Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Alberta Ballet`s Un-Dress Rehearsal

They start in skivvies. And it`s expensive underwear, too. It's designer, in fact.

Canadian designer Paul Hardy has created the 35 unique costumes that Alberta Ballet dancers are wearing, including the cream and sienna coloured delicates that mark the first scene in its new production.

This was the media`s first full glimpse of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, the new Alberta Ballet production based on the music of Sarah McLachlan and set to open in Calgary next month.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CBC Radio: Under The Skin

Listen to my interview on CBC Radio One with Vancouver-based choreographer Wen Wei Wang, as his show "Under the Skin" debuts in Calgary:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CBC Radio: Kenny "One Tuff Indian" Frank

Listen to my piece on CBC Radio One about Blood Tribe boxer, Kenny "One Tuff Indian" Frank, who is training to become Canada's next heavyweight boxing champion:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Grande Expectations: Love Lies Bleeding Opens

Elton John touched down in Alberta on Thursday night, though the man himself wasn’t there.

The occasion was the world premiere of Love Lies Bleeding, an Alberta Ballet production, based on Sir Elton’s music, that bends the rules of genre and gender.

The over-the-top costumes, pop music — to which the performers often lip-synched — and the sometimes over-used multi-media staging may have snubbed the traditional tutu crowd, but it certainly justified the budget. Artistic director Jean Grand-Maître’s ballet was expensive — over $1-million, in fact. The song and subject choices also had people wondering.

And now the question is: Was it worth the risk?

Modern Don Giovanni gets Mixed Reaction

When the Canadian Opera Company (COC) introduced a modern staging of Strauss’ Salome in 1996, directed by Atom Egoyan, the reviews were positive but cautious. Staged the following year in Vancouver, it was called “effective”, “tastefully erotic” and “a bold, modern look at the ancient tale.” Three years later the COC mounted La Traviata in a similar way. It was called “controversial” and the costumes likened to “Eurotrash.” But the production sold out in two separate runs, and very quickly. The audience had spoken.

The ensuing trend of modernizing old classics – Egoyan and fellow famous directors François Girard and Tim Albery mounted a stark, contemporary Ring Cycle in 2006, and in 2008 Hip Hopera (a blend of DJ turntables and memorable arias) was introduced – has provoked reaction both good and bad. Egoyan’s Die Walkure received both a standing ovation and loud, persistent boo-ing when it opened in Toronto.

“There are people who take tremendous pride in their ability to publicly disclaim something,” Egoyan said at the time, “I just couldn't help but boo back. It was just fun.”

The staging of Calgary Opera’s Don Giovanni then, which premiered last week as the final production in their 2009/2010 season, was not without precedent in this country or around the world. The minimalist, modern sets were inspired by CEO Bob McPhee’s recent viewing of European operas, which depicted costumes, context and sets as contemporary as the 1940s.

And while there wasn’t any boo-ing on opening night, there was no standing ovation either.

Monday, May 3, 2010

"From the West to the rest": Niall Ferguson in Calgary

Murray Edwards, the media shy millionaire who co-owns Lake Louise and the Calgary Flames Hockey Club, and is said to have the largest individual stake in the oil sands, is a patron. So is Ron Mathison, who specializes in “corporate turnarounds” and is the CEO of Matco Investments. Together with their wives, they sat with Deborah Yedlin, the whip-smart business columnist for The Calgary Herald, and the night’s honoured speaker, at the final instalment of the Salon Speaker Series at Teatro Restaurant.

The featured guest was Niall Ferguson, Harvard historian and prolific author. He began his lecture with a fair warning.

“Some you may be thinking, with a certain dread that I am going to talk at tedious length about the global financial crises, and use words like leverage, credit default swaps, synthetic collateralized debt obligations squared,” he said, “But I’m not. It seems to me we hear all together too much about that. We’re so focused on the small print of this financial crisis. From a historian’s view, under the gaze of eternity, who really cares?”

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Place of His Own: Chef Michael Noble

Driving along a near-empty street bordering downtown Calgary, I pass a strip mall, a gas station, a series of lonely fast food joints, the windowless brick face of a recreation centre and the vast, dirty parking lot of a Tim Hortons.

Yet another strip mall appears on the left hand side of the road, beyond four empty lanes of freeway and a massive parking lot, and I see it: the sports pub Kayne’s on 17th Avenue S.W.. This is where Michael Noble — celebrity chef, mentor, man-about-town, Iron Chef contestant in Japan and Bocuse d’Or competitor — has asked to be interviewed.

