Thursday, December 29, 2016



That early Christmas present by the leaders of Canada and the U.S. to ban drilling for oil from great expanses of ocean is a great idea.
After all, we have just discovered we have more than enough oil and gas for now under our land.
And then there's the sun.
But it did prompt me to consider again just how vast are those oceans, and even in this wondrous age of GPS and satellites that can photograph the name on a golf ball from space, we often don't know just what's going on in the waters that cover most of the planet.
And I'm not just considering those eternal searches that went on in recent years for the wreckage of airliners.
 I once was perched behind the RCAF pilot on a surveillance patrol as we swooped low in our converted Lockeed CP-140 Aurora over the Beaufort Sea north of Canada.
There beneath us was a drilling platform that no one knew about. It was on no chart or map of Canada and apparently, as I listed to the radio chatter, it was a mystery to our U.S. partners in the venerable NORAD defence pact that guarded the skies over North America.
It was, I suppose, in international waters because no one seemed to think it was a big deal. Including Canada's defence minister, Perrin Beatty, who was behind me peering over the shoulders of some air force personnel at the screens that lined one side of the $25 million plane developed for anti-submarine warfare.
It was an adventure of a diversion 28 years ago that took me away from the Editor's Desk and the task of saving the world for democracy to being fitted with Arctic survival gear at the Downsview base and then flights by a Challenger government jet to Yellowknife and then Inuvik which is on the southern edge of nothingness.
Beatty made a congenial travelling companion. He handled about nine different ministries before he went off to head the CBC. The Sun liked him so much that I proposed him to be the next PM in an editorial. Beatty phoned to plead with me not to write that again because Brian Mulroney glared at him at the next cabinet meeting and no other minister would speak to him.
Even though I once had a taste of the north as the kid editor of The Whitehorse Star, I quickly discovered that any survival gear that the RCAF loaned me for this northern visit was not just for show when it's February north of the Arctic Circle.
I left a midnight beer party in Inuvik to walk back to the lodgings on the edge of town and found that my beard had frozen and I was skidding on the snow road? because it was 35 or 40 below (Fahrenheit.)
Stupidly, I didn't think I needed Arctic gear just to go for a beer. It was so cold that I needed to pee but I wasn't sure I wanted to risk exposure of a tender part.
I didn't think I would last long if I slipped into one of the deep ditches on either side. So I took baby steps. It certainly sobers one in a hurry into being able to pass any breathalyzer.
Before university, I had been in the RCAF Reserve as a radar operator so I was fascinated by the modern electronic guts of the Aurora as the flight droned on and on as we headed north and north and north.
(I was told that the history of such patrol flights by Canada and the U.S. had the Soviets often probing NORAD response by flying what we called their Bears directly at us and the Canadian and U.S. fighters and patrols would not veer away. At the last minute of the aerial game of chicken, the giant Russian planes would drop a wing and head for home.)
Hours had passed and we were flying in a swirling mix of snow and fog and cloud. Then technicians reported there was "something" far below us on the ice.  Probably they could have described
exactly what it was but civilians were aboard.
So we turned and kept turning in a laborious descent. Finally we found a large oil drilling platform, complete with mounds of equipment and gear piled all around it. Not only that, a goliath civilian  transport was just off the ice landing beside the only human sign that could be seen in vast expanses of white, as its pilot informed the "heavy" invading "his air space" in terse wotinhellisgoingon tones.
 Not exactly a welcoming party, perhaps because we opened our bomb bay doors and photographed the site in case they were making a mess of it. Northern pollution is eternal pollution that ruins the landscape as it poisons the seas, even if they were, perhaps, in international waters.
My story seemed to go unnoticed later by everyone but it certainly made a lasting impression on me, that hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent by some giant international corporation in frigid waters on the edge of nowhere and the nearest governments didn't seem to know.
 Or maybe they did.
Promising to protect our waters from billion-dollar entrepreneurs is easy. Actually doing it well will be hard.

Friday, December 16, 2016



I was built to play Santa Claus, from my pot belly, beard and pipe to my love of everything about Christmas.
So I've played Santa many times over several decades, even though I've never looked quite as merry as the Santa in the iconic image that Coco-Cola first made famous in its ads of long ago.
It allowed me to continue to live in that enchanted Christmas world of great expectations and greater nostalgia long after I should have been just another cynical newspaper guy.
It's the nicest part of the year. Even brats are almost tolerable. How can you beat Silent Night, angels, a baby, Twas-the-night-before poetry, camels, wise men, stars, the eternal story...and Santa too?
I treasure the happy memories. I was a clown in the Eaton's Santa Claus parade, a yearning visitor to the vanished department store's famous Toyland and faithful listener to its radio broadcast, and I stood in the smelly halls with the rest of the school and sang along with the broadcast of carols from shoppers on the first floor of Simpsons.
But nothing matches my years as Santa.
I always took being his doppleganger seriously, thinking that if I was to screw up the charming illusion for some child, I would be punished by such torture as a year of reading Toronto Star editorials.
I can't pretend it has always gone smoothly.
Friends asked me to play Santa for their little girl without a future. Mary had not yet made me a great costume so I said it would be safer if I ran across their backyard. Don't have the lights on because the mystique of the legendary figure would be aided by the shadows.
I was in mid-flight when an older brother turned on all the lights, which so startled me that I blundered into a small tree and a branch knocked off my glasses and poked me in one eye.
I fished through the snow for my glasses, which I really needed, and finally figured out from the lack of blood and innards that my eye had not been damaged. I croaked out a feeble "ho ho ho," bit back a curse and disappeared into the night.
Next stop was a curve of a suburban street that looked like a Christmas card. An anxious tot waited in the picture window with her parents. It was a command performance where I knew my friends would be caustic if I screwed up.
So there I was at 6.15 pm. on Christmas Eve walking down the street loudly ringing a bell and boisterously yelling "ho ho ho" when a cruiser with two young cops pulled up and asked what I was doing.
I leaned in the passenger window and bellowed "fuck off."
From the watching window, an older sister squealed in mock horror to the tot that "the cops have just busted your Santa." The dad, a university dean whose father had been a beat cop in Edmonton, reassured the tot, saying it was obvious to most of Etobicoke that Santa had just told the police where to go.
I related the anecdote in my Boxing Day column, prompting the police chief to call and say I just had to have made up the story because he doubted he had two cops, even raw rookies, that could be that stupid.
In the young days of the Sun, I prompted the publisher, Doug Creighton, and our marvellous promotion wiz, Linda Ruddy, to organize a carol sing at the Ex. There was a carillon there, not used much, but I found someone who could play those bells, and we publicized it as a readers' event for singing and hot chocolate and candy canes and Santa.
I arrived at the carillon on a stage coach so small that I couldn't fit inside with the bags of candy. So the ponies delivered me riding on top. Unfortunate, there were large decorative balls at the corners of the roof, so when I jumped off, I "grounded" my groin on one, meaning I couldn't utter even one "ho" for minutes.
I then staggered up between the hundreds of carollers to be confronted by Norm Betts, an ace Sun photog, who yelled that he had to get back to the office with a picture for Page One right away. He grabbed the nearest kid and thrust him into my arms.
Unfortunately, it was my youngest son, Mark, then 4. I figured Sunday Sun readers wouldn't exactly be thrilled by Santa holding his own kid on Page 1 in glorious Betts colour, so I told Betts we needed another child.
"This one's fine," Betts said. I shoved Mark away, causing him, naturally, to feel teary at being rejected so vigorously. And I grabbed another boy, whose father turned out to be a pain in the ass.
Mary and I finally managed to soothe Mark after the event when we headed home with hundreds of left-over candy canes. Mark's brothers went to school for weeks armed with enough candy to rot the teeth of entire classes.
It was always more difficult to play Santa for family and friends since older kids who knew me are already hunting for inconsistencies because of their doubts. One family Christmas out in the country, I got tired tugging on the costume in a barn so I didn't bother changing my distinctive boots. I didn't even manage to make one pass sauntering by the house before a nephew said "that's Uncle John because he has those snow boots."
I learned the hard way not to get too cute with the kids. I was performing at a Sun staff Christmas party when I noticed that the next child coming to my lap had been launched by our Queen's Park columnist.
"So here's a Blizzard," I said and scooped the tot up. He returned to his mother and informed her that "Santa must work with you because he knew my name."
I liked kids with long shopping lists and not the little indoctrinated girl who wished for "world peace." I liked kids who got so awestruck they didn't know what to say. In fact, there is something mystical about the little child who still believes. If only more did.
I played Santa at Queen's Park in the middle of the Tory reign. Naturally I wore a blue Santa suit because I said that everyone knew that it was the Conservatives who brought the goodies.
I gave the Lieut Gov. a rubber bill because I said that everyone knew that under the Tories, pensioners really had to make a dollar stretch. One opposition leader was given a hunting knife so he could protect himself from his own caucus. Bill Davis, not yet recognized as one of our best premiers, and various ministers, were given assorted rude gifts dreamed up by the most malicious members of the Queen's Park Press Gallery.
At the party afterwards, a midget-sized Tory backbencher came up to a group of reporters that included me without the Claus costume and asked them to point out Downing because he had been such a rude jerk about the Tories as Santa that he was going to beat the crap out of him. "That's what we do up north," he said.
I assured this partisan bantam rooster that Downing didn't seem to be around anymore but not  to worry too much about him because everyone knew he was a jerk.
And we all laughed as the drunken MPP wandered off on his vain search, not realizing that Santa can't be thrashed because he comes armoured with the wonder and fantasies of generations of children who have made him one of the great legends in a world that has never needed his message more of peace and good will and kindness for at least one miraculous night of the year.
The strangest setting for my Santa impersonation was a Cuban resort where after staff and guests kept calling me Santa as I walked the beach with rum in hand, because of my size and my beard bleached whiter than normal by the sun, the management rented a Santa suit and made me part of the evening entertainment.
It was going to be a lot of fun, I thought, and it was until the next few days when I noticed pint-sized figures scoping me out suspiciously at the swim-up bar and at meal time. So I acted as prim and proper as I could be at a Caribbean resort, not wanting to send some kids home with a nice myth exploded.
As I've learned, parents can be nastier than the kids if you screw up any part of the act, from the
"ho ho hos" to not dropping a squirming wet infant.
I confess as a back-sliding Baptist that I still love the Biblical Christmas, the Christ Mass that started it all,  cherish the carols after years in a choir, and can still recite everything about the birth story, but to me there is also a giant part of the holiday that has nothing to do with Christianity.
Santa is part of the commercialization, the secularization of Christmas, that I welcome because it allows everyone to celebrate without getting their knickers in a twist on the grounds of religion.
The two warm halves of Christmas can exist without this contrived nonsense about saying "season's greetings" instead, and concerts devoid of Christmas, and the elevation of the minor festival of Hanukkah to please our Jewish friends, and the contrived Kwanzaa invented to publicize black culture that is more an activist propaganda message than a celebration.
When aided by Sun readers I sponsored 43 "boat people" into Canada and then looked after many of them for a year, I kept religion out of it. No mention of church or Christmas to the men and women and kids who had grown up without any form of worship except honouring ancestors. Christ was just as unknown to these immigrants as Santa. They were still adapting to their first snow.
Then I came to one of the houses I rented for them and found a decorated Christmas tree and the kids happily going off to Christmas concerts at a church and their school. They loved everything about the commercial Christmas that too many love to pontificate against. Their modest east-end community had embraced them and folded them into the Christmas merrymaking which helped ease every single one of them into their lives as successful Canadians.
Another gift from Santa!

