Saturday, March 28, 2020



Ironically, the elderly said to be the main worry in this pandemic are survivors of a time when quarantines were as common as flu in January.
In the day, you worried about many threats. I am one of the growing demographic of old farts who remember the gauntlet of pestilences that could lay you low (sometimes six feet down) before the wonders of antibiotics and such miracles as transplants soothed the world 60 or 70 years ago and made more of us live past the Biblical three score years and ten.
Before Salk vaccine ended the parents' dilemma of whether Johnny should go to the municipal pool in case polio lurked there to put him in an iron lung
Before people thought twice about going to the doctor, and suffered, because there was no OHIP.
Before inoculations and vaccinations and idiots who attacked the simple flu shot.
As Steven Pinker documents in stunning detail in his bestseller Enlightenment Now, the world has improved tremendously in every possible way in the last decades. The good old days basically weren't. Then along comes this pandemic which is a savage echo of the past.
Margaret Atwood in an article in Saturday's Globe recalls her girlhood when warning posters were carried in that black bag by every family doctor to be tacked to the front door of the latest victim of a  host of diseases that would quarantine you for 14 days at least, from varieties of measles and poxes to scarlet fever, whooping cough, mumps, diphtheria etc.
If you were lucky, it was just tonsillitis.
Atwood is several years younger than me and she didn't spend all that time in Toronto but what she described would be familiar to many of us who were around when Toronto staggered out of war.
My father had a huge medical practice around our big home near Gerrard and Greenwood which like most GPs' homes in those days had a waiting room and office and a sign that lit up with the street lights. Quarantine signs were stuffed in his bag beside a cornucopia of cures, some of them mixed himself.
Dad drove a big car, usually with an assortment of neighbourhood kids in the back who went along gleefully for the adventure of the ride and the candies he also had in the bag. He didn't worry about more minor stuff spreading because he believed in getting all that over ASAP. He moved my two sisters and me into the same bedroom to make sure we all got the mumps before it would be really serious.
Dad died the March before the Second World War, exhausted from a flu outbreak, the normal burst of late winter sickness, and his work as chairman of the Toronto school board. It was then an important position, so all the schools got the afternoon off for his funeral.
My uncle kept the practise going so there was a Dr. Downing in the area that once was called Toronto East for more than 50 years.  He regarded the flu as a deadly enemy. My father had put him through medical school at Western but Lou headed first to Saskatchewan. He was the only doctor in Lanigan where a street is named after him. He was also the only dentist, pharmacist and coroner for the area. Of course the Spanish flu almost killed him because he could never rest. It took him six months in Vancouver to end his exhaustion and recover his health.
After I was orphaned, I ended in Chesley with grandparents who avoided the two doctors in town because they couldn't afford visits. (I remember spending summer nights with a feverish head pressed to cool linoleum to endure an ear infection which cost me the upper range.) I suspect that Dr. Morgan wouldn't have charged them because he, like my father and uncle, were used to not being paid. And in the 1930s and 1940s, even in Toronto, some payment came only in chickens, sausages and gratitude.
The middle decades of the last century were a magic time in medicine even for those of us flummoxed by the huge changes. Yet doomsday fears persisted, some times verging on hysteria, about polio and even blood transfusion since the great curses of health were so hard to cure.
For example, the western world doesn't think much about tuberculosis these days, even though it is said that TB killed 10 million in the world in 2018 and every immigrant still has to pass the test, but 60 years ago mass X-rays for TB were common.
 In the first year of what became Ryerson University, every student went through the preliminary testing by the Gage Institute on the campus. Suspicious results meant that you went for a larger X-ray and physical exam at the Institute itself.
To my surprise, I had TB and the Gage recommended to my family doctor that I go to the enormous complex which has been converted to the West Park rehab centre since the need for sanitariums has ended that brought thousands of patients to Toronto and Hamilton and other cities from every nook in the country.
Fortunately my uncle was that doctor and decided my being a patient for months in a sanitarium was not necessary because I was in great shape, even playing on a championship football team. So I dodged that bullet but for years carried a special card with my Gage number, like many other pensioners.
There is one health menace from the past that is still around us, possibly in the ravine in which you like to walk. We don't talk much about rabies now, even though it is said to have killed 59,000 people just last year, but then it did that in far off  places, like Africa.
We used to have epidemics among our wild life, which was front-page news because if you were bitten by a rabid fox or skunk, you had to have 14 painful shots in the abdomen even before the test on the brain of the dead animal was finished because no one wanted to take a chance on what could be a fatal bite.
I was the rabies expert as a kid reporter for the lamented Toronto Telegram, possibly because I brought a passion to the writing. On the way to the streetcar one morning on a downtown street, I was attacked by a squirrel. I suppose it was a funny sight, me jumping in the air, the squirrel snapping at my ankles, then me running over to the curb and bringing up because I had had a fermented evening. But it was as deadly serious as stepping on a rusty nail before tetanus shots.
