by Bruce M Firestone, PhD
OJ “Jack” Firestone came to Canada from Vienna (via England) in the 1930s and couldn’t believe his luck—to live in a nation that was largely peaceful, where folks of all races and religions got along (for the most part), where he could get a job, start a business, raise a family and where no one was trying to kill him on a daily basis.
Jack Firestone, photo by John Reeves, 1983
He learned English (German being his first language), went canoe-tripping in Algonquin Park, collected Canadian art with a vengeance and built a career that spanned working towards post-war reconstruction of Canada (serving under American-born, minister of everything CD Howe), being a professor of economics at the University of Ottawa, writing prolifically (about everything from government advertising, The Public Persuader to the Other AY Jackson, about his pal Group of Seven artist and frequent lunchtime guest Alec Jackson), and creating two family-owned and successful companies that invested in everything from real estate to a network of tool and equipment rental stores (Rentalex and Party World), broadcasting (Bushnell Communications and CJOH TV) and cable television (Keeble Cable).
Jack was a futurist before that was even a thing.
Jack was a hard-working man who, while not a teetotaler, was close. He preferred academic, political, historical, economic salon-style discussion to booze and parties, although he went to many of the latter as part of his endless networking. He believed that your network is your net worth even if he would never have put it that way.
He married a woman, however, who loved music, alcohol and partying, and couldn’t fathom how a person could possibly remain chained to his desk for most of his lifetime. It was not a good match.
In those days, women were expected to give up everything to be a housewife and mother, and Isobel (who, prior to her marriage, was a concert pianist and performer) did so reluctantly. Very reluctantly. It led to the bottle, which ate her life and, eventually, her marriage.
OJ was a chess grandmaster. He once played the Russian ambassador to Canada, who, like many Russians, feel they own the game. The ambassador lost twice, insisting on a third rematch, which, I believe, Jack let him win, otherwise a 2 am finish time, he suspected, would have turned into an all-nighter.
Jack was friends with many Ruskies at a time when the cold war was raging; this was not a popular thing to do. He also toured his art collection across Russia and other nations behind the iron curtain during the 1980s. He believed in talking with enemies to turn them into friends.
OJ never swore, loved tennis and skiing, both inspired and disciplined his four children, and never, ever said a negative word about anyone not in the room with him.
He could have elected for resettlement in the 1930s from an alien prison camp in England (where refugees from enemy states like Austria and Germany were sent by concerned British authorities hoping to prevent a third column of spies entrenching itself in English society and government) to America, which his brother Frederick (Freddie, a general practitioner, who served in the medical corps of American armed forces in WWII) opted for, but instead chose the more peaceful Canada, having correctly understood from his study of history that the US had been in some type of conflict every 3 and ½ years since the founding of that republic.
Jack’s dad wanted OJ to be a lawyer, but he always was fascinated by economics so, to please his father, he did both, only one of which he told Firestone senior about.
Jack was happy being a Canadian, but he rejected the notion that he should be labeled a German-Canadian or an Austrian-Canadian or any other hyphenated sub-group. He just wanted to be a Canuck.
In his later years, he became interested in Catholic theology, introduced to its canonical scripture and thought by a senior member of the Archdiocese of Ottawa.
He was born in 1913 and passed away in 1993, not long after his family was responsible for returning the NHL’s Ottawa Senators to that league, after a 60-year hiatus.
Jack met artists from across Canada.
How did he do that?
By the simple expedient of going to their homes, galleries and studios and introducing himself.
He couldn’t draw a lick, but treasured each artist’s unique view of Canada’s wildernesses, towns and villages.
He acquired most of his collection directly from those artists.
Then, as he grew older, he became concerned with the future of a collection that had grown to 1,600 works. Where was it going to find a permanent home?
Like many (most?) collectors, he realized that they don’t really own the works of art in their possession—they hold them in trust for future generations. So, he took a shortcut to that future—he gifted his collection to the Ontario Heritage Foundation.
But, like in so many other things, he did it cleverly—the OHF would own the collection and the mega Rockcliffe mansion that housed it, but Jack could live there for the balance of his lifetime—rent-free. He just had to pay its operating costs sans property taxes since the Foundation was a non-taxable entity.
