Mon pays, c’est l’hiver

During a walk in the sunshine this afternoon, I saw my first robin of spring. He was sitting alone in the middle of a baseball field in my neighbourhood so he was unlikely a wintering robin, or he would have been surrounded by a flock. He sat for the longest time, hoping to find a worm, but finally flew away, empty-beaked. Maybe he will fill up on berries before nightfall.

This has been the winter of our discontent. February was the coldest month ever in Toronto with an average temperature of –12.6C. As a boy growing up in Guelph, the coldest I can remember was –13F (–25C) so I've survived worse.

And deeper snow, too. When we moved to Ottawa in September 1970, the snowfall during that winter of 1970-71 set a record of 181 inches. The drifts reached second story windows but the city was prepared, the plows got through, school was never cancelled, and daily life carried on.

I know lots of snowbirds who pass their winters in Florida or Arizona. And over the years I've spent the odd week myself on a beach or watching spring training. But I don't mind Canadian winters. They remind me of who I am. I have been fortunate to live in England, the United States and Italy for long, enjoyable stretches. But something always brings me home. It must the snow. And that first robin.

The Agenda

No journalist in Canada knows more about politics – and a lot of other topics – than Steve Paikin, host of The Agenda on TVOntario. In addition to being an excellent broadcaster, Paikin has written several books including Public Triumph, Private Tragedy on John Robarts and Paikin and the Premiers, a personal reflection on the last 50 years of Ontario politics. He is currently working on a biography of Bill Davis, Ontario Premier from 1971-1984.

So it was a pleasure and a privilege for me to be asked by Paikin to come into the TVO studios to talk about my most recent book, Thumper: The Memoirs of Donald S. Macdonald. Paikin had not only read the book carefully, we also had almost 30 minutes to talk about the many themes in Macdonald's life. How different an experience than the usual fast-and-furious five-minute dash before which the the interviewer takes you aside and says, "I'm sorry, but I haven't had a chance to read your book." 

You can watch the TVO interview here

In addition to serving in four cabinet posts in the government of Pierre Trudeau, Macdonald was also chairman of the Royal Commission in the 1980s that lead to free trade with the U.S. From 1988-1991, he was Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. At the time, he and his wife Adrian lived in Macdonald House (named after Sir John, not Don) on Grosvenor Square in London's Mayfair. The rest of the offices were in Canada House, on Trafalgar Square. The government has since sold Macdonald House while renovating and expanding Canada House that was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen last month. The website makes the place look like a foreign presence about which any Canadian can feel proud. 

Oh, Canada

For years I've been struggling to understand why Americans are so much better at so many aspects of life than Canadians. After all, we have drawn on the same pool of immigrants and we are both democracies with excellent education systems. Canadians even have a few advantages such as a universal health care system and a safer environment. 

To be sure, we both have problems. The U.S. has a racial divide. We have native Canadians who are routinely ignored even when they're murdered by the hundreds. But we should also have the same opportunities as Americans do to grow, invent things and do well.

In a few pursuits, you can easily name dozens of Canadian successes in the U.S. or globally including comics (Jim Carrey, Martin Short); singers (Shania Twain, Justin Bieber); actors (Christopher Plummer, Mary Pickford) and writers (Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro.) But these are all entertainers. I used to think that we had so many successful songsters because of the Canadian content rule requiring airplay. While that may have been helpful, it no longer matters. Today's stars are made by social media. The singer who won the most Junos Sunday night, Kiesza, started with one hit, Hideaway, that led to more than 200 million views on YouTube.

But where are the dozens of Canadian business leaders, jurists, academics or inventors with international reputations? Even The Netherlands, with a population that's half of Canada's, has as many Nobel Prize winners as we do. I've come to the conclusion that too many Canadians are just plain lazy. You can count the number of Canadian-based global manufacturing firms over the last 150 years on the fingers of one hand. Sweden has that many right now. This country began with British and French interests killing beavers to make hats for London gentry. We've lived off our natural resources ever since. Send iron ore to Cleveland or bitumen to Texas for the more difficult value-added portion. That way we don't need to act or think for ourselves. That's no way to spend a life. Or 33 million lives. 


