Affordable Feenie

July 24, 2008

A positive review in the Globe and Mail for Kickstart participant Rob Feenie’s new culinary incarnation, as the “food concept architect” at the Cactus Club. People have taken shots at Feenie’s ostensible move down market and they’ve certainly had fun with his new title (an absurd-sounding moniker, but one that keeps him from violating the non-compete clause he has with the owners of his old restaurants, Lumiere and Feenie’s), but, from what Alexandra Gill says here, the move may not only provide the man a valuable salary boost – it may result in a major contribution to the quality of “casual dining” across the board.

Former Health Minister, BC Premier and Attorney General, and current federal Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dossanjh was a rebellious young man. Not in the sense that he stewed with adolescent angst, adopted a nihilist mantle and refused to get a job. No, rebellious in that he was determined to make his own way.

Dossnjh grew up in Dosanjh Kalan, near Phagwara, India in the immediate aftermath of the country’s independence. As a child, he watched the parades of freedom fighters come through his town and soaked up the tales of those who had sacrificed everything for his country. His maternal grandfather had fought the British and spent the better part of eight years in colonial jails. His father was a teacher who founded the village high school.

Dossanjh never really wanted to be a politician, but he knew he wanted to live with dignity, in a manner that made a difference to his community. His father pushed him to be a doctor or an engineer after high school, but Ujjal was having none of it. He grew disenchanted with study and began reading Blitz, a left-leaning newspaper from Bombay. When it was clear his father wouldn’t let him study political science, he began looking for a way out.

“I wanted to be on my own and control my own fate,” Dossanjh recalls, “so I decided that getting out of India was probably the best thing. Then I wouldn’t have to confront my father, which would have been too much of a burden on me. He didn’t know all the turmoil going through my mind at that time.
It was just sheer chance that I bumped into a friend who was leaving for England. I followed his lead. I had to convince my father to help me, which was another struggle, but finally I persuaded him to let me go.”

But Dossanjh hardly spoke any English. When he arrived at Heathrow in 1964 and began living with his cousin in Bedford, he couldn’t even ask for directions around town.

At first he worked as a shunter, doing twelve hour shifts, breaking trains for British railways. These hours didn’t give him time to attend college, so eventually Ujjal took work as a secondary school lab assistant. Later, he worked at a crayon factory, a car factory, and a newspaper office.

During his three and a half years in England, Dossanjh tried to absorb as much culture and news as possible.

“On weekends I would go to the local libraries to pick up the week’s newspapers and a couple of books,” he told us. “The BBC used to have a station that had almost no music and no commercials, all talk radio: Security Council or United Nations debates, House of Commons debates, commentaries, interviews, panel discussions. I learned to speak English by listening to the BBC.”

Dossanjh eventually decided he wanted to study history, but he found the British-focussed courses were too introverted.

“One King George was like another King George,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out the difference.”

One day, while walking by the Canadian High Commission in Grosvenor Square, it occurred to Dossanjh that he could go and live with his aunt and uncle in Vancouver.

“I came right to Vancouver and I fell in love with the place,” Dossanjh recalls. “It was a sunny day in May. I flew into a very small airport and took a cab to my aunt’s house. You could see green grass for miles on one side and the ocean on the other. I felt I had landed in heaven. I was a young kid, only twenty-one, and I soon decided that I would stay here, unless I had to go back to my village.

“In Canada the experience was different than in England. From day one, I felt that the society was more open. It was a lot richer and, of course, Vancouver was more beautiful than any place in England. The weather was great and I was able to find work through my uncle very quickly. He got me a job in a lumber mill, pulling lumber off the grain train. As I was living here, I noticed that the Indians – what we now call Indo-Canadians – were more integrated in this society than in England. British society is closed and less mobile. I felt more at home in Canada right away.”

That’s not to say there weren’t problems. Many Indo-Canadians worked as farmhands and janitors, where their contracts offered them few rights. Dossanjh had been socially-engaged in England, retaining an interest in fighting for social justice. He’d attended Labour Party meetings, but he’d never become a member. But when he came to Vancouver, he joined the NDP and began helping union members organize.

At night, after working the lumber yards, Dossanjh took night classes at a community college and, later, Simon Fraser University. Ultimately, he graduated from the latter with a degree in Political Science and was accepted to law school at the University of British Columbia.