Sunday, November 27, 2016



My strangest interview ever, both in setting and in rudeness, was with Fidel Castro.
I suspect this happened to many, whether diplomats or columnists trying not to fall off the couch.
It was January, 1976, and Pierre Trudeau, led by Margaret featuring the most famous nipples on the island, was visiting Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.
 I have never covered a more remarkable state visit, mainly because Cuba was wrapped in a steel cocoon of brutal state terrorism, gnawing secrecy, empty beaches and traumatized citizens.
The Canadian group ended up one night at the Canadian embassy and quickly degenerated into a warm haze of cigar smoke and rum, lots of rum.
It was so crowded, you couldn't have slipped a rumour past the security bullies who invited themselves in so they could watch us better. Each of us had our own clutch of thugs. Mine had warmed up to me earlier when I traded five portions of my little rationed steak for their five plates of seafood.
There was a commotion and a surge of new arrivals which lurched against me until I stood on a couch so I didn't get trampled. Pushed up with me was some soldier in green fatigues who straightened himself angrily and materialized into a teetering Fidel.
People shouted questions at him but he, several feet higher, ignored them, puffing on a Cohiba (it was decades later he stopped smoking the famous and expensive cigar) and swigging what I assumed was product from Havana Club, the distillery he confiscated from the Bacardi family.
I thought I can interview him and it will be exclusive because who else can hear us in the noise of the party.  I would soften him up by asking if it was true he might have pitched in the majors if he had  a curve. (I wrote about this on Nov. 25, 2014, in a Downing blog titled Don Hunt, Fidel Castro And Me.)
He ignored me.
I then ventured some minor question and he roared "speak Spanish." I replied that since I knew he had studied law in English, his English was better than my Spanish.
He waved the cigar  to silence me.
This was going nowhere so I thought I might as well go for broke. I asked why he hadn't told Cuban parents that their sons coming home in body bags had actually died in an African war to which he had committed his army without telling the country.
He stared at me. And puffed. And drank. I stared back and slowly and deliberately, since I had had a lot of rum and was just trying not to fall off the couch, which wasn't a stable platform, repeated my question.
He glared at me. And puffed. And drank. Then he yelled at the people beneath us to get out of his way and left, with me muttering about why was he acting like Trudeau who did the same when Sun writers like me asked a question he didn't like... usually all of the questions.
It was the closest I got in several days of wandering through crowds and factories. Bizarrely, he often was not the centre of attention since Margaret, mother of our PM, generally wore a Liberal election T-shirt that was so tight it looked like she was launching rockets. And she and Fidel were always very close. As was Trudeau.
The body language showed  a bromance between the dictators. Justin in not calling a brutal dictator a brutal dictator is just carrying on the family tradition of fawning over their pet killer.
Pete Trudeau, the father, could get quite enthusiastic in his praise. I found that out when I  took advantage when I was in a knot of reporters with the PM  to ask, as a fellow SCUBA diver, that I understood he had gone diving with Fidel. For once, I thought, he won't ignore me.
Trudeau rhapsodized about the experience, saying that he had never gone deeper than with Castro and his bodyguards, and how they had just butchered live fish with their knives, not caring at all about how the blood in the water around them might attract sharks.
Not what they teach you in diving 101 but it was the longest and most genuine chat I had ever had with Trudeau so I spun it out.
When we left, the Trudeaus, Castro, and some figurehead president gathered outside the Canadian plane while the security thugs pushed the rest of us aboard.
I saw Boris Spremo, the great Toronto Star photographer, sneak away so I did too. Obviously the final pictures could be controversial - Castro wrapping Trudeau, and of course Margaret, in great bear hugs.
As I raised my camera, a security thug pushed me towards the plane's stairs. I dug in. There was an angry cursing confrontation which the official group ignored. So I yelled at Castro to tell the security jerk to leave me alone before I punched him. This panicked the thug and he backed off, so I got one picture.
The Star used Boris on Page 1 but I couldn't get my pictures back home to the Sun in time from our next destination, Caracas, having no resources with me for that.
Years later I was telling James Bartleman, who did such a wonderful job as our lieutenant-governor, about the encounter. He detailed some of his experiences as the Canadian ambassador to Cuba in one of his four fine books and he told me some more.
Castro used to drop in on him at the embassy and talk all night. Bartleman was pleased until he figured out that the garrulous Castro was looking for an audience, any audience. (I related some of this in a Downing blog headlined Castro, Trudeau and Bartleman on Dec. 27, 2014.)
When I told Bartleman about Trudeau diving with Castro, he said that when he went diving with the Communist dictator, he went to the surface to clear his mask and to his amazement had a burly body guard come up underneath and hold him above the water so he could do it in comfort.
Other stories weren't so nice, like the Cubans poisoning the Bartleman dog, wiretapping him and harassing his driver even though Bartleman represented a country used by the U.S. as a secret channel in dealing with Cuba despite the official boycott. In fact, Bartleman later was sent secretly by PM Jean Chretien to meet with the Castro brothers to see what could be done about that boycott.
It seems that the Grits have always had a yen to deal with the Castros no matter how many citizens they imprisoned on phoney charges. No wonder Justin apes his father.
I have visited Cuba since that grand adventure at least a dozen times. It started off as such a difficult experience that you had to fill out a form detailing all your spending or they wouldn't let you leave. I remember going to an "underground" church service when there was a chance that the worshippers would be jailed.  I  wrote about being held and questioned for hours just because a homosexual under surveillance had talked to me for a minute or so.
Then there was the poor soul from Quebec who appealed to me after a young "'lady" seduced him and got him to marry her so she could get into Canada.
I couldn't help him. Or the orthopaedic surgeon stuck doing resort back rubs in 1997.
And now the bully is dead, who used communism rather than the Catholic religion he was taught as a boy to seize power and throw out the diseased lackeys of the American mob.
And all the tourists who think all that cloak-and-dagger brutality was just media malarkey can continue to ignore a murderous past and guzzle their Cuba libres. To them Fidel was just a myth.
Sure he was, a myth who imprisoned you if he didn't like your views, if you were lucky.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016