So there it is, rabies, not something we talk about in Canadian urban centres (fortunately the treatment is now much easier) but last year it killed more than double the number of victims claimed by this pandemic by March 28.
I was an enormous reader as a boy and the accounts of the great plagues over the centuries always fascinated me. I had the occasional nightmare where the chant would be "bring out your dead." The idea of bodies rotting in the streets because no one would collect them horrified me. Yet Black Death killed 50% of Europe and devastated China. There were villages in Quebec during the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919 where no one survived to do the burying. One estimate said it killed 10% of the world.
Thank heavens, I thought in my boyish naiveness, those days have passed. But have they?
I had a cousin working at what was then called the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph. He got sick while treating a horse in distress. It is hard to know real details because what were said to be the authorities ordered him buried the day he died before his family could even gather.
Such a thing couldn't happen in Ontario, I said, as I tried to find out what really happened. But it did, and the whisper was that it was the plague, which they say still sticks a skeletal fist around a few throats from time to time.
But, you say, that's just a horror story with a rural twist. It couldn't happen in a big city. But it did, to a stalwart woman who worked with me and was one of those fun-filled good reporters who are an asset to any newspaper. Her boyfriend was a lawyer who worked with one of the famous families. She died, like my cousin, suddenly, and was ordered buried within hours because, it was hinted, she was killed by the plague.
No, no, you say, this is the stuff of a bad horror movie. The plague really doesn't exist, does it? According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, there are seven cases of plague death each and every year, and apparently I worked with one and had another victim as a cousin.
So bats hanging in undiscovered caves are now the sword of Damocles hanging by a hair over our heads and world health. No wonder I have the same feeling about pandemics as I do about that Biblical language about war and the rumours of war always being with us.
 Now it's pandemics and the rumours of pandemics.
 And all we can do is to try to reduce them to epidemics.

Saturday, February 29, 2020



If you are truly blessed, you have a friend like David Paul Smith.
Even when you don't much like his party.
Everyone called him Smitty as he moved as a gregarious insider from the political and legal circles of Toronto and Canada to travel the world as one of the great tourists.
But there were "brothers" inside his incredible circles of friends and admirers, and not just his two real brothers who in the family tradition are ministers. It started with his Pentecostal roots so when he called with some of the richest gossip in the Americas, he would say Brother Downing and I would say Brother Smith and then would come a tale that could topple a tower but he trusted you to be discreet.
He was small in stature when he died last week at 78. Yet he left huge monuments behind for his city and country, from famous buildings where he had been the shepherding lawyer from planning stages on to putting God in the Charter of 1982 that is Canada's legal cornerstone.
As the Liberal caucus debated the wording of the Charter that would be presented to the House and the Queen for passage, the PM made it plain there would be no mention of God. He quipped that he didn't think God gave a damn whether he was mentioned or not.
But David, the MP from the city where Pierre Trudeau was never quite comfortable, sat in every caucus meeting where he would watch the PM like a hawk and speak about all the Christians in the country. Trudeau got a little bored with the repetition but liked David because of his photographic memory with which he could wow the PM with little known facts.
One day Trudeau listened to David's usual speech but this one reinforced with figures about the high enrolment in Christian institutions like bible colleges, thought about winning elections, then stood and said that God would be in the preamble to the Charter.
It became controversial and some say not that important because it wasn't in the Charter itself but David's monument lies within "Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the superiority of God and the rule of law..."
It is actually a miracle of Biblical proportions that Brother David was around to become a major city and federal politician because he almost died in the head-on car crash near Peterbough that killed his father, a leading Pentecostal minister, and slashed his throat.
Paramedics taking a smoke break witnessed the crash. One held his throat together while they rushed to a Kingston hospital. One of Canada's leading specialists in the necessary operation was visiting in  Emergency because it was New Year's Day and he was kibitzing with a former classmate. He operated but he and the paramedics wondered whether they were just going through the motions because the incredible loss of blood would have starved the brain.
David survived but had no voice. One month later, a brother held a night prayer vigil at his church for his 21-year-old brother who wanted to go into law and politics but now couldn't speak because of a ruined larynx.
The next morning when an aunt brought breakfast to him, he thanked her, the first words he had spoken since the fatal accident.
I wrote perhaps the first account of this in a Sun column which caused a sensation at City Hall and had his beloved mother intervewed on religious TV where everyone proclaimed that David was truly alive because of a series of coincidences that added to a miracle.
It left David with a booming voice hard to modulate and a certain disregard for danger. In cities like New York and Chicago where few whites came near the giant black churches of districts like Harlem, especially when they were surrounded by hundreds on a Sunday, David plunged in with his friends, often dragging his gracious wife, Heather, who has just retired as Chief Justice of Ontario's Superior Court.
