Thursday, December 30, 2010

BELL TELEPHONE'S WRONG WRONG NUMBERS

 LET'S KEEP DINGING BELL

When Bell was fined $1.3 million for screwing around with the same do-not-call list that it is paid to run, I thought Christmas had come early.
Putting Bell in charge of the list banning annoying telemarketers, bootleg charities and fly-by-night sales outfits from bugging you at supper time is so much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse that just about everyone in the country knew it's ridiculous.
I put my house on the do-not-call list just days after the marvelous idea started in September, 2008. And now almost nine million Canadian phones are listed with the fox.
I recall that my first solicitation came within hours from a Sun circulation salesman. I told him off. He said they were allowed to call under the new rules which protects newspapers, pollsters, registered charities and various political tentacles. Plus something to do with companies with whom you had a contractual relationship.
I said that even though I was someone who had earned a living primarily from newspapers, it wasn't fair to give us that exemption. He wasn't impressed. I said I had been a Day Oner with the Toronto Sun. He wasn't impressed, but then all these circulation calls now come out of Ottawa.
I don't mind the exemption for pollsters. I really like good polls on what Canadians think. I use them when I write. But as I pointed out years ago in a column,  confirmed by friends in that business, the dirty secret about polls is that almost half of the people hang up. Do we really then get a true sounding of all the people or just the views of the mouthy who will talk to anyone at any time?
I favour anything we can do to hurt the telemarketers who still sneak around the rules - thanks to Bell business advisers who run an Internet site promising to help companies get around the ban.  They should know, because Bell has just been caught doing it too. I think the annoyance of Rogers calling me three days in a row, and all the renegades that call, just poisons the well of acceptance when real charities and useful pollsters call.
There was some deserved grumbling by the masses that no one seemed to get punished for calling despite your listing. Apparently there have been 29 fines, but this new one for Bell is by far the largest. The CRTC, the electronic watchdog, says it has collected only $10,000 of the $195,000 in fines levied against 28 telemarketers. Yet what is weird is the strange  things these companies are allowed to do to wiggle out of confessing their wrongdoing. Bell is also giving $266,000 to Concordia University as a "goodwill gesture," while Telus agreed to donate $200,000 to Carleton so it can escape saying it was cheating. There was also a $500,000 "administrative monetary policy" against Xentel DM.
Let's have more fines because, unfortunately, I'm still bugged by illegal calls. I'm glad the CRTC is  demonstrating, finally, that it can go after the big offenders too, but I 'm baffled by these gifts and bureaucratic language.
I'm not a fan of government intervention, so I know there is no way we can be protected when we call giants like Bell and get call centres in India where they deal with us in a curious stilted English. And then nothing happens.
I will not repeat my horror story that I wrote on Sept. 3, 2009 titled The Wrong Numbers of Bell. One comment came from a man who blamed outsourcing and firings for Bell's decline in service. At least, he said, we now have alternatives.
The good old days often weren't. But remember when you called a company and a human answered, and Bell didn't charge you for every last thing and still made a huge profit.
You remember, long before it turned out that Ma Bell couldn't be trusted even when it came to something it was supposed to do to protect us from being bugged just as dinner hits the table or the TV movie approaches a climax. Of course you can pay Bell so you know who's calling, just as you now have to pay Bell if any wire gives out inside your home. But you can get revenge. You can just hang up on the politicians who have allowed too many exemptions to the ban.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ERIC DOWD, CONSCIENCE OF QUEEN'S PARK

RELENTLESS, CANTANKEROUS, EXASPERATING

Each December, the courteous phone call came from Eric Dowd, inviting me to the Queen's Park Press Gallery Christmas party. Now the calls will come no more, but no one who has ever spent time with Eric will forget him.
Boy, he could bug you. And then charm with a gentle observation. Tough but fair. And with an inner strength that had him write about his adopted province right up to the final days of his battle with cancer that took him at 79 on Christmas Day.
I remember Paul Godfrey, then the Sun publisher, returning an obituary I had written on Bill Allen, who had been a tricky Metro chairman before Paul.  He wanted it more positive and told me not to dwell on the negatives. He didn't think obituaries should have any bad memories.
Paul was right, sort of, but I think when we remember our friends we also remember the not so good, if they really were our friends.
And Dowd, a wonderful, kind, helpful, competitive observer of provincial politics and friend of young reporters and humble civil servants, could be a pain in the ass when he argued, especially if you were a politician or, worse, his editor. It was like trying to deal with a water torture of words.
I was trying to escape one Friday when I made the mistake as the Tely City Editor to phone Eric to discuss his overtime. The argument lasted about 45 minutes, then he appeared in the office to continue it. I knew then how premiers felt. Eric may have got some of those many scoops just because the premier's office wanted a truce.
There was a marvelous incident one September morning in 1974 when Premier William Davis was trying to seduce the Italian-Canadian vote away from the Liberals by touring Italy. He and his wife Kathy were at the Trevi Fountain posing for pictures by Norm Betts, who had taken leave from the Sun to work for the Tories. A pompous carabinieri strutted up and demanded the premier produce the pass needed for photography at the fountain. When Davis couldn't figure out what he was talking about, he started to hustle them off.
I have done some dumb things, and this time, stupidly, I decided to protect the premier. The much better story would have been Davis in jail. But I grabbed the cop by his inflated chest and started sticking him with my pen, demanding his number. He turned his wrath on me and I yelled at the Davises to beat it, which they did.
Eric was the first of the reporters to join me. He demanded to know what was going on. His attitude seemed to be that I was cutting him out of an important story. I told him to shut up and start yelling at the cop too. So Eric did, with enthusiasm. Then the reinforcements arrived, giant David Allen, little Allan Dickie, bird-like Pat Crowe...
Some Italian media joined in with bellows. And the Canadian contingent escaped to the leased bus in a lane, and the carabinieri ended up arresting only the Italians. Of course our headlines were:"A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum."
Eric had an encyclopedic knowledge of Legislature affairs and was the person I sought out in the budget lockup when the media are locked in rooms before the budget is delivered officially and demonstrate that their arithmetic may be as faulty as their spelling. What better judge could there be of rampant government spending than a man so careful with his money, because he had a family of five, that he commuted by bike. No matter what hour I was poking around the Leg, hungry for a column, Eric was there pounding on his old Underwood. And we would talk about our kids, which, of course, are far more important than Ontario politics.
He wrote some freelance stuff for the Sun when we began and longed to be on staff but for budget reasons wasn't hired. Then the Sun hired Paul Palango, now the writer of crime books, and then, Claire Hoy, a meteor shooting through the guts of all editors.
Eric would have been a better bet. After all, he lasted half-a-century covering Queen's Park on the site of the old insane asylum, and he knew where all the bodies of failure were buried. Too bad his readership dwindled through circumstance from the days when he was such a giant at the Park, he seemed to know more about what the premier was doing than some ministers.
I'm sure he's chatting up St. Peter to find out what's the latest on his new beat.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

