Politics

Paul Pritchard, Citizen Journalist

Paul Pritchard is not a journalist and he doesn't even live here — and yet, he gave us one of the saddest, most instructive and most compelling Canadian stories of the decade: the death of a Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, at Vancouver Airport two years ago.

If only us real journalists were that effective

Can you blame us, in our business, if we sometimes look down on so-called "citizen journalists?" After all, who are these interlopers? They're easy to dismiss as a bunch of unaccountable bloggers, bloviating about facts they never gather. Don't they just feed parasitically upon the hard work of us dull, wage-earning professionals?

Robert Dziekanski holds a small table at the Vancouver Airport in this image from video shot by Paul Pritchard. (Paul Pritchard)
Then — oops! — along comes Paul Pritchard.

Pritchard is not a journalist and he doesn't even live here — and yet, he gave us one of the saddest, most instructive and most compelling Canadian stories of the decade: the death of a Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, at Vancouver Airport two years ago.

It was Pritchard, of course, who dozed off, missed his flight and was therefore hanging around the Vancouver airport with his camera when the exhausted Dziekanski, after ten hours in limbo wandering the customs hall, began to lose it. Intrigued, Pritchard hit the record button. Horrified, he kept rolling as four RCMP officers tasered Dziekanski, pinned him down, and tasered him some more. Dziekanski's last words, directed at the officers just before the first shot, were, "Have you gone mad?"

Pritchard was returning from a gig teaching English in China. Now, he's teaching in Colombia. So he gets around and he knows his rights. When a security guard told him to stop taping Dziekanski's last moments, Pritchard shrugged him off. And can there be any doubt that Dziekanski's death would have been forgotten if he hadn't? 

"The Pritchard video," as it came to be known at the long provincial inquiry led by Thomas Braidwood, sprang from the author's desire to bear witness. But there was more to it than that. Paul Pritchard didn't just make a record — he made sure the rest of us saw it. In his first public comments on the case in two years, Pritchard returned from Colombia this week to tell his story at a Toronto fundraiser for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Even at a princely $250 a plate, the place was packed — and we learned how close the tape came to disappearing. Pritchard recalled how a charming Mountie called to say he'd be happy to return that memory card he'd borrowed from Pritchard's camera — but, oh, by the way, the Dziekanski part wasn't on it. It was "evidence." He'd get it back — in two years.

Paul Pritchard recorded the final moments of Robert Dziekanski's life with his digital camera. ((CBC))
Pritchard sued to get it back immediately — then gave it to the world. Soon, we all saw for ourselves that the RCMP's account of what happened was false. Dziekanski was "combative," we were told. He wouldn't go down when he was tasered. The officers had to wrestle him to the ground, yet still, he fought with them and he was only tasered twice.

All of this was contradicted by Pritchard's video. Dziekanski never fought the officers and none of them wrestled him to the ground. Actually, he went down screaming after the first shot and kept screaming as they pinned him to the floor and zapped him again, and again — five times in all.

And what about Paul Pritchard? Looking back, would he do it again?

"Yes," he answered, "I'd do it again, but I'd do it differently." Next time, he said, he'd intervene. Pritchard said he knows how to communicate, using body language, with people who don't speak English. So he'd try to help Dziekanski, and maybe prevent a fatal outcome, instead of just helping the next lost immigrant, and the next, who might encounter the police.

Next time, no doubt, the officers won't be so quick on the trigger. Even the chiefs of Taser International, always fiercely proud of their product, have now warned that, just to be on the safe side, officers should not aim for the chest and thereby risk causing a heart attack. Several expert witnesses at the inquiry said that's probably what killed Robert Dziekanski.

But even that concession would surely never have been made if Paul Pritchard hadn't nodded off when they called his flight. Or if he hadn't had the presence of mind to record what he saw and to keep on recording to the bitter end. Or if he hadn't fought to get that memory card back. Or if he hadn't immediately made it public.

Now, that's a real citizen journalist.

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