I have graduated to the punch line of what's claimed to be one of the world's oldest riddles.
What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?
Of course the answer is us - from crawling baby to adult to those stumping around on a cane because of age or problems with the undercarriage.
I came late to this world.
Faithful readers have no need to be reminded of my hospital hell of five years ago when I was incarcerated for three months in four hospitals and had to learn to stand again before my first steps from wheelchair to walker.
That's behind me now, along with the deep scars from bedsores compliments of the worst hospital around, St. Joseph's.
But I never have returned to the days when a stroll could go from Royal York and Bloor to High Park and then to the lake to return through the Humber Valley.
Long gone are those days when the first Miles for Millions walk came to Toronto and I finished the 32 plus miles with a flourish, carrying an elf named Danielle Crittenden on my shoulders long before she was a best-selling author.
Those were the days when a walk was enjoyed, not endured like a death march by Napoleon.
A few months ago, I reminded myself that I wasn't exactly a shrinking violent in my relations with the world, thanks to being 6" 2" and 260 and somewhat pugnacious in the face of rudeness.
So if I wanted to carry a cane and use it much of the time since even the sidewalks have holes like 105% of the roads, what was stopping me.
I still tire early but I find that with a no-nonsense cane, I can walk twice as fast consuming half the energy, and even the math-challenged know that is a worthwhile equation.
Besides, I don't fall over as much even in winter when the roads are lined with high curbs of ice and indifference.
All this has given me just a taste of what many have to endure all the time because their physical disability is 99% more serious and debilitating than my experience which has come at the end of a  healthy and physical existence.
I was reminded of this the other day when my son Brett and I attended the 23rd annual induction luncheon of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame which is chaired by David Crombie who has set a national record for likability.
I have been a member of the selection committee from the start, representing the media, and also because of experience with such boards ranging from the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame to chairing an advisory committee to Toronto city council on civic honours. (Mel Lastman killed the idea.)
It has been a wonderful board with such members as Linc Alexander and Jack Donohue. And we picked some great recipients from Edwin Baker, Jeff Healey and David Onley to Whipper Billy Watso, Bob Rumble and Rick Hansen, and if I have to explain who they are, you just haven't been paying attention to Canada.
The luncheon was an opportunity to reflect on three decades of the great improvements in this city in becoming more accessible. It really has. I watched from the sidelines for much of the time before stairs and heavy doors and moms with massive stroller tanks became careless obstacles even for me in the face of a society that now knows better.
It is hard to remember but it wasn't that long ago when there wasn't special seating for pensioners and the disabled on the TTC. The idea actually grew out of a councillor going away for a convention, so there is some value to some freeloads.  Brian Harrison of Scarboro returned with an account of how an American city, I think it was Atlanta, actually had transit seats near the front reserved for the disabled. And the TTC copied and expanded.
I find that most days on the subway, 98 % of the passengers see my cane and accommodate. Quickest to do so are young ethnics. Slowest are women who haven't lost their baby fat or their attitude.
I find the cane useful on the street and in stores because most people defer to the cane to the extent that if I pause, I get offers of help. Show up at a government agency like Service Ontario and the cane shoves you to the head of the long queue.
Naturally there are exceptions, like a few big louts used to bullying through crowds who actually have pushed me out of their way. Like the guy stampeding up the stairs from the basement washroom at Roy Thomson Hall. He was deliberately going against the flow and then shoved hard into me. I pushed back. Hard! He swore. I called him an asshole, shocking the symphony crowd, and then brandished my cane.
A perplexing bad side to a city becoming more flexible and caring with the disabled is that this disdain for the elderly still percolates just under the surface for too many yahoos.
 It is so bad in all of North America that this attitude against the elderly has been called the last great prejudice in employment.
Perhaps what feeds this ageism is the fact there are so many of us now that science has kicked the hell out of the Biblical promise that we would live for three score years and ten.
It can flare in just one sentence into an argument.
I had to shove by a big guy sprawled in the centre doorway of a bus to get off and he muttered about pushy old farts. So I cursed him. Cottage fishermen wanting to spend the day anchored up against my point are quick to swear about age too when I confront them. I don't recall that from when I was younger.
Obviously what I need is a cane that is more a shillelagh with a great wooden knob of a knot on top. I would never use it, of course, but it would make the damnedest assault case if it was used to make a dent in an attitude.

Sunday, November 6, 2016



Just two poppies grew this summer from the seed  from Flanders Fields that my son Mark gave me.
Yet I tended them like they were the rarest orchids. For they bring back my lifetime of worry and fear and mystery and doubt about war and its music and its savage waste.
There used to be more poppies. I dug up a couple and gave them to people whom I thought would treasure a flower from Flanders Fields. They didn't say much but then the blossom really honours remembrance and not a gush of words.
But the main enemy of the flowers in the big bowl of  an ancient cream separator has been the west wind that always pounds my cottage point and some determined daisies.
If there are none in the spring, I will have a reason to return to Flanders Fields which has been seared in my memory since I first heard that simple but grand poem as a kid.
Hanging in my house for decades has been one of the rare original colour print copies of In Flanders Fields that was produced and sold by the American Red Cross in its war relief drives in Manhattan in 1917 when the U. S. finally got off its ass to join the slaughter to end all slaughters.
Lt. Col. John McRae, who in death became the pride of Guelph, had his poem published in Punch in 1915 when it was a world-famous magazine.  Only several inches of type. There are several versions of how it was reprinted into fame, most of them concluding that the big push came when it appeared in a book in 1919 in New York City.
So collectors used to praise that "first" edition, not realizing there was this sombre black-and-white poster two years earlier showing a few crosses under a giant tree with poppies nestled in the grass. It is up to you and I to add the red of spilled blood.
Some years ago, John McDermott, whose lovely tenor takes on a heavenly sweetness when he sings about peace and war and its human wreckage,  recorded a CD called Remembrance about war songs.
He asked me to write the liner notes. There was a sold-out concert afterwards at Roy Thomson Hall.  I  worried that he might not just introduce me but also get me to participate in the traditional recitation of Flanders Fields. It is a poem that wallops my emotions every time. I didn't mind a few tears before a crowded hall but would I be able to start again?
McDermott had Cliff Chadderton of the War Amps, who died in honourable old age in 2013, read the legendary words in a flat steady tone, almost relentless like an advancing tank, and it was just great.
It is a poem where the poppies and the words are the stars, not the speaker, even one like Chadderton  who left the prairies to leave part of a right leg behind in Holland.
 I have written about the jerks who trash the red poppy, like a Canadian senator, or steal the Legion's collection box, which should be a hanging offence.
There even have been people who have criticized me anchoring my poppy with a Canadian flag pin, because I tired of having them fall off.
I don't mind, just as long as everyone wears one to mark the incredible sacrifices made by so many.
If only I could keep them growing in the garden, not that I really need them because they carpet my memory as far as the eye can see when I think of war and how fortunate I was that I didn't have to fight.
I thought I would as the Korean "action" flared when I was in high school. So I joined the RCAF reserve. It was a great experience. Years later, in those periods of journalism when it was not much fun, I wondered what it would be like to go back as an air traffic controller, but then some story would grab me.
The air force experience made me think a compulsory military year would be good for everyone, providing there were no new military cemeteries.
I have several medals now which I never wear because the ones that come from battle and military service so outrank them.
But a poppy always blooms on my chest...and in my memory, along with a line from Tennyson about "the blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire," and, of course the words from the doctor who didn't grow deaf when he heard the brazen throat of battle.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016



