Fathers and Sons

November 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Ever since Homer wrote in The Odyssey of the misery of Laertes, the father of Odysseus, over his son’s twenty-year absence following the Trojan War, thinkers have sought to dissect the dynamics of father-son relationships. Marco Polo’s father Niccolo, absent during the first fifteen years of the boy’s life, tried to assuage their long separation by taking him to the court of Kublai Khan, a trip that set the stage for an equally enthralling literary epic. In a later age, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote of the generation gap in Fathers and Sons and Vincent van Gogh struggled to gain approval of a brooding and melancholy father. More infamously, Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) remembers only a mean and unforgiving father who applied his authority relentlessly and “forbade me to nourish the slightest hope of ever being allowed to study art.”

It is the lives of famous sons of famous fathers that attract the closest scrutiny, particularly when they occupy significant public positions. In Canada, the most notable example is of course that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. British Columbia produced father and son premiers in William Bennett who followed an ebullient parent, W.A.C. Bennett, into office. Justin Trudeau, dealing with new issues a generation on from his father, exhibits the same activist government philosophy of his parent. The younger Bennett, driven by a fierce free enterprise ethic learned from his father, presided over the greatest period ever of B.C. economic expansion.

In a longer history, the United States has had two father-son presidential successions: George W. Bush, 43rd president and son of George H.W. Bush, the 41st; and John Quincy Adams, 6th president and son of John Adams, the country’s 2nd president. You can see some parallels in their careers. The younger Bush, misled by faulty intelligence that led him to make war on Iraq, appears to have been motivated to “finish the job” begun by his father in the 1990-91 Gulf War. The sorrowful outcome, one is wont to think, is probably more regretted by the father than by the son.

Two of the foremost pariah states of the twenty-first century, Syria and North Korea, are led by family progeny. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria since 2000, is the son of Hafez al-Assad who held power from 1971 to 2000. Kim Jong Un, chair of the Workers’ Party of Korea, represents an even more entrenched dynasty: his father and grandfather had since 1948 controlled the destiny of twenty-five million North Korean countrymen.

In every case of father to son succession, it might be asked if it was the fathers who set the sons on their course toward political power, or might they have achieved such destiny without parental example? In thousands of papers and hundreds of books, psychiatrists and psychologists have put forth a dizzying variety of findings on the influence of fathers on their sons’ choices in life.

These experts agree on many aspects of parenting and they are the most in agreement when it comes to down to earth, common sense conclusions. More than one study has found that love is the most important thing a father can offer a son, or a daughter, for that matter. Other most often mentioned qualities of a strong father-son relationship are the fathers’ availability when they’re needed, their involvement in their childrens’ day-to-day lives, their success as a provider, and their position as a role model.

All of these qualities seem timeless, but are embedded in deeply held social attitudes that change over the generations. Throughout, we’ve lived with the “good dad/bad dad” dichotomy while realizing there’s probably a bit of both in most fathers. Almost the worst thing a father can do, even worse than being drunk or a poor provider, is to be absent, according to some experts. On the other hand, how about he negative qualities that some fathers impart to their children? There’s a song for this: Cat’s in the Cradle, by Harry Chapin.

My child arrived just the other day

He came to the world in the usual way

But there were planes to catch and bills to pay

He learned to walk while I was away.

As the boy grows, he insists “I’m gonna be like you, dad.” And when dad is retired and wants to spend time with his son, he finds he is too busy to see him. “He’d grown up just like me.”

There can be more serious consequences of fatherly misdirection that mere emulation of busyness. Many studies have shown how self-centered, competitive and arrogant fathers can damage their sons’ personalities. These men are perfectionists who see their children as extensions of themselves. Their sons, especially, grow up insecure.

Ronald F, Levant, past president of the American Psychological Association, would agree. “Fathers were expected to model, encourage, and even to demand masculinity in their sons,” he has written. The results, according to studies by Levant, were too often low self-esteem and excessive use of alcohol by sons who felt they had failed to measure up to their dads’ demanding standards.