JOHN DOWNING BIOGRAPHY


FAMILY
John Henry Downing Junior was born June 10, 1936 in Toronto to J. H. Downing, an east-end doctor who chaired the Toronto Board of Education in 1938, and to Lena, a Toronto Bible College graduate as a medical missionary. He was orphaned at 5 and raised by relatives. He married Mary Horvat of Hamilton in 1961.  They have three sons, John Henry III of California; Brett, of Etobicoke; and Mark, of Dalian, China. There are four grandsons.

EDUCATION
He graduated from Weston Collegiate in 1955 and received his journalism diploma from Ryerson Institute of Technology in 1958. He was an editor on the Ryersonian newspaper and student president. In 1972 he received a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. He studied environmental science and urban geography at University of Toronto.
He authored the official Ryerson history in 1978 and served on board committees, presidential and journalism search committees, and task forces revising the Ryerson University Act and photography courses.
He served on advisory journalism committees at Ryerson and Humber College, and lectured.

JOURNALISM
In 1957 he was the Editor of the Whitehorse Star in the Yukon Territory. He joined the Toronto Telegram in 1958 and was a reporter and editor, including Night  Editor, Suburban Editor and City Editor. He was Assistant Managing Editor when the newspaper closed and put out the final edition.
He was part of the group that started the Toronto Sun in 1971. He wrote a daily political column on Page 4, and was Associate Editor until he became the Editor in 1985. He stepped aside in 1997 but continued as a columnist until 2007. He then began his blog, Downing’s Views.
 He was a chief judge for the National Newspaper Awards in the spot news, feature photography and news photography categories from 2002 to 2006.
He has written articles for Macleans and TIME, and editorials and articles for the Ontario Motor League and Toronto Board of Trade magazines. He was the Canadian editor of the World Almanac for several years when it was the world's most-used reference book. He did a weekly political commentary on CBC Radio from 1971 to 1980 and was a TV political commentator on CBC, Global, CTV and City.

ART
He was a founding director of the Toronto Outdoor Art Show when it began in 1968 and became an honourary life director in 2000.

PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS
He was president of the Toronto Press Club in 1973. In 1974, he was president of the Association of Canadian Press Clubs and made the Michener Award presentation to Governor General Jules Leger. From 1990 to 1993, he was involved with the first years of the Canadian Journalism Foundation. He was chair from 1992 to 1996 of the Canadian delegation to the world’s oldest media forum, the International Press Institute, where senior journalists from more than 60 countries fight censorship. 

SAFETY
He was a director of the Metro Citizens’ Safety Council and originator of the motion that the council buy equipment for the Metro Police in a pilot project called Reduce Impaired Driving in Etobicoke. This program expanded into Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere, the first of the annual RIDE programs..
He campaigned for child safety seats and received four Ontario Safety League writing awards from 1983 to 1986. He became an OSL director and received its Distinguished Service Award in 2009.
He raised money for a new ambulance for St. John Ambulance and in 1983 received the St. John Priory Award from Governor General Ed Schreyer.

POLICING
He received eight awards from the Metro Police Association from 1974 to 1990 for editorials and columns on policing and safety. He served on the advisory committee for the police museum from 2006 to 2008.

MILITARY

In 1954 and 1955, he served with the Royal Canadian Air Force Reserve. He trained and worked in air traffic control.

PUBLIC BOARDS
He was president of the Canadian National Exhibition in 2000 and 2001, a director of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in 2000 and 2001, and a governor of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame from 1998 to 2004. He was a governor of the Exhibition Place board from 1998 to 2002 and vice-chair in 2001. He continues as a member of the Canadian National Exhibition board.
He was a member of a Toronto Board of Education advisory committees on nature schools and the teaching of science and urban geography.
He was a member of the Toronto city council advisory committee on civic awards of merit from 1986 to 1989 and then chaired the committee to 1994. He received council’s service award in 1994.
He served on the Metro and Region Conservation Authority from 1968 to 1975. He was appointed reeve of Black Creek Pioneer Village from 1976 to 1978. He received an honour roll service award and life membership from the authority in 1986.
He was a judge for 15 years for Metro Caravan and received its award of merit in 1984.
He was a member of the Toronto Board of Trade task force on municipal governance in 2005 and 2006.
He was a director of the Runnymede Health Care Centre from 1968 to 2008 and was fund raising chair in 2006 and 2007. He continues with Friends of Runnymede.
He was a founding director of the Terry Fox Hall of Fame in 1993 and continues as the hall evolved into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in 2009.

JOURNALISM ACHIEVEMENTS
In 1979, he wrote a series of columns and editorials in the Toronto and Edmonton Suns asking for donations to help the Vietnamese “boat people.” He went to refugees camps and became the official sponsor for 43 of the refugees he met there, bringing them to Toronto and Edmonton and supporting them using $300,000 donated by his readers.
In 1988 and 1989  he led a “count me Canadian” editorial campaign and also petitioned human rights organizations to end the federal refusal to allow Canadians to give Canadian as their ethnic origin on census forms. The census forms were changed in 1995 to allow this. Statistics Canada stated it was because of the Sun’s campaign.
In 1992 he received Canada’s commemorative medal for the 125th anniversary of the country.
In 2002 he received the B’nai Brith award of distinction in Canadian journalism. .
In 2012, he was the recipient of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee commemorative medal.

BOOKS
He was ghost writer for Nathan Phillips’ book Mayor Of All The People  and for A. Kelso Roberts’ book The Member for St. Patrick. He wrote chapters in the CNE history Once Upon A Century, the Outdoor Art Show’s 40th anniversary book, the  official sesquicentennial publication, and has contributed to several books on Toronto’s history.

