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Q2, 2020

Summer seems to be here – at last! April and May were chilly. On the upside, such temperatures kept us at home; on the downside, such weather seemed to embody feelings of isolation – the classic objective co-relative.

We sincerely hope that this edition of the Academy Quarterly Review brings a smile to your face.

Let’s start with introducing ourselves: We are Sheila Neysmith and Terry Murray, the new Chair and Assistant Chair of the Communications Committee. We’re both beginning our second year with the Academy, and hope to get to know many more members in the months ahead.

This summer edition of the AQR has four items. Terry has written a short obituary for Sylvia Ostry, a former Academician  who held many high-level positions within several federal governments. Many of us encountered her formidable presence during our careers. Next is a fascinating photo essay by John Weatherburn. The historical photos are a treasure in and of themselves, but they take on particular meaning when one realizes that these are about the life of John’s grandparents. The third contribution, by Monica Duhatschek, a member of last year’s Memoir Writing workshop, reflects on the importance of making friends, even as one makes masks. The fourth piece is a dialogue between Priscilla Pratt and Ian Darragh, facilitators in the Stand Up Comedy workshop. We asked them to employ their comedic skills to sketch life in the COVID-19 world. Finally, we thought that a cartoon best captured our love/hate relationship with computers these days.

Have a great summer and we hope to see you all in the fall – even if it is only virtually.

Sheila and Terry

Sylvia Ostry, as pictured on the cover of a book published in 2004 to mark her 75th birthday.
Sylvia Ostry, as pictured on the cover of a book published in 2004 to mark her 75th birthday.

Sylvia Ostry, a groundbreaking federal public servant and former Academy member, died on May 7, a month shy of her 93rdbirthday.

Her career was marked by many firsts – she was the first woman to be appointed a federal deputy minister (Consumer and Corporate Affairs, in 1975) and the first woman appointed chief economist of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. She was a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Sylvia learned about the Academy from Toronto Star reporter Judy Steed. Steed was the 2007 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy, and used her year to research a series of articles on aging, demographics and brain plasticity. As part of that series, called ``Boomer Tsunami`` which appeared in the Star in 2008, Steed interviewed Sylvia, two years after her husband died and shortly after she suffered a stroke.

The losses seemed to weigh heavily on her, so Steed suggested that she check out the Academy, which she did.

"I'm taking two courses,`` Sylvia told her, ``the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and Noam Chomsky. I've got a pile of books and I'm reading like mad. It's fascinating. At the academy, you don't just sit there and listen to lectures, you participate, you share what you've learned about the topic. I love learning new things."



During these times of social isolating I have a had a ‘fun’ time deciding what projects get priority. My passion is photography. So, the question is do I go out and take a few thousand more pictures or relive all the old photos? The answer is stay at home and enjoy the old pictures.

My passion for photography is inherited. My father was a member of a camera club in Ottawa as was his wife’s brother (maybe that is how they met!). My grandfather (TW Foster) grew up in Northern Ontario and was a store owner, postmaster, police magistrate and photographer. I have been active in the Toronto Digital Photography Club for a number of years now.

I have inherited cameras from my parents and from my grandfather, including a 1909 Brownie (which cost $4 at the time) and a Kodak Pocket camera (shown below). More to the point I have several hundred negatives from 1909 to 1919 of life in Haileybury, Cobalt, South Porcupine, and Kirkland Lake. Many of the pictures were made into postcards and sold (for one cent) in his store. I have a lot of these as well.


My mother inherited all of her father`s pictures of Northern Ontario life. She never met him as he died at age 35 just a few months before she was born. Fortunately her mother lived into her 90s so my mother (and I) interviewed her a lot about their life in Northern Ontario and about the photographs that he took.

On our trips, we also met people at the Harry Oakes Museum in Kirkland Lake. We donated the negatives to the museum, and they scanned them all for me.

My mother's intention was to write a book focused on her mother's life in the mining areas of Northern Ontario, especially being a widow with five children. My mother visited Northern Ontario several times in the 1980s, after she retired, to research the history of the area.