It's the night after All Hallows' Eve but the ghosts of half a century ago still dance in our memories of what was.
Our numbers are shrinking but not the warmth as the gnarled knot of Telegram and Sun survivors gather in our traditional salute to the death of the grand old lady of Melinda, The Toronto Telegram, on Oct. 30, 1971, and the surprising launch of the Toronto Sun two days later.
It is a weekend seared in my memory, and also with my friends in our anecdotage, as we gather to yarn and fib and drink great drafts of nostalgia.
It's suitable timing because Halloween, before Big Business stole it from the churches and trick-or-treaters, was the legendary time to contemplate mortality.
And I certainly felt mortal 45 years ago as I put out the final Tely. The building was empty except for the pressmen and me. I look up from my keyboard now at the flag of the Telegram that I ripped up off the front page form, along with the little FINAL bit, a name that would never be used again by the paper that had been a vital part of Toronto's history since 1876.
I remember carrying the metal name out of the empty newsroom as I wondered how I would support the new baby and two other sons and Mary.
Would the gamble by Doug Creighton and Peter Worthington work?  Or was my life as the bright young editor over and I would be forced to become a government flack?
That was 6,000 columns, 3,000 editorials and hundreds of blogs ago. So the Sun did shine on me.
I have written about our annual dinner over the years in, such as Donato's A Wonderful Pain In the Ass on Nov. 1, 2014, and Fighting Toronto's Sun Eclipse on Nov. 2, 2013.
And my talented colleagues at our dinner, like Joan Sutton Straus and Yvonne Crittenden Worthington, are informative posters of Facebook items just as they were provocative writers and columnists and personalities and friends.
Kathy Brooks didn't have a persona outside the newspapers but inside she was known for her great skills as the entertainment editor. Any good newspaper needs key Kathys no matter how many cantankerous stars they may have as columnists....or cartoonists.
Then there is Dianne Jackson, a gifted artist, and last and certainly least, her husband Andy Donato, a fine painter who whips up funny cartoons before playing another round of golf at his beloved Hunt Club where members must grumble about all his playing time.
I have so many graceful paintings by Dianne and lovely paintings and funny cartoons by Andy - most of them with insults about me - hanging on my walls that the joke is it could be called the Donato Gallery. (Admission any time providing you have a bottle of an aged Appleton or mellow Mount Gay.)
These days Andy makes up for all the rest of us in public production, intending to paint and cartoon for another few decades. Which means I can look forward to more torment since he has this serious misconception that I was difficult on him as the Editor supposedly approving his cartoons, and he is justified now in revenge.
This year I journeyed downtown to the York Club, because he indicated to me that our dinner was Sunday,  to find instead a silent stone mass, sort of like Andy's excuse.  I should have expected that because several years ago Mary and I ended up at the wrong restaurant following his directions.
A couple of years ago, we went to a pub because one of his relatives worked there and my credit card was compromised. Didn't cost me unlike the anniversary dinner when the restaurant put the charges for the Creightons and Worthingtons on my credit card and Worthington thought it was a great joke when I tried for a refund from him.
Now Peter loved those reunions. He showed up for one bleeding slightly from a hole in his chest after he checked himself out of TGH.
So what did we talk about? Mostly scandalous and libellous stuff and wonderful gossip. Nothing about the recent Suns or Posts or Godfrey. A lot about the old Tely. We passed largely on Clinton/Trump even though Yvonne would have insights since David Frum, the noted Republican writer, is married to her daughter, Danielle.
Nothing is more boring than taking potshots at the dismal clutch-and-grab of politicians now screwing up the entire world when you can talk about whether that photog really was sleeping with that girl on the Picture Desk.
I confess, and I bet Andy would too if he didn't know I had the same view, that the greatest part of these celebrations of the past is that you actually get a chance to tell your stories again to an appreciative audience.
After all, Mary and the sons tend to have eyes glazing before I reach my punchlines, although Mark once wrote a piece on me for the Sun at the suggestion of malicious editors that the family really didn't mind listening to my stories because they wanted to see how they turned out this time.
I probably have written that before (and Andy would say I always repeat myself) but there is nothing finer when you march on to the inevitable than gathering with old friends to remember the wars of survival when two other newspapers were determined to make you look like an idiot.
The Sun will shine forever, if only in my dreams.

Sunday, October 30, 2016



The new Presto card for riding the TTC and neighbouring transits kind of snuck up on me.
And I'm not alone.
Apparently we will all need this card next year and tickets and tokens are banished to eternal darkness. Cash is so suspect, it may well be banned.
Which will be awkward for visitors to the Big Smoke who actually believe that the TTC is the better way but just want to ride once or twice. Then there are all the occasional riders like Mary and me.
Mary started bugging me about it after I ignored reading anything to do with Presto on the grounds as a casual rider I would continue to be able to buy and use a seniors' ticket.
No, I was informed by phone after a long wait. I needed a card, and I would have to go to the Davisville transit headquarters to get this new card if I wanted the reduced seniors/student rate.
Only one outlet for the hundreds of thousands of seniors and students in Toronto seems both stupid and inconvenient, I told the info line. I assumed there must be some way to buy it on line but then I descended into the maze of all the careful internet postings about Presto and after meandering through all the language,  decided it was quicker to go to the TTC headquarters at Davisville and Yonge.
After my waste of time there, I decided that whoever named the card Presto, which is a traditional term for magicians to use instead of saying "quickly," had a sick humour.
I just hope the system actually lives up to the password instead of disappointing us at awkward times.
Once upon a time, I wrote so much about transit that I was a pop expert on the TTC. I was asked to write its official history. Later I was approached from the top to be its VP of advertising and PR.
So I often consider what the TTC does from the standpoint of what would I be doing or recommending if I was part of the inner group. I would give this operation an F.
I had medical appointments across Yonge St. at Davisville so I went early to the TTC customers' service office. Too many were lined up. So I returned an hour later and waited for more than an hour because there were only two people serving the public and one of them was tied up with an old lady who was baffled for 30 minutes about everything to do with Presto.
Some brisk young matron let her kid kick the hell out of the wall and then told me when I showed exasperation with the baffled lady that "I would understand when I was 20 years older."
She demonstrated ignorance of both judging age and tolerance when she ended up demanding to see the manager.
It was just a mess stuck in tar where everyone seemed to talk in slow mo. And then I found that the new magic card cost $6 each before I loaded it with money to pay for the trips.
So now we have to pay for permission to buy fares. Wow! The airlines will be jealous of this gimmick.
Since I live near Bloor and Royal York, a trip downtown used to be not a long commute by car but now we have hellish traffic there caused by inept councillors, construction, traffic engineers and police.
On the day that I made my pilgrimage to buy the Presto card, I rode two subways eight times instead of driving.  The irritating day ended when I was returning home at 10.30 p.m. and the St. George station was drowning in passengers.
 I stood there trying not to be pushed off the platform and wondered just how the hell this outfit could be losing money and requiring tens of millions from you and me and other taxpayers who never ride it daily when it's not unusual to have crowded cars at 10.30 p.m.
A week later, I went to the opera via subway with a friend who is a plugged-in prof. I had been feeling guilty about how I let Presto sneak up on me to such an extent that I still don't know all the angles. Then he started asking questions which showed he may often take the subway to the university but Presto is still unknown to him too.
It turned out that it has been most convenient for him to use the east end of the Royal York station where you can only pass through the turnstiles of cow gate bars with tokens. He's a senior but has just sucked it up and paid the extra because it's simpler.
Just a typical Torontonian who has had to adjust to the transit system rather than have the system adjust to him and all the seniors using such turnstiles. And our union reps, who would be the 44 councillors and the mayor, are so busy caving in to the transit workers and cops and civil service unions on their compensation and working conditions that making us stand in line or delivering lousy service or multiplying the hassles is just business as usual.
And then these crummy stewards of our taxes wonder why we're mad at them.
Mary had a dental appointment at Bloor and Bay and the traffic is so snarled there we again took the TTC instead. After all, the subway almost ends up in the basement of the dentists' office.
What should have been a simple trip that illustrates the value of transit in the big city was ruined by the escalators being shut down at either end.
So Mary and her arthritis had to drag herself up two useless escalators. The Royal York ticket seller was not sympathetic when I complained. His excuse? The Royal York escalator had been shut down because "someone fell."
Since now there was no one around the escalator, whether victim, paramedics or TTC personnel, it seemed dumb to make all the people climb to the street.  Yet too often red tape strangles common sense when it comes to the TTC and its lax bosses of councillors.
I used the subway twice to go to the York Club at St. George and Bloor because I don't believe in drinking a lot and then driving. The club boasts that it is right beside the western end of the St. George station.
A better way when going but not when returning home because you can only pass through the cow gate bars with tokens and a pass but not a Presto pass. The ticket booth is dark and features a battered sign that the ticket seller will be back later. Maybe around 2020, I guess.
I got back through the first time because part of the subway was shut down and fleets of shuttle buses were arriving. I was waved through by some TTC staffers. The second time I couldn't pass and had to walk down to Bloor and then a long block east to the other entrance. When I grumbled, wave my cane and demanded to know when the commission was going to make the change to allow Presto cards at the other end, the ticket taker said I would have to ask customer relations.
Yeah, I know all about that.
Of course the obvious question is why the western ticket booth isn't staffed when all the students from Canada's largest university and all the Bloor foot traffic would find it convenient.
The TTC's failure to facilitate entrance at one end of one of its busiest stations has created a thriving business for a youth lounging near the token machines, one of which was broken. He was selling individual tokens and doing a brisk business.
For him, this transit goof was the better way to earn beer money.