David loved gospel music, especially black choirs. We drove by the San Francisco Opera House one afternoon and discovered they were having mass choirs that night, which David interpreted as being giant black choirs from the South.
So back we went in the evening, entering to find we were the only whites among a sea of black faces regarding us with hostility. I wanted to sit in the back but David marched us up to three empty rows at the front and plunked himself down in the middle. Moments later, a mini flood of black ministers and their wives surrounded us, looking at us curiously.
The awkwardness continued while huge choirs thundered and swayed above us. Then a pretty imp came out and sang like Kathleen Battle. "My God, she can sing," I told David. The wife in front of me turned, beamed and said "my daughter." With that, we were in. Three rows of black ministers, and two white Canadians, sang together for the rest of the night.
David took stuff like that for granted because he liked and talked to everyone and he and Heather were natural hosts to a stunning variety of the humble and the great.
We were in Beijing in 1985 and our first engagement was tea with the foreign minister because, he told me, he had stayed in only two houses in North America, "the White House and David Smith's house."
Our group of 18 from Toronto, led by David and his controversial partner for a time, Jeff Lyons, were given favours during our visit because David let it be known that a relative had nursed Norman Bethune's family near Georgian Bay, and the doctor was one of the heroes of the revolution.
David could charm a stranger into being an admirer within an hour. He was sitting in a London club and struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who turned out to be one of the few Law Lords of the United Kingdom and took him to a special seat in the Mother of Parliament for one of the major debates of the decade.
One quiet Saturday we were in the Prospect of Whitby, the oldest pub in London. David, of course, started talking to a trio, the only other drinkers, one of whom was a top executive of the InterContinental Hotel chain. By the time David stopped yarning about all the hotels he had been in around the world, the executive asked him to come chat about being a VP. David said his plans included a run for Mayor of Toronto and then there was this large law firm where eventually he became the lead lawyer.
He probably was happiest just driving down a strange road to a new town which had a good restaurant.
He read road maps like they were novels. In 1974, we were part of Toronto's coupling with its first twin city, Amsterdam.  We had a few days after the ceremony so in a borrowed VW van, with me driving, David navigating and Heather and my wife Mary in the back regarding the impromptu road trip through  seven countries with suspicion, we had a grand time.
He delighted in back roads. I was driving in the first snow along the side of a Swiss mountain and wondered why there were no road signs. David said he had been lounging in a tub one day and had seen this little road mentioned in a travel magazine. It certainly wasn't on the main maps. Over the agreeable years, the Smiths and the Downings went on to visit more than 20 countries together, and mysterious roads and secret wonders became routine.
One highlight on that first trip came when David announced he thought there was a Michelin restaurant in the next town. And up it popped. We parked at its front door, climbed to the second floor, had a pleasant chat and then dined on the speciality of this two-star restaurant. Usually the reservation would have taken months but with David and his enormous memory and charm (and luck) it didn't even take an hour.
He loved to eat out. He also loved to cook. He would come home from one of Canada's largest law firms and cook an entire meal from a great roast to a variety of vegetables while charming a living room of guests. The anecdotes during the meal would be almost as good as the food. The chap at the end of the table would confide how Joey Smallwood used to drive him crazy with his idiosyncrasies. Smallwood is legendary as a premier but what I now remember most is that Joey never threw away his razor blades but tossed them on a big rusty heap beside the sink.
You had to be on your toes at these dinners because it wouldn't be unusual for a major judge or former premier or cabinet minister to be holding forth contentedly over a fine port. One night in a stunning display of fantastic memories, Conrad Black remembered all the ships of the Argentine navy and their tonnage, David listed all the teams in United Kingdom football and their divisions and home grounds, and David Crombie recited intricate baseball lore. (And I wondered if there was more rum.)
David's work in the backrooms of politics is celebrated, beginning as aide to famous Grits like Walter Gordon and John Turner and ending as national election chair.
But what he should be remembered for most is his tackfulness, almost a sweet forgiveness, when it came to discussing other politicians and their pet policies. Even when his party was out of power, governments rushed to include David in international delegations because he may have been on the other side but he could be trusted to give a competent speech on a moment's notice that wouldn't embarass anyone. The Conservatives and NDP knew that David thought politics was an honourable business with many pressures and points of views.
And he loved every footnote of politics. It was bred in his bones. I recall his sunny pride when we walked into Westminster Abbey and he paused at the foot of the statue of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, once a prime minister of the U.K. "I am his great great nephew," he said.
We should cherish the past of David Paul Smith and hope that more politicians at City Hall and the "Ledge" and the Commons remember that you can accomplish much and have a great family and career and life if only you treat the other guy with the respect that you think you deserve.