Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Asper" - ations on Human Rights Day

Calgary Public Library became a hotbed of pith and substance this month. Two events –overlapping in theme - attracted substantial crowds peppered with cerebral celebrities and local well-knowns.

On December 5, author-provocateur Peter C. Newman sat down with CBC’s Donna McElligott to discuss his new biography of Canadian media mogul Izzy Asper. With Parliament prorogued a week earlier however, and an author who happens to be an Ottawa insider notorious for great stories and juicy gossip, the talk quickly turned to politics of a most interesting sort.

Almost immediately after taking his seat before the audience, Mr. Newman pulled a banana out of his jacket pocket and waved it around, saying “We now live in a banana republic – that is what you’ve witnessed. What’s happening is absurd.” Shortly thereafter, his eyes glazed over as he watched a young woman enter the library. “My daughter has just arrived!” he announced, prompting everyone in the room to turn around in their seats and stare awkwardly. Upon hearing that her father had just pulled a banana out of his jacket she replied dryly, “We’re lucky it wasn’t in his pants.”

Despite Mr. Asper’s messy financial legacy, wily business tactics, and controversial sense of humour, the author’s admiration for the corporate giant is clear. Others were not so lucky.

Mr. Newman revealed that Stephane Dion uses cutlery to eat hot dogs and asserted, “He will never set the world on fire except by accident.” About Stephen Harper he said, “His obsession with eliminating all opposition is just not democratic, and it’s not right.” And while he does not support a coalition of opposition parties, he had some kind words for their MPs. Jack Layton is very intelligent, he said, adding that Bob Rae is a “good leader and a good person.” He also noted that Michael Ignatieff is someone “Canadians can be proud of” in a global context, calling him a “world-class intellectual.”

The conversation eventually returned to the subject of his latest book, Izzy Asper. Mr. Newman claims he has written “a tough book about a tough guy.”

“His three loves were Canada, Israel, and Winnipeg, though not in that order,” he said.

Those affections linger in his proposed Canadian Museum of Human Rights, a project undertaken by his daughter, Gail Asper, who is tenacious in her fight for federal funding and a staunch advocate for Winnipeg as its home.

International Human Rights Day was celebrated at the library later that week. Sandra Crazy Bull opened with a Blackfoot prayer, MLA Manmeet Bhullar reflected on the importance of empathetic communication, and a choir sang Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom. Olivier Mills, of the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology, gave a humorous but provocative speech focusing on health concerns stemming from substandard human waste disposal technology in the developing world. Prominent guests included teachers Brent Novodvorski and Genevieve Balogun, City Alderman Joe Ceci, MLA Dr. David Swann, MLA Harry Chase, and president of the African Community Association Michael Embaie. Veggie platters, juice and cookies were served.

Published in National Post, December 20 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

CAPP welcomed at CCAB gala

Unusual were the subjects of conversation (and congratulations) at this gala. Party chatter explored First Nations as economic and political players, the isolating reality of Northern life, and inspiring young talent on reserves. Unusual, perhaps, but not surprising for the annual Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business [CCAB] gala dinner, held in the Calgary Hyatt recently.

As at any posh business-formal affair, a cocktail reception preceded the three-course dinner. Hors d'oeuvres were laid out across the room, including a duck-confit rillette drizzled with truffle oil. (Yum!) The dinner menu consisted of organic baby green salad; a duo of beef tenderloin and garlic scented jumbo prawn; and chocolate truffle cake with berry compote. Tickets were $500 per plate.

Mixing and mingling were: David Collyer, president of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Honourable Pearl Calahasen, MLA for Lesser Slave Lake, Chief Jim Boucher, chairman of Fort McKay Group, Harry Wilmot, president of ATCO, Marc Theriault, vice-president of production for Syncrude, John Young, manager of Aboriginal affairs for Petro-Canada, Jessica Saunders, program and planning advisor for Aboriginal affairs at Nexen, Kris Johnsen, business development coordinator for Suncor, Torger Rod, a vice-president with StatOil, Beth Diamond, president of National Public Relations, Nick Javor, senior vice-president at Tim Hortons, Chief Morris Monias of Heart Lake First Nation, Chief Reg Crowshoe of Piikani Nation, Harold P. Milavsky, chairman of Quantico Capital Corporation, and Ontario-based legal strategist Bill Gallagher.

Fourteen-year old vocalist Akina Shirt provided a moving introduction to the evening by singing our national anthem in Cree. Adrian Goulet of Ghost River Rediscovery followed with a striking welcome drum song. Several speeches were made, along with the presentation of $157,000 from BMO Capital Markets to a scholarship fund for Aboriginal youth.

It was clear that business, not government, was the key to success for many guests. The formal speeches did not touch on what a 2006 Economist article called the “spectacular failure of overall aboriginal policy” in Canada, nor the recent UN directive for Canada to investigate the disappearances of more than 500 Aboriginal women. Instead, the affair focused on economic potential, and achievements.

“Industry recognizes its responsibility to raise the bar on environmental performance and contribute to the well-being of the communities where we operate,” said Collyer in his keynote address. He also mentioned the value of unconventional oil supplies, and suggested refining the consultation process between industry, government, and First Nations.

During the event, Chief Keyna Norwegian chatted with Peter J. Young of Sodexo, who is working with her Northern community to build a truck stop near the MacKenzie pipeline project. She reviewed several companies before settling on the current partners, chosen for their record on Aboriginal affairs. The project will ensure food prices go down and employment goes up, she says. Executives from Norterra Inc. were also smiling. The company is wholly owned by the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic and the Inuit of Nunavut, who together created five corporate holdings including a lucrative air cargo company. Much like those companies, the gala was an inspired and unqualified success.

