W. Brett Wilson is a Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist, and a former panelist on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. He is the author of the just published Redefining Success: Still Making Mistakes, and will be signing his book at Costco and Indigo in Edmonton on Jan. 23.
The federal government is closing Kingston Penitentiary. There have been suggestions that it would make a good tourist attraction. Have you ever been in a prison?
I have been in prisons in England. I have never been in Canadian prisons that I can think of.
Which side of the bars?
Okay, in university days, I did spend one night. … My friend was drunker than me. Just a short experience in southern Saskatchewan. I had to sleep somewhere, so it didn’t really matter.
What has kept you from prison?
No desire to be on that side of the street. I’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way but leaned from them.
Would you visit a penitentiary as a tourist? I went to Alcatraz and found it fascinating.
I actually think there’s merit. I have attended some prisons in England, or castles where a portion of them at one time were prisons. The question is whether you can recreate the folklore and the drama that would cause people to come in for more than just a physical plant tour. A physical plant tour of any building is going to be somewhat plain. But if they can tell some of the stories without resorting to the macabre …
I’m not looking to that kind of marketing plan. But there are stories of real Canadians. I was over on Ellis Island just a few months ago and it was the stories and how they personalized it that made Ellis Island interesting as opposed to the physical plant.
The Kingston Pen was opened in 1835. There are undoubtedly historical facts and stories on which to build tourism. In the opinion of some, the place is a stain on our history, so we should level it. Is that short-sighted?
I think it’s extremely short-sighted. The asset is already there. It’s an iconic piece if Canadian history. We have a habit, as Canadians, of tearing things down. Calgary, unfortunately, has very few old buildings. I own a hundred-year-old home in Calgary, and it’s considered one of the true cultural classic heritage homes. And it’s only a hundred years old.
When I go over to England, to Derby, there’s a bar we sit in that opened in 1635!
In reopening any prison for tourism, are we not pandering to people’s baser instincts – love of the macabre, torture chambers etc.?
There’s going to be an element of that, but there’s also going to be so much more. We still have that great debate: Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, were they heroes, traitors or visionaries? History is always written by the winners, so the vanquished are always the enemy.
I’m certain there are stories of people who were innocent and were proven innocent after they died in that prison. I’m sure there are stories of people who changed the history of Canada after coming out of a prison experience. There’s more to the story, and that’s the work that has to be done.
Entrepreneurs will have to be involved in any remaking of the Kingston Pen into a tourist attraction Should such a site be for profit or for edification of the nation?
I happen to think that all of our public assets should have a profit motive. Do they need to be a profit centre in terms of Disneyland? No. But they should, where possible, be covering their own costs without huge subsidies once they’re up and running. The research work and all that, that’s called an investment. But once it’s up and running, they should take care of themselves.
It seems a great opportunity for an entrepreneur. One in which you’d be interested?
You know, if I weren’t as busy as I am in my own life, if this were in my backyard in North Battleford, Sask., I’d certainly look at it. I’m more than slightly familiar with Kingston because I dated a girl who lived there and both my daughters went to school there. So I’ve been in and out of Kingston and I’m reasonably familiar with the asset.
Maybe it’s my age. I’m in my 50s and I start to think more about the history and legacy of what we are and who we are as Canadians. I think it’s shameful we know so little about our own past.
Anyone who wanted to operate the Kingston Pen as a private-enterprise tourist attraction would have to negotiate with the government. The Harper government has a thing for prisons, especially new ones. Do you think they’d be more amenable to expedite such a project?
I think so. While I disagree with some of the things that Stephen Harper and his government have done around deductibility and tax structure, I love that these guys are making decisions because they know that no decision means no progress. This is a group that actually can make a decision, and I think we could move forward fairly quickly.