Common Ground

With Justin Trudeau and the Liberals ahead of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives by as much as eight points in the final months before a general election, what manner of man is Justin Trudeau and what are his leadership skills? Some answers flow from a reading of his just-published book, Common Ground. First off, he is self-deprecating, no prima donna trying to ride on his father's political coattails. Indeed, he says Pierre was poor at retail politics and did little to nurture the party's grassroots. Justin says his political chops come more from his maternal grandfather, James Sinclair, a minister in the St. Laurent government. On his first day in the House of Commons, Justin wore a Sinclair tartan tie to acknowledge that heritage. 

His mother's mental health is fully acknowledged and lovingly explained. Margaret was bipolar in an era when no one knew much about that condition. One poignant anecdote has Margaret, who had by then moved out and was living with a man named Jimmy, showing up at Justin's school with an urgent request to see him. After Justin was summoned from gym class, a weeping Margaret seized his shoulders and told him she'd been dumped. "He even took his TV," said Margaret. Justin was eleven at the time. When his opponents say he is just like his mother, he claims he knows what they are really saying: Justin is crazy.

From his father, Justin got his ability to speak French, a love of the outdoors, belief in public service and a spirit of adventure. Along the way he also learned what it's like to be an outsider. In middle school at Brébeuf in Montreal, he was regarded as an Anglophone because he spoke English with no accent. He also had to suffer the ignominy of having the infamous photo of Margaret wearing no panties thrust in his face by fellow students. "I learned at Brébeuf not to give people the emotional response they are looking for when they attack personally."

Other lessons on life's path included being a male facilitator in the Sexual Assault Centre at McGill where he was among the first cadre of men in an outreach group leading fraternity members in discussions about date rape. That experience puts in perspective his recent handling of abuse allegations against two Liberal MPs. Justin also details his travels to almost one hundred countries, many of them while backpacking. In Thailand, he got a tattoo of the globe on his left shoulder. He later added a Haida raven tattoo that wraps around the globe.

Surprisingly, Justin's ascent in the Liberal Party was not easy. Then leader Stéphane Dion was against his candidacy for MP. Justin won the nomination and election in Papineau on his own by building an organization from the ground up. He also learned who to trust and how to inspire loyalty in campaign workers, essential ingredients in any successful run for office.

At times, the book sags as it turns into a civics lesson. But for the most part, the memoir moves along well and demonstrates less personal vanity than you might except. There is too little policy pronouncement for my taste. Instead, this is a book about Justin the person that makes for useful and entertaining reading as a nation makes up its mind.


Nature morte

The twenty-one works by Paul Cézanne on display in an exhibit entitled "The World is an Apple" are a coup for the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) which is celebrating its centenary. The still lifes by one of my favourite nineteenth-century French artists feature pears, ginger pots, flowers and skulls in addition to the aforementioned apples. Cézanne's work is noted for the angles he uses. In one painting it appears as if he moved his easel several times to render the tableau with no regard for the wonky perspective that results. 

Unlike Vincent Van Gogh who described his paintings in detail, we know very little about Cézanne's methodology. Did he set out fruit and pots on a table and complete the work while the fruit was still fresh, or did he replace items he ate for lunch or went punky? As for his skulls, painted in his later years, they give new meaning to the word haunted. 

This exhibit is particularly noteworthy because it brings together works from a number of public and private collections in North America and Europe. Former AGH director of curatorial affairs Benedict Leca organized the exhibit in collaboration with the prestigious Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Leca, who came to the AGH from the Cincinnati Art Museum two years ago, is on the move again, this time to become director of the Redwood Library and Anthenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island, after being passed over for the role of president and CEO of the AGH. Leca's fruitful labours, however, remain on view until February 8, 2015.

My daughter, Dr. Alison J. McQueen, a professor of art history at McMaster University, will deliver a public lecture about Cézanne at 7:30 p.m. on Monday January 19, 2015 as part of her Friends of Art History series. The exact location of the talk on the McMaster campus in Hamilton will be announced closer to the date. 

A lifetime of friendship

I had lunch with my three oldest friends today. We all attended the University of Western Ontario 50 years ago. We've held this regular Christmas gathering at the Old Mill for a long time. As a first step we declared that matters of personal health – the organ recital I call it – were not open for discussion. Otherwise, you get into a lot of kvetching and complaining. We did, however, congratulate ourselves on surviving for another year.

Among the four of us there is a lawyer, a dentist, an accountant and me, the writer. Topics ranged from Stephen Harper (dangerous for the country declared the lawyer), with the rest of us peppering him about his wrong-headed description. There was a general agreement it's time for a change in Ottawa but not because of any clear and present dangers. Other points agreed upon included the disaster that is the Ontario deficit and the hopefulness we felt about Toronto Mayor John Tory – as long as he can muster the necessary leadership skills to make a difference when dealing with the diverse views of city council.

At times, the arguments about everything from the world of business through Putin's possible demise to the mess at the CBC became heated, as they always do. Just as quickly the topic changes and new debates take over. It's been like this for years; no one ever gets angry with anyone else. 

Another thing that's predictably the same is the character of those involved. Despite the ups and downs of our different lives, despite our differing experiences, we are still at root recognizably the same people who were together on campus so long ago. Some aspects of life are immutable. True friends most of all. 

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 gift. Wilson served as chancellor of McMaster and has also given a $10-million lead donation 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.