Newsmakers: Sept. 22-29

Miley gets political, the Pope gets stung and Julian Assange gets an autobiography he doesn’t want


Jason DeCrow/AP

No, they didn’t walk home

Two American hikers convicted of espionage in Iran were released after the sultan of Oman posted US$930,000 bail for them. Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, 29-year-old pro-Palestine activists and former Berkeley classmates, were seized along with a female friend while on holiday in 2009; Iran claims they illegally crossed their border on foot. The woman, Sarah Shourd, Bauer’s fiancée, was freed last fall on medical grounds. Bauer and Fattal’s release, with both in apparent good health, is seen as a political victory for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over hardline clerics in the Islamic republic.

Burqa fine

Only in France is having it and not flaunting it a crime. Last week, a court outside Paris fined two women for refusing to show their faces in public. Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali were the first Frenchwomen charged under a law that bans full facial coverings outside the home. Passed last spring, the ban was aimed, rather transparently, at France’s substantial Muslim minority. It may also have been an attempt by President Nicolas Sarkozy to shore up his vulnerable right flank. But if anything, the law has galvanized supporters of the niqab. Ahmas told reporters she intends to challenge her fine in the European Court of Human Rights—while Kenza Drider, who also wears the niqab, now says she intends to run against Sarkozy in the presidential election. “When a woman wants to maintain her freedom she must be bold,” Drider told the Associated Press.

Doug to big oil: Take off

Dave Thomas, the comedy legend who portrayed beer-swilling “hoser” Doug McKenzie on the long-running Canadian series SCTV, is supporting an Ottawa sit-in against the Keystone XL pipeline intended to connect Alberta’s oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Thomas, head writer for SCTV during its network heyday, calls the pipeline “an ecological nightmare.” The star, who was a creative bigwig in Canada’s ad industry before his life in comedy, has traditionally considered himself conservative by Hollywood standards. “I don’t believe, typically, that actors should pontificate politically,” he told CTV. “But they are destroying the world and somebody has to speak up.”

You can’t go home again

Pope Benedict XVI made his first official papal visit to Germany last week, but it wasn’t quite the happy homecoming for the native of Bavaria. Outside the German parliamentary building in Berlin, 9,000 people assembled to protest the Catholic Church’s policies on women in the church, gay rights and the sexual abuse scandals. He did, however, receive a warm welcome from German President Christian Wulff and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, both Catholic. Whether the divorced and remarried German president and the gay mayor fit in the Pope’s traditionalist, conservative church is another question.

Without bitterness

Kristina Groves, the Ottawa-born holder of four Olympic medals in long-track speed skating, retired one year after suffering a concussion in a fall during a race in Berlin. Groves appeared optimistic and happy at her press conference, but did point a finger at the notorious German facility: “I’m the only person I know that’s got a concussion from long-track speed skating,” she notes. “If I’d fallen that way in Calgary or any other rink, I most likely would have been okay.” Groves says she is “99 per cent” recovered from the injury, but adds, at 34, “I feel fulfilled by what I’ve accomplished.” Speaking of untimely endings, a finger broken in practice ended Brett Lawrie’s magnificent rookie season with the Toronto Blue Jays, baseball’s lone Canuck franchise. It certainly won’t be the last we’ll see of Lawrie. In the B.C. boy, the Jays appear to have found their Holy Grail: a bona fide Canadian-born star. Owen Nolan’s attempt to make his NHL return in Vancouver, meanwhile, was ended when the Canucks released the former first-round pick. The 39-year-old winger, grey flecking his beard and hair, left the game with class, stopping for pictures and signing autographs for fans as he departed Rogers Arena for the last time, minutes after being cut.