“I had also applied to do my masters in International Relations at Carlton,” he recalls. “I had a TA-ship and a scholarship available, and was ready to go, as I hadn’t heard back from law school yet. One day, I read a newspaper article that told me there were over 3,200 PhDs on the job market in Canada. That was enough for me. I decided to wait for my admission to law school. Thankfully, it eventually came.”

Dossanjh became fascinated by labour law and human rights- especially after the work he’d done with mill workers. His proudest moment came when he and three friends traveled down to the Fraser Valley to witness the working conditions of contracted farm workers.

“It was a hot summer day. We disguised ourselves, packed like sardines in a van. By the end of the day, the contractor had realised who we were, so he ordered a big long bus to take us all back to Vancouver.

“We put together a farm workers’ information service, the first of its kind in the west of Canada, with some funding from the law foundation. I wanted to help people who were being mistreated. That was the beginning of my work with farm labourers.”

At the end of law school, in lieu of getting a big job at a big firm, Dosanjh set off on his own. He wanted to be in a position where he could take on the types of clients he wanted; where he didn’t need to account for taking on pro bono work.

“I remember taking cases of people who collected money from farmers without paying them,” Dosanjh told us. “There were many cases with farm contractors taking farmers to court. I remember doing Human Rights cases at the bar. That came naturally for two reasons. One, because I was a bit of a rabble-rouser. I think people knew I would be able to do the work for either no money or very little money. Two, there weren’t that many people who understood both the language and the culture of the Indian workers they were dealing with. So it was easier for people to deal with me.”

A mere year later, Dosanjh opted to run for the provincial legislature. Previous to that, he had only helped the NDP by doing door-to-door canvasing and making phone calls. In addition to having little political machine behind him, Dosanjh found himself one of the lone non-white faces in the field. He received more than a few doors slammed in his face and ultimately lost by a sizable margin.

Still, he kept at it, running again in 1983, and again in 1991. With each passing race, he found a more diverse group of candidates and a more accepting voter base. Finally the win came.

The money would come as well, but that too would take a while.

“When I was setting up my firm in 1977,” he recalls, “I took home 250 dollars a month. That was compared to the $3,000 that I would have taken home at a decent sized firm. By 1990, my practice had grown really well and I was making 200,000 or a quarter of a million dollars a year, a lot of money for an east-side lawyer. And what did I do? I gave all that up in 1991 to go get a job as an MLA for $67,000 a year.

“One of my two sons would always say, “Why did you go into politics, you could have bought me a Mercedes.”

Now, continuing with a bit more of an in-depth look at our sidebar profiles, today’s pick is Deepa Mehta – one of the country (and the world’s) most acclaimed, provocative, and politically engaged filmmakers.

The Oscar-nominated director of Water is set to tackle the shameful Komagata Maru incident – one of Canada’s major moral oops moments, when, in 1914, the government turned away 397 Indians (most of whom were Sikh) who attempted to land and establish themselves in Vancouver. Due out sometime in 2009, the film will hopefully force North Americans to take a hard look at the exclusion laws that ounce served to keep the continent “untainted” by “coloured” immigrants.

Deepa grew up in the shadow of the Indian Partition of 1947. She also grew up with movies. Mehta’s father was a film distributor who owned a number of theatres in Amritsar, near the Pakistan border. She fell in love with the romance of Hindu cinema, as well as the Hitchcock movies her father would show on Sunday mornings. After seeing how the pursuit of weekly grosses had worn her father down, though, Mehta’s love for commercial cinema slowly faded. When it came time to go to university, the bookish teen chose to study Philosophy at the University of New Delhi.

As is true of so many graduates of liberal arts programs, though, Mehta emerged with few answers where questions of career were concerned.

“By the end of university, the only thing I knew about my future was that I needed some time off,” she remembers. “I needed time to decide if I wanted to study further. A part of me definitely wanted to, but I needed to decipher what I really wanted from what others thought I should do. Luckily, my parents never pushed me. They never expected me to be a lawyer or a doctor or anything.”

During what she identifies as her “awkward period,” Deepa met Anil, the owner of Cinema Workshop, a company that made documentary films for the Indian government.

“He said, “While you’re deciding what you want to do, why not work for me?,” Mehta recalls with a smile. “I couldn’t see why not, so I agreed.”

