Atop the Christmas list for West Vancouver’s ailing retail sector: some business prosperity

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – December 22, 2014

West Vancouver, the wealthy widow of Metro, might well ask Santa for Christmas: please, how about some nice fresh prosperity for our businesses? Especially for the main business stem, Marine Drive, Ambleside. A former councillor once drily counted something like 13 beauty salons by any name on the Marine Drive strip. Not huge retail magnets and tax-generators.

The “wealthy widow” analogy is defensible. I used to guess that the elderly women squeezing coins from their change purses at Safeway on 17th Street were widows, left pensions – ample 25 years earlier – by their husbands. Inflation was easing them into genteel poverty. Businessman and former councillor Victor Durman, not given to excreting sympathy, heard wailing by widows living skinny – sitting on $2 million properties. Land-rich, cashflow-poor.

That well-worn Safeway is gone, replaced by landlord H.Y. Louie’s own smartly framed (and pricier) Fresh St. Market, its customers visibly generations younger than Safeway’s. Just what Michael Smith, twice-acclaimed West Van mayor, wants – only more, please, Santa.

Retired oil company executive Smith (who gives his $9,000-a-year mayoral salary raise to the West Vancouver Foundation) is an outwardly reserved, even shy man. But demons writhe inside. Business, he says bluntly, is dying along Marine Drive.

“Our commercial area is not doing well,” he said grimly at an election meeting last month. “If we don’t do something we’ll just have a rundown area we drive through on the way to Park Royal [Shopping Centre].”

Ah, Park Royal, West Van’s explosively growing retail gorilla. Its personable vice-president and general manager, Rick Amantea,seems sincere when he says a business-healthy Marine Drive is in Park Royal’s interest. The owning Lalji family may not have heard. Park Royal’s ambition is to be not merely a North Shore but a regional shopping centre, competitive with Oakridge and Burnaby’s Metrotown. Its glossy shops proliferate, its roadways are an off-putting maze with non-stop construction, but its vast free parking is a killer for Ambleside, where scarce parking is also free – but much of it grabbed early in the day by store employees from the suburbs.

The mayor’s centrepiece for Marine Drive revival is Grosvenor Ambleside, a 95-condo and retail gem-to-be on the police station’s waterfront site at 13th and Marine. Smith felt West Van got an excellent deal – $62 million for the site and $1 million a year in future taxes – but the sale to London-based Grosvenor was almost scuppered. Some furious citizens railed about its bylaw-bending, view-blocking heft. Council’s 2-2 deadlock (Coun. Mary-Ann Booth abstaining because her lawyer husband had a Grosvenor connection, now lifted) was broken only through pressure on populist Coun. Bill Soprovich.

Last month’s election could be seen as a chastening referendum on Grosvenor: council’s two naysayers, Craig Cameron (who simply held out for a smaller development) and Nora Gambioli, finished one-two, while longtime poll-topper Soprovich fell to fourth. The big upset was financial adviser and Grosvenor development critic Christine Cassidy’s whipping of several prospective Smith allies. As a potential tie-breaker she’ll be under close watch.

Town hall is by far Metro’s biggest municipal per capita spender, the Fraser Institute found – $2,118 per person in 2012, far above the $1,384 regional average, and more than twice bottom-rung Surrey’s $951. West Van is an oddity. First impression, it doesn’t look that rich. The money is behind opulent private doors up the slopes. But Smith asserts its aging residents would gladly move to condos nearer businesses and recreation – if they were built. Old-timers feel Marine Drive’s modest, human-scale businesses are part of the charm. And trees, views, foreign speculators – let’s not go there.

Next month council begins updating its official community plan – possibly spurred by a jarring 17,500-square-foot home approved for a once-serene neighbourhood – and a new lobby group is inviting developers, builders and realtors to join, its suspected goal to head off as much regulatory stricture as possible. The wealthy widow has panting suitors.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

BIV 25th Anniversary: 25 years on: B.C. retains its economic and lifestyle allure for easterners and others

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – December 4, 2014

The photo of a woman recently caught my eye. Days later I casually read the caption. No! Really? She was a meltingly brown-eyed blossom of a teenager when we casually met 25 years ago. Now she was a middle-aged woman. Still very attractive. But … 25 years had passed. Or was it more? The years mischievously dodge, dissolve, hide.