So now we get to the big questions: In an age of same-sex marriage, are fathers really necessary – other than biologically? And are the negative qualities of some fathers so profound that their children would be better off with them absent from their lives? Arguably yes, to both. Adolph Hitler or Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, might never have turned out as they did but for their fathers’ impact on their personalities. (Paddock’s father was an escaped bank robber described by the FBI as a “psychopath” who should be treated as “armed and very dangerous.”) These men, like all of us, yearned for fatherly approval. Circumstance as well as genetics shaped their personalities.

I have only daughters and from them I have learned much about the often-fraught relationship between the generations. My father had many good qualities but when I needed him most, in my teen-age years, he was an aged veteran of the First World War – a shell of what he had been as a younger man – with little left to give. Wounds from shrapnel he’d taken at Vimy Ridge ran as open sores on his right calf. When my stepmother insisted he strap me for having landed a dirt-encrusted snowball on a bed sheet fluttering on the clothesline, he took me to the garage, razor strop in hand. “When I slap the bench,” he told me, “I want you to holler.” It was his way of saying he loved me.

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Remembering the Liberation of Paris

August 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Among all the cities of Europe that fell under the Nazi boot in the Second World War, the loss of Paris touched a raw nerve among those who fought the German war machine.

Paris was no Stalingrad, fought over from house to house, nor was it the victim, like London, of merciless aerial attack. It stood as a symbol of culture and freedom — of what had been lost to the Nazis and what must be regained for the world.

When Paris fell to the Germans on June 10, 1940, it truly seemed as if, in the words of an earlier British foreign minister, the lights had gone out all over Europe.

By August, 1944, the Allied armies including a sizable Fighting French force under General Jacques Leclerc, was fighting its way across France. As town after town was liberated, Free French leader Charles de Gaulle met with General Eisenhower.

Allied forces were at the River Seine, yet no effort was being made to go into Paris. “I don’t see why you cross the Seine everywhere, yet at Paris and Paris alone you do not cross,’ de Gaulle told the Allied commander.

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The truth was that the Allies preferred to by pass Paris, only taking the city later, after the Nazi armies had been finally smashed. It would take the divergence of four thousand tons of supplies a day to feed the hungry five million of the French capital.

In Paris, a Communist-led Paris Liberation committee saw things differently. Its leaders wanted to present de Gaulle with a fait accompli: a new Paris Commune, a capital that would be forced to accept Communist rule.

When the Resistance began its uprising in Paris, no one knew how the Germans would react. German commander, General Deitrich von Choltitz, had orders from Hitler to leave the city “a field of rubble.”

It took a secret mission by a Gaullist sympathizer who carried word to U.S. General George Patton that Paris was descending into civil war to force the issue. Eisenhower finally gave the go-ahead, and Leclerc’s Free French began the march on Paris.

At dawn on Friday, August 25, 1944, Simone de Boivoir was up at dawn to see Leclerc’s soldiers march down the avenue d’Orléans. “Along the sidewalks, an immense crowd applauded … From time to time a shot was fired; a sniper on the roofs, someone fell, was carried off, but no one seemed upset, enthusiasm stamped out fear.”

That night, General de Gaulle addressed France from the l’Hotel de Ville, the city hall of Paris:

“Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people, with the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the eternal France!”

There would be no Paris Commune. De Gaulle and the Allies had arrived in time

Life among the green trees of Canada

In 1936, in the first weeks of the Spanish Civil War, fourteen-year-old Ronald Rodriguez Lawrence, a boy of English-Spanish parentage, helped lead a squad of Loyalist troops through the sewers of Barcelona. They emerged out of a manhole cover near the statue of Columbus that stands close to the Barcelona waterfront. A gunfight ensued with invading Fascist troops, supporters of General Francisco Franco who was about to overthrow the country’s Republican government. Lawrence “killed a man with a bullet that went into his head and knocked his helmet off.” He would later write of “a cruel, evil war that laid the groundwork for World War II thanks to the stupidity of French and British politicians who at that time preferred fascism to what they thought would be Marxist communism if the Republic should defeat the rightists.”