“Cinema Workshop was a wonderfully interesting place. There was a five-person team: Anil, who was the administrator, his wife, the creative brains behind it, a writer, an editor, and a camera person. They were this tight-knit group of creative people, all of whom loved what they were doing. I was only hired as a gopher for a few months, but they realised early on that I wasn’t going to be very useful in that regard. I couldn’t type. Even the coffee I made was horrible.”

Mehta loved to watch Joya, the editor, work on her Moviola machine. She had read about editing in books, but the process she witnessed in Cinema Workshop was magical. Since she was of little use in other areas, Mehta was allowed to help Joya. She learned to edit, then she picked up sound engineering, and finally began playing around with a camera and writing scripts. Though the films she helped to pen were two-minute educational pieces like “How to Grow Wheat,” Mehta loved that she was learning.

Soon after, Deepa set out to make a half-hour, black and white documentary on her own. Her first film was called Vimla. It was a simple story about a maid servant’s daughter who, at the age of fourteen, was getting married. The film documented Vimla’s excitement and examined what the concept of marriage meant to her.

Lightning Strikes

“By this point, I was hooked on directing,” Mehta says. “All of my reservations about working in the film industry went out the window. The documentary seemed like a completely different animal from the film world I’d experienced growing up. As a child, when a new film was released, the stars would come to my father’s movie halls. They’d even eat lunch at our house. I saw them up close and, as a result, the cinema world lost its lustre. But documentary was different. It was real and had the power to be very meaningful.”

But when Cinema Workshop closed down, Deepa needed to look elsewhere. She took a job working for the youth section of a newspaper while she was searching for more film experience. At one point, she was assigned to write about the Canadian High Commissioner’s daughter. While working on the story, she met Paul Saltzman, a filmmaker from the CBC who was in Delhi shooting a documentary about the High Commissioner.

Lightning struck and the next thing she knew, Deepa’s life had changed.

“He was incredibly knowledgeable and I was keen to see how other people made documentary films,” Mehta recalls. “We fell in love, were married six months later and we moved to Toronto.”

Deepa had never planned to move away. She had visited Europe and North America, but she always assumed she would stay in India.

“At the time, though, leaving was easy, because I didn’t think it would be forever,” Mehta says. When you’re young, nothing seems permanent. It doesn’t feel like you’re making life-altering decisions, even when you are. Even though we were married, I felt like I was “trying out” Canada.”

In the beginning, Deepa was shocked that filmmakers could access government money to make their movies. That hadn’t been the case in India, and she found the entire concept very “luxurious.” She also discovered types of cinema she’s never encountered before: everything from Buñuel (who remains her hero) and Kurosawa to the French New Wave masters and the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Soon after her arrival, she, her husband, and her brother Dilip set up Sunrise Pictures on the third floor of a house in the Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. They didn’t really know why. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

“Paul had made a number of films and I had worked on my own documentary,” Mehta says, “so we just decided to make a go of it together. Everyone did everything. I did sound, I thought up projects and I wrote them. We didn’t really think about where it was going. We were simply working on a project-to-project basis, and dealing with a deteriorating marriage.”

At 99

After arriving in Canada, Mehta had been fascinated by the way North Americans treated the elderly. As soon as parents got old, they were shipped off to special care facilities. In India no one sent older people away. They were seen as occupying a vital role in the home.

One day, she ran across an article in the Toronto Star about a 99 year-old woman who practiced yoga. Her name was Louise Tandy Murch, and Deepa instantly knew she had to meet her.

“I just knocked on her door and said, “I’d really like to talk to you” ” Mehta recalls. “We became friends right away. I never planned to make a documentary about her, but the notion gradually dawned on me and she accepted. I got a grant from the Canada Council and made the film for $5,000. Paul was working at Global at the time and a friend of his shot and produced the film.”

That film was a short called At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch. After stepping away from the world of film for two years following the birth of her daughter, Devyani, Mehta slowly phased herself back into the world of Sunrise, working on Spread your Wings, a documentary series about traditional crafts, and Travelling Light, an “artist at work” documentary about her brother Dilip. Later, she produced and co-directed Martha, Ruth and Edie, her first foray into fiction: a film based on works by Alice Munro, Cynthia Flood and Betty Lambert. When it screened at Cannes and won some awards, Mehta felt she had begun to find her feet and was perhaps ready to take on a feature.

