Saturday, December 27, 2014



The seeds for Canada being the honest broker of the talks that led to the thaw in the Cuban boycott by the U.S.  were sown in a remarkable visit in 1976 to the island. It was sandwiched between state visits to Venezuela and Mexico, like a prison between two meadows.
It starred the Three Mouthketeers of Fidel Castro, Pierre Trudeau, and Margaret with baby Michel on one hip when she hadn't lost him in Mexico.
What a trip! The press corps had a wonderful time. So did the islanders. The Cubans turned out by the tens of thousands  (although many were forced to.)  Canucks were more fun that the dour Soviets and their grim faces and  monolithic architecture. Secret police were obvious everywhere. You had to write down your currency transactions.
It was an Iron Curtain country floating in the Caribbean, which led to a zany touch to the coverage. There are still bizarre bits about that trip floating in myths soaked with Cuba libres.
For example, there was a story that Trudeau once tried as a youth to canoe to Cuba from the Florida keys.
For example, John Harbron, a professor and editor who had studied in Havana and boasted a personal relationship with Trudeau, told me the reason the PM's Spanish was so good is that he had attended university in Cuba too.
For example, a good source told me that one reason for the rapport between Castro and Trudeau, besides the fact that neither gave a damn about what anyone else thought, is that a Jesuit priest who had taught Trudeau and made a great impression was later one of Castro's teachers.
For example, the media left Margaret alone for a wacky week, despite her stunts, because we believed she was mentally ill. For starters, we wondered about postpartum depression because Michel was only four months old.
So we cut her a break, so to speak. It was an uneasy truce because after all Trudeau was thrusting both his wife and his son into our faces when he knew she was having problems. It got so bad that Castro at some points carted Michel around as if he was the babysitter.
Finally I discovered Margaret in the lobby of the Caracas Hilton, very sexy but also shouting curses at her husband's secretary. When I intervened, she unloaded on me. Turned out I knew more swear words. So she fled to the state banquet where she gave a Nazi salute as O Canada was played and turned her back in the receiving line.
Almost matched her giving Michel in Mexico to a young Canadian backpacker to cuddle and then wandering off, forgetting about him, which led to a frantic RCMP search.
On the plane trip home, I got her to sing childish songs that she had composed for the wives of the leaders of Venezuela and Mexico into the media microphones. The next day I was on TV to refute her claim that I had pledged it was off-the-record.
But back to diplomacy. Castro and Trudeau had open admiration for each other. Trudeau generally wouldn't speak to me but when I asked him about SCUBA diving with the Cuban dictator, he was almost giddy in his praise, saying that they had gone deeper than he had ever been before and that Castro and his bodyguards just cut the fish apart in the depths, not caring a whit about sharks.
Ironically, years later, another Canadian that made an impression on Castro also went SCUBA diving with him even though he wasn't experienced.
As James Bartleman, our former lieutenant-governor, says in one of his fascinating four books on his life as our ambassador to countries like Cuba, he went to clear his mask when he was with Castro and one of the bodyguards held him up out of the water so he could do that without difficulty.
Years later, after the able Bartleman had been a key advisor to Jean Chretien as PM, the Liberal government dispatched him back to Cuba for secret talks when Canada was trying to improve the relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Nothing much happened that time, Bartleman told me, even though he had had a relationship with Castro who had routinely dropped in on him unannounced and talked all night when he was stationed there. Bartleman said he was fascinated by the attention until he realized that Fidel was probably just looking for an audience. His feelings for the Cubans cooled a trifle when they poisoned his beloved dog.
Various partnerships between Canada and Cuba, even when the Soviet Union kept the island economy from drowning, have blossomed over the years, along with Canada being the largest source of tourists.
In recent years, the Americans dreamed up strange reasons for charter flights even though it was illegal technically for an ordinary Yank to visit.
 Yet Canada continued to be the major source of  tourism  from the entire world, and Canada continued to be the secret neutral territory when the two wanted to talk, all due to the personal chemistry 38 years ago between two dictators, a giddy dame and a drooling baby.


