Thursday, January 15, 2009

Nortel: My Part in its Downfall

In the summer of 2000 there was a proposal about to produce a history of the legal aid system in Ontario. It would not have been a bestseller in the making, for sure, but legal aid a subject of some consequence. Publicly-funded legal aid emerged in Canada in the 1960s, part of the same process that brought medicare, expanded old-age security, unemployment insurance, and other elements of that "social safety net" that now seem part of the eternal Canadian bargain. Legal aid, because it was mostly run by law societies rather than governments, proved one of the most vulnerable of the safety-net programs; compared to pensions and medicare, say, it has been cut back much more substantially in recent years and with much less outcry.

Anyway, Andrew Lawson, a well-to-do retired lawyer who had once been a legal aid administrator at the start of the publicly funded system in Ontario, had spoken of donating his papers and a sum of money from his family's foundation to support a history of the program. Peter Oliver, the indefatigable director of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, took up the opportunity. He asked me to go with him to lunch with Lawson at Lawson's home in Cobourg.

It was a beautiful, lush, high summer southern-Ontario afternoon. Cobourg was looking its best, and Lawson lived in a beautiful and spacious heritage home near the lakeshore. He had recently suffered an injury, so he was attended by someone who was at once medical aide, chef, and all-round personal assistant. This aide had prepared a lavish luncheon, and he served us as we sat discussing the project in an elegant dining room, with cooling breezes coming in from the airy porch facing the lake.

Lawson's aide had a small television in the kitchen, tuned to a business-news channel. I have a vivid memory of how, throughout our lunchtime conversation and later as we continued to talk on the porch, he would come out periodically, with the next course or a refill of coffee, and announce the latest news of Nortel share prices. "Nortel is at 118," he would say, and a little later, "Nortel is at 120." This, I began to realize (then? later?), was not irrelevant to our discussions. The funds that Lawson proposed to give in order to kick-start the legal-aid history would be a transfer of shares; the production of this history was going to be just another wonderful spinoff of the fabulous wealth that Nortel was showering upon Canadians who had made it part of their investment portfolios.

That afternoon we were bathed in sunshine and in that warm, humid, tangible air that I think of as the hallmark of rural and smalltown southern Ontario in the summertime. And we were also bathed in money. Perhaps I have never so strongly felt the presence of money. Old money compounding itself with new money. Money taken for granted. Money floating down like pollen on the breeze, growing and increasing effortlessly, easily, like a blessing, making all things possible.

Of course it all went away. That must have been near the very peak of the Nortel boom, just before the start of the crash that took it back from $120 to $1 and less. The legal-aid history went no further, as far as I ever heard, though indeed there were many obstacles that would have remained quite apart from donations. But as far as I heard, it went no further. I never went back to the Lawson house.

I never had any of my own money in Nortel, either going up or going down. But I never hear anything about Nortel without recalling that afternoon, bathed in sunshine and bathed in money.
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