Sam and Me

She thought she wanted to make a film about an Indian immigrant coming to Canada and living amongst Jewish people. She was still mulling it over when an old friend from India told her that her son, Rajit Chowdry, was moving to Toronto. Mehta knew that Rajit had written scripts for Indian TV and thought that they might be able to help each other out.

“One day, the doorbell rang and I found Ranjit shivering in his sneakers, ” Mehta recalls. “It was 20 below zero. He looked wild and fun and when I invited him in, we started to talk about the film I wanted to do. Ranjit said he would write it and he set to work right away.”

That movie ended up being Sam and Me – a film about the friendship between a young Indian man named Nikhil, who comes to Canada to stay with his uncle, and Sam, an ageing Jewish man who yearns to return to Israel.

Getting money was virtually impossible. The funding bodies were nervous about giving money to a recent immigrant. But they persevered, got it made (with Ranjit playing Nikhil and Mehta behind the camera), and went back to Cannes and won a Honourable Mention in the Camera D’or category.

The next thing she knew, Mehta went from being someone who had to struggle to fund projects to being courted by Hollywood. Though making films would continue to be a grind – especially as her subject matter became more engaged, Deepa Mehta had emerged onto the world stage.

“Through my twenties,” she says, “I never worried about the direction of my career. I only concerned myself with being able to make my next project. I still function the same way today. To a filmmaker, “success” is when you don’t have to suffer the pain of running around to raise money. When and if that moment ever comes, you are successful. Otherwise, you just worry about getting the next film made.”

Here’s an interesting article from yesterday’s New York Times about Kickstart contributor Patricia Rozema’s new film Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. The piece suggests that Rozema’s movie (set to drop) could well be to young girls what the uber-hyped Sex in the City flic was to the heels and martini set. Rozema herself is cautious about discussing such a possibility, but won’t deny she’d like to see young women’s interests more attended to by Hollywood higher-ups.

Okay, so we’ve gotten quite a few questions about participants in the book who didn’t get full chapter treatment. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, Kickstart features both extended first-person stories and what we call ‘sidebars’: short quotes (nuggets of knowledge and insight) from other successful Canadians we had the great privilege of interviewing as well.

A lot of readers are asking to know more about these sidebar participants. So here we go. Over the next little while, we’ll be providing short profiles of our sidebar participants – people who could (and hopefully will) fill the pages of the next installment of Kickstart.

Today’s profile: David Pecaut, Toronto’s ultimate man of many hats. He’s a senior partner in the Toronto office of the Boston Consulting Group, the Chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, and co-founder of the city’s remarkably ambitious Luminato festival. He’s the man Toronto Life calls the “Shadow Mayor“, one of the most committed voices in the civic arena – and one with a fairly intense Bay Street day job. Though Pecaut still manages to fly under some people’s radar where we live, that’s soon to change. He’s kind of a big deal.

So, how did he get started?

Glad you asked.

Pecaut grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, a city of about 90,000 on the Missouri River.

“My great-great grandfather was the third person of European descent to settle in Nebraska,” Pecaut told us. “He was a Swiss-French fur trader and whose raft got stuck bringing furs down the Missouri river in the 1840’s. He had to winter over and he met a Frenchmen who milked cows and they hit it off. When the thaw cleared, he said to his buddies, “I’m staying here.” So I have these incredibly deep roots in the community, which go back about 100 years from when I was born.”

These deep roots endowed the Pecaut family with a deep sense of civic responsibility in a tight knit mid-western town where virtually everyone was active in one way or another. As a kid, Pecaut was the chair of the city’s “youth commission,” which held concerts and initiated a study into juvenile delinquency. You get the idea. He was a bit of a keener.

Though his father owned his own business, Pecaut didn’t see that many opportunities in Sioux City, so he set his sights on one of the two coasts. He knew he had a natural entrepreneurial streak. But beyond that, he held no clear ideas of where precisely he would go. He just knew he wanted to get as wide a perspective of existence as possible. He wanted the great Liberal Arts education.

He got into Harvard and the world opened up. As a kid who had only really traveled around the mid-west with his debating team, Pecaut was eager to soak up other people’s experiences. Even though he sensed he wanted to go into business eventually, he ultimately stopped attending his economics classes. Instead, he gravitated to the sociology department. Pecaut loved it because the teacher to student ratio was so low (he claims it was virtually 1:1) and because “classes all felt like graduate chat rooms”.

“I’m probably the only person in the Boston Consulting Group who never took a business or economics course in university,” he says.

