Wednesday, December 4, 2019



I have been a fan of flu shots even when it has been difficult to get one.
The family history indoctrinated me early. Uncle Lou, who came to help my father, the first John Henry Downing, had been a doctor out west during the flu epidemic that devastated the world in 1919. He almost died from flu and overwork and had to recuperate for six months in a Vancouver hotel before returning to Saskatchewan where a street is named after him in Lanigan.
So the Downing doctors took flu very seriously in their huge family practice around Gerrard and Greenwood. And they taught their kids.
So when flu shots became available, I got one, and moved the motion on a hospital board that any doctor, nurse or worker who didn't get a flu shot would not be allowed to work during flu epidemics, and would not be paid.  I wrote columns and editorials attacking paramedics and other city personnel who refused to get flu shots.
I couldn't have agreed more when Women's College refused to let me see two grandsons in incubators,  each only 40 ounces when they were born, until I could prove I had had flu shots.
Which brings me to the last few years and the great drive by government and drug chains for everyone to get flu shots. Of course! Hallelujah!
I am in my Shopper's Drugmart at Royal York and Bloor several times a week. When you stand at the back of the store (and remember when it was the headquarters for the world's first pay-TV experiment) you watch all the men and women over 80 who are turned away because the ordinary flu shot is not recommended for them.
Last year elderly people in Etobicoke, and perhaps much of Ontario, were faced with waits of weeks if not months to get the special flu shot if they were over 80. Ironically, or maybe it's tragically, even though I'm one of the Downings who didn't struggle and become a doctor, I would say the elderly are the most vulnerable in our city to damage or death from flu.
Right now the walk-in clinics in the giant suburb of Etobicoke have no special flu shots for those over 80. (Drugstores don't give the shots to the elderly.) The walk-in clinic at Six Points, one of the largest around, may get more shots for the elderly next week while other clinics don't even expect repeat deliveries.
I haven't had the flu for years, even though an encyclopedia of other ailments have struck me. I think the flu shot program is a great PR and smart health move by the provincial health ministry.  But this annual stupidity is just dumb even for a ministry that certainly knows how to screw things up.
As a veteran hospital board member and, damn it, a consumer of health services far more than I want to be, I am baffled that such an important ministry seems to spend more time on reorganizing than actually helping patients get better medical service.
I have known 15 health ministers, mostly on a professional basis but some have been social acquaintances. Generally the ministers have been among the best in cabinet. The current minister, Christine Elliott, is so competent that I have written she should be premier. So I just don't understand why we continue to have huge glitches like this even in a program that everyone supports except for some stupid people who get their wisdom from fish entrails.
Perhaps if they spent less on advertising the need for flu shot and more on actually providing them, more of the elderly would last to spring.

Saturday, October 19, 2019



CJRT is celebrating its 70th anniversary this Halloween although the scramble at the birth of both the station and the university that launched it actually produced two openings.
The first words on the ceremonial opening broadcast on Nov. 1 were nothing fancy, just student Bob Leitch saying “this is your educational system CJRT broadcasting from studios in the Ryerson Institute of Technology, 50 Gould St., Toronto.”
After H.H. Kerr, Ryerson's founding principal, spoke cautiously, novice instructor John Barnes broke from the straight and stuffy to become almost lyrical at 7 p.m.
“Today is Nov. 1, known in the church calendar as All Saint’s Day. And so last night was Halloween. You were no doubt visited by certain ghosts who introduced themselves to your home in spectral fashion. Tonight we bring up a new ghost, using radio waves to knock upon your door and enter your home. Like last night's visitors, this one is also useful and the first of its kind in Canada. That infant ghost is Station CJRT, Canada's first education broadcasting station, a new venture in this country...We are licensed to program a wide variety of broadcasts with the only exception of nothing commercial.”
It was a humble start, symbolized by the oddity that the first staff member was a teacher of English who was insisting he return to teaching his subject. The station would stay at Ryerson for half a century and then become the popular non-profit jazz station in Liberty Village which was then just an expanse of factories.  It leaned on music at the start, too, but mostly classical. It was the cheapest format for radio, first 30 minutes of recorded music as a dinner concert, then when it finished at 7 p.m. a 15-minute documentary on broadcasting and CJRT’s history. For the next 45 minutes until sign-off came recordings by little-known composers. You didn't get to hear the big hits of the year like Blue Moon or Baby, It's Cold Outside.
Everyone at Ryerson was proud of the station even if they didn’t really know what FM was. The institute listed it on its official letterhead (CJRT-FM 88.3 meg Education's Own Radio Station) because after all it was a first even if it was unknown.
It was the early FM days and no one then predicted that eventually FM listeners would dwarf those of the AM giants like CFRB. There were few home receivers because legendary media entrepreneurs like Roy Thomson in Timmins and Ted Rogers in Toronto had not yet hit on the strategy to sell FM receivers at cost and gain more listeners. Still, it was rare for a school to operate an AM station for even a few hours, so there had to be an official opening.
Or two!
The bureaucracies of education and politics fiddled the calendar for the public ribbon cutting and finally decided on Nov. 22. Premier Leslie Frost and Education Minister Dana Porter agreed on that date just to get it out of the way because it really wasn't important. Yet Frost did have more than a casual interest since he owned the radio station in his lair of Lindsay.
It all began at the CJBC station just up Jarvis St. and then moved to the historic but uncomfortable gem of an auditorium in the main building surrounded by military prefabs that had been used by the Normal School and even Egerton Ryerson for almost a century. There the equipment that supposedly put the station on the air was activated, although insiders knew the station had really been operating for three weeks.
Then the modest festivities moved to the primitive plywood studio for the station that had been fashioned out of a weird room built originally to train fighter pilots. Mini documentaries and canned dramas were broadcast to show how it would operate.
Kerr didn't want to pick fights with the big Toronto radio stations so he emphasized to anyone who would listen that CJRT was aimed at supplementing existing radio fare by offering a distinctive  service for listeners who were not being served, either because of small numbers or minority tastes.
The station had limped into an early life before Ryerson evolved to an institute of technology after its rehab days for veterans returning from World War Two. A few vets, coached by local radio personalities, ran what was really a major ham radio operation. Then Kerr and his key assistant, Eric Palin, who had laboured to keep the station going after the rehab days that ended the previous year, went before the governing board in Ottawa and were granted a licence because there really wasn't any competition.
Kerr told me for my book Ryerson University A Unicorn Among Horses that Ryerson perhaps wasn't the first in Canadian education to get a broadcasting licence."I think Queen's may have had one for AM and there were one or two out west but we were FM and the first to run a station on a completely professional basis."
The broadcasting industry had big hopes for the station because it worried about what organization would do the training if the expected boom happened. As proof, A. Davidson Dunton, a famous broadcasting name as chairman of the CBC's board of governors, came to the bureaucratic opening. No need to give him one of those rare FM tuners but Ryerson presented one to the premier and one to the minister because it was important to keep them happy. After all, the premier was in the business even though he generally was baffled by anything that Ryerson did, and Porter was the local MPP.
It would be years before FM radios were common even in cars. On some nights, the rookie announcers from the Radio and Television Arts course were heard mainly over the loudspeakers hung in the battered halls outside the studio. Now they are remembered in the CJRT call letters that stand for Journalism, Radio, Technology.
There are many grads in Canada from CJRT/RTA, including some working at the station today. One famous one is Glen Woodcock whose Sunday Big Band show is one of the oldest radio programs in the known world. It goes back so far that Glen claims that Eve was the first Big Band singer.
The Ryerson of today has few traces, other than the facade of the famous building from Egerton's day and pioneer names on buildings, of the historic jumble of buildings and courses  that the early grads like me survived.
Yet it has climbed rung by broken rung to become a major university, and its radio station that started because there was some left-over equipment after a war has climbed even higher to broadcast from the top of the CN Tower and earn an international reputation.
Happy Birthday, CJRT,  let me buy Woodcock and other stars there many beers at Steele's. Oh darn it, it's gone, isn't it, under the Ryerson footprint, and the days have vanished into nostalgia when Lightfoot and Hawkins romped there with Sam the Record Man promoting next door. Lucky days for me when I still had enough money to drink there or at the Edison.
At least I have 91.1 to keep me happy as I contemplate the mists before Ryerson became famous and everyone had several FM radios.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019



