VOICES

OUR ENGLISH KNIGHT

Peter C. Newman June 14 2004
VOICES

OUR ENGLISH KNIGHT

Peter C. Newman June 14 2004

OUR ENGLISH KNIGHT

VOICES

Unlike Black, Sir Christopher Ondaatje can keep his Canadian citizenship

Peter C. Newman

THE PARALLELS are striking. Not that long ago, but before he was disgraced, Conrad Black went to war with Jean Chrétien over the right of Canadians to accept British titles. Black became Lord Black of Crossharbour, but not before renouncing his Canadian citizenship. Two years later, another Canadian financier who writes books and ran a Toronto publishing house (just like Black) was given a knighthood, but instead of a public shootout, nobody said a word and there has been no problem about him remaining Canadian.

His name is Ondaatje, now Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje, and since retiring from his Bay Street brokerage (for the second time) in 1995, he has become one of England’s most generous philanthropists. Over the years, Sir Christopher, who has dual citizenship, has given away about $60 million to British and Canadian museums, universities and cultural foundations.

When I dropped in recently to see him at his luxurious Sloane Square flat, he told me the full story, which makes it very clear that the former prime minister had it in for Black long before he was publicly disgraced over his alleged corporate shenanigans. “In April of last year, my wife Valda and I were invited, with some ambassadorial couples, to stay at Windsor Castle,” Ondaatje said. “We were treated royally, given a suite and waited on hand and foot. The Queen was unbelievably friendly and spent a lot of time with Valda and me. After dinner for nearly two hours, she personally gave us a tour.

“A few weeks later, I got this letter from Downing Street saying that they were going to recommend me for a knighthood and would I accept? I wrote back and said I’d love to, but I wanted to make it very clear that I will not give up my Canadian citizenship, and left it at that. Nothing happened. So I was living in this question mark world because I knew about the Conrad situation and Chrétien was still prime minister of Canada.”

On June 14, 2003, Ondaatje’s name appeared on the list of new knighthoods, published in all the papers. So from that moment on, officially, he was a knight, but still a Canadian. That same evening, the Westons invited the Ondaatjes to Fort Belvedere, the estate they lease near Windsor Castle, where Galen Weston was throwing a gala to cele-

brate his wife Hilary’s 60th birthday. It was attended by 300 international celebrities, including the Queen and Prince Philip. “After dinner Valda and I got up, and the Queen made her way to where we were standing,” Ondaatje recalled. “Before I could greet Her Majesty, she grabbed both of my hands and asked if I had heard from the prime minister of Canada. I said that I hadn’t. ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘let me tell you, he’s certainly been in touch with me and let me tell you my advice to you is to let me handle this my way.’ ”

Ondaatje later heard that there had indeed been an official exchange of correspondence, but nothing changed. “I think they let it happen for me, and I feel more Canadian than ever,” he concluded. “Canada made me. It’s an incredibly bloody great country.”

That story hasn’t been told before, but it says as much about Ondaatje’s rising reputation as it does about Black’s downfall. Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) 71 years ago, Christopher Ondaatje has become known as “The English Patron,” a play on his more famous younger brother Michael’s award-winning The English Patient. “Most

people in the financial business seek power, and sometimes it brings them down,” he told me. “I always wanted money and I was good at finance, but I didn’t want power because it’s an ego trip.”

Ondaatje was educated at Blundell’s, an elite school in southwestern England, but had to leave in 1951 when his alcoholic father’s

tea plantation went bankrupt. After a banking apprenticeship in London, he immigrated to Canada and arrived with $13 in his pocket. He eventually became a multimillionaire as the co-founder of a mid-size Bay Street brokerage, but was far more interested in collecting art and running a small book publishing house on the side. Since he left the business, he has been living an adventurous, literary existence, having written five books and explored much of remote Africa. He has followed the footsteps of most of Britain’s Victorian explorers and more recently retraced the two East African safaris of Ernest Hemingway. These

‘THEY let it happen

for me, and I feel more Canadian than ever. Canada made me. It’s a bloody great country.’

expeditions resulted in a book, Hetningway in Africa, published last year. I’ve read it, and while it’s not high literature, I could smell that exotic pungent continent in its pages. It’s as much a journey of self-discovery as a travelogue. When I asked him how he did it, he explained that he put five Post-it notes on his desk, listing the five senses, to remind himself to introduce each of them into his writing. It works.

As I left his flat, I noticed a prose fragment in one of his books that seemed to sum up the man and his dreams: “The world of tomorrow will change and as if tomorrow were a foreign land, we must set out in search of it. No man is totally confined by his own time, and no man can move into the future without understanding the past. The future— as always—can only be grasped by those who are ready for it.”

He spends most of his time between expeditions giving money away. His Canadian causes include Massey College at the University of Toronto, Pearson College on Vancouver Island, Ontario’s Lakefield College School, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and Nova Scotia’s Chester Playhouse, among many others. In London, he has helped finance a wing named after him at the National Portrait Gallery and a theatre at the Royal Geographical Society, while providing $35 million to establish a foundation for the development of learning and international understanding.

Since he is a conservative, his most unusual gift was $4.5 million he gave to the British Labour Party in 2000. “Tony Blair is a middle-of-the-road conservative in my opinion,” he maintained. “I thought he was worth backing because he was the right person at the right time. He is leading the Labour Party, but has kept the unions out. How much more right wing do you want me to be? The last person I liked was Margaret Thatcher.”

A tall, rangy man with a double A-type personality, Ondaatje is one of those rare birds who follows his own flight plan and knows exactly where he’s heading. How different that is from Conrad Black’s free fall brings no joy to him, but the empire city’s chattering classes have adopted him instead as their model Canuck. [¡'¡I

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca