Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Annette’s Dream

I listened to all 44 excruciating minutes of Episode 10 of Annette Verschuren’s Bet On Me podcast, “A candid conversation with Cabot Co-Founder & CEO, Ben Cowan-Dewar,” — more accurately a “fawning exchange” with her “dear friend” — but I’m going to begin with my favorite line, which doesn’t actually come until the dying moments of the episode, when Verschuren says:

I have a dream.

No sentient being — certainly not a North American of Verschuren’s age — can use that phrase without knowing they are invoking Martin Luther King Jr’s famous 1963 speech. It’s not just that I happened to be listening to this interview shortly after MLK Day. You hear, “I have a dream” and you think, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

So it’s beyond jarring when Verschuren follows up, “I have a dream” with:

I don’t know how many golf courses you’ll have in 10 years, but I would love to go to each one in a period of two months.

I can’t satirize that, so I’ll just let it stand, in all its tone-deaf glory.

Cabot Citrus Farms photo

Cowan-Dewar was born in “rural Ontario,” near Kingston and fell in love with golf at an early age. The account of his life he gives Verschuren jumps abruptly from age seven, when he visits his first golf course, to the University of Toronto, which he leaves two credits short of a degree to start an online golf marketing and travel business at the dawn of the dot.com bubble — a time when golf courses would pay you to put their photos on the internet. In other words, he was lucky or, as he says himself (repeatedly), he has been “blessed;” apparently there is god of golf and he loves Ben Cowan-Dewar.

He was 24 in March of 2004 when he found himself seated next to Nova Scotia’s 31-year-old Minister of Tourism, Rodney MacDonald, at one of those “dinners” these people seem to spend their lives attending. MacDonald told him he had the perfect site for a golf course in his riding and Cowan-Dewar replied:

Minister, every farmer with 200 acres thinks they have a great site for golfing.

MacDonald wasn’t put off and by December 2004, Cowan-Dewar was in Inverness, touring the site. At this point in Cowan-Dewar’s recitation, Verschuren says:

And so these were all coals, coal mining, it wasn’t even reclaimed.

Which would add real color to this story, were it true, but it’s not. As Cowan-Dewar explains, the site reclamation had just been finished (literally just finished, the province had called the tender for the work, which MacDonald predicted would cost “up to $4 million” in April 2003) and he knew, immediately, that it needed to become a golf course.

This is a super power of his, apparently, the ability to size up a site in “five minutes,” one he illustrates with an anecdote:

I remember we were looking at this site in Vietnam, and I’d driven, like, an hour and a half…

I have to interrupt here — he makes an hour-and-a-half drive sound like the Dakar Rally because his case for an airport in Inverness rests on the premise that the drive from Port Hawkesbury is completely unendurable.

…and there was this huge crew and there were government people and some military guy and we got out and we looked at it and I looked around and said, “This isn’t for me.”

Verschuren finds this incredibly funny.

Cabot St. Lucia sod-turning ceremony

Ben Cowan-Dewar and St. Lucian PM Allen Chastanet at sod-turning ceremony for Cabot Saint Lucia, June 2020.

Cowan-Dewar wants very much to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he wants us to understand that building a golf empire — Cabot now includes Cabot Links, Cabot Cliffs, Cabot Saint Lucia (which Verschuren initially calls “Cabot Saint Lucius”), Cabot Revelstoke and the newly acquired Cabot Citrus Farms — is very hard work (assembling the land required for Cabot Links alone took three whole years).

But he also wants us to understand how much he loves it — a realization he came to during yet another dinner, this one at CBU (where Verschuren is Chancellor and he is on the board of governors) with:

…a handful of your friends who would have all been in their 80s, I guess… I look at these legends of Atlantic Canadian business who are all so vibrant, so interesting, so thoughtful, physically fit, mentally extremely sharp and I think what that taught me more than anything was, “Oh my gosh. I get to do something that I love doing with people I love doing it with. There’s nothing in the world I’d rather do…

There is a “special kinship in the Maritimes among businesspeople” who “support one another, cheer for one another and know how hard it is.” (He must have read The Codfathers).