“I’ve always done things in an unconventional way. Ultimately, people are more interested in you if you do that. It actually gives you power… For a while, it is risky, but pursuing an unconventional tack, but it ultimately makes you more confident and impressive.”

Because he wanted to do an honours degree, Pecaut needed to write a thesis. For a few years, he had taken a keen interest in the community in East Boston. When they had begun desegregating schools years before, a judge ruled that every institution needed a certain proportion of black and white students. That meant lots of busing, as the poor Italian population had to be bused into black ghettoes and vice versa. The communities rose up against the ruling. It did the same thing when Logan airport was talking about expanding its runways into their backyard. This interested Pecaut, because his textbooks told him that they wouldn’t. Poor people weren’t supposed to be able to organize in a sophisticated and effective way.

Pecaut decided to move into the community and study it for an entire summer. He applied to the National Science Foundation, got himself a grant, and hired five friends to live in East Boston and help him survey the community. What they discovered has helped shape his thinking ever since.

“We learned a lot about how networks works,” Pecaut explains. “‘Strong ties’ are the people you know well. ‘Weak ties’ are the people you meet at the market or at your place of employment – and it’s through weak ties that political organizations thrive. The job market works the same way.”

When the research was done, the team decided that they would write a joint thesis. Problem: Harvard wasn’t into it. They begged, pleaded, and explained their case, but the school would only budge in a way that ultimately meant Pecaut and his friends had to write two theses each. The experienced turned him off of academia, but didn’t lessen his love of learning.

After working on a jazz show for the campus radio station, Pecaut wanted to pursue a master’s in the philosophy of music. He received a fellowship and entrance into an interdisciplinary program at the University of Sussex. But he was nervous about remaining in academia. He decided to take a year off and try something new. After barreling down the west coast of the states with his buddies, he returned to Sioux City.

“I had three ideas that I thought would be fun,” Pecaut recalls, “being a cross-country truck driver, running an all-jazz radio station, and just working closely with the CEO of a company. It turns out that you actually need a lot of education to be a truck driver -it’s a 12 week course and you have to pass a lot of tests. The local radio station was interested in my ideas but really couldn’t devote much time to me – I ended up doing it for free in my spare time because it was only like 8 hours a week.

Meanwhile, there were only 3 or 4 big companies around, and most of the CEO’s just didn’t understand what I was talking about. I wanted to work with them in a creative capacity on special programs. Luckily, one guy thought it was a great idea and created a special position for me at his chemical fertilizer company: I was the special projects administrator. I remember I arrived the first day and he said, “I just realized we haven’t talked about salary yet, how about $1000 a month?” I really didn’t care about the money; I just wanted the experience so that was fine with me, but later he told me what a steal that was and that he felt so bad about it.”

As a “special projects administrator,” Pecaut was a designated problem solver. The company gave him a problem and he tried to solve it. As part of his job, Pecaut even got to go to Washington and work with then-senator Bob Dole on a class action suit about fertilizer dumping.

“When I got back the boss called me in and I said, “Aren’t you happy with the work I did?” Of course he was, but what he wanted to talk to me about was my expense account. He showed me a bill from McDonalds for 8 bucks – he told me it was hilarious that I had gone to Washington on business and not spent any money. I had stayed at a friend’s house. He was like, “you can eat a proper meal at a restaurant. You can stay in a hotel.” It was really funny.”

The best part about the job was that it enabled Pecaut to discover management consulting. One day, in the bathroom, he struck up a conversation with a consultant who his boss had brought in. Pecaut couldn’t understand how the man could have no experience with chemical engineering.

“He said the last thing they had worked on were colour tvs,” Pecaut exclaims. “I couldn’t believe it. This guy got to learns something completely new from scratch and then do it all again. Your job was always fresh.”

Pecaut went off to Sussex at the end of the year to do his masters in the philosophy of music, but returned determined to launch himself in business in Boston or New York. But then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. All plans were de-railed. He immediately went to be at her bedside in Wisconsin. For five months, he sat itching to get into the game. Pecaut even started up a small consultancy there, working with three small companies and a political campaign.

While at the University of Sussex, Pecaut had met a woman from Toronto. Things had got serious and, ultimately, it came down to an issue of geography. If the relationship was to work, Pecaut needed to be in Toronto. So, after leaving home, he came to Canada rather than New York. He arrived with no contacts, no papers, no education in economics, but determined to crack the local consulting industry.

