Tuesday March 29, 2016

Mar. 29, 2016 Episode Transcript

Note: Transcripts may contain errors. If you wish to re-use all, or part of, a transcript, please contact CBC for permission. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. Copyright © CBC 2016

The Current Transcript for March 29, 2016

Host: Anna Maria Tremonti


Listen to the full episode


[Music: Theme]


VOICE OF TRANSLATOR: If my husband did something wrong, that is between me and him. The government did not have the right to do such a thing.

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: They harassed her, followed her, intimidated her, even jailed her. But nothing Iranian intelligence could do would dent Shirin Ebadi's determination to fight for and speak up for human rights for her fellow Iranian citizens. So they targeted her husband to get to her. It would ultimately lead to divorce. Shirin Ebadi lives in exile, the first Iranian, the first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Hear her on why she'll never give up the fight in half an hour. And then, listen to them.


[Whales calling]

AMT: If you don't understand that conversation in those clicks, you are not up on Sperm-Whale-Speak, because those giants of the sea do actually speak, chatting to each other in a regional dialect, identifying themselves with vocalizations among family members. And how do we know this? Because marine biologist Shane Gero has been eavesdropping on and tracking sperm whale families for years. He'll explain what he's learned in an hour. But first, out on bail and facing bail conditions.


They give you enough rope to hang yourself with. They want you to fail. They hammer as many as they can on you to soften you up, hoping you’ll just plead guilty to get it over with.

AMT: We begin with criticism of the system that determines who gets bail and under what conditions when someone's charged and awaiting trial. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.

Back To Top »

Canada's bail system set up to fail, says criminal defence lawyer

Guests: Daniel Brown, Antonietta Raviele

[Music: Theme]

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: The right to reasonable bail is a fundamental tenet of the justice system as we know it here in Canada, right up there with the right to counsel, or being considered innocent until proven guilty. But for the past few years, there have been rumblings of a crisis inside Canada's bail system. Advocacy groups such as the John Howard Society and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have been sounding the alarm. And then, earlier this month, came a bold and noteworthy complaint from inside. Ontario Justice of the Peace Julie Lauzon penned an op-ed piece for the National Post, blasting the state of the bail system today. She called it broken, she declared that the rule of law had been "thrown out the window," and her words have others talking. We are taking up the discussion about Canada's bail system beginning with Daniel Brown. He is a criminal defence lawyer and a Toronto Region Director of the Criminal Lawyers' Association. Daniel Brown is in Toronto. Hello!

DANIEL BROWN: Hi, good morning, Anna Maria.

AMT: Now before we look at whether the system is broken, let's just take us through the basics here. Explain under what conditions someone is first granted bail.

DANIEL BROWN: Sure, well, not everyone is brought for a bail hearing. Some people can be released right from the scene without any type of conditions placed on them other than a reminder to come to court. Others can be taken to the police station and placed on minimal conditions where they don't need anybody to supervise them. And for those who shouldn’t be released or require some sort of supervision by the public, those people are brought before a judge or a justice of the peace for a bail hearing, and that's really where the problems occur, is during that bail hearing process.

AMT: Okay, and under what circumstances is the bail automatically denied?

DANIEL BROWN: Unless you're charged with murder, or a few other really serious charges like treason, you have a right to a bail hearing at the very beginning of your case if you're brought to the courts for that purpose. So, for those people who are brought before the judge or justice, normally the onus is on the Crown attorney to show why a person shouldn't be released from custody. Meaning it's the crown that has to call evidence or proffer some sort of reason to deny bail. There are very few offenses, though, where the person themselves has to show why they shouldn't be released from jail. Or why they should be released, sorry.

AMT: And what do you make of Julie Lauzon's assessment, that the bail system has become dysfunctional?

DANIEL BROWN: Well, that's what we see every day. I mean, she's very brave to have said that, because she's a presiding justice of the peace right now. It's not something we often hear from the justice of the peace, but it is something that defense lawyers and I think other Crown attorneys, people within the system are realizing on a daily basis.

AMT: So what are the concerns? What do you see every day?

DANIEL BROWN: Well what we see is, first of all, that there's a huge amount of people that are being brought for bail hearings, more so now than ever before. And there aren't as many resources given to the bail hearing stage. So the bail courts tend to get clogged up. What it does is it gives the Crown attorneys potentially some leverage in the process, because if an accused person wants to be released on bail, their best route to it is not to have a bail hearing, but to negotiate some sort of terms of release. And what the justice of the peace was critical of was that the Crown attorneys were imposing conditions that weren't really connected to the offenses. They were too harsh, they were unnecessary, and what it did was it really set people who were accepting bail up for failure because the conditions were too onerous.

AMT: Give me an example of bail conditions that would be onerous or unrealistic.

DANIEL BROWN: Well, somebody who was charged with a drug offense may be imposed a condition that says they can't possess a cell phone because of maybe some outdated stereotypes about how drug offenders or drug dealers might conduct their business. So whether or not a cell phone was connected to the offense, whether or not it was part of the allegation, if that person wanted to get bail, they would have to agree not to have a cell phone. Well, that could affect a person's employment or their ability to communicate with others. Some people don't have home lines anymore, and in this day and age, taking away a person's cell phone is really crippling them in the economy and in the community.

AMT: And so you'd see more people being held to conditions that what, didn't exist a couple years ago?

DANIEL BROWN: Well, simply that there are more of them. That a person who commits a crime in the day, someone who shoplifts, may be put on a curfew condition, and even though the curfew condition really has nothing to do with the offense. It's not as if the person is out at night committing crimes. And so what we see is just really heavy and onerous bail conditions, and the people that are brought back into the system, the people that are re-incarcerated, aren't usually re-incarcerated for committing further crimes or other crimes, they're re-incarcerated most often for violating one of those terms of bail. And that's part of what the problem is, is that there's a lot of people in the justice system who simply can't get bail anymore. And those that are there are there because they violated a bail condition.

AMT: You're saying that the Crown is imposing these conditions, and then a judge or justice of the peace is rubber stamping it?