BC Get-Aways: Saturna's Charms

Just off the coast of British Columbia, flanked by pods of travelling Orcas and smacked with fat purple starfish is Saturna Island. A peaceful hide-away, Saturna is one giant, rolling mountain that affords tremendous views of the Pacific Ocean (where, it’s true, Killer Whales are often sighted), lush forested valleys and four vineyards. The perfect weekend there begins with a three hour ferry ride from Vancouver through the Southern Gulf Islands ($15.70 per adult plus $58.30 per car, or $2 per bike). Sailing through thin fog, you’ll spot otters, sea lions and perhaps a whale or two. Mounds of thick forests emerge from the haze, and the taste of salt air on your lips will stir the initial cravings: salmon, oysters, fresh berries, wine. You’ll find it all on Saturna. Upon arrival, stop at Saturna Cafe for supplies and a gourmet picnic prepared by head chef, and German ex-pat, Hubertus Surm. Drop your bags at the Breezy Bay Bed & Breakfast ($95 a night with private beach), hop in a kayak and head to Thomson Park, where you’ll find fresh oysters just laying around on the beach ready to be thrown on a campfire. Finish your day with a sampling of Pinot Noir from nearby Falonridge Vineyard, so named for the rare Peregrine Falcons that circle above.

Published in National Post, May 1 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

CBC Radio: Good Enough to Marry

Listen to my piece about a new book called Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough on CBC Radio's The Homestretch


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Rich by 40 & Portobello Market West

They drove fifteen hours to be there. Alana Clauson and Sophie Jourborne of Unik Print Shop made the trek from Northern British Columbia to Calgary for a mere two day stint at the new Portobello West Market. The fashion and art show took place last weekend on the Stampede Grounds, inside the Big Four Building. It is the second time the market has come to Calgary, and the first for Unik.

Although the market is a small one, with about thirty vendors, the selection is unique and diverse. Olga Cuttell, whose prints, pendants, and knick knacks were on display on the show, says there is an appetite for her kind of work in Calgary. She has also been a part of the Portobello West Market in Vancouver.

“People in Vancouver are spoiled with so many markets,” says Olga, “Calgarians are hungry for something hand-made, which is nice. Customers here are very relaxed and excited by the work.”

Many local vendors at the market also sell online, like Natalie Gerber and Christine Norman of The Killer B’s. The Portobello Market West will make another appearance in Calgary next fall, and happens in Vancouver on the last Sunday of every month in the Rocky Mountaineer Station.

Later in the week, Lesley Scorgie released her new book, Rich by 40. Her book launch was held at Pages Bookstore in Kensington, and attracted a healthy number of fans. Scorgie first came into the public eye when she was just seventeen years old. At that time, she was was featured on The Oprah Winfrey show as an ordinary person with extraordinary wealth. Scorgie started investing her meager income before she started high school. After university, she wrote her first book, Rich by 30.

The new book is written for young couples, who are making “more sophisticated choices,” she says.

Scorgie says young couples often make the mistake of thinking they are in total agreement in money matters, when that is rarely the case. “Financial compatibility is just as important as choosing someone who is aligned with your personality,” she said.

The book outlines the steps young couples, and singles, under forty years of age should take to increase their “net worth” and reduce their debt. In her book, Scorgie admits she did not come from money but rather began at an early age to take control of her financial future.

“I don’t believe in get rich quick schemes,” says Scorgie, “That kind of thinking brought the market to its knees over the past two years. But people who were in it for the long term, they are now seeing some returns ... they’re okay now. It doesn’t matter what age you are, if you plan to be rich you can get there.”

Published in National Post, April 17 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Elton: Behind the Scenes of the Ballet

Jean Grand-Maitre presents a complex, toe-tapping portrayal
of the legendary Sir Elton John

Half a dozen couples stand, stiff and silent as mannequins, on the hardwood floors of a large dance studio. They seem to be embracing; their faces close to each other as if whispering a secret.

The room is hushed as rollicking gin-house piano music fills the air. There is a clap, and a sharp voice begins to count, yelling: “One! Two! Three!” in time with the music’s beat. With each shout and clap, the dancers move swiftly into a tightly controlled pose of classical ballet: one woman is lifted high above her partner, another’s leg is resting above a shoulder, and another is angled away from her mate, tango-esque. The process is repeated; every clap of hands and shout reveals a new pose.

It is, purposefully, a tableau reminiscent of the opening scene in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret: mechanical and slightly disjointed, yet performed with the stunning agility and grace of highly trained dancers. There is something both beautiful and tragic in this sequence, like watching over and over the moment a carefree child is struck frozen by fear. And then, bizarrely, there is a man on roller-skates weaving his way between the partners. The music is almost deafening; familiar but new as well. Behind him struts a sinister, bowler-capped fellow, clicking his heels like a hedonistic jazzman. It is a captivating scene.

