Saturday, January 23, 2016



When the wife of the prime minister burst into off-key song and startled a couple of hundred people the other day, I thought here we go again.
I have been through this before with the Trudeau women.
Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau appears to be prettier than her voice, and I am glad she brings some youthful exuberance to the scene, although the wife of the last PM was certainly an interesting biker.
But it's pretty clear from all the listeners that she can't sing and the verse she composed "during a difficult time of my life" isn't destined for the Hit Parade.
Just like her mother-in-law Margaret Sinclair Trudeau when she pulled the same stunt on more important occasions.
I never realized back as a kid reporter that I was destined to have some really different experiences with the Sinclairs over the decades.
It started with the patriarch, Jimmy, the fisheries minister in the 1950s and rated as a very nice very clever politician.
He came to the Yukon for the 1957 federal election which was a really big deal since no cabinet minister had ever campaigned in the territories. He sure impressed me as the editor of the only newspaper there, the Whitehorse Star.
We flew in a bush plane to Dawson City. During all the downtime in northern flights, there is a lot of yarning and digging and kidding. It emerged that Sinclair had been blessed with five daughters. The other five of us, all men, commiserated.
On the return flight, we ran into a blizzard and made two forced landings with wheels on the rotten ice of Lake Labarge. Finally we walked off, with me tolting Sinclair's luggage since he had broken his back in Russia when a speaker's platform collapsed. So I was the only one to fall through, which drew much rye-reinforced merriment because it was only five feet deep.
We walked three miles or so through thick muck to the Alaska Highway and were collected by a car whose driver figured out where we were despite our static-confused radio messages.
Sinclair spoke that night and flew out via TCA. And my story made the front page of every newspaper in the country, for the grand sum from the CP wire service of $15. How could it miss? It was the last week of May and we were flying from fabled Dawson City among the highest peaks in the Americas when we were forced down by a howling snow storm on the lake made legendary by Robert W. Service. Only the bush pilot's skill saved us, since the ice broke up only a few days later.
This thrilling experience certainly cemented Sinclair's name in my memory. When the whispers turned out to be true, that Peter Trudeau lusted after an 18-year-old who he first saw on a Tahitian beach and pursued even though he was 30 years older, I needed no backgrounding on that family of the nice minister with the five attractive daughters.
In the final days of the Toronto Telegram, we were presented through a strange source with a wonderful erotic picture of what was said to be Margaret in a bathing suit when Peter first saw her as the justice minister.
I think it would have cost me $600 to run it on Page 1 of the Saturday paper that I supervised as the assistant managing editor. Not a difficult sum, but the trouble was that it sure looked like Margaret but only the photographer knew for sure. Our Ottawa bureau were no help.
It was a wonderful erotic picture, almost in the same league as the famous Marilyn Monroe nude calendar. Every man, and some women, who I consulted certainly took their time with the examination.
It never did run in the Tely or anywhere else since my bosses and I were preoccupied with the agonies of the death of the Tely and the birth of the Sun. I wasn't about to go into history as the guy who got sued by the PM for running a lascivious picture of his wife in the second largest circulation issue in Canada.
I always intended to ask Margaret but when the opportunity presented itself, we were too busy yelling assorted swear words at each other in the lobby of a Caracas hotel. In my defence, I emphasize that she started it. (I have touched on this many times, including in a blog on Dec. 27, 2014, headlined Castro, Trudeau and Bartleman.)
After the mother of our sunny PM tangled with me because I rebuked her for profanely chastising her husband's private secretary in front of dozens of American tourists, I made her so mad that she stormed into the state dinner and refused to participate in the receiving line.
There were a number of bizarre incidents on that trip in 1976 involving Margaret but the media left her alone because she had just had her third son and it was known that she was having mental problems.
The self-imposed gag started to slip more and more because Margaret was slipping, ahem, more and more. (On a  visit to a ruin in Mexico, she gave her baby to a startled Canadian backpacker and then wandered away. )
Two days later on the flight home to Ottawa, Margaret invaded the press section of the Canadian plane and started chatting with me as if we had never cursed each other. I said we had been told that she had made up a song in honour of the wife of the Mexican president and had sung it from the head table of the formal state dinner. I said we had been told she had just done the same in Venezuela to the amazement of all.
