The place: The Doug Mitchell Hockey arena at UBC. The occasion: The University of Alberta Bears vs. the UBC Thunderbirds. Why? It’s great hockey and for a fraction of the price of Canucks tickets. The instigators: Ed and Karen Perkins, my friends of 33 years who took my wife and I on the most cost-effective and enjoyable date possible these days: Dinner at White Spot at 5:30 (brutal for my late dinner with wine habits) and then the game at UBC at 7:00 o’clock. Isn’t it Preston Manning who is sitting there, said “Uncle Ed”? (That’s what my kids call him). Yes, he is. Should we go say hello? But what do we say? “Thanks for your contributions to the country”, Ed replied. So, off we go.
What an amazing, kind, intelligent, unassuming and humble man. How can a politician be so “kind of shy”? I said to myself. He was obviously intrigued in meeting a couple of (beyond) middle-aged mathematicians on a Friday night in an almost empty hockey arena. He expressed his admiration for what UBC has become. Ed introduced me as a rabble-rouser on the Board of Governors. “But that’s what democracy is about,” he replied.
We looked for a “Manning” on the roster of players to check why you are here, and we didn’t find any,” said Ed. I am indeed here with my son, Manning replied. “He is not a player but a physician who is conducting a study on concussions from hockey and their effect on young players. Stanford is having a similar one with chip implants to measure and register the effect of hits and jolts–even the most minor ones.”
I thanked him for his important recent contributions, and for practically becoming the “patron saint” of Canada’s Science and Technology. I also said that I wasn’t surprised by his new role because of a story that Tom Brzustowski had told me many years ago, when he was still President of NSERC.
In the late 1990’s, Tom, Arthur Carty (then President of the NRC), and very probably the Presidents of SSHRC and CIHR were surely surprised to receive an invitation to dinner at Stornoway, from the Leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Preston Manning, who was then heading the Reform Party of Canada, wanted to talk about matters of science and technology. Why surprised? Well, first because they were all perceived as Liberal appointees, and second because some of the Reform MPs were agitating against federal spending on research. Manning had put an immediate end to all that after receiving a letter from the Canadian Mathematical Society. Both Carty and Brzustowski mentioned how impressed and enchanted they were after that dinner, clearly reassured that Canada’s efforts on the R&D front will remain above political squabbling.
“I was pleased to hear that Stephen had talked about Canadian R&D in Davos, yesterday”, he said. I had fortunately just blogged about that, so I could exchange a few thoughts about SR&ED and the Tri-council. Then, I told him about the Banff International Research Station (BIRS), the jewel in the crown of Canadian math and science located in his beloved province. He had heard about it! I was happy.
I mentioned how much I wanted him to join the BIRS Board of Directors, when we were trying to set it up back then. But then everyone was saying Manning is so busy and will not do it. He gave me the impression that this was not impossible. So I will surely keep it in mind and probably “capitalize” royally on this Friday night encounter.
Then my 16 years old son and his friend James showed up. “Shake the hand of Mr Manning, guys and tell your history teacher on Monday that you’ve done so. He should then teach you about an important piece of Canada’s short history”.
We then departed, but not without Karen giving Manning one of her famous hugs. On the ride back home, Joseph and James, who were hoping to analyse -play by play- the hockey game, were shell-shocked at having to listen to a brief lesson on Canadian history, including “The West wants in …” and all that. For me, it was more like a trip down memory lane.
Joseph and James needed no lesson about Doug Mitchell, though my wife had to set their facts straight by explaining that the one who contributed so generously to the UBC Hockey arena is not really one of the Greek deities. He is a real person, who likes to have fun and who loves to hear that kids are having fun on ice. OK guys, I will thank him again when I sit next to him –which is always– in Board meetings.
Then, I felt sad. How terribly wrong some perceptions of Preston Manning the man may have been for all these years. Simply because he was a politician, and regardless of political convictions, people are prone to think that he must have been power hungry, ruthless, conniving, arrogant, anti-intellectual, etc… Yet, here I was standing next to one of the kindest, most thoughtful, cultured and unassuming men I have ever met.
For whatever reason, ruthless media, paid political attacks, premeditated character assassination, politicians are often dehumanized and vilified. “The politics of personal destruction” as coined by Bill Clinton, is not as bad in Canada as in the US (I have just finished reading this). Still, we are not far behind and we should not fall for it. What a lesson for a Hockey Friday night in Canada! Thank you, Karen and “Uncle Ed”.