Click Here to continue reading this story
on Avenue Magazine's website

Published in Avenue Magazine (Calgary & Edmonton editions) April 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Calgary fans the Flames til the end

The Calgary Flames have lost their chance to play for the Stanley Cup this year. A final game against the San Jose Sharks earlier this week clinched it. A few days earlier, though, the team’s hometown of Calgary had kept the dream alive with a Saddledome jam-packed with red jerseys. The Flames played the Phoenix Coyotes and won.

Spirits were still high here after an impressive performance by Flames captain Jerome Iginla at the Vancouver Olympics. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is another fan favourite, widely cited by analysts as having the best season of any player on the team.

The Flames had played erratically, however, loosing nine games in a row, and the expectations were low. Despite all this, the mood at the Phoenix – Calgary was upbeat. The Warner family travelled from Manitoba to see the game, and even Habs fan Tracey Kendrick donned The Flames jersey.

“We didn’t really even expect them to win,” said Mrs. Warner, “But maybe we brought them some good luck.”

Though they came on the ice a bit slow, by the third period The Flames were organized and aggressive, leading to a 2-1 victory over The Coyotes. Since their defeat by The San Jose Sharks, talk of why and how the team is playing has escalated. Calls for Coach Darryl Sutter’s exit and a batch of fresh players have been loud and strong.

Flames fan and hockey blogger Derrick Newman says the Sharks-Flames game was a “microcosm of the entire season. They had 39 shots on net yet failed to score more than one goal. Flames fans now will watch as other teams charge towards the cup. They will be able to watch what good hockey should look like. Fast paced and skillful players is the game now; the game has changed and Sutter has failed to adjust.”

The expectations from and critical analysts alike can be tough. Craig Cripps, president of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, says it’s something that emerging sports talent understands well.

“The pressure is enormous. We try to prepare our players and their parents for that,” he says, noting the rising pressure around his own league’s tournament this month, “The fact is that The Flames and The Oilers have had a lot of success ... and they are professionals who are paid to perform. This is a fast-paced industry. Players at the junior level understand that when you get there, if you don’t perform, you can find yourself out of a job or on another team pretty quickly.”
Published in National Post, April 10 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

CBC Radio: The Family Treasure Hunter

Listen to my piece on CBC Radio - Calgary about
a man who re-unites people with their lost family treasure ... sort of.

Click Here to Listen

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reuters Chief Lauds Canadian Caution

The newly minted global editor-at-large of Reuters, and former managing editor of The Financial Times, Chrystia Freeland, was the guest of honour at this month’s Salon Speaker Series. The invite-only function happens four or five times a year in Teatro Restaurant.

Her talk focused on risk and the global economy. She praised Canada’s cautious regulatory regime (prompting some guests to leave the restaurant in a huff), and spoke at length about the psyche of Americans.

“Ottawa sees itself as a policeman,” she said, “Rather than a farmer of the free market.”

“Canada is not top of mind in the U.S. but it could or should be more so in the near future,” she said, pointing to ‘economic stabilizers’ that are under-valued south of the border.

An Albertan herself, Freeland brought a folksy, pragmatic tone to the dinner. She opened with a story about her grand-mother. Before departing to Harvard University to study Russian history, Freeland asked her grand-mother for advice. Having lived through two world wars and the great depression, her grand-mother was less than enthusiastic about her choice to study history. You need a practical skill, she advised, that will always be in need ... the world is unpredictable.

Unpredictable, indeed. Freeland began by assessing U.S. resistance to extended health care services. It was baffling, she said, that for thousands of people who would not even be affected by this change, it would become such a divisive issue. It is the end of the American era, she said, despite the fervent belief of most Americans that they have a God-given right to rule the planet. She pointed to the necessity of international experience in the workforce, and the lack thereof in the previous generation of executives.

Freeland also spent a great deal of time talking about Europe. The EU is wholly preoccupied with worry over Greece, she said. At a recent meeting in the Arctic, she said, Canadian Minister Jim Flaherty, along with the American and Japanese delegate, took a tour of igloos while the EU
representatives huddled together in a corner talking about Greece. But the idea that this most recent crises is the fault of Goldman Sachs, she says, is ludicrous. “It’s the Greek government’s fault.”

Turning back to the United States, she said, “Even for a Canadian Tory, Obama is not what you’d call big government.’

Although there were a few people in the crowd re-thinking their subscription to FT, the response overall was positive. The speech came after a three-course meal of gnocchi l’amatriciana, arctic char with caramelized endive, and a selection of small pastries.

Among the guests were Geoff Pradella, vice president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Tony Luppino, former executive director of the Art Gallery of Alberta, Randy Pettipas, president of Global Public Affairs, attorney and patron of the arts Greg Forrest, McCarthy
Tétrault's Director of clients and markets Lindsay Fikowski, former bureau chief for the Financial Post Claudia Cattaneo, John Cordeau Q.C. of Bennet Jones and his sister Elizabeth Cordeau-Chatelain of Total.

