LONDON, ONTARIO – So how about that Bill Armstrong? The long-serving, charisma-deficient London politician just got turfed from office following an unfathomable 24-year reign as Councillor for Ward 2. As they elected or re-elected him seven times in a row, I presume his constituents detected something in the man that they liked (or at least didn’t mind) but his wispy appeal never travelled as far as Ward 13 where I live. Admittedly, I’m not much of a political junkie at any jurisdictional level but I did cover City Hall quite extensively for the better part of 2010 when Jim Chapman had his Voice of London website up and running and I watched Armstrong just as closely as I could stand and never cracked the mystery of why he kept getting re-elected. Suffice it to say that “Armstrong Proposes Bold New Initiative” was not a headline that ever appeared on one of my dispatches.
Ordinarily when somebody’s been working City Hall’s horseshoe table for a quarter century, I’ve acquired some inkling of their personality and the issues they really care about. Other long-timers like Art Cartier or Tom Gosnell or Bud Polhill managed to leave a definite imprint on my consciousness. But Armstrong, not so much; unless you count all-round innocuousness and intermittent impressions of irritability. Old City Hall newshound Chip Martin summed up Armstrong’s dithery opaqueness well when he commented on the Councillor’s longevity thus: “He’s the dean of Council, although few of his colleagues defer to him.”
Innocuousness, of course, is nothing to write home about. But irritability, that’s definitely a thing. And that was something that Armstrong started projecting in a big way four years ago. He had just been re-elected to his seventh and (as it would turn out) final term when he decided to launch a three and a half million dollar defamation lawsuit against Corus Entertainment (owner of London’s 980 Radio) and his challenger in that 2014 election, Nancy McSloy. Also charged were three of McSloy’s supporters (one of whom, Shawn Lewis replaced Armstrong in last month’s civic election) for mentioning Armstrong’s 1987 conviction for sexual assault in a radio interview as well as in a press release that was used in McSloy’s unsuccessful campaign.
As Chip Martin wrote in a London Free Press article this September following the Ontario Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the case after nearly four years of legalistic argy-bargy with no payout to Armstrong: “The action was regarded by many as a SLAPP-suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) and was closely watched because of its potential chilling effect on free speech for anyone who is critical of elected officials. In 1987, Armstrong, then a tenant rights activist, was sentenced to 90 days in jail, to be served on weekends. I covered the sentencing. Evidence was Armstrong fondled the 20-year-old woman during their third date at her Richmond Street apartment after saying he wanted to marry her. He denied her story, insisting the victim was being used as a pawn by landlords he had antagonized. The judge said he felt the incident was out of character. Armstrong, who won his first election six years later, says he was issued a pardon ‘some time ago’. Armstrong didn’t like his political rival discussing his conviction on the radio, even though it hadn’t hurt his re-election bid.”
If Armstrong was hoping to dissuade commentators from discussing his past conviction by making it the subject of a lawsuit, the strategy badly misfired. Indeed, more dirt got dug up. Writing about a failed bid in April of 2016 to have the defamation case dismissed, a Free Press report of that hearing noted that details regarding two other convictions on drunk driving charges from his 20’s were also read out to the court.
A pretty strong case could be made that it was Armstrong’s own litigiousness and the spotlight it inevitably threw on all of his past convictions (whether pardoned or not) that blocked him from cruising to an eighth consecutive term as Ward 2 Councillor. And then to add self-inflicted insult to self-inflicted injury, Armstrong no sooner lost last month’s election than he was served with a bill for $90,000 for partial legal costs arising from his failed lawsuit for defamation.
One might hope that two such resounding rebukes to Armstrong’s considerable self-esteem from the electorate and the courts would cause him to draw back from the fray a bit and realize that part of the price of being a public figure is that people aren’t always going to talk about you in ways that you like. And if you really hated all that media scrutiny with reporters scrounging around in 30 year-old court files and then publishing what they found there, maybe you should interpret this electoral loss as a blessing in disguise and move on to a more private mode of endeavour like growing orchids or taking up transcendental meditation. But that’s not the way Bill Armstrong swings.
So last week he announced that he is going ahead with yet another defamation lawsuit (this one for a modest quarter million dollars) in reparation for damage caused to his reputation by a newspaper that doesn’t even exist anymore. In a February 2017 news story that probably nobody but Bill Armstrong even remembers, Our London alleged that Armstrong had an undeclared conflict of interest regarding a zoning change to the East London Community Centre which happened to be situated close to a rental property from which Armstrong might realize a benefit accruing from that zoning change.
In their preliminary statement of defense Metroland Media and Torstar, the extinct paper’s owners, claim that their reporter, Amir Farahi, emailed Armstrong the day before that edition went to press asking the Councillor why he hadn’t declared a conflict of interest and Armstrong didn’t answer until after the story was printed; denying that there was any conflict to declare and, while he was at it, serving the paper a notice of libel. That same defense statement claims that Armstrong ignored the paper’s offer to run a rebuttal and that the paper did print a retraction of the original claim in a subsequent edition and admitted they were mistaken; that the Community Centre would not be needing a zoning change.
Certainly Our London’s mishandling of the Armstrong file cannot be regarded as a shining moment in the annals of local journalism but if their statement of defense holds up under cross-examination, I can’t imagine that any court is going to reward our thin-skinned ex-councillor for incorrigibly giving in once again to his petulant impulse to launch a mountainous lawsuit over another molehill of a slight.