More happily, Business in Vancouver was a bouncing baby 25 years ago, in 1989, spanked into life by founding father and still superlative columnist Peter Ladner, and even within my brief apprenticeship – more or less as a mixture of tsk-tsking Old Bore and comic relief – has become typographically handsomer with age. Incidentally BIV shares a 25th anniversary with Bard on the Beach, founded by cherished Sir Christopher Gaze, a knighthood he’d have now if still in his native England.

On the larger world stage, a profound year, 1989. Under the shrewd strategy of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, assisted by communism’s inherent ineptitude and wild misreading of the human animal, the Soviet Union abruptly disunited, astonishing most of the world, including experts caught with their ideological pants down. There has been no shortage of talk. Pretty fair nominees for the ideological bookends for the last 25 years are Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 thunderbolt essay The End of History? (the question mark subsequently was dropped), arguing that communism’s crash heralded the arrival of global liberal democracy, the ascendancy of markets as the natural state of societies and the end of ideology. The other is Thomas Piketty’s 2014 bombshell Capital, which certainly disproved Fukuyama’s thesis that ideology slept in its grave.

For a while Piketty seemed to intimidate liberal economists into awed silence. That’s over. Critics, including Philip Cross, former chief economic analyst for Statistics Canada, say he puts on the same blindfold as Ricardo, Malthus and the Club of Rome in the 1960s: he doesn’t factor in unforeseen change, specifically the inventiveness and creative technological change that torpedoed Malthusian pessimism (are you there, global warming dogmatists?). The race keeps staving off disaster, no matter what part-time gloomsters like me suspect.

The chattering classes aside, the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was struck in 1989, evolving into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) five years later. In power in 1989 were Brian Mulroney, five Canadian prime ministers ago; Bill Vander Zalm, eight B.C. premiers ago; and Gordon Campbell, five Vancouver mayors ago. Time, as they say, passes.

Though discovered by earlier celebrities like Rudyard Kipling, Bing Crosby and John Wayne, few would have predicted a few decades ago how far Vancouver would rise in cosmopolitanism and international profile and popularity.

By 1989 it was well on its way. Ethnically diverse, rich in cuisine, with more music, theatre, opera and ballet than any arts glutton could consume … well, one can only add that B.C. marijuana became a sought-after export, and even Metro Vancouver murders have become more big-city. (Homicides are actually on long-term decline.)

Such rapid growth brought problems too – not that you’d trade them for slumping back, like Detroit, Buffalo and our own (indeed my own) Hamilton.

Being on top famously offers only one possible direction. A few years ago Britain’s authoritative magazine The Economist handed Vancouver the palm of world’s most livable city. But, largely because of a negative for persistent traffic problems, it’s fallen to third place. Yet any city but Sydney and Vienna (Nos. 1 and 2) would die for third place.

At my age you get annoyed that everyone is too young. None of today’s experts knows of English writer V.S. Pritchett’s perceptive essay more than 50 years ago titled “The Pacific Sadness.”

His theory: eager Easterners move to the West Coast – Pritchett included B.C. with the U.S. Pacific states – and are smitten by its beauty and embrace its hedonistic lifestyle. Then the Pacific Sadness slowly afflicts them. They have gone west. They can go no further. Is that all there is? They are drawn back by the energies, the this-is-where-it-happens-ness, of the east.

Doubtless some Vancouverites wish more would.

Affordable housing is almost a cynical shrug. Some executives have turned down Vancouver jobs when they did the arithmetic of selling their homes and getting less for more here.

Urban planner, developer and media commentator Michael Geller, quoted recently by the Sun’s Pete McMartin, says most people he talks to believe the city isn’t as good as it used to be.

Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of BC, nudged me toward some sobering trends refreshingly free of hype. Such as: B.C., economically once in the top tier of provinces behind Alberta (which is lengthening its lead), has slipped to the high-middle, largely because former have-not Newfoundland and Saskatchewan have slipped past it.

Although resources still constitute about three-quarters of B.C.’s exports, their contribution to gross domestic product and as job sources have slightly declined since 1989, and the share of services has grown. Many studies indicate that real income per person and per household in most of the rich Western world has risen only modestly since the 1980s.

As for our general but naturally unequal prosperity, half a century ago Robert Bonner, the sole lawyer and only university grad in W.A.C. Bennett’s first cabinet, said unforgettably – at least I haven’t forgotten it: “British Columbia’s economy is like sex. When it’s good, it’s very good. And when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”

Words, qualified of course, to live by – and that middle-aged woman, 25 years on, still looks pretty good to this eye.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Weighing up the new realities of wealth inequality

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – December 2, 2014

There are more rhinestones than gems in the Internet’s homespun humour. But this has endured in my mental filing cabinet: “Everyone who drives faster than you is a fool, and everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot.”