Published in National Post, March 27 2010
Photo by Adrian Shellard

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Re-designing Disaster: Calgary Unites for Haiti

In Calgary last month, tens of thousands of dollars were raised for the earthquake shattered country. A concert at Jack Singer Concert Hall on March 10 raised $40,000 alone, for the Le Foyer de Filles Chretiennes Orphanage. It was a joint effort between Calgary and the City of Windsor. Local bands The Dudes, Woodpigeon, and The Polyjesters, played alongside the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, DJ Rob Faust, and Curiously Canadian Improv Theatre among others. CBC’s David Gray hosted the event.

At the city’s third PechaKucha night, themed “rebuild”, guests gathered at the Glenbow Museum to share ideas and inspirations. The event raised over $3,000 (donated to Architecture for Humanity) and connected via live satellite technology a group in Tokyo hosting a similar event. PechaKucha is a style of event invented in Japan by architects who wanted to share their ideas and portfolios in a timely fashion. At any given gathering, a speaker will present twenty slides, or photographs, and talk about each one for twenty seconds. That gives each presenter exactly 6.6 minutes to get their ideas across.

PechaKucha Rebuild attracted a diverse group of speakers. Catherine Hamel, a professor of architecture in the environmental design faculty at the University of Calgary, delivered a moving and poetic narrative which slide gracefully over the heart wrenching photos of her partner, Lawrence Eisler.

Jim Avery, vice-president of Sprung Structures, talked about his company’s innovative response to emergency shelter needs. His family-run business opened in 1887 as a manufacturer of chuck wagon covers, tepees and other Western-style coverings. Today, Sprung Structures provides unique and easy engineered structures which can be erected within hours and withstand the elements. Avery showed pictures of the structures at work in Cuba, New Orleans, and right here in Calgary.

Anila Umar, a youth counsellor and diversity trainer, talked about refugees who rebuild their lives in Canada; Olivier Mills of CAWST – the Centre for Affordable Water Sanitation and Technology – spoke about the relationship between organizations like his own and local, indigenous associations on the ground. He also pointed to women in any given community as the breadwinners and leaders.

Johann Kyser, a masters student in the faculty of environmental design at U of C, spoke about the power of sustainable design to transform and rebuild communities, beyond the physical infrastructure, and pointed to the parallels between the resiliency of a design and that a community. His focus was on socio-economic change, and creative, holistic approaches to it. His was the final presentation of the night. His last words were, “As we’ve seen by tonight’s presenters, even in the most dire of circumstances, human creativity and passion prevail”

Published in National Post on March 20, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cocktails for a Cause: Alberta Theatre Projects and Calgary Health Trust

In a year of economic uncertainty, charity might seem like a hard sell. Not so in Calgary. The latest example of philanthropy in this town was at the Telus Convention Centre, where “celebrities” mingled with the common folk to raise money for Alberta Theatre Projects.

This was the seventeenth year for the Lawson Lundell Celebrity Hors d’Oeuvres cocktail party. It featured a silent auction, where money was raised for the Enbridge Playwrights Festival. The festival sponsors emerging theatre talent and produces new plays which are workshopped and premiered in Calgary. This year’s line-up included How Do I Love Thee by Florence Gibson Mac Donald of Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre and Abraham Lincoln Goes to the Theatre by Montreal’s Larry Tremblay, who is in residence at Lark Play Development Centre in New York.

The 2010 winners of the Emerging Playwright Award were Toronto’s Erin Shields and Maev Beaty for their show Montparnasse, an intriguing look at Parisian literary circles in the 1920’s. The award was granted at a separate cocktail function earlier in the month, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

At the Celebrity Hors D’Oeuvres function, several of Calgary’s upscale restaurants created mouth-watering morsels which were then sold for $2.00 each. The hook was in the serving. Well-known Calgarians wandered around the oddly shaped room (it was held in a rectangular foyer-type space outside the main conference hall). In their hands were trays of perfectly assembled, bite-sized appetizers and deserts. The celebrities included a Don Cherry look-alike, City Alderman Brian Pincott, charismatic CBC Radio hosts David Gray and Danielle Nerman along with charming side-kick Jenny Howe, also of CBC’s The Homestretch, Michael Bigattini, sommelier of Willow Park Wines & Spirits, designer Alykhan Velji, and City TV's Jill Belland.

Calgary’s Apheresis Clinic at the Foothills Medical Centre also got a boost this season, thanks to a gala fundraiser hosted by Calgary Health Trust and Vendemmia Wines. This clinic provides highly specialized procedures for blood cell separation and bone marrow testing, particularly important to cancer patients, as well as research, staff education, and out-patient services.

