Monday, April 29, 2013



With no due respect, I wonder if the city lawyers are right when they say that a casino can be built at Exhibition Place and its tangled history has been cleared by city legislation.
The reason I wonder is at least one muncipal law expert wonders what would happen if some citizen or councillor took the issue to court. Admittedly, back in 1879 when it all began, casinos were more of the Wild West, redeye-at-the-bar variety. So the federal government couldn't have envisioned that much of the public land known as the Garrison Common that the cabinet was giving the city for fairs, demonstrations and park was going to be consumed by a giant foreign casino complex where the object is not to entertain but to extract tens of millions from Torontonians.
I'm sure that skyscrapers filled with lawyers billing hundreds per minute will say that it's all just peachy legally. But not all lawyers will agree. After all,  a Canadian bank  refused to finance entrepreneurs who wanted to build a major project at the Ex because its lawyers didn't like the grey questions around  three versions of the city acquiring the land for fun and parks.
And these entrepreneurs were rich and could have paid for it themselves. Except that's not the way these entrepreneurs got rich.
I have raised these questions over the years as a governor of Exhibition Place (EP) and a director of the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) . When I was vice-chair of EP and CNE president, the answers were the same as when I was just one of the guys. No problem,  I was told. But what about the legal opinion given the entrepreneurs? Since EP was run by a lawyer on loan from City Hall, I would have accepted the reassurances except they were general and vague and not specific and definite as if they were carved in stone.
Alan Tonks, then Metro chairman and now Liberal MP, went off to Ottawa to talk about the ownership and various uses. I wondered why he had to clear the air, so to speak, when  the city legal report this year dated Feb. 6 insists that since 1954, when the downtown council gave the Ex to the Metro regional government because it didn't want to pay for it,  the city can use the park, now legally called a place, for any purpose.
 That's in addition to a list of stated uses including parks, exhibitions and fairs in addition to sports and public entertainment. Ironically, this latest version of city council is compelled by its own act to hold an annual fair. Since the city through EP management keeps making this difficult, it will be interesting if EP covers most of the site with buildings that the fair can't use, what the city will then do for a fair.
Of course the fair became independent from the city on April 1, April Fool's Day, which certainly captures how the fair directors felt they were treated by the city.
I'm hardly opposed to casinos. I moved the motion for the fair to have one and was involved in the early discussions with Queen's Park over this, since the city officially was and still is opposed to year-round casinos.
A casino on the waterfront would be great. There's plenty of locations for one without jamming it in EP, which would kill the fair. It's not important to me whether any reader ever goes go to the Ex, or says stupidly that there's never anything new there. The key question is why ruin a fair that doesn't cost the city a cent, in fact pays millions to the city in rent and various charges, when there are expanses of land where even a pothole would be an improvement?
Remember that I'm not a lawyer. Thank God. But I hate reading a city legal report that pretends that there hasn't been major concerns and that if the city really screws around with the place, anappeal could go to the courts or the Commons.
The picture above of the Princes' Gates is a symbol to me of the BS and downright rudeness that has been turned on the CNE for daring to point out that a casino complex would kill the Ex and that the only reason there is an EP today is because of an entire century when directors drawn from all over Southern Ontario built the Ex and ran the Ex while Toronto councillors pleaded for free meals and passes and drinks. They  interfered so much with the politics of the Ex that Paul Godfrey, the Metro chairman who now presides over lotteries and overpays his staff,  and Bill Davis, one of our best premiers ever, changed the provincial act about how the Ex is run just in case they wanted to build a domed stadium there free of city opposition.
The confusion over who runs what down there, which baffles too many directors and governors, should be blamed on those Tory Twins who took a fine organization and crippled it.
Lately, of course, casino propagandists have slapped this image on their proposals and then some jerk councillor got upset when the CNE complained legally that no one had any right to presume to use the images and history and reputation of the CNE without the fair's blessing.
The fair may be the only outfit at the table with clean hands. Ironically, too many governors, EP brass and city councillors are the ones acting like carnies.