DANIEL BROWN: That was what is expected. Remember, in court it's very busy, and most judges will defer to the negotiations that have taken place between counsel. What Justice Lauzon was being critical of is that she was questioning why some of these bail conditions were being imposed. She said what's the connection between this bail condition and this offense? And that's where there was some tension between the Crown attorneys and the justice of the peace, because they were of the mindset that if they had negotiated these types of terms, they ought not to be reviewed by the judge or second guessed by the judge.

AMT: And so how have the number of people detained in jail awaiting trial changed over the past, say, decade?

DANIEL BROWN: Well it's significant. In the last ten years, it used to be about 40 percent of the jail population was there on remands, meaning that they were waiting a bail hearing or a trial, they were yet to be sentenced, they were yet to be found guilty, they were presumed innocent. Now, ten years later, it's a stark reversal. Now 60 percent of those in custody are there waiting to be tried, waiting for their bail hearings. So we have more than half the jail population are presumed innocent in Canada.

AMT: Okay, and so, that's because they can't agree to the bail, or they break the bail, or they can't afford the bail?

DANIEL BROWN: It's a whole host of reasons. That's exactly right. And when we look at who that population is, we see that Aboriginals are disproportionately represented in the justice system, we see that black people are disproportionately represented, other racial minorities. We see that those with mental health issues are disproportionately represented. So it's really the people of privilege that tend to get bail most often. And those that are from other minority groups are the ones that are disproportionately affected by this bail system.

AMT: And we're not talking about violent offenders here?

DANIEL BROWN: No, in fact, the majority of people that are held in custody awaiting trial are there for nonviolent offenses. Over 70 percent of those people that are being held pending trial are there for nonviolent offenses. Things like shoplifting, frauds, drug possession. Not murder, not robberies, not the serious stuff that you would hope that someone would be held in jail for.

AMT: And what does that do to them, if they're there?

DANIEL BROWN: Well what happens is most people will spend some time in jail, they'll realise that they could get out tomorrow if they pled guilty, or they could wait six months for a trial. And for most people who are in custody, it's a no brainer. They want to get back to their families; they want to get back to their jobs. And so they're willing to plead guilty, even where they're innocent, even when the Crown attorney couldn't prove the evidence against them, even when they may have been the subject to a collection of illegal evidence and have a chance to argue that in court. But they're simply not prepared to wait. And so they leave jail after a few days or few weeks with a criminal record, and all the stigma that comes along with that.

AMT: You know that there are others, though, who say bail is granted too easily, and they use the case of Christopher Husbands. He was the Toronto Eaton Center shooter who was out on bail under house arrest when he shot and killed two people in 2012.

DANIEL BROWN: Absolutely. And there's always going to be examples where a person ought not have been released, or maybe in those circumstances, his release was perfectly appropriate. We can never guarantee that anyone out on bail will never reoffend, but the test for the justice of the peace or for the judge is whether or not that person, whether there's a substantial likelihood that they'll reoffend. And based on the evidence that was called at that bail hearing, there wasn't a substantial likelihood. Because if the Crown attorney had reason to think the Christopher Husbands ought not to have been released that first instance, they could have reviewed that bail decision, and they never did. And so everyone of the time was satisfied that he had enough supervision, that the people who said they were going to watch him would do the jobs. And the failure wasn't in the bail system to release him; it was in those supervisors for not supervising him properly.

AMT: Okay, well, Daniel Brown, a criminal defense lawyer, I'm speaking to Daniel Brown. He's the director of the Criminal Lawyers' Association. Antonietta Raviele has been listening in. She’s a former Crown attorney. She’s currently a lawyer at RV Law in Toronto. And she joins us, as well. Hello!


AMT: What's your reaction to what Daniel Brown is saying?

ANTONIETTA RAVIELE: On the whole, I have to say that I can't completely disagree with him in terms of the bail system itself. There are an inordinate amount of people who are currently in remand, practically speaking, at any provincial jail, that is, for under two years of a sentence of incarceration, which is where someone would go if you're sentenced. The majority of people that are in custody are either detained or on remand. They are not serving a sentence. So there's, practically speaking, there is a black and white fact there that I simply can't challenge. However, some of what Mr. Brown was saying, I can certainly appreciate, but there are mechanisms that are in place that would give anyone who is in custody or who is seeking bail an opportunity to challenge certain things. So he mentioned bail review. Where an individual is detained, they have the opportunity to seek bail review. That is not something that is solely open to the Crown. Number two, where an individual is in custody, and they are, their lawyer is speaking to the Crown, and there are conditions that are being sought that perhaps are out of the purview of the actual offense, or the accused person simply doesn't want to accept, again, they do have an opportunity for a bail hearing. Mr. Brown has indicated that there are issues in the system for delay, let's speak it plainly, that there aren't enough resources. So the Crown may be using that as leverage. They may be, as a former assistant Crown attorney, that was never a goal of mine. It was never something that I relied on, and I can advise that, at this point, I've also done per diem work. So, while not employed directly by the Crown, I have gone in and covered bail courts for certain offices in Toronto. And again, yes, you run out of time, but the next day is available for a bail hearing.

AMT: Daniel Brown makes the point that in some cases, bail conditions are unrealistic. What do you say to that?

ANTONIETTA RAVIELE: Um… [sighs] The bail terms that are generally sought, I don't believe are unrealistic. Where you have, for example, in the domestic context, you have a domestic assault. Even if this is the first time for a domestic assault, if the children were present and were aware of the abuse or had observed the abuse, more often than not, there is a term that is sought that would say that we don't know of, not only do we not want this person to have any contact or communication with the complainant, so his partner or her partner., depending on the individual who's charged, more often than not, it is the male, part of it is also that they would ask that this person not have any contact or communication with the children. The reasoning for that would be that these children may have, if there is evidence that they were present at the time of the offense, or they were present in moments in time where there was abuse that occurred, they could be potential witnesses. There is an opportunity for the police to investigate and speak to these children, and one of the important things that the Crown has to protect as well, in addition to the potential reoffending by an offender, is the integrity of the case.

AMT: Well, what about when you have an addict who's pulled up on drug charges, and they're told they're not allowed to go near whatever substance they’re addicted to, but they don't get help in dealing with the addiction. Aren't they being set up to break bail?