The Great Italian Wine Encounter brought first class wine-makers to the Fairmont Palliser Hotel. An incredible spread of food, including fine cheeses, chocolate, lobster risotto and rack of lamb, were paired with extraordinary – and rare – wine tastings. Among some of the more impressive were Trinoro di Trinoro, a perfectly balanced, full mix of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. It was represented in person by Elena Capobiano of Tuscany.

Published in National Post on March 6, 2010

Friday, March 12, 2010

Alberta at the Olympics

Amidst the legions of patriotic groups wandering around downtownVancouver last week, there was one province cheering as loud as therest of them. That was Alberta.

The province of Alberta, along with their creative agency brand.LIVEand arms-length organization Travel Alberta, hosted a series oftargeted events around the city of Vancouver and in Whistler. The efforts cost the province over $6 million dollars this year alone, in addition to $14 million which has been spent over the past three years.

The ‘Alberta Station’ was once a rarely-used train station in arun-down part of town, but it has good bones. The marketing team transformed it into an open, loft-like space where enormous windows afforded cocktail party views of the entire downtown and the high ceiling allowed spotlights to fall upon a dance floor. A giant glowing sign with Alberta’s brand on it was visible from the streets aroundand the skytrain above, where thousands of visitors and locals weretravelling every day.

It was there, in Alberta Station, that a reception for “Sports Heroes” and Jean-Grande Maitre took place last Sunday night. Grand-Maitre, artistic director of Alberta Ballet, wasin town as the official choreographer for the opening and closingceremonies, as well as the nightly victory ceremonies where medalswere awarded daily.

Inside Alberta Station hung larger-than-life paintings of Canadian athletes, commissioned by the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary. At the‘sport hero’ reception were Lindsay Blackett, provincial Minister of Culture and Community Spirit, Maelle Ricker, the first Canadian womanto win a gold medal in the 2010 Olympics, fashion designer Paul Hardy and supermodel Heather Marks, president of Calgary Arts Development Dr. Terry Rock and his family, former chair of the Calgary Chamber ofCommerce Lois Mitchell and her husband - who is the former commissioner of the CFL - Doug Mitchell, Patrick Jarvic of VANOC and many others.

Alberta didn’t stop at the station; another outreach vehicle was thetrain itself. The Rocky Mountaineer luxury train has four passengercars, several dining cars, and two bar cars. On it, at 5:00 am everyday, were members of the Alberta government, representatives from Travel Alberta and The Calgary Stampede, assorted industry partnerslike Karo Group, the creative branding company taking over TravelAlberta outreach activities this Spring, and other members of the media and various industries. That included everyone from United Kingdom tour groups, who bring visitors to Alberta each year, to Tokyo television producers, to the president of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

The Alberta train took a three hour journey, parallel to the highway and the coast, from Vancouver to Whistler. On board, guests were treated to Alberta cuisine, local music and white cowboy hats. Once at Whistler, ski events were not far away. The Whistler Golf Club was also transformed into the ‘Alberta Hospitality Centre’ where guests were treated to Edmonton popcorn, Banff sponge toffee, Calgary chocolate and Calgary Stampede – branded trail mix. On the return journey, guests enjoyed a host bar, champagne toast to the athletes, samples of Alberta cuisine including beef skewers and lamb burger sliders.

There are approximately 70 seats available on each car; general tickets were sold to industry leaders for $500 per person.

Back in Vancouver, Alberta had some prime real estate for its outreach activity. Each province and each country had a ‘house’ at the Olympics. Soci House, for example, which hosts the Russian athletes, government and industry officials, is normally the Vancouver ScienceWorld. Today, there are five to six hour line-ups to enter the domed structure. Alberta House is on the corner of Robson and Beatty, acrossthe street from BC Place where thousands of spectators pour out every evening. The street front of Alberta House is an outdoor heated patio where Alberta artists from jazz to hip-hop performed.

According to Blackett, this is not the Alberta most people would expect to see represented on the world’s stage. Indeed, while Alberta band RezOfficial played on Monday night – following a big win by Team Canada against Germany, and cheers for Calgary Flame Iginla – one spectator asked, “They have hip hop in Alberta? I thought it was going to be all twang guitar.” Another reveller on the plaza seemed unsure of which house he was actually in.

So is all this marketing activity working? Perhaps the best answer is from that of a Swedish man on Alberta’s plaza. When asked what he thought or knew of Alberta, the man replied ‘Spirit to achieve. Freedom to create' - Alberta's official tagline.

Published in National Post, February 27 2010

Monday, March 1, 2010

CBC Radio: Alberta at the Olympics

Listen to my piece on CBC Radio - Calgary

about this province's investment in the Winter Olympics.

