Even as our fathers are perfect

“I never wanted this for you. I worked my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by all those big shots. I don’t apologize. That’s my life. But I thought that when it was your time that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. There wasn’t enough time Michael. Not enough time.”
Don Corleone, The Godfather

“We’ll get there Pop. We’ll get there.”
Michael Corleone

Bernard Jack Shapiro was surprised in May 2004 to be named Canada’s first Ethics Commissioner. He wasn’t even aware the position existed when Prime Minister Martin’s office called. Shapiro would report directly and publicly to the Parliament of Canada. Max Shapiro’s son Bernie. Who would have believed?

Montreal has always been, as it remains, the gastronomic capital of Canada. While the best restaurants are French, many of the city’s most popular eateries in the mid-twentieth century were anglo: Dinty Moore’s for corned beef and cabbage; Drury’s, opened in 1887, modeled on a London Chophouse; Martin’s Since 1861 featuring pea soup, roast beef and a nude disguised in a painting titled “What’s On An Old Man’s Mind”. Colloquially known as Mother Martin’s, it was a hangout for newspapermen. The Gazette was around the corner. Windsor Station, Montreal’s first (1887) skyscraper and  Canadian Pacific Rail’s headquarters, was across the street. It was also the venue for a revival of musical revue in Montreal. After the family acquired it from the Martin heirs, Pammy‘s great3grandson produced a series of variety programs there, starting with the Cole Porter Revue in the mid-1960s. Performers imported for these shows such as Dinah Christie, Jack Creley, Tom Kneebone, Eric Donkin and Dave Broadfoot also helped two Loyola College (not yet Concordia) grads, Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson, launch what would become a three decade long hit on radio and television, Royal Canadian Air Farce. Cabaret at Martin’s continued until the restaurant fell victim to the increasing dominance of franco preferences and a sharp reduction in anglo population and patronage. Dinty’s, Drury’s and Martin’s are all long gone.

In 1945 Max Shapiro and friends opened Ruby Foo’s, which served gourmet Chinese food and boasted it was the restaurant “preferred by the most interesting people.” Away from centretown and near the track, it was also the largest, with some seven hundred seats. A beautiful Asian girl carried a tray of cigars and cigarette packages discreetly among the tables, a photographer was on hand to take a candid shot, the sommelier decanted wine, a washroom attendant provided hand towels, a trio played in the Black Sheep bar that served both as bistro and waiting room for busy tables in the restaurant. Ruby Foo’s was the habitual destination of Montreal’s business class, lawyers, politicians, gamblers and wiseguys. Politicians particularly wanted booths just past the entrance where they could see and be seen. A banknote discreetly slipped to maître d’ Frank Goral would secure a choice table.

Camillien Houde

Montreal was party town through much of the century. During prohibition, it was one of the few places in North America to get a legal drink in public. Gambling flourished under the benign civic administration of the flamboyant Camillien Houde, jailed in wartime as an enemy of the state, and avuncular J.O. (Joseph Omer) Asselin, father of eight including two MPs, a Jesuit who taught at Loyola and a New York lounge singer. Entrepreneurial citizens exercised their business talents in shadowy, often illegal activities that enjoyed widespread public participation and were tacitly approved by cops on the take. Musicians, showgirls and gangsters from the United States flocked to town.

Montreal was also a flourishing sex bazaar. Judge Louis Coderre would write of the scene in the 1920s that “the traffic in human flesh, in its most shameful and degrading form, operates and flourishes in Montreal like a commercial enterprise perfectly organized. I would venture to say that few industrial establishments or businesses possess an organization as perfect, a means of operation as vast, personnel as well trained and discipline so well and rigorously applied. I know of none which has so quickly enriched such a large number of proprietors.”

In February 1944 almost all the houses of ill repute shut down. “What decades of exhortation by social reformers failed to achieve,” William Weintraub writes in City Unique, his exploration of Montreal’s days and nights through the mid-decades of the 20th century, “was accomplished overnight by the Canadian army. Far too many soldiers were contracting syphilis or gonorrhea during their visits to the red-light district. In Quebec, five times as many servicemen were contracting venereal disease as in British Columbia. The war effort was being endangered.”

The army “seemed to have no quarrel with Montreal’s other main vice, gambling, even though plenty of soldiers were losing their pay at illegal tables all over town,” according to Weintraub. “But soldiers’ bets were small potatoes in the big joints run by operators like Max Shapiro . . .

“In those places, wagers of many thousands of dollars were common, with big wartime profits bulging in the pockets of many Montreal businessmen in the 1940s, much of it in ‘black market money’ that was not known to the income tax department.”

