Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Howard Anglin: The Trudeau Foundation deserves to be saved from itself

Commentary

I want to say a good word about the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation. Maybe it’s my previously-confessed contrarianism, maybe it’s a hitherto undiagnosed masochistic streak, but when I see the sort of pile-on that we’ve witnessed over the last few days, my instinct is to try to find some saving grace and salvage something from the wreckage. In this case, it isn’t easy, but I’ll try.

But first the bad (and buckle up, there’s a lot). As Andrew Coyne put it, for much of its existence the Trudeau Foundation “appears to have been run like a cross between a college housepainting service and a Panamanian shell company”—an assessment that does a disservice to both college housepainters and Panamanian accountants. He’s right, and I won’t defend it. I’m not that contrarian or masochistic. 

Nor am I interested in defending the inexplicable greed and gullibility that has been damningly revealed by Bob Fife and Steven Chase in the Globe and Mail. What would possess the foundation’s board to accept donations from a transparent front for the Chinese Communist Party is beyond me, and beyond my sympathy. It’s not like a foundation sitting on a $125 million plus taxpayer endowment needed the money.

So what is left to defend? Two things, I think. 

First, the foundation’s work, which was the target of a drive-by hit from the usually astute Brian Lilley in the Sun earlier this week. Lilley opened by asking “[i]f the Trudeau Foundation ceased to exist, would Canadians notice?” It’s a silly question that typifies an attitude that is unfortunately common in politics: if something doesn’t affect you and your life, it can’t have much value. 

Lilley notes that the Trudeau Foundation was originally set up to create a program similar to the British Rhodes Scholarship program, but “after 21 years” he’s “not sure they can claim success on that front.” I don’t know what he’s basing this judgement on, but it sounds to me like he has too lofty an opinion of Rhodes scholars and too low an opinion of Trudeau scholars. 

I can only speak from experience (which includes meeting quite a few scholars from both programs in Canada and in Oxford), but on balance, the Trudeau scholars stack up well. If a lot of what they have produced is “much of … the same banal material academics produce elsewhere” that says more about the state of academia than the foundation’s selection process. And I can assure you, the work of Rhodes scholars is no more inspiring.

Second, and this may seem like a small thing, I want to praise the decisive action by the foundation’s executive and (most of) its board. When was the last time anyone in Canadian public life took responsibility for anything the way they did, resigning en masse? Faced with similar allegations of interference in their own party, has a single Liberal cabinet minister demurred, let alone departed?

Again, my information is anecdotal, but friends I trust have told me that the now-former president and CEO, Pascale Fournier, was doing an excellent job stewarding the selection and development of the program’s scholars. Like many who resigned, she was not in charge when the board decided to accept the Chinese tea money, and from what has been reported, her team went to grimly comical extremes to try to give it back. 

I’m not saying everyone who resigned is blameless, but as I see it most of the foundation’s past incompetence, including accepting the dodgy donation, can’t be reasonably pinned on the management that resigned. And yet they still resigned. I don’t want to make it out to be a more heroic act than it was, but it was refreshing to see someone step up and show real accountability. So, good for them.

What I don’t understand is why, of all the people to keep on as chairman of the three-member board that remains to keep the foundation’s work going and to prepare it for whatever comes next, they would choose Edward Johnson, who is neck deep in the foundation’s, shall we say, complicated history. Why is one of the men responsible for the foundation’s problem—he is a founding member and was a director when the Foundation accepted the donation—now in charge when his fellow board members, many of whom weren’t, have resigned?

Johnson is an old Trudeau family insider, having served as Pierre’s executive assistant from 1980 to 1984. He is also the senior vice-president and general counsel of Power Corporation, which in 1978 founded the Canada China Business Council to facilitate trade with recently-opened Red China. This may look suspicious, but I assure you it’s not. It’s worse: this is how the Canadian Establishment works when it’s not being suspicious. 

Another of the remaining board members is curious for another reason, but one that points to the same problem. According to his corporate biography, Peter Sahlas is a director by virtue of being “elected by the members representing the Estate of the Late Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau.” (The other director nominated by the Trudeau estate, who did resign, was the late prime minister’s daughter, Sarah Coyne). 

