Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.
On a guys’ weekend at the cottage, my 16-year-old son invited me to join him to see the new Will Ferrell hit movie The Campaign.

Like so many Ferrell movies, it is rude, raunchy and rowdy, so I guess he thought dad was a good mark to pick up the price of admission, popcorn and drinks. (His mom is a much bigger fan of Ferrell’s humour than me. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, we arrived at the great little theatre in Kinmount, Ont., in cottage country and I was surprised that most of the audience was teenage girls. I never figured this sort of movie would appeal to them, but obviously my son has a better scope on what is trending with teenage girls than me.

The movie was what I expected: lots of coarse language, innuendo and a few funny scenes. It gleefully skewers the sad state of American politics, and by extension, politics in general in all democratic countries.

The message was clear: money and sleaze wins, truth and honour don’t matter; notwithstanding the sappy ending that takes a whiff at erasing all the lies and sleaze bombarded on viewers the previous 90 minutes.

Leaving the theatre, my son said something to the affect that all politicians are sleazy and only care about themselves and no one else; not the voters, not even their own families. (Don’t underestimate the power of movies on impressionable minds.)

I told him I am not a defender of politicians, but that seemed a harsh comment to wipe all of them with such a broad stroke.

“You’re always complaining about high taxes and politicians wasting your money,” he said during the drive back to the cottage. “Name me one good politician.”

My first thought was “touché, my boy, I didn’t realize you were listening.” My second thought was that I have met many politicians over the years, including five prime ministers, at least 10 premiers and even one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation (Joey Smallwood) — and even though I’m sure there are many good ones, only two or three jumped to mind who were in it for the right reasons, unlike Ferrell’s character.

The first name was John Tory, whom I have known for about 20 years. I don’t know him well enough to call him a friend, but I do know him well enough to know that he went into politics to help others, not himself. Ted Rogers once called John Tory the best premier Ontario refused to elect.

“But he got creamed so that proves that good people can’t succeed in politics,” my son said.

He almost got me, and then I mentioned the current federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty.

“Son, when you were just a little guy, your mother and I met Mr. Flaherty at a cocktail party when he was finance minister in Ontario,” I said. “He was receiving the royal treatment at the party but when he was introduced to your mother (who is a home design expert of some renown) all he wanted to do was talk to her about what he and his wife were doing about renovating their century home in Whitby. He was a real person, not some phony politician, even though the party hosts were trotting him around the room as if he were the Pope.”

But my son quipped: “All that tells me is that he was interested in talking to mom about something for himself and getting her ideas for renovating. Maybe he is a good person but that story doesn’t tell me that.”

Darn, this kid is good, I thought.

“Okay,” I said. “Have you ever heard of a politician named Irwin Cotler?”

“No,” he said.

“He used to be Canada’s justice minister and he is still a Member of Parliament,” I said. “Ever heard of Nelson Mandela?” 

“Of course. But what does Nelson Mandela have to do with Irwin Cotler?”

“Because Irwin Cotler was one of the lawyers who helped Mandela get free. He has fought for years for human rights and has worked hard to get so many good people free around the world who were unjustly imprisoned. Some of these names probably don’t mean much to you but political prisoners like Natan Sharansky and many others owe their freedom to Irwin Cotler,” I said.

My son asked me why I knew so much about Cotler and I told him I don’t know that much, but I met him once and he spoke passionately about how people can make a difference. I could tell he was not in politics for the money.

And, I said, hopefully, there are more people like Irwin Cotler coming into politics, even if the types being mocked by Ferrell seem to be all too prominent and wasting my tax dollars.
Preparing to land recently at Yellowknife airport in a five-seat jet, I suddenly heard the pilot in front of me utter a four-letter word that begins with the letter “S.”

One of the three wheels on the aircraft refused to lock into position for landing. On the cockpit’s digital control panel we could all see two green dots for the good wheels and a black-and-yellow square for the bad one.

The pilot, talking to air traffic control, flew down to within 150 feet of the ground so emergency workers with binoculars could assess the problem. Over the radio, we heard confirmation the wheel was not down.

The pilot took the aircraft up a couple thousand feet and rocked it around trying to get the wheel to drop. When that failed, he returned to his checklist. All the while, I could hear air traffic control over the radio assembling more and more emergency workers, ordering them into position along the runway.

The magnitude of the situation really sunk in when air traffic control asked if there were any dangerous goods on board. It didn’t take a genius to know that emergency workers were thinking about possible explosions beyond the fuel in the wings if we landed on two wheels and careened down the runway out of control.

“Negative, four passengers on board and no dangerous goods,” replied the pilot. (He was calm on the outside but later admitted to being “highly stressed.”) Regardless, the airport general manager ordered all emergency workers back 100 metres from the runway, just in case.

Simply by writing this, I have taken the drama out of the ending. We survived. After 30 minutes, the last emergency measure worked: the pilot manually pulled a lever that locked the wheel in place. (It was truly the last resort, I was told later.)

It was an eerie feeling listening to the radio chatter, seeing the flashing lights on the ground and watching the pilot feverishly work. I thought about many things over those 30 minutes. My first thought was to keep quiet so as not to distract the pilot. If he needed something from me, he would ask and I would do what I could. I did not experience the proverbial “life flashing before my eyes.” But I did get a brief sensation of being at my own funeral and seeing my wife and two children sitting there.

But I snapped out of that and said to myself: “Jesus, it doesn’t feel like this is the time for me to meet you. But if it is, so be it.” (Maybe I was being presumptuous about me meeting Him. I hope not.)

Then I prayed and said many Hail Marys and Our Fathers in my head. I actually imagined Robert Redford saying Hail Marys in the classic World War II movie A Bridge Too Far as he paddled across a river against a hail of bullets. It sounds silly, but it helped.

Then, I focused on my wife and two children and whether I would see them again. I remembered my mother’s early death to cancer and how she missed my wedding and ever knowing my children. For several minutes, all I could think about was what I was about to miss. Hugs. Graduations. First jobs. Weddings. Growing old with my wife. Grandchildren.

But then I stopped thinking about what I would miss and focused only on how I was going to live, regardless if that wheel came down or not. I started mapping out how I was going to brace myself at impact and get the emergency door open.

Luckily, shortly after this, the wheel did come down and we landed safely.

Over the ensuing hours, safely in bed, I thought more about the things I didn’t think about during those 30 minutes. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t think about money or possessions. I didn’t think about my mistakes in life. I didn’t even think about golf or hockey, what I have always thought of as passions in my life.

But I did think about my wife and children. And I thought about the time I’ve wasted with things that do not matter when it comes to people who do matter.

I also had an odd thought: I’m glad it happened. Easy to say that now, after things worked out, you say. And you’re probably right. But it was an incredibly exhilarating life experience that taught me a lesson about what really matters.

While on our annual family vacation to Prince Edward Island in July, a visiting friend from Ontario made an intriguing remark about her first impression of the island.

“I simply cannot get over how Catholic P.E.I. seems to be,” she said.

Such an impression never occurred to me. But her not being Catholic obviously gave her a different perspective.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not being critical,” she said. “I just mean driving here from the (Confederation) Bridge we saw so many pretty little Catholic churches, we’ve heard about the lobster suppers in Catholic churches and there just seems to be a ‘Catholic feel’ to the place.”

We had a nice visit that afternoon with our friends and nothing more was said on the topic. But it got me thinking. She had a point. In fact, about half the population of 140,000 in P.E.I. is Catholic, according to Statistics Canada.

Then I started thinking about some of my favourite “Catholic” things on the island and I quickly came up with a tidy little list. (We’ve been visiting P.E.I. each summer for almost a decade after buying a cottage, which we rent when we’re not there.)

We’ve all heard the tourist spiel about Anne of Green Gables, white sandy beaches, the quaint red clay roads and the fabulous P.E.I. golf courses. And we might think potatoes or lobster when P.E.I. is mentioned, but Catholic is not a word that typically comes top of mind.

So, here are some tourist ideas for things to check out with Catholic flavour the next time you are, as the locals say, “on island.”

o The Confederation Trail is a walking and biking trail from one tip of the island to the other. The trail used to be the railway lands. I have not ridden the entire trail but I have found no prettier ride than the 12 kilometres from Morell to St. Peter’s. Most of the ride you’ll have a beautiful view of St. Peter’s Bay with the stately old St. Peter’s Church majestically standing on the hill across the bay. There are many places to stop along the trail for a picnic lunch and a clear vista of the big white church, which is generally open for a visit and with Sunday Mass at 11 a.m.

o St. Dunstan’s Basilica in Charlottetown is a century-old stone French Gothic church built from the remains of the cathedral that had been damaged by fire in 1913. It is the fourth church on the site and one of the most visible landmarks in Charlottetown with its three copper spires being some of the highest points on the city skyline. It is the only Roman Catholic cathedral in the province and one of the most elaborate churches in the Maritimes. The marble altar is 10 metres high and if you look closely at the ribs in the ceiling, you’ll see symbols of the Allied nations in the First World War, which was raging during St. Dunstan’s construction. Guided tours are available but you’re also welcome to quietly visit on your own or attend Mass.

o Ceilidhs (pronounced kaylees) are a fun part of the musical culture in P.E.I. Though not specifically Catholic, the Ceilidh tradition of singing, dancing, fiddling and strumming occurs in many churches and halls around the island. Ceilidhs began some years ago as weekend “kitchen parties” and now they are open to the general public and occur most nights of the week in summer. Each year, we attend a couple of Ceilidhs, especially the Crane Family Ceilidh at the refurbished St. Andrew’s Chapel in Mount Stewart, near our cottage.