Published in National Post, December 13, 2008

FYI: This article was published one week after Chipewyan First Nation in Northern Alberta requested a judicial review from the province, on the grounds that industry did not consult nor provide adequate impact assessments before developing oil sands project on Aboriginal land. Also that week, StatOil shelved an oil sands project worth aprox. 4 billion dollars and ATCO laid off 400 employees in Calgary. Both companies were prominently represented at the gala. The author was unaware of these events until after submitting the article.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Strombo shows sass at Bob Edwards gala; Vine and Dine introduces new wine pairings

Writers and thinkers were celebrated at a recent luncheon honouring the legacy of Albertan newspaperman Bob Edwards. The annual event raises money for Alberta Theatre Projects, a company that produces relevant, engaging plays and supports emerging talent. The Bob Edwards Award is presented every year during an afternoon gathering of approximately 300 people. This year’s recipient was CBC host George Stroumboulopoulos.

Other diners included local billionaire Brett Wilson; City Alderman Brian Pincott; MLA and two-time climber of Mount Everest Dave Rodney; award-winning author Andrew Nikiforuk; director of WordFest Anne Green; director of development for Calgary Opera Helen Moore-Parkhouse; Talisman lawyer Heidi Schubert; poet Richard Harrison; and Laura Wershler, executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta.

While the setting was typical – Hyatt’s Imperial Ballroom – the menu was not. The signature multi-grain raisin bread arrived with an antipasto style selection of cured meats and Camembert cheese. Directly following was a mouth-watering salade niçoise, complete with lightly seared tuna and a healthy dose of marinated artichoke hearts. For desert, quark cheese with mixed berry compote and chocolate shavings was served.

By far the most irreverent of gala functions (Bob Edwards, deceased in 1922, was the master of ceremonies thanks to some local talent with a fake moustache and believable Scottish brogue), it was no surprise that Strombo would try to shake things up.

“It’s great when you are celebrated for the same shit you got in trouble for in high school,” said Stroumboulopoulos, who praised artists and national news services. “I’m really happy to be here at this fancy gala with all you ordinary Canadians,” he added.


Recognized expert in hospitality Linda Garson filled Rajdoot Restaurant before leaving the continent last month. The Vine and Dine founder was chosen as one of six Canadians to partake in a special tour of Chilean and Argentine vineyards. She will return to host several wine tastings and appreciation courses.

At Rajdoot, six courses were offered with a perfect pairing for each. Garson is much revered for giving her guests a sneak peek of wines new to Canada. This time around, two beverages made their Canadian debut – Gnarly Head Cabernet Sauvignon, a jammy, easy-to-drink Californian, and Tuaca, a potent brandy-like liqueur from Italy with hints of vanilla and orange. The favorite pairing among guests was royal korma (a saucy vegetarian dish made with pistachios and almonds) served with Hugel Gentil, a sweet but smoky German-style French wine. Rajdoot’s signature butter chicken was also a big hit, paired with Lagarde Blanc de Noir – “not a little girl’s rosé,” claims Garson, “It’s rosé for red wine drinkers.”

Not surprisingly, the modestly priced affair ($50 per person) regularly attracts out-of-towners and business travelers. Guests included Ontario-based Aurele Gingras, Vancouver-based Margie Killin, and Bowden-based Rob Heerema, along with locals Marci Witham of Horizon North, Shannon McDougall of Coca-Cola, Trina Lewis of Deloitte & Touche LLP, Rob Onodera of BonVida Wines, and connoisseurs JoAnn and Norm Shannon.

The next Vine and Dine event takes place December 8th at Ruan Thai Restaurant.

Published in National Post, December 6, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

CEO of the Year: Harold (Hal) Kvisle

It was a scene straight out of Hollywood last week, as taxis and stretch limousines pulled up to red carpet at the Calgary Fairmount Palliser Hotel. Corporate and media executives, dressed in tuxedoes or dripping with diamonds, poured into the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom for the 19th annual CEO of the Year Award gala. Hal Kvisle, president and CEO of TransCanada, was this year’s honouree.

Full sized provincial flags and velvet rope separated ordinary hotel guests from the gala ticket holders. A champagne reception allowed many to commiserate and congratulate, while post-dinner liqueurs in the Oval Room saw guests linger late into the night. Senator Marie Poulin provided a bilingual grace before the three-course meal. The menu included oven roasted prawns and seared scallops with candied parsnip risotto, Alberta prime rib, and a velvety chocolate delight with raspberry coulis. Guests paid $895 per plate. Musicians and a contortionist performed on small stages around the ballroom during the meal.

Overall, the mood was jovial, and guests had good reason to be giddy. Earlier in the day a discounted royalty rate for new oil sands projects had been announced, making it more affordable for energy companies to invest in the region. It was certainly the most common topic of conversation, but hardly unrivaled. Rajeev Aggerwal and his colleagues at SNC-Lavalin extolled the virtues of carbon capture and storage technology, and marveled over the Masdar Initiative, a bold international foray into sustainable technologies based in Abu Dhabi. Gail Asper was passionate and persuasive about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, captivating many guests with great charm and leaving them with a star-shaped pin signifying her cause.