Posties at The Oscars

I'm in a screenshot with Conrad Black!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lois and Lieutenant Governor Bid Farewell

Calgary’s Salute to Excellence

At the gates to Stampede Park, guests were asked, “Who sent ‘ya?” Upon replying, “Al Capone” they were shown a parking space and guided to the entrance of BMO Centre. A Calgary Flames hockey game was in full force in the Saddledome next door, and guests passed through the
twisting hallways of BMO Centre, past an adjacent RV Show on their way. Though unintentional, the scene did feel reminiscent of a hidden speakeasy. Who would suspect a swinging black-tie function would be right around that motor home?

At the entrance to the main hall, actors dressed as Al Capone, his cronies, and a picketing temperance society mingled. Faux cops with billy clubs and moustaches roamed through the hall. Guests arrived in flapper outfits: headbands, layered, straight-line dresses, and top
hats. It was all part of the Chamber of Commerce’s annual theme gala. This year, it was called Prohibit This! Last year’s theme was disco.

Despite the levity of the evening, it was an emotional affair. The annual ‘Salute to Excellence’ is also a time for the chair of the Chamber to pass the gavel to a successor. In this case, the vivacious and popular Lois Mitchell stepped aside to welcome Simon Vincent. It was also the final gala for Lt. Gov. Normal Kwong, who is retiring this year. Heather Douglas, the president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, also spoke.

Noting the 1930's theme, all three made mention of the past year's accomplishments. For Kwong, 1929 holds a special significant because it was his birth year. For Douglas, this has been a year to overcome the challenges of a serious spinal surgery and a rocky financial foundation for small business. She also mentioned sponsoring George W. Bush's trip to the city as one of the Chamber's highlights - love him or hate him. For Mitchell, it was an emotional event because she was stepping down as chair, and received special congratulations from her husband, Doug Mitchell, who is also a past Chair of the Chamber.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

PSAC raises $4.1 million for charity

STARS earns their spurs

Everyone loves Western wear ... at least in Calgary. That’s according to Debra McAdam, a communications consultant originally from Vancouver, and Elizabeth Aquin, the senior vice-president of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC). And they should know. The two women were driving forces behind the sixteenth annual STARS & Spurs gala.

The gala evening took place at the BMO Centre on the Stampede grounds. Guests were invited to wear their best Western attire, and they did. There was a hat-shaping station next to the giant milk can where raffle tickets were dropped. A lone fiddle player welcomed guests into the massive room.

Once inside, attendees meandered through a silent auction. Prizes included: a romantic weekend for two at the Fairmont Banff Springs or the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a sightseeing tour in a Cassna 182 airplane, ballet tickets, priceless works of art, and frozen semen for thoroughbred stallion breeding. There was a live auction, too, where a Team Canada Hockey Jersey (signed by Sidney Crosby), and a golf trip for two to Fox Harbour Resort in Nova Scotia were the first to go.

Over the past sixteen years, PSAC has raised $4.1 million dollars for the charity, STARS. Founded in 1985, the Alberta Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society has a base of operations in Calgary, Edmonton, and Grand Prairie. It is a non-profit charity. STARS provides emergency air lift and medical procedures, employing a team of high trained and specialized doctors, nurses, pilots and others. They also provide emergency fire dispatch, and are available twenty-four hours a day to labourers in remote areas – a facet of their work of particular interest to PSAC.

Elizabeth Aquin explains that many PSAC employees work in remote and dangerous territory, where traditional forms of emergency support are unable to reach them.

At the gala also was one of the STARS helicopters, and a virtual training machine. It is a tricky business, landing a helicopter in a heavy fog or woods or on a mountain top, and then treating a patient in the cramped space while the machine rolls and pitches toward a hospital.

A three course meal was served. The entree was Alberta prime rib beef with Burgundy wine and shallots. For desert, a large chocolate ganache cake was brought to every table with sparklers on top. The occasion was also celebrating the 25th anniversary of STARS. In keeping with the theme, each guest was given either a bolo tie or a red lace garter belt with mini-pistol with their place setting. Aquin and McAdam said they tried skipping the Western theme one year and it just didn’t work. People like it and feel comfortable in their boots, they said. Canadian country music singer Jessie Farrell provided the entertainment.

Other guests included The Honourable Ron Liepert, formerly the Minister of Health before a shuffle landed him as Minister of Energy just one week before the gala, Dr. Gregory Powell, a founder of STARS who was recently appointed a member to the Order of Canada, Al Buchignani, the former executive vice president of ENMAX and current chair of the STARS board, and Roger Soucy, president of PSAC.

Published in National Post, February 13, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bill Brooks Gala Shares the Love

The Bill Brooks Gala has been called the hottest ticket in town for years. This year, though, it surpassed all expectations.

