Money up the flue

This past Monday was a windy day in Ontario, with westerly howls reaching 100 km/hr from Windsor through Toronto and beyond. Fallen trees and branches brought down power lines and crushed vehicles, highways were closed, a stained glass church window was damaged in Hamilton and a roof ripped off at a Burlington airport. A tornado was confirmed near Mildmay.

While communities cleaned up after the path of destruction, the expense to citizens continues, according to former TD Bank President Robin Korthals, a graduate engineer with a Harvard MBA, who follows such matters closely. On Monday Ontario's wind turbines generated record amounts of power that we did not need. Because of the foolish arrangements agreed to by the Ontario Liberal government, we had to buy the wind power despite the fact that it costs about five times what eventual users are charged.

To make matters worse, because there was excess capacity, we couldn't use power from the Darlington nuclear plant so they just steamed off everything they produced that day. Since we still had power excess to our use, Ontario sold electricity to both Michigan and Quebec at rates that were lower than their costs of production, power that they could then resell at a greater profit than normal to their lucky citizens. 

The cost to Ontario for this one-day fiasco? About $10 million. As Korthals says, "Why do we only elect lawyers and never engineers?" Or as my father, who was also an engineer, might have said, "Money up the flue."

A Renaissance man

Universities tend to attract donations for the STEM faculties – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with the liberal arts often left behind. That's not the case at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., where the humanities benefit, too. Yesterday L. R. (Red) Wilson gave $2.5 million to extend for another five years the L. R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History he launched five years ago with a similar $2.5 million endowment. Wilson served as chancellor of McMaster and has also donated a $10-million lead gift for a new building, now under construction, that will house the humanities, social sciences and his beloved Institute.

I attended the announcement lunch yesterday along with members of McMaster's administration and faculty, as well as friends of Wilson's and friends of Canadian history in general. McMaster President Patrick Deane started his speech with a quote from Wilson's citation when he was named an Officer in the Order of Canada. It says "he has been involved in many fund-raising activities and volunteers his time to help the community." Deane called the statement a classic piece of understatement.

I first met Wilson in 1978 when he was deputy minister of industry and tourism for Ontario. I was at Maclean's, working on an article that described the behind-the-scenes negotiations at the Calgary Stampede among Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Ontario Premier Bill Davis and Ford President Roy Bennett to secure government financial support for a $500-million Ford Motor Co. engine plant in Windsor, Ont. Even in the midst of such dealings, Wilson showed his lighter side, challenging me to discover his middle name (his full name is Lynton Ronald Wilson). When he was growing up in hard-scrabble Port Colborne, Ont., everyone had a nickname. His was Red, because of his red hair, and he's been known as Red ever since.

After successful careers in the federal foreign service and provincial civil service, Wilson moved to the private sector where he held senior roles at various firms including Redpath Industries and BCE Inc. Wilson's view of education is that everyone – whether they become medical doctors, engineers or business leaders – should have a grounding in the humanities as part of their understanding of the world and how it works. Unlike some people who hold views but do little about them, Wilson has put his money into the Wilson Institute's seminars, scholarships, publishing prizes, post-doctoral fellows (a dozen so far) and adjunct members of faculty.

If there is a Renaissance man in Canada today, it is Red Wilson. With enrolments in the humanities down 15 per cent across the board at all Ontario universities, would that there were more supporters like him.




Fair for all

For twenty-five years Access Copyright has gathered payments from sources that use written or visual content produced by Canadian writers and artists and then distributes those monies to the writers and artists who created the original work. It isn't a huge amount, but not insignificant. Last year my payment was $995 for material that I had produced, mainly in books, material on which I hold the copyright. This year the amount was $770, a drop of 23 per cent.

Did certain of my material suddenly evaporate or did the copyright expire? No, some users of the material decided they'd no longer pay. In the last eighteen months nearly every Canadian university, college and school board (outside Quebec) has decided they're not going to pay for published Canadian content that's distributed to students either in photocopied or digital format.

Coursepacks, as they are commonly called, are handed out free by profs in place of a list of textbooks students have to buy. So if each member of an MBA class receives a copy of the chapter in my book Manulife about CEO succession in 2008 when the board chose Donald Guloien or a chapter from BlackBerry on how an entrepreneurial Mike Lazaridis dropped out of the University of Waterloo to launch Research In Motion in 1984, those chapters now cost the institution nothing.