In a long and productive life Ron Lawrence fought in two wars, worked as a journalist across Canada, authored thirty books, and fathered two children. I became a friend when we worked together at the Toronto Telegram. Ron went on to become the outstanding Canadian nature writer of the 20th century, not as well-known as Farley Mowat, or that other charlatan of the wilderness, Grey Owl (Archie Belaney), but assuredly the most faithful recorder of life and death among the denizens of our forests and streams.

Ron Lawrence died in 2003, sadly from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. My rich memories of times spent with Ron were reawakened when Sharon, his widow, re-published several of his works as e-books on Amazon. I downloaded The Ghost Walker, his tale of a winter spent in British Columbia’s Selkirk mountains, tracking a mountain lion. It can be ordered here.

Lawrence Bok  Ron’s meditations on trekking into the Goldstream River valley, building a shack from the remnants of a mine works, enduring blizzards and accidents while collecting fresh evidence on the life of the elusive cougar, make for rewarding reading for anyone who appreciates and wishes to know more of the  life of our Canadian wilderness.

The book reminded me of so many aspects of Ron’s life that I went looking for his autobiography, The Green Trees Beyond, which I found here (on Abe Books).

Ron had told me the essential facts of his life — his birth at sea in 1921 aboard a British vessel returning from South Africa, his birth registry by his Spanish  mother, the fact he’d been a young soldier in the Spanish loyalist Army and had later been in World War II, and some of his adventures as a homesteader in northwestern Ontario.

In common with most veterans, Ron never spoke of his wartime experiences. I had to read The Green Trees Beyond to find out that he’d escaped over the Pyrenees into France at the end of the Spanish Civil War and going to England, had joined the British Army at the outbreak of World War II.

Ron was part of the British Expeditionary Force that narrowly escaped entrapment at Dunkirk. “I took to the water and managed to reach a rescue vessel. It turned out to be a seagoing barge that had once carried coal. More and more men came aboard, filling the hold. Would we get the hell out of there in one piece?”

Ron fell asleep, and awoke as the barge docked in Dover. His next sea voyage came when his tank regiment was convoyed to Alexandria in Egypt. Months of tank fighting in the desert led to the defeat of General Rommel’s Afrika Corps. Ron landed on the beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The next day, his unit liberated Bayeux, the town where General de Gaulle made his first speech on his return to France as leader of the Free French. I wish I’d known of Ron’s connection with Bayeux  when I visited there while researching my book on de Gaulle, The Paris Game.

The experience of death in wartime came early to Ron. When he lost his schoolmate Gallorte in that first action in Barcelona, an older man told him, “You will see many dead … but you must learn not to grieve. There’s no room for grief in war. Be angry instead, but never allow anger to become rage. Your anger must be cold, like steel.”

In his memoir, Ron tells us that it took an animal, a badly abused, part-wolf dog, Yukon, to teach him love. I don’t think he was ever really comfortable among his own species, notwithstanding the fact that he gained loyal friends and enjoyed, to my personal knowledge, happy years with two women — his second wife Joan who died in his arms, and Sharon, his last and perhaps most satisfying relationship.

Having witnessed the depredations of mankind first hand, who would not prefer the company of creatures of nature who kill only from necessity — the need to survive — and never from lust, greed, or hate?

The title of Ron’s memoir, The Green Trees Beyond is a metaphor for the Canadian wilderness. He writes of throwing his last symbols of British life, his black umbrella and his homburg, into the ocean as the liner that brought him across the Atlantic reached Newfoundland waters. Entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he is mesmerized by “the serried ranks of spruces that marched along with the boat on both banks of the spectacular waterway.'” He knows he will never be entirely free of his war demons, but that he will be able to “subjugate them by immersing myself, not symbolically but in fact, in the reality of the green trees beyond.”