Unfortunately, she died before she could get her book published. I have inherited all her notes and pictures so my goal has been to finish her project, but with more of an emphasis on the family history and a little background about the area. I am doing this my mostly for my family and cousins, and not to publish for a broad audience. The book is ready to be printed, but I'm doing it via the Asquith Press, a book –printing service of the Toronto Reference Library, which is of course closed now.

Other authors have also made use of my grandfather`s photos, such as Debra B. North, whom we met as we were having breakfast at a local motel while on one of our research trips. Debra used several pictures of sporting events for her book A Northern Hope: One Family`s Life in Cobalt and Haileybury 1904-1928, and photos of my grandmother in The Sterling Women of Cobalt 1903-1914. It is very satisfying to see the archives that I have had for a number of years being used.

While I usually take colour pictures, these old photos have encouraged me to appreciate black and white, and I have started to convert some of my colour pictures to black and white. It allows one to focus (so to speak) on the subjects, shapes, and lines, rather than being dominated by all the colours. (Having said that: Autumn shots are great in colour!)

I hope you enjoy this selection of my grandfather`s photos:


My grandfather's store with my aunt on the deck and my blurry uncle running around (circa 1918)

My grandfather’s store with my aunt on the deck and my blurry uncle running around (circa 1918)

My grandmother was a hunter (apparently!) and loved canoeing. Well-dressed, of course

Canoeing and fishing (of course)


The expression ‘blind pigging’ refers to a boarding house which used blinds on their windows to hide the fact they were really (illegal) pubs.  Since my grandfather was police magistrate, he was responsible for ensuring that illegal liquor was destroyed. In this picture: 160 kegs of liquor were destroyed.

And people had lots of fun with social activities, especially sporting events in Cobalt. People travelled by horse until the train came in 1910.  Based on pictures they enjoyed boat trips, aquatic events, drilling contest and other things.


Returning home to Haileybury after a ‘cruise’ on the S.S. Meteor to a picnic.


A drilling contest in Cobalt. Hard to see the details, but it was clearly popular.

And some not so good news: a train wreck in Haileybury in 1909 (Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Rail Road).

And, of course, other photographers taking pictures of the train wreck.

And some inspiration from researching old family photos: It convinced me to convert some of my colour pictures to black and white. Two examples here: The Great Wall of China and two cool people in Kensington.

“How are your mask-making skills?” read the subject line of an email from my friend Kelly, dated April 6, 2020. I wrote back. “I have been thinking about sewing masks, but the conflicting information has been driving me nuts. All the crafty people are sewing masks. I mean EVERYONE.”

The first homemade mask that I saw came in an email from my daughter Lisa in Kitchener. She was wearing a mask made by her partner’s mom, Naideen, a retired public health nurse. Well! If Naideen approves it must be okay. I got on the internet to do some research. There were hundreds of YouTube videos.

The best fabric for homemade masks is two layers of 100% cotton with a high thread count. The best pattern has a pouch to slip in an additional filter sheet if desired. I took an inventory to see if I had the necessary supplies: quilting cotton, check; elastic, check; pipe cleaners, check. Of course I had everything. I am a lifelong crafter.

I have always enjoyed making things. When I was in grade school in the 1970s I learned leathercraft. I mastered the belts and wallets popular at the time and then designed my own patterns, a cat and a dog made from the synthetic leather the school had supplied. Around the same age I got a book and taught myself to crochet. After making the hippie shoulder bags and vests featured in the crochet magazines I stumbled on a pattern for a polar bear. Literally, I was hooked.

After I had my first baby thirty years ago, I had an enormous spurt of creativity. Maybe it was because I had just created life and I wanted to continue creating, or maybe it was because I was on maternity leave and had a lot of time on my hands. Maybe it was both.

I started sewing small bears, about four inches high, attaching black beads for eyes, and embroidering the nose and mouth. I stuffed some bears into small plaid stockings and hung them on the Christmas tree. Inspired by my initial success I started dressing the tiny bears – top hats and waistcoats for the men, dresses for the women, and then military costumes for the little drummer bears. Could this become a business? I decided to test out the concept.

I bought yards of fabric and trim, keeping the bills so I could track the costs. I developed an efficient system using a rotary cutter. I sewed the bears in rows before cutting them out, turning them inside out, stuffing them, and finally embroidering their faces. By the end of the month I had made 100 tiny teddy bears. Should I give up a promising career as an accountant to start a craft business? I added up the cost of the material and the cost of my labour and decided to go back to work.

