Open for business, up for sale

Allan Fotheringham June 1 1987

Open for business, up for sale

Allan Fotheringham June 1 1987

Open for business, up for sale


Allan Fotheringham

Is anyone minding the store? The government of Canada is so busy trying to get itself re-elected that it’s not even watching what’s going on in the country. The Tories’ laissez-faire attitude toward the nation it was elected to guard is becoming rather ludicrous. The desperate efforts to achieve a free trade agreement with the Americans (when 80 per cent of all the trade between the two countries is now free) are not going to be completed by the October deadline. Congress, largely oblivious, is talking of an autumn recess at the very time the deadline occurs.

In the meantime, what else is happening? Well, after Canadian taxpayers have sunk a fortune into overreacher Dome Petroleum, in subsidies and tax holidays, Ottawa stands by and lets the whole thing be gobbled up by Amoco, the American giant. Canadian banks don’t like the deal, Canadian nationalists are appalled, and Ottawa says not a word. And the Canadian vice-president of Amoco just happens to be a fund raiser for Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Harvie Andre, who is supposed to look after the concerns of consumers (i.e. taxpayers). Oh boy.

What else? The Bronfman brothers, owners of the world’s largest liquor empire, have been having a family quarrel. To solve things, they are folding the family holding company, Cemp Investment. As part of the bothersome paperwork, they’ve sold Cadillac Fairview, the huge Toronto property developer. Who to? Chicago’s JMB Realty Corp., an outfit that manages $21 billion worth of real estate in the United States.

So? Well, Cadillac Fairview just happened to be the owner of the Eaton Centre, the vast complex on Yonge Street that is supposed to be the heart of Toronto, a city that doesn’t have one. So the Yanks now own the No. 1 building of the No. 1 Canadian store tradition. They might as well buy Foster Hewitt and the Calgary Stampede. (With Ottawa standing by, ever on guard for thee.)

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

If there is anything Canadian, it is surely Eaton’s. Timothy Eaton expressed perfectly the prim Presbyterian soul of the country when he forbade the sale of sinful tobacco in his stores and decreed that the windows be draped on Sundays lest foul thoughts of commerce should enter the minds of citizens on the way to church. When the history of this country is written (probably by a professor from Iowa on a Canada Council grant), the draping of Eaton’s windows on Sundays— somewhat like the Victorians’ masking of a piano’s legs—is vital stuff.

Anyone raised on the Prairies in the Depression knows how important a function Eaton’s played in those years so desperate for diversion. Every fall came the new Eaton’s catalogue, fatter than a doorstop, filled with the colorful riches that were sent for as the total sum of the Christmas gift list. (The ladies underwear ads were the local equivalent of the National Geographic features from Bora Bora.)

Once Christmas was past, the wellthumbed catalogue went to its eventual and useful reward, into every two-holer in Saskatchewan, hung on a nail, its pages lasting—as if ordained magically by Someone Above—exactly until the next fat book arrived the following autumn.

Eaton’s as a symbol of Canada? Quebec-separatist litany was sustained by the memory of French Canadians in the 1940s being told to “talk white” by Eaton’s clerks in the big store on Ste. Catherine Street. Parti Québécois legislation forced the store to change its

name from Eaton’s to the bilingual Eaton. And when PQ house leader Claude Charron, no longer able to abide his hidden life as a closet homosexual, decided to end his political career (like Gary Hart, he wanted to be caught), he chose where else but the symbolic Eaton’s as the place to steal a sports jacket. And most educational, the Montreal hotlines were aflame with the view that what he did wasn’t really “stealing” because it was from Eaton’s.

And now my friend Charles Bronfman, who has kept the Montreal Alouettes (where did you go, Sam Etcheverry?) alive and bankrolls the Montreal Expos—and, most important, got Timmy Raines back— is handing the deed for the Eaton Centre over to the Americans.

This is all so goofy, • since the deed on Bronfman’s beautiful Westmount home, high over the St. Lawrence, goes back to Saskatchewan, even beyond the two-holers. As has been meticulously documented by Peter Newman, the whole Bronfman empire was started when patriarch

0 Sam—Charles’s father—le| gaily supplied booze to

1 American bootleggers during Prohibition. First

across the Saskatchewan border into North Dakota and Montana, later on both the Atlantic and Pacific in fleets of whisky.

Everything comes full circle. While Timothy Eaton was banning ’baccy from his stores and naked mannequins from our eyes on Sunday, Sam Bronfman was flogging paralysing homemade hootch to the speakeasies of New York. And now Sam’s sons have peddled the patrimony of Timothy off to áome numbered bank account in Chicago. I weep for my country.

Ottawa is blustering these days about buying 10 nuclear submarines (I thought this was the government that was broke?) to patrol the arctic waters to “guard our sovereignty” against the Americans we cannot prevent sailing beneath the ice. Can we take that seriously when we can’t guard Toronto? I wonder how the four Eaton boys like paying their rent to Chicago?

This country is not just “open for business once again.” It’s for sale.