Thursday, September 1, 2016



 It was the opening of the 2016 Ex. Of course we had a provincial cabinet minister there or else the Liberals wouldn't give the CNE any help.
You sort of get back a little of what you pay and pay for.
I was staring up at someone identified as The Honourable Tracy MacCharles, Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, Minister Responsible for Accessibility and Member of Provincial Parliament for Pickering-Scarborough East, and wondered why I had never heard of her before.
After decades of spending most of my waking time with politicians, I got to know most of them so well I knew their middle name (which was often the mother's maiden name.) But now we have a new host of anonymous political celebrities, a new crop who love to use the honorific of "honourable" even if the public and the media don't.
Imagine trying to get all that on a sign, providing that you would want to create a sign for MacCharles who managed to drone through a speech written by an aide which made the usual mistake of saying the Ex started in 1879 as an agricultural fair.
Actually it didn't. Industry was first in the title and that was what was stressed. People wanted to see the first public lights and other wonders of the coming electric age, and cows and horses and plants were boring stuff by comparison. (There was a history of the Ex written for the centennial and I say it's an interesting book even if I did write part myself.)
MacCharles demonstrated the normal Grit pandering to all minorities real and imagined by pointing out that the ceremony just inside the Princes' Gates was held on ancient native land.
Actually it isn't.
Various native groups have been claiming great chunks of Toronto for years, trying to make us forget that great chunks of Toronto were actually created by landfill by the hated white folks.
For example, there was a native claim for Toronto Island.  You don't have to be much of a geographer or historian to know that the island chain was actually a peninsula until a storm broke through an eastern channel around 1859. These islands were formed by sand drifting from the Scarborough Bluffs and from muck ripped from the bottom of the harbour. More than 50% of the islands are man-made by dredging.
If MacCharles really cared, she could have looked to her left and seen what we used to call the Automotive Building standing firmly on land created from the lake. The old shoreline headed north from where Stanley Barracks sat on the water's edge and went up to the "new" Fort York.
 Everything behind her was under water when some natives meandered around here, although there was a Western University study years ago that showed for a century ending with the French around 1750, there were few natives living in and north of the Toronto area.
Takes me back to my first newspaper job in the Yukon where the natives were busy with land claims even though everyone knew that their ancestors, not being nuts, didn't live in the inhospitable territory where only the scenery is easy.
It's the great sleeping issue of politics. Any politician and media organization that doesn't realize it will be in trouble.
I predict that in a few years, there will be a revolt by all the descendants of immigrants who came later against the demands of natives who said they were here first. As digs throughout North America are showing, they weren't first, they just killed those who were.

Thursday, August 11, 2016



The reason I moved to Etobicoke, then billing itself as Canada's first planned municipality, got kicked in the teeth the other day by a red-tape monstrosity known as the Committee of Adjustment now fiddling with streetscapes in what used to be the suburbs of Etobicoke and York.
I have  50 years as a journalist in dealing with the guts of the Canadian political processes, beginning with the Whitehorse city council trying to expel me into the Yukon night in 1957.
It has left me with a certain cynicism as well as real knowledge about how things work, whether you're presenting a new act to be passed by the Legislature, which I have done twice, or covered every last committee at every level of government, or been a member of a Board of Trade committee studying municipal governance, which included such heavies as Michael Wilson, or chairing  advisory committees to Toronto city hall.
Nothing quite prepared me for the panel the other day ignoring what I thought were sensible views on planning. And as a result, the little bungalow three feet away from my closest wall will become a towering three storeys, more than 30 feet high, as it grows to around 2,600 square feet, meaning it will be the tallest building for blocks as well as one of the most obese.
Back when it all began, when Mary and I and the first baby lived in a small one-bedroom apartment  outside the Ex's Dufferin Gate, we concentrated on Etobicoke in our search for a home because of its  reputation as a stable and sensible community.
We were going out the door to bid on a house under the flight path for Pearson when a city alderman, Harold Menzies, knocked unannounced and showed me some pictures of houses. And one caught my eye because it was in a desirable area just south-east of Royal York and Bloor.
As a city hall reporter, I knew that three important municipal commissioners, Tommy Thompson of parks, Voytek Wronski of planning and Ross Clark of works, lived near the house, and that an east-west subway station was 99% certain for that intersection.
We moved in April, 1963, just two months before the next son arrived, and lived there happily. Until now! The proof is that two son bought houses just two blocks away and we never moved from the storey-and-a-half of what was really supposed to be the starter house.
It bothered me that the bungalow to the south was so close.  I stood in the mutual walkway between my garage wall and its kitchen wall and could touch both easily. But its eaves trough was just 12 feet above the ground, which was not imposing, and when you looked out our kitchen window, there was still some sky and a tree to be seen as well as sunlight above its roof.
Just across from the bungalow on a narrow corner lot was Sunnylea junior school, built in 1947 by John Parkin after his studies as an architect at Harvard with the famous Walter Gropius.
Parkin lived near the end of Glenroy and was not yet famous as the Canadian architect on Toronto's iconic city hall.
Parkin intended Sunnylea to be a low, lean building, a revolutionary model for Canadians wanting innovative economic schools that wouldn't dominate a neighbourhood. Another famous architect, Saarinen, built a similar school in Illinois which also became a famous model.
Parkin designed classrooms with a roof edge of around 13 feet in height, making them compatible with the streetscapes of these three blocks of Glenroy and the first blocks of Elsfield and Humbervale running north. Even his tallest part of the school, the gym in which three of my sons have played, was only 24 feet high.
 The Committee of Adjustment has just allowed a bungalow directly across the street to grow to over 31 feet, arguing that the area may be mainly bungalows with some storeys and half,  and very few two storeys, but by golly if the rules allow you to build seven feet higher than an historic building then they will allow it no matter if it does stick like a sore thumb into the eye of every beholder.
The neighbours have always joked that we are the poor Kingswayers, or that we are the fortunate SoBs (South of Bloor) with the NoBs (North of Bloor) having to pay a lot more for similar homes. The area is usually called Sunnylea after the school and the vanished orchards.
Developers have now viewed Sunnylea as a gold mine where if they push and pull and whine at the Committee of Adjustment and the Ontario Municipal Board, they will be allowed to demolish part or all of the decent bungalows and build two-storeys with cunning tricks to get a disguised third storey.
My area several blocks south of Bloor has survived for decades with nearly 60 bungalows in the blocks around this bungalow. There are only 16 houses which are storeys and a half, or two,  or have been improved? higher by developers who treat the streets as their private parking lots.
The view of the city planner, who obviously needs an eye examination, is that the design is compatible with the area. That is so laughable, there is no need to deal with it at length. Obviously someone could have used a year under Gropius.
Since my home is literally under the gun here, but no longer the sun, and you may think me prejudiced by the overbuilding threat, let me offer the view of another resident of an area which until recently tended to be the pleasant expanses of long-time residents who didn't tinker with the skins of their homes.
Morley Kells has represented the area as a councillor, MPP, Olympic commissioner and cabinet minister,  and is certainly not anti-development because he once was president of the pro-builder Urban Development Institute. He points out the savage ridiculous irony of one of the smallest lots in the area now being the site for a house proposed to be one  of the largest.
Expansion should never have been approved, Kells says. It's just too damn large he says about the proposed house he will pass every day.
In the old days, we would say it's just too big for its britches.
Ironically, this application was for what are called "minor" variances. What was ignored was that the attic had been converted illegally into little bedrooms and a bathroom with windows and deck doors. With all these "minor" variances added to a bootleg attic, a major change is created.
I recalled to the committee, in a speech cut short by the chairman who had mumbled the rules of engagement and the timing of speeches into a mike that was pointed off to one side, that the affair reminded me of the award-winning movie Amadeus.
The emperor is asked why he does not like a new composition by the giggling Mozart.
"Too many notes," he said.
And why don't I like this proposal which would block the light and sky away from my windows, turn a patio into a well and allow cars to park at my backyard fence?
Too many variances!
What is the point of taking approval for planning away from the elected representatives if a clutch of officials then allow builders to break every regulation that deal with the size of the building?
No wonder neighbours refused to come to the hearing because they had been told by councillors and officials that it was a waste of time because these Committees of Adjustment "rubber stamp" everything.
The result can be seen everywhere. Decent and valuable homes that have existed for decades now have quick-buck artists shoehorning newby creations over  them.  Streetscapes look like they have been mowed by giant weedwackers.
One thing's certain! The Committee of Adjustment process needs a lot of adjusting. No minor variance will do. It's either that or council and the Legislature must confess frankly that the let's make a deal process where developers and their expensive coteries of lawyers and consultants who run wild on the main streets have so infected urban planning on the side streets that anything goes.
Thank heavens this proposal wasn't for an outhouse or a factory.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016