Prestigious guests included the honourable Peter Lougheed, publisher of National Post Gordon Fisher, Alberta’s minister of finance Iris Evans, Alberta’s minister of energy Mel Knight, deputy premier of Alberta Ron Stevens, partner of Caldwell Partners International Anne Fawcett, managing partner of Deloitte Alan MacGibbon, executive vice-president of SNC-Lavalin Jean Beaudoin, vice chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Murray Edwards, chairman of Royal Bank and EnCana David O’Brien, industry executive advisor at Kern Partners Ltd. Dave Pearce, vice-president exploration of Cinch Energy Brian McBeath, and Gail Asper, director of CanWest Global Communications. Ten business students from across the country were also present; each the recipient of a Futures Fund Scholarship, worth $5,000.

A video presentation highlighted his leadership qualities as a consummate deal-maker, good communicator, and visionary. Barry Jackson, chair of TransCanada and director of Nexen, said he is responsible for “one of the most remarkable turnarounds of any organization in the energy sector,” growing assets from 19 billion to 30 billion dollars since 2001. He’s also served as chairman for Mount Royal College, and currently sits on the board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Bank of Montreal.

Mr. Kvisle delivered an amiable, pragmatic speech. He thanked his family, including his two daughters in attendance, his board members, and the former CEOs of TransCanada.

Published in National Post, November 29 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fun and fashion celebrate AGC

Beauty hung on walls and dripped off shoulders at the Art Gallery of Calgary [AGC] last week. An exhibit of George Webber’s photography, curated by newcomer Marianne Elder, provided the backdrop for a cocktail reception prior to ArtWear, the sixth annual fashion runway show organized by the AGC.

The affair delighted every sense. Striding down a red carpet, VIPs were overwhelmed by “paparazzi” snapping photos and shouting provocations. Inside, taste buds were tickled – but not exactly inspired - by Chef David Ly, who served his usual shrimp and scallop canapés, as well as beef tataki and teensy-tiny potato skins covered in cheese. Crisp mojitos flowed freely.

Artist and educator Dee Fontans showcased a gorgeous, daring collection of ‘wearable art’, produced by seventeen of her students from the Alberta College of Art and Design. The collection focused on the relationships between objects, audiences, and the body. There were some stunning garments, and the students gave an energetic, confident performance. Chelsa Mossing, a fourth year student, modeled a dress made out of Barbie dolls. She describes the piece as “addressing natural curiosities – and manufactured answers – about gender roles.” Others were inspired by the natural environment, with replicas of birds, salamanders, and woodland creatures as part of their outfits.

Recently criticized in local media for its role as hipster party venue rather than respectable institute, the gallery is trying hard to prove itself to the artistic community, and donors. Decisions like hiring Elder and new president Valerie Cooper seem to be doing just that.

“Valerie is an amazing force for this gallery,” said one member of the AGC board, “She’s got the artistic intuition and the business training to bring us forward."

After two hours of cocktails and gossip, the party moved to Hotel Arts. There, 400 additional guests joined in watching hot new styles on the runway and bidding in a silent auction. The ballroom was crowded but, happily, VIPs were given priority seating and complimentary bottles of Moët et Chandon.

On display were fashion-forward pieces, available at Renfrew Furs, Blu’s, Boutik, Primitive, and many other retailers. The show was coordinated by Marie Louise Kapp, and (in true boom-town style) focused on boutiques over brands. One special guest, however, was all about the labels. Wensa imports designer handbags, some of which are sold through Renfrew Furs. Versace, Dior, and Prada have a space in her closet.

Not often billed as a fashion capital, nor recognized for its staggering talent in female executives, Calgary proved to be much more than cowboy meets couture that night. Stylish and sophisticated guests included: Kelsey Schiavon of Holt Renfrew, Terri MacLeod of Suncor, Charlene Dorey of EnCana, Claire Fern of Long View Systems, new mom Tiffany Yip, jet-setting fashion maven Linda Amelia Hearst, Jelena Molnar of Canadian Natural Resources, Colleen Gray, AGC board of directors, Phyllis Groten of RBC, and Naomi Lacey.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Junior Achievement has major benefit

It was business unusual for many of Calgary’s top executives this month, at a gala dinner to support Junior Achievement. The evening focused on the legacy of three visionary leaders: Edward Galvin, James Palmer, and Donald Taylor, all of whom were inducted into the Calgary Business Hall of Fame that night. CBC’s Peter Mansbridge flew in from Toronto to act as master of ceremonies.

A cocktail reception preceded the dinner and induction ceremony, which took place in the Hyatt’s Imperial Ballroom. Prominent figures included Arlene Dickinson, president of Venture Communications, Richard George, president of Suncor, Michael Mezei, president of Mawer Investment, and Gretchen Bell-Dinning, daughter of past laureate Max Bell.

The evening held a number of surprises. Our national anthem was sung beautifully by Connie Gibbens (performed a capella when the background music unexpectedly failed); earnest teenagers made up a significant portion of the evening’s guests; there were four delicious courses rather than the standard three; Jim Palmer revealed himself to be a “flaming and fervent Liberal”; and Peter Mansbridge was very funny.

“When you come from a have-not province,” Mansbridge began, “The opportunity for a free meal is very exciting. Think about it – you have the Rockies, we have not. You have an abundance of oil, we have not. You have a hockey team, and we have not.”

Each honouree was given a video tribute before making a speech, and then sitting off stage for a one-on-one with Mansbridge, complete with armchairs and faux bookshelves. The brief interview was projected onto large screens around the room.

Edward Galvin, who passed away in 2005, is remembered for his beloved Lamborghini, and building two successful oil companies: Poco Petroleum, which was sold for $4.5 billion dollars in 2000, and Norcen Energy Resources, worth $1.5 billion per year at the time of its sale. Galvin’s legacy lives on through his contributions to United Way and Calgary Foundation. Don Taylor is the former president of Engineered Air, which boasts current sales exceeding $2 billion. He has also been active in the real estate market, holding 65% ownership of Three Sisters development in Canmore until recently. Jim Palmer helped to build one of the country’s leading corporate law firms: Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP. There is a public policy lecture series in his name at the University of Calgary. He has chaired the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and supports many charitable organizations, including Calgary Homeless Foundation.

