The meaning of death

The recent deaths of Jim Flaherty and Herb Gray tell us something about the state of politics in this country. Flaherty was unique in the Stephen Harper cabinet. He was someone who cared about his role as finance minister, gave his all, and didn't take himself too seriously. When I look at the rest of the cabinet, I don't see very many others with Flaherty's breadth or gravitas.

In the 1970s, when I was working in Ottawa and saw Herb Gray up close, he was a study in contrasts. By all boring appearances he was the least interesting member of the Pierre Trudeau cabinet, but the closer you looked the more there was to see. As the longest serving MP of the modern era, Gray was more than just durable. He cared about important issues from social justice to foreign ownership and worked diligently to achieve his goals.

The difference between Flaherty and Gray is that Flaherty had few peers in his midst who were his equal; Gray was just one of the many minds in his cabinet with political courage. I've just finished helping Donald Macdonald with his memoirs, titled Thumper, to be published this fall by McGill-Queen's University Press, so I'm reminded of the depth of the front benches in those days. As house leader, Macdonald pushed through new rules; in national defence he oversaw troops during the War Measures Act; at energy he represented consumers against the demand for world prices by Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed; as minister of finance he tackled inflation with wage and price controls.

But other Liberal ministers were adept, too. Marc Lalonde on social programs, Don Jamieson in external affairs, Allan MacEachen on just about anything, even Eugene Whelan on agriculture. And there were individuals, such as Eric Kierans, who stood steadfast and alone for their beliefs. Even as someone who worked for the other side, Opposition Leader Robert Stanfield, I think it is fair to say that the Trudeau cabinet was the best of the modern era. Trudeau was a strong leader, but he permitted everyone to have their say, particularly on a topic about which he was not well informed. My sense of Stephen Harper is very different. I wonder how much thoughtful debate there is when his cabinet meets.

The death of Herb Gray reminds us not just to mourn the man but a way of life that has been lost. Today's cabinet, minus Jim Flaherty, doesn't have the personal heft or professional depth that once was commonplace.

Lesser lights

As I watched Adam Scott place the green jacket on this year's Master's winner, Bubba Watson, I was taken with the resonance of this annual event. It could be just another golf tournament but it has been infused with lore and made lustrous with legend. The CBS announcers have sombre voices as they talk reverently about Amen Corner and the Eisenhower tree. There's endless footage of Arnie and Jack and Gary walking on stone bridges. And of course the scenery, complete with rhododendrons and azaleas plus the sound of Carolina Wrens amid the loblolly pines. The Americans do sports so well: the World Series, March Madness and the Super Bowl, to name just a few.

But that's not all, there are parades, too: Macy's at Thanksgiving, the Orange Bowl parade in Pasadena, and Easter on Fifth Avenue. I've been to a few such events and there's nothing like them in Canada. Nor do we have anything to match Las Vegas or Branson, Missouri, or Disney World or walking the streets of New Orleans with a twenty-ounce cup of beer as you dip in and out of bars at 3 a.m. for various versions of the Muskrat Ramble.

Beyond jazz, think of the many genres of music that have been invented in America: ragtime, Broadway musicals, country and western, blues, rap, Motown and rock and roll. All we've got in Canada is Innu mouth music and Cape Breton fiddling. In the U.S. add actors, playwrights, and painters of international renown. We've contributed a few comedians who rarely come home again.

To be sure, there are elements in America we don't want: gunplay, the Kardashians, and the Tea Party. But for the most part we are a third-world nation with too few accomplishments and no legendary annual events other than the one repeat visit – for the first time since it happened 64 years earlier – of a Calgarian riding a horse in Toronto's Royal York Hotel lobby during the 2012 Grey Cup celebration.

Little wonder we have an inferiority complex. We are inferior. And terribly tight-assed, too.

The carrousel keeps turning

Apparently it's tough being the editor of a newspaper. In recent days, both the editor of National Post, Stephen Meurice, and the editor of The Globe and Mail, John Stackhouse, have departed. I'm surprised the Post is still alive under any editor. When I left in 2001, I didn't think it would last a year, but survive it has.