Sunday, December 21, 2014



The latest crusade by the CARP / Zoomer / Znaimer empire is for the feds and Revenue Canada to reduce the mandatory annual withdrawals from RIFs. Talk about a fat-cat crusade!
There are much more important and significant issues for pensioners. As I wrote recently, the way the CRA cheats us on the value of deductions we are allowed to make for medical bills and charitable donations is nothing more than a dead hand slapping wrinkled faces.
Throw in the health system, the economy, and charity too.
After all, surely more pensioners would continue the health insurance they enjoyed with their former company if they got a better break in deducting those high premiums. And that would help with those huge public health budgets because that would be beneficial in improving the general health of seniors who worry about the costs if they seek help for the latest malady.
As for charity, the deductions allowed are laughable, about as funny as the fact you get more when you donate to obese politicians and their parties.
Saying that we shouldn't be forced to withdraw the current percentage amounts from the RIFs after they are converted from RRSPs may concern those getting rich running the CARP business, because, remember, it is not a non-profit organization.
The forced deductions for many  are irritating but not a major concern. You can always take the withdrawals and deposit them as your annual $5,500 TFSA deduction and reap the benefits later when it is advantageous.
The New Classical 96.3 FM is a station I listen to, alternating with Jazz 91.1. What drives me away is those awful sugary testimonials for Marilyn Lightstone's program at night.
She is a talented woman and creates a delightful ambience despite some of the poetry being incomprehensible. I will try to forget her silly TV commentary that tried to take the Jesus out of Christmas by saying that festivals at this time of the year have been common through the ages. Of course, they were. But this one is based in Christianity despite this Jewish attempt to explain that away.
No doubt, however, we are bombarded with regular promotion for her because she lives with the boss of the Zoomer empire,  Moses Znaimer, the legend in his own mind, who is a great broadcaster but is known to be a controversial control freak.
Obviously he is upset about his compulsory RIF deposits.
I find the Zoomer empire fascinating, but not so fascinating as to take its crummy magazine run by Suzanne Boyd who calls herself elegant. Believe me, you're not elegant if you preen that way.
Then there's Susan Eng, who has settled down from when she wrecked relations with the police while running the police board. She states the obvious in her representations to government which are repeated ad nauseam by the Zoomer empire.
CARP is now just initials but started off as the Canadian Association of Retired People. Then Moses saw you could sell more memberships and insurance etc. if you broadened the reach. I heard hosts on the FM station, which is now the oldest "new" station in the world, talk about CARP issues being of interests to those in their 30s and 40s which is, of course, nonsense because younger people really have different concerns than seniors issues.
 So he went to initials and said it was an organization for those over 50,  although I notice the magazine, which I no longer inflict on my mailman, says it's aimed at 45 plus.
Moses is on to a good thing and keeps expanding. And despite my dislike for the idiosyncratic promotion of CARP and the Znaimer family in all the media he controls, I do wish him well, sort of.
After all, the clever investor, Prem Watsa, known as the Warren Buffet of Canada, owns 28% of the Zoomer empire through Fairfax. And Watsa, a modest man I have met a few times, is noted as being as smart at the legendary Buffet when it comes to buying into good companies. And  I do have a titch of the family fortune invested in the giant Fairfax financial empire.
So I wish you well, Moses. Just don't go wandering too long in the wilderness in your incessant drive to promote you and yours.

