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