Its appeal is that it can be retooled for many situations. Such as today’s theme: “Everyone who is much richer than you is a bloated pig, and everyone who is much poorer than you deserves it.” (Even the mean-spirited will exempt victims of blameless misfortune and the long-term disabled, but if you don’t know a few authors of their own tragedies and nimble lead-swingers in the welfare ranks, you aren’t watching closely.)

Now to a recent report of the Broadbent Institute, chaired by former New Democratic Party leader Ed of that name, a decent chap to be sure. Drinking the bathwater of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, splashing in the tub of a recent American study that examined wealth inequality rather than the more conventional income inequality, the institute concludes that 10% of British Columbians control 56.2% of the province’s wealth. Across Canada, the bottom 30% account for less than 1% of the nation’s wealth.

We are in the Land of Jealousy and in the territory of the Statistics of Shame. Such studies from the left of course are meant to make the “rich” (an elastic term – as rubbery as the “poor” ) feel guilty and the rest feel resentful. And, a few saints excepted, envious.

As always, where you stand depends largely on where you sit. These days in Vancouver, with its crazy real estate prices, someone with a mere few million in net assets may not feel, or act, rich at all. In fact studies have shown many drive Chevs and Fords, disciples of plain-living Warren Buffett – that’s how they, and he, got their pile.

Thrift begins early. Like living within one’s means. (Their punishment is for the modern state to keep interest rates on their savings low and to tax them mercilessly.)

In any event, such statistics conceal as much as they reveal. John F. Kennedy famously said of strong economic times, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

But some equipped only with canoes will then row carefully toward deeper, safer waters, while others will take that as a signal to set sail recklessly and crash on the shoals of (frequently bigger) debt.

I’m a little seasick with that sailing metaphor myself. Anyway, even if we could somehow line up equally for the race, as soon as the starting gun was fired some would take the liberty to be much more equal than others.

The Broadbent types elaborately avoid examining whether character, will and choice have anything to do with wealth inequality. That would be “judgmental.”

Good example: Lewis Lapham, who writes far too well for someone of privileged birth (old Texaco money) and far too inclusively about American culture, once wrote that if the laws in some jurisdictions against adultery were enforced, “everybody would be in jail, but it is also true that sexual promiscuity and infidelity causes more misery (for the featured players as well as for the children in the supporting cast) than ever gets explained in the program notes.” Does that describe many members of that poorest 1%?

Not to deny or defend some ugly ways to pay the entry fee into B.C.’s charmed 10%. But neither to overlook the generosity of some of its members who write very large cheques for very good causes concerning health, hospitals, libraries, the arts and international aid.

Best advice concerning the 10%: join it.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Ottawa terrorist attack rattled markets but galvanized the nation

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – November 11, 2014

Apart from denouncing Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the convert to radical Islam who shot the unarmed Cpl. Cirillo, you had to take comfort that the assassin’s cause suffered a richly deserved humiliation

Shamefully, minutes after my initial widely shared anger and personal red alert about the shooting at Ottawa’s National War Memorial of the young soldier later identified as Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the crass thought stole into my mind: what will this do to the markets?

Well, they went down, of course. And within days they shot up – ironically because Japan, our Asian enemy of the Second World War, let loose domestic economic forces long frustrated in that paradoxically wealthy but economically stagnant nation. World markets soared, the Canadian dollar sagged, and likely no one had a better or worse breakfast for it.

Apart from denouncing Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the convert to radical Islam who shot the unarmed Cpl. Cirillo, you had to take comfort that the assassin’s cause suffered a richly deserved humiliation.

Zehaf-Bibeau couldn’t have chosen a worse victim if the domestic jihadists had a hundred lined up.

Cpl. Cirillo, a 24-year-old reservist from the Hamilton-based Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was revealed as a beautiful guy, big smile, wonderfully ordinary, handsome, decent, a loving single father of his five-year-old son, Marcus, deeply loved by his anguished mother, Kathy. He was a Canadian not identifiable by the ribbons of stereotype, status, career, presumed income, or neighbourhood – as a native and ineradicable Hamiltonian that half a century of West Coast living hasn’t worn smooth, I might have pigeon-holed him by his address.