Friday, December 19, 2014



Gina and Paul Godfrey are one of the power couples at the centre of many major events in Toronto since 1970, familiar faces in politics, media, charity and society.
Now they are stepping away from one of their best ideas, the Herbie Fund, started in 1979 so that poor sick foreign kids can get a difficult operation in Toronto that would not be possible at home.
Their big annual event is the Mistletone Ball. The Godfreys announced weeks ago at the last one that they were retiring. Sure they are. I'll just bet that at next year's, Gina will be making suggestions in her friendly bulldozer manner.
When Godfrey arrived at the Toronto Sun in 1984 after resigning as Metro chairman, ending a wonderful reign as Canada's most important municipal politician, I worried about just how bad he would be with his "publisher's musts."
Because there are always more stories and pictures than there is space, the only way to ensure most days that the material dear to the heart of the publisher makes the paper is to mark it "publisher's must."
Any smart editor makes sure that everyone knows about these musts because even tolerant publishers, and both Doug Creighton and Godfrey demonstrated regularly that they could be understanding, expect that what they want in the paper gets in the paper or wotinhell is the point of being the boss.
So the Sun made sure that the latest grateful recipient of the Herbie Fund was covered well in the paper, and the ball itself received major treatment.
Around 1990, Mary and I went off to South Africa to a conference on whether the grisly grip of apartheid really was loosening. Such trips were a wonderful escape from publisher's musts and the daily incessant hooting of politicians.
I worked hard in Johannesburg, finishing each day in the best restaurant with whatever major black figure I could attract with a fine meal. One of them, Sam Mabe, was killed mysteriously shortly afterwards and became a national legend. Another was Dr. Nthato Motlana, a charismatic controversial figure who was one of the famous Soweto 10, a leading group in the ANC party fighting the Afrikaners. As a result, he was considered a long-shot to be the first black president if his boyhood friend Nelson Mandela didn't make it.
Motlana entered the restaurant like a conquering hero. I thought the maitre d' was going to prostrate himself. Waiters buzzed around like bees. He ordered the most expensive bottle of wine. I didn't mind because I knew the only reason he was dining with me, since he later became a multimillionaire, was he was getting a great free meal.
On the way home, we flew to Durban to interview some Christians being persecuted for fighting the ANC over its boycott of schools. This was interrupted by a phone call from Publisher Godfrey. On the way to work, he said, he had heard about Siamese twins being born in some place in South Africa called Soweto.
I said that was interesting but why was he calling me? Because Sick Kids had just done a very difficult separation of Siamese twins and he thought I should bring these twins to Toronto as part of the Herbie Fund and use the same expertise.
Could I look into it, Paul asked. I stared out over the Indian Ocean and contemplated lugging two joined babies all the way to Toronto. Then I remembered Dr. Motlana, one of the first GPs to practise in the giant black township of Soweto where he was a hero. I told Paul I had a contact and I would phone him.
Mary asked casually what was the call about, and became quite alarmed when I explained there was a possibility we would be carting two new babies on a very long trip.  She needed no explanation as to the Herbie Fund because she had been drafted as an early committee member.
The next morning, I phoned Dr. Motlana but his wife said he was out jogging, which amazed me. Just imagine! Running in the heat through the crowded streets of a slum of three million.
I explained the offer carefully when he called back. He was almost offended. After all, he reminded me, South Africa is a major country when it comes to health care. The first heart transplant is only one of its many accomplishments. The hospital in Soweto, nicknamed Bara, is the largest in the world  with 429 buildings covering 173 acres. Besides, he said, the government would never allow it.
I said Sick Kids also had a world reputation and had just done a similar complicated separation. I said I would tackle the government. I phoned an aide to the health minister whom I had interviewed at length a few days before ( I had taken that aide for a fine meal) and said it would make the government look good. He phoned back with tentative approval. It helped that I had praised his boss in my column.
I phoned Godfrey and said this was all going to cost a lot because the government insisted that at least one  nurse had to come too. Perhaps we should up the limit on the Sun's credit card. Godfrey agreed, already savouring the stories. No need for them to be a publisher's must.
I phoned Dr. Motlana and said that the Herbie Fund and the Sun would fly the mother, the babies and nurses to Toronto and look after all expenses. I said I would have the head doctor at Sick Kids phone him if he wished and repeat the assurances.
He said he would let me know because the hospital now was trying to assemble a large enough team because this was going to be a far more complicated operation than the normal separation of Siamese twins. I never spoke to him again even though years later I tried to contact him for an update.
We waited, but finally Mary and I flew home. Nearly two weeks later, there was a small story that 40 doctors working in teams over 10 hours had done the separation. The babies survived.
The next year at the Mistletone Ball, some jerk alderman came by the table and observed snidely how nice it was that the Godfreys had brought a few people from the Sun, not that we had much to do with the work of the Herbie Fund. "You'll never know," I said.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


I looked around at a trial run for the Christmas dinner and thought to my amazement that we all were well, especially Mary who was standing and supervising and running to the kitchen rather than eating which is typical behaviour for women who have just cooked a fine meal.
I wouldn't rule out the last few years as being totally the winters of my discontent but let's just say there have been far too many hospitals and ERs and operations and rumours of operations and friends being inflicted similarly.
But things have been going swimmingly, thank you very much, and our luck seems to have improved. We actually have reduced the number of times we have to sit around waiting rooms mentally sticking skewers into the sensitive anatomies of tardy doctors.
When I say my luck has improved, I really mean it. Now if the turkey or ham skids to the kitchen floor without anyone noticing as I carve it, I can plunk it back on the platter without feeling too guilty. Why Brett came over quietly the other night and put up my Christmas lights, and when he and his family came over for the dinner rehearsal, only one string was out. Now that's success.
So I got my grandson Matthew to take a picture of Mary and me actually standing beside the tree which, believe it or not, was not always possible in recent years.  And we may actually send out a few cards, although email, the Internet, Skype, and LD package deals make it a lot easier to actually talk to people instead of trying to decipher the signatures on a Season's Greetings card.
So it's bah humbug to the grinches who would gut Christmas and God bless you to all of us who love everything about Christmas, even to lights that don't work and hams that skid off the table

