The lady preacher who used the media to turn on a town

SAUL LASKIN’S LAKEHEAD: FIRST OF MIDCANADA’S SIX BIG CITIES

March 1 1969
The lady preacher who used the media to turn on a town

SAUL LASKIN’S LAKEHEAD: FIRST OF MIDCANADA’S SIX BIG CITIES

March 1 1969

SAUL LASKIN’S LAKEHEAD: FIRST OF MIDCANADA’S SIX BIG CITIES

THE NEAR NORTH

IT GETS COLD at the Lakehead. But it’s an almost joyous kind of cold, for it brings the snow-mobiles whizzing out of people’s backyards and down the snow-clogged streets, as thick as bicycles in Amsterdam. Besides, four of the best ski slopes in Ontario are within 20 minutes of downtown, and every discount store stocks snowshoes. Winter is a matter of perception. You can either curse it, escape it or try to ignore it. At the Lakehead, people try to enjoy it.

This may be part of the reason why Port Arthur’s Mayor Saul Laskin is sold on the feasibility of the mid-Canada development corridor. The idea stands or falls, after all, on the proposition that people can live comfortably in mid-Canada. Laskin and 110,000 other Lakehead residents have been doing it for years.

This may come as news to southern Canada. The national media seem to have evolved a silent conspiracy to ensure that the fact of northwestern Ontario’s existence doesn’t leak to the outside world. There is probably no area of Canada more justifiably conscious of being ignored. During Centennial year, when the Canadian Government Travel Bureau distributed a “Come to Canada” brochure through the U.S., they included Kapuskasing and Moosonee on the map, but failed to mention Port Arthur. When MP Robert Andras last year suggested carving an 11th province out of northern Ontario and northern Quebec, no one in his riding saw fit to hoot him down; by now they’re used to Going It Alone in northwestern Ontario.

This independent attitude has helped the Lakehead develop a problem - solving capacity that few southern cities possess. Outwardly, Port Arthur and Fort

age-looking. But even a shortterm visitor can detect a certain esprit about the place.

Saul Laskin, who must be one of the brainiest mayors in the country, has had a lot to do with it. “More and more,” he says, “I see our role in municipal government is to tackle the human problems. We’ve got to take . . .” (and here he gropes for the appropriate word) “ . . . we’ve got to take a neighborly approach.”

That’s a good definition. The Lakehead is big enough for a TV station, a symphony orchestra, a university, two abysmally parochial newspapers. But it’s still small enough for hockey games where most of the fans know most of the players because they went to school together. When Laskin walks to lunch along Cumberland Street, perhaps a dozen people greet him. “My waiting room,” he says, “is like a doctor’s office. In this job you can actually help people.”

Laskin’s main contribution, however, has been administrative. He has functioned like a small-town Trudeau — trimming budgets, planning years ahead, assigning priorities and sticking to them. Port Arthur’s Works Department, for instance, used to repair streets in the traditional manner — on the basis of which homeowners complained the loudest. Laskin’s council instituted a rational road-repair program that will repave most of the city within a few years. He’s also saved the city close to $60,000 by skillful avoidance of borrowing, and pushed through a redevelopment plan that will make Port Arthur’s waterfront look something like Miami’s.

Laskin, you see, thinks in terms of environment. Previous generations of Lakehead politicians felt proud of luring some new pulp mill; Laskin’s approach is to wonder what can be done about the stink. “We’re not really blighted here, but we’re close to it,” he says. “If we don’t do something about it, we’re going to have a desolate city. Sure, we’ll educate our young people — and they’ll leave. They won’t come back because there’ll be nothing to come back to. People nowadays want an environment that’s decent. My job is to try to give it to them.”

On January 1, 1970, by a ruling of the provincial government, Fort William and Port Arthur, along with two small and adjacent townships, will be merged into a single municipal unit of 110,000 people — one

The forced amalgamation will end one of the hoariest debates in the history of the twin cities

— and also abolish a host of tiny stupidities engendered by their traditional rivalry. At present, bus passengers traveling from one city to the other must get off one bus at the municipal boundary and wait for the other city’s bus to arrive before resuming their journey. Two nearly identical sewage-treatment plants stand together on opposite sides of the municipal boundary — a duplication that probably cost taxpayers upward of a million dollars. Port Arthur taxis can’t cruise for fares in Fort William, and vice versa. Port Arthur’s water is metered. In Fort William they pay a flat rate. And so on.