If you were searching for a representative Canadian, you could have randomly plucked Nathan Cirillo off the shelf and got exactly the right one.

Zehaf-Bibeau had a further stroke of bad luck. It just wasn’t his day, eh?

Having shot a stranger, head bowed, whose rifle was unloaded at the solemn memorial honouring those who have kept the beast at bay and protected what is best about us and our country,  he hastened into the pretty lightly protected Centre Block of Parliament.

Here, after gunfire broke out between him and security guards, Zehaf-Bibeau encountered further misfortune, in the shape of Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms of the Commons, who carries the ceremonial mace at the opening of the House.

This duty may seem an amusingly archaic costume show. But in fact Vickers is a 29-year RCMP veteran experienced in top-level security. He repaired to his office, unlocked his handgun and, from the floor, shot the homemade terrorist, reportedly in the head. (Books soon will be feverishly flying off to panting publishers that will expand or correct current information.)

Zehaf-Bibeau – a sad, shabby case, reportedly a crack cocaine user with an undistinguished criminal record – arguably took one for the ill-defined terrorist team. But he didn’t know he was the thickness of a couple of doors from causing further serious injury and death to parliamentarians in conclave. And that tense day certainly came at a high cost to Ottawa businesses and police and other government services.

But he totally failed to distribute terrorism’s most important product – terror.

Canadians, an indolent people in proclaiming patriotism, snapped to attention, ranks closed, and bellowed O Canada from coast to coast. Typically, and unforgettably for the undersigned, with parade-ground precision, host Christopher Gage smartly marshalled the mainly old folks at a Tea & Trumpets matinee of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Gordon Gerrard conducting, in a more than perfunctory rendition of the anthem.

When Nathan Cirillo woke up on the morning of  October 22,  he could never have imagined that by nightfall he would leave us a better people, and that he would forever be identified with our Remembrance Day.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

U.S. regulatory system becoming an international business bully

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – October 20, 2014

Since I have not and have never been an American, and due to circumstances within my control have not set foot in the United States in this century, I’m unable to explain why I am immensely moved by Kate Smith – a sunny and large lady with a wineglass-shattering voice – singing “God Bless America” on a 33-1/3 record of Irving Berlin’s greatest compositions.

I am of a generation that mostly admired the U.S., partly because it offered Sunday movies across the border in Buffalo when pince-nez Ontario was open only to God on the Sabbath. The U.S. had recently prosecuted, if not single-handedly won – can you doubt Hollywood? – what some call the last just war in history. Kate Smith had petitioned God to “stand beside her, and guide her,” and the Deity evidently listened. For decades the U.S. was a clichéd beacon of freedom, fair play and the rule of law.

A recent article and editorial – leader, as the English call it – in the influential London magazine The Economist, titled “The criminalisation (British spelling) of American business,” challenged that fading image.

“Who runs the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation?” asked The Economist. Not the Mafia or the Kremlin kleptocracy – the U.S. regulatory system.

Its modus operandi:

“Find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.”

Could it be that in Canada – with three main political parties anxious to out-left each other on many issues – beating up capitalists, if it’s happening, is popularly held to be one thing Americans have got right?

The Economist’s examples of state bullying include BP’s $13 billion settlement for its Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the $50 billion paid by banks for allegedly misleading investors over mortgage-backed bonds, the burst bubble that shook world business in 2008-10 (which free-market economists like Simon Fraser University emeritus professor Herbert Grubel blames on the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve Board).

In international disputes the U.S. legal system looks after its own, as B.C.’s forestry industry can attest.

So can BC Hydro, which got a severe bruising by Americans last year. It threw in the legal towel for $750 million, rather than trust courts and regulators in the land that God stands beside, in a bitter dispute with California, which claimed that Hydro subsidiary Powerex had ripped off the state, happily selling it overpriced power during its major electrical crisis in 2000-01. (What, Canada, the world’s Boy Scout, would perpetrate Kasuch a dastardly deed? Forsooth.)

I asked several sources: What’s Canada’s record in such matters? Big question, short time to deadline, some begging off as not experts and suggesting other authorities. Widely experienced business professor Steven Globerman – a Canadian – at Western Washington University did muse: “There is always some ongoing activity [in Canada] related to misleading advertising and such, but nothing like, for example, the settlement with banks for mortgage fraud, etc., that is happening in the U.S.