At a time when our environment needs protection more than it ever did,  I hope the re-publication of Ron Lawrence’s books will open the doorway for a new generation to  the life that still endures among the green trees of Canada.

 

 

 

 

3 strikes on Canada’s government

April 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Three big issues emerged in the past week in Canadian politics — and in my opinion, the government struck out on all three: the Supreme Court’s ruling on Senate reform, the controversy over the Foreign Workers’ program, and Ottawa’s so-called “Fair Elections Act.

In Canada, the Senate is treated something like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody (well, almost nobody) does anything about it.

The Supreme Court spoke on Friday, answering a reference on several questions it had been sent by Prime Minister Harper. He asked if parliament alone could abolish the Senate, as well as questions on holding elections to determine Senate nominees, and limiting the terms of Senators (now to age 75).

In essence, the Court said, “No, no, and no again.” You can’t do any of these, the Prime Minister was told without unanimous or near unanimous agreement of all provinces, plus the House of Commons and the Senate itself. The decision marked about the sixth time in recent months that the Court (made up of mostly Harper appointees) has slapped down the government.

So what does it all mean? Mainly, that it’s time to get the Senate back to its original purpose — as a chamber of sober second thought, with the duty of protecting Canadians against the excesses of a government emboldened by a Parliamentary majority..

The only action we’ve seen so far that would move in that direction is Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to cast Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus and require them to sit as independents — even though they still call themselves Senate Liberals. Trudeau would have future Prime Ministers make non-partisan appointments from a list of names drawn up by a special committee. The idea is to get outstanding Canadians into the Senate, not just party hacks and bagmen as is currently the case.

Even that proposal could run into trouble with the Supreme Court, if it required the PM to limit himself to those choices. Can’t interfere with any of the present rules of the Senate, the Court said, without revising the constitution . That’s something most Canadian politicians are loathe to attempt. Perhaps a saw-off would let the PM make his own choices while also picking from a select list of recommended appointees.

Conventional wisdom has it that it would be impossible to get the agreement of all the provinces to any particular change in the status of the Senate. Why so? Why not try? Why not put a referendum to the people, asking if they want to abolish the Senate? If it passed by a majority in every province — a very likely possibility — surely no premier would dare stand in the way of the people’s will.

The Foreign Workers’ mishmash

A mishmash it is, with increasing evidence that some employers are using the scheme to bring in cheap foreign labour while freezing Canadians out of jobs. Especially in the restaurant industry. Employment Minister Jason Kenney says the government wants the restaurant industry to raise wages, provide better working conditions, and do more to train workers. Traditionally, pay rises when jobs become hard to fill. Not under this scheme. The Foreign Workers’ program as it now operates provides no incentive to do any of the above. To the contrary, it is an encouragement to make NONE of these reforms. According to the C.D. Howe Institute, which studied the effects of the program in B.C. and Alberta, it has caused a rise in unemployment in both provinces.

And it’s not just the restaurant industry. We’ve seen examples of Canadians being phased out in favour of temporary foreign workers in both the information technology industry and banking. To say nothing of the shift of jobs to offshore locations.

Minister Kenney has put a freeze on the restaurant industry’s use of the program. For now. Perhaps the whole program should be put on hold while an independent inquiry looks at how it could be improved.

A Climb-down on the “Fair” Elections Act

The navigator of this bill, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, had called it “perfect.” Like the late and unlamented Charter of Values in Quebec, it was intended to solve problems where none exist. Such as assumed election fraud by ineligible voters being allowed to vote after being vouched for by a neighbour. Now, after weeks of controversy and almost unanimous condemnation by election experts, the media, and the opposition parties, the Harper government says it will accept some key amendments.

It was suspected all along that the main purpose of the bill  was to make voting  more difficult for transient groups such as university students, aboriginals and low-income people — most of whom would be expected to vote some way other than Conservative.

The climb-down, if it turns out to be indeed that, shows that even a majority government where the Prime Minister has quasi-dictatorial powers, can be forced to listen to public opinion.

