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Russell Wangersky: Snitch lines make bad neighbours

Snitch lines can be abused by people holding a grudge. —
Snitch lines can be abused by people holding a grudge. — 123RF Stock Photo

Bad neighbour fires.

That’s what I think about when I hear about “snitch lines.”


In Ontario, the provincial government has promised to set up an online “hot line” for parents or students to anonymously report teachers who vary from the government’s new/old sex education curriculum. The government has turned back the clock, and wants teachers there to use the 1998 Health and Physical Education curriculum. (No word yet if school dances will be required to play Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” or Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” both hits in 1998, in some sort of tortuous loop.)

But back to snitch lines: just like with the proposed “barbaric cultural practices hotline” that the Conservatives were pitching in the last federal election, the real problem with snitch lines is that they are a great big bottom trawl that catches all sorts of useless, hateful and bilious bycatch.

Let me explain.

Years ago, when I was a firefighter, we had a type of call we’d even identify on the radio as “bad neighbour fires.”

My fire department was in a semi-rural area of the province, with plenty of woodland and scrub, so, every summer, as the forest fire index rose, we’d wait for the spring burning ban to be put in place.

Once it was in place, people would get jumpy, and start calling us at the first hint of smoke. That’s a good thing: we’d roll three or four trucks, lots of water, sirens and firefighters, and descend on whatever was burning. Sometimes, it was illegal burning of brush without a permit, or an actually brush fire. Occasionally, the start of a forest fire.

Sometimes, teenagers having a bush bonfire would scatter into the woods as we appeared, mistaking fire trucks for police cars. And sometimes — more often than you’d like to think — it was the malicious settling of scores, plain and simple.

Sometimes, if you looked towards a neighbour’s windows while you were there in the yard, you could see the curtains move as someone stepped back out of sight.

We’d be called to someone’s backyard, where, in the middle of a bright green lawn, there’d be a tiny outdoor firepit, complete with parents, kids, and hotdogs on sticks. Often, with an uncoiled, ready-to-go garden hose right there as well. (Embarrassing for the parents, though often the kids were thrilled with the trucks and lights.)

Yes, it was against the law: a burning ban is a burning ban. And yes, there were risks involved.

We’d put the fire out, explain that if we had to come back, it would be with Forestry and there’d most likely be a fine involved. But the danger was probably small, if everyone was careful.

Sometimes, if you looked towards a neighbour’s windows while you were there in the yard, you could see the curtains move as someone stepped back out of sight.

It meant extra work for us, extra fuel, extra time; the whole apparatus that an anonymous call sets into motion – 911 operators, firefighters, police (if there were any in the vicinity) — which meant they were also not available for more important calls.

Now, think of that on a truly massive scale.

I can only imagine the tide of, well, excrement that’s going to flow in on an anonymous online tattle-site about teachers.

There are going to be hot line postings about not using the curriculum. About things parents don’t understand. About teachers who some parent believes need to be taken down a peg or two. There are going to be allegations like poison whispered through the internet’s ear, false allegations made merely to waste a teacher’s time defending themselves and some sort of administrator’s time needed to investigate them.

It’s a marvelous weapon to inconvenience someone you’ve got any sort of grudge against, large or small. It’s bad enough being a teacher now — you couldn’t pay me to do it, especially not with junior high students. But imagine working in an atmosphere where there are all the existing issues of teaching, from helicopter parents to bullying — with the additional concern that anyone can go online and try to destroy your reputation from the safety of an anonymous keyboard.

Snitch lines are shortcuts for the most small-minded of people.

It’s easy to underestimate the goodness of strangers.

And the pettiness of some neighbours.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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