I don't pretend to be an expert at many things but after moderating dozens of political debates at every level in forums ranging from Nathan Phillip Square to TV studios, I really do understand how the best debates come to be.
Let me declare without expecting any valid objection that what we're experiencing is so inane it would be a miracle if they helped one voter.
That farce involving what was billed as the political "leaders" of Canada was so bad that I kept flipping to other channels but then coming back to see if this verbal mess had sunk even further into a swamp of horrors.
Then we have the American versions featuring most of the registered Democrats and a media desperate to fill the endless news cycle.
Too many candidates! Too many moderators! Too much emphasis on timing! As a result you have candidates under the pressures of the clock and the others talking over top of them resorting to the talking points that they can recite in their sleep.
If you have more than four candidates in a debate, you have a problem.
If you have more than one moderator for  a debate, you have a problem, especially if each moderator wants to show off how clever they are with words. A moderator should be like a traffic cop at an accident: Keep the vehicles moving and not give preference to any lane.
The smart candidates are going to talk about what they want to get across so the question from a moderator is really not a probe but just a trigger for the topic. Any moderator who wants to make a rep should realize they are the least important person and the voters don't really give a damn about them.
Don't give me guff about fairness, democracy and all that because the blunt reality is that what most of the audience wanted the other night was to compare the Liberal, Tory and NDP leaders because they are the only ones who have the remotest chance of forming a government.
The other three aren't even window dressing on the process. It's just a waste for us to listen to tales about an unrealistic world of electric everything where one of the great economic drivers of our country, oil, should be sacrificed on the international altar of activists.
What we need is depth to the arguments because currently even a fish pond is made to appear an ocean. It benefits the shallow actor, like the drama queen from the stage world of costumes, makeup and sincerity in a can who is the latest gLiberal to try to spend their way to our popularity.
A good debate has the only candidates with a real chance debating issues for more than a minute a pop. It should take several hours. Any time a electronic device detects two people talking at the same time their microphones should be shut off.  The leaders can even sneak in their five-minute stump speech at the end just in case any voter hasn't heard it already. This would be a reward for them actually baring themselves publicly to the slings and arrows of outrageous opposition in an assault that lasts longer than a quip.
Of course it will never happen. And so I will never watch one completely since I no longer have to.
Oh no, the CBC would have a hissy fit, along with the sanctimonious Star, and myriad commentators and PC professors would trumpet that it is more important to have a garbled debate that really isn't watched than a lean version that might reveal something about the leaders.
All hail the politically correct political process in North America where anyone who can mouth a trite slogan about the environment and saving seals and banning drink straws and the joys of bike lanes can shove their way into a debate in front of an audience which then mentally heads for the exit.
So we have 28 people run for mayor of Toronto, and most of the known world competes to be the Democratic nominee for U.S. president, and people are so revulsed by these phoney debates, histrionics and posturing in today's shallow politics that we have blithering fools running the States and Britain.
One reason for the revulsion is all these people who think they should run for office because they can run for office. What we need is more critics who don't suffer fools gladly. If public resources are going to be used for a debate, the public has a right to demand that only those who really have a chance should be included.  Let the chuckleheads go argue in a bar or lineup to be interviewed by the CBC.
Right now, the admission bar requiring some glimpse in the polls or number of candidates in a party has been set too low. So the debates are crowded with more clamouring to get in. The chaos on the stage means you're lucky to hear even a coherent boast. So I spend my time instead watching very old reruns of M*A*S*H.
At least there they get a chance to operate on each other!

Monday, October 7, 2019



In the days of power and glory that was the Davis Government in the 1970s, Tom MacMillan stood head and shoulders above all the backroom players in ministers' offices.
I'm not sure when I became aware of him as a force behind the powerful provincial treasurer but it may be the day he was lounging at the big wooden table in the (illegal) bar just off the Legislature's press gallery and announced pleasantly that I was full of shit in my column that morning and gave such an impressive analysis of my errors that I used it the next day after subtracting the sarcasm.
And for nearly 50 years I listened to anything TeeMac had to say, other than any golf tips with his buddy Andy Donato, because not only did he always think outside the box, he could kick the crap  out of anyone who took refuge there.
He was agreeable with sharing his torrent of ideas that he had on every imaginable topic as he participated 120% in life.
I have read comments about his passing and think it should be made more obvious that he could be essential to any political party or club or newspaper if given an opening because his mind was so quick.
He wasn't a believer in bureaucracy with its forms, protocol and the way things were always done. It was a very minor thing, perhaps, but I've never forgot his mini rebellion when he tired of renting the Syd Silver tux on all the occasions where he had to represent his ministry and bought a tailored tux and saved the government money in the process. The auditor refused to pay but by some mysterious process the story was leaked.
He was the ideal committee man. I am sure that Saint Peter has already put him on the harp board because he was always at the head of the line when it came to committees for charities and reunions and where should we go for drinks.
The refreshing part of his volunteering was that he always did more than his share and was quick to harvest any suggestion from the rest of us if it wasn't too lame.
So if we were honouring the doctor for our informal club of friends, and Bernie Gosevitz loves to flaunt colourful socks (he does it with more class than the PM) and I suggested that we make that a  features of the fund-raising dinner, then TeeMac's committee would seize the idea and even Donato's invitation told all the men to flaunt really wild socks.
He could seize any gimmick, large or small, and incorporate it into the event, as fast as any trout rising for a lure.
The rejigged politically correct cliche is that behind every successful person stands a surprised spouse. I have found that behind every good leader in politics and business stands an assistant or two  capable of dealing with any situation from a crazy man in the reception lobby to a gift for the wife on the forgotten anniversary.
Behind Bill Davis as premier stood Clare Westcott, behind Paul Godfrey as Metro chairman stood John Kruger and Ray Biggart, and behind Doug Creighton as publisher and president were a handful of trouble shooters, especially TeeMac, no matter what his formal title.
Believe me, I studied the symbiotic relationships with more than casual interest having turned down being an assistant to Creighton and Godfrey because of the hectic life. But TeeMac thrived.
In the early Toronto Sun, a few of us were expected routinely to do myriad chores far outside our job description (not that there were job descriptions.)
Nothing quite captured the complicated relationships between Creighton and his key people better than the night that TeeMac as Albany Club president was presiding over the annual Sir John A. dinner at the club that is the Tory holy of holies.
Creighton had just had a brainstorm at dinner at his "club", Winstons, then one of the best and most famous restaurants in the country. So he sent for TeeMac to immediately take action. TeeMac explained that he was chairing a dinner that had several past PMs and premiers in attendance but Doug insisted. So TeeMac left the dinner, talked at length to Doug and then returned to a puzzled head table.
I sympathize with those labouring in the beleaguered Toronto newspaper market today when the old farts and Sun Day Oners reminisce about the knuckle wars between the Star and Tely and the glory days when a tabloid upstart of overworked journalists followed the Pied Pipers of Doug Creighton and Peter Worthington from stunt to scoop to adventure.
These are tough times for Toronto newspapers, but please forgive and allow the diminishing corp of old timers to boast about how great it used to be because it keeps us warm as the sun goes down. And we certainly are growing fewer with Tom MacMillan and others going on before us. Yet I am sure that he has advised Saint Peter that the Golden Gates would look a lot better if there was a Sun box just outside and each and every day the paper should get a little fatter.
Not that it ever could grow to match our nostalgia of the little paper that grew and grew and then ....

