Prayer isn’t useless. Just ask around.

People around the world are praying for the victims of the horrific terror attacks in New Zealand mosques, and their families.

How anyone finds that objectionable I don’t understand.

Regardless of specific religions or denominations, people of faith generally agree prayer is the most important thing to do in times of both celebration and tragedy.

Prayer often manifests as a request, but it can also be a message of gratitude, or even of anger. Regardless of a specific prayer, it’s about recognizing there is a power that exists above you, which is both true and comforting, especially when events like those in New Zealand force us to confront the very worst of humanity.

The relationship between man and God is often lost on those who lack it. This isn’t a judgment of those people. Except so often instead of merely not partaking in prayer, they mock those who do.

New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had stern words for those who prayed in the wake of the New Zealand massacre that claimed 49 lives.

“What good are your thoughts & prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?”, she tweeted.

Critics were quick to point out that Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet was particularly tone deaf given the the victims were gunned down praying in a house of worship that wouldn’t exist without prayer.

She attempted to walk back the comment by saying it was an attack against the National Rifle Association.

“‘Thoughts and prayers’ is reference to the NRA’s phrase used to deflect conversation away from policy change during tragedies,” she added later. “Not directed to PM Ardern, who I greatly admire.”

Her sentiment is one often expressed after mass shootings, when people chide politicians who offer prayers but not gun control in response to tragedy.

In this case, however, no one was talking about the NRA, which wields no political clout in New Zealand. Yet she still decided to mock those who find comfort in faith and prayer while politicizing another country’s horror.

I don’t fault people for not understanding the power of prayer if they’ve never experienced it. But I do take issue with those who refuse to recognize the tremendous role it plays in the lives of others, especially victims of tragedy.

On the two year anniversary of the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting in January, I attended a screening of “Your Last Walk in the Mosque,” a documentary that is more about legacies of the six Muslim men killed that day than it is about the killings themselves. Even so, it was still an evocative account of a horrific episode.

Despite the grief and sadness in the victims’ widows, friends and families, it was moving to see how all had taken solace in their faith to get them through the pain.

It was through a negative event in my own life that I found my own faith and relationship with God as a Christian. Anyone who asks around will find that people of faith don’t pray in spite of tragedy—they pray because of it.

The act of prayer wields more power than any politician, white paper or rousing rendition of ‘Imagine’ ever will.

Of course this doesn’t mean prayer should exist in a vacuum without other action. I don’t believe praying for a cure replaces taking medication, nor do I believe praying for safety means you shouldn’t lock your doors at night. It’s prayer that gives the comfort, clarity, and even outcome to embolden these things.

I doubt the naysayers have ever asked people around them what prayer has done for them. The answers might just bear a lesson or two.

Tommy Robinson heading back to court

Less than five months after a United Kingdom judge referred Tommy Robinson’s contempt of court case to the attorney general, a new hearing has been ordered for the English activist.

United Kingdom Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said Thursday that there are “strong grounds” to bring new proceedings against Robinson. The case will be re-heard in London on March 22.

The question of whether Robinson was in contempt of court stems from a live stream he hosted last May outside the Leeds courthouse where a number of now-convicted sex groomers were appearing. Robinson, whose sentence on an earlier contempt finding was suspended, was arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to 13 months behind bars within a matter of five hours. He was hauled off to prison that very day despite the administrative nature of his offense.

He appealed the conviction in August, prompting a judge to acknowledge numerous errors made by the Leeds judge who prosecuted him. A new hearing was ordered for October at the Old Bailey.

In October, Recorder of London Nicholas Hilliard found that Robinson’s statement raised enough doubts about the case that it should be referred to the attorney general, who has been tight-lipped on his plans until issuing his decision Thursday.

I was in the courthouse for that hearing, during which you may remember I overheard British Press Association journalists conspiring to manipulate their coverage of Robinson and his legal ordeal.

Robinson has long maintained that he will end up behind bars regardless, citing the prosecutorial witchhunt that he says has dogged him to this point.

If scheduling permits, I hope to be back in London to cover the case’s latest developments.

Remember when SNC-Lavalin funnelled $100k to the Liberals?