A fundraiser for prostate cancer, the party overtook the chic Hotel Arts. A live band got people on their feet early, and kept them swinging late into the night. Hor’s d’oeuvres were plentiful and included mini duck confit sandwiches, sushi, and lamb chops. The theme – “love the glove” – inspired some colourful fashion accessories. Otherwise decked out in black tie, guests were seen in boxing gloves, Olympic mittens, and even an “Edward Scissor hands” type costume.

What really had people talking, though, was the amount of money Bill Brooks raised for his cause. Despite the recession, the gala received its highest levels of corporate sponsorship and its largest number of ticket sales this year. In sum, the evening raised $570 000, all of it to be donated to the Southern Alberta Institute of Urology.

The institute is expected to open next month in Calgary. It will have been built entirely on community fundraising projects, like this gala, which together have totalled close to $30 million. Other donors include the University of Calgary, the Calgary Health Region, Betty and Sam Switzer Foundation, the Flames Foundation for Life, and the Rotary Clubs of Calgary.

The Southern Alberta Institute of Urology will research, treat and diagnose illness related to the urinary tract. That includes kidney stones, sexual health, and all kinds of cancer, particularly prostate and kidney cancers.

Bill Brooks, a notorious socialite and popular media personality in Calgary, began this event after losing an uncle to prostate cancer twenty years ago. According to many guests at his party, he has a knack for drawing people into his crusade.

Irene Price, president of West Canadian Direct Marketing Services, says her company receives thousands of requests for sponsorship. The cause is a personal one for executives at her firm, who were happy to support it. But she says it was Brooks himself who earned the sponsorship.

“He called me up and was so nice, and so sincere, I just wanted to help him!” she explained.

Other sponsors of the event included Safeway, who provided a re-useable grocery bag full of prostate-friendly food to each of the six hundred and seventy-five guests.

Spotted at the soiree were Rob Mabee, owner of Axis Art Gallery, and pal Eileen Stan, radio talk show host Dave Rutherford, designer and host of City TV’s My Rona Home Aly Velji with partner Jason Krell, a public relations guru, the vice-president of Hotel Arts Mark Wilson, and gala co-chair Larry Clausen, who is also the vice-president of Cohn & Wolfe for Western Canada.

Published in National Post, February 6 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bridal Fantasies in Alberta

A flurry of holiday proposals means big plans – and big business – right across Canada.

Here in Alberta, retailers in the wedding industry were out in full force last week at two separate wedding shows. The first, ‘Bridal Fantasy’, was held at the Telus Convention Centre in downtown Calgary on January 17 and then at the Northlands Edmonton Expo Centre on January 24. The ‘Bridal Fantasy’ brand extends to a popular magazine of the same name, found on newsstands across the province, an online blog, and a jewellery line.

Also on January 24, the Roundup Centre at Stampede Park was the scene of Calgary’s ‘Wedding Fair,’ where over two hundred “wedding experts” doled out free advice.

Attending Bridal Fantasy was an especially fruitful trip for engaged couple Omar Macalam and Margarita Chua. At Calgary’s Bridal Fantasy show, they not only found the perfect bridal gown – off the rack and on sale – but also won a raffle prize in the form of a large gift basket from Ideal Protein.

On display were retailers and their wares from every aspect of the wedding industry: cakes, music, clothing, jewellery, table settings, and even two giant Hummer-limousines for a wedding or stagette party. A fashion show, complete with a Disney-esque castle in the background, displayed gowns and formal suits from Jennifer Scott Bridal, Beautiful Bride, and Derks Tuxedoes. A group of children in little white dresses and mini suits stole the show with their choreographed dance down the catwalk.

The Bridal Fantasy show attracted approximately three thousand shoppers in Calgary but broke records in Edmonton with a jaw-dropping nine thousand patrons; a third of whom were brides-to-be.

Gay Derk, president of Bridal Fantasy, says her show is part of a typical engaged couple’s full experience. Having been a part of thousands of weddings in this way, she has some time-tested advice for those planning a wedding.

“Have fun with it and have open, honest communication,” she says, “So many people get freaked out over what their mother wants, or his father wants, or their sister wants. Just forget it. Enjoy each other, have fun with your friends. Pick three things that are ‘hard and fast’ must-haves and let the rest go. Pick three things, talk about them honestly, and write down your budget. That’s what I tell people.”

Naturally, Derk married into the wedding industry. Her husband, Darryl, and his family have run Derks Formal Wear for almost thirty years. As a young couple, Gay and Darryl were burglarized. With a new baby in the home, she watched in horror as her new husband was pushed out a window. For three years he required intense physio-therapy every day. Meanwhile, Gay (who has a background and degree in pharmacology) ran the family’s tuxedo and bridal gown shop. She doubled its profits each year. When Darryl recovered, she had found her passion. Bridal Fantasy was born.