Monday, September 30, 2019



When I see some jerk wearing torn jeans, I curdle inside with rage, since once I had to wear ripped pants because I was poor.
It's not fashionable but offensive to the many in Canada and millions in the world who are forced to wear torn clothes or even to go without and shiver through the night.
Thank heavens that none of my relatives or friends or neighbours think it's really great to show strips of their flesh with fluttering strands as a frame because I would have to fight the temptation regularly to tell them to smarten up.
What exactly is the appeal? To say I want to demonstrate to everyone that I really can afford to buy jeans that haven't been torn or beaten but I've decided not to even as I climb into the latest hot car that cost more than many families make in a year.
Now I confess that my hatred of this dumb attempt to be fashionable was born that day in Grade 5 when Miss Thompson asked me to stay behind when the class broke for lunch. She said that I wasn't decent  and I couldn't come back to class unless my grandmother fixed the crotch of my breeches because various parts were in danger of swinging in the wind.
So I trudged home wrapped in a cloud of mortification. I didn't dare tell my grandmother because she probably would slap me for being too rough on my clothes. So Joyce and Joanne, my sisters who also had embarrassing clothing when they went to their grades just ahead of me, came to my rescue with some scraps of cloth that they wove into a form of basket with clumsy stitches.
So I waddled back to school (there was no cafeteria) and the approval of Miss Thompson who stood at the class door and inspected me, apparently not noticing the threads and unmatched cloth that sprouted below the military grey breeches.
It was an awful few months with me waddling around with a scratchy crotch and the resulting stubborn rash. I only had one other pair of  breeches. which are the worst form of clothing ever to be inflicted on a boy, but that pair was for church. Then came spring and the freedom of short pants which were a lot cheaper than breeches so I actually had a second pair. And in the fall the grownup joy of long pants.
You learn to be careful with clothes and money and just about everything else if there is no cash around when you are a boy. Indeed in all of Chesley money was tight as the town limped out of the depression only to be hammered by war.
So I can't shake that past when some of the nostalgia is more sour than sweet, especially when I see some plump teenager lounging on the subway with flesh bulging out of the slashes at the knee as she ignores the pensioners standing around her.
The idea of paying $70 or $250 for jeans that have been cut in the very latest style, or so the ad says, or buying jeans that have been bashed by stones and washed within a thread of their useful life, is so offensive to me that I list it as one symbol of how screwed up a wasteful society can be when trashy fashion survives even when it is offensive to common sense.

Sunday, September 22, 2019



Once upon a time, say 70 years ago, minstrel shows flourished as church and various social groups rushed to blacken their faces and sing Stephen Foster songs as they repeated the old lines and verbal gimmicks that had clustered like barnacles to the shows over the decades.
It was one of the traditional ways to make money for a club. The only question about them in the communities like Chesley or Peterborough was whether you would go this year because it was an annual event that wasn't blessed with much change...or new jokes either.
There was one giant adult Bible class that drew members from throughout the GTA to Parkdale that had an annual minstrel show that was reviewed in the newspapers.
And then the shows went away, more from indifference and changing times than hostility. And then as a young reporter I found in my rounds that Stephen Foster songs were now considered bad and the entertainment world looked back on the popular Amos 'n' Andy radio show with white men acting with contrived black accents as cringingly embarrassing.
As a young father riding shotgun as my sons solicited on Halloween I ran into the occasional tot with a blackened face and thought that the family probably couldn't afford a mask. I didn't see anything terribly wrong about that because my first costume as a kid when I had to squeeze a nickel hoping to make it into a quarter was an old sheet and a face darkened with burnt cork. I'm not sure what I was supposed to be but I won a prize.
I suspect that there are many of us with similar histories. There has been an appropriate evolution in sensitivity and discrimination so that we now know that darkening the face with brown or black makeup is hated by minorities and even when we think the country has gone far too far in politically correct language and action, the ban on such makeup is appropriate even if we grew up in a gentler time when minstrel shows were fun and not anti-Negro.
I use the language of the past because I never heard the word black even from my aunt who was a missionary in Nigeria for several decades. And we called them Indians (the legislation still does) and anyone who used the word indigenous was an anthropologist in a lecture.
Back in the days when I was in charge of the entertainment department of the newspaper - although Glen Woodcock and his critics treated me as an interloper - Mary and I went to every opening night of theatre, even the experimental theatre when you squirmed on old pews.
So you will pardon me if not all my memories are sharp. I recall a Broadway revival at the Royal Alex when in the middle of something that may have been called Sons (or Songs) Of The Desert the actors gathered around a campfire had their faces painted green.
"Wotinhell?" I asked our theatre critic the next day. He explained as if I were a backward child that it was illegal in Ontario theatre to paint your face black so this had been the Mirvish solution to an essential part of the plot. Everyone in the theatre world knew that.
He then went on to scorn my love of Stephen Foster songs and minstrel show jokes. We then engaged  in a lively debate when I said I had grown up not hearing anyone slagging blacks but there were those whispered digs at Catholics and Jews and the most pervasive dislike of minorities had been the grumbling about Indians wasting all the money they got from us.
"But they do," he said, and for a minute I was back in my first newspaper job in the Yukon when just about everyone on the muddy main street of Whitehorse grumbled about that the day after the welfare cheques came.
So I had mixed emotions when it came out that the PM was stupid enough as an adult with a theatre background not to know that it was illegal on the stage and improper on any occasion with more status than a bar brawl to paint all his visible skin with ugly brown and then to drape one coated hand above the no go area of the attractive woman that he had in a death grip.
I'm not sure exactly when it became illegal and socially unacceptable to blacken your face but it was probably before Justin was born in contrived circumstances on Christmas Day in 1971. Now I realize that he didn't exactly have normal parents when it came to sexual rompings and go screw yourself attitudes but you would have thought that he would have picked up some clues since 1971 that theatrical oratory, groping and constantly playing ethnic Mr. Dress-Up would eventually catch up to him and leave him with a very red face.
But then that's the Liberal colour!