A bombshell Globe and Mail report accuses key players in the Prime Minister’s Office of attempting to interfere in the prosecution of Montréal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

The report alleges the PMO tried to pressure former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to force the public prosecutor to settle, which is what SNC-Lavalin wants. When she refused, she was demoted to a less significant cabinet role.

The Prime Minister’s Office denies the allegations, and Wilson-Raybould is refusing to comment.

The ongoing case involves millions of dollars in alleged bribes to Libyan officials—including $160 million to Saadi Gaddafi. This is just one of several instances where SNC-Lavalin or its executives have faced prosecution for corruption, typically revolving around bribes.

The firm’s former CEO just last week pleaded guilty on a multimillion dollar bribery scheme involving a $1.3 billion contract for a Montréal superhospital.

Another key executive illegally funnelled a six-figure sum to the federal Liberals.

Last May, former SNC-Lavalin vice-president Normand Morin was charged with engineering a scheme to illegally donate more than $100,000 to the Liberal Party of Canada, as well as Liberal riding associations and leadership candidates.

These donations took place over a period of seven years, during which $8,000 was given to Conservatives through the same scheme.

Employees would donate in their names, but the company would cover the donation through reimbursements for “false refunds for personal expenses or payment of fictitious bonuses.” Corporate contributions have been illegal in Canada since 2006.

Despite the scale and significance of the scam, Morin was required to pay only $2,000 as punishment after pleading guilty in November. The media didn’t report on his plea until last month.

SNC-Lavalin admitted there were other executives involved, though they were never publicly identified and Morin was the only one charged.

Though this didn’t stop SNC-Lavalin from having high-level access to Justin Trudeau’s office.

Since 2017, the company’s representatives have met with senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office—including Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts—on 14 occasions, purportedly to lobby for “justice,” which seems to be an odd topic for an engineering firm.

For optics alone, the PMO shouldn’t have been taking meetings with representatives of a company facing ongoing criminal prosecution.

I’m inclined to side with NDP member of parliament Charlie Angus in saying SNC-Lavalin shouldn’t even have access to federal contracts, given its track record of corruption.

If the Globe report is true, thank goodness Wilson-Raybould had the moral grounding to say no, despite it coming at a personal cost.

It’s clear the ties between the Liberals and SNC-Lavalin run deep.

The Liberals want to end fake news, but who decides what that is?

If you’re singing the fake news blues, the federal government wants you to believe it has the answer.

My Loonie Politics column this week tackles the announcement made by a panel of cabinet ministers laying out how the Justin Trudeau’s government plans to safeguard this year’s federal election.

You can read the full column here if you’re a Loonie Politics subscriber. (If not, use promo code ‘Lawton’ for a discounted subscription.)

Here’s an excerpt:

Canada’s long-awaited answer to foreign interference in elections has arrived, but it seems to create an opening for domestic meddling — by the government itself.

With nine months to go until this year’s federal election, a team of ministers from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet announced this week a “sweeping series” of measures aimed to safeguard Canadian democracy.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally I don’t know, but a glaring question remains after the government reiterated its commitment to purging misinformation from social media sites: who decides what misinformation really is?

Facts are black and white, but interpretations of them aren’t always so clear, especially when politics is concerned.

Most people would agree social media companies should spike content posted by Russian bots falsely linking politicians with criminality.  But what about content that isn’t as easy to parse?

Such as a claim that a carbon tax is nothing but a cash grab.  Or a study critical of the government’s track record on economics.  Or someone saying the Liberals have been dishonest about their balanced budget plans (or lack thereof.)

These all sound like critiques that fall within the boundaries of civilized debate, but they share something in common: all were called “fake news” by high-ranking government officials.

Bell Lets Talk is good, but it’s just a start

Bell Let’s Talk Day is once again upon us, wherein Bell puts money into mental health agencies in exchange for tweets, texts and Facebook posts.

While it’s first and foremost a fundraising campaign, it also serves as a great exercise in destigmatization by encouraging people to share their own experiences with mental illnesses, ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

When the first Bell Let’s Talk Day took place in 2011, I remember seeing posts from friends about situations I had no idea they’d gone through. It was similar to the #MeToo campaign in that respect.