Much was heard of Junior Achievement’s efforts to mentor young people, and the number of fresh faces in conservative business attire was a testament to their success. High school teachers spoke of the valuable education their students receive from JA. One teacher said there was an increase in bathroom breaks among her grade nine students, who were found to be running into the library to check their virtual stock portfolios.

Guests enjoyed a Caprese salad, roasted tomato bisque, espresso-rubbed beef tenderloin with polenta, and lemon-vanilla Panna Cotta. With networking, inspiration, and a well-balanced meal, the Junior Achievers of Calgary are well prepared – and eager – to tackle the financial world of tomorrow.

Published in National Post, November 15 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

'McCain let chances pass him by'

That other election, south of the border and looming large in our imaginations, is the topic of this year’s Teatro Speaker Series. Each month, pundits and provocateurs from the United States draw a good-sized crowd of Canadian cultured intelligentsia, eager to sink their claws into the weighty topics of tomorrow. October’s speaker was Michael Barone, alumnus of Yale Law School, former V.P. of polling firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates, author of four books on American politics, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, and on-air anchor for the Fox News Channel.

A champagne reception and three-course meal preceded Barone’s speech. Guests dined on autumn pumpkin soup and short rib ravioli, paired with a dry red wine, the Bruno Rocca Dolcetto d’Alba. The dinner was hosted by Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP and David Bissett. Investment firm Gluskin Sheff hosted the reception. National Post, Global Public Affairs, Bennett Jones LLP, Enbridge, Vendemmia Wines, and Fieldstone Capital are regular sponsors of the event.

Jim Palmer, a well known philanthropist and lawyer who is set to receive an induction into the Calgary Business Hall of Fame this month, was among the prominent guests in attendance. Others included academics Dr. Barry Cooper, who provided the keynote’s introduction, and Dr. Tom Flanagan, both from the University of Calgary, Bill and Sharon Siebens, Randy Pettipas, president of Global Public Affairs, Ben Brunnen of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Margo Helper, national executive director of The Seeds Foundation, and Elizabeth Cordeau-Chatelain of Total E&P Canada.

Campaign strategy, financial turmoil, racial politics, and generation gaps were high on Barone’s list of talking points. He also touched on subjects closer to Canadian pocketbooks, namely NAFTA and the future of cross-border energy imports. Much of his talk, though, was devoted to why and how McCain bungled his chances at becoming the next President. Economic distress plays heavily, according to Barone.

“Affluent voters tend to punish the Republic party when there is wealth destruction under a Republican president,” he said, citing George H. W. Bush’s decline in California and New Hampshire when housing prices dropped considerably there in the late 1980s.

The demographics have changed since then as well, he noted. The United States is witnessing the first presidential nominee born outside the social confines of segregation. Obama’s youthful charisma and nuanced views on race endear him to voters and present a stark contrast to the current administration.

Despite these obstacles for John McCain, his success could have been clinched early, Barone argued, given the Democrat’s soft record on mortgage giants Fannie May and Freddie Mac. The protracted struggle between Obama and Clinton in the primaries was another chance for Republicans to further divide (and conquer) their opposition.

While the polls thus far indicate an Obama victory, a twenty-five year career in research, and a life-long love affair with numbers give Barone a nuanced view.

“It’s an art not a science. Tolstoy knew people better in War and Peace than a pollster could ever know”

Published in National Post, November 8 2008
Photo by Adrian Shellard, for National Post

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Gangsters 'n' ghosts come out to howl

It is the best party of the year, according to a skeleton, two pirates, Ghandi and a rag doll. Apes, angels, queens, and dinosaurs agreed. The assortment of sensational figures came together for Calgary Opera’s Grave Gala, a yearly costume fundraising gala. Many guests said they attend every year, attracted by the costumes, food, and music.

The scene was set in Hotel Arts and its Raw Bar, a trendy spot nestled south of the downtown core. A small room swathed in white linens and filled with swirling fog provided the entrance. Pink-haired “muses of sin” lounged on plush sofas and enticed guests with seductive looks and gestures. Beyond this gateway were further temptations in the form of delicious canapés and an immense throbbing dance floor, complete with cage dancers. Catering was provided by Hotel Arts and included mini beef burgers, spring rolls, chicken bruschetta, and lobster salad crostini. Although no one seemed to need the encouragement, several cash bars were available to dispel any lingering inhibitions. Further along a corridor, linking the hotel’s ballroom to its lounge, was the VIP reception. Along the way, large glass walls provided a view of the outside courtyard, where costumed guests sipped cocktails and smoked around a grand steaming hot tub.

Mingling in the VIP area were Kristine Eidsvik, chair of Alberta Ballet's board of directors and Justice of the Queen’s Bench, Bev Foy, chartered accountant with Collins Barrow Calgary LLP and past chair of the Calgary Opera board of directors, Duncan Ly, executive chef of Raw Bar and Saint Germain restaurant, Sean Halliday, president of Imagine eDock Systems, Bart Hribar, president of City Core Commercial Contracting, Christopher Mayell, an emerging artist with the Calgary Opera, Andrea Obermeier of Skyservice Airline, Shawn Calafatsi of Twin Butte Energy, Mark Pierson of Penn West Energy Trust, Brad MacDonald of EnCana, Ryan McCrae of Calvalley Petroleum Inc., and lawyer John Roggeveen.