The only other demand that the OHF made was that he hosted a small number of tours of his collection each year—a task that Jack delighted in anyway.
OJ in his living room giving an art tour
After his passing, the OHF decided to sell OJ’s home and its adjacent vacant lot gifted to the Foundation at the same time as the main donation and merge his collection with their McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg Ontario (about 45 minutes north of Toronto).
This would have been heresy to Jack—he wanted the collection to be enjoyed and remain in his adopted hometown—Canada’s Capital City. Then Ottawa mayor Jim Durrell leapt into action, with Firestone family agreement and support, he arranged for transfer of ownership to the city of Ottawa. The Ottawa Art Gallery is currently entrusted with its care. The Firestone Collection of Canadian Art can be seen at 50 Mackenzie King Bridge in Ottawa.
OJ in the mirror contemplating his friend Alec (AY) Jackson and some of his works at his home—375 Minto Place Rockcliffe Park Ottawa ON
The feature stair and two-story living room where many a salon was held, 375 Minto Place Ottawa ON—Isobel Firestone’s baby grand piano can also be seen in this photo—lower left-hand side
There’s snow place like home, wintertime at 375 Minto Place, Rockcliffe Park Ottawa Canada
Emily Carr, part of the Firestone Collection
Thanks to OAG board member and former director of the Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism Ben Gianni, some of the components of the house-that-Jack-built are recreated in the gallery’s new home, obviously removed before the house was unceremoniously torn down to be replaced by another ginormous Rockcliffe McMansion.
Family friend and former funeral director Brian McGarry standing in the OAG’s new abode at base of staircase retrieved from 375 Minto Place Ottawa ON, original home of the Firestone’s art collection
The staircase as it looked in the original Firestone house (Photo David Barbour, courtesy OAG)
Mahogany wood paneling from original Firestone home featured in OAG’s new gallery
OAG’s new home—50 Mackenzie King Bridge, Ottawa
Jack’s advice to future generations
OJ had a few messages he wanted to pass on to the next generation including:
1. STICK TOGETHER
2. CHECK CHECK CHECK EVERYTHING
3. NEVER RETIRE
He wanted his family to stick together and Jack was a huge believer in doing things right the first time—hence, his CHECK, CHECK, CHECK everything admonition.
It drove everyone around him crazy, but he was an over-achiever because of it.
The NEVER RETIRE message was because he believed in a higher purpose and, while people may change what they do as they age, they should continue to be as productive as possible as long as possible, in his view.
To that end, he changed—from a career civil servant to businessman and university professor to, finally, a writer of art history or, more accurately, artist history.
He finished The Other A.Y. Jackson: A Memoir, but never completed his manuscript about Jack Shadbolt. The original handwritten manuscript is now with the OAG, waiting for some PhD student to come along and finish it for him. Just saying.
Unfortunately, Jack’s career was cut off at age 69 because of Alzheimer’s, although he lived on in a grey fog until 80, such was his determination to see his oldest grandson, Andrew, complete first high school then university.
He always set goals for himself.
Jack was appointed by prime minister Lester B Pearson to sit on the Royal Commission on Health Services, a task that lasted a gruelling three plus years from 1961 to 1964.
Professor OJ Firestone was joined in that grand endeavor by Mr Emmett M Hall (chair), Ms Alice Girard, RN, Dr David M Baltzan, Dr CL Strachan, Dr Arthur F Van Wart, and Mr M Wallace (Wally) McCutcheon.
Wally was one of his pals, a frequent visitor to Jack’s home.
OJ was deeply disappointed when Mr McCutcheon, an ally, left the commission early. That would have been 1962. Mind you, Wally had good reason—he was appointed to the Canadian Senate that year. But it was a big loss for OJ because the commission was leaning towards rejecting any notion of nationalizing medical care as the doctors and RN (registered nurse) on the panel were actively hostile to losing any sort of control over healthcare, “control” meaning the ability to charge whatever the market would bear for medical services and procedures.
Jack argued, along with chair, Emmett Hall, that a single provider would not only provide better healthcare outcomes across the nation for many more people, but also result in doctors making more money not less. How was that possible?
