Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Lost Highway

Last month, I went on a kind of Quest, ferrying my 85 year old father back to the places where he (where we) come from. The trip took us to parts of Canada that never appear on television, to places unimportant to few but those who live there, meeting people whose life stories have never been much published or produced.

It was a journey that taught me a lot about my country, my people and myself. I’m still not sure what it all means. And like most of what I’ve written, I probably won’t discover what that is until some point in the writing. But from time to time over the next while, I’ll share some of these stories for whatever they may end up meaning to you.


I’ve been back in “The World” for a week now. “Back in the World” was a term Vietnam era soldiers used to describe leaving the war and returning to 1960’s America. But it seems as fitting today as it was back then.

In my current world of Toronto, the two big stories in the local papers were a month long garbage strike brought about by a struggle between Union and Management over worker benefits and a revelation that Paramedics were taking an additional 53 seconds to reach patients calling 911.

On the International scene, it was wall to wall coverage of the Obama Health Plan and a constant stream of invective against "Canadian-style Socialized Medicine”. Invective huffily dismissed by most in the Canadian media.

That 53 second story was of particular interest. Because I’d just spent time in a part of the country barely 20 clicks off Highway One – the blacktop ribbon that crosses the country from coast to coast and carries virtually all of the goods and services transported from East to West and vice versa.  But despite their being in the immediate vicinity of what passes for modern civilization, it was a completely different world.

A world where anyone who calls 911 waits an hour or longer for help to come, if it is even able to reach them at all.

And, in an odd twist, this is the region of Canada that first championed universal medical care and where the political movement that spawned that concept of helping ones neighbors in time of need had turned its back on those it had once vowed to protect.

I remember being about 9 or 10, sitting with my parents as they listened to Tommy Douglas on the radio, vowing that if elected his CCF party would make sure that everyone got the medical care they needed no matter their income or position in society. My mother cried and hugged me. I was very sick as a kid and what Tommy Douglas was doing meant my family could afford to keep me alive.

At the time, we lived in the South West corner of Saskatchewan, along a winding gravel road called Highway 32. There was a hospital at each end in Swift Current and Leader and one in the middle at Cabri. I’d spent time in them all.

A dozen towns six to eight miles apart were connected by that highway, each with their own rows of grain elevators and some with the garages, stores and banks that people in the other towns used the highway to reach. It wasn’t unusual to spend a Saturday going to the dentist in one, the Co-op store in another and the movie theatre in a third.

In an area where neighbors could be miles apart and 90% of the land had been turned into endless fields of wheat and grasslands for cattle, the 3-4000 people who lived near Highway 32 got used to all going to the same dentist in one town or using the same bank in another, aware that there weren’t enough of them for everything to be everywhere or even “convenient”. But they were close to some things and had to go a little farther for others – and the road they needed to take was pretty good.

About 5 years ago, that all changed.


The number of people stayed the same (even grew a little) and despite some of the towns declining, the economy around them prospered and diversified.

Farmers were now growing more crops, including healthier oil bearing Canola and even Lentils. They ranched Buffalo and Elk as well as cattle. Some raised deer to serve the Asian antler and velvet markets. Meanwhile, geologists discovered their farms lay on top of some of the richest potash and natural gas fields in the world.

Sleepy one street villages were replaced by gas plants that dwarfed the original owners of their place names. In 2005, the little towns along Highway 32 contributed $263 Million to the Province of Saskatchewan in Natural Gas royalties alone. 

Yet, the government allowed Highway 32 to fall into disrepair. In 2005, it was estimated that it would take $12 Million to put the road back in working order.

Four years later, that road still isn’t fixed.

All along its length you hear story after story of ambulances bottoming out in potholes during an emergency run and breaking an axle; of buses careening into ditches in the rain; of trucks overturning and blocking all traffic for hours because tow trucks can’t navigate the highway to clear the wreckage.

As a result, ambulances don’t run on Highway 32 anymore. Even when they reached victims in time, it was impossible to provide any care during the bumpy ride back to the hospital.

The buses have stopped. Basic goods don’t get delivered unless store owners truck them in at their own risk and additional expense. People have stopped making trips to the other towns along the highway’s route because they’re not sure if they’ll make it, let alone make it home.

On one rainy afternoon, it took me almost an hour to cover 10 clicks of solid mud, sliding dangerously close to steep ditches or slamming into potholes almost deep enough to swallow the car.

