Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

Michael Cowpland and First Nations

Around the time I was building CAIS and later ACRS, the Government of Canada announced a policy whereby First Nation communities were going to be given the resources, training and technology to manage their communities. As part of this policy of devolution, there was to be a transfer of computer-based management information technology to First Nations, and part of that transfer included CAIS and ACRS.

After the development of ACRS, I went to work for the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC) to make it happen. We merged CAIS and ACRS and called it CAMS for Community Asset Management System.

On its website, OFNTSC describes its mission as a “technical advisory service for 133 First Nations and 16 Tribal Councils in Ontario.” Back then, under the visionary leadership of Chief and Executive Director Irvin George and the project management skills of Elmer Lickers, an Iroquois from Six Nations the Grand River, OFNTSC had the potential to become the provider of custom-made, leading edge computer applications for First Nation communities across Canada and beyond.

With a disappearing community of ZIM users, I went to work for Bell Canada Enterprises in Montréal as described in Doing Google Before Google Did Google. Elmer and I kept in touch. When I returned to Ottawa, he asked if I would be interested in adding a housing assessment component to CAMS.

Housing on reserves is the responsibility of the Federal Government. As landlord to First Nations, it had not been able to solve what seemed to be an intractable problem: getting timely information on housing conditions in Native communities, especially in the North. OFNTSC was looking to remedy that situation by adding what became known as the Conditional Assessment Housing Database, or CAHD for short, to the CAMS. The CAHD would store and manage information regarding housing in native communities.

Teams were sent out to collect what should have been destined to become a digital life-cycle record of every house in every community, including information about the sex and age of occupants and sleeping accommodations so as to identify overcrowding that might invite sexual interference.

We incorporated within the CAHD the Canadian Building Code. This allowed for quick verification that when a request for payment was received, along with a digital photo of the work done, that it was done according to code. In less than a year, thanks to the Boreal Shell as both an interface and development platform and people who knew what they were doing, we had a working application.

Communities were accepting of the CAHD, not only because it was presented as a First Nation achievement, which it was (and also a Métis achievement: Dewey Smith, a Métis, was an expert in the voluminous Canadian Building Code that was incorporated into the CAHD as set of pop regulations pertaining to what an administrator was looking at, e.g., a set of stairs before authorizing payment), but also because they would remain custodians of the information collected about conditions in their communities.

CAHD catalogued perhaps a thousand homes—mainly in poor Northern Ontario communities such the house pictured here—when the dream came to an end.

OFNTSC had a vision of being a management software provider to First Nations across Canada, and to that end, Elmer and I went to B.C. to demonstrate our application to the B.C. INAC regional office. They were more than impressed and wanted to start using the CAHD immediately. Next came Alberta, to whom we sent a prototype. They all wanted it. There was only one catch: we estimated that to make CAHD available to all 800+ First Nations communities would require at least a million dollars.

The CAHD was OFNTSC’s ideas but its development was funded by the Federal Government. INAC said the money for the CAHD was a contribution, as opposed to a grant, therefore, as the one and only contributor—as if sweat equity and devolution did not matter—they owned it and would now take over. OFNTSC refused to hand over the application and the source code that made it run.

To try to convince INAC to let OFNTSC handle the deployment of CAHD, I got Michael Cowpland, who had recently purchased ZIM, to partner with OFNTSC and make a joint presentation, hopefully to one or more Ministers. Michael even agreed to throw in $250,000 of free ZIM software to keep our first year’s estimated deployment costs at or below a million dollars.

It just so happened that ZIM headquarters was located in the riding of the influential Minister of Industry, John Manley. At a strategy meeting I suggested to Michael that he might get in touch with the Minister to enlist his support in our fight with INAC since CAHD would not only save lives but save ZIM, which should be of interest to the Minister of Industry.

I was sitting across from Michael with only the width of a long boardroom table between us when I made the suggestion. He jumped out of his chair, leaned forward, placing his hands palm down on the table, and shouted, “Your solution is for me to talk to a politician?!” and stormed out of the room, leaving the dozen or so of us, his senior management and the decision makers at Ontario First Nations who had travelled from Toronto for this crucial meeting, in stunned silence.

Michael blamed politicians for the demise of his beloved Corel and he was right. Michael knew that Corel’s future depended on adding to his flagship software, Corel Draw. He saw his opportunity to do just that when, in June 1995, the Department of National Defence (DND)—by means of a Request for Information (RFI)—made it known that they were seeking information to standardize on an office suite.