When she confessed she had, I asked her to sing the songs to us. She waited until all the tape recorders were primed and then sang them into the little thicket of microphones.
A day later, she claimed she had been betrayed, that I had promised that it was all off the record. And I was on TV saying I had never said that and wasn't the whole point that the wife of our prime minister shouldn't be singing her little made-up songs a cappella at huge formal state dinners as if she was back in kindergarten as a precocious brat.
It's a short slip from enchanting to embarrassing.
I had several more encounters with her but no more  over her singing her little compositions.  There are many famous stories of her escapades but they involve the absence of panties and dubious escorts and funny cigarettes.
And then she settled down and emerged as a respected champion for those who like her suffer from bipolar disorder.
I never did feel guilty that I was one of those who ended the blackout on Margaret's exuberant behaviour because the normal dilemma for the media is shredded when the person is persistent as well as being famous.
 Besides, it's hard to call Canadians too careful and stuffy when the number one wife is warbling like a sick robin. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016



Helping refugees is helping yourself.
After the wonderful, frustrating, rewarding and irritating year (at least) that it will consume out of your life, you will be a better person. You will even think so.
They say it will be good for the country. Canada can look after itself. Not even the Liberals can ruin it. Do it because it will be good for you as you watch the children blossom and the adults rid themselves of the horrors.
Read on, dear reader, and think of helping a Syrian, or two or 43 of the millions from other ruined countries languishing in refugee camps.
Believe me, I know, as someone who has been there in the thirst and typhoid with turds floating in the ditches, talking to the hopeless with fever flushing their faces, that they have a miserable life now.
It is impossible for the media to exaggerate the anguish.
And if you do help a refugee, you will warm yourself later with your experiences about the laughs and tears and the clashes with bureaucracy as you help the hopeless to be born again in your country.
You will also know that in the wee hours when you can't sleep, you can content yourself that at least you have done one thing right in your life even if the family and neighbours and boss aren't thrilled with your disposition.
I got the idea on Canada's birthday in 1979 to detail how Canadians were helping the Boat People.  As a result, there are 43 (now more) Canadians in this country who survived fate's gauntlet.
I told the story in the Suns as readers in Toronto and Edmonton sent me $300,000 to  help with my new families, as I introduced them to Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Leafs and toilets and elevators and escalators and snow.
There is a column in on Feb. 24, 2013, headlined Basking In Boat People's Sunshine, which tells how well it all turned out.
 It didn't cost you or any taxpayer a cent. It cost me a lot of time, and bought a lot of joy. A great trade!
The reaction of Canadians to the plight of the Boat People drowning in the South China Sea was greater on a per person basis than any other country in the world.
Hell, the 43 that I sponsored into Canada was a larger total than the combined intake for several countries. Japan, of course, but also, and I do love the Aussies, Australia.
Ironically, the various aid agencies, churches and politicians were so shocked at what a right-wing tabloid was doing, many surveys didn't bother to mention the Sun. Ironically, over there I was a hero, interviewed at length in Hong Kong, which had tens of thousands of Boat People stuck in old army camps.
So let's compare the great refugee issues of the last three decades.
The world mourned the picture of the drowned tot, face down on the beach in 2015. It galvanized action, and won more acceptance for the armies of need as they marched and crawled and paddled into an uncertain Europe.
In 1979 there was no matching outpouring of sorrow when a number of babies washed up on a Malaysian beach after a Malaysian gunboat towed a rickety junk in a zig zag course until it rolled over and more than 130 drowned.
They didn't even bother to bury the bodies.
The Malays, terrified at all the Vietnamese of Chinese heritage floating on their flimsy craft to the coast around Kuala Terenggau, left the bodies for a few days with the occasional wave washing over them as a warning to the Boat People to flee somewhere else and not upset the ethnic mix of their country.
The two largest paper then in this country, the Star on Page 1 and my columns after I visited the beach near a sleazy motel, told of the murders but our coverage disappeared into nothingness like an old boat overflowing with refugees in the sea.
 I found that the captain of the capsized boat was living in Ottawa and could easily testify in North America against the tragedy caused by the supposedly civilized Malaysians.
But nothing ever happened, and the UN, of course, turned its face away because there was no opportunity to attack the Jews or whitey.
I suppose it was the same gunboat that took a run at the flimsy fishing boat that took us for three hours over the dangerous South China Sea to a teeming refugee camp of disease and starvation.