I met a bank teller who can’t get to work some days, meaning the two employee bank doesn’t open. I bought a coke from a kid who couldn’t count the number of days the school bus hadn’t been able to either pick him up or get him to school.

I pried stones out of the brake shoes with the help of an oil roughneck who deals with that kind of screaming every day and says his average windshield lasts two months because of all the stone hits.

I sat with a retired farmer who described the night his wife had a heart attack and he did CPR on her for an hour and pushed Nitro tablets under her tongue while a 911 operator told him to do nothing until the paramedics arrived.

The next day the doctor told him that it was he and not the medical system that had saved her life.


How did this happen in a Province making so much money its new nickname is “Saskaboom!”?

According to the locals, they made a mistake. They stopped voting NDP and were punished for sending somebody else to Regina to represent them.

That made a lot of sense to me, for I’ve seen how the party of Tommy Douglas’ compassionate revolution has devolved to defending union thugs whose sense of entitlement takes precedent over retirees in walkers trying to carry a bag of adult diapers past the picket line at a temporary garbage dump.

In 1960, the socialist government of Tommy Douglas airlifted doctors into Saskatchewan to break a strike by the medical profession to save its population.

In 1990, the socialist government of Bob Rae put its population at risk by reducing the number of doctors training in Ontario universities to save money.

Somewhere along the way, the party that cared became one where you only mattered if you were one of them.

The remarkable “Sand Hills Museum” in Sceptre, exhibits a poster from 1960 detailing the new Medicare plan “$24/person, $48/family” yet sometimes only sees one tourist a day because of the road.

In 2007, the party that had been founded on rural discontent only won seats in a few inner cities and the government changed with Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan party (an offspring of the right wing Reform movement) coming to power. And plans were immediately made to put Highway 32 back together again.

Oddly, although gas revenues from the area are now higher than they’ve ever been and the trainloads of Lentils and velvet are making us new friends all over Asia, the repairs to the highway proceed at a snail’s pace.

It seems the new boss suddenly has other “priorities”.

From personal observation, it would appear that Premier Wall’s most pressing priority is building as many casinos as he can to ensure that none of those gas and potash riches get beyond his borders.

There are new casinos everywhere in the Province. I suggested the locals might actual get the highway fixed if somebody called the Premier’s office and complained about being unable to get to Swift Current’s shiny new “Living Sky” Casino so they could have their pockets vacuumed.

But seriously, how is it possible that people living in one of the richest regions of one of the world’s richest countries can’t be certain an ambulance will arrive in time to save a pensioner who’s had a heart attack, a farmer trapped under an overturned tractor, or a child drowning in a community pool?

Cities in the country facing bankruptcy can still get help to their citizens in under 3 minutes. In Brad Wall’s cash flush Saskatchewan, help might never get there.

A few years ago, people along Highway 32 started fighting back. They sold bumper stickers, a very popular “Pothole Calendar” and a website with the full story (and video) at www.highway32.ca.

They’re getting somewhere, but they could use more help.

If you feel your fellow Canadians should have the same access to health care as you do or simply that people elected to public office are there to serve all the people and not just those who vote for them, pay a visit to the site and kick in your two cents (either literally or figuratively).  A few thousand people you’ve never met will be forever in your debt.

And do that soon, because if the tales of Medical need along Highway 32 ever get across the border, we’re in for a week of hysteria on Fox News, more Canada bashing and a lot of Americans who might end up not getting the reformed Medical system they so desperately need.

You might also write a letter to Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and ask why a Province that plans to build nuclear power plants and space age wind farms can’t fix a short stretch of highway.

In my letter, I’m also going to mention that all the tourists I talked to thought the downtown of his capital city was a “shithole” with nothing to do or see.

Unless you wanted to visit the casino.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


It’s not unusual for me to return from a vacation more tuckered than when I departed. Work hard, play hard is a cycle that eventually results in diminishing returns. So, I’m taking a breather for one last day. Regular irregular blogging resumes tomorrow. In the meantime, I float amid images like these.

Sometimes this is the only vacation you really need.

Just let them wash over you. Enjoy your Sunday. And awake refreshed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009



Are you starting to get the feeling that the CRTC, Canada’s TV, Internet and Telecommunications regulator, is beginning to think it’s a branch of the CIA or maybe even CSIS?

I mean, what’s with all the fricken secrecy lately!?