A new model for the CBC: Finding our place in the world

April 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Now that the people of Quebec have settled on their future — opting to stay in Canada with their dismissal of the Parti Quebecois — what are we to do about our second biggest problem: the CBC?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been around since the mid 1930s, one of the world’s oldest, and arguably most successful, public broadcasters. It created the first national radio broadcasting system, and pioneered in television. At one time, the CBC was both competitor and regulator of the country’s private radio and TV networks. Today, it’s struggling to survive.

The litany of CBC problems is almost endless. Reduced government grants (albeit at a still healthy $900 million per year). Splintered audiences, divided between itself and three private networks and rendered almost invisible by the rise of cable channels and new off-broadcast operations like Netflix.

The outlook is so dicey that Andrew Coyne, the perceptive national affairs columnist of the National Post, figures there is no hope for the CBC but to “limp on, purposelessly, through successive ‘action plans’ and ‘reinventions,’ for no reason other than that no one can be bothered to do anything else — and because no one expects them to.”

This is due in part, Coyne says, to our having  a government without ambition or ideas.

If those qualities are lacking in Ottawa, there is no shortage of suggestions elsewhere — including from this blog.

51mZDR75IYL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_The problems of the CBC became critical at least as far back as 2004. CBC television was attracting the smallest audience in its history. Everybody has an opinion on what was wrong: too left-wing, too right-wing, too commercial, too boring.

That year, the powers that be thought one man, Richard Stursberg, might have the answers. He blew into the Mother Corp’s inner sanctum on Toronto’s Front Street with the force of a prairie whirlwind. He left in his wake a demoralized staff cowering in the detritus of a dust storm.

Stursberg has told the tale of his tempestuous time in The Tower of Babel: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). He described his job as Head of English Services as the one “I had loved as no other in my life.”

It’s not a pretty story. Under Stursberg’s watch, the CBC locked out its employees, lost the TV rights to major global sports events (but not the National Hockey League), cut 400 jobs, fought the news department (“Fort News”) and won ratings success with new shows such as Little Mosque on the Prairie and Dragon’s Den. He also had terrible flops.

A new round of CBC navel-gazing has arisen following its loss of National Hockey League games to Rogers Communications, who shaped a $5.2 billion deal to take over broadcast rights. Bizarrely, Rogers is allowing CBC to carry Saturday Night Hockey, but  will keep all the ad revenue, will pay CBC nothing, and will make it bear certain production costs. Another 600+ jobs wiped out.

Surely the time has come to redress the set.

The CBC’s most fervent boosters, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says it’s time to cut loose from  “political interference.”  It says 83% of Canadians believe the CBC protects Canadian culture and identify; 78% tune to the CBC every week, and 81% believe the CBC helps distinguish us from the United States.

Back in 1965 a noted public servant, Robert Fowler, headed up a committee to look into how the CBC could better serve Canada. Its No. 1 conclusion: “The only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content; all the rest is housekeeping.”

Now a myriad of ideas have been put forth on how to save the CBC. Some see it as a PBS North, sustained by viewer donations. Others, mindful of the ever-growing content brought to us through the Internet, would turn the CBC into a Netflix-style pay to view channel. Then there’s the Coyne alternative; to simply limp on.

Whatever form of technology the CBC might use to reach people, it’s essential that we hold on to this vital instrument of Canadian being. But at its most basic, the CBC should not be a commercial channel for the purpose of delivering, as is now the case, viewers to advertisers. Programs like Four Small Rooms and Recipes to Riches can be fun to watch, but they don’t belong on a public broadcaster. We need no more cheap comedies and simplistic reality shows.

The CBC must stay loyal to the minorities of viewers who wish to leaven their commercial TV with programs that inform, entertain, and appeal to niche interests; Canadian public affairs and news; quality drama, music and art, book talk and intelligent discussion of the world around us, superb children’s programming, all an antidote to the garbage of the Fox Network and Sun  News.