All he could do was shop himself around.

“It occurred to me that I had never really interviewed for a job before,” Pecaut admits. “I thought it might be good to practice a little bit. So I started with this smaller firm and the interview was going really well until he asked me what I thought about this guy’s economic theory. I had to tell him that I had never heard of the guy. He was surprised because the guy was from Harvard too and his theory was really important.

When he left the office to take a phone call, I wrote down all the names from the books on his shelf, and when I found out that he was going to have me back for a second interview, I went to the U of T library and read the books that he had been talking about. I totally blew them away when I was able to talk about the stuff I had already done in the context of these new theories I had just learned, especially because they knew I just picked them up overnight. They offered me a spot right then and there, but they were really nice and suggested a couple of other places I should talk to.”

Pecaut wanted to work at McKinsey, because they were a big firm and he had worked with them on the fertilizer suit in Washington years before. But, when he met with them, the firm made it clear that he was an inexperienced rookie. They wouldn’t let him run his own projects. When Canada Consulting did the opposite, and let Pecaut keep his existing clients, he knew he had found a home.

“It was great for me to come here because of a girl and find out that I really belonged here,” Pecaut explains. “Coming to Toronto seemed crazy at the time. My Dad was really negative about my decision to come here instead of going to New York or Boston. Toronto was the big city I never heard of – when I first came I thought I was coming to Cleveland but I soon discovered it was not anything like that at all.”

The world (well, the Globe and Mail at least) is suddenly hot for Clairtone, Kickstart contributor Peter Munk and David Gilmour’s starburst of a hi-fi business from the 1960’s.

Since the release of Nina Munk and Rachel Gotlieb’s The Art of Clairtone, a book about the company’s remarkable design innovations in the heyday, Gordon Pitts has been running a series of excellent retrospective stories. This time, Pitts sits down with Munk and Gilmour 55 years after their relationship first blossomed, and asks them to comment on their longstanding friendship (Partnership is a lot like marriage — the financial stresses, all too close for comfort, the competitive nature,” Mr. Gilmour observes. Then he turns to his friend Mr. Munk and quips: “But in a marriage, at least there is sex to make it up.”), their past mistakes (Gilmour: “Chance favours those who are prepared. There are five elements to running a business — design, marketing plan, people, finance and production. When you are in your 20s, you can lose sight of those things. What Peter did brilliantly, after Clairtone, was that we always entered the next business with a flawless plan.”) and success (Munk: “I wouldn’t call Clairtone unsuccessful, because it achieved more than many more businesses that were classified as successful. It created products, it created a Canadian awareness. Finance isn’t the only criterion on which to judge a human activity.”) Give it a read.

Roberta Bondar, the boundary-defying scientist who was both the first Canadian female astronaut and the first neurologist in space, has just launched the second phase of her Mission for Memories campaign, aimed at raising awareness for Alzheimer’s disease. Bondar is calling on Canadians to submit stories that relate to their experiences with the disease. In addition to holding public forums across the country on the subject, the program is now inviting you to tell your stories online (or through the mail). From today to June 30, you can go to and tell your story.

Alzheimer’s was the subject of Bondar’s Phd. thesis, and emphasizing the need for early diagnosis has always been close to her heart. Here’s hoping that her project successfully gives voice to both those who have struggled with the disease and their tireless caregivers and loved-ones.

We’ve talked about designer Bruce Mau here already, but he’s a difficult person to pin down. Here, PBS broadcaster Charlie Rose sits with Mau for a half-hour and gets the man to walk through his work and its evolution. It’s a great primer and a very intriguing conversation.

Once you’re done with that, check out this hilarious spoof called “Charlie Rose’ by Samuel Beckett” – a playful one act Mr. Mau would no doubt approve of.

Paul here: I just saw Patrick Reed’s Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma and thought I should make some note of the effects it had on me before (like too too many other feelings of value) it faded in the din of the weekly rush.

Having met and worked with Dr. Orbinski during the course of Kickstart we were well aware of what an insightful and inspiring figure he is. We were also aware that he was in the process of writing a book on the difficulties and future of humanitarianism (mainly because, after our interview, he immediately asked for a transcript, thinking, perhaps, that he might have said something of value – he most certainly did). All that aside, I wasn’t fully prepared for the power of watching Orbinski return to the sites of his most challenging humanitarian dilemmas (Somalia, Rwanda, the DRC).

