I’m fortunate to be able to meet many interesting people for The Montrealer cover story interviews. The conversations always reveal something unexpected; sometimes humorous, and occasionally a poignant moment that rendered me speechless.

Larry Smith – September 2005

I knew that our first cover for The Montrealer not only had to be highly recognizable to attract readers, the person I selected also had to be a leader in the Montreal community, including the business community. Simply stated, I needed a highly credible person so that other potential subjects would react positively when I told them that Larry Smith, President of The Montreal Alouettes had been our first cover personality.

Larry went on to become the Commissioner of The Canadian Football League, and his expansion into the US is credited for saving the league. While the stateside teams eventually failed, the $3 million per team franchise fees provided financial stability for the CFL. In all Larry brought in $13 million, most of which was dispersed to the Canadian team owners. The CFL was able get it’s financial house in order.

During our interview last July, I asked Larry what was next. He grinned, winked and said “Watch this space, Peter”. Something was brewing. I had closed my 2005 article with the observation that we could use Larry Smith as mayor of Montreal. My aim was low. In November we learned that Mr. Smith is going to Ottawa. Starting off as a Senator, the goal-oriented Montreal native has announced he’ll compete for the Lac St-Louis nomination for the Conservatives. The fluently bilingual and very smart, Larry Smith will surely have a positive impact in Parliament; and quite possibly the nation.

Aislin – November 2005

Terry Mosher is better known to Montrealers under his nom de plume ‘Aislin’. Most Montrealers begin their day by turning to The Gazette’s editorial page to see who Aislin is skewering in his daily political cartoon. I knew Terry a little bit, and he graciously agreed to be a cover feature. I had a great time visiting with Terry, who is also a great lover of music. Just as you might think, Terry’s view of the world is more than a little different from the norm.

“Our family life was not normal…it was wonderful!” Terry’s face lights up as he goes back in time. “My dad had all kinds of jobs as a writer, a carpenter, a PR executive, and hung out with artistic people – a long way from the idealized suburban life in the 50s.”

“I became a juvenile delinquent for a while – but I wasn’t very good at it. I was too small to be a very good fighter, and I kept getting the worst end of fights.”
Terry is particularly proud and humbled by his Order of Canada, especially since he had once been denounced by the Conservatives in the House of Commons. But one of my favourite stories is about baseball and his being a voting member for The Baseball hall of Fame.

A long-time fan, Terry learned from a PR executive with the Expos that newspapers were allowed to have one cartoonist as a member of the association. Further, with 10 years of consecutive membership, you could vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame. “So I get to vote for players nominated to The Hall of Fame. The first time I voted was the year that Ferguson Jenkins was elected into The Hall – by one vote…” Terry just smiled at me and let his statement sink in.

Jacques Demers – April 2006

Jacques Demers earned an elite position in professional hockey in 1993 – he coached The Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory. In 1987 and then again in 1988, he won the Jack Adams ‘Coach of the Year’ Award while coaching the Detroit Red Wings. In November of 2005, now a hockey analyst for Reseau des Sports, Demers stunned the hockey world – and indeed the broader public, with his admission that he was functionally illiterate. He had made these outstanding accomplishments while unable to read or write.

Jacques Demers lived a hard childhood – in fact his childhood was stolen. His father was a violent man, who unfortunately could not overcome his alcoholism. He beat his wife and young Jacques. “He told me that I was dumb – that I would never amount to anything. This had a huge effect on me. I had so much anxiety that I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t concentrate in school.” Jacques recounts in the book how he asked his sisters to help him with his school work.

Four years after his mother died from cancer, Jacques shared with me an event that left me speechless. Driving his father home from his sister’s wedding, Jacques’ father lurched forward; hitting his head on the dash then leaned over towards Jacques and died of a heart attack. “I cried. Can you believe that? After all that he had done – I cried. I just wanted my father to love me. Now it was never going to happen.”