Talking about her double duty as provincial judge and ballet jury, Eidsvik was rueful.

“You never know, some of these people could end up in my courtroom tomorrow!” she said, surveying the buoyant crowd.

Costumes and conversations followed the night’s theme – seven deadly sins. A seductive but vengeful Madusa, other wise known as managing optician Trudi Flagler of Eye-Q on Kensington, won the prize for best female costume. The elaborate headdress, sequined bikini top and flowing skirt were hand-made by her mother.

The Grave Gala sells out every year, with a maximum of 700 tickets available at $90 each. Its production of Faust begins Saturday, November 8 and runs a mere two weeks.

Published in National Post, November 1 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

Word nerds enjoy myth-breaking, merry-making

It was a week of pithy remarks and eloquently posed questions. The Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival, also called WordFest, took place at venues spanning both cities this month. Guests included three of the five shortlisted nominees for this year’s Giller Prize; Joseph Boyden, Rawi Hage, and Marina Endicott. Other best-selllers in attendance were Austin Clarke, Nino Ricci, Bill Gaston, Richard Wagamese, Sheree Fitch, Donna Morrissey, Deborah Ellis, and Ronald Wright, as well as the powerhouse behind Random House, Anne Collins.

Festival-goers uniformly shed their usual conservative business attire in favour of an upscale but casual (and even slightly nautical) look, as if taking their lead from Wordfest opener John Ralston Saul whose navy blazer, baby blue socks and double-buckle shoes sent spirited ripples of approval through his sold-out audience. However, looks can be deceiving, as authors in one panel discovered after several failed attempts at light-hearted political humour.

“Give Stephen Harper a book and he’ll use it to prop up the legs of his table,” writer Jaspreet Singh couldn’t resist joking during a panel discussion. The small audience was silent.

The Vertigo Theatre was Saul’s first stop on a national tour to promote his new book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. The book aims to unmask the cultural assumptions underlying Canadian life, and expose a dangerously out-of-touch and elite strata of decision-makers.

Having spent a few years in Calgary, first as a young student, then later as policy advisor to Maurice Strong (founder of Petro-Canada), Saul had no hesitation weighing in on Alberta’s unique place within Canada. Of course, he had no invitation to do so, either.

“No-one has asked me about the economy yet!” he gasped, during the question and answer period following his lecture, “Well, I’ll talk about it anyway, just briefly. Canada, and Alberta, is about to be faced with the juggernaut of Europe and the United States who will see the oil sands as the enemy. This is a precarious economy, built primarily on raw goods which cannot sustain their value or quantity. And the myth that Ottawa is the enemy … is leaving this province dangerously exposed to a crises that has been brewing for some time. You have not had a sensible premiere since Peter Lougheed.”

Later in the festival, another literary heavyweight bestowed words of wisdom on politics of different kind. Anne Collins, publisher and vice president of Random House Canada, gave insight into the sometimes tumultuous relationship between editors and writers. The panel discussion included her latest protégé, Andrew Davidson. His first novel, The Gargoyle, garnered an advance of 1.2 million dollars and ignited a global bidding war for the international rights. That spectacular story had aspiring writers on the edge of their modern deco seats in the Art Gallery of Calgary, where the talk took place.

A final event under the WordFest banner takes place on October 27, when Bill Richardson will discuss his new book at the John Dutton Theatre.

Published in National Post, October 25 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Foodies fork over the dough for Canada’s top chef

Calgary dinner supports child nutrition,
culinary competitor

Prior to the heart-pounding, life-altering, career-rocketing event that is the Bocuse d’Or international culinary competition in Lyon, Canada’s top chefs face a different challenge: cooking for kids. The landmark Fairmount Palliser Hotel in Calgary was the scene for this years Chefs for Canada, Chefs for Kids fundraising dinner. Tickets were $200 each and sold out well before the event. Proceeds will help fund Breakfast for Learning, a program that provides children with the essential nutrients they require to play and learn actively, and to support Canada’s Chef David Wong at the Bocuse d’Or in January.

“Don’t you think Canada has the best chef in the entire world? We deserve to win this!” declared a charming and vivacious Sharma Christie, the event’s volunteer fundraising chair, “I don’t care what the economic times are! Give generously.”

Passions (for food) were running high. Banquet tables lined the inside of Fairmount’s Crystal Ballroom, where teams from various restaurants prepared tastings. As the opening remarks finished and mingling guests finally took their seats, high profile executive chefs were placing final sprigs of parsley and drops of jus on mini plates. A jazz quartet began to play and Vincent Parkinson, Chef de Mission for Bocuse d’Or Canada, invited guests to wander from station to station, returning to their own table with sample plates to compare and critique.

Autumn flavours and competing textures were prominent in most dishes. An elegant plate of oxtail confit with braised brussel sprouts, savory roast pumpkin strudel and chanterelle foam was delivered by sous-chef Steven Lepine of the Calgary Golf and Country Club. Executive chef of The Petroleum Club, Liana Robberecht, offered a unique éclair-style dish made from puffy sweet pastry stuffed with organic duck confit, and topped with savory whipped cream. The dish was paired with club smoked duck on arugula greens. On the other side of the grand room was executive chef Hayato Okamitso of Catch restaurant, with a mouthwatering lobster maki roll in mango puree and ginger miso braised beef short rib.