ANTONIETTA RAVIELE: That's a problem. Again, I can only base this on my experience. But in my experience, and the tack that I have taken, is that if this person is a drug addict, if there is evidence of substance abuse issues, then there are several avenues. Number one would be, or could be, putting on that term, that they not consume any non-prescribed drugs. However, it's been acknowledged by the Supreme Court of Canada and higher courts that imposing that kind of term, whether it's in bail circumstances or in sentencing circumstances, you are setting up the person to fail. Because this is a recognized quote-unquote mental illness or disorder. So rather than indicate that, because if someone tells me that someone has an alcohol issue or a substance abuse issue, then my concern is less about them consuming, as it is, how do we get them help? So there is a term, if a crown were to include a term that said they weren't to consume any non-medically prescribed drugs, there would always be a term, and I've yet to see this not happen, where the person would have to take counseling or assessments as required by either the surety, if there was one. Because part and parcel of all of that is having someone involved in the bail that can help the individual maintain the conditions, adhere to the conditions.

AMT: Okay, so let's bring Daniel Brown back into this. You're identifying something that you say there are more people in jail over the last decade. Is this because the tough on crime legislation of the last government?

DANIEL BROWN: I think that's one of the reasons. I think, really, we have a culture that’s more about risk management now. We're worried about what happens if a person is released, rather than thinking about the presumption of innocence. The changes in the legislation have made it more difficult in a number of ways to get bail. As I said earlier, they reverse the onus on the accused person is show why they should be released. And by placing the onus on the accused person, they've made it more difficult to get bail. And so we've seen these incremental changes over the last 10 years to follow along with the crime legislation that have made it more difficult to get bail. And I think also what Antonietta talks about, that people can just wait for a bail hearing, ignores the reality of the situation.

AMT: How so?

DANIEL BROWN: Well, people can't just wait in custody for days for a bail hearing.

AMT: Why not?

DANIEL BROWN: Sometimes it takes days; sometimes it's even taken weeks to get a bail hearing. Because they have jobs to get back to, they have families to get back to, they need to support. A lot of people that are brought into the justice system have tenuous employment and they can't afford to miss even one shift, let alone one shift because they're behind bars. So try explaining that to your employer. And so people will accept conditions that are unreasonable, and people don't have the finances to go out and fund a review of their bail conditions. In fact, most people who accept those bail conditions are criticized later on for accepting them. They would say why would you accept something that you weren't intending to follow?

AMT: Okay, so let's, Antonietta, is that a fair criticism? Is it the responsibility of the Crown to make sure that person gets back to work on time?

ANTONIETTA RAVIELE: Quite frankly, that's not something I can agree with. Part of the Crown's responsibility is the protection of the public, so there is, in the system, the balancing factor of the fact that this person who is in custody awaiting bail has the opportunity to rely on duty counsel who is funded by legal aid. If someone is in custody, they have the opportunity to rely on duty counsel to help them run a bail hearing, or they have their own lawyer. So to place that responsibility solely on the Crown when the Crown's job, in large part, is the protection of the public, and or any witnesses or victims that are subject to the offenses that are alleged, for them to then have to shoulder the burden of ensuring that this person can maintain their employment is not fair.

AMT: Okay, well, Daniel Brown? Is the onus on the defense or the duty counsel?

DANIEL BROWN: Well, the duty counsel, as hard as they work, they’re really not a person's lawyer. They don't know a person's background, and I've heard countless examples where a duty counsel has agreed to terms, not really understanding how those terms would impact the accused person. I think even just being brought to court on time is a problem. The police don't necessarily even deliver a person to court on time, undermining their potential to get a bail hearing sooner.

AMT: Okay.

DANIEL BROWN: So there's lots of problems. I'm not placing the blame on the Crown attorneys. What I'm saying is that we've all forgotten that the test for protecting the public is whether or not there's a substantial likelihood to reoffend.

AMT: Okay.

DANIEL BROWN: Not whether it may be a problem in the future.

AMT: [interposing] Okay, we have to leave it there. You're pointing to a problem in the wider system, which is, okay. We have to leave it there. Thank you both for your thoughts today.

DANIEL BROWN: Thank you very much.

AMT: Antonietta Raviele is a former Crown attorney, currently a lawyer at RV Law in Toronto. Daniel Brown is a criminal defence lawyer and Toronto Region Director of the Criminal Lawyers' Association. We did ask Canada's Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to speak to us about this. She was not available. Nor was the Attorney General of Ontario, who we asked for comment, we did not receive a reply. This is The Current.

Back To Top »

Exiled Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi fights for Iranians in new memoir

Guests: Shirin Ebadi (translator Shirin Ershadi)

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: By the time Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 200 the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist had already paid a steep price for her convictions. She'd been Iran’s first female judge, but was dismissed following the 1979 revolution. She'd spent subsequent years defending those persecuted by authorities only to be jailed herself for criticizing the system. And so after winning the Peace Prize and becoming the first woman from the Islamic world to do so Shirin Ebadi knew things were likely to get worse. Though, even she could not have guessed that the same intelligence agency that had hounded her for years would ultimately turn her own husband against her. They lured him into a meeting with another woman and when he cheated they had proof. Shirin Ebadi had been betrayed by both her husband and her country. She's telling that story in her new memoir, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran. Shirin Ebadi joins me from Chicago with her translator Shirin Ershadi. Hello.

SHIRIN EBADI: Hello, good morning.

AMT: Let's begin with the story of what those intelligence agents did. In August of 2009, you were already living in exile. Your husband was still in Iran. He gets an invitation to visit a friend's apartment. Pick up the story for me. What happens?

SHIRIN EBADI: What happened was my husband was invited to this apartment. However, prior to him getting there the intelligence authorities had been there, had gotten there. They set up a camcorder and they videotaped whatever went on in that apartment and later on they apprehended him and took him in. And in order to avoid being stoned, he appeared on television and repeated whatever the intelligence authorities had prepared for him. So the reason that I wrote this story was that it had not only happened to me, it had happened to many of my clients as well. And I always encouraged my clients to talk about it. However, they did not want to talk about it because this is considered a taboo the in Iran. I decided to write about it because I wanted to break the taboo and not let it take over.

AMT: Well. So, let's just clarify though, because he you say he was sentenced to be stoned to death. What did they get on the tape?

