2012 Year in Review: Top 10 stories

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor

1.   Facebook IPO: Even before its stock began trading on the NASDAQ exchange last May 18, analysts had been sounding warnings that Facebook’s long-awaited initial public offering might be over-hyped. The world’s best known social network, with more than a billion users, was running out of people to sign up and it wasn’t as successful as Google in monetizing its content, especially on mobile devices, some said. But few were expecting the disaster that ensued. Initially floated at $US38 — potentially about $100 billion in overall capitalization and raising $16 billion on initial sales — Facebook shares experienced only a tiny opening bump (about 23 cents) before beginning a long slide from which they’re only beginning to recover. At one point last summer they were as low as $18.

Predictably, the fiasco has degenerated into legal battles (more than two-dozen class actions by late September) amid allegations the stock had been overpriced while its underwriters were making depressed earnings forecasts. The IPO still made Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his partners very rich. But the disaster was a lesson to small investors and entrepreneurs alike that web buzz aside, market fundamentals matter.

2.   Decline of RIM: Research In Motion’s decline continued in 2012. Canada’s biggest technology darling since Northern Telecom had pioneered the smartphone with its iconic Blackberry. Losing an important patent-infringement suit, forcing a US$612-million settlement in 2006, hardly slowed its worldwide momentum. But its leadership was undermined by its refusal to take Apple’s iPhone and Google-based Android phones seriously as competition among its important business users. Its attempts to match those devices fell flat, thanks partly to a lack of apps. Its answer to the iPad, the Playbook, bombed in 2011 and RIM began cutting its workforce.

By January of 2012, shareholders had had enough and forced RIM co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis to step down, handing the reins to chief operating officer Thorsten Heins. To make things worse, its Blackberry 10 smartphone languished in development, the company spooked by the flop of its half-baked Playbook tablet. The launch was delayed to March 2013 and, amid red ink, RIM continued slashing jobs. It overcame network outages and increased its subscriber base, but unless the BB10 is a hit, many observers think rumours of a takeover that have floated all year may come true.

3.   XL Foods beef recall: It was the largest beef-product recall in Canadian history. The discovery of potentially deadly E. coli bacteria Sept. 3 at the massive XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., initially wasn’t considered that serious. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said the tainted beef (trimmings) never reached consumers. But the CFIA’s U.S. counterparts had also reported E. coli in beef crossing the border and two weeks after the first report, the plant’s export permit was revoked. It took another three days for the first public warning not to use products from the plant, coupled with a voluntary recall. More than a dozen Canadians would become ill, though no deaths were reported. Production at XL wasn’t shut down until Sept. 28.

Hundreds of thousands of kilograms of recalled beef were consigned to a landfill. The XL plant finally reopened in late November but under new management by a Brazilian-owned firm. Canadians’ trust in the food-safety system took a hit, as did the CFIA’s reputation as critics accused it of not policing the sprawling plant adequately and not moving faster when problems were discovered.

4.   U.S. 2012 elections: The re-election fight of America’s first black president mesmerized Canadians. Critics considered Barak Obama’s first term a disappointment, even though he pushed into law a form of mandatory health insurance that predecessors had tried and failed to do, and quarterbacked the elimination of Osama Bin Laden. But the economy continued to sputter and his staunchest opponents on the right demonized him as a socialist bent on gutting the free-enterprise system. However, voters never warmed to his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, a millionaire businessman and former governor of Massachusetts. Obama won a convincing victory, while his Democratic party held on to its majority in the Senate. Voters in in several states also backed same-sex marriage and in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. It’s been estimated that more than $US6 billion was spent in all on the 2012 campaign.

5.   The Innocence of Muslims ‘movie’: The crudely made “movie” The Innocence of Muslims seems absurd, except for the fact dozens of people died and hundreds were hurt in the surge of anger and hatred it released. All it was reportedly screened once last once last June, all most people have seen is a 14-minute segment that surfaced on YouTube. Participants in the California production said they were duped, believing they were making an adventure film called Desert Warrior But the dialogue was re-dubbed with virulently anti-Islamic lines. Versions of the YouTube trailer dubbed into Arabic sparked deadly protests and riots in Islamic countries in September.

A Pakistani politician put a bounty on the head of the ostensible producer, who used the pseudonym Sam Bacile. He turned out to be a convicted fraudster named Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian American. News reports connected him with the Coptic Christian church, whose adherents in Egypt have been under pressure from the Muslim majority. Nakoula was arrested and jailed for violating his parole conditions. The Obama administration’s reaction to the protests became an election issue, with Republicans condemning what they thought was an apologetic response after demonstrators in Cairo attacked the U.S. embassy. A Sept. 11 attack of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three colleagues, was initially blamed on demonstrators but later revealed as an al-Qaeda attack.