Have these guys got real classified information to protect or would they just like people to believe they’re suddenly that important?

First they were redacting hearing documents, as if the public they were appointed to serve didn’t deserve to know what was going on in publicly funded meetings.

A couple of weeks back, they announced they were levelling fines on two Telemarketing firms that violated their “Do Not Call” list.

But the companies being fined and the amounts they had to pay were not revealed – and won’t be unless they don’t cough up by the end of the month.

And then there’s this little nugget from Conservative Blogger Stephen Taylor, indicating the Commission erased a section of its “Review of Broadcasting in New Media” after publishing it suddenly pretending their report never said what it used to say.

These guys even silence their own, snuffing out any ideas from their personal staff, despite the cost and time involved in doing the research and work involved in coming up with those ideas.

Somehow speaking openly and honestly has come to be considered a dangerous practice at the CRTC.

Posing the question -- “If they can’t be straight with us, how are we supposed to be straight with them?

And also making some people wonder if this cloak of secrecy is a way of hiding the CRTC from publicly revealing their own incompetence and inability to actually regulate the industries they are charged with regulating.

Let’s take this “Do Not Call” fine first.

The CRTC initially sold the lists of numbers telemarketers were not supposed to call to telemarketers; ostensibly to make sure they knew who not to bother -- but apparently without any real protections in place to make sure nobody used those lists or passed them on to people operating outside the CRTC’s jurisdiction.

Maybe these firms did just that but why the reluctance to reveal their names? Does the CRTC not want to publicly ‘shame’ them? Because anybody who has dealt with telemarketers knows that they have no shame. Tell them you can’t afford what they’re selling and they’ll call back ten minutes later offering you a new Visa card.

Is there any chance this whole ‘fine’ thing is really an elaborate sham to make them look like they’re handling things?

They’re taking heat for the failure of the “Do Not call” list. So they pretend they are penalizing “a couple of guys” who broke the rules. Yeah, that’ll show the public they mean business. I mean, how do we know these penalized companies even exist – or are the worst offenders?

And how much is the fine? Huge or a slap on the wrist the culprits won’t even notice? And where does it get paid? In what item line of the Federal budget will this income be shown? And how do we know it actually has been paid beyond the CRTC’s say so?

This is not how the Federal budgets of open democracies operate – with secret payments being made God knows where with no accounting oversight to acknowledge where it’s coming from or to make sure it doesn’t actually end up paying for somebody’s Book of the Month Club subscription.

For the last few months, entangled in the mess the Commission has made of the broadcast system, by allowing acquisitions which have been financially disastrous for all involved and threaten to completely capsize the broadcast system – or at least shrink it to the point where it no longer provides what Canadians want to see broadcast; Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein has bemoaned the CRTC’s “lack of teeth” ie: the inability to enforce their rulings.

So how is any unnamed Telemarketer going to feel obligated to pay this unnamed fine anyway? Revealing that maybe this is a straw man move by the CRTC to make it appear they are doing something when they are not.

Which brings me to the CRTC announcement (also from a couple of weeks ago) that the Cableco’s will increase their commitment to local television by supplying a further $100 Million to the Local Programming Improvement fund.

The broadcasters immediately announced local TV had been “saved” (at least for now) took a few bargain priced stations off the auction block and otherwise celebrated the windfall – as well as the right to produce far less local programming than they had previously.

In the new Maxwell Smart legalese of the Commission, the press release announcing this aspect of the deal said…

“In addition, the Commission has harmonized its requirements for the broadcast of local programming in English- and French-language markets. Each week, local television stations will have to air a minimum number of hours of programming that is produced locally and that speaks to, and about, the community.”

Ooooh, that sounds so firm and forceful – until you learn that under the new rules most local stations are only required to produce one hour of local news and information daily.

One hour – for their share of $100 Million.

However, the Cableco’s simultaneously announced they weren’t paying the new freight rate, so there.

And who’s going to make them?

I mean if the CRTC couldn’t enforce their own requirements for Shaw and Rogers to actually make Super Channel available to their subscribers and the subscribers aware of its availability, how will they force them to cough up another hundred mil of their own money for no additional programming at all?

Actually make that $100 Million for less programming.

Much less.

The situation got so bad at Super Channel, that the movie network, launched two years ago to challenge the geographic monopolies in Canada's pay-television sector finally filed for protection from its creditors.