Saturday, September 21, 2019



It would have been difficult to have had a more confused and humble beginning when something called Ryerson Institute of Technology opened its historic and battered red door over two days because the politicians were busy the first day of classes when maybe 210 students launched the future university on its way.
Now there are 40,000 students and nearly 3,000 doing post grad, numbers so fantastic that back on Sept. 21, 1948, you would have been trundled off to 999 which old Torontonians will recall is what we called the Insane Asylum before it was, thank heavens, renamed.
It is very much the old city that we uncover when we poke at the entrails of a university that survived more perils than the heroine in any Saturday afternoon movie for kids in the 1940s and 1950s when Rye High kept clawing for life.
All it had on its side was a glorious (but publicly ignored) history because its home of St. James Square had been the nursery for more innovations in Canadian education and culture than snooty U of T that did its best, along with the other universities, to make sure the insult of Rye High flourished as if Ryerson was just a souped up high school.
I came along in 1955 when you had to be nuts, considering the general wackiness, to enrol. But I'm glad I did get sucked in by the glossy calendar that made the place look like a cross between MIT and Harvard. We survivors got a great education, especially for the rough world of Toronto newspapers,
I wrote the history of the early days on Ryerson's dollar but then had to publish it myself as Ryerson University A Unicorn Among Horses because as student president and member of many board advisory and search committees I often saw what the Ryerson administrators wanted hidden in a censorship frenzy.
One former president said the university was looking forward, which was a polite way of admitting that many, including him, wanted to forget the first years which were a mix of BS, high school, gifted and innovative profs, failed teachers marking time, and a despotic regime which would made old Russia look like a summer camp.
So the university turns a frigid shoulder towards my book - which you can get through Amazon in the various versions of Kindle etc. - not realizing that old grads like me think the young Ryerson was the equal of any university because it taught us that  survival and even success was up to us, not some tenured prof mumbling into his politically correct lecture notes.
My original manuscript was chopped and mangled and survives, barely, in the university archives, and the hours of tape with the pioneers such as H.H. Kerr were shunted to some nook when taping technology moved on. Yet the nostalgia is golden when my fading classmates gather in a flurry of remember whens.
Even H.H., the first principal/president, is remembered for his accomplishments rather than his stupidities like when he put our entire class on probation because the mother-in-law of a major reporter complained to the premier about us. (But that's another story.)
For almost a century, there had been a teachers' college at the Square. And one of the first public museums in Canada. And art school. And art gallery.  Various government ministries had started there. Air crew trained there for war, and when the war ended, the veterans came to patch their CVs. Then came the apprentices. And now, what? Everyone wondered.
Ryerson had to wait a day for even a modest opening ceremony for the unveiling of the next step towards newfangled technology because it wasn’t important enough to command immediate attention. It was a careful occasion but not a splashy one because the public wasn’t quivering with anticipation. Two weeks later, there was a brief mention in the Legislature about institutes in general but Ryerson wasn’t mentioned because skepticism was common and the Opposition indifferent because not much money was involved.
 So no band played, no bunting waved, and no one cut a ribbon when students walked to the first classes on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Just how many were there? Estimates ranged up to 250, with 210 as Kerr’s best guess. No instructors bothered much with Admit-To-Lecture cards and roll calls, just happy some had shown up.
The next day, the premier and an entourage of civil servants gathered at 3 pm. in the auditorium, then the largest space available because the biggest air force buildings were chopped up by partitions. Many didn’t realize the old hall was one of the most historic in the city.
 It was a cool, clear afternoon that made people hope that Indian summer would arrive soon before winter. Ironically, considering the delays it had caused Ryerson, the big news was the Berlin blockade. Kerr had had his staff beat the bushes for an audience of students. They were only at Ryerson because of the promise of new courses and must have been perplexed when the premier spoke as if the rehab programs for veterans were just continuing.
(George Drew probably was preoccupied with leadership manoeuvres but he never lost his blissful ignorance about the institute that he had allowed. Kerr remembered Journalism students interviewing him later in Ottawa and becoming upset when it became obvious that Drew was still hazy about what Ryerson taught and was surprised to find a Journalism school there.)
 It was left to two provincial officials to stress the new aims, to bring underlings in support, and to arrange for telegrams from well-wishers, including principals, in an attempt to convince the premier there was wide support.
 For Kerr, the stars of the occasion were in the audience, not on the old stage. Kerr thought fondly of the first students because “they were the real pioneers. They were taking a chance on a type of education of which they, and the outside world, knew very little.” For years his instructors talked about these “special” students, like the first student president, Tom Gilchrist, who became a CBC star as Gil Christie.
The second president also was remembered, because he was the biggest character there, among the students that is.
 Honest John Vail, as he liked to be known, used a top hat, stunts and a refreshing confidence to become a legend. Inevitably, when H.H. called in for a chat the new Students’ Administrative Council president — the preferred name at first because that was the name at U of T — he would mention Christie and Vail while the student sat nervously across the desk that had been used by Egerton Ryerson.  (I still remember his wintery smile while he tried his awkward best to put me at ease.)
 Vail also figured in an early problem which was a hint that campus newspapers would always give Kerr headaches. The first paper was just a mimeographed sheet but it infuriated him with its attacks on the administration. He figured his student leader was the best bet to unmask the ungrateful writer. Vail kept reporting he was getting close but he never found the culprit. Or so he told Kerr, who found out too late that Honest John, using Ryerson equipment, had been the secret critic.
 The students found after the first days stretched into routine that despite all the talk about new courses, there were no dramatic changes from the past. Rennie Charles had come from war to the rehab confusion which taught thousands and said it was a gradual transition “from some of the things we had been teaching.” There were also older faces besides the staff because there were still some veterans. They qualified because under Kerr’s rules, anyone qualified whom he wanted to admit. Besides, he thought it safer to keep them at the Square than have them go to the last rehab operation in Hamilton where they might be dissatisfied and complain to an MPP. Their presence also helped boost the numbers.
 Eventually the Square became a routine stop for celebrities and leaders. They would receive honourary degrees, open buildings and speechify. But none of this mattered as much as that humble opening ceremony when even if the premier was, in the language of students, clueless as to what really was going on, at least Drew brought his prestige. So the Conservative newspaper, the Evening Telegram, responded with a big layout on Page 3 which had the familiar picture of the Normal school but also, for three cents a copy, Helen Hutko fitting clothes on a dummy and H. Perryman repairing a clock.
 The feature began: “There isn’t a football team at the new Ryerson Institute of Technology on Gould St. There is no school tie and there are no dormitories. But apart from these few minor differences, Ontario’s most modern poly-technical school, officially opened this afternoon by Premier George Drew, has all the earmarks of a full-fledged university.
 No doubt U of T profs choked at that imagery. After all, some upstart with no campus and an aged complex surrounded by huts was called a full-fledged college, even if it was in the Tely and not that real paper for the academic world, the Globe.
The feature was speckled with errors, such as Ryerson was modelled after the Rochester Institute, and had 150 students and a staff of 60. It was also useful because it said there was room for 600 students, and practical experience would be considered in admission. The hours may be from 8.30 to 4.30 with no spares but there would be little homework because the system stressed the practical over the theoretical with little textbook work.
 It didn’t matter that Kerr had only one day of operation under his belt because he told the reporter Ryerson was a success because of all the promises for summer employment. He boasted that Electronics was the most popular course because it had “what is believed to be the first television camera in Canada, only part of the costly equipment needed in the course."
 Great publicity because it touched every point in his\ standard sermon: uniqueness, practicality, good equipment, industry support, and lots of jobs afterwards. Unfortunately it also left misconceptions about Ryerson being the right hand of industry with little use for textbooks. After all, Ryerson’s founding principles were that no industry could dominate and that every student had to take compulsory academic courses.
 Many students must have wished Ryerson really did have “little use” for textbooks as they made the annual costly September foray into the A and A store on Yonge. It served as Ryerson’s first bookstore, even keeping copies of the book lists for various courses behind the drawers of 78 records. And in the back, there was a soda fountain.
 The complexities of the novelty of Ryerson also proved slippery for a smaller Globe article the same day, but Kay Sandford fortunately hit on the angle that invested the new institute with traditions.
 “The Toronto Normal School, the seed plot of the Ontario educational system, will take on a new look and a new future today. The old buildings on Gould St., which have nurtured the spirit of Rev. Egerton Ryerson for 100 years, will be the home of the Ryerson Institute of Technology. As Ontario’s hub of the latest development in technical and vocational training, it may be a far cry from the famous educationist’s idea of higher learning, but it will be a lasting monument to the man who used his whole life teaching others how to live.”
 The Globe also said Ryerson would be “the right hand of industry” because it had training equipment worth $1.5 million. (A fortune in 1948 but probably a Kerr exaggeration.) The province’s only “polytechnical” school would have “60-odd courses,” the feature said. Another misconception that would haunt because there were actually 15 courses with 37 options, all supervised by the education department. What fed the confusion was that in the same buildings the same instructors gave shorter apprenticeship courses supervised by the labour department.
 The apprentices certainly helped Kerr meet his budget but their presence nurtured a PR disaster that tainted the main occupant of the Square as a trade school and hurt grads hunting employment. They certainly bugged Ryerson students who paid tuition when the apprenticeship students were paid an allowance to take the free training.
 Despite any confusion and flaws, the main coverage was that a bustling different school had opened where you could learn all about the chores of industry and then get a job. Ryerson was to enjoy a favourable “press.” Saturday Night was the first magazine to demonstrate this, devoting three pages and 14 photographs. It was helped later with all its grads in the media. But in 1948, most journalists had come up the hard way, climbing from copy boy to reporter to editor, and then they went to war. So Ryerson with its pragmatic history was more to their liking than the universities, which were just starting journalism schools.
 There were no major problems in the first year, although the lack of students hung like a pall. Kerr said: “It was quite an experience after the thousands upon thousands of rehab students. But it was expected because we knew that unless we were given six months to acquaint the public, enrolment would be small. So we had far too many teachers for the number of students.
 The largest class was in electronics, which had been popular in rehab days with a great demand and everyone getting jobs. The smallest was in printing, because school training in this area was new. The course wasn’t threatened because there was all that equipment and vets who had trained there earlier were now supportive voices in the industry.
 Everyone knew that they had to get the numbers up. Still, the happiest people in the first year were the instructors. It was a blessing for the survivors just to have a job. They knew they could handle anything that Kerr or the department or fate could throw at them.
And they handled it for 71 years as the student number grew 190 times even as the new barons of Ryerson ignored that it had all started with one old building that they rushed to destroy surrounded by dubious military buildings that no one wanted.
There was no hint as fall came in 1948 that this simple ceremony for something called RIOT would mark the beginning of the grandest accomplishment for a Square that has no rival in the country for what it has contributed to education and culture.
Why the guest of honour didn't even quite know what was being launched. Which, come to think of it, made it a typical political ceremony!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019