Jacques continued his successful career as a hockey analyst for RDS, and last year was named by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to The Senate. It’s an incredible story of a man who lived in fear of being found out as illiterate, and yet who rose to the pinnacle of his profession. It’s an even greater story of personal courage that began when his wife said: “If you want those bills paid – why don’t you do it yourself!” Jacques’ reply (and perhaps his first step) was; “Because I can’t”.

Donald K Donald – September 2006

This was a personal favourite for me. After graduating from McGill, I got a job booking bands for Don Tarlton, known to most Montrealers as Donald K Donald. Decades later we enjoyed a terrific conversation; and it seemed like we had only missed a few days – not a few decades.

Donald is a larger-than-life personality. Keith Brown, President of Aquarius Records has an interesting observation on Donald’s success.

“In addition to his charismatic personality, Donald isn’t hampered by any kind of negativity. He has an unsinkable optimism. Brown continues; “In the early days, he could dish it out with all the New York agents. He’s a flamboyant character, perhaps more so that most of the acts he represents – even today. Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, and the Rolling Stones work with promoters all over the world – but Donald K Donald is the one they remember!”

Donald played a pivotal role in the career of another famous Montrealer… “My promotion business culminated with my relationship to Céline Dion, where I was involved with her career from the time she started taking English lessons, enabling her to record and perform to a larger audience.”

The close relationship between Céline, her manager husband René Angelil, and Donald would reap a different kind of dividend in 1996. In July 1996, The Saguenay region was ravaged by flooding, causing billions of dollars in damage and the virtual destruction of the local economy. Donald went to work organizing a concert at the then Molson Centre, with Céline Dion as the headliner. The show was complemented with a nationally broadcast telethon – and the combined efforts raised over $4.3 million for the Canadian Red Cross and their relief efforts in the region. At the time, this was the largest single donation in the history of The Red Cross. “I was really proud to be a part of that event – when all of Canada came to the aid of the people of The Saguenay. It’s the highlight of my public service.” His massive efforts for the Saguenay flood victims have resulted in Donald Tarlton being presented with the Order of Canada.

Céline Dion – August 2007

Arguably the most famous Quebecer of modern times; Céline Dion continues to use her star power to help others less fortunate. You may or may not like her music – but there’s no denying her achievements within her chosen career path. The more I researched this story – the more impressed I became. I had a bit of an inside “feel” for Celine’s story from my interview with Donald K Donald, and my knowledge of the late Ben Kaye, the man responsible for selecting her songs.

In the spring of 2007, the hit television show American Idol marshaled its influence in raising $75 million for children living in Africa and the United States. One of the artists who donated her time, talent and star power was the world’s all-time best selling recording artist – Céline Dion.

When we published the Céline story in August 2007, she was finished out her 5 year Las Vegas show and was about to begin a world tour. After giving birth to twins in October 2010, Céline and family are headed back to Las Vegas where she opens in March 2011. She and her husband will be able to devote time to the children without the rigours of constant travel.

Céline uses her star power best in her work for charitable organizations. She has worked on behalf of the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation since 1982 (she was 14 then), the World Children’s Day, a global fundraising effort sponsored by McDonald’s, The T.J. Martell Foundation, the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, The Jerry Lewis Telethon, and the St-Justine’s Children’s Hospital capital campaign.

Pierre McGuire – October 2007

The cover story and my conversation with Pierre McGuire is another personal favourite. In addition to being one the best hockey broadcasters on television, he has experience in the game as a player, a coach and executive. Pierre is also a popular motivational speaker. What’s particularly interesting is how he describes his realization that he wasn’t going to win a Stanley Cup as a hockey player – so he decided that he could accomplish his goal as a hockey coach or executive.

Which he did – twice! Pierre has two Stanley Cup rings as an Assistant Coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pierre is our ‘secret weapon’ for The Montrealer web site. He generates more Google enquiries per month than any other person we’ve featured in The Montrealer. “I’ve travelled all over the world… I’ve kissed and held the Stanley Cup as a champion… I was a friend and co-worker of the late Bob Johnston… I have the respect and friendship of Scotty Bowman… I’m able to provide a good lifestyle for my family… all this from hockey.”

