The occasion was a municipal debate at Toronto City Hall, that I witnessed some months ago. The issue arose over the purchase of a small, insignificant piece of land by the municipality for the expansion of a city service. And before the debate even began, the city clerk called for city councillors to declare. Then, several stood up and did.
“In accordance with the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act,” one councillor said, “I excuse myself from the debate.”
The man sat at the back of the audience area through most of my presentation. I spoke, as I usually do in those situations, walking among those in the audience, in this case 30 people seated at about eight tables. My topic was the Battle at Vimy Ridge coming up to the 100th anniversary next year. And I was speaking at a small Ontario fair last weekend. I could see the man was reacting to what I had to say. He frowned a lot and when I’d finished he put up his hand.
“Is it true that all the French-Canadian troops threw their rifles overboard on the way over to France?” he asked.
I paused a second, wondering where he was going with the question. I didn’t want to think there was prejudice involved. “No. I don’t think that’s true, since one of the key regiments at Vimy was the Royal 22nd from Quebec.”
The first he knew of the story, came from a phone call early one Sunday morning in 1985. His producers at CBC told him to get on a passenger jet bound for Shannon Airport in Ireland and then to travel south along the Irish coast to where families from India were assembling.
Actually, they were scrambling to the coastline where they hoped they might find their relatives from Canada. CBC reporter Terry Milewski had been assigned to find these families and report on them.
“It was just a bizarre and horrifying situation,” Milewski wrote. “Most of the bodies (of their loved-ones) were never found. Most of the bodies went to the bottom of the sea still strapped in their seats.”
They always surprise me with their unique requests. Last weekend, as I was writing a magazine article, one of my grandsons walked around my office pointing at books and papers and photographs while asking, “What’s this?” or “What’s that?” It went on for 20 minutes. It was great fun. But I think my favourite request was when another grandson looked at me with drooping eyelids, a big yawn and a special request on his lips.
“Would you read me a bedtime story, please?” he asked. Then, there was a short pause as I waited for the supplementary, “Can I hold the book?”
I’ve been asked the question a lot over the years. It’s an issue some of friends feel compelled to put to me whenever it comes up. And I feel compelled to respond. But friends and peers have asked it of me repeatedly these past months, in particular, this past week.
“What’s with all this rottenness at the CBC?” people ask.
Under different circumstances, classical piano fans in the Greater Toronto Area by now might be raving about a unique performance they’d seen and heard of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2. They might have joined the thousands of concert-goers who’ve witnessed her brilliance on the piano keys at such venues as Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall. They might have been able to say they saw the once child prodigy now internationally celebrated concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Instead, she took advantage of her celebrity to offer her pro-Russian view of Ukrainian politics.
“The new school year begins in Odessa with teachers forced to wear tribal dress, a truly European custom,” she tweeted (in 2014) in an apparent slam at the cultural dress of her native Ukraine.
I read the newspapers over the weekend. I expected to see news about a trade involving the Maple Leafs. And there it was on the front page of Monday’s Toronto Star sports section. Defenceman Cody Franson is gone. So is perhaps the hardest working forward on the team, Mike Santorelli. Then, Tuesday online, I caught a bit of the reporter scrum involving Toronto’s newest acquisition in the deal, 36-year-old Nashville Predator Olli Jokinen responding to the question: “Are you surprised?”
“Yeah, absolutely,” he told the Star. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
The deadline for getting my news story on the air was fast approaching. My TV producer, a long-time filmmaker and friend named Sue, made some speedy recommendations in the editing room to help me get the story finished in time. At the time, her experience was wider and deeper than mine. And thanks to her skill, we managed to get my TV story broadcast that night. That’s when I delivered that horribly cliché and patronizing line about her talent.
“That’s why you get paid the big bucks,” I said condescendingly.
Politicians, police and just plain people have offered a lot of captions to the events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa over the past week. The Prime Minister called the killings of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo an attack on Canada’s democracy. Law enforcement officials referred to the murders as “lone-wolf terrorism.” And friends of mine have said it was an assault on this country’s innocence. A paramedic who joined those watching Cpl. Cirillo’s body pass on Hwy 401 last Friday summed it up:
“I never expected to be standing here for a Canadian soldier killed on our own soil,” Roger Litwiller told the Toronto Star.
