Yesterday, I tripped over one of those New Yorker articles that snatches you and carries you into the black holes of a subject you knew absolutely nothing about. It then pops you to the surface 30 minutes later gasping at the bizarre and amazing things thing you saw. So it was with Thirty-six Thousand Feet Under the Sea: The explorers who set one of the last meaningful records on earth, by Ben Taub.
Taub makes the point that every age of exploration runs its course by quoting Fergus Fleming who wrote in his introduction to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s diary: “When Shackleton sailed for the Antarctic in 1914, he could still be a hero. When he returned in 1917 he could not. The concept of heroism evaporated in the trenches of the First World War.”
This point was hammered home by none other than Winston Churchill, recently retired First Sea Lord, who replied to an appeal to help find Shackleton who had gone missing in Antarctica.
Churchill wrote: “When all the sick and wounded have been tended, when all their impoverished & broken-hearted homes have been restored, when every hospital is gorged with money, & every charitable subscription is closed, then & not till then would I concern myself with these penguins.”
We are in much the same boat today. Three months ago, we looked up to hockey players, celebrity chefs and tech gazilionaires, and paid them accordingly. Back then, nurses, janitors and bicycle couriers were on no one’s list of heroes, let alone highly-paid ones. Now…well, this reversal of fortune got me thinking about how all those arts groups are going to stay in business when their ticket sales account for a small part of their revenues – and will bring in even less when only one in three seats is allowed to be sold.
Next season, Stratford will need to raise $20 million from Ottawa and Queen’s Park plus $20 million more from individual donors if it’s to stay solvent.
Will tens of thousands of new small-cheque senders suddenly leap to Stratford’s aid?
I sure hope so. But it’s likely that those same people will vote with their newly-changed values and send that cheque to the local hospital and their local heroes, the front-liners who kept COVID-19 from killing us all.
It’s not that many of us are having such a great year financially that we can donate money to Stratford and to our local hospital as well, let alone more money to both.
But there is a group of donors who can step up. They are the ultra-rich philanthropists whose private donations have made Toronto one of the great medical research centres in the world. Just walk down University Avenue from College to Dundas and you will see the banners:
• Princess Margaret Cancer Centre – “One of the top five cancer research centres in the world.”
• Toronto General Hospital – Ranked “fourth-best hospital in the world.”
• Peter Munk Cardiac Centre – “One of the Top 5 cardiac care centres in the world.”
• Hospital for Sick Children – “One of the Top 5 Children’s Hospitals in North America.”
• Toronto Rehab – “The top-ranked rehabilitation research institute in the world.”
It’s important to remember the money that got them to these glittering heights comes mostly from private donors. Basically, government funds keep the lights on in our hospitals, leaving philanthropy to do the rest. This is an astounding record when you think about it, and most of it has happened in the last few years. It’s also a reminder that in the words of Mary Lasker: “If you think research is expensive, try disease.”
When the fog of the pandemic lifts, I have no worries about who will fund our hospitals and research centres. It will be the millions of us who don’t want to face this ever again, and who have a new set of priorities for where we send our donations.
What I do hope is that the very people whose private dollars have turned Toronto into a world-beater in medicine, will donate the same tens and even hundreds of millions they gave to healthcare to help the arts in their time of dire need.
We have some of the best hospitals in the world, and some of the best Shakespeare in the world.
We can afford to keep both, Churchill be damned.
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Get your tickets to the TWO upcoming RamsayTalks Online: May 14th with Jared Diamond, “one of the deepest thinkers of our time,” and May 25th with Roger McNamee who believes tech is too important to operate without adult supervision.