Saturday, April 20, 2013



It was going to be one of those nice achievements where the parents feel as good as the son who accomplished the feat.  John Henry was running the Boston Marathon.
Who knew that at the end of the fabled race that he and his wife and son would be dancing with the devils. The Boston Marathon will now be remembered as the bloody marathon.
They survived, intact,  except for memories of the bloody marathon they will carry forever. It was 2.50 p..m. on April 16 when life changed for them and for Boston.
I gave his background on Jan. 18 in a blog titled Marathon of a Vanished Life. My son was celebrating his 51st birthday by running with the Leukemia team in memory of my mother who died from the disease 21 years before he was born.
So there he was, tired, in the final stretch, with the finish line almost in sight, where his wife Marie and son John Henry Francis, 22, waited loyally, to hug him and congratulate him on his best time as an experienced runner, and then take him to the hotel where he would ache and decompress like a deep sea diver.

Marie describes the picture which was taken by my grandson seconds before the blast, one of his pictures given to the FBI.  She has her back turned,  left of the centre under the South African flag, a red bag over her shoulder, checking the official clock.
 Off to her right,  there are the three yellow balloons, significant in the investigation because videos showed they are being carried just ahead of the terrorists.
This is what she wrote a day later, at times flashing back to the middle of the agony: "The first blast occurred about six flags down from where I am standing. I was extremely lucky as I was about to move there. My son was about 20 feet away, having just taken this shot.
"Then.... I hear a cannon blast and everything starts changing.The power of the blast knocked me to the ground. The smell was of gun powder . The smoke was engulfing the crowd.
"It took a couple of seconds before I could get up. I was disoriented and confused. I looked to my left, everyone was running away, looked to my right, and saw carnage and blood. Blood was everywhere. What sticks to my mind are the bloody foot prints leading away. I have no injury, except for the ringing in my ear and a sore scalp from the explosion blast. I can't understand why I cannot hear my own screaming. I am screaming my son's name over and over.
"He was running in circles, trying to locate me, because he could not see me. Once we found each other, he turned back to help the victims, some of whom were in pieces. The cops were screaming for us to leave ASAP as there might be other bombs. They were as forceful as if they were on adrenaline. Then they started tearing up the barrier trying to get to the victims.'
"My son took charge, manhandling me away, I was screaming my husband's name in hysterics, thinking I would see a crater in the road from the blast. I knew he was moments away from the finish line and in real danger. We tried phoning him several time, but the cell lines were overloaded. We finally found out he was okay through an iPhone app called 'life 360'.
"My son  told his dad to stop running and to meet us at the hotel. Took us 30 minutes to walk to our hotel. John joined us within 15 minutes. Was beyond relief to see him."
John Henry didn't need his son to tell  him to stop running towards the wounds and confusion, an instant  wall of police stopped all the runners. He finished by hobbling along a parallel street, Commonwealth Ave. His time is a personal record, 23 minutes ahead of all his other races. A time he hopes to beat when he runs in his final marathon near  his  home south of L.A. in a few weeks.
Marie phoned to tell me they were okay while the smoke still drifted. I knew nothing of the bombing but I could tell from her voice that it was really bad.
Then my grandson took to the Internet to write "me and family ok in boston."
The next day, John Henry and Marie went to the finish line that the bombers and police had prevented him from crossing. And he got his medal.
They didn't know yet just how close it really had been for Marie. Luckily my grandson wasn't hunting for a better vantage point to get a good picture of dad because he would have gone into the area of death and destruction.
My son Brett, a programming expert who can dazzle with what he can coax out of computers, co-ordinated scene pictures from every source with what my grandson had taken. He calculates there were just three people between Marie and the hail of amateur but deadly shrapnel that sliced through the crowd just to her right like battle axes.
These Downings don't believe in premonition but the flight from Orange County in California had been the kind you want to forget - a roller coaster ride so rough, the flight was aborted like a bird with a damaged wing and they spent much of a day in Washington instead.
After all the training and planning and fund raising, the bloody marathon almost seemed a happy routine just over four hours into the race. The special digital clock that Marie was checking was about to read  4.09.49. All around her in the picture the expectant crowd craned to see "their runners," their loved ones. As Marie wrote later: "The victims are in this crowd, their lives about to change within seconds. Why?"