When I retired I started making things again – hats and scarves, mittens and baby blankets – but after I got those things out of the way I returned to my first love. I am making tiny creatures—dolls and animals with faces. When I was on maternity leave, making a hundred tiny teddy bears, I could see that a slight shift in the placement of the eyes, nose, and mouth gave each bear a unique expression. The expressions made them come alive and I loved each one of them. They became my friends.

I have always been drawn to making things with faces and I am not alone. There is a name for this phenomenon—anthropomorphism—the attribution of human traits and emotions to non-human entities. Our brain tricks us into identifying with an object that has a face, giving it human characteristics even when we know it is not human. When Tom Hanks was stranded on a desert island in the movie Castaway it took him months before he smudged a charcoal face on a volleyball and started calling him Wilson. If I was stranded on a desert island I would do this on the first day, even before I learned how to light a fire.

But now I have put my doll-making aside and I am sewing masks. I developed an efficient system using a rotary cutter and in three days I made 20. I delivered the first one to Kelly and got an email back the next day. “I wore my mask to Rexall and Sobey’s yesterday, and it was great. It is safely in a Ziploc in my purse ready for the next time I am out. Thank you so much.”

Kelly, a physiotherapist, works at a hospital—she worked through SARS and now she’s working through COVID-19. Kelly explained to me that medical masks belong in a hospital, and until there is an oversupply, everyone else should be wearing a homemade one. Now that my mask is ‘Kelly-approved,’ I will deliver the remaining to family and neighbours. And then I will get back to my true passion—making friends.

Submitted by Monica Duhatschek


A tongue-in-cheek conversation between Priscilla Platt and Ian Darragh, co-facilitators of the Academy’s Stand-up Comedy Workshop


Ian: Life suddenly changed on March 13, 2020—can you remember what life was like B.C. (before COVID)?

Priscilla: I do remember a time, long ago, when you could walk in the park without worrying about physical distancing. The other day I was in the park and a police officer gave me a ticket. I asked the officer why I got the ticket and he said, “You were too close to yourself.”

What about you Ian, has anything changed?

Ian: I forget what “normal” feels like. There are no “weekdays” or “weekends” anymore. Every day is Blursday.

Priscilla: True, so much is different. I always thought curves were good, but I’ve learned they’re not, that they have to be flattened. I’m working on that.

Ian: Even though I’m stuck in my tiny apartment, I try to get a complete cardio workout every day. I can’t afford a Peloton stationary bicycle, so when I wake up, I jump out of bed and briskly jog to the kitchen to put on coffee. My other cardio is power-walking to the LCBO every day. PEI tried closing its liquor stores, and there was a riot. Thank God Ford didn’t try that here.

Priscilla:  With all this time on my hands, I thought I would use it for more that just washing them. I’m working on my PhD in astrophysics and learning Finnish.

Ian: When do you expect to “Finnish” your doctorate?

Priscilla: Ha! Ha! My other project is I’ve launched the NVA, the National Virus Association. Our slogan is: “Viruses don’t kill people, people kill people”.

Ian: Glad to hear you’re using this time constructively. I watched a video by astronaut Chris Hadfield about how having structure to your day is vital to maintain discipline when you’re in isolation – either on a space station or in quarantine. So I carefully follow the same disciplined routine every day to keep my mind sharp. I sleep in till 9:30 a.m., or often later. After breakfast I watch all the COVID press conferences. I love the comparison between the staid Canadian press briefings and the circus at the White House where Trump attacks reporters to distract from not answering their questions: “That was a nasty question, and you’re a third-rate reporter and your mother wears army boots!” After lunch I go for a brisk walk to the LCBO to pick up a bottle of Italian red wine for supper. Then I watch Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer on CNN. I wish Dr. Fauci would adopt me. He’s the ideal father figure. Watching CNN for hours requires tremendous training, discipline and stamina.

Priscilla: Wow you are busy. I’ve learned how to cut my hair and how to wash gloves, masks, groceries, paper bags, and canned food. One thing I haven’t learned as yet is how to wash toilet paper, but I’m working on it. If restaurants open up, more will change—we’ll even have to eat differently. It’ll be interesting—everyone will have to wear a mask with a little wee opening just big enough to fit a tiny fork or spoon in.