Guests included fashion designers Brenda Rozdeba and Barb Gudowsky, Nick Noronha and Tom Short of Rare Method, Kevin Angus of Pegasus Gas, Kenneth Hayes of Grand Banks Energy Corp, Laurids Skaarup, president of Moxies Classic Grill, Fong Seto of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, business pundit David Parker (formerly of Calgary Economic Development), artist Paul Van Ginkel, socialite philanthropists Sherrold and Pat Moore, executive chef of Muse restaurant Cam Dobranski, and Terry Gibson, senior vice president and portfolio manager for BMO Nesbitt Burns.

A live auction proceeded the dinner, with Paul Van Ginkel’s painting of an iconic prairie scene entitled “Chuck Wagon Cuisine”, and a seven night all inclusive stay at the Fairmount Acapulco fetching the largest bids.

Published in the National Post, October 11 2008.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Starry Starry Night in Calgary

With fire balls whipping around her head and torso, flames licking her red sequined bodysuit, a Cirque Phoenix performer earned rapt attention from a black-tie audience at the Calgary Hyatt Regency last Friday night. The impressive display, one of several by the acrobatic team, was a welcome respite from the distressing cause that brought 350 guests together for the Starry Starry Night Gala and Auction this past weekend: type 1 juvenile diabetes.

The sixth annual gala to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) attracted guests from every corner of the country, and the corporate landscape. Tables of ten were purchased for a donation of $2100 each, with major banks, law firms, and telecommunications companies nabbing many of them.

“This is a city that really gives back,” said marketing consultant Kelly Moi. She was accompanied by Gerry Albert, partner at property and commercial law firm Masuch Albert LLP. During the live auction portion of the gala, Mr. Albert won the right to name a star in the sky for a donation of $2600; a prize donated by the Societe Betelgeuse Ltee.

Megan Davidson, the chief operating officer of JDRF, flew in from Toronto specifically for the event. She was seated with Harold P. Milavsky, chairman of Quantico Capital Co. and an individual donor of ten years, and Bryan Haynes, partner at Bennett Jones LLP, one of the major corporate sponsors of the event. Senior vice president of TD Canada Trust Prairies Region Ron McInnis and his wife Carol Lee McInnis, both originally from PEI, attended the plush affair, as well as Telus director of product marketing Rob Tasker and his wife, Lee Tasker.

Making waves were Bob and Betty Schulz, a building contractor and owner of Commitments Lingerie respectively, who bid competitively on half the items in the silent auction and won the largest item at the live auction: a return trip to Vancouver for a salmon fishing excursion and two-night stay at the Hyatt Regency.

Guests were treated to a glittering emcee in local television personality Nirmala Naidoo, a rousing country-style performance from Las Vegas singers Mollie and Jackie, a delectable three-course meal with free-flowing wine , and a dynamic performance from Cirque Phoenix (west-coast based former members of Cirque du Soleil). Between each course and performance, bids were collected on the silent auction items and stories were told by those whose lives have been touched by juvenile diabetes. On each table was a card with a number, the story of a young life struggling with the disease, and a startling fact about juvenile diabetes. So despite the wonderful hospitality, food, and entertainment, no one could forget what they had paid for – a cure.

Published in the National Post, October 4 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

CIFF parties on at industry bashes

Two parties, both alike in star power and local pride but not much else, were the hot tickets at this year's Calgary International Film Festival.

At the exclusive downtown Escoba, industry insiders mixed and mingled after the world premiere of 45RPM on Sunday night. Director David Schultz lent big personality to the affair, with lead cast members Kim Coates and August Schellenberg always nearby. Emmy-winner Chad Oakes, who co-produced the film, also attended.

The warm, unpretentious atmosphere, along with a substantial spread of fine cheeses and a free-flowing bar, kept industry guests happy well into the evening. While local productions and crews dominated, emerging stars from across the country brought a frisson of excitement. Vancouver-based filmmaker Jodie Martinson and Mexican writer/director Ismael Nava were both quickly beseiged by local media.

"This is how we tell our stories ... and it's so much cooler than the Hollywood machine," said tuxedo-clad actor and filmmaker Bill Baska, "Even if it's terrible schlock, at least it's our schlock!"

Most festival-goers agreed. The previous evening, a flurry of excitement had spread through the CIFF delegate lounge, staff rooms and venues. Tom Green was hanging out -- or bouncing around, to be more precise -- before the gala screening of his new film, Freezer Burn: The Invasion of Laxdale. The film was shot entirely in Alberta and directed by Calgary's Grant Harvey.

A queue of 300 people and a crowded black carpet welcomed the late-night series opener on Saturday. Cast and crew, including the hyper-friendly Green (with a trailing publicist desperately attempting to focus his energy), Mark Jenkins, Dave Brown, producer Josh Miller and director Harvey walked the carpet. Harvey said he was impressed by the festival's growth and proud of making an unabashedly Canadian film.

Freezer Burn concerns Gazcon, an oil company, which appropriates land in rural Alberta as a ruse while the aliens -- yes, aliens -- who run the company develop a hot new interplanetary vacation resort. Steeped in local references and stereotypes, the film was a crowd-pleaser and set the tone for a well-attended festival.

The after-party, sponsored by Space network and Skyy vodka, featured volunteers clad in costumes from the film, high-energy cast members and the nostalgic small town-sophisticate atmosphere of pizzeria Pulcinella. Green kept the crowd stoked by signing autographs, posing for photos, performing taste tests on random drinks (the featured cocktail -- an odd mixture of grapefruit juice, tangerine juice and vodka -- was not to everyone's taste), and simply jumping up and down. Elbow room was extremely limited -- perhaps inviting every ticket holder to the VIP after-party wasn't such a great idea, after all.