Yet, despite several appeals to the CRTC, the Commission didn’t move to help them. However, a little whining from their historical favorites, the terrestrial broadcasters, and they’re quick to find them the money they supposedly need.

I say “supposedly” because simultaneous to the CRTC releasing their edict, the Federal Government’s own statistical arm StatsCan reported that Canadian television revenues were up 5.4% in 2008.

Yep, despite what the industry would have you believe, private television broadcasters in Canada earned profits of $691 million in 2008.

Much of that was in Specialties and Pay to be sure (all owned wholly or in part by conventional TV nets) but apparently the “disastrous decline” in conventional broadcasting that had resulted in mass firings, layoffs and cuts in programming was a mere –1.8%.

I wonder how those Stascan figures compare with what the broadcasters told the CRTC in those closed sessions that later had their minutes redacted?

Yet, the CRTC still chose to hand the broadcasters $100 Million of somebody else’s money – the Cable Company’s for now - but it’ll be yours if the cableco’s take the hit and pass it on.

There was initial support from the Writers Guild for the decision, mostly because the CRTC held the line on the amount of Canadian content the broadcasters are required to carry.

But while there may be screenwriter jobs saved for now, that may not be the case if folks start dropping channels to reduce their cable bills and those dropped channels are ones which create work for Canadian writers.

This is a vicious circle that has been created by the CRTC’s initial mistakes and their inability to own up to screwing the pooch.

They’ve had a history of ignoring their mandate of protecting the Canadian public. And with this decision they’ve thumbed their nose at the public’s elected representatives.

The Parliamentary Heritage Committee that also held hearings on the local TV issue, in passing the final decision to the CRTC, requested that they take the profits of the broadcasters’ entire corporate holdings into account when determining their financial need.

But the CRTC did not.

More and more, the CRTC is becoming a rogue arm of the Federal government, protecting neither Canadian consumers nor the artists and producers who serve them – and trying to cover their shortcomings with an ever darkening veil of secrecy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009



40 years ago tomorrow, I watched the moon landing while ripped out of my gourd on Peyote buttons. I could’ve sworn Neil Armstrong’s first words were “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.”

But I was also dealing with several R. Crumb style cartoon hot dogs and root beer bottles doing a kick line on the window sill to a selection of show tunes from “Oklahoma” and “Camelot”, so I can’t be considered a reliable source.

A few years ago, Armstrong acknowledged that what I heard was what he was supposed to say and thought he had said, but an audio dropout somewhere between here and the Sea of Tranquility left a different version of man’s first words from the Lunar surface for posterity.

Wrecked as I was, the first moon walk is still vivid in my memory. And in some ways, the combination of my state and Armstrong’s achievement defines what set the 60’s apart from other eras.

Back then, it seemed like everybody was looking for ways to get outside the box. We were exploring both inner and outer space as well as boldly going where no one had gone before in almost every conceivable direction.

The imagination, innovation and courage that defined NASA and the Apollo astronauts could be found in every aspect of human endeavor. Everybody seemed to be looking for a way to discover or simply experience something people hadn’t even attempted before.

It just seemed expected and completely logical to risk everything –- your body, your life or your sanity, in the hope of uncovering something new.

And so, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin strapped themselves into the Lunar lander fully accepting that they had a 50% chance of safely reaching the moon and even less of getting back.

And I, taking psychology classes from Dr. Duncan Blewett, acknowledged as the Canadian Timothy Leary, was “doing my homework” attempting to record my altered state after swallowing whatever was being handed out that day.

Armstrong and Aldrin made it to the moon, apparently with their onboard computer failing, four miles off course and 15 seconds from running out of fuel. And they made it home, both men profoundly changed by the experience, altered from disciplined Navy fighter pilots to humanitarians and philosophers.

Not long after, I gave up psychotropics. Whenever somebody offered me a joint or something stronger, I always passed, telling them I’d already seen God and didn’t need any more.

And in a way I had seen God – in the form of Neil Armstrong pointing out the distant pale blue marble of the Earth floating over the cratered horizon of the Moon.

Both Neil and I figured we’d be on Mars by now and maybe even further out there. Maybe we also thought that his shot of our planet floating in the vast blackness of space might make people look at a lot of things differently.

But instead, the human race decided to play it safe and stick close to home and keep doing what it already felt comfortable with. No more pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box, taking too many chances.

Maybe celebrating the 40th Anniversary of our going to the Moon will re-inspire some to grow back their courage and thirst for discovery.