I'm all in favour of keeping costs down for students, but this is institutional theft. Surely no educator would condone students stealing music by downloading a singer's songs for free, why is content I produced now placed in the same open-to-abuse category?

Educators like to call what they're doing "fair dealing," but as Access Copyright notes on its site, "Nothing in the new copyright act or recent Supreme Court decisions suggests that 'fair dealing' for education extends to the deliberate, systematic copying of published content for aggregation and delivery to support student instruction."

It's entirely possible that individual teachers and profs are unaware that they are stealing, which is my definition of taking something that belongs to others without permission or payment. But administrators know exactly what they are doing and should immediately cease using Canadian artists, writers and publishers as a crutch to cut costs. Fair dealing should be fair for all. 

A hit and two misses

Too busy writing until recently, I finally found some time to read. Two out of the three books I just finished were disappointing. The first is by Gord Pitts: Fire in the Belly: How Purdy Crawford Rescued Canada and Changed the Way We Do Business. Here was a case where I was a fan of both the writer and the subject yet came away empty.

My first complaint is in some ways petty. Normally, subjects are referred to by their surnames. Pitts didn't do that. Sometimes he called him "Purdy" which is a tad too friendly for me. Sometimes he called him "Crawford." Sometimes he referred to him using both "Purdy" and "Crawford" – in the same paragraph. That's poor editing and, after a while, just plain irritating.

Second, I was looking forward to understanding at last exactly how Crawford solved the problem of $35 billion in third-party asset-backed paper that suddenly was worthless in 2007. I've never understood how that worked, and after all, this is the supposed core of the book. After I read that section I was no further ahead on that nor how he "changed the way we do business." I agree that Crawford should be celebrated as a lawyer, leader in corporate governance, and mentor, but the promise of the book's title isn't sufficiently backed up.

My second disappointment was Allan Levine's Toronto: A Biography of a City. The book starts in the dim past with Etienne Brule, wanders its way through the nineteenth century, and goes right up to modern times. Everybody and their uncle contributed, read, or helped on this book, which is a daunting read at 496 pages. (Levine kindly cites my book on the Eatons.) Even so, Levine's coverage of the powerful individuals and institutions based in Toronto seems unusually limited. Toronto is, after all, the financial capital of Canada.

There is, for example, precious little on the Big Five Banks or the people who run them, arguably the country's single most powerful oligopoly. Nor is their much on investment bankers, mutual fund companies, insurance firms or any aspect of financial services. As for the Toronto Stock Exchange, Levine even gets the location wrong, saying it's at King and Bay although it moved from Bay Street in 1985. And who, I'd like to know, has ever referred to the Eaton Centre as the Eaton's Centre? 

A much more thorough and thoughtful book is Roy McMurtry's Memoirs and Reflections. McMurtry takes the reader through an ever-changing Toronto and Ontario from his days on the University of  Toronto Varsity Blues, through his time as attorney general in the Bill Davis government, to his years as Chief Justice of Ontario. Despite its prodigious 534 pages, if I had been the editor, I wouldn't have deleted a word.

McMurtry's advice after a lifetime of service and leadership is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." Other authors should heed those words.

The silence of the lambs

We are living in a bizarre time of mixed morality messages. The National Football League suddenly gets tough on players who are wife-beaters. Campuses are giving wholesome talks on the meaning of 'yes' and 'no' while dating. Both of those feel like good steps. 

Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke, who twerked on last year's MTV Video Music Awards have had very different outcomes. Cyrus is widely admired as a rebel; her career has taken off. Thicke is pilloried as philanderer; his career has cratered. Even his "forgive me" album for his wife flopped with sales of less than 50,000. The video of Wrecking Ball, sung by a naked Cyrus, has been viewed more than 700 million times. Women are ascendent, man down. After all these years, maybe that's good, too. 

Then the CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi for sins real and imagined. The one thing all eight women (and counting) have in common who accused Ghomeshi of despicable behaviour, other than being abused, is that they kept silent until now. Some for as much as a decade. Each was embarrassed, worried she wouldn't be believed, or feared public punishment. So much for the advancement of women in Canada. We are little better than India where families of young rape victims are so ashamed they've been known to kill the woman who was assaulted. 

I stopped today at one of those movie sets with a block-long line of trucks on a Toronto street and asked what was being filmed. Man Seeking Woman, I was told, a sweet and absurd look at life. How odd, I thought. That doesn't sound like real life at all.