I was just a kid reporter when I learned first-hand of the bureaucratic hypocrisy of the Canada Revenue Agency or whatever its name was back in the day.
I answered a phone on the rewrite desk of the lamented Telegram and an official voice dripping with pomposity demanded to speak to the City Editor, the formidable Art Cole.
I had seen Cole make grown men cry and turn white with anxiety about their job so I asked naturally about the purpose. I didn't want to make Cole mad. I was answered by a cold "he will want to speak to me. "
I eavesdropped, of course. And I learned this was an income tax official spilling the beans about one of their coups in getting a lot more money out of some public figure.
And so I was inducted into the shadow world of government where bureaucrats routinely hide behind confidentiality shields and protecting the rights to privacy of citizens unless it suits their purpose not to.
Over  the years I grew familiar with the CRA apparatchiks who routinely called and told us of court cases and charges. Later I became the City Editor myself -  I would like to think kinder than Cole who had hired me and was a nice guy privately - and got these tips.
And they bugged me even before I became familiar with the rudeness and corporate deafness of our functionaries in dealing with too many complaints.
There was something unseemly about an agency with a deliberate policy of ensuring its victims financially also suffered bad publicity. I knew enough horror stories from the accountants I have used for decades to know that not all of those who lose out in the struggles with the mandarins are guilty of tax evasion.
They just lost out in the roulette game of whether the pencil posters  who came to deal with them were actually bright and informed or dumb as an old wooden desk.
Now I'm not in favour of people ducking taxes. This just means that you and I and all the others who don't scoff routinely at all laws and rules just have to pay more than our share. And to hell with that! But just about everyone has a horror story, and not just the accountants.
The legendary Arthur Gelgoot, accountant to the famous and the humble, once interrupted our annual session to say he just had to take this phone call.
He poured torrents of red-hot invective over some civil servant who was following up a threat of prison or execution for the Gelgoot family if it didn't settle the accounts of their father who had died.
Turns out one main stumbling point for the CRA was that the father had a huge GST debt, but as Gelgoot explained in a stunning display of curses, the father had been retired for many years, long before the GST was inflicted on us, and had never had anything to do with that odious sales tax.
Therefore, the "debt" was a fabrication built by the suits from BS, red tape, bureaucratese and lies (which may be the same thing.)
As a consequence, perhaps, some rookie tax regulator showed up and occupied a desk in Gelgoot's office for six months and never found a damn thing with any of his client accounts.
Now if only Arthur was around to get that HST refund that the CRA has been saying I've been owed since 2011 but never get around to sending to me.
My accountant, who was one of Arthur's associates, made a real drive a year ago to get that refund. Nothing ever happened that afternoon. A form hadn't been filed, it was claimed, so we filed it, and then we were told by a new official that the form hadn't been filed, so we filed it, and then we were told by yet a third official that a form hadn't been filed, so we filed, and then we were.....
Still don't have the money.
Thought of the CRA yesterday when I took a large refund that Mary got to the TD branch at Bloor and Jackson. Teller said that the CRA has been insisting for two months that all of their cheques over $1,500 must be verified by the agency over the telephone first.
I pointed out that there was enough money in the account to cover the cheque three times. And I was depositing it. Teller shrugged and said that was the new rule. So I waited and waited while he phoned so that I could deposit a cheque, which was basically just a return of some of Mary's  payments because the CRA had demanded too much in instalments last May.
I hate this drive by the taxcrats to force us to use computers as much as possible, as if everyone in the country is computer literate and has a computer that works every day. Come of think of it, that  combination is not possible.
I went to send some money to the CRA the other day and found that in this case, I couldn't do it except through a bank after it had deducted its paper cut of a fee.  Yet the federal drumbeat continues to drive us to a paperless society, except in their case where they will make four copies of everything. Banking and taxes are simpler now, they say, but not to the large number of pensioners who know from experience that they aren't.
Even if the computers were bug-proof, their input is garbage in the hands of the incompetent official. Do we really think the cream of our graduates want to do taxes? Years ago Mary ran into an old school friend. Nice, she told me, but really not quick. What does she do now, I asked? She is a supervisor for the CRA, Mary said. That figured, I said.
I confess that I used the CRA tip line once myself.  Southern Ontario in the days before IKEA was dotted with cities and town with their own furniture factories.
 My grandfather, who had taken in my sisters and I as three orphans,  had laboured for peanuts in one such factory until 72 because there was no pension and not much chance to build any savings. He died three weeks after he could no longer work.
I found out that the owners of the factory had some income tax trouble and had Ron Collister, later a CBC personality, dig around in the CRA.  Turned out they had trouble, indeed, even involving the selling of church pews with the money deposited in a secret Buffalo account.
The Tely ran the story on page one. And I found out that revenge actually can be sweet.

Thursday, June 23, 2016



I have never taken more pills.
 It seems I get a new prescription every year.
Which makes me popular at Shoppers Drug Mart when I'm not bitching about a problem in reordering.
Take the latest example. I see I'm low on something called ezetimibe so I call in and reorder.  Two days later, I go through the normal hassle of trying to park near the Shoppers at Royal York and Bloor and Mary runs in to collect my order. They have nothing for me.
Return home and phone. This time the story changes to that I tried to reorder while I still had 10 pills and the government won't pay until you have less than that number.
Now Mary and I run into this all the time even with such a minor maintenance drug as ezetimibe which reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed by the body and isn't to my knowledge a hot item in the drug world.
I have taken allopurinol for two decades to end vicious attacks of gout no matter how carefully I ate. Heaven help me if I try to get these pills before the government-appointed time. Yet allopurinol is  a drug that people take for years and isn't sold in dark doorways. How about enough to last three months.
I would like to know what OHIP bureaucrat is responsible for these arbitrary rules on when you can reorder minor drugs which are not on anyone's hit list of hallucinatory delights.
 I would drown them in pills and forms, or have their parents lecture them on getting a reasonable number of minor pills on each visit.
Now once a year, if you talk nicely about Barry Phillips, the veteran pharmacist who presides genially over his Drug Mart empire in central Etobicoke, and offer up your first born into servitude along with a second mortgage on the house, you can play snowbird and wing off to Florida or some warmer clime with even, heavens, a couple of months of pills.
But reordering drugs goes on month after month after month, not just once a year, and there are many people trying to grab a little order out of the chaos by putting together the daily allotment of pills two weeks in advance.
There are new people surfing above 65 every week,  and while all of us appreciate the drug help we get grudgingly from OHIP, we really do want to reduce the number of trips to even such a fine establishment as the Shoppers Drug Mart in the heart of the Kingsway.
After all, waiting cabs cluster around the Royal York subway station like bees around the hive, and there is a steady flow of  traffic behind the drug store on the one-way lane - with dumb drivers regularly going the wrong way.
We will have to move the Tim Hortons to get any help from the cops.
I doubt if the drug scene is going to explode if drug stores are allowed to renew a prescription while, heavens, the patients actually has more than 10, but our medicrats say they know best. That is one reason why our medical spending takes more than 40% of the provincial budget because of all the extra steps they insist are necessary.