Journalists, like smart lawyers in a courtroom, should generally have a good idea about the answer when they pose a question.
Except this time I don't.
Once upon a time, I was part of the chorus of alarm about how zebra mussels were the great and growing menace in Ontario's cottage country and in all the streams and lakes that had anything to do with the Great Lakes.
The invasion of the mussels had transformed our rivers and lakes, plugging intake pipes, cutting hands and feet, and generally being a pain in other parts for boaters, swimmers and waders.
I didn't work in the Trent River without gloves and old shoes, that is if I didn't want to suffer countless paper cuts. In effect,  I used armour whenever I set out to repair the shoreline or a dock. And it was yet another reason for scaredy-cat kids not to go into the water no matter how much their sweating dad yelled.
But then the other day I swam out to one speed marker in the Northumberland Narrows which is ignored by 99% of the boaters, 100% of the Sea-Doos and 125%  of the OPP. Supposedly you are limited to 10 km/h (which is like a fast walk) which just happens to be the major speed limit close to the shore for most of Canada.
As I clung there (and a tidal wave thrown up by a passing yacht rolled over me) I noticed that on the barrel of the marker were a few zebra mussels. I can remember when there would have been several layers and if I had not been cautious, I would have tiny cuts that would have stung as if they were inflicted by a sword.
So I swam along the shoreline of Burnt Point when I returned to my cottage, watching out for personal water craft which are the bumble bee curse of cottage country, and found only a few mussels on border rocks which once would have been coated.
So my question for the experts who used to write about the mussel menace since it was imported from Europe in the ballast water of a freighter is whether the mussels are in a lull, part of a boom or bust cycle which is common to Nature, or whether they have eaten themselves out of house and home and are just going to go away, another of the great blights that were going to ruin the world but then petered out over time.
The Internet is still stuffed with features about the billions of dollars in damage that zebra mussels were inflicting on us. Plenty of coverage about how they were changing fishing even as they were killing off other species.
But no stories about how in recent years the zebra mussels just seemed to have largely gone away without anyone noticing. I hope that is true. It certainly seems to be the situation in my stretch of the Trent River, and I hope devoutly that it is true for much of Ontario.
But I really don't know! Do you!

Friday, September 13, 2019



Even if the Liberals were not led by a devious and obsequious drama queen, I would not vote Grit.
But since Pete Trudeau's family still has one skeletal claw on the party, it's easy to vote for a party led by a Tory who doesn't act as if he has cornered all the morality in the country.
My first brush with the Trudeaus came as a Dodger fan when Jackie Robinson smashed the colour bar in baseball when he was promoted courageously from the Montreal Royals, a team largely owned and controlled by Peter Trudeau's father. That was mentioned in the English press but wasn't a big deal.
My next contact came, although I didn't know it, as I squinted into the blizzard over the Yukon's Lake LaBarge (of Robert Service fame.) We had made two forced landing with wheels on the rotten ice. My story made the front pages of the country because I was covering James Sinclair, a major cabinet minister who years later became the father-in-law to Pete, the pirouetting PM, and the grandfather to our current PM.
I was in charge of the Tely coverage when the politician who always contrived vainly to be really different - like boycotting the honourable war and lying about his age - became leader of the county much to the shock of the people who really knew him.
As the Tely skidded into the mists, I had on my desk one of the sexiest pictures I have ever seen outside the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar picture. It was said by the photographer, who wanted the kingly sum of $600, to be 18 year-old Margaret Sinclair in a bathing suit on the beach in Tahiti where she met a much older man who said diffidently over drinks that he was the prime minister of her country.
I never ran that picture on Page One because such was the relationship between the Telegram and the Liberals that I knew they would sue or humiliate us if it was really some other voluptuous creature. I left the picture on my desk as I put out the final edition and walked out of the silent building that has just been destroyed by the Globe.
I never knew that in my future was a profane encounter between me and Margaret in Caracas when I came to the defense of the PM's private secretary when Margaret was calling him every possible obscenity in front of dozens of tourists in a hotel lobby.
I was irked and tired so I used the F word in every possible construction, matched vowel by vowel by Margaret who was so infuriated by me that she marched into the state dinner and gave a Nazi salute to the Maple Leaf flag.
Then on the plane home,  I coaxed her into singing the silly songs she had made up to serenade the wives of the leaders  of the countries we had toured, and woke the next day to find myself being vilified on TV and radio as Margaret insisted into every mike that I had told her it was all off the record. (She had waited for every last tape recorder to be fired up.)
I could go on, like the time she led an alternative march at a UN conference in Vancouver that was to highlight the pails of drinking water that women in the Third World had to lug home daily. I pointed out that she had an inch of water in her pail, while the cabinet minister assigned by the PM to escort her for the day was loyally carting a full pail. She flounced off on a profane cloud.
She flirted from famous Manhattan night clubs to rooms with suspicious smells in Toronto - often spectacularly without her panties -while her husband confounded friend and foe in Ottawa. I was slightly handicapped in trying to figure out what stunt he would pull next because he generally ignored my questions. We once had a conversation about his SCUBA diving with Fidel Castro which ended abruptly when he remembered he was actually talking to someone from the despised Sun.
On one walkabout at the Kortright Centre, Pete encouraged Sacha to go into the crowd and shake hands with another cute toddler who just happened to be my youngest son, Mark, and film of the kids made the National. The same secretary who I had defended in Venezuela whispered with relish that he was going to be pleased to tell the boss that it was a Downing kid just to watch him scowl because he was a great hater.
By the way, that same Sacha, the PM's youngest brother, is a film-maker who got into trouble with a flesh-eating disease while shooting a documentary in Madagascar and was rescued by a young film director from Toronto, Gordon Weiske. He was carried through the jungle on Gord's back to the medical help which saved his life.
After my friend Gordon related the story to me, I asked whether a friendship had sprung up as a result. "No," Gord said, "he never even thanked me,"
"Sounds like the family, " I said. "After all, you didn't have anything more to offer, like votes, or a private island for a free vacation."