Ian: This pandemic has taught us what’s really essential for survival. And it comes down to two things: toilet paper and Netflix. The other thing that’s changed about life in quarantine is the whole mask thing. My wife sewed a mask out of an old T-shirt, although it looks like it could have been made from an old pair of underwear. When I wear my mask my glasses fog up, so I’m always taking my glasses off and on. I’m legally blind when I’m wearing my mask. I ran into an old friend—literally--on Yonge Street and he walked right by me. At first, I figured he was angry at me. Then I realized he didn’t recognize me because I was wearing my mask.  

Priscilla: And there’s unintended consequences. Like the law that makes demanding money in a bank while your face is covered a crime---now you can’t get into a bank without a face covering. And in a world where we’re masked what will photo ID look like? I read that you can kiss through a mask and you won’t get COVID-19. I wonder what else you can do with a mask that would be protective. I’ve learned that parts of the body can be affected by COVID—like COVID toes. I don’t know—all things being equal, the toes aren’t something I was really worried about. I mean, all the docs have said this is about respiration, so anything below the face is fine, and I mean anything below the face. But this COVID toe thing has really thrown all that out—either respiration can occur in the toes or the whole body is vulnerable and we should all be wearing full PPE. And by the way, what’s with that acronym? I mean, PPE--doesn’t that sound like something else?

Ian: Which leads to the major challenge standing in the way of opening up our economy, the thing no politician wants to talk about. There’s nowhere to pee when you finally screw up the courage to risk venturing outside!

Priscilla: True, we’re now encouraged to go out walking, but no washrooms are open. Some enterprising individuals have solved this by providing designated squatting areas for women---you buy a large tinted plastic sheet that wraps around the hips. Small flaps allow the user to pull their pants down, squat and that’s it. Of course, the other option is to have public toilets.

Ian: Public washrooms like in Paris? We can only dream. I went for a walk in Edwards Gardens today, and all four washrooms were locked. One desperate woman said her dentures were floating.

Priscilla: They all say staying away from family is difficult. Really? I thought it was the other way around. The whole history of psychotherapy nullified by a virus? People, get real, this is nirvana.

Ian: Yes, being in quarantine really is nirvana for an introvert. You can go for days without seeing or talking to anyone. Pure bliss!

Priscilla: And Zoom, what’s that? Everybody’s doing it, so I thought it was, you know, a new position. But no, it’s how we engage these days, who knew! And Zoom dates are all the rage—but if you’re with others don’t you still need the mask and hand sanitizer? It sure looks closer than 6 feet! And do you have to dress from the waist down? Anyway, I thought I’d try it, so I set up a Zoom date--with myself. Wasn’t sure if I needed the mask, but just to be safe I washed my hands for 20 seconds before. Then I saw myself on the screen—I have to say, I looked a lot better before Zoom. I thought it must have been the reception. Then I fixed it—I put on the mask.

Ian: One thing introverts are really good at is dealing with boredom. And Zoom is just perfect for introverts. When you get overloaded talking to people, you can just click the “Leave meeting” button. At Easter, I had a family Zoom call. We filled our wine glasses and raised a toast. Everyone was talking at once so you couldn’t hear anybody. Some screens showed people’s ceilings. Others showed close-ups of their noses—even up their noses. After 40 minutes, there was a message that Zoom was going to shut down because everyone was using the “free” version. Quarantine Easter was perfect! No turkey to roast, and I didn’t have to entertain 25 relatives in my apartment for four hours, wishing they would just go home. I don’t even like turkey! So after the Zoom call, we ate a very tasty fillet of rainbow trout, and there were no fights over white or dark meat, or arguments about Trump. It was the best Easter ever!

Priscilla: True I never knew what all the ceilings of my friends and family looked like before. Food is an issue. I’m finding it’s hard to get groceries delivered without a long wait, so I’ve learned how to forage for food. Twigs are good, if prepared properly.

Ian: Sounds delish. Can you email me your recipe? Or you could show me how to cook “Twigs a la Quarantine” on Zoom? Bye for now, and stay safe. Don’t you hate that cliché?

Priscilla: I do. Keep laughing.


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