HOBBIES, SPORTS
Reading, fishing, bad golf and watching all sports. For the first five years, he was a season ticket holder for the Toronto Blue Jays. An ardent fan, he was there for Joe Carter's home run. He played football and also intramural sports in high school and university.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

KENNY ROBERTSON VE3 ERS


BY THEIR FRUITS YE SHALL KNOW THEM

The Toronto Telegram died in 1971 but its memories live on with a shrinking band of survivors from the final wonderful and wacky decade.
We just lost another one when Kenny Robertson died at 87. He wasn't famous. The tales of the newspaper war of Star vs. Tely in the 1960s seldom mention his name. The histories of the Sun skip by this Day Oner.
But anyone who has ever been an editor or laboured in the trenches, when deadlines harass and the damned opposition probably has the pickup pictures or the key quotes, know that it is the Kenny Robertsons of journalism who form the spine of your paper, not the bosses or the stars.
When they're agreeable as well as dependable, when they don't grumble as they ignore food or sleep until they get the story, then you have the bonus that was Kenny Robertson, two-way man.
It's a shame that long after he left journalism we found out that he could write as he produced a nice book with a wonderful title "Windcharm: a dream delayed." Kenny liked being a photographer, and was a good one, but his stories were more workhorse. Until he could write for himself, not the damned editors. Then he could reminisce about his war and his many jobs and his Windcharm, the home he built near Coldwater on 88 acres, which a buddy who kept dropping in and staying called Piano Acres.
The Tely had a City Room filled with characters and some of the best journalists in the land who had had great scoops, like the first into Hitler's Bunker and the first at the Chubb Crater. Two guys who started an enormous media empire. Many National Newspaper Awards. The chap who ran our court bureau had been a Toronto mayor. One of the mother hens started the incredible Today's Child of adoption fame. One chap who only wrote cutlines for us later wrote 20 books. The list of accomplishments is endless.
Kenny was a member of the Tely's Pony Express, the stringers driving from fatal fire to bus accident to council meetings, covering hundreds of miles whether it was icy or they hadn't slept. No cell phones or faxes or computers to help them, but Kenny occasionally beat the Star using his beloved hobby of ham operator (no children, not hog butchers but amateur radio operators who could reach most nooks.)
I worked with him for years and then was his boss, sort of, as Suburban Editor. There were 13 reporter-photographers who covered, believe it or not, all the major news in courts and city halls outside of the downtown city all the way out to Hamilton, Barrie and Oshawa. No paper matches that today. They didn't have an office. They were paid worse and worked longer hours than the city staffers. And they worked like hell because they wanted to climb the pecking order to be on the city staff too.
After midnight, after they had printed their pictures and pounded out their stories at a borrowed desk, they would drink, play poker and trade stories. And daydream. The dreams came true for many. One became an Esquire editor and wrote Flashdance, a huge movie hit. Another wrote TV scripts for the Voice of Doom, Lorne Greene. One was the stepson of the inventor of radar, Sir Robert-Watt. One was mayor of the Toronto suburb of Mimico. Then there was a future CFTO news anchor, Star managing editor, and other editors.
And Kenny became, by popular choice, the second City Editor of the Sun. The reporters loved him, but he could be tough too. He fired one photographer for quitting at the end of his shift because the story wasn't finished. Yet short-staffed newspapers can grind you down.
Lorrie Goldstein, the Sun associate editor, recalls the day when he had been called in for the morning meeting as the City Editor where several superiors gave him lists of stories to be followed. "I will now go out and assign my one reporter," Lorrie said and left.
Kenny became the roving PR guy for the natural resources ministry in middle and northern Ontario because ministry officials hated to leave comfortable offices. He did a great job as a parks and fishing evangelist. As he generally did, and not just in his anecdotes. He loved to yarn.
He could be a dangerous friend. He was a great sailor and I almost bought a boat because of him, which might have ended my marriage. He had at least one race horse, and hasn't every writer who has spent some time at the track dreamed of buying a claimer which then wins the Queen's Plate.
Kenny used to wear a tie pin with his ham call sign on it, which was, I trust, VE3 ERS. I'm sure if that is wrong, he will call me from his new Windcharm. I never greeted him by name but always by his call sign when I called with his assignments. He never grumbled even if it was a miserable drive.
In the old days, we ended by writing 30, so the linotype operators and editors knew we were finished. Kenny always left us saying "tally ho."But let me end with the radio I learned in the RCAF. I would like to be able to say "over," but unfortunately it has to be "out."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