“Then again, there was no big mortgage default problem in Canada.”

I wonder if the case of SNC-Lavalin and its former executive vice-president, Riadh Ben Aissa, now trundling through Swiss and Canadian courts, will reveal any analogy at all with U.S. practices and penalties.

Unfortunately Kate Smith, having died in 1986 after inspiring the Philadelphia Flyers to many victories with her stirring song, is unavailable for comment.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Core of B.C. teachers union in serious need of housecleaning

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – September 22, 2014

The abusive power of the neo-Marxist ideologues who have dominated the core of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) for decades must be crushed.

If this doesn’t come from within, through a revolt against those further left than the New Democratic Party itself – unlikely because those who hold the BCTF’s 40,000 members in thrall won’t abdicate without one hell of a fight – it should come from outside, from the government.

Never again must students, parents and businesses, especially in smaller towns – not to overlook the moderate and even slightly left-leaning teachers who privately think that schools should never be shut down in labour disputes – be held hostage to the “progressives.” It’s intellectual duplicity that BCTF leaders claim to fight for abstract students while hurting the actual flesh-and-blood ones.

Let’s cut to this particular chase. Dr. Pat McGeer, a former BC Liberal Party leader in its gloomiest days, an outstanding cabinet minister (including minister of advanced education) in the Bill Bennett Social Credit government, and one of the brainiest and most widely accomplished British Columbians of his or any time, gave his sharply pertinent opinion in a letter to the Vancouver Sun editor soon after the BCTF strike began in June.
And plain and unadorned it was. Two proposals.

“The first is to pass legislation declaring education an essential service and strikes impermissible,” McGeer wrote. “The second is to eliminate the requirement of membership in the BCTF to be a condition for teaching in a B.C. public school.”

McGeer is ringingly right. Any private business, wielding monopoly power, that stopped services to 500,000 customers, and caused costly and anxiety-provoking inconvenience such as B.C.’s parents suffered, would be legislatively crushed like a bug by swift government action.

I was astonished on moving from Ontario, home of conservative premiers John Robarts, Leslie Frost and Bill Davis, to Vancouver where the BCTF president was a genuine card-carrying Communist – Jim McFarlane. You kidding me? Member of a Moscow-directed party, while the Soviet Union aimed missiles at Canadian cities? How could any thinking person countenance that? Answer: many didn’t think. Some did, too late.

No one wants to talk about it, but there’s still a rump of B.C. nostalgists and apologists for the good old Soviet Union that collapsed in 1989. The ones who marched for peace, Moscow’s definition. Called for “unilateral disarmament.” Invoked “moral equivalency” – between the West and mass murderers Lenin, Stalin, Mao. Of course favoured Uncle Ho in Vietnam.

They went somewhere, teaching an obvious destination, where they influenced the young – as a current university student, I can attest that the academy still makes brief bows to Karl. The environment is another, where BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) is an ingratiating fantasy that keeps a straight face about how then to fund government welfare.

How radical, how much in the socialist “vanguard” that secretly makes many mainstream unionists uneasy, is the BCTF core? Someone with top-to-bottom experience in education pointed out: note presidents who serve only one year. That’s because they’re deemed “soft.”

One I knew doubtless shared conventional leftist views, but he was shrewd, pragmatic, nobody’s fool. Just not anti-capitalist enough.In my early teens, teachers were so poorly paid that they commonly took summer jobs – my oldest school friend, back to Grade 4, recalled that even her father, an elementary school principal, did so. (Recently a West Vancouver woman, bitterly damning the system’s allegedly poor provision for her autistic children, shocked even my good self by declaring that teachers still should – why pay them for a year when they work only 190-odd days?)

No support here for that. And none for the ideologues who openly campaign against B.C. governments – even the New Democrats are just too right-of-centre for them. Teachers, who likely will never make up their lost wages, deserve better.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Pros and cons of a separate Scotland

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – September 9, 2014

Syria. Iraq. Ukraine. Somalia. And more. Racked by nationalist violence. In contrast, Scotland’s referendum September 18 to separate from the United Kingdom is marked by almost a caricature of traditional British politeness and sporting civility.

In the Commons, Glasgow MP Ian Davidson wittily baited Prime Minister David Cameron (who had bestowed an MBE on his barber): “Without seeking to give offence, can I tell you that the last person Scots who support the No campaign want to have as their representative is a Tory toff from the Home Counties, even one with a fine haircut?”