As commentator Gerald Caplan (author of the new book, The Betrayal of Africa) says of Orbinski in Reed’s film, the former President of MSF and current head of Dignitas International is simultaneously a pessimist and an optimist, well aware of just how horrible humanity often looks when it peers at itself in the mirror but remains fervent in his belief that change is possible. This, Caplan points out, makes Orbinski’s life rather difficult, especially now that he has taken it upon himself to write a memoir that will reclaim the meaning of “humanitarianism.”

But Orbinski relishes the difficulty. Not because it’s jolly good fun, but because to do otherwise would be to abstain from his responsibility to his fellow human beings. Growing up in Montreal during the nineteen seventies and working at a hotel that doubled as a holding facility for incoming immigrants, Orbinski learned from an early age that the world of pressing political questions realities did not exist “out there,” in the world beyond his suburban borough. No, as a human being blessed with a life, he was responsible. Thus, he needed to remain response-able: able to respond.

He didn’t always know what he wanted to do. But, even as he ran away from CEGEP to work on the west coast or help start a hotel with friends in the Laurentians, even as he took every course imaginable at Trent University and flirted with a variety of disciplines, philosophical questions, and potential careers, Orbinski was “exploring with intent”. As he told me in our interview, a person’s responsibility in their early years is to discover “their question,” the struggle with which they are to wage. Orbinski finally found his question when, after finally deciding to attent medical school, he went to Rwanda to do immunology work. In the beginning, the trip was motivated by a desire for adventure. But what Orbinski found there was a passion – he found his question.

The path Orbinski took to find his question, and the horrifying experiences he has lived through since, make him of one the most philosophically compelling characters I have ever seen on film. He doesn’t want the movie to be about him. It’s clear he isn’t entirely comfortable in front of the camera, but when he speaks about doing what is right, you know he’s given a great number of wrenching hours to the meaning of the word.

Today, many of us expect things to come easily. We demand comforts, including the comfort of ignorance. James Orbinski has refused these in the name of being a responsible human being. It’s just a bloody shame there aren’t more like him.

The cliffhanger Reed’s film leaves us with is ‘what will Orbinski’s book conclude?’ Struggling to reconcile his pessimism and his optimism, the failures of Somalia, Rwanda, the Darfur and many more with his belief that things can be different, can Orbinski emerge with a new direction to and approach for 21st century humanitariansim. Only one way to find out: read his new book An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century.

More those who don’t know, here’s Orbinski on what his present organization, Dignitas Internation, does, and why.

Recently, lots of people have been asking us about Raffi and what the children’s entertainer is up to now. While we couldn’t track down any video or audio of the rap the Baby Beluga composer did for us during our initial phone interview (it’s called Resisto Dancing, a single from his album of the same name), we did want to point you towards the online platform for Raffi’s recent re-incarnation as what he calls a “global troubadour”:

Here, you’ll find an outline of Raffi’s philosophy of “Child Honouring,” as well as fresh tunes like Cool It – The Global Warming Song(feat. David Suzuki). Check out the music video.

You see, Raffi wants you. He’s working to make Child Honouring (and an environmental consciousness is an essential part of that) a global movement. A crucial step involves a call to those he refers to as ‘Beluga Grads,’ the kids who grew up with a Banana Phone and are now preparing to have youngins of their own.

We thought we’d give you guys a peak at a piece of the transcript of our interview with Raffi that we never used in the book. This is Raff and Paul chatting it up about the issues that matter the most.


Raffi: ….Interesting that we’re having this conversation. You’re writing about Raffi the children’s icon, or some such thing. I only mention this because I don’t want to forget it in this interview – you might find this interesting; I don’t know where or whether it’ll factor in your writing, but I’m just now going through what we call “a Raffi renaissance”, in which I am evolving yet again, now into a global troubadour….. How old are you guys?

Q: We’re about 24.

R: Perfect, so you’re right in that demographic. And did you both grow up singing my songs? Baby Beluga among them?

Q: Yes. Baby Beluga among them.

R: So you are the archetypal “Beluga Grads”. Generation B, or BG. The BG is alive and well in Canada and elsewhere, yes!