SHIRIN EBADI: So, in Iran, pursuant to the penal code, any married person who engages in sexual relations with another person will be punished by stoning. And since my husband had been videotaped in the bedroom they took him to court. And then they tried him for adultery and, of course, they came up with the stoning punishment against him.

AMT: And in order to save his life, he had to then denounce you publicly.

SHIRIN EBADI: But the more important thing is that if my husband did something wrong, that is between me and him. The government did not have the right to do such a thing.

AMT: And, of course, that's the point, right, that they would they would go to this length to try to get you.

SHIRIN EBADI: Yes, that's true. And it was then figured out that the government, that claims it is Islamic, has a number of sex workers working for them.

AMT: Well. So, you make the point that other people have been through this and you knew this, but this must still strike at-- must have really hurt you.

SHIRIN EBADI: Naturally, yes. When I found out that our government has gotten this low, so far as mortality is concerned, I was disturbed a lot.

AMT: And do you blame your husband?

SHIRIN EBADI: Before blaming my husband, I blame the government.

AMT: What does this say about the lengths the Iranian government will go to discredit those they see as a threat?

SHIRIN EBADI: Unfortunately, the governments of Iran go to all the way to killing people that criticize the government. I, personally, represented the family of the Forouhar’s, who are both husband and wife, murdered by the government. And it was then that I came across many other names. And this was all without being tried.

AMT: And even in the case of your husband, I think you say the trial lasted, what, 20 minutes for him.

SHIRIN EBADI: From what my husband told me, yes, that's true. Even when my husband asked for an attorney the presiding judge told him, we’ve got a video and everything is videotaped, so why would you need an attorney?

AMT: And what has this done to your relationship?

SHIRIN EBADI: Well, I found out that my husband had been entrapped. And I understand that totally and that's why I decided to forgive him.

AMT: And is he able to join you in the West or must you still live apart now?

SHIRIN EBADI: So what happened was when he was tried he's had to surrender his passport. So he decided to come and visit us after all this happened and to come to England and visit my daughter who lives in England and all of us, the three of us would come to America to visit my older daughter who lives in America. However, when his passport was returned to him he noticed that there was a forgery in his passport, meaning that his name had been crossed that out and then re-written again. So we figured and he figured that they were going to entrap him again with a different crime of forgery. So he just decided to forego the travel and not do that.

AMT: Am I right in understanding, Ms. Ebadi, that you have now divorced?

SHIRIN EBADI: So, after that, my husband wanted to leave the country, but then he applied for a new passport and the authorities accepted that they were the ones who had committed this crime. And it took the government one year to issue him a new passport so that he could leave and come and see us, and he did. However, every month they would take him in and they would interrogate him and they would put a lot of pressure on him and so, finally, he suggested that we better get divorced in order to save him from all of what he was undergoing and all the interrogations. I agreed.

AMT: Such a sad story. You know, we start this conversation with an example of how the Iranian government interferes in one’s very personal life. And we just saw elections last month. And I'm wondering what you think we need to take from what is happening, even electorally right now, in a country where these things can still happen.

SHIRIN EBADI: Elections in general are not free in Iran. The competence of all the candidates has to be approved by the Guardian Council. It's like a vetting process. And in the recent elections that we had, 40 percent of the Reformists who wanted to get in were vetted out and few Reformists have been elected to go to the parliament. So these people who have been elected are a minority and they cannot bring about any change. If we remember at the time that Khatami was elected president by the Reformist during a four-year period, the legislator was in the hands of the Reformists as well, the parliament, but even though the judiciary and the legislator were in the hands of the Reformists not much was done. So I don't think that this minority can bring any change in Iran at the present time and I think the reason for it is our Constitution. The structure of our Constitution is such that the leader has all the power. And he has the power to veto any law that is passed by the parliament.

AMT: And yet in those elections last month the Reformists who, even though they are a minority, Iranians did show growing support for moderates and reformists. What does that tell you about the electorate?

SHIRIN EBADI: So what people were thinking, the ones who voted, was that the parliament shouldn't be one hundred percent in the hands of the fundamentalists. At least there is a voice there that can represent them and state the opposition. But, unfortunately, there were a few things done which were not that pleasant. For example, I don't think their tactic was correct. They formed a coalition -and when I say ‘they’ I mean the reformists - with the fundamentalists in order to be elected and go to the parliament. They came up with names and published them. Among the names - you came across names of people who are not well accepted by the people. For example, one of the people on the list of the names was Dorri-Najafabadi. He was the minister of intelligence at the time that I told you all those chain murders took place.

AMT: So in other words, in the grand scheme of things, you still have people who use their power indiscriminately, controlling the country.

SHIRIN EBADI: One hundred percent. Nothing has changed.

AMT: President Rouhani has spoken about the need for equal opportunities for women. What is changing for women's rights under his presidency?

SHIRIN EBADI: From the day that Mr. Rouhani has been elected president, and nothing has changed when it comes to women's rights. So I think it's all rhetoric.

AMT: And you have made the point that a great many people are still being arrested on specious charges, on political issues, and made to suffer greatly.

SHIRIN EBADI: Yes, that's true. And that's why we have, for example, many feminists in prison now. I want to name two of them. One of them is Miss Nargess Mohammadi. She has received six years of imprisonment. The other one is Miss Bahareh Hedayat who has received nine years imprisonment.

AMT: And what is the government's reason? What does it say that it believes they are quote, unquote, “guilty” of?

SHIRIN EBADI: Most feminists, or maybe all feminists, and journalists who are put in prison and taken in are charged with having taken measures against the national security and spreading lies about the government of Iran.

AMT: How frustrating is it for you? You are now in exile. You've fought so hard for your fellow Iranians inside the country. How hard is it for you to be outside seeing this happen to them?

SHIRIN EBADI: It is very painful to see my colleagues and also other innocent people in Iran being put in prison. However, the fact that I’m in exile does not mean that I am scared of going to prison myself. If I’m in prison in Iran, I won't be useful for the people of my country. Here, outside of--Because I've been in prison, you know, and I'm not scared of it. But the thing is that here, outside the country, I feel like I can be the voice of my people and tell the whole world what goes on in my country. And that was actually the reason behind me writing this new book, Until We're Free, because what I'm trying to say here is that if the government treats me, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the way they have treated me, which has been elaborated in my book, just imagine what they would do to a young journalist or an unknown student.