Let the CBC keep commercials on its News Network; no advertiser dares tamper with Stursberg’s nemesis, “Fort News.” But free the CBC’s main channel of having to deliver seat bottoms to hucksters. Finance the CBC through public funding, viewer donations, and a surtax on the profits of private broadcasters. Let it be different, and let it help to shape our better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

Don’t count on politics to fix climate change

April 5, 2014 Leave a comment

If you haven’t paid attention to the United Nations report on climate change, now might be a good time to start.The report, issued March 31, tells us the impact of climate change is already being seen around the globe, and bigger effects are on the way.

The UN warns that the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases is having serious effects on our planet. As one example, Arctic sea ice is melting faster than ever. The consequences of global warming include extreme weather events (how about that winter, eh!), displacement of populations, food shortages, and economic shocks in wealthy as well as poor nations.

“If the world doesn’t do anything about mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gases and the extent of climate change continues to increase, then the very social stability of human systems could be at stake,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The next step for the panel is to determine what steps have to be taken to head off a calamitous warming.

Warnings like these seem to come in a group. Only days before the release of the UN report, NASA put out a document containing an even more ominous forecast.

A team of NASA-funded mathematicians looked at various scenarios for the future of mankind. It came to the conclusion that the collapse of civilization is inevitable unless “major policy changes” are made to control population growth and reduce the gap between rich and poor societies.

It might be possible to dismiss the NASA warning as a speculative pondering of what might happen if we continue to eat up the earth’s resources at present rates. We’ll be reduced, says NASA, to grubbing for roots in about five hundred years.

The UN report needs to be taken more seriously. Ian Bruce, a spokesman for the David Suzuki Foundation, puts it this way:

“Climate change is more than just an environmental issue. This is an economic and security issue that will impact everyone from the biggest cities to the smallest towns.”

If you look closely, you can see a link between the UN warning and NASA’s prophesying about a collapse of civilization.

The linkage is our world’s constant diminution of its natural environment. Humans have been tampering with the balance of nature since the emergence of Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago. The real crunch started about 12,000 years ago when man first domesticated animals and took up a sedentary life style.

51bCT7TOFwL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_J.B. McKinnon explores this theme in his book, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As it Could Be.

McKinnon, the Canadian who came up with the idea of the 100-Mile Diet, thinks it unlikely that disasters such as those predicted by NASA “will convince us to change our relationship with the natural world.”

“Our own ancestors handed down a degraded globe,” he writes, “and we accepted that inheritance as the normal state of things. As our parents and grandparents did before us, we go about our lives in the midst of an ecological catastrophe that is well underway.”

McKinnon makes the case that from the earliest ages of mankind’s dominance over other species, we have reduced the genetic pool of earth’s inhabitants, until today we retain only around ten per cent of the original species. And in every age, he observes, we take it as normal the condition that we inherit. As a result, we accept the plundering of our forefathers and continue in much the sane path whether it be the near disappearance of cod stocks off Canada’s Atlantic coast, the loss of bison on the western plains, the decimation of the whale population , or the extinction of the passenger pigeon and other species.

It’s worth quoting from McKinnon in any discussion of climate change because he appears to offer a solution to the precariousness of today’s world. He calls it “rewilding,” in the words of environmentalist David Foreman “to make a place wild again.”

What he means, I think, is that we will have to withdraw from certain regions that have never been suitable for human habitation. The deserts of Nevada, the high forests of British Columbia, or  the boreal forests of northern Russia. Accept that they belong to the sand turtle, the grizzly bear, or the Siberian tiger.

The linkage between rewilding and climate change is that we are more likely to deal with both challenges through economic circumstance rather than through any conscious decision to protect wildlife or reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever voluntarily shift to the low-carbon economy that we must adopt if we are to head off the most severe consequences of global warming. Nor will we find the solution in politics. The more likely outcome is that economics — aided by science, with more sustainable methods of energy conversion — will  do it for us.