However the 1940s saw the beginning of the end for the City of Sin. In 1945 Jacques Francoeur, then a reporter just 19 years old but destined to become owner-publisher of a chain of Quebec newspapers, wrote a series of stories about illegal gambling in the Gazette. Some city councilors called for a judicial enquiry but they ran into opposition from the power behind the mayor. Houde had been away for four years, imprisoned when he said publicly that he would refuse to register for conscription at the height of World War II and would advise others to do the same. On his return from prison camp he was enthusiastically re-elected and would hold office for another decade. But since the populist mayor par excellence had little patience for the details of administration, he left this to Joe Asselin, chairman of the city’s executive committee. JO, as Weintraub writes, “insisted that the city simply didn’t have enough money to close down the gambling dens. It would take five thousand more policemen to do it, he said. But several police officers told journalists, off the record, that they wouldn’t need more than twenty-five good men to do the job, if they were ever ordered to do it.”

J.O. Asselin

This was just the start of the reform movement that would culminate less than a decade later in the election of Jean Drapeau on a morality platform that he would expand over the next quarter century into extravaganzas such as Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics. In another series of articles, reform-minded lawyer Pacifique Plante made specific accusations. After Joe Asselin and police chief Albert Langlois, who were accused of tolerating vice throughout the decade and protecting dozens of unconvicted criminals, “came the list of those who were protected,” Weintraub writes, “five owners of whorehouses and forty-one gambling bosses. The gambling roster was headed by Max Shapiro, often referred to as the kingpin of the industry in Montreal . . .”

These articles fomented concerns that culminated in 1950 in a commission of enquiry headed by Justice François Caron. It would run for four years. Max Shapiro admitted to Caron that he had operated a gambling establishment on Peel Street where wealthy Montrealers and tourists came to play roulette, baccarat and chemin de fer.

Tandem is the weekly English-language subsidiary of Corriere Canadese, the daily Italian-language newspaper aimed at the two million Canadians of Italian origin. Antonio Nicaso writes in Tandem about “the ‘junta’ that handled gambling, clandestine bets, prostitution and all the illegal activities connected to show business in the 1940s and 1950s in what was then called the Paris of North America.

“These are stories of bygone days, investigative craftsmanship, marked by black-and-white photos showing the sneering smile of many untouchable bosses, such as Max Shapiro, Frank Petrula, Louis Greco, and Harry Ship. Gambling alone generated profits to the tune of $50 million per year. And with money, the Montreal crooks bribed everybody, politicians, policemen, and middlemen included.”

Shapiro’s partners in Montreal’s most lucrative gambling den included Harry Davis, for many years the undisputed overlord of Montreal’s underworld, until he was gunned down in July 1946. Davis controlled much of the drug trade, brothels and gambling in the city, but he was imprisoned in 1933 for drug trafficking and corrupting public officials. While he served a dozen years in prison, Greco and Petrula took over many of his rackets and joined forces with the Italian Mafia, led by Vic Cotroni.

Greco never rose higher than number two to Cotroni but he was a formidable lieutenant. Highly active in gambling, loansharking, extortion and drug trafficking, Greco was a major financial backer of Giuseppe Cotroni’s lucrative drug network and also a partner in the Alpha Investment Corporation with, among others, Vic Cotroni, Carmine Galante, a ruthless killer from New York, and Max Shapiro. By this time Shapiro also had diversified into the restaurant business with Ruby Foo’s, located opposite Blue Bonnets race track on Decarie Boulevard.

The outcome of the Caron hearings was the dismissal of the police chief and retirement from politics of Joe Asselin, who became a bank executive as his wife ascended in the anterooms of the Liberal Party. Beatrice Tobin Asselin was the daughter of eight-term Member of Parliament and then Senator Edmund William Tobin, who had been a colleague, neighbour and friend of Wilfrid Laurier. A tireless organizer for Mackenzie King, she was president of the Women’s Liberal Federation under Prime Minister Pearson. One of her sons was a long serving councillor in Montreal and then an MP. Another won election to Parliament from his grandfather’s old riding in the Eastern Townships and later became mayor of Aylmer, Quebec. Both were present in the House of Commons for the lengthy, ugly, divisive, nation-defining Canadian flag debate. Bea and Joe’s youngest married Pammy’s great3grandson.

In the mid-1950s, Ruby Foo’s management was turned over to two young men who had worked there during summers and breaks from their studies at McGill, which they had just completed. They were Max Shapiro’s twin sons, born nine minutes apart on June 8, 1935. Harry and Bernie Shapiro ran the restaurant for a few years, until their father died, then sold out and returned to university. They both earned doctorates, Bernie at Harvard and Harry at Princeton, and would climb to the very apex of the academic structure. Harry Shapiro became chair of the board of the $1.9 billion Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, president of the University of Michigan and ultimately president of Princeton, where he remains emeritus professor. Bernie, who served as Ontario’s deputy minister of education under Premier Bill Davis, would be appointed principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University in 1994, kicked upstairs to the same titles “emeritus” in January 2003.