Friday, December 5, 2014



We are moving to a cashless society, we are told. All we will have to do to pay is wave our credit cards or our keys or our phone or our finger prints at some device and leave.
Oh really! Do we really want this, when our computers and credit cards and phones and even our body parts routinely have glitches. When too many monthly bills have black holes.
People ask me how I fill my days. After all, I'm  a survivor of the 24/7 demands of big city journalism as an editor, columnist and commentator, and appear to content myself now with the occasional blog, with reading, lashing out at the modern media, and volunteer duties.
I find myself rather busy. For starters, there is a wasted hour or so every bloomingday just dealing with the hassles of the big city, and I'm not talking about traffic and the TTC tripling the time of every appointment.
It's doing the household chores and solving the latest bill snafu. (Only older readers will know that started as a profanity before its Sanitized initials became part of our English.)
Consider the last week.
Early call tells me someone is using my credit card number. Good news is that the company knows the $1,200 in charges in the last 12 hours are fraudulent. Bad news is that now I need a new card and have to phone its new number  to all the newspapers, telcos, CAA and various companies that deduct monthly from that card.
Home Bell bill arrives with a $70 charge for a call to China from my home when I'm actually at the cottage.
After 30 minutes in waiting and then arguing with the Bell person, I give up. She insists it was dialled from my house and unless, she says sarcastically, someone shimmied up the pole and tapped my line, it's my responsibility.
I think about it for a couple of days, then try calling the number in China.  Nothing. So I phone Bell again. I point out that no one is ever going to get through to that number in their records because there are not enough digits. Bell refuses to accept this explanation but cancels the charge because records show I have never phoned China from my home.
Cottage Bell bill arrives. It's over $100, which is interesting because I was there and suspended that service for the winter on Oct. 30 (ironically the day I supposedly called China from my home.)  I phone Bell and say that you can't charge the $49 to suspend the service and then keep charging me for supposedly using the service. Pick one, but you can't have both, although you will certainly try
 We chase our tails for a few minutes.  When I called in October, Bell demanded a couple of days extra to suspend service, which it didn't need before. So now it charged me for another week as well before cancelling the rest of the charge. I argued to the rep, saying the company's stock was at a record high and it really didn't have to cheat around the edges, but was ignored.
Rogers bill arrives. It listed a monthly charge for a paper bill and four magazines. I pointed out that I was promised it would waive the paper bill charge as an old customer and didn't want the four magazines since I didn't get two of them and didn't like the other two. Everything seems fine except the confirmation emailed by Rogers two days later cancelled only one magazine.
Costco has severed its relationships in Canada with Amex and has now partnered with a new credit company. So Mary and I had to apply for the new cards and go through the activation process.
Time consumed for all this would be at least four hours. I made eight phone calls and Mary made two just to sustain our credit and eliminate seven errors.  The harvest? I reclaimed $140 and now have two new cards and two new PINs to remember, not that the absence of my PIN prevented the last frauds. And four fewer magazines coming to the house if Rogers stops screwing up a routine request.
Just another chipping at my confidence about the joys of a cashless society. It seemed simpler when I paid cash.
It certainly makes me suspicious about all the companies wanting to eliminate the monthly bill. Just let us tell you what you owe us over the Internet, they say in their whining saving-paper way. I'm with the politicians and consumer agencies who have criticized this.
First of all, it assumes that everyone has and uses a computer regularly. Secondly it assumes that you will be happy with every charge. I find that my Internet billing isn't as complete and easy to check as the paper bill. Then there are their computer glitches. TD now charges me a monthly passbook fee for most of my accounts. It's sheer gravy for the bank, since the cost is probably not even a penny even when one of my passbooks was so scrambled with double entries that I threw it out.
Ah yes, there are those who anticipate the wonderful cash-free days. As for me, I can wait.

