Ian Verner Macdonald

Ian Verner Macdonald (Ian Macdonald) is a true native son of Ottawa and one of the first to be born at the newly-built Ottawa Civic Hospital – on January 19, 1925. He was raised on Glen Avenue in Old Ottawa South which in those days bore all the characteristics of village life where most everyone knew everyone else. Summers he spent in a real village – Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia where his pioneer Scottish ancestors settled 200 years ago. He attended Hopewell Public School and Glebe Collegiate, leaving early to join the RCAF, as did most other patriotic teenagers at the time who could qualify. Following service in the RCAF and RN Fleet Air Arm, he took degrees in Economics at Queen’s (where he was Manager of the Queen’s Brass and Pipe Bands and leader of a popular dance band) and Toronto universities, wrote the Foreign Service exams, in which he placed 2nd nationwide, and embarked on a career as a commercial diplomat that took him officially to over 50 countries and enabled him to visit privately many more.

During his diplomatic career, he had the privilege of meeting such notables as the Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, the Duke of Gloucester, Sir Charles Woolley, Konrad Adenauer, Hjalmar Horace Greely Schacht, Friedrich Krupp Jr.,, Cyrus Eaton Jr, Averill Harriman, John J. Hopkins (President of General Dynamics), Frank Carlucci, Joan Crawford, George Romney, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum (Ruler of Dubai), Tarik Aziz, Robert Winters, Tom Bata, Ernest Manning, Lester Pearson, Peter Newman and an international host of senior officials and businessmen, not least of whom the genial Ken Taylor, his Vice-Consul in Detroit who gained celebrity status as the Canadian Ambassador in Iran who rescued the six American hostages.

Heeding the oft-repeated assurance of his engineer father, a seasoned WWI Veteran, that “nothing is impossible” (which he would invariably challenge with: “Well, how about taking a walk on the moon?”) he succeeded where others failed. When only two years into his first posting, to Bonn, West Germany, despite ambassadorial outrage over offering military equipment to “the enemy”, he became arguably the most productive trade official in Canadian history. Inspired by his aviation background, Ian sought out the deeply-covert head-of-procurement-designate for the future German Luftwaffe and singlehandedly initiated negotiations leading to purchase of 300 Canadair F86Mk6 Sabrejets, powered by the Canadian-built Orenda engine, an order worth several billion dollars by today’s standards. There were subsequent unprecedented accomplishments in his career as a trade diplomat – first sale of a Canadian hydro-electric project in Asia, first arms- length sale of Canadian auto production parts in the USA, first sale of aircraft to Oman, first agreements in principle for major sales, concessions and joint ventures in the Middle East and North Africa worth billions of dollars. In Beirut he handled top secret negotiations with the Government of Lebanon for the immensely profitable takeover of expropriated Intrabank assets by Canadian Pacific (only to have his encyphered messages to the President of CP blocked in the Comcentre at Foreign Affairs until the Lebanese lost patience). For virtually no cash investment, the deal would have given CP control of the expropriated Intrabank with majority interest in Middle East Airlines, the Phoenicia Hotel, half-ownership in the Casino du Liban, port facilities, Canada House in New York and real estate on the Champs Elyssee in Paris (that alone sold later for $300 million).

He was chided by wisecracking colleagues for not having sold refrigerators to Eskimos, but countered by selling overcoats to Africans, a feat that earned him a picture story in a major Canadian newspaper. When, while Canadian Trade Commissioner in Sri Lanka, the head of the foreign aid program in Ottawa ignored his warnings that the costly Government-to-Goverenment “mechanized fisheries” program would inevitably fail, he demonstrated a feasible alternative by building a large modern long-liner fish boat based on FAO designs, using mostly local skills and materials at a fraction the cost of two similar boats supplied under the Aid Program.He forestalled a Soviet subversive plan that would have put over ten million dollars of government funds in the hands of the local communists and greatly strengthened their influence.

He introduced water-skiing to Sri Lanka and while not skimming the water was skimming the treetops in a Canadian-built Chipmunk borrowed from the Ceylon Air Force or an old Tiger Moth biplane left over from the Colonial era.. In Johannesburg he moonlighted by forming a Swing Band that became an instant hit by introducing North American-style big band music live. He now plays in a Swing Era band in Ottawa. He studied Advanced News Writing at Wayne State University during a posting in Detroit and has written many articles, mainly on international marketing, published in Canada, Germany and USA. He co-published in Beirut the first Canadian trade journal (English-Arabic) to be produced outside of Canada.