Both men highlight the Trudeau Foundation’s fundamental flaw, and the clue is in the name. No matter how much good work it did in providing doctoral scholarships, fellowships, and academic mentoring, the foundation could never shake the perception that it was the private plaything of the Trudeau family and their extended family in the Liberal Party because, at least in part, it was. If you want proof, look at the latest 2021-2022 Annual Report, where all three of Trudeau’s living children were still listed as members or directors.

Yes, despite his disavowal of any knowledge of the foundation’s business, the prime minister’s name is still listed right next to his brother Sacha’s as a “succession member” of the foundation. Jesse Armstrong couldn’t script it better. A discrete asterisk informs the reader that “The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau has withdrawn from the affairs of the Foundation for the duration of his involvement in federal politics.” Not permanently, mind you, just while he’s occupying the prime minister’s office, with the implication that we are not to worry—he will be back. 

Forget temporarily stepping away from the foundation, Justin Trudeau never should have been involved in the first place. When the foundation was established in 2001 (with taxpayer money, remember), he had no relevant qualifications. This was around the time he was describing himself to the press as “far from a finished product … I haven’t done anything. I haven’t accomplished anything.” And he wasn’t exaggerating. He was a 30-year-old trust fund kid about to drop out of an engineering program. 

Back in 2001, it probably never occurred to anyone that Pierre’s wastrel son would become a serious political player. Sure, he’d attracted the spotlight a year before for his treacly eulogy at his father’s funeral, but the thought that he would follow in his father’s footsteps was still just the misty-eyed fantasy of a few greying Boomers. 

Yet there he is in the very first Annual Report alongside Sacha, the Roman to his Kendall. And what, come to think of it, did their 31-year-old half-sister Sarah bring to the board of directors before she resigned beyond sacred bloodline? You can see why the Chinese Communist Party might have confused the Trudeau Foundation with the Trudeau family. 

The line was further blurred, of course, by the prime minister’s appearance with the same donor at a Liberal Party fundraiser in the same year. (As for the $800,000 that the same source pledged to the University of Montreal law school, Pierre Trudeau’s alma mater, there is Sacha once again, dragged out to lend his surname to the official announcement.)

So what now? You can say that the foundation should give back its endowment and turn off the lights, and I wouldn’t object. But most of our peer countries think it’s worthwhile to have a national graduate scholarship program of this kind, and I agree. And if we are going to have such a program and we already have a body with the infrastructure and experience to deliver it, we might as well use it.

The problem was not the idea but the execution, specifically the structural flaws that were baked into it the foundation from the beginning, which even the best leadership could not have overcome. The board and the executive’s resignation provide an opportunity for a complete re-set. That is, if the remaining board members are prepared to take it, which is why I was so critical of the choice to keep on board members who are by implication tainted with the foundation’s core problems. 

The new chairman has said that they are “launching an independent review of the organization’s acceptance of a donation ‘with a potential connection to the Chinese government’” that will be “conducted by an accounting firm instructed by a law firm, neither of which were previously involved with the Foundation.” That is not good enough. 

The last thing the foundation needs is another Liberal-connected law firm (because they all are) directing another Liberal-connected accounting firm (because they all are) to provide them with a list of cosmetic measures that will allow the family business to carry on as usual. The board should skip the “review” and move straight to the “independent” part with a top-to-bottom reordering of the foundation’s governance. 

Ditch the Trudeau name. Cut all ties with the Trudeau family. Give the tainted money to a charity fighting human rights violations in China. And then step aside so that a new board and new management can take over. Nothing less will honour the recent board and management resignations; nothing less can save the good work the foundation was doing and should continue to do.

Malcolm Jolley: Wine and pizza: A field guide to this (non)traditional pair

Commentary

Early in my career as a food and wine writer, I interviewed the Italian newspaper columnist Beppe Severgnini. Severgnini was promoting his new book, La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind (2005). The interview was set up on the suggestion of the restaurateur and informal ambassador to all things Italian, Roberto Martella, who had hosted a dinner for Severgnini at his very much missed Grano restaurant in mid-town Toronto.

Cramming for the interview, I devoured the book in one or two sittings. I had been to Italy a few times and considered myself a budding Italophile, but Severgnini’s book explained to me a lot of things I had observed without really understanding. The conversation that made up the interview made a great impression on me and I can remember two parts of it vividly.