You can almost set your clock by it. The moment the latest story hits TV or the front pages of the daily newspapers about an elderly driver being involved a car crash, you can be sure the following day people on coffee row or at the gym will raise the subject. They’ll be indignant. They’ll blame the government for being too lax. But the thinking will be almost unanimous.
“Seniors are causing too many accidents,” they will insist. “People over 80 shouldn’t be on the roads.”
The case against older men and women getting behind the wheel of a car has grown in intensity in recent years. Small wonder. Each time a senior is involved in a car collision, it headlines the news. There was the recent case in Cooksville, Ont., where a 71-year-old man decided to make a left-hand turn by bypassing five vehicles waiting to turn and executed the turn from the middle of the intersection. The resulting crash killed his sister-in-law, her best friend and maimed him and his wife. A judge sentenced the crippled man to 10 months in jail.
A year or so ago, there was the incident in Winnipeg, where an 86-year-old driver pulled backwards out of a parking stall, but then continued in reverse the full length of the parking lot where he struck a child and ultimately came to a stop when his car hit a tree. The small girl survived, but the driver was charged.
And again the chorus screamed in unison for a ban on the elderly to drive. Well, in fact Manitoba is considering the implementation of stiffer restrictions or prohibitions much like those in Ontario. Currently, when a driver reaches age 80, according to the Government of Ontario site, s/he gets a letter and renewal form. The octogenarian then goes to a clinic for a vision test, an interactive group session about traffic laws, a complete screening exercise and a driving record review. Only then is the individual’s competency for driving determined. What’s important to remember, however, particularly in the case of the guy who made the illegal left-hand turn in Cooksville, is that he exhibited bad judgment; he didn’t screw up because he was 71.
“(The turn) is a marked departure from the standard expected of a prudent driver,” the Crown prosecutor said in court. “This manoeuvre, although brief, was highly dangerous.”
As a Manitoba publication pointed out recently, sometimes the danger posed by senior citizens behind the wheel comes from a deterioration of motor skills. In other words, it’s very likely age will cause eyesight to blur, reflexes to slow or one’s wits to become muddled. But any of those shortcomings can occur among young people too. Introduce the sense of invincibility or entitlement that the young often feel and the result can be speeding or drinking under the influence. Throw in a dash of smart phone addiction or the vanity that your “followers” can’t do without you before you park and you have equally dangerous distracted driving. When was the last time you saw a senior texting an LOL on the 401?
Sure, there is the potential for the invisible crippler – dementia – to hasten the need for an elderly driver or the family to take action. And statistics appear to be working against the elderly. In the past 20 years, the number of drivers over the age of 65 has doubled in Ontario, from 600,000 to 1.2 million. And at the same time the Alzheimer’s Society reports that half a million Canadians have dementia, with a new case reported every five minutes. In a generation, the babyboomer numbers will increase the frequency of to a new case every two minutes. All that doesn’t alarm Dr. Shawn Marshall at the Hospital Rehab Centre in Ottawa. The Toronto Star quoted Dr. Marshall’s “Candrive” study two years ago.
“The vast majority of older drivers are safe,” Marshall discovered in his research and he decried “crazy blanket comments (about seniors) that are ageist and unfair.”
I remember distinctly when my mother gave up her driver’s licence. Nobody told her she had to. Neither the police nor the DOT people came down on her with a legal ruling. Nor did her family apply any pressure. She simply recognized that her strength, her reflexes and her ability to see after dark were not what they used to be. She, like so many seniors who fear the loss of independence, but fear hurting someone even more, did the right thing. She decided to leave the car in the parking garage until a member of her family came along to help her get somewhere. Or she took the bus or a taxi.
One of the most powerful lobby groups representing seniors, the American Association of Retired Persons, recommends in-person licence renewals and screening that is not aged based.
“What determines your safety isn’t your age, but your ability,” AARP said.