o St. Andrew’s Chapel is significant on its own. It was the first church built in P.E.I. by Scottish settlers in 1772. In 1864 it was moved by horse and men on the ice down the river 28 kilometres to Charlottetown where it was converted into a school by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Later abandoned, it was restored and renovated and returned to Mount Stewart in 1998. Next to the chapel is the burial site of Fr. Angus MacEachern, the first bishop of P.E.I. His story is worth exploring and available at the site.

o St. Mary’s Church is the largest wood church in the province and is renowned for its acoustics. Located near Cavendish in Kensington, it hosts the Indian River Festival with world-class vocalists and musicians. It attracts tourists and singers the world over, as well as worshippers every Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.

o The Chez Shea Inn and Spa is a former convent only minutes from the Confederation Bridge. We’ve never stayed overnight at the beautiful old three-storey building, but are told it is spiritually rejuvenating, although perhaps not as healing as the Sisters of St. Martha who used to reside there. Its grounds are peaceful amid a colourful and fragrant garden.  

A quick word about the P.E.I. lobster suppers; they are no longer run by church councils or CWL members. They are run by for-profit businesses in a few churches and restaurant halls. If you love lobster, they are worth checking out but the ambiance is more like a restaurant than an old-fashioned church supper.

I am sure there are plenty more Catholic sites in P.E.I. and I expect to find more during our future visits.

Jesuit Father James (Jim) Martin is quickly becoming one of my favourite religious writers and orators. And the more I read of his works or watch his talks on TV and the Internet, the more impressed I become.

This American Jesuit thinks clearly, speaks and writes directly, and best of all, he is funny, although he has serious messages. (He is the official chaplain of Comedy Network’s The Colbert Report where he sometimes appears.) He is a populist who endeavours to make Catholicism ever more popular.

If you’re looking for summer reading, Fr. Martin has several best-selling books, including My Life With the Saints, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Centre Stage with Jesus, Judas and Life’s Big Questions, and the Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything.

They say you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, and that may be so.

But there is something special about an old dog, and he (or she) can often teach an owner a thing or two. Puppies are adorable, but old dogs are like comfortable shoes that when slipped on can sometimes walk us to unexpected places.

(If you’re not a pet lover, I implore you to stop reading immediately and move onto something else in The Register. These meanderings from a sappy dog lover will only frustrate you.)

Should the Canadian-owned racehorse I’ll Have Another pull off one of the rarest feats in sports next weekend and win the Triple Crown, I am sure it will evoke a memory of Holy Cross Elementary School in east-end Toronto and an affable nun who used to be the principal.

I’ll Have Another is the plucky thoroughbred owned by Windsor, Ont., native J. Paul Reddam and ridden by an underdog jockey named Mario Gutierrez, who earned his spurs at the racing outpost known as Hastings Park in Vancouver.

They say you can learn more about a person on the golf course than you can in a business meeting or a social setting. And I believe it.

Love it or hate it, golf has this magical quality of exposing fabrics of your personality very quickly to strangers. Sometimes these traits can be pleasant, or quirky, or annoying, or worse.

If you’re a golfer and have been paired with a stranger on the first tee, you know what I am talking about. From that first tee ball to the first green, before the first putt falls into the hole, often you can tell if it will be a long day or not. (Believe it or not, I have played golf with priests — an occupation not altogether unfamiliar with the game — who made for a long day and I knew it quickly! Most priests, however, are a delight to play with.)

The other day, I finished a terrific page-turner and then picked up the newspaper to read about the latest attacks on the Christian faith, this time in Saskatchewan. They were two seemingly unrelated things that really got me thinking, searching deep down.

The book is best-seller Unbroken written by Laura Hillenbrand about a courageous American airman during the Second World War. If you’ve not read it, pick it up because it’s difficult to put down. But let’s talk about Saskatchewan first.

No doubt, some people will be offended by this column. Seems whatever is said about Catholicism offends someone these days. Even the most benign comment is challenged. Instead of listening to and discussing other points of view, there is a tendency to shout at those who see things differently.

Think I am exaggerating? Take a quick spin on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere and you’ll easily find the shouting, name-calling and misunderstandings. (Just Google “Catholic faith arguments” or “contraception” or “women priests” as starting points and then simply click away.)

There has been much fuss recently about ancient burial boxes and whether the bones of Jesus remain here on Earth.

In March, an Israeli antiquities collector was acquitted of forgery charges concerning a Roman-era burial box inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If genuine, the ossuary could be a direct link to Jesus and His family.

And next week, Vision TV will air The Jesus Discovery, a documentary by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici that claims to cast new light on the Resurrection. It bills itself as: “Part archeological adventure, part biblical history, part forensic science, part theological controversy, The Jesus Discovery is a story that will carry around the world.”