Sunday, September 8, 2019



I have been watching out for game wardens for decades. I have even used them as a threat to fishermen hanging close to my point for days at a time. But I have only had one experience with them, and it was a nice one.
My grandfather had no fun in his life except for two days of fishing a year. He laboured putting the final finish on furniture at the big Krug Brothers factory in Chesley long after most retired because there were no pensions. Then he came home when he was 72, grey with fatigue, and died a few weeks later.
Every Victoria Day and Labour Day holiday, he dug worms in our second lot where he grew all the vegetables to feed us year-round and with bamboo poles for my two sisters and I clambered along the Saugeen banks fishing for bass, and if we were lucky, suckers.
The first stop was at the Three Sisters, three stumps that are still there decades later. He had fished first there with his five daughters, even though all we caught there were rock bass, more bones than flesh. If we were lucky, maybe a bucket mouth or more elite bass closer to the big dam.
By the time we got to Scone, a couple of kilometres from town, we would have a pail of fish, even real bass. Grandpa kept everything!
And then we would trudge back, chewing the last stick of Wrigley's Gum --the treat for the day--water sloshing over the top of the pail.
We met the game warden on the big bridge that has just had to be rebuilt. He was Mr. Sanderson (also my Grade 7 teacher with no first name because public school teachers in my day only had last names).
And he looked down into the big pail where there were a few bass that wouldn't be legal to catch for another five weeks. "Fine catch, Mr. Hoogstad," he boomed. Because he knew in a town of 1,800 where everyone knew everything about you that the jockey-sized man from Holland had taken in three orphans and had no money to do anything other than feed them and twice a year to go fishing.
So I remember Mr. Hetherington for that compassionate afternoon when he could have confiscated our humble gear and fined the old man for keeping a catch out of season.(He also once brought to class a large Snowy owl which stared at us with the hauteur of a dowager.)
For decades now at my point in the Trent River south of Havelock, the spectre of game wardens has hung over a few of us in our pursuit of pickerel, bass and muskie. Yet most cottage neighbours and the locals seem to pay no attention, just as they routinely speed far above the limit in the Northumberland Narrows.
The major reason for that is obvious. I have never seen a warden, or whatever you want to call them, at my point for the 39 years I have been the humble owner. And the OPP make a token appearance a few times a year, perhaps to get the dust off the boat.
Except you can still use wardens as a threat. One fall a boat showed up for five days and fished every daylight hour just feet from my shore. To hell with my privacy! So finally I stood there and said sarcastically that the five of them seemed to be doing quite well. They said they were from Ohio and came every year  to my point and fished for 10 days. "We catch our limit every day," one boasted drunkenly.
I said that meant they had caught more than 200 bass, walleye and muskie. Since the fishing regulations only allow you to have a fraction of that number in your possession, I said they must have great fish suppers every night back at the fishing camp.
They started to argue numbers of possession with me. I told them that they could debate with the game warden that I had called, and I was sure it would be OK. I walked back to the cottage and when I looked out, they were gone.
Indeed, they haven't been back.
They really had no excuse but I once said in an email to a friend who was appointed the provincial minister in charge of administering wildlife regulations that I find the regs to be as clear as mud. The minister sent my letter through the bureaucratic hoops and some official crafted an official reply in case I was going to write a column.
It was a lengthy defense of how complicated it was to set the rules for the various waters in this large province to protect the fish in the varying habitat. But at the bottom of the official letter, the minister scrawled agreement with my complaint.
Once upon a time I can remember when on the back concessions, farmers who did a little trapping and hunting did so with one eye peeled for the wardens. Shooting pike with a .22 in the spring creeks was normal practise.
 My late brother-in-law, Gordon Long, was overrun on his farm near Schomberg with deer eating his vegetables and cutting up his fields with their hoofs. He also appreciated venison. So if some big buck persisted in nibbling the lettuce, Gord would drop it with a crossbow and the thick bolt/arrow.
Why a crossbow? Because the theory with the area farmers was that a rifle shot or a shotgun blast might be heard by a warden who would come snooping. It wasn't just the threat of the fine and having your equipment confiscated. It wasn't unknown for a farmer to have a still above the pig pen that would mask the smell, and this was less than a hour north of the Big Smoke!
If you think that was unusual, you should know that years before just a short distance to the north there was a big swamp where rustlers kept their stolen cattle in the middle away from casual detection. One rustling ring was busted but they didn't get much punishment because their lawyer, one Nathan Phillips, got them a good deal. (Yes the same mayor they named a square after.)
As they sang on that TV show, those were the days, before we called wardens with the more PC title of  conservation officers and they weren't grizzle oldtimers but career people who may even have gone to college.
Now Queen's Park has changed the rules on pickerel. I am sure I will look them up if I ever catch a big pickerel again. Once my point was known around the area as the best place to fish and I was besieged by land and sea. But that has changed since the wonderful late autumn night when my cousin Dave Prescott and I practically had giant fish jumping into our arms.
Prescott is scrupulous and knowledgeable about the rules governing everything from Scrabble and golf to hunting and fishing. Except that night, we broke the pickerel rules and didn't realize it until months after we had consumed all the delicious fillets.
The fishing regs are still too complicated, and I still see fishing out of season all the time, but I have never been confronted by a game warden since Mr. Hetherington stopped Grandpa on the Chesley bridge.
Maybe wardens I mean, ahem, conservation officers, don't exist in any meaningful numbers since fishing is hardly high on the priority of politicians who are more carp than trout in their activities. The government has stolen the revenue from fishing licences to pay for their stupider promises - just like the taxes on our gas no longer go for roads, which was the original excuse - and it has closed most of the hatcheries that replenish the poor man's sport.
So it would not surprise me to find that most game wardens have vanished and the ghost of the threat is the only thing that stops those jerks from Ohio from coming every October and savaging all the fish around my Burnt Point.
I don't miss them at all. Neither does the great blue heron that flops down on the point to listen to classical music with me.  It is so peaceful then in cottage  country that I would even give a warden - I mean a conservation officer - a beer and not bitch about murky regulations.