NASA has done its best to help, taking the familiar video we’ve all seen (which was originally shot off the single television receiving it in Mission Control) and enhancing it to what we were supposed to have been watching.

Have a look. Think of what might still be. And enjoy your Sunday.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009



We’ve all got friends who screw up from time to time. Sometimes they mess up so bad that the authorities get involved.

More than once, I’ve been asked to write a nice letter to a Judge indicating that the guy he’s about to sentence isn’t as evil as all that and somehow happenstance or a momentary lapse caused them to detour from their normally more appropriate behavior.

And while everybody, no matter their crime, is equally deserving of a second chance, many still need a little time on the shelf to get their heads straight and maybe deter others from taking their path.

In March of this year, Theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky and his partner, Myron Gottlieb, were both found guilty of two counts of fraud and one of forgery for activities which occurred during their ownership of Livent Inc. The loss to their investors is estimated to be $500 Million.

Theirs was not one of those momentary lapses, but an ongoing and complex criminal enterprise that operated for many years.

Superior Court Justice Mary Lou Benotto, in rendering her verdict stated that the two accused “satisfy all three of the ways a prohibited act can be conducted. They were deceitful, they perpetrated a falsehood and reasonable people would consider them dishonest.”

In other countries, white collar crimes of this magnitude can earn the perpetrators Bernie Madoff-like sentences of 150 years; an acknowledgement of the horrendous damage done to those who lose their life savings or entire pensions.

But in Canada, these sentences seldom get within 1/10th of the terms handed out by American courts. And if you are a respected member of the Canadian establishment, you can change 15 years to 15 months.

No matter what you’ve done in Canada, if you’re part of our elites you get preferential treatment.

As an example -- after the Livent verdict, the National Post reported “In an extraordinary move, a court clerk demanded the public leave the courtroom. Court security officers and a police officer arrived to usher the public outside so the convicted former theatre executives could be consoled privately”.

Canada’s “Just Society” is often just for the Rich.


During the time he was being investigated on charges of fraud and corruption at the NHL Players Association, Alan Eagleson was still a welcome guest in the private arena boxes and homes of many of Canada’s corporate and government elite. He even guest starred on CBC’s “Royal Canadian Air Farce”.

Upon conviction of those charges in a Massachusetts court, former Toronto Maple Leafs star, Carl Brewer, cried out, “God Bless the United States of America! This would have never happened in Canada!”.

Unfortunately, more than a decade later, the old hockey player’s lament is still true.

You can tune in Monday nights at 8:00 pm to see Garth Drabinsky on “Triple Sensation” as CBC continues its practise of propping up the reputations of our Establishment criminals, literally paying people who have plundered the savings of their own audience directly from the public purse.

And you will find many familiar Canadian Establishment names appended to the dozens of letters submitted to Justice Benotto’s court last week pleading leniency for the two convicted fraudsters.

Interestingly, in the way Canadian justice appears to be administered in white collar cases, there were no victim impact statements read into the record or at least none reported by the mainstream press.

Those of import here have a voice. Ordinary people who merely lost small fortunes do not.

Scotiabank CEO, Peter Godsoe, suggested that “Myron has suffered immensely” begging the judge to go easy on his old pal. I wonder how often Mr. Godsoe has made the same plea on behalf of somebody who stuck up one of his tellers for a few thousand bucks (less than 1/10,000 of what his friend took)?

Joseph L. Rotman, he who has the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business named after him, suggested that Drabinsky and Gottlieb should be set free to lecture on business ethics at Canadian university.

As Drabinsky’s lawyer further outlined the plan, "“He would teach students the discipline of the craft, the enormous role that integrity and honesty play in the theatre, the importance of fulfilling contractual responsibilities [and] the avoidance of unethical conduct.”

An odd choice of lecture topics for men who have never admitted any wrongdoing or guilt or remorse for their victims and indeed continue to blame others for perpetrating their fraud.

Perhaps their lectures will be collectively published under the an OJ style “If I did it…” title.

Anna Porter could publish it. She also wrote a letter of support.

To their eternal discredit, so did several well known artists.

Canadian Actress Martha Henry argued that “We need the Garths of the world to give us challenges, hope, excitement, courage…”. I wonder if Ms. Henry had given any thought to the challenges now facing Garth’s victims, the courage and hope they will need to weather the “excitement” her hero has brought to their lives.