Wednesday, April 10, 2013



The other night, the Liberals were honouring the 50th anniversary of Mike Pearson becoming PM, which gave me a chance to chide another former PM, Jean Chretien, for turning me down when I asked him to be a Sun columnist.
Chretien took a break from "earning a living'' to spend time at U of T with academics and Grits remembering Pearson. Then he was at a private dinner also remembering the baseball nut who became PM before he flitted off again. At 79, there's no sign the "petit gars de Shawinigan" is slowing to a retired pace.
I fetched him a drink at the private function which I can't describe because it was off-the-record. So I can't tell you that he gave an impromptu witty speech which managed to lament the passage of the nicer days of Parliament while taking a swipe without names about MPs not being able to speak out whenever they wanted.
I would continue but it was off-the-record, which wouldn't have stopped all the Grits from shooting off their mouth about the event to all their friends who weren't lucky enough to make the cut.
Fortunately we were chatting before the cloak dropped.  I was surprised that there was no need to refresh Chretien's memory about the job offer because,  I suppose,  he first hought it strange at the time and faithful Sun readers would have been apoplectic.
I hasten to add it hadn't been my idea but it grew on me. Chretien had just retired because of that defeat by John Turner and he was riding the crest of popularity over his unlikely bestseller Straight From The Heart.  So his publisher Anna Porter had a party for the book he wrote with Ron Graham at the old Campbell House on University.
It was Doug Creighton's idea when he found out that I was going to the reception that Chretien as a Sun columnist would be like a rock through a stained glass window for our readers but it might actually get more Liberals to buy the tabloid they loved to hate. So he told me to make the pitch.
As the new Editor, I wasn't about to say no to the founding publisher but I was mortified at the prospect of being made to look like a fool when an agile parliamentarian rejected me with ridicule.
I agonized over the approach because Chretien was always ringed by admirers. But by some miracle, we ended up at the end of the bar at the same time looking for replenishment. So I introduced myself and said we thought he would be a provocative addition to our barrage of columnists.
He laughed and laughed. He turned away and shouted at some party workers that "Downing here wants me to be a Sun columnist. How ridiculous is that?"
The hell with this,  I thought. But in for a penny, in for a pound. So I persisted, pointing out that I doubted he had really retired from politics and this would be a useful way to keep his name and his thoughts before the people. Much better, I pointed out, than if he was in the Star because people wouldn't find that remarkable.
This gave Chretien pause. His amiable scorn started to evaporate. He was thinking about it, egged on by two insiders he had roped into the conversation who thought it was a "helluva idea," providing I wasn't pulling a stunt.
Then Porter called on him for a speech and he left me. He promised to think about it and call me from Montreal. He never did.
Except it turns out the idea didn't die. Chretien told me the other night that there had been a proposal to match his new Liberal column in the Sun with a new Conservative column by Peter Loughead, who had just retired as Alberta premier.
And then I remembered that the Porters - Anna, the publisher, and Julian, the noted libel lawyer and   son of Tory royalty - for years hosted receptions in their home for all the big shots of Alberta.  So that must have been the hothouse for the Chretien-Loughead duet in opinion.
It has always surprised me that Chretien's book was such a huge success. Was it due to him or Graham?So I asked how it all came about. He said that Anna, the head of Key Porter Books, told him she thought he had a good book in him. "I told her Madam I am not a writer. She asked again. I said Madam I don't write books. And she asked again. I said Madam I am a lawyer. And she asked again. I said Madam I am retired from politics. And she wrote a cheque. And I wrote a book."
It would be a mistake to think Chretien disliked everything about the Sun because he had a special relationship with Doug Fisher, the legendary Sun political columnist after he defeated a Liberal giant, C.D. Howe, and become an MP.  Chretien said when he arrived on Parliament Hill in 1963 as the nervous rookie MP from Saint-Maurice-Lafleche, he was the uncomfortable outsider from small-town Quebec in an English city. "The very first person I saw was Doug Fisher. And he took me everywhere and showed me everything. He didn't speak much French and I didn't speak much English but I never forgot that."
Chretien is proud of how many books he sold. When a Canadian book sells at least 2,500, it's called a best-seller. Chretien boasts that his book sold several hundred thousand. I wonder how many extra papers his column would have sold for us. I certainly wouldn't have looked forward to the mail.