MINI SKIRTS AND ROBERT FULFORD


HOW EXPO 67 SHOOK UP CANADA

Robert Fulford and I were sitting having an agreeable time at one of the many parties before Expo 67 opened when he suddenly jumped on the table.
A lot of strange things happened at that wonderful fair but we were experienced journalists and I wondered what had got into him. After all, it was still early, and Expo's press parties ended with some under the table, not standing on them.
Fulford yelled down that some idiot had just walked in with a very large tiger on a very small leash. "I'm sure it's tame, " I observed, but we decided to leave if the tiger didn't. After all, free drinks were plentiful.
That was the first thing I remembered when I read Fulford's Notebook in the National Post. He was reviewing what he called an "often engaging collection" of articles by academics on our centennial party titled Expo 67: Not Just A Souvenir.
Fulford brings credentials to judge such a book. He spent months covering Expo for the Toronto Star and wrote a book about the international exposition. Yet that really doesn't matter because he is one of the few writers who is a must read for me. This is a writer of wit and perception who can write about anything and be interesting for anyone from high school dropouts, which he was, to the intellectual snobs for whom the Globe is the bible and the CBC is the family institution.
I thought I remembered everything about my delightful time in charge of the Toronto Telegram's coverage of Expo 67.
*Like the photographer I sent to photograph Petula Clark. He vanished for a week while they had a tempestuous fling. They sure weren't singing Downtown. She was staying in Habitat, which made the reputation of designer Moshe Safdie, a prefab hill of concrete blocks which was supposed to revolutionize housing but didn't.
*Like the revolt by the Star's Ray Timson and me when we were allowed no photographer locations for the official ceremony, yet the former Time/Life exec gave two of the five spots to his old employer. The Tely phoned the prime minister and got inside, then we used a picture taken from outside.
*Like the headline story I got from a former journalism classmate who later became my associate editor. Don Hawkes confessed over drinks in the press bar - there was a lot of drinking at Expo - that the much publicized attendance figures were meaningless because the turnstiles were spun by attendants killing time when no one was coming through.
*Like Bobby Gimby and his Ca-Na-Da, the song that became the anthem of a Canadian era.
*Like Labyrinth, which housed a gigantic National Film Board movie at a time when the NFB was still considered a national treasure. Lineups plagued Expo, especially outside the Labyrinth theatres, but when the press tried to sneak in back doors in another attempt to guess at the meaning of the symbolism, the crowds would scream at us.
*Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome seemed marvelous space-craft technology touched down on earth as the U.S. Pavilion. We wrote about a world covered with such domes. Turned out they were difficult to build. Two friends tried it and they always leaked.
Oh yes, I have many memories, but Fulford reminds me of something I had forgotten, and I hasten to add that I was a horny young editor away from his wife for far, far too long. "That dazzling innovation in female fashion, the mini skirt, arrived in North America just in time to play a highly decorative role in Expo 67," Fulford wrote.
Gadzooks, how could I forget the first mini skirts which seemed the work of the Devil setting on fire men from 12 to 90, especially young husbands. Expo pavilions were filled with mini-skirted hostesses while many nubile fair goers were enthusiastic copy cats.
One contributor to the book, Aurora Wallace, a prof at New York University, said the mini skirt was the "iconic artefact" of Expo as it set a sexy and light-hearted tone. Wallace believes it signalled a new era for women.
It certainly signalled a new era in fairs. And world's fairs and Expos since the first in London in 1851 are remembered fondly for what they left behind, whether in Chicago or Barcelona. The Eiffel Tower remains from the fair in Paris and we munch the ice cream cone introduced at the fair in St. Louis.
The Montreal Expo is as significant in Canadian history as more famous rivals were for their country. If only for all those mini skirts. Its world credentials include credit for the wordless pictographs marking men's and women's washrooms. (Some new versions still baffle me.) It also garnered fame for how such a large site had been made accessible for visitors in wheelchairs.
What many don't realize is the impact it had on Ontario. The popular success of the Ontario Pavilion led directly to the building of Ontario Place when the provincial Tories, trying to keep their dynasty rolling, decided that the Canadian National Exhibition may be one of the largest annual fairs in the world but it had been eclipsed by Expo.
Ontario Place became a miniature attempt to recreate some of Expo's architectural glories to the glory of the Conservative government. It even had an IMAX theatre, and the roots of that technology of all spectacle and no story are found in Expo's remarkable cinemas like Labyrinth.
Because of Expo, I became a fierce critic of the CNE (remembered bitterly when I became CNE president) but also kept pointing out that Ontario Place cost six times the first estimate. Forty years later the complexes are still separate and taxpayers are losing millions because they should have just one administration.
Because of Buckminster Fuller's fame after Expo, my newspaper paid the futurist to design a waterfront city in Lake Ontario, our contribution to several decades of daydreaming about reclaiming Toronto's birthright.
Then the Tories at Queen's Park, trying to fashion Bill Davis as an innovative premier rather than just another pragmatic middle-of-the-road Tory, cancelled the Spadina expressway and hired Fuller to design massive pyramids of condos for the now useless right-of-way.
Neither Fuller creation was ever built as he faded as the visionary the world consulted when it wanted to dream in glass and steel. Turned out his dome in Montreal was to be his climax, not just another pleasing creation. Not so for Canada. Expo was a great start on our next century.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

TAKING THE HIGH ROAD ON EGLINTON TRANSIT


One constant in Toronto's transit politics is that if you have three people in a board room planning the next transit line, you will get four routes.
So prepare for confusion, stupidity and zany politics as councillors, TTC officials and provincial transit experts (supposed) plot future expansion.
Let me offer bits of wisdom to guide this debate from two people who knew a lot more than these guys.
I was standing at a urinal in the old City Hall when I was aware that next to me, in an unguarded moment, was one of the mightiest politicians then in Ontario, Frederick Goldwyn Gardiner.
Before Gardiner was just a name on an expressway, he dominated urban politics as the Metro chairman who in his spare time helped decide who would be the next Tory premier. He was formidable. You called him Mister. There was a whispered nickname of Bullmoose. Yet he tolerated the press and even routinely gave us rides to meetings in his limousine.
His office and the office shared by the three newspapers shared an air duct. After the week's work ended one Friday, we were having a noisy party. Gardiner's faithful secretary appeared and read from her steno pad: "I am trying to borrow $100 million for the city from some New York money boys and because of the racket from you mongoloid apes, I can't hear them." So we shut up. Ten minutes later, she came back."Mr. Gardiner said he's got the money and you can start your damn drunken noise again."
As the kid on the City Hall beat, I didn't get many chances to talk to such a power house. So I took advantage of our washroom encounter. "Tell me, sir," I got out, "why did you just say at the planning meeting that Eglinton was the most important street in the city?" "Because young man," he rumbled, "no major street goes through more suburbs and the city. Just look at the map. You can just see how important it is."
Now let's recall the old and interminable debate about the routing of the Spadina subway and whether it should have been tunneled under the ravine near Bathurst and St. Clair or just run through it.
I was more impressed than the politicians were by the argument of Hans Blumenfeld, then the deputy planning commissioner and an intriguing gnome. (He would have been the top man except he came with a communist tinge as one of the chief planners of Moscow and Philadelphia.) Blumenfeld argued that it didn't make a lot of sense for the TTC to keep burying its transit because not only was it more costly, transit riders had as much right as anyone else to look around at trees and grass and sky.
Except, of course, the NIMBY zealots wanted to have as much of the municipal infrastructure as possible where they couldn't see it. It didn't matter if thousands of TTC riders could enjoy looking at the leafy escape of a ravine. It would hurt the hikers, and, oh yes, some homeowners. I thought of Blumenfeld every time I argued that the workhorse Gardiner expressway should not be torn down and replaced just because the downtown condo industry thought it was an eyesore. The drivers have just as much of a right to enjoy the view as the officer workers, tenants and owners crammed into the buildings shoehorned beside the expressway which is one of the city's most important roads.
Now the idea is being floated about elevated transit. Since Mayor Rob Ford properly wants to reduce the amount of roadway devoured by new transit, you can either go under or over.
And before the predictable crap starts flying about eyesores, remember that Els are hardly radical innovations but have been around for a century or more. Except now both the elevated tracks and the trains can look more graceful because of all the advances in construction and technology.
An Eglinton Crosstown makes a lot of sense. It made sense in Gardiner's day, and it makes sense today instead of extending that stupid expensive stub of a subway on Sheppard.
Ironically, Torontonians smugly consider themselves as living in a superior city when there are cities throughout the world that make our roads and transit look like we are mired in a horse-and-buggy pothole. And elevated roads and transit are part of their cities.
Once again, this should be a case of taking the high road. Not only is it superior, it has a better view.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