Trevor Payne – December 2007

Dr. Trevor Payne and I were young musicians working in Donald K Donald’s stable of bands. At one time I also booked Trevor’s band. Trevor left the rock ‘n’ roll business to get serious about learning music and his musicianship, and return to rock ‘n’ roll as a better musician. However, Daisy Peterson Sweeny (Oscar’s sister and early teacher) asked Trevor to help out at the Union United Church.

Trevor told how in 1982, with him conducting and Oliver Jones playing the organ, the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir and the Union United Church Choir performed together as The Montreal Jubilation Choir.

Along the way, Trevor was awarded the Order of Canada. In a voice choked with emotion, “You cannot – I mean you absolutely cannot imagine what that award means to me. There I was, sitting amongst UN Ambassadors, and some very dedicated people. When I leaned forward to receive my award, I whispered in Governor-General Romeo Leblanc’s ear; ‘I have no idea why I’m here. Leblanc’s reply; ‘That’s what most people say – let me assure you that we don’t just give these away…’ Indeed they don’t. The 10 Supporting Reasons for Trevor’s investiture include his contributions to Montreal’s Black Community, founding the Montreal Jubilation Choir, his teaching, leadership and motivation of young students at John Abbott College, his role as a mentor to young Black students, his significant fundraising efforts for community groups, and his enhancement of Canada’s international image.

Stuart Mclean – January 2008

It’s along way from his boyhood years in Montreal West to becoming a household favourite in hundreds of thousands of Canadian households. It’s a journey that has taken Stuart from Camp Kanawana, to Concordia, Dawson College, to the late Nick Auf der Maur’s inner circle. Then it was on to producing radio documentaries for CBC Radio, guest host and colleague of Peter Gzowski on Morningside, and teaching broadcast journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto.

I really enjoy Stuart’s CBC program, vinyl Café, and it was therefore a great pleasure when Stuart agreed to be a cover feature. The person you hear on the radio is pretty much the same person I visited with; which is probably why he sounds so natural during his broadcasts.

“I’m telling stories about a family who is trying to do the right thing. The fact that people want to gather around these stories really pleases me.” Stuart continues; “Good poetry is supposed to take you closer to the truth, and that’s what I try to do with my stories. It’s all done with a wink and a smile…”

A year later, Stuart was speaking about That Luck Old Sun, a new album that then 63 year-old Brian Wilson had recorded. I was planning a Brian Wilson cover (We sometimes feature people who are coming to Montreal; making them honorary Montrealers.) I called and asked Stuart about the reaction to Wilson’s recording by his listeners. Stuart offered to send me his script, saying that I could use whatever parts I wanted. Well – who was I to improve on Canada’s legendary storyteller? And so, after writing about half the feature – I turned it over to Stuart and used his entire script! I did tell him about it after the fact and sent him a copy…

Bryna Wasserman – May 2009

Bryna Wasserman is the Artistic Director of the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts. Bryna’s knowledge and passion for the theatre in particular and the performing arts in general is largely the reason that Philanthropist and successful businessman Alvin Segal invested in “The Segal”. “Bryna is a genius! We invested because we know that she Bryna is a genius! We invested because we know that she can take the Segal Centre to new heights.” Alvin Segal .

Bryna tells the story that illustrates how different her life was as a young girl. “Other kids went home after school, maybe for milk and cookies. I went to the theatre and watched my mother and the cast in rehearsal. Sometimes I’d fall asleep under a bench – but even then I loved the theatre. I quite literally learned this business at my mother’s side. From a very young age I knew I was going to work in theatre – it wasn’t an option – it was something I had to do.”

Bryna has been required to make some difficult decisions in the recent transformations at The Segal Centre. However, almost every day and night the building is in use. Plays, concerts, The Academy, and the city’s finest cinema are all under one roof.

Paul Martin – August 2009

Another special occasion for me – Paul Martin quickly agreed to our interview request. To prepare for the interview, I read his autobiography. To the degree that Canada has fared better in the most recent recession is largely the result of his work to reduce the deficit during his tenure as Minister of Finance and Prime Minister.