AMT: Where do you find the courage for the fight that you have led for so long?

SHIRIN EBADI: So, I totally believe in my goal and in the path that I have taken. I knew from the beginning that working on human rights in a non-democratic country would not be easy. However, knowingly, I decided to take this path.

AMT: And were there ever times when you wondered what you were doing? When you really second-guessed yourself?

SHIRIN EBADI: Fortunately, no, I have always been determined and I have never had any doubts about continuing, even when I was reading the file of one of the cases that I was defending. I came across the note that said that [indecipherable] was the target of being murdered as well. But that didn't stop me from doing my work and I continue.

AMT: And yet-- You know, we talked about what happened to your marriage. You have also seen your daughter detained, your sister arrested. Are there times when you worry about those you love being pulled into - blamed for what you do?

SHIRIN EBADI: My family always supported me and they never blamed me for anything that I had done. And I never felt guilt in continuing my work. I think that I am not the one who has to have a guilty feeling. It's the government who has to have that guilty feeling. Instead of appreciating what I'm doing, the government puts all this stress on me and my family.

AMT: Even with the fact that the government is wrong, there were never times when you worried about your children because of your passion for helping others on human rights cases?

SHIRIN EBADI: The government actually used my family as means to silence me and I am never going to do anything that makes my enemy happy.

AMT: You know, we talk about all of this against the backdrop of a great political shift right now. I want to ask you your view of this nuclear deal between Iran and the US and its allies. What do you think of it?

SHIRIN EBADI: What I have to say here is that it's the betterment of the situation of human rights is the responsibility of the people of Iran. And the people are working hard on it, so a change of policy doesn't really matter in this regard .

AMT: What about the easing of sanctions. How do you think that affects the average Iranian? Is it a good thing?

SHIRIN EBADI: I'm very happy about the removal of the sanctions because they harm the people. For what I can say up to now, I haven't seen an impact on the average Iranian, but hopefully it will.

AMT: I want to ask as well about Iranian foreign policy. Iran is, of course, supporting Hezbollah which fights in Syria with the regime. We know it supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen. What do you think the government's wider goal is in the region?

SHIRIN EBADI: Okay, since 1979, when the revolution occurred in Iran, the government of Iran has always desired to be the leader of the Islamic world. And that's why we can assess the foreign policy of Iran under these conditions. And the fact that Iran has helped Syria militarily and has military aid there and helping Bashar Assad to kill its people, the fact that Iran helps the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, also intervenes in Iraq and Bahrain - all of those proves that Iran has this political ambition to expand. So if we look at the Middle East now, it's all in fire and what we can see is that the wars going on are actually proxy wars, the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is being supported by the United States and Iran is being supported by Russia.

AMT: So, as you watch that unfold what are your fears?

SHIRIN EBADI: I hope that both Saudi Arabia and Iran wisen up and understand that continuing this is not going to be to the advantage of anyone.

AMT: It's interesting how you make the point that they want to be the leader of the Islamic world and the people of Islamic faith are the ones who the government hurts the most.

SHIRIN EBADI: That is true. What they're doing is they're killing their political rivals.

AMT: And so if we go back to what is going on inside the country, there has been much criticism along with human rights abuses of real corruption in government. What has to change?

SHIRIN EBADI: Yes. Unfortunately, there's a lot of corruption, specifically in the executive and this is one reason that has resulted in the failure of the economic situation in Iran. And unfortunately, one other reason for the bad economic situation in Iran is that most of the activities in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guards not only control the economy, but they're the military of Iran and they are on the side of the fundamentalists.

AMT: We’re always reminded of the relative youth of the Iranian population. Who do you think - and the generation coming up - do you expect the generation coming up to be able to bring real change?

SHIRIN EBADI: Yes, the population of Iran is young, they're very well educated, and I see that as a potential to bring change to Iran. We have a very strong feminist movement. We have a very strong student movement. Also, a very good workers movement. So I think if all of them work together in the future, there will be a bright future for Iran.

AMT: Well, Ms. Ebadi, we will leave it on that optimistic note. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

SHIRIN EBADI: You’re welcome.

AMT: Shirin Ebadi’s memoir is called Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Shirin Ebadi joined us from Chicago with her translator Shirin Ershadi. As you listen to her, what are you thinking? Let us know your thoughts as you hear what she has to say about her fight for human rights in Iran and the price she has paid, both personally and professionally, for that fight. Shirin Ebadi, speaking to us about her new memoir Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran. You can tweet us we're @thecurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook or go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent, click on the Contact link. Now look ahead to a story that will be on the show tomorrow I'll be joined by writer Peggy Orenstein. She has a new book. It's called Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape She interviewed seventy young women from 15 to 20 years of age about sex and sexuality. And one of the lessons she's taken away from her research is that it's very important for parents to talk to their children about sex. This is what she told The New York Times podcast.


I'm a mom. And I look at the culture that we live in, that where sexualized images of women are everywhere. And yet we never have real and true conversations with our kids about the reality of sex. And it's really tempting, I think, as a parent to sort of put your head in the sand and go into denial and to say, ooh, I don’t want to know, because there's really nothing closer than the idea of your kid having sex except that every parent having sex. But parenting out of ignorance and fear is really not the way to go and what I hope to do was to go out there and bring back the voices of girls and create a book that could be sort of a neutral space where parents and kids could read about what was going on and discuss it without having to go too deeply into their own personal experiences. But, I will tell you something, my own mother, as far as I was concerned, she wouldn't shut up about sex. My mom was not a feminist. She was a total Ozzie and Harriet mom. And she totally was telling me that, you know, you don't have sex until after you're married. But once you're married, sex should be equally pleasurable for men and women and she and my dad had a great sex life. And I would just plug my ears and go, la la la la, I’m not listening, I’m not listening, I’m not listening! And yet, that message, I have to say in retrospect, was really important to me.

AMT: Author and journalist Peggy Orenstein is my guest tomorrow. She'll talk about her new book Girls & Sex. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM, and online on cbc.ca/thecurrent.

Back To Top »

Whale Talk: Canadian researcher reveals how sperm whales communicate

Guests: Shane Gero

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.