After six foreign postings, on five continents, he was appointed Chief of Planning and Policy for export development from which position he was able to propose programs and policies based on practical experience that would greatly improve the efficacy of government assistance to Canadians seeking to do business abroad. In the mid-‘sixties, he strongly recommended cultivation of the lucrative and receptive Arab markets where he had been assured by top-level officials and businessmen that Canada, because of its perceived independent, non-partisan foreign policy, was their trading partner of choice.. Much to his dismay, Canadair reported that the sale he had negotiated for supply of jet trainers to the Sultan of Oman Air Force (SOAF) had been vetoed by Foreign Affairs, an affront to Sultan Said bin Taimur that cost Canada heavily in prospective earnings. More importantly, his high-level discussions to train and equip the embryo Saudi Air Force, for which a $400 million down payment was offered, failed to receive support in Ottawa and was never consummated.

To add to the folly, his Middle East and North African trade policy proposals, no matter how astute and prescient, were opposed furiously by an influential foreign-affiliated lobby (with several moles in the Department and the ear of the Minister) who intervened to have the intrepid policy advisor summarily dismissed from the Foreign Service for his audacious devotion to duty. He was tricked out of an easily-won appeal of his “wrongful dismissal” by a false promise of reinstatement “as soon as the heat from the Jewish Lobby dies down” – on condition he not appeal nor seek outside assistance. Because of his well-founded suspicion of foreign intrigue, he contacted RCMP Security (and subsequently the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), only to find that they were “not interested”. So ended his chosen career.

Betrayed, deceived and rebuffed, deserted by intimidated colleagues, but undaunted, he searched for alternative opportunites in government and soon landed a job, in overseas project marketing, that suited his talents. He brokered Canadian construction of a major luxury resort project at Cayo Sabinal, Cuba, by raising $171 million in Canadian financing for the American sponsors but the project was stalled by the imposition of U.S. sanctions. After a decade of forming Canadian consortia and globe-trotting on their behalf in search of project opportunities, he again ran afoul of the Lobby and again was fired – this time for successfully negotiating major concessions and joint ventures agreements in Libya worth billions of dollars and a $700 million agricultural project in Saudi Arabia, unprecedented accomplishments that were condemned and vetoed by his furious titular superiors as “contrary to instructions”.

Meanwhile, in his spare time, he founded a company to manufacture vinyl-based dental plastics (a first in Canada), opened a feldspar (dentalspar) mine in Quebec, established a downtown gallery in Ottawa, grew barley on one of his farms, and built a lavish-decor 190 seat Hollywood-theme restaurant and pianobar on Clarence St. in the By Ward market. He acquired the last of the old Centretown tourist homes (the Lauderdale Arms, 356 Maclaren St.) and operated it until its conversion to the Marrakesh Restaurant, named by Town & Country Magazine as one of the five best in the Ottawa region.

Along the way, relying on his economics and business background, he confronted the Governor of the Bank of Canada with his prognosis that the Bank’s high-interest-rate “cure for inflation” would be counter-productive, would raise costs and cripple the small-business community. The Governor disagreed, claiming it would bring prosperity – while some 400,000 Canadian enterprises closed their doors and personal bankruptcies soared. He persistently advised the Immigration Establishment that the waiving of traditional standards for Third World migrants and exclusion of Britons was unfair, illogical, harmful, inhumane, illegal and prohibitively costly, to no avail. He belabored Social Services for knowingly paying multiple benefits to thousands of unqualified migrants and for giving them priority in the allocation of Public Housing (when he called the Ontario Minister of Housing to complain, her deputy replied “What are you, some kind of racist?”). He placed an In Memoriam ad in the London Times exposing the unpublicized execution of the Keeper of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem by Israeli soldiers, leading to a “furore” – the word used by Murdoch’s secretary – at The Times and a mendacious denial from the Israeli Government. He wrote a proposal for an eminently plausible Imposed Peace in Palestine that was displayed prominently in the British Guardian newspaper. He joined the Reform Party in its early stages and was invited to run as a candidate, only to have his membership cancelled when his views on the Middle East became known in the wrong quarters. He does not shun controversy!

In the spring of 1987, on behalf of the Government of Libya with which he had kept contact since 1972 through Libya’s UN Ambassador, he recruited a 96 member Canadian delegation to an International Peace Gathering called by Col. Ghaddafi to commemorate the previous year’s U.S. attack on Tripoli and Bhengazi, in which the President’s 2 year daughter was killed. The conference was infiltrated by Libya’s enemies intending to stage an “ugly incident” to discredit the proceedings, the main feature of the proposed incident to be the high-profile organizer of the Canadian delegation. When he was able to evade the planned assassination thanks to a tip, the only journalist on the mission (the perceptive, insightful young Christoph Halens from the Ottawa Citizen, a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism eager to make his mark by covering the Conference) tragically became the alternative victim. With the Libyan outrage in mind, the Author vigorously petitioned the Commissioner of the RCMP, the Foreign Affairs Department and the Belgian Embassy to investigate the subsequent murder of Canadian scientist Dr Gerald Bull (who had contracted his services to the Government of Iraq) but without effect, despite the availability of the prime witness (Victor Ostrovsky, former Mossad agent ) in Ottawa. He continues to be the victim of attempts to impoverish him and otherwise dampen his spirit including death threats, none of which has been wholly successful, however disconcerting.. Two of his houses have been destroyed by arson, and a third seriously damaged.