The first thing I remember was the answer Severgnini gave to a question that was wine related. Is it true, I wanted to know, that Italians only ever drink alcohol when they are sitting at the table? “Yes, it’s mostly true,” he replied with a smile, adding, “But then that’s why we invented the five-hour lunch!”

The other topic I remember from that afternoon meeting nearly 20 years ago was the matter of pizza. People outside of Italy weren’t (aren’t) eating it properly. Pizza was a sit-down dinner meal, not for lunch. And the correct pairing for pizza, in Italy, wasn’t wine it was beer.

This information hurt. It still does. Pizza is one of my favourite weekend lunch meals, and as much as I like a beer, I like a crisp white wine with my midday pie. Wine with pizza refreshes the palate after an onslaught of dough and cheese. Was I really doing it all wrong?

Like so many wine and food questions, the answer is a bit yes, a bit no, and a bit it really doesn’t matter. Drink whatever you like with your pizza. Here are some ideas about some who might choose one thing or another.

The Risorgimento politician, Massimo d’Azeglio, wrote in his memoirs, on the subject of Italy’s 19th-century unification: “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.” In my experience, he is quoted a lot by his later-day compatriots who acknowledge that most Italian identity is still very regional.

Severgnini is a Northerner, from Milan. Northern Italy has its own culinary traditions and its own starches like risotto from rice and polenta from corn. Pizza is from Naples in the South, where the starch is hard wheat. Pizza in the modern age would have come up with Southerners looking for work in the Northern factories in the last century.

Much of Northern Italy was, until the Risorgimento, dominated by Austria and open to Germanic influence from across the Alps. Beer would be plentiful and make a good pairing with an inexpensive and casual meal when pizza came up to the Po Valley.

On reflection, the pizza I have eaten in Northern Italy has tended to be at more casual pizzeria than fancy. Mind you several of those times were at lunch, so having a beer, especially between wine tastings made sense.

I had dinner at a pizzeria in Turin last fall. I was by myself and just arrived after a long night and day’s travel from Canada. It was a weeknight and most of the tables looked like they were families from the neighbourhood, which was a little bit outside of the historical centre.

Some of the patrons drank beer, some soft drinks, and some drank wine from the carafe. I had nameless, vintageless Arneis from a carafe with a pizza that had some kind of salumi on it. It worked and I can remember the happiness that simple meal gave my jet-lagged body before I headed to my hotel to crash.

Most of my lunchtime pizza meals are at a local branch of the Toronto mini restaurant chain, Terroni. Terroni means roughly ‘people of the earth’, or maybe, less charitably, just ‘dirt’. What was a put down of Southern Italians by their Northern cousins has become a point of pride for the Mammoliti family who run Terroni successfully, and who have roots in Puglia, Italy’s boot heel.

There is beer at Terroni, but there’s also a lot of very good wine, from all over Italy. I used to order by the glass, but I have started ordering a bottle of lunch because, since the loosening of liquor laws during the pandemic, they’ll recork the bottle and let you take what you don’t drink home. This is what I did with a delicious Coda di Volpe white.

Coda di Volpe means fox’s tail, which refers to the bushy shape of its clusters of grapes. It’s grown and made in the hills of Campania around Naples. When I was in Naples last spring with some friends and family, we defied Severgnini and ate pasta at lunch and pizza at dinner… with wine… but red because it was the evening.

Naples is the home of pizza because Naples is where tomato growing got serious in the 19th century. San Marzano is basically at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, and its volcanic soils impart, locals say, the tomatoes with a particular concentration of flavour, and maybe a little more of that particular umami and savoury qualities that make a delicious tomato sauce.

Umberto is a serious pizzeria in a fancy Neapolitan neighbourhood with a well-healed clientele. Umberto has a serious wine list, and from it we ordered a Lacryma di Christi made from Piedirosso grapes grown on Mount Vesuvius. It was perfect with the chewy doughy pizza verace of Naples. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the table of four next to us. Two couples: one older and the other younger. They were likely a family combination out for a Sunday pizza dinner. True to bella figura, they were each impeccably dressed. The older gentleman wore a cravat and a jacket and, while the rest sipped glasses of red wine, he happily drew from a long, cold glass of beer. Severgnini may have had a point, after all.