Laskin, mayor since 1962, was one of the early advocates of amalgamation and lobbied for it as president of the Ontario Association of Mayors and Reeves. When I asked him if he thought the amalgamation issue should have been settled by a plebiscite, he said a very interesting thing: “What good is a plebiscite when the young people

— whose future is being decided

— wouldn’t have a vote? Why should older people adjudicate their future?”

Coming from Mark Rudd or Daniel Cohn-Bendit, this might sound routine. But coming from a Jewish-Rotarian-furniture merchant-small-town mayor, it bespeaks a highly unconventional mind. Which is not all that surprising, for Laskin is a scholar manqué. During the Depression there was only enough money to send his two elder brothers to university. One brother, Bora, became one of Canada’s outstanding legal scholars. But Saul, it was decided, had to stay home and mind his father’s hole-inthe-wall used-furniture emporium. By the time he joined the army in 1942, Laskin had built the business into a prospering concern.

Today he’s lost his early regrets about not having attended university. Being mayor of Port Arthur fulfills him. “Sure I like to travel,” he says, “but I like to live here. I don’t want to live in a ghetto-ized society like Toronto’s. In the big city if you’re a lawyer, all you see are lawyers. I couldn’t live like that. I like to be able to spread through the whole community, meeting all kinds of people. The Lakehead’s the perfect size for me. Big enough to be interesting, but too small to be impersonal.”

The lady preacher who used the media to turn on a town

ONE OF THE exciting things about Richard Rohmer’s midCanada corridor idea is the opportunity it presents to evolve a new community lifestyle. Is it really possible to make big cities as neighborly as the small towns of everyone’s nostalgic memory? Rohmer hopes so, and the lady pictured below, the Reverend Lois Wilson, thinks she knows so.

Mrs. Wilson is a member of one of the few husband-and-wife clerical teams in the United Church, and a vigorous exponent of transforming the church into a vehicle for social action.

In 1967 Mrs. Wilson stagemanaged an experiment, the first of its kind in Canada, that could develop into an important technique for making big cities less impersonal. Using methods pioneered by social workers and civil-rights activists, she got the whole town talking about issues of community concern. The project was called Town Talk.

Town Talk was planned as carefully as an election campaign. Hundreds of invitations went out to groups, from the Knights of Columbus to the bantam hockey league. Several hundred people turned up at an initial meeting. Accountants found themselves sitting down with millworkers to plan how to run discussion groups on such topics as pollution or family breakdown. Then, over the month of November 1967, the whole thing culminated in an orgy of public discussion. Town Talk bought 40 half-hour slots on the local TV station to air documentaries and talk shows on the selected topics, followed immediately by radio hotlines. Meanwhile, dozens of groups scheduled speakers on the same topics. Other groups of newly acquainted Lakeheaders met to talk over the problems in each other’s living rooms.

Well, what did Town Talk achieve? Nothing tangible, perhaps. But for a whole month hundreds of people thought about issues they hadn’t considered before, and discussed them with people they hadn’t met before. “Maybe that’s enough in itself,” she says. “Talk isn’t cheap, you know. It’s precious.”

The university head who likes to build lakes-personally, if necessary

DR. W. G. (BILL) TAMBLYN, who is president of Lakehead University, wouldn’t last five minutes as president of McGill or Simon Fraser. His credentials are au wrong: no academic distinction to speak of (the “Dr.” is by virtue of an honorary degree from Laurentian University), all kinds of connections with the business community (he made a small fortune in construction, and & this year’s president, for heaven’s sake, of the Lakehead Chamber of Commerce), and no pretensions to grandeur (one day last December he was seen standing behind a counter in the administration office, handing out pay roll cheques, a job usually performed by a stenographer).

But then, Lakehead University is an unpretentious place. The vast majority of the 2,000 students look as wholesome as delegates to a Future Farmers of America convention, and are infinitely more interested in getting a degree and a job than in restructuring society.