Thursday, December 4, 2014



Mary asked the other day who our MP was. Didn't remember. Strange! In the day, I knew most of the MPs in Ontario by name and riding.
And I have more than passing acquaintance with Etobicoke politics. Three decades ago, I had the Tory nomination sewn up in Etobicoke Lakeshore. When I decided to stay in newspapers, Patrick Boyer took my place and won.
I fumed under Grit rule there, from Jean Augustine, who never did much but was a politically correct dream, to Michael Ignatief, who was parachuted into the riding while searching a map to find Etobicoke.
Before I phoned friends who have represented the riding, the mailman dropped a letter from Bernard Trottier.  Just a sheet of paper mailed without postage, because of the MPs' deal, that had less info in it than the wrapping on a can of soup.
One side asked whether we thought "hard-working Canadians deserve to keep more of their money where it belongs: in their pocket."
There was a poll, allegedly, asking whether we thought "hard-working Canadians deserve tax breaks?"
Vote yes if you thought Canadians "should be able to keep more of their hard-earned money." Vote no if you are "happy paying more in taxes."
This canned crap written at Grade 4 level by the government's caucus services office for the foot soldiers is so puerile, it's offensive.
I happen to have voted Conservative and thought they got a bum dreal for the criticism when they dropped the HST by 1%. A smart, welcome way to stimulate the economy and help those with a modest income.
I am happy to listen to a message in the next election about how the Harper Tories will continue to be tougher on spending than the Liberals, who believe in spending liberally, and the New Democrats, who are never happier than when they nickel and dime the rich, steal from the middle class, and give the fruits of their doctrinaire labours to whom they say are the poor.
There are many variations of the Biblical expression about "by their fruits you will know them." A famous alternative is "by their deeds you will recognize them."
So I guess if Bernard Trottier ever really does something, I will recognize him.
And mailing some simplistic nonsense which leans so heavily on magic political words like hard-working, tax breaks and tax cuts ensures that I will continue not to be able to pick him out from all the other anonymous backbenchers.
 They do a jig whenever the PM's office calls the tune and mail out propaganda that would rate an F as an elementary school essay.
Better have a lot of lawn signs, Bernard Tro....sorry, forget your last name, if you want to get re-elected and do whatever you are supposed to as an MP without a voice or, come to think of it, a face or vote that means anything.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014



It is 34 steps from this computer key board to the front door.  Yet it seems to be a half marathon for mailmen and delivery services who always ring at least twice, and knock at least once, by the time I walk the 34 steps and open the door.
It bugs me. I just said to a pleasant looking guy who had never stopped knocking why didn't he allow enough time for someone who isn't parked just inside to get there.
"After all," I said, waving at my old storey-and-a-half around me, "it's not exactly a mansion I can get lost in."
(I think I remember Mary making that point several times over the 50 years we have lived in the house. After all, we had bought a starter home and never got around to moving since you can shove three sons into smaller spaces than three daughters.)
But now a time out since FedEx or Amazon or someone is pounding at my door 34 steps away.
This delivery guy pointed out that they were awfully busy and some damn people really did take a long time to answer. He never smiled when I said I had been so fast, he should give me a medal.
Mark is coming home from China for Christmas. As one of the Internet gurus there for Dell, my son  is a fan of Internet shopping. So he has a steady stream of packages arriving here.
He just reminded me over Skype to keep any Staples catalogues because he's a fan of its bargains. I told him that I think Staples, like some other companies that haven't been booming, is
 evolving away from many stores in real buildings to those in the ether because its Internet business is so profitable.
Once upon a time, as we used to say before the expression became "in the day,"  if a caller didn't wait a bit before the second ring or knock, you were considered rude.
Perhaps that's why the title stood out so much from a 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was turned into a steamy (for the times) movie in 1946 with Lana Turner and John Garfield, and then there was a remake with Jack Nicholson in 1981. There was even an opera based on the novel.
Today the title seems dated because all postmen just keep knocking.
I almost sympathize with them, despite my regular scrambles for the door, because of all those who don't bother to answer at all.
Just ask politicians and the few charities which still knock on doors. I remember doing that years ago for the Salvation Army. When I wrote a column about all the doors that never opened, even for the May campaign of the Sally Ann, I was told by a senior officer that my experience was mirrored by other canvassers. It prompted a review of fundraising.
I'm a big fan of dealing with charities and politicians by mail. Don't call me, don't knock on my door, don't bug me at all if you want my money or my vote.  Just leave the letters and the boxes on the porch.