Only when Las Vegas can no longer afford to bring water to the desert and the cost of oil forces millions of internal combustion engines off the roads, will we move screaming and kicking into the sustainable society that survival demands. That day can probably be measured by the span of two lifetimes — that of our grandchildren, if not our children.

So get ready for $5.00 a litre gasoline and water so expensive you’ll fill in your lawn. You’ll be saving the world.

 

 

Lusts of the media magnates

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Political power and control of the media often go together. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Newspapers, the “fourth estate” (after Lords, the Commons, and the Clergy in medieval British society), were supposed to be advocates for the people, defenders of common rights. It was the job of the press, wrote American humorist F.P. Dunne, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In Canadian history, the combination of George Brown and the Toronto Globe ranks high on the list of media power brokers. Brown used the Globe to advance the interests of his Reform party before and after Confederation. Earlier, in Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe used his Novascotian to champion better terms for his province in the Canadian federation. After winning them, he served Prime Minister John A. Macdonald as a cabinet minister. He oversaw arrangements to bring Manitoba into Canada.

That’s a bit of background to help us look at Pierre-Karl Peladeau, whose nomination by the Party Quebecois in the current Quebec election (voting day April 7) has stirred a lot of interest.

Peladeau owns a controlling interest in the massive media conglomerate, Quebecor. The business was started by his father with a scruffy tabloid sheet, le Journal de Montreal, but has since grown to include the biggest newspaper chain in Canada – Sun Media.

booksPeladeau’s appearance beside PQ leader Pauline Marois electrified the campaign when he gave a clenched fist salute as he called for Quebec to become independent. He later said the outburst indicated his “passion” in life, both for Quebec and for his company which controls an estimated forty per cent of Quebec media outlets, including cable.

For a few days, Mme. Marois was talking up sovereignty, blithering on about “no borders, no tolls” but a Quebec passport and a seat for Quebec on the board of the Bank of Canada.

Suddenly, PQ fortunes took a nose dive, confirming that Quebeckers not only don ‘t want separation, they don’t even want a referendum on separation. Unless the PQ somehow manages to reverse the tide, the election is likely to produce a majority victory for the Quebec Liberal party. It now leads in the polls, raising the question of whether Peladeau can even win his own seat. The worst outcome for him might be to win personally, but then to have to serve in the Opposition. The potential upside for PKP in this scenario is that a PQ defeat would spell the political end for Pauline Marois.

This would open up a leadership contest, adding yet more irony to this strange melange. Peladeau, who is famous for having locked out workers at his companies, is well-known for his right-wing views. How will that fit with the social democratic, left-wing core of the party?

The Peladeau story illustrates once again how the combination of power and media can produce unintended consequences.

The all-time model for media megalomania as a root cause of power lust must lie in the life of William Randolph Hearst, the American media giant of the early and mid-twentieth century. It was always Hearst’s ambition to become President, a lust well documented in Kenneth Whyte’s biography, The Uncrowned King. Heart’s life was also brilliantly magnified in Orsen Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane.

As noted above, Peladeau is not the first lord of the press to seek high political office. John Bassett, publisher of the old Toronto Telegram, ran for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1962. The only Canadian Prime Minister to have been a newspaper owner was Mackenzie Bowell (1894-1896), publisher of the small provincial daily in Ontario, the Belleville Intelligencer.

We mustn’t forget Conrad Black, the modern exemplar of the status-hungry media baron. He importuned British PM Maggie Thatcher to the point of winning a Lordship — Lord Black of Crossharbour — and a seat in the House of Lords which the disgraced former newspaper titan still holds. (He’s been stripped of his Order of Canada). Nor does Back any longer control the newspaper empire he built out of the old Southam family chain, nor the National Post, which he launched.

Pierre-Karl Peladeau has said that if elected, he’ll put his stake in Quebecor in a blind trust. Fair enough. But he’ll continue to profit from press properties across Canada — the country from which he so passionately wishes to separate himself. Then again, as Peladeau himself has said, “that’s just business.”