Miley hearts Australia

Beware the power of Miley Cyrus. Hours after the singer-actress tweeted about a controversial new housing development on idyllic Phillip Island, the state of Victoria switched off the green light it had given the project. Miley’s boyfriend, Aussie actor Liam Hemsworth, owns a home on the island, known for a wildlife reserve for kangaroos and wallabies. Victoria’s planning minister denied even knowing who the singer-actress is, but the Labor opposition crowed, convinced that she had given the campaign “an extra impetus that attracted the commercial press.”

NDP race narrows—for women

There are 40 women in the New Democrats’ federal caucus, but few, it appears, are interested in leading it. Last week, Megan Leslie, an MP from Halifax and the party’s environment critic, announced she would not enter the race to replace Jack Layton. Leslie joins Libby Davies, the NDP’s long-serving deputy leader, and Olivia Chow, Layton’s widow, on the sidelines. That’s not to say the race will be necessarily all male. So far, only party strategist Brian Topp and Quebec MP Romeo Saganash have officially entered the contest. But among those said to be considering bids are Peggy Nash, a Toronto MP, and Manitoba’s Niki Ashton, the daughter of a prominent provincial cabinet minister.

Make it better: make bullying criminal?

Lady Gaga wants Barack Obama to take a harder line on bullying after 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself after being bullied over his sexuality. One of Rodemeyer’s last messages before his death was a tribute to Gaga. Creating a #MakeALawForJamey hashtag on Twitter, the singer and activist said that she will meet with the U.S. President and ask him to push federal anti-bullying legislation in the U.S. “Bullying must become illegal—it is a hate crime,” the pop star wrote. “This must end,” she ended. “Our generation has the power to stop it.”

Knots tied and untied?

The tabloids always seem to need one divorce rumour to balance one marriage rumour. This time around, the National Enquirer is reporting that Todd Palin may file for divorce from Sarah Palin. The “final straw” for Todd, the Enquirer claims, was his portrayal in Joe McGinniss’s notorious new tell-all, The Rogue. Meanwhile, in happier tabloid news, gossip writers suggest that Canadian movie hunk Ryan Reynolds is selling his L.A. home and shacking up with Sandra Bullock who, the headlines insist, he plans to marry.

Trading bullets for ballots

Brushing off what he calls a “media fixation” with his IRA past, Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army terrorist who may once have sat on the organization’s ruling Army Council, was named by Sinn Fein as the party’s candidate for the presidency of Ireland. A leader in nationalist circles, McGuinness has been integral to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Truth still stranger than fiction

In a strange twist, a well-known, tell-all publisher is protesting the release of his own autobiography. Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography hit shelves last week. Julian Assange, claiming his ghostwriter and close friend Andrew O’Hagan distorted his “life’s struggle for justice through access to knowledge,” backed out of his contract to publish the book, which includes references to the rape allegations against the 40-year-old Aussie. Canongate, the publisher, went ahead and published it anyway, particularly since Assange couldn’t pay back his advance, reputedly north of $1 million—money already gone to pay his substantial legal bills.

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again in Alberta

After years of flirting with direct involvement in electoral politics, the influential Tory insider Ken Boessenkool is going “meta.” The economist, lobbyist and long-time senior adviser to Conservative governments wants to form a “Blue Committee” to help unite Alberta’s right, currently split between the governing PCs and the insurgent Wildrose party. “When we had two federal parties in Ottawa, it took us 15 to 25 years to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Boessenkool warns. His pressure group would provide a PC-Wildrose bridge when the right-wing parties ever become ready to cross, as he thinks they ultimately must.

HP’s iron ladies

HP has named another brass-knuckled female politico as CEO: Meg Whitman, a recent Republican California gubernatorial candidate, was appointed head of the struggling computer giant. Carly Fiorina, a Republican California senatorial candidate, famously headed the company until 2005.

New York, I love you

Manhattan, last week, hosted the high rollers of Hollywood and international diplomacy when the UN General Assembly held a high-profile session during the Tribeca Film Festival. Where else would Robert De Niro and French President Nicolas Sarkozy rub shoulders?

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