water usage by 25 per cent or face hefty fines.

It adds teeth to a January, 2014, declaration of a drought state of emergency that called on – but did not mandate – Californians to reduce water usage by 20 per cent.

Under the new order, more than 4.6 square kilometres of lawns throughout the state will be replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping, and new homes and developments are prohibited from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip systems are used. Campuses, golf courses and cemeteries – such as the one Mr. Orozco bathed in – are required to make significant cuts in water use.

While affluent communities such as Beverly Hills have been slow to turn off the taps, hard-hit areas such as East Porterville – an unincorporated community that is not connected to a municipal water system – have no choice. There, hundreds of private wells have been dry for more than a year. Parched lawns have long gone brown and the passing of each car sends a plume of dust into the air.

As dramatic images of cracked earth and uncultivated fields continue to dominate coverage of the worst drought in California’s recorded history, people such as those in East Porterville – who have had to make stark changes to their daily habits – quietly endure, waiting for rain.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

Pharcyde producer J-Sw!ft stuck in Vancouver, fears deportation to Spain

Rapper/producer Juan Martinez (better known as J-Sw!ft from hip-hop group the Pharcyde), is currently stuck in Vancouver and facing deportation to Spain. (Jimmy Jeong For the Globe and Mail)

Rapper/producer Juan Martinez (better known as J-Sw!ft from hip-hop group the Pharcyde), is currently stuck in Vancouver and facing deportation to Spain. (Jimmy Jeong For the Globe and Mail)


A California music producer who has been stuck in British Columbia for two months fears he may soon be deported to his birth country of Spain, despite not having lived there in more than 40 years.

Juan Martinez – best known for his work with esteemed Los Angeles hip-hop group the Pharcyde, under the stage name J-Sw!ft – has been in the province since mid-January, when he performed a reunion show with the Pharcyde in Vancouver. When he tried returning home on Jan. 15, U.S. customs officials turned him away.

Mr. Martinez’s legal standing in the United States is complicated. The 43-year-old was born in Spain but moved to California at age 2, becoming a permanent resident. He says he didn’t realize until his mid-30s that he did not hold U.S. citizenship.

That decade, Mr. Martinez struggled with homelessness and substance abuse – issues, he said, that were compounded by family health issues and the dissolution of his marriage. He was arrested several times for drug possession, though those arrests never precluded him from international travel.

His situation now centres largely on a 2012 arrest for drug possession that triggered deportation proceedings. Mr. Martinez filed an appeal and departed for a nine-country European tour with the Pharcyde, which concluded without issue.

After a one-off show in Vancouver in January, Mr. Martinez says a U.S. customs official at Vancouver International Airport refused him re-entry, saying that the terms of his appeal had required that he remain in the United States. He spent four days in jail.

“They claimed that by travelling out of the country, I had abandoned my appeal,” Mr. Martinez said. “But that’s not true. I had travelled to nine countries in Europe on appeal.”

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

Pussy Riot releases Eric Garner tribute, I Can’t Breathe

First English song by the Russian group. Eric Garner died in July, 2014, after NYPD — going against policy — put him in a fatal chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk. Garner repeated the phrase “I can’t breathe” 11 times before losing consciousness.

From a statement: “This song is for Eric and for all those from Russia to America and around the globe who suffer from state terror — killed, choked, perished because of war and state sponsored violence of all kinds — for political prisoners and those on the streets fighting for change. We stand in solidarity.”

Eight surprising facts about B.C.’s civic elections

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks to supporters after being elected for a third term during a civic election in Vancouver on Nov. 15. (JIMMY JEONG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks to supporters after being elected for a third term during a civic election in Vancouver on Nov. 15. (JIMMY JEONG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Surrey was not nearly the “close three-way race” many polls and pundits said it would be. Insights West, for example, released a poll early in the week putting Linda Hepner and Doug McCallum tied at 33 per cent and Barinder Rasode at 30 per cent. But from early on Saturday evening, results showed that Ms. Hepner held a huge lead over the other two. By night’s end, Ms. Hepner, an ally of popular outgoing Mayor Dianne Watts, had 46,901 votes – more than Mr. McCallum (25,539) and Ms. Rasode (19,784) combined.

New Squamish councillor Peter Kent will have to set himself on fire. In a video posted to YouTube, Mr. Kent, a professional stuntman who worked as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunt double in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Total Recall and Predator, pledged that if voter turnout in 2014 was higher than in 2011 (41.2 per cent), “I as a professional stuntman will set myself on fire in the centre of this street.” According to CivicInfoBC, this year’s turnout was 44.5. Reached by email the morning after his election, Mr. Kent showed no signs of backing down, saying he is now looking into getting a district permit to set himself afire in accordance with city laws. “I would be remiss to break my first campaign promise, wouldn’t I?” he wrote.

Vision Vancouver was decimated on Park Board. Vision, which previously controlled the Park Board with five of seven commissioners, was on Saturday night reduced to just one: former Vancouver Public Library chair Catherine Evans. This raises the question of how Vision’s handling of hot-button issues – like keeping cetaceans in captivity and the battle with resident groups over control of community centres – factored in. Of the other six commissioners, four are NPA and two are Green.

Voter turnout in Vancouver climbed to 44 per cent, according to preliminary numbers, up from 35 per cent in 2011. This was seen in long wait times that at some polling stations reached an hour. The Britannia Community Centre even ran out of ballots mid-afternoon, with staff telling voters it would be at least half an hour before they could restock.

Nearly 3,000 people voted to make Obi Canuel – a self professed “Pastafarian” who wears a colander on his head as religious headgear – a Surrey city councillor. Mr. Canuel – an ordained minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, made headlines in recent months for his battle with the Insurance Corp. of B.C., which refused to issue him a driver’s licence unless he removed his holy headgear for his photo. He ended up placing second-to-last in the race for city council, but he still received more than 2,800 votes.

Green councillor Adriane Carr has gotten a lot more popular. In 2011, Ms. Carr just barely made it on to Vancouver city council with 48,648 votes – just 90 more than 11th place finisher Ellen Woodsworth of COPE. This year, she was by far the most popular councillor, taking in 74,077 votes – 5,658 more than second place finisher George Affleck of the NPA.

For the first time, municipal elections candidates – as well as staff on the parties’ payrolls – were prohibited from promoting themselves, or their parties, on social media on Election Day. This rule has existed for provincial elections and byelections for some time, but is new for municipal elections under the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act, which came into effect on May 29. Under the rules of the Act, a candidate can use social media on Election Day to post about something completely unrelated to the election – Gregor Robertson could Instagram his breakfast, for example – but he cannot use it to say “Get out and vote,” even if he does not mention his party, Vision Vancouver. A campaign volunteer can use a personal account to post about the campaign as long as he or she is not being paid to do so. Those who violate these rules could face a penalty of up to $5,000 or one year in jail, if convicted.

The District of Stewart, with its population of about 500, had a voter turnout of 83.2 per cent. Results were hand-written on a sheet and posted online. Incumbent mayor Galina Durant was re-elected with 199 votes; competitor Steve Howe had 92.

My latest in the Globe and Mail.