Well played, sir, well played. Cameron and his Conservative colleagues joined in the laughter. The PM “humbly” agreed, then lobbed back a hard-core political message.

The referendum question is starkly simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” (Scottish separatists visited Canada to study Quebec referendums but wisely didn’t copy our convoluted questions.) The Yes side is led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP). Point man for the No side, the Better Together campaign, is Alistair Darling, a former Labour Party chancellor. The No side has consistently led in the polls, but the gap narrowed in recent weeks.

Oddly, the more things changed, the more some things would stay the same – or is the SNP cynically wooing the nervous undecided, planning differently if Yes wins? A separate Scotland would keep the Queen. (Scottish blood.) Keep the pound sterling. (Never, Cameron insists.) Keep open borders. Apply for European Union membership. (Not painlessly.)

Everything – sharing the debt, defence, social programs – would be up in the air.

So, bluntly, what’s it to us? Business axiomatically hates uncertainty. (No response, predictably, from a couple of B.C. companies possibly affected.) A man named Jock announces his bias, you’d think, but Jock Finlayson, Business Council of BC executive vice-president and chief policy officer, offers a thoughtfully nuanced opinion:

“Despite my Scottish heritage, I don’t feel I have much skin in this particular game. My parents and their siblings were Canada-born, as was I. I have visited Scotland once and did feel a residual tug at the heartstrings, but I have little knowledge of the country’s politics.

“That said … I must confess to skepticism about the case for separation as articulated by the SNP. Scotland is a substantial net beneficiary of fiscal transfers from the U.K. central government.  The large financial institutions that have their head offices in Edinburgh are tightly woven into the City of London finance cluster and would dread any risk to their connections to it [and to the Treasury and the Bank of England].

“I understand that most Scottish voters lean markedly to the left, so their dislike of the Cameron government may be a key factor leading some to support independence. But dislike of an incumbent government is a poor reason to fracture a successful polity.”

That polity was forged in 1707, “one of the world’s most successful unions,” declares English-born Roger Dawson, vice-president of the Royal Society of St. George, B.C. branch, and a predictable No supporter. New Westminster-born Dan Brown, former society president, whose views merit filling this space, counter-intuitively supports Scotland separating – “the Scots would do us a great favour if they would” – on the ingenious premise that it would allow long-deferential English nationalism to bloom.

My own in-depth research consists of staying 60 years ago at 1 Drummond Place, Edinburgh, where the landlady, the kind but fierce (a Scottish invention) Mrs. Fox, snapped: “You can’t trust a Sasanach,” almost a Scottish four-letter word for the English.

The excitement, the adrenalin flush of nationalism, invites Robert Louis Stevenson’s warning to tourists, expandable to hot idealists on a mission: “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” And a Scot, he was.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

August remains a deadly month in the war and plunder business

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – August 26, 2014

Let us now praise heroic soldiers. When better? Poet T.S. Eliot, best known for inspiring the musical Cats, called April the cruellest month. Wrong; that’s August.

Currently: Gaza. Ukraine. Syria. Iraq. Pakistan. And more.

It was in August that the war that didn’t end all wars began 100 years ago. It missed by a few days being the start of the second chapter of that war, 75 years ago, but its inevitability lay in the German-Soviet non-aggression pact on August 24.

It was the month of atom-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki 69 years ago, which hard-eyed realists know was better than the alternative: when Japan’s surrender August 15 spared the Allies and Japanese civilians from the meat grinder of invasion, 20-year-old infantryman Paul Fussell, already badly injured in France and an outstanding future scholar, wrote that “for all the practised phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy.” Later he scorned both the armchair pietists calling the bombings a war crime, and war’s romanticizers – “the sentimental, the loony patriot, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”

Would he have praised a supposed coward whose personal day of infamy occurred in an August two centuries earlier?

Wait, business angle! But for that general’s surrender, today we might live under the 59 or more stars of Old Glory. Our business big fish would be a 10th of their size in a bigger pond. Our economy, a 10th of the American, might have become far richer. No trade disputes, no loonie at a premium or a discount – helping or hurting some interests either way. No Quebec separatists? Maybe.

But the battlefield heroes of what has been called “the last just war” shouldn’t be ignored. Are they, a bit?

There’s been recent breast-swelling about Canada’s coming of age in the 1914 war, and breast-beating about internment of ethnic Japanese in the 1939 one.