AMT: Well, that may sound like some random clicks or chirps but to a mother sperm whale those are a baby's first words. You're hearing the sounds of baby sperm whales or calves to be precise. The technical term for those clicks is codas. And aside from sperm whale moms and dads, one of the only other animals around who might understand what they're saying is my next guest. For more than a decade, marine biologist Shane Gero and his crew have been documenting the social and vocal behavior of more than a dozen sperm whale families in the Caribbean. It is a project of unprecedented scope and detail and now that the Ottawa native and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project is back on dry land and in his hometown we're checking in on that research. Shane Gero, hello.


AMT: Let's hear those baby whales again.



AMT: Shane, how does the whale make those sounds?

SHANE GERO: Well, they have a really special nose. If you can picture a sperm whale, it's kind of that standard whale that you draw with a big fat head and a long tail at the back. And it has pockets of oil in its head and it moves air around them and makes these clicks.

AMT: You described a sperm whale, but how big would a baby be? What do they weigh?

SHANE GERO: Well, the calves are usually born somewhere around a metric tonne and about four metres long. And then big males can get up to 18 metres and probably around 50 tonnes. But in the Caribbean where I would do my research the whales are actually quite small. They're about 12 metres and maybe 30 tonnes.

AMT: Oh, just 30 tonnes? Okay, so what is it about the area around Dominica or in the Caribbean that's such a good place for your research?

SHANE GERO: Well, I'd love to say that it's my expertise as a field biologist, but we've just been really lucky to work with families of whales that hang out. So we see a family of whales for a week and then they disappear and then we see them for a few days again the next month and a month after that and year after year after year. So, I've had the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with only a few sets of sperm whale families and followed their calves from birth into maturity as the males leave their social units. Because these families are Matrilineal, it's Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters who will live together for life. And then the males leave in their early teens to sort of roam the ocean and breed.

AMT: This is so fascinating. How do you go about studying them like this when they spend so much time deep, deep down in the ocean?

SHANE GERO: Well, it's been a challenge I think in the last ten years we've been really good at getting to know the individuals and then recording them across time and figuring out which whale is saying what call. And in the last couple of years we've been putting on small sort of computer tags with a suction cup that measure all the 3D movements of the whale as it goes underwater. So then we've been able to figure out where and when they are making these calls to each other and that really is allowing us for the first time to ask the why question. What information are they exchanging?

AMT: What do you go up to them and stick something on them and swim away?

SHANE GERO: The tags are about the size of a smartphone. And they have four little suction cups and we have a nine meter pole and we just sort of sneak up behind them and tap the tag on. And it can be out for a couple of days and then the computer inside the tag lets water into the suction cups at a predefined time, and then that floats to the surface and we can get it back.

AMT: Because you've got it on a GPS?

SHANE GERO: Yeah, so we can recover it.

AMT: Okay, so how far down do they dive?

SHANE GERO: In the Caribbean they're going down to about 1,100 metres as a maximum and more often they're going about 800 metres to feed.

AMT: How long can they stay down there?

SHANE GERO: Well, the longest recorded dive for a sperm whale…it was just over two hours but the average is closer to 50 minutes. And then they need to spend 12 to 15 minutes at the surface re-oxygenating their blood. So they're mammals and they breathe air just like us. When they dive they take all their air in and dive with it. But in order to go deep, their lungs actually collapse and so they store most of their oxygen in their blood and muscle tissue, so they need that sort of 15 minute gap at the surface to prepare for the next dive.

AMT: Okay, so when they come up to the surface, they’re kind of resting to get their strength up to go again?


AMT: What do they hunt for?

SHANE GERO: In the Caribbean it's primarily squid. Well, worldwide the vast majority, 90 percent of their diet is different squid types. And these are animals that we can't study very easily. In some areas like the Caribbean where nothing's been done on the squid species that live there, we know a lot about what squid are there because we've been collecting…well ,whale poo, basically.

AMT: What happens to the young whales like the one we just heard when the mother is down for an hour long or more dive, looking for food?

SHANE GERO: Yeah. So sperm whale society is matrilineal because moms need to help each other take care of babies. So when mom dives there's a primary baby sitter that takes care of the baby while mom is down feeding. The babies just physiologically can't or won't go down with mom and so they get left at the surface with someone. So these families of about seven animals are based on cooperation both defense from predators, babysitting and in some families they actually nurse each other's calves.

AMT: Whale daycare?


AMT: I was just going to say and how do they--they're still nursing the calves? They're not bringing food back up to them?

SHANE GERO: No, there's no evidence of them bringing squid to them, but they can nurse for four, five or six years even.

AMT: How do they protect their young if there's trouble then in matrilineal society?

SHANE GERO: I mean the predators for sperm whales are killer whales, pilot whales that hunt in sort of larger numbers. Most of the time, the adult females are pretty resilient. It's hard for them to take an adult, but they go after the calves. And so the calves are put in the middle of all of the females and they keep their tails out and basically swat away the smaller killer whales or pilot whales that are trying to attack them.

AMT: Interesting. So they would be like almost like the hands of a clock around the calves?

SHANE GERO: Yeah, right. Yeah.

AMT: Now you mention the males, they leave in their late teens?

SHANE GERO: Yeah. The project in Dominica is the first time that we've watched one of the males leave its family. Previously, we kind of thought it was sort of a testosterone-y walkabout. They got old enough, the hormones kicked in and off they went, but actually it's sort of sad. What happens is, mom has a new baby and then all of the females ignore the older male. This one male followed its family around for two years before it finally said, okay, and left. But what was really interesting is the only animal that did spend time with him was his new half-brother, which is interesting because they may never see each other again once the older brother leaves.

AMT: So interesting. So how do they communicate? What distance can they communicate?

SHANE GERO: So we know that codas can be heard over a few hundred metres to maybe over a kilometre. But they can hear their echolocation over much longer distances. So when two families are approaching in the open ocean, they can probably hear each other for a while before they can actually communicate with each other. The echolocation is very loud sound whereas the codas are sort of more for local conversation, if you will.

AMT: And when the males are making sounds deep in the ocean, how loud would that be if you were trying to compare it to something on dry land?