Sunday, June 5, 2016



I have interviewed and even yarned with many famous people. Then when they move on to solve the great mystery of whether there is a heaven or a hell, I watch this flutter of journalists who try to create out of one interview or a few hours some relationship with the departed.
Why can't they just settle for an account of how these leaders in their fields impacted our country or the world?
Then there are those forgotten by time. Even if they die in the saddle, so to speak, they may have influenced or entertained hundreds of thousands,  but now they pass from the stage with only a few trumpeting farewell.
I can tell the story of how Nelson Mandela nicknamed me the Canadian who hit so hard, or when Yitzhak Rabin warned me about radicals in the cabinet room just weeks before one assassinated him, but they were just flashes of encounters over the decades and mean only that I did get to talk to a lot of people who were world greats.
And then there were the jerks who acted like they were.
Actually my theory based on many encounters with obese egos is the greater the person, the easier  to talk to. It's the petty chiefs, the bureaucrats on the make, who are more trouble than they're worth.
But today I talk about those durable performers with fame rooted in longevity. They created for us over the decades until their names became embedded  into the corners of your memory. You may not have thought about them for years but they were really around from childhood until the anecdotage when most have forgotten and the young just don't give a damn.
Like Howard Cable.
There was just one encounter. I was CNE president and had urged our reluctant entertainment staff to have a military tattoo. There was a reception first for the military brass, because it was important to get the co-operation of our defence department or the Ex would have had to pay for every last drummer.
And there I was introduced to an old man by someone who really didn't know who Cable was and suspected that I would be clueless too.
I pumped Cable's hand and said to me he was the most famous name in music. The legend of military music and Broadway shows and revues!
I had grown up listening to his music on the CBC when going to live radio broadcasts were still the in thing to do.  I would do the TTC trek to a studio just off Yonge where Wayne and Shuster performed on Thursday nights with Herb May booming into the mike. There was the Happy Gang every noon, with an audience generally of Ryerson students and a few tourists. But whatever the location and the time, most of the music I was hearing had been touched by the baton and pen of Howard Cable.
 And of course during the Ex the Grandstand show, with music supervised by Cable, was one of the biggest acts in Canada. Naturally he directed onsite entertainment when Expo 67 was the biggest and most innovative show in the world.
He was a stalwart of early TV in New York and in Toronto. He arranged and directed the music for countless National Film Board productions when the NFB was considered a national treasure. Many a Canadian revue or musical featured his music. High school music teachers used his scores.
He was so prolific and so great that of course he was still composing at 95 when he died this March on a day he was to scheduled to attend a recording session.
I chatted with him that one night about how he had grown up in Parkdale and loved to walk down to the Palais Royale to listen live to the Dorseys and one of the Herds of Woody, music that you hear now every Sunday night on 91.1, our jazz station which is smart enough to have Glen Woodcock as host of his Big Band show for 40 years.
Why Woodcock, the Toronto Sun's retired associate editor, almost goes back to the horse and buggy days and cream floating on top of delivered milk about which Howard Cable used to reminisce so often.
So I met Cable only once, but I listened to him for decades. And so did you if you have survived a few decades or so, even if you now forget his name.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016



I have never understood the fuss over the census.
It is a valuable source of information for me as a journalist. I didn't feel it violated any confidentiality deal with the government which routinely shreds our publicity.anyway.
I was a census taker back when they went door to door, and rather enjoyed it.
As a compassionate conservative, or so I like to think, I thought the Conservative objections to the census were dumb.
And, finally, I actually changed a major question on the census and was credited as a newspaper editor for doing so by StatsCan after I threatened through Sun editorials and my columns to drag them through every court in the land, including the one of public opinion.
As a result of my lobbying, backed by Doug Fisher, the respected dean of the Ottawa press gallery, we are allowed to call ourselves Canadians and not forced under threat of fine to declare that we came from English and Dutch stock when our grandparents had left there nearly a century ago.
I found out as a young reporter trying to save enough for my marriage that the bureaucracy would be ecstatic to use me in controversial areas like Rosedale where residents were used to complaining about everything. They figured I could handle the hassles diplomatically and reduce the number of beefs to important pols.
It was a unique experience. I remember the Toronto General nurse who had to answer the questions of the long form which she almost did while standing nude before me.
Believe me, I was not about to torpedo my wedding which was five weeks away by taking the bait if that was what it was other than a demonstration of how much she hated men.
I sensed trouble even before she refused to answer the income question. Later I phoned a supervisor at the hospital and got the general salary range for such a nurse.
Only a few doors away from that lovely home turned cramped boarding house, the long form had to be answered by Mrs. Walter Gordon, a legendary finance minister worshipped by the Toronto Star.
There were no problems because I had told her that my brother-in-law lived across from their country estate and that her husband had been thrilled to his Canadian soul to have the local farmer run a trapping line on his property.
As I recall, the top income category was around $34,000, a considerable sum to me because I was making less than $5,200 annually.
But Mrs. Gordon waved a gentle hand in the air when I asked if her husband made more than $34,000 a year and said "I should hope so."
Rosedale was filled with such contradictions -  noted politicians and bank presidents and architects in their huge homes vs. roomers in converted mansions just scraping by.
I found as a columnist that the census figures for a riding were invaluable in figuring out election results. And there were surprises hidden everywhere like mines in a turnip field.
I found in my riding of Etobicoke Lakeshore a half century ago that there were a number of homes not connected to sewers, that there were homes without furnaces, that a WASP looking street actually was occupied with first generation immigrants.
So the usefulness of the census in predicting the appeal of various political pitches made me a great supporter, except for that insistence that it was against the law to count yourself Canadian when it came to ethnic origin.
Since my father had come here in 1879 and my mother in 1905, I felt myself Canadian and not Dutch-English and resented the bureaucracy's insistence that Canadian was not a valid ethnicity even though Canada was older than half the countries of the world.
My father in the 1930s as a Tory power in Toronto introduced a young lawyer named John Diefenbaker to a former mayor and predicted Dief really would be Canada's PM.
I didn't much like this spitting quivering PM when I covered him but I thought he was wonderful for trying to pry the hyphen out of Canadianism.
To hell with French-Canadians and German-Canadians and even African-Canadians (which activists tried to use in the Maritimes and got shot down.) Wouldn't we have better relations with natives if we called them Canadians and not native Canadians?
When I got the letter about filling out the short form information on the Interenet,  I responded immediately to discover that once again the feds screwed up a simple task.
All the info I seemed to get when I went to the site defended the process and asked for census workers. But I perservered, and I hope the info is used properly, and not just by ethnic groups claiming that their minority needs more money to celebrate its roots.
Dief the Chief was right. The sooner people identify and act like Canadians instead of using our great country as a hidey hole from the storm before they move on, the better for them and us.

Thursday, May 5, 2016



The little car driven by the official ghoul handing out parking tickets circles endlessly like a bumblebee around a clutch of flowers.
He parks on sidewalks, up against hydrants, and on corners while he gouges the unfortunate motorists besides St. Joseph's Hospital who decided they couldn't afford the exorbitant parking garage costs and were trying their luck along the curb.
These were people limping to clinics with the help of relatives, even using walkers and wheelchairs, not people who could walk blocks in order to wait and wait and wait until a doctor sees them.
I was parked legally while Mary made a regular visit to a hospital outpatient clinic. I was in the car watching as the same ghoul circled endlessly, drawn to the honey pot of congested parking around the hospital, copying what real cops do when they set  their radar traps where they will be able to capture the motorist who doesn't realize the speed has just changed.
Officially, the Toronto parking enforcement officer is contributing to the "safety and security" of Torontonians. Which is a laugh! What these "officers" are doing is raising money for  councillors to waste by targeting the most vulnerable among us, those who through circumstance or health have to park longer or in a cramped area.
I have often watched the ghouls at work around St. Joes, one of the city's worst hospital, as I can testify to after two months of their ruinous care, and other hospitals.
This is not a defence of motorists who block hydrants or traffic or driveways. I understand that they are a problem. I seldom get tickets. But when I received a $60 ticket three minutes before the parking was legal a couple of years ago, I also understood the malevolent brutality of stupid enforcement. The constable I complained to agreed with me, not the jerk enforcer who infests the area around the Royal York subway station.
I have written columns or blogs about hospital parking charges, and about enforcement around hospitals. One blog was Mystery Rules From Fishing To Parking on Nov. 7, 2014. Another was Hospital Parking Robbery on Feb. 18, 2014. Then there was one way back on Dec. 3, 2011 because not much changes even though everyone from the Canadian Medical Association to medicrats at Queen's Park have agreed that high hospital parking fees and harassing parking policies around hospitals are a major problem in health care.
Councillors with their anti-car policies on everything from parking to signage have never understood that the TTC is not the better way for many hospital visits. Just try taking a bus to an appendectomy.
Patients cut short their visit to specialists. Relatives reduce visits to patients. The whole dismal issue casts a pall over the operation of the big hospitals which act like besieged castles when they should be oasis of calm care. Over all visits hangs the spectre of the ticking clock, the circling parking buzzards.
We have tolerated too much crap from our overpaid Toronto police force. Yes, I call it a force because it is not the "service" that it wants to be called when it takes a billion bucks out of the city treasury.
What we don't need from the top cops who talk about change for the better while stalling for the worse is a lot of nonsense where the ghouls at the bottom of their enforcement system deliberately target hospital areas because they know that there people desperate  to see the specialist about the pain in their gut are not always able to find parking where they don't have to obtain a second mortgage to finance.
Knock it off! Pretend the city has a heart and that the bureaucrats don't just pretend to help those to whom a parking ticket is another pain in their gut.