Do I detect leftist unease about Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, New Westminster-born Victoria Cross winner, for his reckless pluck in the Italian campaign?

He was the sort who wins wars, or else. Today Pte. Smith of the Seaforth Highlanders would be flagrantly politically incorrect, so-called.

“You were a wild man, right?” Ken MacQueen asked in a great 2005 Maclean’s interview.

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t take orders. I didn’t believe in them,” Smith replied. No phony regrets. “I was never afraid to shoot. I’d kill the bastards. That’s what you’re paid for.”

Vancouver-born C.C.I. Merritt was cut from different cloth. He won his Victoria Cross audaciously commanding the South Saskatchewan Regiment in the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid (August again!). A lawyer and later Progressive Conservative MP.

Now that third soldier, Gen. William Hull. Hardly a conventional hero. Yet – fascinated since boyhood by the War of 1812, when the U.S. invaded Canada expecting quick victory – in maturity I unconventionally admire him. The oft-told story is excellently related in my late editor Bruce Hutchison’s 1955 book The Struggle for the Border, re-released by Oxford University Press in 2012.

Hull was the American commander at Fort Detroit. He had fought commendably in the American Revolution. But now he was 57. His responsibility for the fort’s soldiers and civilians weighed heavily. Especially he feared the Indians.

British Gen. Isaac Brock shrewdly informed him that “the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.”

Hull pictured his daughter and granddaughter scalped. Yes, the word and the fact have been banished from today’s ideology-laundered lexicon.

Hull surrendered without a fight. He was convicted of cowardice, and only presidential pardon saved him from being shot. And those whose lives he saved reviled him.

But if only every military commander – every one – copied Hull, the compassionate coward.

The date of Hull’s surrender? August 16, 1812.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

A fond farewell to St. Pierre and the glory days of dailies, CKNW

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – August 12, 2014

Paul St. Pierre died aged 90 last month, and the daily newspapers he adorned look a little wan too. Abandoning characteristic diplomacy, Vancouver Sun deskman Ron Riter, equipped with the keenest of journalistic noses, would call him the paper’s best columnist of his time.

Paul could write down and up to readers in every sentence. An equal-access storyteller to the lump and the literate, he wrote books and films, real cowboys and real Indian stories, set in B.C.’s Cariboo country. Once a pretty woman fell off a ranch fence there and he caught her. “Hello,” he remarked. They married, his first of two.

He was a Sun desker when Don Cromie – maybe Canada’s last big-city independent publisher and given to exotic epiphanies, like transmuting sports writer Jack Richards into a theatre critic and sending women’s editor Marie Moreau to interview Fidel Castro – elevated Paul to associate editor. The legend is that the day he began his new role was the first he’d ever worn a suit and tie.

Dark, restless, Napoleonic, Paul preferred big horizons to airless offices. He drove a Datsun B210, his “little rice-burner,” all over B.C., extracting columns from soil and river and ordinary lives he made important. Mexico was a second home. In advanced age he wrote a reflective masterpiece, Old Enough to Know Better.

Drinking occurred in those days. (And that was just the women; Moreau closed the door and opened the bottom drawer for her women’s department staff after every workday.) Names swim back: Simma Holt, Moira Farrow, Tom Ardies – who often wrote the prize zipper across the bottom of page 1. Unheralded deskmen like Lionel Salt, tough Tom Butler, Evan Evans-Atkinson. Inventive photographers under Charlie Warner. Cartoonists Len Norris and Roy Peterson. The dailies are thinner and the fun has vanished, along with the blue-haze newsroom and the booze.

Hold on – business readership, right? Better sprinkle some dollar signs. Determined to produce a brash, big-time paper, in 1963, when Earl T. Smith hired the undersigned, Cromie was paying columnist Jack Scott $24,000 per annum, and cigar-chomping managing editor Erwin Swangard $1,000 more – plus a white Cadillac, soothing any incipient jealousy. Everyone read self-styled saloon columnist Jack Wasserman, who weighed in at around $19,000. In perspective, the journeyman rate then was $128 a week, $6,656 a year.

These figures, stunning today when adjusted for inflation, were provided by know-it-all Allan Fotheringham, not yet the celebrity columnist of the same name, who incidentally assessed the value of Cromie’s handsome Shaughnessy house at an alarming $125,000.