Actor Christopher Plummer described the two convicted fraudsters as men “who recognize worth when they see it.” Yes, Chris, and like all thieving Magpies, immediately conspired to make those worthy “sparklies” their own.

And while both these talented thespians will continue working in the theatre, it’s interesting that neither gave any thought to the reality that the Livent fraud means many of their profession will not because Garth and Myron convinced many to never again invest in a play.

Hal Prince, Drabinsky’s favorite director and fellow judge on “Triple Sensation” (Don’t forget -- CBC Monday at 8:00) stated that Drabinsky “clearly loved and respected what he was doing and did it well.”

It’s not clear if Mr. Prince is describing Mr. Drabinsky’s love of theatre or skill at pulling a fast one. And one has to wonder if Mr. Prince feels obligated to support one of the few guys who’s been hiring him lately – a list that’s likely to become much shorter now that its been revealed that all the Broadway “Hits” he directed for Livent were actually massive turkeys.

And then there’s novelist E. L. Doctorow, whose missive of support was tepid at best. “That he has, after years of visionary theatrical entrepreneurship come to this, I cannot view as anything less than a personal tragedy.”

It must be tough for a man of Doctorow’s stature to consider that virtually every penny he was paid for the run of “Ragtime” was money stolen from others.

There are other luminaries on the letters list. Painter Alex Colville. Dancer Karen Kain. Former Toronto mayor David Crombie. All members of Canada’s gentry. All enormously talented. And all willing to overlook the harm done to the audiences they have served for a crook who pandered to their egos with invitations to glittering opening nights and celebrity studded parties.

I’m hoping that Justice Benotto has heard the old adage “Trust the Art, not the Artist” and sees these letters for the self-serving instruments that they are. Votes of support intended to place their writers as champions of these two convicted Establishment darlings, ensuring their own continued acceptance by that Establishment.

Perhaps the best assessment of Mr. Drabinsky comes not from a Canadian, but from Jeremy Gerard, an editor at Bloomberg.com who reported for Variety in the early '90s and was the first to raise doubts about Livent's finances.

"He was a con artist. His con was culture, because that gave him some cachet."

We’re big on cachet here. Keeping up appearances is so important. It just doesn’t do if people discover your great men just don’t have that much character. If it were – what might it say about you?

Sunday, July 12, 2009


I’ve literally been wandering the wilderness for the last two weeks, lost in the Badlands of Alberta and Great Sandhills of Saskatchewan, emerging yesterday to learn that I’d lost an old friend.


Others will remember Jan Rubes as the proudly protective Amish grandfather, Eli Lapp, in “Witness”, as the terrifyingly deranged psychiatrist in “Dead of Winter” (his own favorite role) or the singing coroner of “Due South”.

But my enduring image of Jan is of him standing in the wet pre-dawn, wearing only a slouch cap, underwear and cowboy boots, listening to his lush and infectious laughter as we both got into wardrobe for another day of work on “Lions For Breakfast”.

“Lions” was a Canadian film shot long before local actors could demand or local producers could afford trailers and motor homes for the stars of their films. So there we were in our skivvies, dressing off the tailgate of a station wagon.

The film we were making was about a misfit gypsy and two orphan brothers who form an unlikely family as they search for a better life. In many ways, its theme embodied Jan’s life.

Jan was born in Czechoslovakia, initially gaining notoriety as a featured singer with the Prague Opera. After winning his division of the International Music Festival in Geneva in 1948, however, he emigrated to Canada and Toronto, discovering to his horror that there wasn’t an opera house in his new home town.

So, like any gifted artist, Jan set out to find ways to share his gift in any way he could.

By the time I met him on the set of a low budget kid film, he had helped form the Canadian Opera Company, appearing in more than 1000 performances there as well as starring in or directing countless other pieces of theatre, films and television dramas and hosting his own radio and TV shows.

He had introduced thousands to music they had never heard before and never thought they’d like if they did hear it.

He had sung in drawing rooms and on internationally renowned stages.

He had taken roles in American Cold War potboilers, episodes of “Lassie” and countless forgotten plays.

He had brought his love of music into every living room in the country and given kids watching television the grandfather they never had.

He had done everything he possibly could to share the gifts he had been given with as many people as possible.

For Jan Rubes, there was no such thing as charting a career path, playing to a particular audience or feeding the needs of a cultural elite. There were simply people who needed to be entertained (whether they realized it or not) and all of those people were of equal value to him.