Published in the National Post, September 27 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

Festival Round-Up: Rogers Picnic, Toronto

At a festival about indie, sub-culture music, it may seem odd to find twenty-something hipsters holding Nokia phones, in a tent decorated with the Nokia logo, sending text messages to a large screen be-deckled with the Rogers logo beside the main stage. But then again, maybe it isn't so odd. Guests of Toronto's 2008 Rogers Picnic seemed right at home with the blend of youth culture, mass communication, and cross-branding. The messages ranged from marriage proposals to requests for cocaine.

Inside the Nokia tent not even globe-trotting favorite Team Canada's Beastie Boys remixes or Let's Go To War's electro-funk could provide more than an atmospheric backbeat to the main stage performances. A loyal crowd bobbed rhythmically around "phone stations" where guests texted their most profound feelings onto the screen ahead. I need a beer, read one. Larry, I'm pregnant, read another. Unlike the energetic thousands standing on the field before them, the DJ tent crew was largely and strangely immobile until later in the evening when a "surprise guest" stepped up to the turntables. Half of the electro-funk duo Chromeo, who had been a favorite on the mainstage earlier in the day, delivered the surprise (as in surprise, he's back!) in an inspired, funky set which instantly threw an uninhibited crowd onto the dance floor (surprise number two).

The tented folks had good reason to be sedate. Frequent bursts of rain and a thick, low-hanging fog turned grassy Old Fort York into a thick, muddy mess. Not everyone's spirit was dampened, however. Organizers estimate five to ten thousand people attended this year's event. ZeroFootprint, a local alternative energy provider, offset the carbon emissions from the entire event through a tree-planting project in British Columbia. They also ensured that all the food stalls and small collection of vendors were locally-run and owned.

Cat Power and Vampire Weekend delivered the most popular - if somewhat relaxed - sets, eliciting a massive wave of cheers, beach-ball lobbing, soulful swaying, and a slew of text messages asking who the hell these people were. Power, in particular, with her ethereal voice full of soul, and a tight, bluesy-rock band to back her up, held the crowd’s full attention but never really brought the electric enthusiasm of the audience onto the stage.

The VIP area, also a beer garden, held more wiggle room and a little less mud. Thirty-somethings done with art-school cool and well into urban-bohemian chic funneled $7 beer and networked awkwardly. A mudslide was proposed and dismissed. The best place to be, it seemed, was in the thick of things with the real fans.

Published in Big Shot Magazine, August 2008

Thursday, May 1, 2008

French Kiss - Off

Montreal mega-star Claude duBois took a nasty stab at Toronto this month after his induction into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (CSHF) was cut from its primetime broadcast on CBC.

A vitrolic public relations campaign – originally directed against Hogtown itself, but deftly redirected toward our national television network - had staffers from both the Songwriter’s Association and CBC executives scrambling to find some explanation for the complete lack of on-air French content. The CSHF gala, which pegs itself as a truly national and completely bilingual event, is held annually in this city and each year honours both an Anglophone and Francophone contribution.

Quel Horreur!

DuBois' unceremonious omission wasn't the only indication that Canada's national broadcaster isn't overly concerned with pandering to its French viewers. A speech by former Premier Minister Jean Chretien (who introduced inductee Paul Anka) ended up on the cutting room floor, as did performances by Anik Jean, Yelo Molo, Toulouse, Claude duBois himself, and French-speaking host Gregory Charles.

"We believe that music is a bridge between Canadian cultures," says Peter Steinmeitz, chairman of the board for CSHF, "A song can connect us in ways other things cannot. In Quebec, Radio-Canada has indicated it will not broadcast any English content either. In all my Juno years I never had to confront anything like this. It's a source of mystery and frustration."

Oh, Canada!

Meanwhile, the Claude
Célèbre wasn't the only cause for concern at this year's gaff-ridden gala. A good number of silent auctions went un-bid-on (maybe they should have pushed for better prizes than a large tray of cookies), the teleprompter caused more than one speech to be muddled and joke to be revealed prematurely, the ironic lack of First Nations talent in this self-styled national pride ceremony was dismissed as non-existent by Hall of Fame executives, and a group of baffled VIPs froze their famous butts off while waiting for shuttle buses. Oh, and everyone in the audience was forced to shuffle when it was discovered that someone was sitting in David Foster's seat. The post-gala reception saw local celebs - including Mayor Miller and Jian Ghomeshi - diving into pyramids of CBC-stickered chocolates, cheeses, and free-flowing wine.

Published Toronto Life, May 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Style, Spectacle, and Sustainability at Vancouver's Green Living Show

Swinging through the air in eco-friendly tights, bodies twisted and bending at all angles - top performers from Vancouver's Circus School aren't the typical high end fashion model. Yet that is exactly the sort of surprising display one can expect at the Spring into Green runway at the Green Living Show in Vancouver next week. In fact, an entire section of the Stadium will be dedicated to fashion and beauty.

Produced by well-known 'mentor to the rising star' Paul K. Holmes, the Spring into Green runway will showcase both the comfort of eco-fabrics, and sexy couture pieces from emerging designer Roberta Cheema.

"The idea is to have fun," Holmes says, "And to highlight how comfortable and versatile these fabrics are, despite being difficult to work with. I mean, if an acrobat can wear it comfortably …"

West coast organic garment company HTnaturals is also a big part of the show, having supplied both fabric for Cheema to work with and designs of their own. The hair and cosmetic products used in the show will also be all-natural.

A veteran of the motion picture business, Holmes notes that the integration of sustainable practices across many industries is quickly becoming the norm.