SHANE GERO: That's always a tricky question because how you measure sound on land is different from how you measure it in the water. But it's the most powerful natural sonar system, so these sounds are very loud, 180 decibels, so people compare it to the sound of a jet engine. But it's tricky because these are very short clicks right.

AMT: You did manage to decipher some of these vocalizations and we've got another recording. This is what you captured of two whales diving.


[Higher pitch clicks followed alternately by lower pitch clicks]

AMT: So I can really hear the clicks. Speak a little sperm whale for me, Shane, what are they saying? What are they trying to communicate?

SHANE GERO: Yeah, so these are two animals diving together. In that first sort of 300 metres, they talk to each other before separating to start hunting for squid. And in this case they're exchanging these five regular codas. So it's five regularly spaced clicks. And this new study that we just finished showed that each animal makes the five are slightly differently that allows us to reliably tell them apart. And it makes sense if you're about to go into a social isolation, you want to say okay this is me, here's where I am. Don't worry we'll separate now and we'll meet up again later. And that's basically what's happening. So we can use that five R coda to identify individual whales within their families.

AMT: When you realised that's what you were hearing, what went through your head?

SHANE GERO: Well, you know anyone who spends this amount of time with these animals…it's hard not to see them as different individuals, right. In the same way that our society is based on individuals you know I'm different from my brother and I'm different from my dad and those are important differences. And their social relationships we know are dynamic both within families, they prefer to spend time with their aunts or their sister. And between families we know that there are there are decadal scale relationships between families. So family A prefers family B over family C in the same way that you invite some of your neighbors to a barbecue and not the others. And then at the highest level, we know that thousands of animals share these vocal dialects of repertoires of different coda types and that sort of the cultural heritage level. So you know when we when we see these animals existing in the way they do, it's not a surprise really that identity is important to them. It's not a shock that that we found ways to identify each other at different levels.

AMT: So do you believe they have a sense of identity?

SHANE GERO: Yeah, undoubtedly. I think what we've shown now is that they have the vocal repertoire that all will allow them to identify each other and now we just have to go out and test if that's what they're actually doing. But certainly, if you're going to have these complicated kinds of relationships, where you prefer spending time with one animal or one family, there needs to be a way to mediate that. So, if you're two families coming together at sea, you need a way to recognize one another and decide whether or not you're going to forage together. Because these animals do things differently, each family is slightly different and special in its own way. Behavior is what you do but culture is the way you do it. You know most Canadians eat with a fork and many Chinese people you with chopsticks, but ultimately they have to eat. It's just the way that they've learned to eat is different and in the ocean it's so vast and variable that the most important thing in your surroundings are the other animals in your family and your distant family and so you need a way to recognise them. And that's what we think we've found here is a way that you can recognise individual whales, families of whales and then cultural heritage of a whale.

AMT: Well let's talk a little bit more about the cultural heritage because you've also captured sound of what you call a regional identifier. Let's listen.


[high pitched pings]

AMT: Is that what you call the regional dialect?

SHANE GERO: What's unique about this one plus one plus three call, the click, click, click click click, is that all of the animals in the Caribbean make it almost identically. Even with the computer we have a hard time telling the individuals apart and because we know that it takes calves about two years to learn how to make these different patterns accurately, we know that they're learning them as they grow up, right. So given that these families are very rarely spending any time together and they're spread out across hundreds of kilometres in the Caribbean Sea, there must be some kind of pressure to make sure that all of these calves learn this one plus one plus three in an exact way, and they are. It's a remarkable example of conformity in learning a call across animals that spend no time together. So what we think that one plus one plus three coda can do, is basically like saying I'm from the Caribbean are you? So when I meet you at sea, I have an idea of all the other things that you do. You know because Caribbean whales feed in a certain way or on a certain prey. They know how to exploit islands, having lived there for generations.

AMT: Do you know about whales that concentrate in other areas, like sperm whales in other parts of the world? Do they have like a different language? Did they behave a little differently?

SHANE GERO: Yes. The sort of standard work on sperm whales was done in the Galapagos, 30 years ago. And we know that there, there are five different dialects that all live sympatrically, so kind of like a multicultural society. But what's really interesting is that they're socially segregated, so if you share my dialect then I'll spend time with you, if you don't, I will never spend any time with you. So it structures their society, right? I mean there's a divide between us and them based on these vocal dialects. And they do things differently, so the regular clan forges in a certain way, moves in a certain way, eats a certain thing. And the plus one clan which has codas that have an extra click on the end, that's why we call it the plus one, forges differently, moves differently and feeds on different things. So it is really a whole cultural package, it’s not just a label of this is where I'm from.

AMT: Now I was looking at a video that you sent us and we will link to it on our website cbc.ca/thecurrent because you have a sperm whale named Can Opener?


AMT: Where’d you get that name?

SHANE GERO: Well, every family gets a letter. So Family A was the first family, and we hit U and couldn't come up with a whole bunch of U names. So we called them the utensils and Can Opener’s fluke if you see in the video, it looks like that hooked, sort of old style can opener that you’d manually open a can of beans with, so we called her Can Opener. And the other animals in that family are Fork, which has a bunch of little prongs coming out, each of their tails are unique and that's how we identify them. Knife is very serrated, she's very cut up and Spoon has one very clean fluke, but has one very large sort of scallop out of the right side, so it just worked out.

AMT: And how old is Can Opener.

SHANE GERO: Can Opener is in her teens. She was born before we started the work in 2005, so we don't know exactly. But she's still young, she hasn't reproduced yet, but she's a top candidate to be the first animal to give us the third generation in our study.

AMT: Now when I when I watch her…is that you who goes up to her in the dive suit? Or is that somebody else?

SHANE GERO: No, so that was a photographer named Bryant Austin. So he uses a fashion camera that shoots very high resolution and he can blow up these photos to life size. And then he travels around showing people what individual whales look like. We're in an era where conservation is not just about numbers right, it's about individuals, it's about families and it's about culture. You know protecting the Caribbean for the sake of protecting its dialect is important. People need to realize that just because there are 300,000 sperm whales worldwide, they're all slightly different. You know I'm not interchangeable with my brother and one whale is not interchangeable with another. And so I really like Bryant's photos because they're intimate, but also about the animals, the individuals themselves.

AMT: So she turns upside down. Can Opener turns upside down and why is that, what's going on?