Bernard Shapiro

His term as Ethics Commissioner, while not ignominious, was hardly noteworthy. An election mired his office in the gamesmanship of minority government. He never had the backing of PM Stephen Harper and came under increasing attack from politicians of all parties, including NDP icon Ed Broadbent. Conservatives wrote a “judicial or semi-judicial” requirement into their newly crafted position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. With no legal background, he walked away before being pushed. He anticipated no more public responsibilities. He would continue to collect honourary degrees – at last count eleven – and awards for good works. One example: more than 1,100 people attended a tribute dinner in Toronto to honour Bernard Shapiro and the president and CEO of ATCO Ltd., Nancy Southern, as “great supporters” of public education in Canada. Max would be proud and, coincidentally, Joe Asselin would be too. Nancy Southern manages a worldwide corporation with more than 6,000 employees and is also executive VP of Spruce Meadows in Calgary, one of the world’s finest equestrian facilities. She is a director of Shell Canada and the Bank of Montreal, the mother of three, and married to Olympic show jumping competitor Jonathan Asselin. Jonathan, who finished one place behind the legendary Ian Millar at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, is Joe Asselin’s grandson.

Jonathan Jumping Down Under

But gathering accolades and resting on laurels wasn’t to be the end of it for Bernie Shapiro. In 2010 he was asked by Concordia University to examine its governance and structure in the wake of the departure of two presidents halfway through their first terms in office. Formed in 1971 by a merger of Loyola College and Sir George Williams, Concordia had expanded geometrically to become the second largest university in the province (larger than McGill) and sixth largest in Canada.

Nancy Morelli, Concordia archivist, instructs Judith Woodsworth (centre) where to sign in as President and Vice-Chancellor while Chancellor David O’Brien overlooks. Judith’s abrupt departure two years later would precipitate the Shapiro report that found a “culture of contempt” at the university.

“It’s a lovely irony,” friend Jim Hynes says, “that they adopted the name ‘Concordia’ for the ungovernable mish-mash they created out of two unrelated outfits, where it seems concord has never existed. Any resemblance between today’s multicultural, secular stew-pot of divergent identities and the Jebbies’ tight-knit, buttoned-down Irish/Franco redoubt vanished long, long ago. The Loyola of our day put us in a voluntary ghetto, where we were taught what we were supposed to know, and largely shielded from everything else. Like it or not, it was an institution that knew what it was, and what it was supposed to do. The new one has tried to do something much more difficult, i.e., create a modern, full-scale, secular university. History shows us that this usually takes a clear vision and exceptional leadership to make it happen. Obviously, Concordia has never had either of those things going for it.”

That’s pretty well what Bernie discovered and he pulled no punches in describing a “culture of contempt” that had paralyzed decision-making in the place for years. Earle McLaughlin’s days as Chancellor ended long before the culture became twisted and crippling. Pammy’s great2grandson also wore Concordia’s gaudy gown and tassled flat hat for a while. But the Chancellor of a university is largely a figurehead, not an active participant in the governing structure. If blame were to be assigned for allowing a culture of contempt to flourish – Bernie named no names – it’s highly unlikely any Chancellor would be held responsible.

Those who know Bernie best attest to a lively sense of humour, though he appears somewhat unapproachable. He has picked up a few simple convictions along the way. He defines an optimist as one who scans the list of exam marks down from the highest at the top, a pessimist as one who starts from the bottom and reads up. He learned the value of throwing oneself “body and soul” into achieving the best result by observing how a Chinese waiter at Ruby Foo’s memorized the name of each guest, his food and drink preferences, where he liked to sit. As a result many clients would ask for this waiter by name when they arrived or made a reservation. This was naturally reflected in the generosity of the tips he received. Shapiro noticed.

He came to the task of Ethics Commissioner at a moment when the Liberal government, in power then for more than a decade and about 70 percent of the prior century, was awash in scandal and ethical dilemmas that would ultimately chase it from office and thence into an historic collapse. Prime Minister Martin was charged with peeking under the covers of a “blind trust” while in his previous role as finance minister. The nation’s auditor general identified huge gaps in record keeping for a $250 million “sponsorship” fund dispensed at political direction through Liberal-connected advertising agencies, discrepancies that would lead to a commission of enquiry under Judge John Gomery (who once had been counsel to the family business of Pammy’s great2granddaughter). Nobody knew where the buck stopped for huge cost overruns in controversial gun registry and computerization programs.

Shapiro, his judgment honed in public service and academic administration, readily admitted he had no particular insights into ethical issues, but expressed confidence he could rise to the challenge. “I think what [the job] needs is some magic combination of intelligence, wisdom and judgment,” he told reporters. “I’m not modest about myself.”

He got there Max. He got there.


3 thoughts on “Even as our fathers are perfect

  1. I found this modern-day entry particularly interesting, though the least relevant to a tale I thought was meant to be a family history and which often seems only tenously so.

    • Tenuousness increases naturally with distance from the progenitor, however all of the stories have a family connect. Concordia is an institution close to the family, with many grads and at least two Chancellors (one a family member by marriage, but surely that’s a permissible entry). In Montreal, we were in the restaurant business near the tail end of the crazy time and Bridget’s Dad ran the city. It’s not my plan to spell out every detail but the clues are all there for anyone interested enough to follow up.

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