People were sharing stories and getting immense support from friends and family. Money was being raised for a worthwhile cause. Alas, all good things must somehow be wrecked.

Within a few years, the story became about how Bell treats its employees, allegations of a workplace that lacks compassion for those in it with mental illness, criticisms that the campaign is all talk and no action.

I choose to look at the campaign at face value here. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we can’t be deceived into thinking the fight ends when Bell hands over its giant cheque.

For all those sharing their stories or supporting others who do, there are still people with significantly less enlightened views of mental health.

I wrote of one such example in this column published by Global News in July, 2017:

“You were suicidal? That makes you mentally ill! Why would anyone give you a microphone?”

That was among the first messages into my radio show this week after I made an off-handed reference to my 2010 suicide attempt.

I say off-handed because it’s hardly a revelation at this point, having written and spoken about my struggles with depression and suicide publicly for several years now.

While living with depression, I was always good at putting on my game face. So much so that when I was planning to end my life, I was so used to burying my true emotions that I never even considered opening up to those around me.

When I raise the issue now, the response is overwhelmingly positive — though not exclusively so, clearly.

From time to time, a callous soul emerges from such a dialogue, as was the case with the above message not-so-subtly telling me those with mental illness don’t deserve a platform in life.

As a talk show host, it’s not a work day if I’m not called a name or accused of being something bad, so I can take it. My concern comes from knowing that somewhere else, this is the reaction awaiting a vulnerable person who, for the first time in their life, reaches out to a friend, co-worker or relative for help.

The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates one in five Canadians will personally experience mental illness in their lifetime. So, if you know more than four people, you’ll cross paths with someone personally impacted by it, if you haven’t already.

For those doing the math, that’s 7.2 million people in the country facing this kind of judgment for no other reason than being sick.

I don’t want to sell short the successful efforts we’ve seen in Canada tackling and breaking down the mental illness stigma, but we can’t rest on our laurels now.

“Awareness” is not the problem.

There’s Bell Let’s Talk Day in January, Mental Health Week in May, September’s World Suicide Prevention Day, and Mental Illness Awareness Week in October, not to mention at least half a dozen diagnosis-specific awareness days and weeks. We’re so busy being aware collectively that we’re not confronting the issue in our own lives.

Virtually every month of the year has some sort of designation addressing mental illness, yet those individuals who speak out personally are routinely shot down. Cultural acceptance of mental illness won’t happen if we don’t tackle individual intolerance.

Just this week, a Michigan software developer posted a screenshot of her company’s chief executive officer’s response to her announcement that she was taking two days off to “focus on my mental health.”

Olark CEO Ben Congleton thanked her for helping to “cut through the stigma” by reminding people how sick days are just as important for mental health as they are for physical health.

Of course, some people responded with the concern that employees can abuse the system if this becomes acceptable. So what? What’s to stop people from feigning physical illness to get out of work now? What those raising this possibility are actually saying is that they don’t believe the struggles of workers with mental illness are legitimate.

That isn’t to say there aren’t those who conflate sadness with depression, or stress with anxiety, but experiencing mental illness is not a rarity, so it shouldn’t be treated as a fringe phenomenon.

While encouraging, the reality is that Congleton’s reply is not a typical one.

After sharing the nasty message I received, I heard from countless others who have similarly been chastized or mocked when they opened up.

One was a journalist who, after writing about her depression experience, was patronized by a reader who felt bad about criticizing the journalist because she was clearly so sensitive.

Don’t get me wrong — we’re crazy sometimes, but we’re not children.

An acquaintance who lives with schizophrenia — a disorder that affects one per cent of the population but is still widely misunderstood — told me he “can’t count the number of times” people have assumed he’s dangerous when they learn of his situation.

More commonly I heard from people who would love to speak out but just don’t want to deal with the backlash.

The irony is that I may be contributing to that apprehension in writing this, but I feel it’s important for people to know the realities of mental health discourse.

When I first told the world of my suicide attempt, it was after I’d made a commitment to myself to leverage my pain for bigger change. Meanies won’t stop that, but they will stop others from seeking help.