What follows is a short timeline of the screwing of Michael Cowpland by the Canadian Government (material in quotes is from transcripts of the proceeding of the Canadian International Trade Tribunal):

1. On June 16, 1995, by means of a Request for Information, DND made it known that it was seeking information to standardize on an office suite. "This process resulted in Novell PerfectOffice being identified as the DND “Preferred Office Suite Product.”

2. Corel made its intentions known to acquire PerfectOffice from the American company Novell Corporation of Provo, Utah.

3. "Between November 29 and December 18, 1995, DND in conjunction with the Department [of Public Works and Government Services] decided to cancel the competitive selection process started on June 16, 1995, by means of the Request for Information. This process [had] resulted in Novell PerfectOffice Suite being identified as the DND ‘Preferred Office Suite Product.’”

4. In January 1996, Corel revealed that it had bought PerfectOffice for 158 million dollars.

5. Around this time, the Department of National Defence initiated a Request for Proposal where one key requirement had changed from its Request for Information: "The complainant [Corel] also states that it was required to meet the import/export function of the latest version of a particular brand-name product, Microsoft PowerPoint version 4.0, while a similar requirement was omitted in respect of Lotus and Novell products [when it was an American company]."

6. The tribunal would rule against Corel of Ottawa on the basis of the Department of National Defence's allegation (an allegation that Corel denied) that PerfectOffice could not import a Microsoft Office file.

The fix was in, but why? The answer was provided by a Captain in the Canadian Armed Forces and a specialist in military procurement whom I met while consulting on a small project with the Department of National Defence.

In the face of opposition to the choice of Microsoft Office, the Liberal Minister of Public Works and Government Services made possibly the most unhelpful, untrue and unnecessary statement. Diane Marleau's declaration, for all intents and purposes, sealed the fate of the Corel Corporation. She was quoted as saying that the Department of National Defence had picked "the better product."

I asked Frank if this was true. He said absolutely not. PerfectOffice, from the get-go, was the better product, but Canada’s participation in NATO forced it to select Office from Microsoft.

It would appear that when PerfectOffice was about to change hands, the American government saw to it that it was delisted as a NATO standard. Rather than admit to that, the government changed the specifications to favour Microsoft over Corel, then added insult to injury by denigrating the Corel product in the eyes of the world.

To quote Michael:

It's not the lost sales that hurt the most; it's the perception in the rest of the world that we couldn't sell our product in our own backyard.

It was only a matter time. In August of 2003, Vector Capital Group of California acquired what was left of Canada's biggest software success story. As could have been predicted, after the ill-fated purchasing decision, government departments began to phase out WordPerfect in favour of what the Minister of Public Works and Government Services said was the better product. The Canadian Government and most of the world became a Microsoft Office shop.

Michael’s reaction to my suggestion that he talk to Manley took me by surprise since he had accepted to retain, on my recommendation, David Dingwall, a former Cabinet Minister now working as a lobbyist.

My wife and I were about to take our seats at a concert at the National Arts Centre when she turned to me and said, “I would like you to meet David Dingwall.” As an interpreter for the House of Commons, she got to know the former Liberal Cabinet Minister during one of his many appearances before Committees of Parliament. It was completely fortuitous that our seat selection was next to his.

During the intermission, I talked to David—we were now on a first name basis—about the standoff between Ontario First Nations and the Department of Indian Affairs, which wanted OFNTSC to surrender control of a sophisticated management information system we had developed to monitor housing conditions in First Nation communities. I also mentioned Michael Cowpland’s participation. He asked if I could arrange a meeting between the two, which I did.

Michael shortly came back into the boardroom and apologized. I didn’t bring it up again, even when Dingwall finally set up an appointment with whom we thought would be the Minister; Michael sent his second-in-command. I guess it was not just Manley he didn’t care to talk to.

I’m glad he did not come in person, for he would have been humiliated.

What is the Life of an Aboriginal Worth?

When our small group—consisting of Irvin George, Bill Taggart OFNTSC’s general counsel, Elmer Lickers, a Ms. Batson from ZIM Technologies, and myself—got to the Minister’s office, he was not available, but an aide had been briefed on why we were there and would receive us in Minister Nault’s absence.