GREAT SUCCESS OF RUNNYMEDE HEALTHCARE CENTRE


SURVIVING THE GAUNTLET

There is nothing as grand as the re-opening of a hospital which has had more death notices than those who have passed to a cemetery.
Its survival is a medical miracle, a tribute to the intense work of staff, volunteers and a host of ghosts whom I'm sure smiled and high-fived each other as they peered down at the ceremony.
In a way, they were the ghosts of Christmas past who didn't want an old converted school doing good work to vanish into the mists of history.
Christmas has always been a grand time at what we used to call Runnymede Chronic Care Hospital. There must be moments of sad nostalgia for patients but the food has always been wonderful. One thing I enjoyed as a director, besides the staff's happy enthusiasm, were the meals, the best of any hospital I've ever tasted. And the kitchen staff surpasses themselves at Christmas.
It was two decades ago that I joined the board. The provincial health ministry had just talked, again, about closing it down. And for most of the years that followed, there was an obstacle or eviction notice to match every gain.
What was frustrating was the waltz of the health ministers of ALL parties who praised the service and talked a great game about how Runnymede should evolve into a new facility because, after all, it combined a marvelous atmosphere, free of the usual smells of an antiquated chronic care facility, with efficiency and care.
As a columnist and editor, I was part of a trusty band of their lobbyists who would meet with any politician who dared open their door even a crack. We never were confronted with hostility and proof the hospital wasn't doing a good job, but real help never came.
When Deb Matthews, minister of health and long-term care, cut the ribbon just before 10 a.m. on Dec. 8, she was merely the latest of ministers who stretched back to the failed promises of Elinor Caplan, the Grit who kept a Runnymede poster in her office but never gave us a buck, Ruth Grier, the new Democrat who praised us, but....to Tories like Jim Wilson, Cam Jackson, and Tony Clement who also were filled with blarney rather than bucks.
Then David Caplan, the son, who remembered his mother's poster, really delivered. In a tortuous process that would take a book to detail, Runnymede was promised around $60 million for a 210-bed facility through the hidden work of his chief staffer, Ross Parry, and Parry's former political boss, Morley Kells (Neither of whom have ever been to the hospital.)
We had to keep our mouths shut because of the smoke drifting from the battlefield where every prominent director in the land fired barrages demanding help for their facility. Who did what to whom makes for heated discussions. All I know is that by the time confusion emerged out of chaos, Runnymede ended up with a 200-bed hospital fully equipped with all the latest. And it owes nothing, the $90 million cost being covered by $75 million from Queen's Park and $14 million from the community.
Connie Dejak, the Runnymede veteran of 25 years who runs the hospital, points out proudly that her hospital is the only one to fulfill its financial commitment of community involvement. That's due to the wonderful fund-raising by Peter Harris. (At one point I was fund-raising chair, my most disastrous public chore.)
In 1995, I wrote a column midst yet another crisis for Ontario hospitals where I had a scoop on hospitals to be closed, merged or curbed. (I recall criticizing the operation of St. Mikes, which produced an angry defensive memo from my publisher who was on that board.)
I wrote: "Runnymede is the only hospital in the province never to close a bed during the budget cutting. It is either the best in operating economically, or nearly there, and it generally has the heaviest patient care load." I pointed out, before swiping at St. Mike's "supposed" improved handling of its debts, that the Runnymede community had raised its share of costs of a new facility while the ministry had reneged for seven years.
The original building was the Strathcona Public School that opened in 1908. As World War Two ended, it became a city chronic care hospital, first of all for veterans, and then endured through the years with around 100 patients jammed into the old classrooms. When Queen's Park established a hospital restructuring commission to sort out the enormous problem of hospital funding, the commission, to some surprise, actually recommended that chronic care be eliminated, that the needy patients be looked after either by acute care hospitals (where they were bed blockers at a crisis in bed shortages and staff preferred to work elsewhere in the hospital) or in nursing homes (that neither had the facilities or medical staff to care for and feed incontinent wheelchair-bound patients.)
To illustrate the seriousness of the bed blocker problem that still exists, the latest survey of Canadian hospital showed that on any given day, there are 7,550 beds in acute care hospitals occupied by patients waiting for beds in other facilities, whether they're call chronic care, continuing care or long-term care.
Fortunately, this is easing just as a major problem for Ontario has become its graying population where patients with several major medical problems are living longer and their needs just can't be met in their home or homes for the aged. In regular hospitals, they would occupy a badly needed bed for the rest of their lives.
This minister arrived with $8 million more so that Runnymede can handle another 57 patients. So times are good, after 50 years of waiting for someone, anyone, to deliver a new building, whether it be the health minister or even Santa.
I thought of the many not there for the ceremony, my Christmas ghosts, who had yearned for this day, from Dr. Jeff Mainprize (a famous west-end name in medicine and pharmacy) Judy Malcom, Marian Maloney, Joe Cruden, and Dick Perry. Board politics haven't always been smooth so there were others missing because of the fights, like Norm Allaire, Terry Creighton, Barry Laver and Charlie Reid. There have been many changes in only a few years. I know only a third of the directors and only half of my fellow members of the corporation.
I closed that column 15 years ago with a plea that the provincial government be fair and wise as it rewarded and closed and changed the hospitals which devour such a huge share of its budget. 'Let's reward the hospitals which have been run well," I said. And so it has, so take a bow, McGuinty government, Connie Dejak, board chair George Cushing and Dr. Stephen Ng, the medical chief.
How nice it is to write that for once the good guys won.