6.   Tori Stafford murder: Really, it’s redundant to put the adjective horrific in front of the word murder  but if any case deserves that label it’s the 2009 abduction, sexual assault and killing of Victoria Stafford. The nine-year-old Woodstock, Ont., girl disappeared from in front of her school, led away by a woman in a white jacket. The investigation led to 21-year-old Terry-Lynne McClintic, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 2010 and implicated her boyfriend, 31-year Michael Rafferty. At Rafferty’s trial, McClintic said she lured Stafford to his car by offering to show her a puppy. Rafferty drove to a store to buy a hammer and garbage bag, then to a rural area where McClintic said he sexually assaulted the young girl. After initially telling police Rafferty used the hammer to kill Tori Stafford, McClintic testified she delivered the fatal blows, explaining she couldn’t bring herself to admit it at first. They hid the body under a pile of stones, where investigators later discovered it from clues in McClintic’s interrogation.

Despite her admission, on May 11 the jury convicted Rafferty of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault causing bodily harm. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 25 years. He plans to appeal.

7.   Mass shootings: Aurora, Colorado became the latest community to join an infamous list of American mass-murder scenes. The U.S. suffers on average 20 mass shootings a year, but the July 20 attack on movie-goers attending the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises was even more surreal than usual. The shooter barged into the theatre and methodically gunned down dozens of people. Twelve died and some 60 were wounded. Police arrested 24-year-old James Holmes, a doctoral student with psychiatric problems. The following month, a white supremacist named Wade Page walked into the service at a Sikh gurdwara and killed seven worshipers before dying in a confrontation with police. In April, a man said to be angry for being expelled from an Oakland, Calif., school killed seven people and injured three others, and five African-American men in Tulsa, Okla., were killed at random one day by two men said to be motivated by racism. And yet, gun control was not an issue during the 2012 election campaign.

Canada wasn’t immune from such violence. Last July, two people were killed and 22 were wounded when gunfire linked go gang members erupted at a Toronto neighbourhood barbecue. In June, three employees of an armoured car company were gunned down while delivering money to ATMs at the University of Alberta. Police arrested one of their colleagues whose apparent motive was robbery. That same month, one person was killed and seven others wounded when one alleged gang member had a disagreement with another in the food court at Toronto’s Eaton Centre. In a tragic irony, Jessica Ghawi of Texas, who left the food court moments before the shooting because she “felt funny,” would die in the Aurora, Colo., massacre the following month.

8.   Shafia family murder: The only thing more shocking than the murders of teenagers Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia and 50-year-old Amir Mohammad was the cold-blooded plot behind them. The four were found in a car at the bottom of a Rideau Canal lock at Kingston, Ont., in June 2009. The girls’ father, 58-year-old Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya and their son Hamed were charged with four-counts of first-degree murder and convicted by a jury in January 2012. The family, originally from Afghanistan, were living in Montreal and Amir Mohammad was Shafia’s first wife in a polygamous marriage. He, his son and second wife, angry at the behaviour of the increasingly westernized daughters, arranged a holiday that included an overnight stop in Kingston that ended with the women drowned in the car.

A story that they had taken a late-night drive and gotten lost quickly fell apart under wiretapped conversations and forensic evidence that showed another vehicle had pushed their car into the water. It took only 15 hours for a Kingston jury to convict all four, who face the mandatory life sentence with no parole eligibility for 25 years.

9.   Alberta election: After four decades in power, it looked like the Progressive Conservative dynasty governing Alberta might finally be unseated by the even more conservative Wildrose Party. Premier Alison Redford had succeeded Ed Stelmach as PC leader only six months earlier and Wildrose, led by former journalist Danielle Smith, was surging in the polls in much the same way Peter Lougheed’s Tories had done against the tired Social Credit party in 1971.

Wildrose also had the support of prominent Alberta federal Conservatives. But gaffes by a couple of its candidates — one asserted gays were doomed to burn in a “lake of fire” and another made racially insensitive remarks — apparently caused Alberta voters to reconsider Wildrose’s readiness to govern their increasingly cosmopolitan province in the final days leading up to the April 23 vote. The PCs captured most of the vote-rich Calgary and Edmonton ridings, along with other urban centres, taking 61 seats to Wlidrose’s 17, the Liberals’ five and NDP’s four. Smith will take the lessons of the election to heart as Wildrose regroups for the next campaign.

10.  Curiosity rover lands on Mars: The landing in August of NASA’s Curiosity Mars science lab and rover on the Red Planet triggered the kind of public excitement perhaps not seen since the moon missions of the 1960s or the first space shuttle flights. The biggest vehicle yet sent to Mars entered the atmosphere at supersonic speeds, then fired retro-rockets and hovered while it lowered the car-sized rover to the surface. The Internet allowed followers to watch developments as Curiosity beamed back new photos from the Martian surface. Discoveries were quick to come, including evidence of an ancient stream bed that shows water likely once flowed on Mars. NASA scientists said in November Curiosity’s sample analyzer has made a discovery “for the history books” in a soil sample but were holding off on any announcement until they could double-check their results.

Top Newsmakers of 2012: Heroes and Inspiring MomentsA look back at the heroes and inspiring moments that made headlines in 2012.