After the Liberal defeat and resigning his own seat in Parliament, one of the first calls he received was from Kofi Anan, then the Secretary General of the United Nations.

“Kofi knew of my interest in Africa, and asked if I’d be Co-Chair of a panel to set a strategic direction for the African Development Bank; along with Joachim Chissano, former President of Mozambique.”

The next calls came from Britain’s then Finance Minister Gordon Brown (before he became PM); asking Paul if he’d Co-Chair a fund to manage the Congo Basin Rainforest, the second largest rainforest on the planet and of key importance in the fight against climate change.

At the same time Paul Martin is committed to improving the lives of Canada’s aboriginal peoples; “I can’t in all conscience do this work in Africa if I didn’t do something here in Canada for our native peoples. The fastest growing segment of Canada’s population is Aboriginal Youth, and yet we spend less per capita on their education than we do on non-aboriginal youth.” Paul has set up an investment fund; Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship (CAPE). He raised $50 million to establish the fund and get it operational. “The idea is to invest in aboriginal businesses, and also to provide one-on-one mentorship.”

At the fund launch in March 2009, he stated: “Right across the board, the heads of the largest corporations in this country said that they were not prepared to turn their backs on young aboriginal Canadians. I’ve never been prouder to be a Canadian!”

Gordon Lightfoot – March 2010

Promoter Rubin Fogel brought Gordon Lightfoot to Montreal last spring, and I was offered an opportunity to interview Gordon for a cover feature. Gordon was celebrating 50 years of performing and writing songs. By then I had been fortunate to have interviewed a pretty impressive group of people; but for some reason I was apprehensive about my conversation with Gordon, and I told him.

His response? “Listen Peter, I’m just like the guy down the street from you except I happen to write songs for a living.”

Gordon has received 17 Juno Awards and 5 Grammy nominations. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2003. “I’ll never forget that experience. Pierre and Margaret Trudeau attended, and it was very special to spend some time with them.” Canada Post issued a Gordon Lightfoot commemorative stamp in 2007.

Rick Haynes on bass and guitarist Terry Clements have played and recorded with Gordon since the late 1960s. Barry Keane is the only drummer the band has ever had, and keyboard player Mike Keane (the ‘newest’ member) had been with the band since 1981. “None of us is getting any younger – but we’re gonna keep doing this as long as we can,” noted Gordon. “We play 50 to 60 shows a year, from April through to November. Gordon’s preparation for shows is as meticulous as his writing and recording. “Rick and Terry and I rehearse every Friday afternoon, all year long.”

Louise Penny – November 2010

You might imagine that Louise Penny’s story of making the transition from CBC Radio host of Radio Noon to a successful murder mystery writer would have been realitively easy. Someone used to speaking for a living could arguably write for a living. However, Louise underwent a five year period of writer’s block. “I was trying to write the perfect book, one that would win The Nobel Prize!” Louise finally found the answer to her writer’s block on her bedside table.

“I liked to read murder mysteries, books like those by Agatha Christie and others of that genre. The kind of books I liked to read – and was familiar with.”

After finally finishing her first book, Louise learned that getting a book published is when the reallly hard part starts. It was through a chance meeting in London, when she and England’s most influential literary agent simultaneously put their hands on a Pashmina scarf and ended up in a polite tug-of-war. “I met with her, she became my agent, and in a short time she had publishing contracts for Still Life in England and Germany. This success created a bidding war in the U.S.”

Five years and six books later, Louise Penny is listed in the New York Times Best Seller List (Bury Your Dead); Amazon’s Top Ten Mystery/Thrillers of 2010; USA Today’s Bestseller List; an Anthony Award for Best Crime Novel in the United States (The Brutal Telling), which also won an Agatha Award for Best Traditional Mystery in the US; the first time that a book series has won this award for three consecutive years.

None of this would have been possible if she and her husband Michael Whithead hadn’t found each other; “choosing to stand in the sun rather than in the shadows”; making their real life story more compelling than fiction.