Friday, December 10, 2010

SO WHAT BUGS YOU????


KEVIN O'LEARY AND OTHER BEEFS

I don't mind the cursing on TV. Most of the time they bleep it, but if it gets through, so what? You hear worst floating out of the school yard at recess.
What I do mind is when jerks like Kevin O'Leary call people cockroaches just because they came on the CBC TV show called Dragons' Den and had the temerity to present their scheme not the way O'Leary wanted. So they're called a gross insect.
Actually, it is O'Leary that should be careful because his preening bombast resembles the chest-thumping of a gorilla except, of course, a gorilla has much more hair. His colleagues are generally more sympathetic even to the cockeyed proposals, especially when they're embarrassed by O'Leary. And this is a panel of self-confident individuals used to fawning attention from the poorer folk.
Now O'Leary is hardly a wordsmith. In fact, English may be his fourth language. He is boringly shallow in his attacks on government spending, which is amazing when you consider the target is so easy and enormous. So his amateurish trash talking, copying dumb super athletes and dumber talking heads, is rather silly.
As a veteran columnist and editor, I have never called anyone a cockroach, nor would I allow anyone else to say that. I had a contract for weekly commentary on CBC Radio for more than 10 years, and also was on dozens of political panel shows on CBC, CTV and Global. I was considered a blunt talker, but if I started slanging people that way, not only would any cockroach-like comment not make it to air, I wouldn't have been invited back.
The problem for O'Leary and commentators like him who crave attention is they have to tart up their aggression and dumb down any pretence of intellect if they are to compete with all the talking heads and desperate bloggers and columnists who figure the only to become famous is to be the meanest mouth on the block.
So they flame everyone with acid and insults as if they're a failing comic at a roast.
I used to have would-be columnists send in submissions that slighted everything and everyone. I told them that if I wanted a rant I would write it myself because it didn't take any time, research or insight.
I suspect that O'Leary will eventually crash like a spent meterorite because the public will tire of his bombast and goosed rhetoric. Too bad because hidden somewhere below the bald bluster must be a clever person because, after all, just ask him, he's made a lot of money.

RISING REAL ESTATE NOT GREAT FOR ALL

The famous business lady was pleased to report that it was expected there would be a slight increase in 2011 in real estate prices. Thank heavens was her attitude. The sky isn't falling for realtors and builders.
Since I really don't care that much for realtors and builders, I didn't smile. What I did was wonder whether the famous business lady had ever had to raid even the piggy banks when she bought a house.
I have. Mary and I literally ended up without a cent in the house just to make the down payment. I hoped my lawyer, who was a famous politician, wouldn't charge me the going rate but she did and we ate a lot of hamburger helper before we could pay her. My down payment was 22% of the cost of the house. The house now is worth 17 times what I paid for it. I scraped and paid the mortgage off in 10 years by working at a second newspaper job and accepting every hour of overtime ever offered before I became a boss.
So I worry more about the people wanting to buy a home than the people selling one. After all, since buying rather than renting is one of the most important things a family can do to keep financially healthy, it's more important that prices are stable rather than climbing up and up and seducing all the millions of people now in trouble in North America because they bought more house than they could afford hoping that rising markets would justify the gamble.

RUN, DON'T WALK

The other day, I had to cross the expanse of University Ave. I walked as fast as possible when the light changed and got to the other side just as the light changed again.
Just how do really old people or ones who lack the mobility of a race horse manage it. The answer, of course, is that they don't. They have to wait in the centre or attempt a feeble run. For example, there is no way my wife can keep up with me when I have to canter across a ceremonial avenue.
There once was a good City Hall columnist, Ron Haggart, who in between his lengthy columns packed with details would take a populist look at the malfunctioning of the municipal infrastructure. For example, he timed traffic lights. It's several decades later but the pedestrian is still hampered at too many lights. Then there are intersections with the lights set to give too much time to traffic moving in one direction. So we learn to avoid them, thus screwing up the flow of traffic.
Now we have the ascendancy of Mayor Rob Ford and many sensible politicians who don't think we should continue to screw up our lights just to handicap traffic. And they'll give pedestrians a break too, knowing that not everyone gets to ride in a cab like the socialists who scorn the private car.
I encourage you to report your worst examples of traffic light timing to your councillor. Since we need to do a block-by-block review of our traffic flow to reverse the damage done by the anti-car majority of council, let's cure the worst intersections first.

SOUNDS PETTY BUT IT'S ANNOYING

Why can't we just walk down a street without doing a zigzag dance around all the meandering obstacles?
Now there are few things easier than taking a walk. Just strolling along, happy you're doing something healthy, looking around at the neighbourhood which you never really see when you're zipping by in the car or on the bus.
Why is it that so many people haven't figured out that you pass on the right when you're walking, just like you do while driving. You're ambling along Yonge. There's a woman balancing a tower of boxes marching right into you because you, stupid sod, don't realize you're blocking her as she tries to pass on the left.
I know they don't teach this at school because, I guess, it's too simple. You see the results whenever some junior classes go on an excursion. Any silly adult trying to use the same sidewalk has to wade through the kids, teachers and parents riding shotgun.
Cows are more orderly heading to the barn for milking. But I better be careful. I'm not competing with Mr. Bald Bluster to be a rudeness king.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I COST YOU MONEY