Thursday, June 27, 2019



Not everyone would agree. A few thought Anne Johnston, who has just died at the full age of 86, was just cantankerous. Yet she was an alderman who made Toronto council better just by walking into the horseshoe of desks.
She would hiss at a colleague for a stupid vote, shout an insult to the press gallery, and settle down  for another day of wheeling and squealing over the issues dear to her heart like helping the disabled.
We were original members of the board of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame which is still chaired by David Crombie who along with David Smith and Anne were uncomfortable partners in the politics of a northend which was used to getting its own way.
I miss her at the meetings because of her rugged approach which was forged in her early life as an occupational therapist with disturbed patients.
She almost was the first woman mayor of Toronto. When Crombie was the giant killer who defeated in a 1978  by-election a Liberal being groomed to be PM ( John Evans of U of T) council deadlocked 11 to 11 on a mayoral replacement.
No one was willing to budge. So Roy Henderson, the city clerk, found an old box that had contained envelopes, put in two pieces of paper with the names and pulled out the one for Fred Beavis, a plain east end politician who had the nickname of The Honest Roofer.
A key draw in  the city's life which John Tory just got wrong by saying it was from a hat. It made Beavis the first Roman Catholic mayor of Toronto since it was incorporated in 1834. And Toronto had to wait another two decades to elect its first female mayor.
It was significant, however, that the champion of the old guard had to win by luck over a feisty newcomer with only six years of experience. Then Anne went on to become one of council's longevity champs until her ward rebelled and advertised for an opponent who went on to defeat her.
The 1970s were a grand decade in municipal politics with the reformers sweeping the cobwebs from bylaws and it was common for the 23 councillors and a few journalists to party together and travel together and fight together and generally enjoy urban politics.
I remember writing about Anne with affection, detailing her attributes in one of my daily columns on Page 4 of the Sun. Then I chastised her towards the end.
She sued! I couldn't believe it. No one could. I got a puzzled call from Alan Shanoff, the newspaper's lawyer, saying he couldn't figure out how she could prove libel since the column basically was filled with praise.
So I phoned Anne. She chatted pleasantly about how she really wasn't mad at me but a lawyer in the ward who owed her a favour said he could get a lot of money out of the Sun and it really wouldn't affect me.
I explained that I had never been successfully sued and that newspapers didn't keep Editors who cost them money in libel suits.
So Anne called off the suit.
After all, she had often  "used" me in the normal City Hall way of  planting ideas, but she had even "used" me as an enforcer.
Council used to go to the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities in a happy mob and work like mad all day and party hard all night.
I was minding my own business, and that of a few suburban aldermen at my table at the main evening event in Halifax, when Anne appeared from the dance floor, dragging a Newfoundland mayor from some town with a longer name than he was.
She pulled him up to me, told me to stand and explained to the mayor that I was her husband and when she told me he had been feeling her bottom in an enthusiastic way while dancing, I would beat him up.
The mayor sprinted to safety, Anne and the table roared, and I said I had to go write a column which didn't involve punching people.
That was Anne, always in the centre of things, whether she was promoting a Welsh choir - her roots in her birthplace included the family knowing Dylan Thomas -   crusading for people locked in wheelchairs, or just having a grand time keeping the contractors at City Hall more honest than they were used to.
You know, the good old days that we talk about often weren't that great. But they were in City Hall when we had councillors like Anne around. She accomplished without an army of paid aides to staff the office or go to meetings for her.
I'm sure that right now she is complaining to St. Peter that there is too much density near the Golden Gates and Welsh choirs should be featured more in hymn sings. And, damn it, the disabled sign for her chariot hasn't arrived yet because even the blasted civil servants in heaven can screw things up, just like they do back at Nathan Phillips Square.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019



I was not yet 3 but I do have faint memories of the King touring Riverdale Park on a warm May day in 1939.  Walter Oster was just a few days old but he remembered too. After all, he ended up with the King's name.
Those in Walter's circle know the story but most readers would be baffled when his obit appeared listing his first names as King George Walter.  It was just one of the ways Walter was unique.
His mother Pauline and his father Michael had dithered over the name for days. Finally his mother appealed to a nurse she liked about what she should call the baby. And the nurse without thinking long said why didn't she call him after the King who was making headlines throughout the country with his royal tour.
So she did. But Walter never used it all, although he could act like a king in an argument and my, could he ever be stubborn when he thought you were full of .....
I met Walter and his gracious Mary on a trip to China in 1985 organized by that grand Grit, David Smith, and his friend and law partner, Jeff Lyons, who I always liked even as he descended into being one of Ontario's political pariahs.
Mary announced during the trip that I really wasn't the jerk she had thought, which was good enough for Walter who took me for decades on great adventures even when we got skunked.
Walter ran the Sportsmen's Show, of course, and the fishing derby on Lake Ontario, and fine seafood restaurants. It had all started, he said, when as a kid, he had been thrilled to catch a sunfish in Grenadier Pond.
Many years later, Walter and I organized a city fishing derby at the pond. The Sun rented out simple fishing rods - we actually gave them away to the kids - and Walter and I caught some fish in advance, tagged them with the names of Sun personalities, and released them in the famous pond. The tags were worth prizes of a few dollars each but one was for $50.
(Oh yes, the fish with the Downing tag was not caught but was found floating belly up. I always thought that Tiny Bennett, our fishing expert who didn't like me intruding into his area, was responsible.)
One high point of my work years was to come back on opening day of the fishing derby to Pier 4 and walk through the pointing Saturday crowd carrying our catch. And then to the round table on the second floor of the vanished restaurant - done in by the stupid Harbourfront bureaucrats who should have treasured Walter rather than given him a hard time.
We would dine with the guest of the day, who may have been a cardinal or premier, and wish that the day, and the food, would never end.
I can remember being part of a double-header, what we called it when the boat had two salmon on, and while manoeuvring to a deck corner to get anchored to land a 27-pound chinook. I was slammed by Toronto  chief Julian Fantino, who was also playing a fish. He said mischievously later that he really hadn't intended to bodycheck me that hard.
Walter had great relations with the police, the Church, politicians and celebrities who flocked to fish with him. It didn't come easily either. He had to work at climbing out of his neighbourhood of Cabbagetown (some still grew cabbages on their tiny lots) through drafting blueprints to construction to owning restaurants, golf courses and even a hotel.
I often wondered during his long volunteer career as board chair of the giant convention centre whether his directors knew about his flamboyant bursts.
For example, he raced cars on a Canadian circuit until he was 44 - which just happened to be his final car number.
He bought a special anniversary Rolls Royce and one day on a jaunt to Montreal, with a friend at the wheel who Walter sponsored in racing, was roaring down 401 at over 160 km/h. They were pulled over by an OPP constable who said he just wanted to look at the legendary car. (Fantino would not have approved even though Walter was a buddy.) Walter pointed proudly to the plaque on the dash where the company said how special this car was, and no ticket was issued.
Walter each year took a group on great fishing in remote spots ranging from Costa Rica to the territories. One January, fourteen of us fished for peacock bass on the Rio Negro, the tributary of the Amazon a long plane ride from civilization.
We lived on a river boat and each day paired up with guides in small boats and spent 10 hours fishing for the bass and cursing the piranha when they chomped our bait. It was jungle furnace hot and you dripped with sweat. Sadistically, I returned to a topic that often bugged Walter because I observed, as a good swimmer and with sons who were lifeguards and SCUBA divers too, that I thought it astounding he couldn't swim.
Here was a man who was one of the faces of fishing in Ontario, if not the country. He had spent much of his lifetime on water, and not just when playing golf. Yet he couldn't swim.
 I stopped the kidding when Walter started negotiating with the guide about how much it would cost to get him to throw me into the biggest blackwater river in the world and let me make my way back to the mother ship through waters that featured caimans bigger than the ones that one daredevil on the crew wrestled one night while we held the lights.
Ironically, for a man who had presided over the best seafood restaurants in the city, with a loyal staff who spent their lifetimes working for him, Walter had a thing for fish and chips. Now his food was superb. He made sure his staff bought the finest giant shrimp. He paid extra for his fries which were coated, I think, with egg whites. He could have those shrimps or fries or tender lobsters whenever he wanted, but he and I regularly searched for good fish and chip restaurants in humble corners of his city.
In my case, I suspect it was nostalgia because of the little fish and chip shop just south of Gerrard and Greenwood that had been there for decades. The Downings often went there just along the lane from our big doctor's house in those faded years to bring back the treat, back when royal tours were huge news and King George Walter was born.
Back when fish and chips came wrapped in the big sheets of old newspapers and were priced as a bargain meal for the many who didn't have the money to eat out.
When Walter presided genially at Pier 4, with much of Toronto ambling below in the weekend sun, he let everyone order from the menu but me. The waiter would bring me two succulent pieces of fish in their heart-stopping jackets of deep-fried batter, or even, if Walter decided I hadn't been too much of a pain in the ass and my catch had been smaller than his, three pieces ... and mountains of fries.
And then we would all eat like a king!