And so, despite those incredible achievements and the option to be appearing before the crowned heads of Europe and preparing for his work in the gilded dressing rooms of immaculate opera houses, there he was in the wilds of Ontario, waist deep in mud, working long into the night, enduring the BBQ lunches prepared by the producer and his kids to save a few bucks, in order to make a film he believed would reach even more audiences as yet untouched.

During one of those nights, we shot a sequence with an entire pride of lions. Across the compound, the crew, safely ensconced in heavy trucks, shot Jan and I in dialogue inside a rickety school bus as those Lions swarmed the vehicle, shredding the tires, cracking windows and trashing the horse trailer the bus was towing.

It was one of those moments when you realized you weren’t going to get a second take and everything had to be perfect – while also somewhat aware it might be the last scene you ever shot.

Jan never missed a beat, working as calmly and staying as focused as if he were in the cozy confines of a rehearsal studio. He was completely committed to sharing his gift, knowing the scene would thrill kid audiences all over the world and making sure it went without a hitch.

Around the same time, I appeared in a musical version of “Winnie the Pooh” produced by Jan’s wife Susan as she established The Young People’s Theatre Company.

Susan had compiled an amazing cast. Jazz and Broadway legend Don Franks as Pooh, Mark Connors (later of “The Nylons”) as Eeyore, soon to be a famous writer, Suzette Couture, as Kanga and Andrea Martin and I as Rabbits.

We did the whole show in life sized furry outfits, making the singing and dancing so difficult there were Oxygen tanks stashed in the wings for between number pick-me-ups. Jan turned up regularly to help those of us who weren’t great singers (or maybe just me) get better.

He instinctively knew that Susan’s brainchild would introduce theatre to countless numbers who could be infected with a lifelong love of the Arts and threw himself headlong into helping it succeed.

On opening night there was a fund-raising after-party where we all turned up in costume to meet the excited kids who’d been in the audience. Jan approached with a child clinging to each hand.

On one side was a shy inner city girl who’d never been in a theatre before. On the other was a six year old in a blue suit who boldly stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m John Labatt Jr.”

Jan beamed as they tugged my long ears and blackened nose. Who they were, where they came from or what they would become meant nothing to him. What was important was that for the last two hours they had laughed and cheered and sat in wrapt amazement as a story played out in front of them.

He knew they would both be back. And I think in that moment, watching his eyes dance as he watched them, I did too. His gift had been shared once more -– as it was meant to be.

Jan lived to a ripe old age, vibrant to the end. But a life is not measured by the amount of breath we take, but by all the moments that take our breath away.

By that measure, Jan Rubes, lived a thousand lifetimes, leaving everyone he met richer than they had been before. His is a legacy for which any artist would be proud.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


I've become convinced that people go on vacations for one of two reasons. They either want to relive a fond moment from their past or create a fond moment for the future.

And moments are more easily recalled if they are recorded -- therefore the recording of the past fondness or newfound ones is primary when vacationing.

This morning, in the midst of a quiet clearing in the Rockies, my dog and I ran into a busload of Japanese tourists digitally recording the grandeur of the nearby peaks.

All of a sudden we were the center of their attention. or rather, she was. I was just the guy on the other end of the leash who had walked this piece of exotic local wildlife into their field of vision.

After having the pooch sit nicely for a flurry of shutter clicks, I hit on a much better use of all of our time and had them each pose with the dog while I used their cameras (and my own) to take individual portraits.

And just for the record, I didn't just play a photographer on television...

So while the King of Japan was in Calgary being photographed with every forked tongued politician in town to flip pancakes, several of his countrymen were emailing home pictures of them with their arms around a more trustworthy local whose tongue merely lolls.

There's no doubt which set of photos will be more valued.

It made me decide to have the dog pose with everybody I meet on this trip, suddenly giving a focus and shape to what's been mostly a "Where the fuck are we now?" tour of places Canadian that never get seen on Canadian television -- meaning we're a loooooong way from Queen Street West.

And that made me think that sitting through a print-flip or digital scan of almost anybody's vacation pix would be so much more enjoyable if some thought had gone into what they were really trying to accomplish or recreate on said vacation.

The following is one of the best "How To's" I can find on giving your pictures a theme, a shape and a purpose.

If the link is broken, you can find it here.

Give it a look, grab your camera and Enjoy your Sunday.

Arigato Gozaimasu.