CONFESSION GOOD FOR THE SOUL

Toronto council just voted to stop giving tea and cookies to the politicians, officials and their buddies during council and committee meetings. I confess I was the one that got the coffee break started 50 years ago.
And while I'm confessing to costing the city a lot of money, estimated now at $48,000 annually, let me add that I'm also the guy who got the admission charge eliminated for routine use of pools and rinks. Let the boos turn to cheers!
It was a weary council meeting around 1960 in the old council chamber where the three reporters - that was all there were at most meetings - sat inside the horseshoe of desks. All the reporters for the Tely, Star and Globe had to do to talk to aldermen was to walk a few feet to their desk and as long as you bent and didn't interfere with sight lines, you were ignored.
It was late in the day and I had the munchies. Of course, I had the munchies. I lived in a boarding house on Alexander St. without even a fridge so if I couldn't keep the food outside on the window sill, I had to eat it immediately. Limited my diet.
So I snuck over to a little female alderman from downtown, May Birchard, and said that it was a wonder no one got ill because of long meetings without any caffein. I suggested coffee or tea would be nice, and maybe Peak Freans. So Ald. Birchard, egged on by me, stood up, interrupting a colleague, and said Mr. Mayor, we need coffee to help us get through these meetings.
Nathan Phillips was stunned. Sit down, he yelled. I whispered that she shouldn't be pushed around by the mayor. So she interrupted the debate again, and demanded coffee. The mayor glared and hammered the gavel in exasperate but Birchard kept talking and the mayor agreed just to shut her up..
She looked at me, pleased that she had got on the good side of the Tely. Then I repeated that cookies would be nice too. So she rose again, defiantly, and demanded cookies. It looked like Phillips was either going to have a stroke or evict her. Except she was little (but also tough as nails.) So he snapped there would be cookies too.
This expanded to committee meetings too. And now it has ended by a majority of only five votes. I say in my defence that I never visualized how tea and shortbread could be expanded into some of the city spreads which are only justified for really late or marathon meetings. And what's with all the hangers on who sipped too under a "coffee, tea or me" attitude by the pols.
I'm proudest of my idea one warm day after I read about a kid who had stolen empty pop bottles to get enough refund money so he could go swimming. I asked Don Summerville, a bantam rooster in debate, why should people have to pay to get into pools when it had been their taxes that built the pools in the first place. The city would save by not having to staff a ticket office. Summerville became a controller and later, briefly, the mayor (he died playing goal in a charity hockey game) precisely because he could run with a good idea.
I wrote a Page One story about what Summerville was going to propose. He wasn't even a member of the parks committee but he appeared before it, made the case using info I gathered about the cost of collecting admissions, and it passed easily. Council didn't dare say no. Then Summerville expanded the idea to free pleasure skating in the winter.
There's often a symbiotic relationship between the smart politicians and the smarter reporters. The media often make the bullets that the councillors fire. The reporters on the important City Hall beat used to spend more time withe politicians than with their own families. I talked to most of the 22 aldermen every day.
This relationship may have reached its stormy peak during the last decade of the Telegram-Star feud where for a minimum of three editions a day, the competition on the police and political beats was as intense as a cremation fire.
Taxpayers are lucky that most reporters' schemes weren't as expensive, say, as their publishers. Bob MacDonald, a fierce reporter who had worked for the Star, Tely and Sun, and bachelor colleagues, shared a rooming house where the landlady was always telling them what the city should do. One breakfast she told them that the best plan for future subway routes was to have a giant X with transit riders literally being brought from the four corners to the city centre.
Back in the 1960s, newspapers and reporters used to ride their pet schemes as if they were training for the Queen's Plate. Not only wasn't the X subway plan quickly dismissed by the transit commission and Metro council, for some months it had more support than the Bloor subway.
Looking back, I think it made more sense than the silly extension into Scarboro which cost double that of regular transit. This enormous waste was justified on the grounds it was a trial of new technology. Then there was that stupid stub of a Sheppard line, the billion-dollar mistake.
Neither goof was the idea of reporters. Mel Lastman and Paul Godfrey screwed those up on their own. And I comfort myself saying that all the tea and coffee and cookies didn't cost nearly as much as one stretch on those subways to nowhere. And just think of the happiness of all those kids who could skate or swim for free.
Unfortunately, too often the public and the media concentrate on the spending that is, comparatively, peanuts, when they should be spending 99% of their time on labour contracts with transit and police, which spends hundreds of millions each year, or on killing the fair wage policy, which prevents taxpayers from never getting lower costs in building anything.
They criticize the rain drops and ignore the flood.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

MORE PROOF THAT MPAC IS SCREWED UP


THIS NONSENSE MUST END

As one headline put it, "It's deja vu all over again for watchdog."
If only it was wrong. If only Auditor General Jim McCarter was wrong.
His latest report is the usual recitation of waste and inefficiency by the Ontario Government, just as the watchdogs that have come before, both at Queen's Park and at Ottawa, have been barking at bureaucratic stupidity and gross mismanagement since, it seems, we have had such watchdogs. Why doesn't someone bite?
Once upon a time, the legendary Casey Stengel, of wacky baseball memory, coined a wonderful expression after watching his players fail at every part of the game, including catching routine flies. "Can't anyone here play this game?" It's a question we should ask our (un)civil servants.
When it comes to adding 2 plus 2 and getting, maybe five, or six or seven, - or let's hire a consultant at $200 an hour and ask them - the boss bureaucrats of Canada have no peer. We goggle at the corruption in foreign governments and yet, at the end of the day, perhaps they spend less than ours do.
Let's deal with just one part of McCarter's report, the proof once again from yet another check on the functions of the government and its agencies that the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. couldn't give you the real market value of a doghouse, let alone your home.
So why is that important? Because MPAC provides the assessment figure, basically the market value of your home, which is a fundamental part of the determination of your municipal taxes that you pay directly on your home or indirectly through your rent. It's also important because it's hardly news that MPAC is screwing up. Just about everyone in government says so. Even the Ontario Ombudsman said so in 2006.
And if you don't believe me, or the government watchdog, or the ombudsman, just scan newspapers where they give you the basic real estate details on several featured houses, including taxes and what they sold for.
If you aren't shocked at how low the taxes are on some of those houses, compared to what you pay, or if you don't wonder at how high some of the taxes are, then you aren't reading the papers that I am.