AND NOW FOR THE LIGHTER SIDE of male incorrigibility as we examine the farcical fallout of the October 26th visit of a certain Aubrey Dan to Western University to pick up an honorary doctorate of laws degree at their convocation ceremony. The charmless Mr. Dan is a man of immense inherited wealth. His papa started up Novopharm Limited, a generic drug manufacturer and Wampole Canada Inc. which is a supplier of herbal supplements and vitamins. Aubrey himself started up Dancap Private Equity (an investment house that was built on $50 million worth of Novopharm’s own loot), and then Dancap Global Asset Management.
About ten years ago he moved into show biz, launching Dancap Productions (which sponsored Toronto productions of popular Broadway shows like Jersey Boys, Memphis and Avenue Q) as well as a catering firm, also called Dancap. Then there’s his generous philanthropic endeavours. Dan has given $5 million to the Baycrest Centre Foundation, $8 million to the Sunnybrook Foundation’s Centre for High Risk Mothers and Babies and $5 million to Queens University’s School of Drama and Music where his daughter was enrolled and which then renamed itself the Dan School of Drama and Music.
Seeing the kind of money this chap was throwing around and finding his name on their Faculty of Social Science student rolls circa 1985 (where he’d earned - but neglected to pick up - his degree in Administrative and Commercial Studies) Western University approached him for a $100,000 donation to his old alma mater. And Dan has kept adding to that over the ensuing years so that he has now donated more than $10 million dollars to Western’s Faculty of Social Sciences which has renamed (and greatly expanded) the Faculty’s Department of Administrative and Commercial Studies as the Dan Program in Management and Organizational Studies.
Eager to remain in Dan’s good books and keep that money flowing, Western throws what trinkets and honours they can his way. In addition to slapping his name on a social sciences department, four years ago they gave him the Alumni of Merit Professional Achievement Award (which sounds like a participation trophy they might hand out at some down-at-the-heels service club). And then, a week and a half ago, they handed over his honorary doctorate. Unfortunately, as is the tradition with such honorifics, Dan was also invited to address an auditorium full of graduates and their families; an opportunity he seized with ham-fisted exuberance. His short talk was excruciatingly bad, chock full of boosteristic banalities and clichés the like of which I haven’t heard uttered in decades: “Receiving this recognition is the cherry on top of the sundae with my involvement and commitment to the success of the students of the Dan Department of Management and Organizational Studies.”
And best of all, in total innocence of the thought crimes he was committing, he also let drop a couple of deliciously inappropriate clangers that flagrantly violated contemporary standards of acceptable public discourse. The one that really outraged old ladies of both sexes, was his explanation of why he transferred out of a similar program at McMaster after one year to come to Western in 1983: “According to Playboy magazine, at that time, the women are among the best in North America, [looks up to survey the audience] and obviously they still are.”
His other nitroglycerine-laced comment that triggered every feminist within hearing distance, was more of an aside that the department’s old name – Administrative and Commercial Studies – “sounded so secretarial”. Whereas the name he came up with – Management and Organizational Studies – sounds presidential? Chief executive officer-ish? Sorry, Aubrey. I don’t see it. They both sound like names you’d give hellholes for aspiring drones. If you’ve got about twelve minutes to kill and an appetite for toe-curling awkwardness, you can check out a video of his convocation speech here:
An apology was demanded by the terminally aggrieved and Dan quickly complied with one of those enraging amendments that apologize for other people’s reactions; not his words:
“I am sorry that anyone was offended by the comments in my speech, which was far from my intention. My remarks were made to provide a context of what went through my 19-year-old mind when deciding back in 1983 to go to Western. Nothing to do with being sexist at all. I am an egalitarian.”
The prime spokesperson for the committee of umbrage is Johanna Weststar, an associate professor of psychology at the Dan Department, whose feelings were not assuaged one teensy-weensy bit by Dan’s failure to properly martial his remorse; to at least pretend that he understands her complaint and is willing to grovel before her wrath. To give credit where it is due, Weststar does exhibit an impressively reckless disregard for what side her bread is buttered on when she publicly harangues away at the clueless beast who writes all her cheques for his “sexist” and “demeaning” comments:
“I’m really embarrassed and offended by that,” she told CBC Radio. “It’s just not acceptable to be making comments like this. These comments have absolutely no place in our social discourse. He’s not apologizing for his actions, he’s apologizing for how his words have been perceived. I hope that he shows some learning and some acknowledgement of an appropriate contextual and contemporary reference on how we treat women.” She also said that Dan ought to “show that he is truly sorry for what he said in a way that reflects that he has given thoughtful consideration to the impact of his words.”
But the maddening thing for Ms. Weststar and everyone else who shares her outrage is that Aubrey Dan is incapable of the kind of abject, self-annihilating apology they crave. He is not constituted like them. He does not live in their ideologically circumscribed world and does not accept the lip-pursing standards they demand of him. He may not be particularly cultured or articulate but he really is an egalitarian who has given away vast quantities of his money to women and men who he hopes will be able to make good use of it. The only crime he is charged with - taking immense delight in being in the company of beautiful women - is not a crime at all and he doesn’t accept for one moment that this perfectly natural propensity makes him sexist. He’s out of their range. And as he does not need their approval to advance himself financially or professionally or in any other way, they’ve got no hold on him whatsoever and cannot coerce him to become corrigible.
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