Lakehead, in other words, is the kind of university that hasn’t developed to the point where it needs protest and pretension. To a greater extent than most of the new ones, it’s a regional university — Tamblyn sees his job as an effort to keep young people in northwestern Ontario. The emphasis now is on arts, but science courses are gaining in importance. The ne\£ science building has its own computer, and closed-circuit TV' is being used as an active teaching aid. The extension department flies professors into such places as Red Lake and Kenora to give weekend credit courses* and mails out some lectures on videotape, while the professors* remain in Port Arthur to answer questions on a long - distance speakerphone. Five years from now, Lakehead University will look like Oxford-on-the-Pinetree Line, with student residences buried in a nearby forest, and’1 academic buildings grouped around an artificial lake. Tamblyn, the professional builder, has experienced delays in obtaining the necessary approval from conservation authorities for the excavation job. “But I’ll get that lake,” he says, “if I have to dig the hole myself.”

The boy conductor who’s tuning up the Lakehead by teaching 300 kids to play music

Now WHY DO YOU suppose that Boris Brott, one of North America’s hottest young conductors, would be spending nearly half his time in, of all places, the Lakehead? On the face of it, it’s a strange alliance of the exotic and the humdrum. Brott, who’s only 24, is a figure of weird energies and terrifying precocity: a concert debut with the Montreal Symphony at the age of five, an apprenticeship with Pierre Monteux, conductor of his own symphony (Britain’s Northern Sinfonia) before he was 20.

What can possibly have attracted him to the Lakehead, where the home-town symphony is, in Brott’s tactful phrase, “very primitive” and where the most lustrous cultural contribution was, until recently, Bobby Curtola?

Let Brott explain. “The Lakehead,” he says, “is a beautiful blend of isolation and proximity.” It’s remote enough to escape the cultural domination of Toronto and New York, but close enough for commuting from his other job as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. This combination may be crucial to the success of Brott’s Great Experiment: a

five-year plan he hopes will transform Bobby Curtola’s home town into one of the musically sophisticated communities in North America.

“In most big cities," Brott says, “music has become rather a social toy — something the upper-middle class takes like medicine, because it’s good for you. The conductor has become the caretaker of a musical museum — you know, we take out our Brandenburg Concerto to show you how it sounded in the 1700s.

“But here in the Lakehead, there’s a fantastic opportunity to build musical involvement from the ground up, instead of trying to impose it from above. Here, the children are untouched by any possible musical misconceptions.”

Children are the key to Brott’s plan. He believes that if he can reach them young enough, he can involve them for a lifetime as musical participants, not simply as consumers.

“The basis of musical development is participation,” he says. “Four hundred years ago people sang madrigals together. Today you can see it happening with pop music, the Beatles. Music is becoming a tribal thing again, part of the social process.”

Educational theorists have been talking like this for years. But when Brott. at the request of the Ontario Council for the Arts, visited the Lakehead 18 months ago to survey the prospects for an experimental program in music education, he found the area so promising that he decided to stay.

The first step was to attract a team of top-level professional musicians, and this turned out to be no problem. He found five internationally famous string quartets interested in living and teaching at the Lakehead, and finally chose the Princeton String Quartet whose leader. Laszlo Steinhardt, played under Toscanini. “Why shouldn’t they be anxious to come? It’s a chance to play and teach in a community context — something thoughtful musicians dream about,” says Brott.

The quartet has been in residence since last September. They lead the string sections of the Lakehead Symphony Orchestra, give free noon-hour concerts at the university and public concerts where the audience lounge at candlelit tables, sipping wine and nibbling cheese.

But the quartet’s main job is teaching. This year they’re giving 200 concerts in elementary schools, and are instructing more than 300 children in viola, violin and cello. “This is the guts of the program,” says Brott. "My whole theory is that any musician who comes in to teach should be of the highest possible calibre. The kids learn faster that way.”

The five-year plan calls for the addition of another resident quartet next year, a woodwind quintet, and an education program spanning northwestern Ontario. Brott’s role is to act as a catalyst. He has shown rare political skill in getting the university. the various school boards and the local symphonic Establishment all pulling in the same direction. He sees the program as a legitimate exercise in community development, as important in its way as pollution control or urban renewal. “The point,” he says, “is to make the Lakehead a good place to live. Music helps.” □