McCarter reported that there were "substantial variations" between MPAC's assessment and actual resale prices. He said the selling price of one out of eight homes of the 11,500 sampled across the province differed from MPAC's figures by more than 20%. Half were way too low, meaning those lucky home owners are getting a bargain paid for by their neighbours, and half were way too high. There's a 12.5% chance that your property taxes are wrong.
The illustration to the left is borrowed from a public service union which was worried last year that its MPAC members would be blamed for bad service when the problem was caused by failures of too many computers. Which may explain my problems when I used a Mac in my dealings with the PCs of MPAC.
I have saved the most galling part of this ineptitude for last. No, not the questionable expenses on dinners, golf clubs, iPods... The auditor said that when MPAC was given the fieldwork figures by his staff, it chose not to investigate the reasons or to make adjustments.
I wrote a column on Nov. 7 titled MPAC's RUINING COTTAGE LIFE on how I had won two appeals against the agency's figures. I also wrote on Dec. 20, 2008, titled TAXING FOR THE FUTURE WHILE LIVING IN THE PAST. Then there was a column on Dec. 14, 2008, titled FAILING TO SUBTRACT WHILE ADDING IN COTTAGE TAXES.
Even though I achieved improvements, I found dealing with MPAC's staffers to be frustrating, confusing and a huge consumer of time and effort. Obviously Ontario's auditor general and his staff did too.

Friday, December 3, 2010

LET SALVATION ARMY RING THE CHRISTMAS BELLS


BOYCOTT THOSE WHO TRASH CHRISTMAS

The little Salvation Army lady at the door of the swarming Costco store in southern Etobicoke used to ring small bells to encourage people to come to her traditional kettle and contribute to all the wonderful good the Sally Ann does every day.
She hasn't been able to do that for years. 'They don't like it," she said, meaning Costco bureaucrats. I said I wouldn't swear and offend her sensibilities by saying what I thought of idiots who would ban the tinkle of silver bells..
But I can now. Let's call them a fundamental part of an ass. Oh, is that too Biblical? Let's say a donkey's patootie! But why point out that they are bigots and politically correct nerds who really don't understand the tolerant Toronto communities when they've already proved that by banning a simple instrument of joy. After all, they are little bells or a small hand-held school bell, not gongs or sirens.
Now she didn't volunteer that info about the ban. I asked, because of the Toronto Star story about the ban on bells beside the Sally Ann kettles inside the giant Eaton Centre. And there has been the usual rash of stories about Sally Ann officers/ volunteers being ordered out or even to keep off the sidewalk in front of shops.
Santa keeps a list of who's been naughty or nice. I think we should too. (There's a list on the Internet of what chains like Christmas and those that say humbug.) We should keep a boycott list and email complaints about any bans.
We can always shop at Scarboro Town Centre or Yorkdale Mall where the managers welcome the bells and kettles. After all, they're cheaper than parking at the Eaton Centre. And it's easy to try alternatives to the Costco zoos, particularly after the Etobicoke one just sold me a roast chicken with only one leg.
Let's not forget that boycotts and protests do work. After a week of being roasted by shoppers and the media, the operators of the Eaton Centre and other shopping conglomerations announced that the Sally Ann bells could ring again. And there was a nice celebration at the Centre as the Salvation Army gave away more than 500 bells to Christmas shoppers.
Let's not let the Cadillac Fairview boys try to wiggle off the hook like a fat worm. The muddled explanation was that a previous management had banned the bells and the current staff didn't know about it. Oh sure! The ban has been in effect for eight years because of complaints made eight years ago. Oh sure!
What has happened is that the plaza people were happy to have the ban because the public and media hadn't made too big of a fuss and the courteous Salvation Army brass wouldn't complain or lobby. So the few sour jerks who had made the original complaints won for eight years.
Can't the zealots and the PC kneejerks get it through their prejudice. Christmas is a wonderful large ball of nostalgia and customs that bounces around happily in many homes where there are no Bibles. It's not just a Christian celebration. It has long been honoured by people who have never been inside a church and worship sort of a Coca Cola version of St. Nick. There is plenty to celebrate at Christmas without mentioning the cradle, although I wonder why creches are seen as so threatening.
The basic message of Christmas, of "peace on earth good will to all" surely is acceptable to all faiths and people of no faith. Of course terrorists and arm dealers would not be that agreeable. Or those who make their living posturing or stirring up hate.
It offended me when I went across the street to Sunnylea school and watched a "holiday" pageant where there was more about Jews, blacks and Muslims than Christmas. I wrote about it on Dec. 8, 2008, in a blog titled It's Okay To Say Christmas Even At Sunnylea School.
As much as I love the soaring songs of Christmas, and a concert of carols will transport me to a past where sleigh bells were for real, I also love the icons of the season that have nothing to do with the Bible. It's easy to defend Santa Claus even in Toronto schools where they are more terrified by Christmas than they are of any proposal to freeze salaries. After all, Santa is a jolly commercial creation based on a nice poem and ancestors in Turkey and Holland. (I've often played Santa and wrote a blog on Dec. 5. 2009, titled I Got Fired As Santa.)
It must not be forgotten by those of us who hate any interference with the good soldiers of the Salvation Army that this bell ban hurts their efforts to raise money during a season when demand for their charity peaks. And it's tough times for even the queen of the charities to raise funds. (Protectors of the Army must be vigilant. We even had a dumb move years ago at City Hall to ban the Sally Ann from Nathan Phillips Square. That was squelched by a tsunami of indignation.)
I grew up with good will towards the Army because my Dutch grandparents, mother and aunts, were brought here by the Army to flee religious persecution.
As a kid reporter, I was assigned within a week of my being hired in 1958 by the Toronto Telegram to collect for the Army in its May campaign. I was surrounded by legendary writers and editors who all seemed decades older even when they weren't. I was terrified, just trying to hold on to a summer job. And so I approached my first reporter, a red-faced profane cigar-smoking police reporter named Howard Rutsey who was covering famous stories before I was born. 'What do you want, kid?" he snarled. He scared the hell out of me. I managed to get out that I was collecting for the Salvation Army. He stood, peeled $50 off a roll of bills (which is what I was taking home a week) and declined a receipt, saying the Sally Ann did more good than any other organization in the world.
I remember working for both the Red Cross and Salvation Army cleaning up after Hurricane Hazel and learned early that Rutsey was right. This was reinforced during their fund drives, where people of all religions and no religion volunteer to knock on your door. No organization commands more respect because it is a gentle courteous missionary movement that doesn't force its faith on you in exchange for its compassion.
If they don't let the Sally Ann tinkle their bells and place their kettles wherever it wants, we should take the offending officials and tie them in a belfry somewhere and let them listen, close up, to some really big bells of Christmas. Why do I think of that Wizard of Oz song about
"Ding-Dong! The witch is dead." At least they've killed another one at the Eaton Centre.