Sunday, April 7, 2013



I read all the nice comments about Fergy Brown, who deserves any praise that anyone has to offer, but all I could think of after his death was the day he bombed a pub.
No, he bombed it, he didn't get bombed in it. No, not that day....
Fergy, the veteran York politician and mayor, was an agreeable delight at the big regional council of Metro. He knew political BS when he saw it. After all, he was from a very modest suburb that didn't have time for grandiose politics. But unlike too many Toronto politicians  (insert any name, there are hundreds) he would not explode into verbal histrionics but contented himself with a few cutting sentences
And a few bitter asides. He would make sure in the City Hall lounge tthat I had heard the crap too. Oh yes, he appeared a gentleman, and he sure was, but privately he had seen too much nonsense over the years from politicians who didn't give a damn for any voter. Everything was aimed at self-promotion so they could con the voters for another term.
Life wasn't easy for the immigrant kid who dropped out of York Memorial High School but, like many dropouts, rescued his life through military service. He joined the RCAF in 1942 and became a bomb aimer, what many call a bombardier. He was with 189 Squadron, 5 bomber group, when his crew went out on a training mission.
Decades later, Fergy would give an embarrassed laugh when I would coax him to tell the story again. He never went into detail but what he did that day was drop the practise bombs on a pub. No, not just any old pub but the one near the Lincolnshire air field. He wasn't exactly popular the next time the chaps went for a brew.
I joked that among his medals there should be a miniature beer stein.
And Fergy's medals were not exactly forgotten around the drug store he started after the war which became a neigbourhood centre where Fergy dispensed medicine and advice.
After all, York was the kind of place, from Mount Dennis up to the leafy streets of Weston, which was a great place to go to high school, as I did, where there were the kind of feuds and dynasties that you usually find in a town. There were the Tonks and the Nunziatas and Fergy vs. Phil White.
 Chris Tonks was a good mayor for several years until an undeserved scandal tarnished him and cost him the family home. His son Alan became York mayor and then Metro chairman and now is the area's Liberal MP.
Fergy kept tangling with Phil White, also a pharmacist. And White was one of the great jerks. I wrote a few times that when Fergy was off in the RCAF, White had removed himself to South America to avoid service. Not exactly a popular thing in the eastern area of York with the big synagogues of Beth Tzedec and Holy Blossom.
But White shrugged off my criticism of his war by saying I hated him. Which was true.  He lasted for eight years. Then Gayle Christie and Fergy, mayor from 1988 to 1994, made us forget the odour.
It turns out, however, that Fergy wasn't the only mayor from Toronto to accidentally drop bombs.
That came out when I was trying to unearth the details of one of the strangest flights from the Island Airport.
Allan Lamportl. Don Summerville and Eddie Sargent liked to get together and have a few "pops" and argue about the war and political idiots and just shoot the shit.
Lampy, of course, was the famous city politician who was mayor and is remembered now for his Lampoonisms and his name on a second-rate stadium.
 Summerville was briefly mayor before he died playing goal in a charity hockey game, and is remembered with his name on a big east-end pool. (His name is generally misspelled in flashbacks.)
And Sargent was mayor of Owen Sound before he became a Liberal MPP who kept getting expelled from the Legislature and is remembered with his name on a parkway. A picture of the pepper pot is on the right.
The trio were, as they say, overly refreshed one day when they rented a plane from the Wong brothers and proceeded to fly east without paying much attention to air traffic controllers while arguing about who was the better pilot. Apparently there was the occasional laughing scramble over the controls of the Cessna.
They spotted Petawawa and decided to plop in for a visit. They landed and found "Pet" virtually deserted. A point that Sargent made the next day during Question Period while the Tory benches kept pointing out that the government had nothing to do with military bases. Then Sargent was challenged for proof they had actually landed there. He produced the formal sheet of "Orders of the Day" which they had stolen off the main bulletin board.
The story didn't get much coverage by news reporters but to a daily columnist this was a tasty fruit cake. I kept probing Sargent, a stormy figure out of Grey County, and he finally, with a malicious grin, told me to ask Summerville about bombing the Ex.
Summerville confessed that on a bombing practise run in Toronto before he was sent overseas he did accidentally trigger the bombs too soon and dropped them on the Canadian National Exhibition rather than out in Lake Ontario. Fortunately the Ex was not on.
Summerville wasn't even mayor for a year but when he died, he got a rare state funeral, City Hall version. His bier was in the old council chamber, and even the Star, which didn't think Summerville was their type, said there was an extraordinary viewing. His wife Alice was an alderman for years because of the power of the Summerville name in the eastend where they had owned two theatres.
I talked to these four convivial mayors by the hour. What a rich life they had had. An hour with Lampy sipping his favourite champagne and me with a rum and coke was a delightful way to cover politics. But the only time the mayoral mad bombers got rather vague was when I asked about what damage they had inflicted and what discipline they received. But then they may not have been disciplined at all because the C.Os. were laughing so hard. Besides, they were practise bombs that didn't explode but were rather heavy to replicate aerodynamics. Still, they were the last thing you would want to come down on you while ordering another draft.