At the time, doctors had huge billing and accounts receivable costs and issues. Refusing to treat someone who was indigent or about to become so because of exorbitant healthcare costs didn’t seem like a solid option for many Hippocratic-oath swearing medical practitioners, so they accepted many patients who couldn’t pay, the result of which was chronic bad debt, which plagued the industry at the time.
But despite being a great keynote speechmaker and a Brainiac, no amount of economic theory espoused by OJ could convince a majority of the royal commissioners to back the idea of a nationwide Medicare system. That is until, at Jack’s insistence, the commission went on a long series of road trips.
What they saw changed history.
When visiting hospitals, palliative care facilities and hospices across Canada, administrators inevitably showed them wards where rich folk had the best treatment then available. Jack would ask, “But what’s down here? What’s this other floor being used for?”
Since the commission had subpoena power, administrators could not easily or legally hide anything from those royal commissioners like the conditions that befell poor and middle-class people. Huge numbers of wards with little or no heat abounded.
In a Canadian winter, that’s like being forced to march from Moscow to a Russian gulag with no boots, gloves or hat with only a thin jacket via Novosibirsk, a distance of 3,360 kilometers, only to find, upon your unlucky arrival in Siberia’s capital, that your journey was only two-thirds completed.
If you were an elder, or poor, or an indigenous person in Canada, that’s where you would find yourself—not in Siberia but on a narrow cot with a thin blanket, with little or no care, fouling yourself in a freezing ward, where you were expected to pass away with few complaints, the sooner the better.
The commissioners were shaken to their core and Jack’s language, combining humanity, legal argument (ha! the legal training Jack’s dad insisted on came to be useful after all) and economics, finally started to take hold and make sense to them…
Their unanimous final report was tabled in the House of Commons on June 19th, 1964, and the second volume—Royal Commission on Health Services: 1965—was issued on December 7th, 1964.
In December 1966, the Parliament of Canada, including all members of the NDP under leader Tommy Douglas, passed the federal Medicare legislation that implemented full Medicare across Canada. The Act became effective in 1968 and was fully implemented in all provinces by 1972.
As a result, Canadians are blessed with a national system that works (for the most part, that is). Is it a perfect system? No. Can it be improved? Almost, certainly. But just look to our neighbors to the south.
If you are poor or uninsured in the US, good luck finding quality care. And, even if you are insured, well, you know what people say about insurance? Insurance coverage is great… until you need it.
Here’re the percentages of GDP spent on healthcare in these two nations—
In 2017, total health expenditure in Canada is expected to reach $242 billion, or $ 6,604 per person (CAD). It is anticipated that, overall, health spending will represent 11.5% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).
US health care spending grew 4.3% in 2016, reaching $3.3 trillion or $10,348 per person (USD). As a share of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, health spending accounted for 17.9%.
In any event, getting Canadian Medicare safely launched was the achievement that OJ was most proud of during his career. It probably took years off his productive life and he all but abandoned his family for four years, so it cost him a great deal more. But there you have it. #TrueStory
Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD
Real Estate Investment and Business coach
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Copyright, Bruce M Firestone, Ottawa Canada 2018.
 That’s post-World War II.
 The Public Persuader: Government Advertising, Toronto, Methuen, 1970.
 The Other A.Y. Jackson: A Memoir, McClelland & Stewart, Dec 5, 1979.
 Other books by OJ Firestone include: Broadcast Advertising in Canada, Social Science Studies, No 3 paperback, University of Ottawa Press, 1966, Industry and education, a century of Canadian development, University of Ottawa Press, 1969, Economic Growth Reassessed. Social Sciences Studies No 7, University of Ottawa Press, 1972, Royal Commission on Health Services, Mr Emmett M Hall (chair), Ms Alice Girard, RN, Dr David M Baltzan, Professor OJ Firestone, Dr CL Strachan, Dr Arthur F Van Wart, Mr M Wallace (Wally) McCutcheon, Queen’s Printer, 1st edition, 1964. In addition, there is an unpublished manuscript on the life of Vancouver-based artist Jack Shadbolt. Original manuscript is held by OAG, Ottawa Art Gallery, as part of the 1,600 artwork and sculpture collection housed at 50 Mackenzie King Bridge, Ottawa CANADA.
 Isobel Torontow.