Eloquent pleas were made, not only about how, for a small investment, the CAHD would lead to improvements in often dismal living conditions, but how in some northern communities it would be the difference between life and death. The aide's response was to ask us to include in our cost benefit analysis an estimate on how much the life of an Aboriginal was worth. I kid you not.

Michael Cowpland, when he heard about this preposterous demand and of the Minister’s absence, correctly concluded that they were wasting his time; as with PerfectOffice, the fix was in. You could say that Michael Cowpland was screwed over twice by his government.

When we met with the Minister’s aide, I would later discover, the Department had probably already concluded a deal with Accenture, the large American software integrator, to build an Internet-based CAHD with ORACLE as the DBMS. Their wanting ownership of the community-based CAHD instead of letting a First Nation organisation spearhead its implementation as demanded by devolution was to kill it in favour of Accenture and keeping control in Ottawa which their web-based solution guaranteed.

First Nations would no longer be custodian of their information, and the people they would have to deal with would be mainly INAC and Accenture personnel. Few Aboriginals worked for INAC. It would have been akin to working with people whose first priority was not First Nations who did not respect them.

Walking Eagle

Irvin George had a reputation at Indian Affairs which I wanted to dispel when he met with what should have been the Minister. In a one page memo I sent him, before he left for Ottawa, about the impending meeting, I suggested he attend without his lawyer. I did not tell him the ugly reason why.

I may have caught a glimpse of Irvin George during my time working at Indian Affairs. A group of men had just left the office of the Director of the division for whom I built CAIS and ACRS when I heard someone refer to someone as “Walking Eagle.”

I asked the guy whose desk was nearest mine what he meant by that? He said he was referring to the head of OFNTSC who, it was said, couldn’t fly because of a broken a wing; that is why he was never seen without his crutch, his lawyer. According to the Urban Dictionary’s ( “Walking Eagle is allegedly an old Native American term for a bird so full of sh*t it can no longer fly.” Nonetheless, that was his explanation.

When the delegation from Toronto arrived and joined me for coffee and toast before our meeting with what should have been the Minister, Irvin George sat down across to the left of me. His lawyer sat next to him across the table from me.

The normally cool, calm and polite Director of OFNTSC, without even glancing in my direction, started asking me where I got off telling him (it was only a suggestion) not to bring his lawyer to the meeting. It is as if he thought I was trying to set him up to be taken advantage of by a white man. Bill Taggard happened to be white, by the way. After that dressing down, I was told that they would do all the talking and not to interrupt. That is why I did not raise an objection to Minister Nault’s lackey asking for that obscene estimate.

Irvin George's lawyer actually made the most compelling argument when we met with the Minister’s assistant, and it might have worked if the meeting had been with the Minister and the meeting had been in good faith. Holding a CAHD installation CD in one hand, Taggart waved it in front the of bemused assistant telling him that “You have here a simple, elegant, inexpensive solution tailored to First Nations’ needs, what else could you asked for?” The ugly request put an end to any substantial discussion about a “simple, elegant, inexpensive solution” to a pressing problem.

We had asked for a million dollars for a proven system that had found favour among those it was meant to help. Accenture wanted—and got—20+ million dollars to build a system that First Nations could never trust, having their participation relegated to that of data entry clerks.

I got the opportunity to ask a consultant with Accenture about the 20 million dollars, which was bound to increase and that I found excessive, knowing the problem to be solved. “Because we don’t know what we’re doing,” was his reply. A Freudian slip, or was he simply being facetious? Considering that they never managed to duplicate the CAHD, I would opt for the former.

These events took place during the winter of 2001/2002. With too many what-might-have-beens, I decided to abandon writing code in the hope of making a difference by writing prose; but before we get into that, one last story about the CAHD.

In the fall of 2019, I got a call from Elmer. Could I meet him for a game of pool? He had some news. After almost twenty years and a slew of failures, INAC had finally relented and was ready to adopt the community-based solution we had proposed way back when. They had given OFNTSC the money to build a new CAHD using a mainstream DBMS and language.

In all those intervening years, Elmer had kept a working copy on an out-of-the way computer. When he met with the developers to show them what he wanted, he simply fired up the old machine and gave them a demonstration of our CAHD. He said they were absolutely blown away. They could not believe that what he was showing them was twenty years old. They even admitted, he said, that they could not easily duplicate some of the features even today. He thought I would be happy to hear that. I both was and wasn’t; that is the way with what-might-have-beens.