Sunday, March 3, 2019



As the scarred survivor of the revolution which took me in journalism from setting type by hand and typing carbon copies to writing columns on a desk gizmo, I remember the frustrating problems with revulsion and hope that driverless cars come to reality without such a history.
At least old computers were only dangerous to your sanity! (But come to think of it, modern computers can be too since my last unexpected computer problem was 10 minutes ago.)
I was reminded of the difficult birth of computers by a note from Clare Westcott, now confined to a seniors' eyrie above the Trent River by problems with eyes and mobility - but not of memory.
My, does he remember the electronic renovation of Ontario.
As I have written in and in my recent book, Ryerson University - A Unicorn Among Horses, Clare played a key role in education with the community colleges and Ryerson, and in provincial politics, for most of his 95 years. We had then what history has revealed to be a good premier, but Clare was right there behind Bill Davis.
He was there when backroom politics was played with clever force, and variations of the SNC-Lavalin scandal were always threatening unless you played democracy with some competence and a sense of duty that meant screwing the public and wasting millions was just not done.
Clare dropped out after Grade 11 at Seaforth Collegiate but after a variety of minor jobs, which included being blinded in one eye as a Hydro lineman, ended up with the stuffy mandarins of the Ministry of Education in the early 1960s working under Bill Davis.
He recalled the other day that he found that "even the word computer scared the pants off ministry people. Many of them actually believed that it would eventually put teachers out of a job. I don't really think many teachers thought it would happen but the cloistered brass had real paranoia about a machine with a better brain than they had."
Clare remembers that in 1963 and 1964, "a computer person not only had to know all about computing but he had to constantly explain what it was and what it could do, plus he had to be a promoter and used car type salesman because a good chunk of the population feared it like it was black magic. Words like binary and the new math were intimidating to the many of the folks who got a readin 'n' writin education as I did."
Clare's educator about the latest buzz words and guide into the magic acts of the new computer world was Dr. Calvin "Kelly" Gotlieb who has been called by Clare and others the "Father of Computing" in Canada. Kelly founded  the Computer Science department at U of T and as a prolific author and consultant became famous far beyond our borders.
Kelly persuaded Clare to hire a computer wiz working in the U.S. for a soap company. When he asked what he should do, Clare told him just to walk around the ministry for a couple of months talking about computers. "I just want them to see you don't have horns and you're not breathing fire."
Another mentor for Clare in this brave new world was Dr. Fred Minkler, head of the giant North York school board, who was "an innovator who surrounded himself with brainy young doers." As they worked with industry representative, Minkler suggested they form an association of data systems people and became the first president. Then the high school dropout from Seaforth became the second president of the Association of Educational Data Systems.
And so the computer ship was launched in education in Ontario but the voyage was to take decades. As Clare recalls, it was twenty years later in the early 1980s when Davis as premier and Bette Stephenson as a good education minister announced a school computer program. Both said that within 10 years, every student would have their own computer. (We have made great advances but not quite that far.)
Even today Clare can't resist a poke at these two famous Tory politicians, saying that neither have ever owned or operated a computer.
In the mid-1960s, a revolution in post-secondary education in Ontario was also occurring. Not only did Davis create the CAATs, he sponsored legislative changes that ended with one institute of technology becoming Ryerson University.
Davis also gave that budding university freedom from the constricting ministry with its first board of governors, and to the chagrin of all the egotistical doctorates wandering outside his office, put Clare, the dropout, on the board.
As I outline in my book, Clare played a major role at Ryerson. As one important cog in buying land for the expanding university, he notoriously reported back at one board meeting that he had just bought two whore houses.
This was greeted with shock until the first female member of the board, Ruth Frankel, laughed.
Mrs. Frankel also came to Clare's defense when the other governors ignored his knowledge about the new technology and decided to buy a main computer from Honeywell.
Clare grumbled that the faculty committee was making an "odd" recommendation because IBM had just come out with System 360, a stand alone main frame computer computer system designed to cover a complete range of applications. He knew respected educators like Minkler were lining up to get one.
Clare wrote that it "wasn't an easy sell  because even my friends on the board were winking at each other hinting I was way over my head." But he kept going so finally the exasperated board had the former engineering dean at U of T, Ron McLaughlin, study the matter and report back to his fellow governors. When he did, he backed Westcott, but it became a Pyrrhic victory.
Six weeks later, Davis, still the education minister, phoned Clare to say "I think it would be wise if you resigned from the Ryerson board. I have just been at a cabinet meeting and Premier Robarts is mad as hell at you. Did you do something at Ryerson about the purchase of a new computer?"
Clare said he had because "they were making a big mistake purchasing from Honeywell rather than from IBM."
The future premier finished the call by saying:"Clare, it would be wise for you to resign as  soon as possible. The President of Honeywell is a close friend and supporter of Mr. Robarts and he apparently raised hell with him about what you did." So Clare had to quit his treasured appointment.
(Ironically, in 1974, Toronto's three universities held talks about how stupid financially it was for each of them to buy a main frame computer. U of T, which lorded it over York and Ryerson and handicapped their operations in the first decades of the new universities, refused to share. So York and Ryerson went ahead with a successful joint operation, a co-operation which was noted throughout the country. Oh yes, with an IBM 155.)
And that was how politics was played even back in the heyday between two friends who were key mechanics in what was called the Big Blue Machine. It lasted 42 years,  one of the most successful political dynasties in the country, especially when you consider the unravelling of the Trudeau legend and the party that believes it is entitled to rule by the divine right of The Great Grit God!