COLUMN

Packing the halls for the boss

Allan Fotheringham February 25 1991
COLUMN

Packing the halls for the boss

Allan Fotheringham February 25 1991

Packing the halls for the boss

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

The Royal York, a Gothic pile of stone across the street from Toronto’s Union Station, once thought of itself as the centre of Canada. When it was opened in 1929, at 24 storeys it was the tallest building in the British Empire. Vancouver businessman John Nichol, one of the few ever to have the courage to resign from the Senate out of boredom despite having been president of the Liberal party, explained at the time that Grit guru Keith Davey’s view of Canada was everything he could see from the roof of the Royal York.

Today, the old hostelry is a rather comic turreted midget surrounded by the 60-storey Bay-and-King glass-and-steel towers of Mammon of the country’s banks, edifices as cold as the hearts of the men who man them. It is still filled with conventions of vacuum-cleaner salesmen and nostalgic travellers from Saskatoon, but modern Toronto has gone elsewhere.

But where does a prime minister from Quebec, who has never felt comfortable in Toronto, go when there is a sudden decision to save the country by making a major speech, to be followed a day later by a similar salvation in Quebec City? Of course. In what the PMO, otherwise known as the panic station, in the isolation of isolated Ottawa, views as the WASP mecca, where all the Toronto power people would just love to go, the Royal York.

The platform chosen is the combined membership of the Empire Club (made up of those old enough to still remember the word “empire”) and the Canadian Club (famous for fomenting national unity to the extent we are where we are today). But how does one fill the 700-seat, chandelier-dripping grand ballroom of the Royal York on just a week’s notice?

It is quite simple, as things always are for a government in power. One calls on people who owe you something. As a case in point, we have one Senator Trevor Eyton. Empire Club president Rev. Harold Roberts, of the Anglican persuasion, in his introduction paid thanks to Senator Eyton for “his help” on this lunch occasion.

As well he might. The Establishment church

meets the Establishment. Neophyte Senator Eyton was one of the instant senators appointed last fall by Mulroney to get the GST through the upper chamber. (The neophyte, no neophyte when it comes to careful politics, found it politic not to appear for the vote on the abortion bill—thus helping out in the defeat of the government bill that had been passed by the Commons.)

Perhaps the contrite neophyte felt guilty over his unfortunate absence at that publicized vote. Perhaps the PM reminded him that the new boy owed him one. Eyton, as we know, is the point man for the Bronfman empire that owns most of Canada—Royal Trustco, Noranda, MacMillan Bloedel, Labatt’s and on and on.

Sitting on 24 corporate boards—which he is now trying to sort out because of his Senate conflicts of interest—he is one of the most powerful businessmen in Canada. So, as president of Brascan, the Bronfman arm, he has

Brascan shareholders buy she tables for the Mulroney lunch. That is 60 double-breasted suits.

The ballroom is full of other such examples of corporate largess. Bank of Montreal? It has ponied up four tables, 40 more obligatory warm seats. Bank of Nova Scotia? A mere three tables, meaning 30 moneymen. Toronto-Dominion Bank? Four tables, 40 loyal diners at $40 a rubber chicken, which was really rubber.

Why is the most generous of all the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, with seven tables, 70 severe haircuts? Guess what? Brascan does its banking at CIBC. And what is this? An individual, one Gerald Fanning, who has laid out for 10 bodies? The shy Gerald Fanning, as it turns out, is an assistant general manager at Scotiabank. Meaning his bosses wanted to hide the fact they were actually buying 40 seats rather than 30. Which means four banks, knowing where their bread is buttered, have supplied some 200 of the 700 supplicants involved. In the theatre, this is known as papering the house.

The usual suspects fill out the bill. Molson’s, of course, has a table. So does Marathon Realty, the real estate arm of the CPR. Bay Street’s Wood Gundy of course has a table. One Johnny Bitove, introduced at the head table along with Senator Eyton, just happens to have bought five tables, just happens to get a lot of government contracts.

One looks around the room and recognizes all the types who financed Mulroney’s two electoral victories and who, when he was in desperate trouble over free trade, mounted a furious ad campaign that saved him.

When one is done a favor in politics, one returns the favor. Corporate dynamo Trevor Eyton is made a senator, though no one could quite imagine why he would want it, being a mere sprout of 56—and unable to play the kazoo. He apparently is not much interested either, as the numbers of his attendance record would indicate.

Over the last recorded period, the new boy recruited to help his master overcome the long Liberal mastery of the Senate has shown up in Ottawa for only 19 of the 61 Senate sessions, ending in a tie for the worst Progressive Conservative attendance in the chamber of second and sometimes-sober thought.

Loyalists to the cause, however, are not sought for dutiful appearance in the Senate which they are meant to grace. They are more useful on the telephone, to rouse at immediate call those who can hustle their ample bottoms to fill brocade chairs in antediluvian ballrooms to give the appearance that the boss has slavering adherents.