For those who missed it, a third wedding show, Calgary’s Bridal Expo, will take place in September at Stampede Park.

Published in National Post, January 30 2010

So You're Engaged: First Reactions

It was like being inside a pinball machine. Text messages, e-mails, and phone calls flashed and rang noisily all around me. Dozens of hands reached out to pinch my arm; dry, anonymous lips kissed my cheeks frantically, and there was a lot of joyful, incoherent yelling. It was mere hours since I had arrived home for Christmas, engaged, and the whole city of Vancouver seemed to be on high alert. I was jet-lagged and confused, but happy.

Why were all these people so excited for me to get married? Had they lost hope? How did they all know I was engaged? Did my parents tell the media? Who told my new fiancé he was getting a canoe as a dowry? What was I thinking, flying straight out of vacation and into one of my father’s giant holiday parties?

It began in Jamaica with a rush, post-proposal, of my future life as a future wife flashing before me. When I had calmed down, having examined the ethical diamond ring and my boyfriend’s super-hero posture carefully, I suddenly saw our future first home filled with our future freckled kids, our future careers, conflicts, Christmases, retirement, and travels around the world like a super quick slide show. This was our life. Then just as suddenly my vision narrowed and I saw a frantic work-out scheme, a desperate bid to quit smoking, a stunning couture wedding gown (ok, my imagination was running), a huge celebration, and an exotic but affordable honeymoon. This will be our wedding.

What I did not see, what I could not imagine, was anyone outside of my beau and I. But there they were, waiting. And that, it seems, is our engagement.

When you announce your intention to get married, it does funny things to people. Some are overjoyed, inappropriately thrilled by your decision to be locked in, while others are blasé. Everyone has advice, and the wedding is prime topic for dissection. “When is the wedding?” I was asked repeatedly the day after I became engaged; as if the event had been all planned out except for the leading man. Someone told me to order wedding cake “by the pound,” which I’m sure isn’t the way you do it. One person suggested, since we’re getting married in Toronto but hail from different parts of the country, that we have multiple weddings. Yes! A wedding tour! Let’s take this show on the road! Anything seems possible when you agree to get married.

Then there are the friends and family members you love, and who love you beyond reason. They have championed you as a couple, and supported your individual efforts. They are a warm cocoon between the couple and the world outside. And you need those people, because outside that cocoon is the real world, just waiting to freak you out with divorce statistics, mortgage rates, and speech requests. And orbiting around all of you are a flurry of trade shows, magazines, planners, cake-makers, banquet halls, DJs, and other honest retailers who simply want to share in your joy by selling you stuff – expensive stuff that must be colour coordinated.

Becoming engaged had a strange effect on us as well. Emotionally, I was on a roller-coaster ride for a solid month. A missing ingredient in my favourite salad was enough to bring tears. I quit smoking, joined a gym, and began scrapbooking favourite pictures from the wedding magazines I now buy at the grocery store every week. Scrapbooking! For my partner, babies have become an obsession. He watches National Geographic documentaries about baby muscox and baby panthers, and wonders what will happen to Brad and Angelina’s kids if they split. None of this is normal.

My soon-to-be mister proposed on a balmy night in Jamaica. In the darkness we could see thousands of stars above us, and the white fringe of waves as they lapped at our feet. A very brief, tiny moment before he uttered the words, I knew what was coming. My breath caught in my throat, and after saying “Yes!” my mind rushed into a stunned, wordless state of surreal euphoria. Nothing existed in that moment except for us, and this massive – perhaps insane – commitment we had just made.

It felt like skydiving: when you can’t remember the parachute, or the months of preparation, or the other people who have done this so many times before you, because the sheer fact that you jumped has stolen all other senses.

So, you’re engaged. Things will happen quickly, and it will feel like getting married is the most important, sensitive, and expensive duty you’ll ever have.

My advice to you, dear engaged one, is to remember that breathless moment when you first proposed or accepted; hold on to it, feel it, and put it somewhere very safe. There will be times when you need silence, calm, joy, or reminding of why you ever entered this world of hurt willingly. That’s when you can go back to that moment. Let your mind circle around how you felt, what you said (if anything), and remember what it was like to have nothing in your head except the sound of your heart. That moment is the first thing you’ve created for your future wedded selves. Marriage is a hopeful step, but engagement is the big leap.


Published in The National Post, January 30 2010

Up next: Eeeek! Wedding dress week! Do they fit and flatter? Will it look tacky in photos ten years from now? Is it really worth the price of a down-payment or a trip to Europe? Was inviting three people to watch me self-consciously try on expensive clothes a bad idea? Does the new Holt Renfrew store in Calgary have a magnetic force around it?