SHANE GERO: Well we think they can see slightly better down towards their jaw, so if she wants to actually physically look at him, then she would have to roll over. So in that clip she makes--Can Opener makes a decision to come over and she echolocates on Bryant and then she flips over to take a look at him, essentially.

AMT: With one big whale eye.


AMT: Is she dangerous?

SHANE GERO: No. I mean, so these animals are more like elephants of the sea. They're very calm Getting in the water with them isn't something that I encourage people to do without a professional, but they're not the Moby Dick in the heart of the sea that is out there. They're not aggressive in any way. In fact they're more elusive. They'd rather dive and get away than fight back.

AMT: So the fact that she comes up to the surface and goes upside down to look, you can recognize her, can she recognize you guys?

SHANE GERO: That's a really good question and personally I would love to know that. I think undoubtedly she can tell the different boats apart, so she knows our research boat versus the whale watch boat or a sailboat going by. We've had interactions with Can Opener, where she's figured out our system. When she dives we would go and we collect skin and feces behind, in the fluke print, which is the little circle of water that's left when the animals dive deeply, and then we start recording. But she figured that out and so she would fake a dive and wait ten metres below sea level and we’d come and put the hydrophone in and start looking for skin, and she'd blow out all her air, come up and swim around the boat. But most interestingly she would roll her eye out of the water almost as if she knew that it's not the boat that's the interesting part; it's the people on it.

AMT: It's like she's playing or something.

SHANE GERO: Yeah, for sure. I mean we play hide the hydrophone all the time with a Can Opener. She likes to chew on it so you pull it in and she'd swim away and then you throw it back in and she'd come back and get it. I mean those kinds of interactions, to me anyways, although they are anecdotal and it's not something you can talk about scientifically, there's no doubt that that shows that there's kind of some kind of internal thought process going on with these guys. All the things that we attribute to our dogs and cats without thinking about it, we don't attribute to wildlife. And it’s these kinds of studies that suggest names and cultural heritage that people can really connect and say okay yeah, you know these animals aren’t just a number floating around out there that we need to protect.

AMT: The hydrophone, that's like a microphone?

SHANE GERO: Yeah, it's an underwater microphone.

AMT: To catch all of these sounds. Well, we've got another one of your recordings. This is a family of sperm whales hanging out and you are eavesdropping. Let's listen.


[numerous clicks and high pitch pings overlapping]

AMT: They're pretty chatty. What are they doing?

SHANE GERO: This is when the animals are all together at the surface socializing. So they're rolling around, they’re in physical contact with each other, they're reinforcing social bonds. You’ll notice that they overlap their codas a lot. It’s not rude in sperm whale society to talk over one another. In fact we think that being able to predict the coda that I'm going to make next and making it at the same time as me is a way of showing how strong our relationship is. It's like vocal grooming. People know about chimpanzees who clean each other, they sit there and pick flies and bugs out of each other. This is sort of the sperm whale version of that. They come together, they make all these codas, they roll around and they can go on for hours before going back and feeding again. But the clip gives a really good idea of all the different types of codas. We've shown that there are 22 of them in the Caribbean and over 80 worldwide.

AMT: You make the point that their predators are the killer whale?

SHANE GERO: The killer whale but also the pilot whales.

AMT: Do they talk to them? Do they talk to each other, between species?

SHANE GERO: Wow. I don't think that we know that. Pilot and killer whales have a very different type of dialect so the sperm whale’s is rather simple; it's sort of patterns of clicks. The killer whale’s, many people have probably heard. They have a number of different calls in their dialect but they're much more complicated acoustically. Undoubtedly, they hear each other and so sperm whales might go quiet to try and evade killer whales if they hear them. And mammal-eating killer whales are known to echolocate less when they're hunting because they don't want to be heard by the animals that they're hunting.

AMT: And do they have any other predators? They're not hunted by humans now are they?

SHANE GERO: No, sperm whales are pretty much not being hunted anymore. But we're still the main cause of death. Unfortunately, the population in the Caribbean is decreasing by about four percent. And calf mortality is really high, about 30 percent in the first year. And then even four percent of those don't survive into adulthood.

AMT: Why?

SHANE GERO: Well, I think we need to realize that this is the some of the most urban part of their habitat. These are deep sea roaming animals and in the Caribbean or near any sort of Archipelago, they interact with humans. So they interact with fishing gear, they get hit by boats, agricultural runoff, that level of mortality can't be natural for any mammal population so we are undoubtedly having an effect. And I think the key here to remember is that our actions impact theirs. It's easy to forget that they're out there right now feeding and defending from predators and teaching their calves the one plus one plus three coda, while we listen to The Current and order pizza or whatever.

AMT: What have you learned from these whales that you haven't thought of before in terms of how you see the world?

SHANE GERO: Well, I think there are a few lessons we can learn from sperm whales. One is, love your mom because these families of females are nomadically traversing the darkness of the deep ocean just to care for their babies. So everyone should call their mom after they hear this interview. But also the need to work together and cooperate with one another and realizing that just because we do things differently doesn't mean that one way is wrong. They're living in multicultural societies in the ocean without having wars over who's right. We can learn a lot from listening to other ways of life, whale or otherwise.

AMT: It's really fascinating, thank you for sharing your work with us.

SHANE GERO: It's been great, thank you.

AMT: Shane Gero is a Canadian Marine Biologist, he's the founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and he joined us from Ottawa. If you want to see pictures of the whales and watch the video we're talking about, it's a lot of fun. Go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent and you can watch it there. If you're joining us partway through you can download the podcast and check out little old Can Opener there. Little, I guess is relative. Anyway that's our program for today. Stay tuned to Radio One for q. Shad is speaking with oddball British rock-star comedian Noel Fielding about his current stand-up tour. Now after hearing sperm whales speak to each other, we’ll end off with something from the classic 1994 Canadian film Whale Music. It's based on the novel by Paul Quarrington and it tells the story of Desmond Howl, a former rock star who's taken to composing symphonic music for whales who congregate by his home. The film score was composed by the pop group The Rheostatics and this is a bit of their song for congregation which any passing sperm whale may just enjoy. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti, thank you for listening to The Current.

Back To Top »

CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.