House of Cards

Plot spoiler – I'm at Episode Ten of Season Three of House of Cards, so stop reading now if you don't want to learn about the disappointments ahead. The first thing that went wrong was that Frank Underwood all but disappeared in the first two episodes. Rather than command the screen for 85 percent of the time (or whatever the exact number was) he went absent for long stretches. Doug Stamper, his henchman in the two earlier seasons, dominates airtime as he fights his way back to health after we thought he'd been murdered. I don't care that much about his recovery and rehab. Other characters, such as Remy, have been eviscerated. He was deft and all things evil as a corporate lobbyist buying off Members of Congress. As chief of staff to the President, he's become banal. And what's this hangup he has for Jackie Sharp, who goes from tart to loving stepmother without a blink. None of this counts as character development.

But the biggest disappointment is the relationship between Frank and Claire. The former partners-in-crime have turned into just another cold, failed marriage. One episode ends with the two of them at loggerheads and I thought, at last, this is going to become like Mr. and Mrs. Smith when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – both assassins – tried to kill each other. But at the beginning of the next episode, we see Claire and Frank renewing their vows. It's a flash forward, then we wander through the month leading up to the ceremony knowing that the troubles are soon over. Ridiculous!

And that's the main problem with this season – too little dramatic tension. During the first two seasons, I'd watch an episode and, when it ended, let out a sigh and realize that I'd been holding my breath throughout. Not this year. Another failing is that replacement characters are not given much of a chance to shine. The new White House correspondent is no Zoe. Members of Congress don't have any good lines. Most of the members of cabinet are not even introduced. Freddy, the loveable barbecue guy, becomes an invisible White House gardener.

Any story has only four elements: plot, character, style and structure. In the first two seasons, Frank won every battle. Now he loses tussles, some of them to Russian President Viktor Petrov, the only new character with any heft. Petrov is perfectly cast and has the same dead KGB eyes as his real-life role model, Vladimir Putin. When you change the plot that much, you change the main character. Even when Frank double-crosses his own wife, he doesn't have that same conniving nature as in the past. As for style and structure, there are too many individual writers creating episodes so it doesn't hang together from one to the next. 

But maybe we shouldn't be surprised. When you try to build a house of cards, eventually they all fall down. 

They spill more than we drink

I should have known when I read the title of the study, Mortgages or Margaritas, which choice Jamie Golombek, managing director of CIBC Wealth Advisory Services, would take. With RRSP season about to wrap up next Monday, readership on the thorny question Golombek was addressing – pay down the mortgage or invest your money in a balanced portfolio – was bound to be high.

Surveys have shown that three-quarters of Canadians favour paying down debt but Golombek says that "when interest rates on debt are low, the short-sighted objective of getting out of debt now may actually negatively impact your long-term retirement savings." Golombek's thesis is that when the rate of return on investments exceeds the rate of interest on debt, investing in an RRSP or a Tax Free Savings Account makes more sense than paying down the mortgage quickly.

Who could disagree? But all of his examples assume mortgage rates of 3 percent and an annual return on investment of 6 percent over a thirty-year period. Mortgage rates are very unlikely to remain that low for that long, but more important, a long-term 6 percent annual return is not easy for an individual to attain. When Claude Lamoureux ran the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, he used to tell me that 6 percent was the best he could expect in the long haul even though Teachers' has hundreds of people picking stocks and running the numbers.

I recently met with the wealth advisory branch of a competitor to Golombek and their ten-year rate of return was 6 percent – before fees. After fees it was 5 percent. So I emailed Golombek and asked what his prognosis looked like at 5 percent. "The numbers don't look as good," he admitted. "The examples were meant to be directional." He pointed me to a report he'd done in February 2013 where he did use a 5 percent return but the charts aren't comparable to those in the current study. What is clear, however, is that the difference between paying off the mortgage and saving at 5 percent is nowhere near as advantageous as it is at 6 percent. 

Maybe all this should be no surprise. Golombek works for a bank. A bank makes money when a client does both: take time to pay off a mortgage AND invest in the market. In this case, it seems like mortgages for the client and margaritas for the bankers.