In the mid-‘nineties during a successful business visit to Baghdad he was moved by the widespread death and suffering of Iraqi children resulting from the bombing and sanctions, and formed the Iraqi-Canadian Friendship Association, speaking at conferences in Montreal, Moscow and Baghdad aimed at alleviating the suffering of the children. Each time he visited Baghdad he would bring large quantities of potent painkillers for the Children’s Hospital.

As a WWII Veteran, he was drawn to study the history of the war, particularly the events surrounding its origin and aftermath, concluding, as did Churchill (when the Cold War loomed) that “it looks like we slaughtered the wrong pig”. He wonders how, even as an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old, he could have been brought to believe that killing good Christian Germans and in turn being killed was both a duty and an honour while ignoring the fact that the genocidal Stalin, already known as the worst dictator of all time, would be the main beneficiary and that Western Civilization would likely suffer, if not perish, as a result. He now harbours grave doubts that in 1939 Germany was Canada’s (or Britain’s) enemy, and that the Allied military victory really brought the security, peace and freedom for which he and other young idealists had offered (and often given) their lives. He now feels betrayed again as cabalistic power-brokers and venal politicians trash our priceless British-French heritage and compete to sacrifice the country’s birthright and sovereignty for sordid political advantage and personal gain. He fears that Canada today is no longer a respected, confident, homogeneous, independent, Christian union but is becoming increasingly a dispossessed, demoralized, turbulent, unstable, lobby-driven, multicultural, multiracial, Godless, leaderless, confused, disintegrating, Americanized polyglot, essentially without national character, without cohesion, without historical integrity, without pride and without common purpose.

Ever the collector, he saw Ottawa’s antique houses as the ultimate collectible and despite the world-wide travel demands of his full-time job, he purchased, over a 15 year period, three pioneer farmhouses just south of the city, with 350 acres and, among others, a dozen prime heritage properties in Sandy Hill and downtown. He restored and rented the properties as embassies, restaurants, apartments, rooming houses, health clubs, offices for psychiatrists, architects, lawyers, consultants, dentists, mortgage brokers, Heritage Canada, former Prime Minister Joe Clark, the Hon.Flora Macdonald and the occasional journalist. He established the exquisitely-furnished Olde Bytown B & B using two large Victorian houses overlooking Strathcona Park and operated it for many years. He bought and restored the Lucerne Apartments on Charlotte St., once, as he recalled his socialite mother saying in the 1930′s, the most fashionable apartment address in Sandy Hill. His most prized acquisition is one of the grand houses on Wilbrod Street built by Sir Henry Newell Bate that had been occupied by the Bate family since its construction in 1890. Little had changed in the house and its large coach house since that time and it remains to this day an authentic reflection of the lifestyle of its former occupants.

Throughout his life, the collector instinct, beginning with stamps and coins at the age of 5 when he was confined to bed for several months, never waned. Wherever he lived or travelled, most recently to Moscow and Baghdad, he would search out both the typical and the unusual, from fine art to tobacco cards, 18th Century armour, 19th Century books, early 20th Century magazines, mounted game and reptiles, old African spears Persian carpets, musical instruments, even an antique British naval diving helmet. With his son Scott, he collected antique cars, including 2 Rolls Royces, a MacLaughlin Buick, a 1928 LaSalle, a classic 1961 Mercedes limo and a 1927 Ford Model-T Pickup. He has an unused 1957 Triumph motorcycle and a Vespa scooter which he bought in Stockholm in 1956 and has used ever since. One of his less exotic interests is in old advertising material and it is thanks to his assiduous search for such advertisements, especially those issued by the pioneer merchants of Sparks Street, that these unique Victorian Albums on, “OTTAWA – the Golden Years”, became a possibility. Thanks are owed also to those who thoughtfully preserved the various items at the time of their circulation a century or more ago, and to those who helped immortalize them through their skill in preparing the images for display in this volume.

(From “About the Author” by Iona Skuce long-time friend for “Ottawa – the Golden Years”)

3 comments on “Ian Verner Macdonald

  1. Mr. Ian V. Macdonald is a brave heart and one of the most extraordinary and admirable Canadians.

  2. J. Boyle, Toronto

    Ian… I also wanted to let you know how deeply I respect you; if I could accomplish with my life half of what you accomplished with yours, I could be a happy + contented man. Your stoic pursuit of freedom + knowledge has inspired at least a portion of the next generation. Yours, with absolute sincerity, J. Boyle

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