Friday, April 8, 2016



It was a neighbour driving me to a heart test in early morning who raised the subject of Bloor bike lanes, an issue so stupid I had shoved it to the back of my anger file.
We were zipping along Bloor from Royal York and Bloor to Toronto General, a trip that took only 20 minutes even though there were already a few cyclists screwing up a quarter of a block of traffic around each of them.
I said that Bloor was such a valuable traffic artery that I had written that at a minimum cyclists be banned during the morning and evening rusher.
But now we have Toronto council, that clutch and grab of politicians with  an anti-car majority, looking with approval on a Bloor bike lane from Shaw to Avenue.
That, of course, would be just the start. Bike zealots will be after Bloor and Danforth to have bike lanes from Mississauga to West Hill.
The Star ran a strange opinion piece on this because it confuses an ideal of useful comment by settling for just the pro and anti side of issues. This falls into the Equal Time For Hitler trap since such media practitioners are giving equal time and space to the good solution and then to the stupid or even the evil side.
There are several arguments that can be made in most issues, particularly in urban affairs. I hate to be logical in this case because there is nothing logical or particularly democratic about bike lanes when drivers and vehicles which pay considerable taxes to use roads are forced to share them with a mouthy minority - that is very mouthy and very small group - who freeload on the great majority with green arguments about healthy exercise and reducing congestion.
Ironically, the best way to reduce congestion is to reduce bike lanes or eliminate them.
The Star allowed the customary activists, one of them the executive director of Cycle Toronto, to write about the joys of turning this "main street" into a major accomplishment.
Wow, I thought. Nirvana is coming to Bloor.
Their main argument? "By making biking safer, the lane would encourage folks to leave the car at home and cycle more frequently to work or school. It would encourage exercise,  reduce congestion and improve the air...."
Well you get the idea. The usual argument from the usual suspects!
Let's break down who constitutes these "folks." To start with, their median age is 40.  If you wish to dive a little deeper into demographics, there are over five million Canadians over 65 and over six million Canadians under 14. That means almost a third of Canadians are definitely not into daily cycling along Bloor because of age or safety reasons. And just how many of the 67% in the 15 to 65 age group, such as the older women, would commute regularly by bike even if it was easier.
Now let's include Canadian weather which has been described as 10 months of winter and two months of bad skating.  Just a joke but let's settle for half the year when cycling isn't that great.
Now let's include the number of hours when the dark doesn't make many of us comfortable when we bike.
That shrinks the number of people who would use a Bloor bike lane to a tiny fraction of the vast numbers who will be inconvenienced by them.
No wonder that StatsCan found in the last survey of commuting in 2011 that a minuscule 1.3% biked to work. Yet the zealots would argue that if there were more bike lanes, that figure would rise, maybe even to the 5.7% who walked to work.
 Remember that these figures are based on urban living in cities and towns where it is 99.9 %  easier to bike or walk to work.
Obviously the reality because of the traffic hell that is downtown Toronto is that the city should be concentrating instead on improving traffic for the TTC and other vehicles.
 Any move to take more of the expensive asphalt and give it only to a few fitter cyclists who don't have to cart goods or children or the aged is so silly, in the future they will look back at us and laugh.

Thursday, April 7, 2016



Got a delayed Christmas "gift" the other day from Hydro One, the fast-buck sellers of electricity in a captive province.
The latest bills arrive for my cottage on a lovely point in the Trent River south of Havelock,  and for my very modest "bunkie" which is on the small neighbouring lot which used to be owned by an old drinker until it was bought in self-defence by the previous owners.
The bills announced that my meters had been "read"  on Dec. 25, 2015, and covered the period until March 25 this year. I relaxed when I glanced at that because I haven't stepped on the properties since last November.
Except the bills were $111.41 for each property.  Wow. Hydro One has increased even its gouging.
Hydro One was in the news the same day because the province has sold another 15% of it into the stock market, five months after the first bit was sold for $20.50.
The current price is just over $23.50, meaning it has been doing better than a lot of stocks on the TSE. My broker recommended I buy it, and he hasn't been recommending stocks, but I said no because Hydro One is a notorious opaque outfit which uses cheating meters and has been criticized harshly by everyone from the former premier to the former ombudsman.
Gather the last stock offering hasn't been snapped up which is understandable since buying Hydro One is a little like buying a ticket to a lunch with skunks at the local dump.
I was taught long ago that you didn't buy stocks in  companies that you and many people didn't like which have been criticized for inappropriate treatment of their customers.
There has been a distrust of Hydro since the 1940s, particularly by farmers enraged by the cost of poles down their lanes. As a political reporter, I quickly learned that the various elements of Hydro were considered fat and wasteful and difficult.
I have written many columns and blogs about Hydro One's glaring contempt for its customers - and I throw in the Toronto municipal power outfit which screws up most of the outages.
At least last year I got value for my $1,428.24 that I paid in the city for my power.  The comparison with my cottage bills is laughable since they totalled $1,152.73 for me being there several days most weeks for six months. The bill for the bunkie was $340.42 even though it was used only 10 nights at most.
In a  blog titled Blowing Ontario's Fuse on March 18, 2014, I complained about a standby fee in winter for each cottage which was then $75.28. Now it has gone up $36.14.
As a columnist and editor for many years, I am familiar with the squabbling over meters since deadbeats are notorious for cheating on utility bills if they bother to pay them at all.
But their inaccuracy has become legendary.
I have kept every Hydro bill for the cottages because they are always suspect. There was the year when my bill for the bunkie was three times the bill for the main cottage when the bunkie hadn't been used except for one weekend.
There have always been talk about provincial probing of the faulty meters and dishonourable conduct of Hydro  One but in the end nothing ever seems to happen.
No wonder there is frustration out on the concession roads and in Cottage Country which produces bitter lawn signs about cheating meters. I have written about the two women whose sign grumbled about not even getting dinner before they were screwed by Hydro One.
It is bizarre that some employees at Hydro One are so dumb that they pretend they have read my meters on the holiest holiday in the year. I suppose that it's some computer doing it, or trying to do it, but I didn't bother to try to find  out because dealing with electric utilities in this country is like extracting potable water out of a swamp.
Since it seems rather obvious judging from past behaviour that neither the Liberal government nor Hydro One are about to soften these charges when Hydro isn't even being used for months, I will have to stop this wastage of hundreds of dollars.
The simplest move is to take the power out of the bunkie. Since 90% of the activity from people staying there revolves around the main cottage, why give Hydro $340.42 a year for some night use? As someone who lived on a farm where there was no power, lamps and candles are not exotic to me.
Some readers will wonder why I don't just run all the power through one meter. Except the red tape and expense when you want to do that is quite high. When I did a major improvement to the main cottage, the very competent contractor ended up doing the wiring himself because the electrician just didn't show up after quoting a figure that shocked everyone but the contractor's brother who had just paid a ransom for wiring his new home.
And they were local, not city folk who are "taken" too often in Cottage Country.
 Guess that electrician was trained by Hydro One!
Too bad the inept Grits at Queen's Park haven't installed a circuit breaker in their dealings with the pygmies that now look after the electricity in this province which was built on the back of efficient and inexpensive generation from water dams that was famous throughout the rest of North America.