Despite how desperately difficult it all is, he figures he has “a good 48 years left of doing it,” explaining, with unassailable logic:

You can’t have two until you have one, you can’t have three until you have two and you can’t have 10 until you have nine so I think, you know, keep doing it.

Cowan-Dewar has made his expansionist ambitions clear from the outset, choosing to use the word “Cabot” rather than “Cabot Links” to market his first course. He says he was told, by some unnamed person, that this was “the dumbest thing” they’d ever seen and that he needed to add the word “Links” but he told them, “Well, we’re going to do more of them.”

I’m 99% sure nobody ever said that to Cowan-Dewar. I think he’s one of those businesspeople who makes stuff like that up to prove his success was against all odds.

It’s at this point that Verschuren mentions her dream to visit all his courses in two months to which Cowan-Dewar replies:

We need to clone you and have other people have the same dream.

And on that dystopic note, they end their “candid” conversation.

But damn, it’s happened again — hate listening Bet On Me has taken up all my energy for another week. Time for just one final item.

 

Alexa

You can probably gauge a Nova Scotian’s age by whether they hear “Alexa” and think “Amazon home assistant” or “McDonough.”

I’m firmly in the second camp.

I grew up in a newspaper family so my interest in all things political started young and I remember one Saturday, when I was in high school, my father was traveling to Port Hawkesbury to cover a speech by Alexa McDonough and he let me go with him.

She would have recently been elected leader of the  provincial NDP and I’m pretty sure it was her status as the only woman in the legislature — let alone in leadership — that interested me. I don’t think I would have given up a Saturday to hear, say, Rollie Thornhill.

 

Alexa McDonough interview, CB Post, 1983

 

Interestingly, a spectator sent along a clipping of an interview my father did with McDonough around that same time (it’s from July 1983), saying he thought I’d be interested in McDonough’s “candid” comments about provincial patronage. He was right, both about my interest and about McDonough’s “candidness.”

She said she’d been in touch with “‘key people’ in union and municipal government” in Industrial Cape Breton who felt “hidebound by the patronage system”:

It’s a system though which everything filters, and they feel so hidebound by it that they don’t feel free to speak up about what’s really going on.

The interview took place as Cape Breton was preparing to host the 1987 Jeux Canada Games and McDonough took aim at spending decisions around that event:

She noted that several people had informed her, “with revulsion,” about the way the Canada Games announcement was made, “with 400 of the party faithful catered at public expense to serve the patronage system of the Liberals.”

“There’s something wrong about that,” said McDonough, and as for the decision to locate the major Games facilities at UCCB, while she wasn’t in a position to judge local development priorities, it seemed to her there’s a desperate need for some facilities in downtown Sydney.

People tell me they can’t raise questions like that without being told they’re biting the hand that feeds them. There’s insecurity and fear about even debating those kinds of questions for fear the feds will cut us off.”

As for the question of priorities, between this type of facilit[y] and a new regional hospital, McDonough looked to her own recent experience with a serious illness, and the testimony she’s heard as a member of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Health:

“I know how important it is to have your family around you at a time of serious illness, and I don’t think there’s any greater priority than a hospital that will end the need for sick people to travel to Halifax for treatment.”

Of course, the regional hospital eventually made it to the top of the “priorities” list, but other medical-related issues McDonough raised during this interview remain outstanding, almost 40 years later:

The committee is hearing from people who are lacking such basics as hearing aids and wheel chairs because they can’t afford such necessities and they’re not available through Medicare.

Here’s an excerpt from the list of services that are not insured or paid by MSI, according to a brochure I found on the insurer’s website:

Devices not covered MSI

As for how decisions on funding local facilities are made, I would argue the process is as flawed now as it was in 1983.

McDonough was speaking long before the NDP gained power provincially and ran into its own accusations of patronage of course, but I still appreciate her candidness.

And I’m glad I gave up that Saturday in the early ’80s to go and hear her speak.