But that was very much then. A source familiar with several area print, radio and TV enterprises reports that all are hurting, the common enemy of course the Internet, free and often worth every penny. Yet the dailies, including the Sun under Gordon Fisher, in many respects are better than ever, and still absolutely indispensable.

Now, CKNW. The rich, legendary days are likewise gone, along with Jack Webster, Warren Barker, George Garrett, Frosty Forst and a vast alumni roster of mostly female producers and outstanding executive Shirley Stocker. Front-liners Philip Till and Bill Good recently left hours apart, Till cheerfully telling me: “I’ve had enough, and I’ve got enough.”

Good, 67-ish, with his probity, civility, fairness, balance, integrity and inclusiveness, traits I yearn for, sailed perilously close to the status of Court Broadcaster, socially mingling with the prominent and even offered a job by billionaire Jimmy Pattison during a huge on-air sendoff. Permanent replacements TBA; Chris Gailus and Jay Durant have batted for Till, sassy and smart Mike Smyth for Good.

We may never see the glory days reprieved, certainly not at the old income of Rafe Mair. Memory, speak: didn’t it hit $300,000?

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Youthful investment in Euro adventure yields generous returns

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – July 29, 2014

Sixty years ago, almost to the day, I left for Europe. I was 19. Preposterously, I believed I was destined to be a poet. I associated poets with dirt. I didn’t have a full wash for six weeks.

I sailed on Cunard’s Scythia from Quebec City to Southampton. Interruption: This won’t be a travel story or personal memoir, unless I lie. This being a business paper, it’s a business story. So expect numbers meant to shock and amaze.

Some 3½ months in Europe cost a steep $1,000. Right, if you lived as grungily as I did you could wring maybe a month out of it even today.

The eight days on the Scythia, a 1920 vessel used as a troop ship in the war and looked like it, cost $140.

Cunard wrung extra profit from me: missed every meal but the first. Seasick.

I knew no one, but family friend Lila Beaver linked me with saintly Hugh and Ivy Fraser, Sandringham Gardens, North Finchley.

Gathering strength, I departed for the shrine of George Bernard Shaw’s Ayot St. Lawrence home, unaware rural England rolled up the sidewalks early, and blundered into the costliest lodging of the entire trip: Railway Hotel, Cambridge, one pound, $3. A B&B typically charged $1.50.

In Paris – at another shrine, Oscar Wilde’s grave – I met pious Quebecer Jean Menard, bound for the priesthood, who had a car but couldn’t drive.

Off to Switzerland and Italy for six weeks.

Variously wedged into a tiny Austin A30 were a Belgian lawyer, a social worker I called Madame Egypt, and Mlle. Brantford, who may or may not have wed an eastern potentate. All the churches and medieval art one could see, on $5 a day.

The foreignness.

Old France lost enormous character with closure of the street pissoir, a metal maze into a mass urinal over a sewer; Italy lost a similar facility, the frankly urinal-in-a-wall vespasiani, named for a considerate emperor, which possibly offended prudery and tourists and women.

More shrines: the graves in Rome of the drowned Shelley and the tubercular Keats.

Hungry, I spent less time looking at El Grecos and more staring into bakery windows.

There’s always a woman, isn’t there? This one was a pixie. Ignited by An American in Paris, our circle babbled about going to Europe, but only I went, shamed into it by the pixie. The Dear John letter awaited when I returned to Paris in November. The autumn rains fell on a broken poet mourning along the Seine’s bleak banks.

Hitchhiking, I was humbled to borrow $10 from Mr. Charles J. Bussell, 30 Rue Joubert, Paris office of Harding & Messenger, London. I was cheated by the Scots, the English and the Welsh, the latter a blacksmith in the hamlet of Glasfryn, defining quaint: lamplit, no electricity.

I resolved to fly home – commercial transatlantic air travel was just out of diapers. But a Thomas Cook travel agent assured me that the 20,000-ton Scythia’s ride couldn’t compare with the mighty 82,000-ton Queen Mary’s, which would cut imperturbably through the Southampton-New York seas. Wrong. Seasick again. And for a pricey $165.

The foregoing is unlikely to make readers yearn for a time machine to retrace my youthful steps. But the $1,000 was well spent.

I returned convinced that Canada could be as rich as Europe in artistic and intellectual expression, in books – and in bakeries and bistros and “foreign” restaurants.

When I moved to Vancouver in 1963, I asked yet-to-be celebrated journalist Allan Fotheringham to list some good, not fancy, restaurants. He named three.

Now look at us.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014