The gunboat roared up, big gun uncovered, while the impeccably dressed officer yelled at us with a phoney English accent, demanding to know where we were going, and for Sun photographer Norm Betts to stop taking pictures. Betts just took more. And I yelled back he knew damn well who we were since Hamilton told me that the boat had been chartered by the UN for precisely this purpose and the Malaysians knew that.
Then they wouldn't let Betts and me into the camp until I cursed and bluffed and waved a document from "their minister" which was really one of Hamilton's expense account forms.
Ah yes, that awful lumber city with its lovely necklaces of snowy beaches and people who spit in our face because we were there to help the enemy.
You certainly deal with many officials when you try to bring 43 refugees here. Almost all were wonderful and adroit with the red tape. I found all the immigration officials and the top Tory and Liberal politicians involved to be great, although there were a couple of jerk civil servants.
After all, I really didn't have any routine documentation, from passports and birth certificates to medical and school records, yet I enrolled nine children in Bowmore Rd. Public School without a problem. The principal, once a German immigrant, couldn't have been better, and the school secretary, always the key, was a sweetheart even before I found out my father had delivered her as the family doctor.
 I enrolled all the adults in ATL courses and said if they didn't stay I wouldn't pay them a small weekly allowance.  I found a job in the kitchen of a tough city hostel for one mother and she stayed for two decades.
There were glitches. A city building inspector said I had crammed too many people into an old group home that I had rented. I went to the mayor for an exemption  but then Doug Creighton, the Sun founder and loyal supporter of the adventure, said it would be safer to give in rather than game the situation and I found another house to rent which reduced the money I had to help them.
Creighton also came to my rescue when a teenager,  now an architect who chose his English name from a dictionary with my approval, got into a scuffle on a rink with a black gang. He was charged with assault. I went to court armed with a U of T law professor and the Crown, who had been one of his students, ran for the hills.
That was the nearest any of our Boat People got to trouble, and he wasn't guilty, not when he was taking on four bullies.
I had hired for a modest sum a former South Vietnamese military pilot to help me with my families and six young men, and he was worth his weight in gold just as an interpreter before his gentle advice.  Such assistance is valuable when no one spoke English.
And now my rules for having a lot of fun doing one of the nicest things you're ever going to do.
Or maybe just surviving when things get difficult.
Expect all the people who promised to help to melt away like the snow in May.
Mary and I started flush with assistance. Even our directors' wives helped us wash the walls of the first group home I rented, though one did present me with the parking tag she got.  I finished 15 months later without even my friends asking how it was going.
Expect a few refugees to be a bit calculating about just how much they can get out of you. They just don't know our resources and incomes.  Don't think badly of that. They're just acting like some of your neighbours.
I had one refugee say that surely a big newspaper could give "us"  more money. He descended on me unannounced as I was filling in for Editor Worthington in his office awash with material for fiery editorials. I remembered that this guy had been a government truck driver in Hanoi, meaning he had to have been a Communist to get such a job, and let loose the hounds of hell of rhetoric that Worthington always turned on the damn commies.
He never asked again.
Don't expect your refugees to think that everything you do for them is wonderful, and that all your customs should be their customs.
Make it plain, however, that you are a proud Canadian and like democracy and if the people you are helping regard Canada as a temporary hidey-hole from which they can launch their ancient grievances and prejudices and discrimination, maybe they should ship out.
I left my refugees alone for a week or so on a regular basis. Creighton got a little annoyed that I didn't write more about them, and I was tempted since I alternated then between five and six columns a week, but I wanted to give them some privacy.
Just because you are helping someone doesn't mean they have to be on display as social guinea pigs for everyone to marvel at how well they are doing on integration.
Expect some of the people around you to hate what you are doing. They will tell you there is already a shortage of jobs and resources for people born here.
Ignore them. When they curse you on the telephone, demonstrate that you have a larger vocabulary.
Or treat them like I did the guy at the gas station who demanded with crude belligerence when I was filling my car whether I was the asshole Downing who brought the @#$%^**%$ cows and shorties here. I asked him to open his pocket so I could pump some gas into his groin and then look for a match.
Nothing is quite as satisfactory as a stupid redneck response to a stupid redneck.  Made me feel wonderful! Just like those refugees did, every last one of them, except maybe that truck driver when he wanted more.