So I really wanted to just take a moment or two and say isn’t it interesting that you’re writing about those early times for me and the decisions that I made. I’ve had to make a whole new set of decisions in this renaissance because it really does feel like a re-birthing of sorts. You should have seen me in Victoria, a week ago. I was presenting at a theological conference called “Epiphanal Exploration 2006” at the First Metropolitan Church in Victoria. The talk was called “Child Honouring: The Next Ecological Paradigm” and I was co-presenting it with a couple of friends of mine who are totally into Child Honouring, which is a philosophy I’ve developed on which there’s an anthology I’ve just finished that’ll be out in May. I co-edited this anthology, which will be out in May and you can find it on the new website. In any case, there I was not only talking about child honouring, but singing about it – the new songs that will be out on the new album. This is kind of like, well I don’t know how to put it, this is like the birth of a whole new…

Q: Is it Raffi 2?

R: Yeah, yeah man, that’s it. The album is called, are you ready for this, it’s called, “Resisto Dancing.”

Q: I like it.

R: Resisto Dancing, the song, is a blend of Hip-Hop, Dylan, Abraham Maslow, Shakespeare, R & B, Jazz, in a style that I call Hip-Hope. Apparently no one’s coined that phrase. It’s “Hip-Hope” in the sense that it’s very celebratory; there’s no clenched fists in it. I mentioned Abraham Maslow. He was a psychologist who said, “healthy individuation requires resisting unhealthy enculturation.” So the song is a metaphor. Resisto Dancing is a metaphor for living a life of creative resistance to a culture that doesn’t reflect your heart of hearts – a consumer culture, a wasteful culture, a bottom-line culture. To make a long-story short, the CD will have about 14 cuts on it, including an audio version of the covenant for honouring children, which I wrote. This is a recording that features the voices of the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall among others. It’ll have a number of songs written in recent years that are motivational songs that I sing at keynote presentations like the one in Victoria that I was mentioning. The Raffi Renaissance this year, which is the 25th anniversary of the recording of Baby Beluga, features the book Child Honouring, the anthology, and this new CD and a whole host of keynote presentations.

Q: I wanted to talk briefly about what’s really at the core here, which is the childhood imagination. You say that the development of the child requires a dream space, a private space, and I was wondering about what the potential long-term effects of having that space infringed on by advertising…

R: You got an hour or two? You are asking the question, the question of the day.

Q: And what’s the answer to the question of the day?

R: I’m going to stay with your question; I’m not going to jump to an answer. You’re asking the question because within your question is the understanding of what’s at stake for society in protecting that imaginal space for the child, in protecting that space and respecting the child’s psyche and spirit from a young age, from birth. By doing that you’re actually nurturing and protecting the social capacity of society and the developing intelligence of its members. That’s what you’re doing. So to not do that, to legally allow corporations to exploit that space and violate the child’s psyche and spirit, is a folly of huge consequence, and I liken it to nothing less than the colonization of the child in my mind. Whew. I didn’t know I was going there. But I really want to applaud you for that question.

Q: How does impacting that imaginal space affect the choices a person will end up making which relate to who you want to be?

R: There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll see if I can tease out the most important threads. The image-making capacity of a young being is critical to creative thought and a creative life. Television’s intrusion into that space is that it feeds you pre-fab imagery, and that’s why the American Pediatric Association recommends no TV for children two years or younger. It’s the reason that I haven’t gone into television. The concert videos that I made were first marketed for children aged 3 to 7 and that’s historic fact, and secondly they were so interactive it was as though you were actually at a Raffi concert, so I was very careful with that. But on another point, you’ll understand why I haven’t made one commercial endorsement of any kind in thirty years doing this, and that certainly goes against the grain of what celebrities do. And I’m very proud of that track record by the way. I’ve not done one advertisement – I’ve never marketed our products, me being Troubadour, to children directly. We are of the view that it’s unethical to advertise to children and to market things to them directly. I just sent a letter to Ted Rogers, asking him to take the cell phones for pre-teens off the market, voluntarily. To stop advertising to pre-teens directly.

Then you can get into the whole question of rights, as beings, as young beings, do children have a right to be unexploited. You can look at this question from a number of points of view, but one thing I can say is this: if it’s morally repugnant, if it’s morally and spiritually repugnant, the idea of exploiting the innocent, why is it legal? I think in posing that question we get at the roots of this unhealthy enculturation that I’m asking Beluga Grads and everyone who will listen, to do the creative Resisto Dancing around.”