"We want green to be just normal, not anything we're trying to sell," he says, "It should be part of the obvious. It's part of an ethic, a lifestyle. In two years – max – we won't even think about how to make things greener, we just will. We have to."

Christine Lewington of the successful apparel line Bamboo Clothes Canada echoes that thought. Her daughter, she says, is learning more about recycling and global warming than she did through most of her adult years.

"They've really indoctrinated our children because it starts there. Hopefully they won't be as selfish as our generation."

That change is already happening in big and exciting ways for Lewington, who will appear at the Vancouver Green Living Show as both an exhibitor and part of the Footprints Fashion Show.

"I am just over the moon excited to be around people who care," she squeals gleefully, "I do a lot of trade shows, and not one person wants to talk about the health and sustainable properties of my clothes. That's what I believe in."

Bamboo Clothes Canada, a line that started with towels and linens, offers a trendy line of organic cotton and bamboo yoga wear, casual sweaters, tops, and a very popular line of baby apparel. Despite the lovely, well-tailored apparel, Lewington's philosophy is about green substance over style.

"We can make a huge, dramatic impact by moving totally to organic cotton and bamboo," she explains, "First of all, bamboo is naturally soft and good for you. It's micro bacterial and whisks away moisture – those are just natural properties of bamboo. Secondly, Cotton takes up 7% of arable land and is responsible for 40% of the pesticide use in the world. Just one item of bamboo in your linen closet and your wardrobe can make a big difference."

Further to "walking the talk", Lewington is donating parcels of rainforest land with every purchase of $50 from her Green Living Show booth. As the lucky title-holder of this property, you won't be able to sell it or use it but you will save that piece of land from clear-cutting. With enough donations and green purchases, it's possible for consumers to literally save the rainforest.

Lewington's not the only one inspired by her first trip to the Green Living Show; Caroline Thibault is traveling from her studio home on Salt Spring Island to add a "simple, French style" to the affair. Thibault's line of hemp apparel and accessories, Dancing Bear Co., is a staple at the island's Saturday market.

"The style is timeless," she says gently, "A hippie girl can wear them or an 80 year old girl can wear them. I want to make things that are beautiful but simple."

Dancing Bear dresses, made with the natural ecru colour of raw hemp and then dyed stunning colours like apple and plum - by Thibault's own hand in large buckets no less – exemplify the careful effort, and easy beauty, of living green.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Tangled Up In Green: Eco-Friendly PJs, Robes, and Sheets

Whether you are hiding from the cold or heating things up for Valentine's Day, the perfect eco-bedding and sleepwear is out there. Organic cotton, silk, and bamboo make luxurious sheets which are widely available online and in-store. Even an ever-so-cozy organic flannel, a woven cloth traditionally made from wool and cotton, is available … sometimes.

Winter Warmth

Toronto-based retailer GrassRoots has been sold out of organic flannel pjs since Christmas. Unlike many of the other organic flannel and cotton apparel they sell, including a plush organic cotton bath robe ($70 CDN) and ohh-la-la organic sateen sheets ($40 CDN) that are available elsewhere, the pajama sets were made exclusively for them. There's no word on whether the manufacturer will be able to provide another round.

"There's no real difference in touch between organic flannel and regular flannel," says owner Rob Grand, "Some may say it's softer because of the higher cotton content. Our flannel pjs had no wool in them, they are 100% organic cotton which is woven and brushed to create that heavy, very soft flannel."

Unsurprisingly, organic pajamas are plentiful on the West coast. Dream Designs, an eco-boutique as hip and stylish as its Commercial Drive digs, offers unisex pajama sets ($149 CDN), night gowns ($119 CDN), and robes ($139 CDN) made from 100% organic cotton flannel or sateen. For the flirty fashionista there's also a thigh-high organic cotton sateen nightie with spaghetti straps ($49 CDN).

A hidden gem on BC's Denman Island is Rawganique, a store offering raw and organic apparel for the sporty or stylish. Amidst a vast selection of hemp pillows, mattresses, lingerie, boxers, and bedding you can find unisex pajama sets in either colorgrown organic cotton flannel or silky organic cotton sateen ($84 CDN).

While traditional supporters of the green movement are sure bets for eco-fashion, don't be surprised by your local mall. La Senza and Cotton Ginny both carry comfortable and affordable organic apparel. An organic bamboo camisole and capri set is available at La Senza's online store for $20, though it feels more like a jersey than the softer flannel you may be craving during the winter.

Not Your Grandma's Pajamas

Like any green purchase, though there are several ways to measure your eco-value. The "Canada Organic" seal, a designation provided by an agency of the federal government, requires 95% of the material in any given product to be sustainably sourced. Because of this regulation, and the relative abundance of organic cotton compared to expensive imported wool, most organic flannel is higher in cotton than its conventional counterpart.

"No fabric is the perfect solution," says Susan Gagnon of SYKA Textiles, the largest wholesaler of eco-fabric in Canada, "Every product has an impact, especially when you produce a lot of it. For us, at least one major step in the production process must be more sustainable than the conventional method."

An early and passionate supporter of eco-fashion in Canada, Susan and her husband are by turns educators and pupils of the green design industry. She advises consumers to buy locally, heed the Canada Organic classification, and look for low-impact dyed clothing, a class of dyes which are well absorbed into natural fabrics leaving less run-off and pollution, or vegetable dyes. "Colourgrown cotton", like that used by Rawganique, is harvested and used without any dyes at all.

If you are unable to shop locally, Rawganique, GrassRoots, Coyuchi Organics, and Dream Designs all offer easy online shopping. That's one sure way to get a good night's sleep.

Published Green Living Online, February 11 2008