The Globe is struggling, too, but not to the same money-losing extent. Part of that battle seems to be the incapacity to keep editors-in-chief in harness. Phillip Crawley has been publisher of the Globe since 1999. The latest editor to come under his thumb, David Walmsley, is the fourth during those 15 years. People tell me that the newsroom was glad to see John Stackhouse go because he made them miserable. I've never worked for or with Stackhouse, but I can tell you this: I've toiled in four different newsrooms over the years and people are always miserable. 

What cheers me most about the Globe is today's announcement that Paul Waldie will be the editor of Report on Business. Waldie is a wonderful writer and a stellar investigative reporter. I'm hoping that, with him at the helm, the section will find its edge again. It takes me no time at all to read the ROB because there's nothing in it except Harvey Schacter's seven steps to leadership and Rob Carrick's investment advice for tots. As for the online version, you can look in the morning and check again at 5 p.m. and see precious little new material.

So, Paul, I'm sure you enjoyed living in England and covering the recent revolution in Kiev. But welcome home. I'm looking forward to more good reads as a result.

The passing of Peter Porcal

He called me professore, which I wasn't. I called him dottore, which he was. Peter Porcal died last Friday, March 28, 2014. I'm guessing he was somewhere in his late 60s. Even when Sandy and I first met him in Florence in 2004, he wasn't in the best of health. Too many years of walking Tuscany with his "children," as he liked to call his students, had taken a terrible toll on his knees. I wasn't the only one with a nickname. There was a young man who could have been a putto, he was so pretty. To his discredit, he didn't pay attention. I couldn't believe what he was missing. Neither could Peter, who called the boy Blondie, a gently derisive name that captured his insolence.

Peter was a resident art history professor for several schools in Florence including the Ontario College of Art and Design, as it was then called, as well as Vanderbilt and the American School in Richmond. I was the only spouse among the two dozen OCAD students attending in 2004-5 and was lucky enough to be included in his Wednesday classes and weekend trips. Wednesday was usually spent in Florence visiting such wonders as Benozzo Gozzoli's magnificent fresco cycle, Michelangelo's sculpture at the Bargello, Pontormo's strange deposition at Santa Felicita, or Fra Angelico at San Marco.

Most weeks he also led us on day trips or weekend tours outside Florence to Venice, Ravenna, Rome, Padua, Lucca, Assisi or Siena, anywhere there was beauty to behold. He not only knew every venue, he knew where the washroom key was hidden in the local pizza place. Even now, a decade later, I can close my eyes, see the works and hear his mellifluous voice.

Last Wednesday, I'm told Peter gave his usual class to this year's 23 OCAD students, then went to hospital with chest pains. They operated on Thursday; he died Friday. He'd been in and out of hospital these last few months. The service on Saturday was held at the church of Santissima Annunziata which contains a thirteenth-century painting begun by a monk and completed by an angel, or so the legend goes.

If you visited on your own, the painting was usually covered, but Peter always seemed to know instinctively when it could be viewed. I hope the venerable work was on display during his last rites. He would have been admiring it and getting ready to tell the sorrowful attendees how it came to be, what to look for, and what it all meant.

The eye of the artist

The opening last night of the latest works by Michael Awad was spectacular. A dozen pieces at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery feature a range of urban sites and events from house boats in Britain to the lineup for turkeys at Honest Ed's, all done in Awad's inimitable cinematic style of horizontal free-frame motion. The colours in Caribbean Parade could be brush work in oils.

Some of the works in the solo exhibit called The Entire City Project 2014 are the product of a weekend of photography, plus untold hours to arrange the results on 20 square feet of framed display. But one of the pieces took 25 years. That's how long Awad, who started his professional life as an architect, has spent trying to capture on film the eight-foot-wide interior of the Mars Diner. He finally felt he succeeded and has created a 12x96-inch work with only one row of photos, unlike his signature six-to-eight rows.

Most Torontonians are likely familiar with his four works that have hung at at Pearson Airport's Terminal One for the last eight years. But he's also at many other venues including the Schulich School of Business at York University and Telus House on York Street. In May, he'll have a solo exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum.

I'd show you a photo of his work, but Awad doesn't like people to view his art on a handheld device, not even on a computer screen. As a result, he's not on Twitter or Facebook and recently deleted his LinkedIn account. Instead, go see them in real life. The exhibition at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, 451 King Street W. in Toronto, continues through April 19.