In Timothy Porteous’s varied career as an arts administrator, writer and political aide, he brought together the worlds of politics and the arts in unique ways. While he was still at university he co-wrote a satirical hit musical that toured across Canada, and later he worked to get Pierre Trudeau elected prime minister and then served as his executive assistant. Perhaps his most enduring accomplishment, though, was his successful fight to preserve the arm’s-length relationship between the federal government and the Canada Council for the Arts, where he worked for a dozen years, including three as its director. He went on to run a number of prominent arts-related organizations.
“He was a very gentle person, but he had a fire in his belly. When something was really important to him, he stood firm,” his wife, Beatrice Donald, says. Mr. Porteous, who died on Feb. 11, was known for his intelligence, wit and generosity.
He was also highly creative, both in his personal life and in his writing. “The way his mind worked, it was play,” his son, Nicholas, recalls.
In February, 1957, Mr. Porteous and a group of classmates studying law at McGill University took on the annual student review. They got funding from business tycoon E.P. Taylor, brought in a professional director and came up with My Fur Lady. Mr. Porteous wrote the lyrics, co-wrote the script and acted as associate producer. It played for weeks at the university followed by shows at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont., where the Stratford Festival was in its early years, and a tour across the country. He called working on the musical “one of the two great adventures of my life.”
Ironically, the story, about an Inuit princess scouring the country in search of a husband – playing off the Broadway musical My Fair Lady and the real-life story of Grace Kelly marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco – included the Culturality Squad, which was a spoof of the Canada Council, where Mr. Porteous would later work. The show took down Canadian-American political follies, including the funding of the Distant Early Warning Line. The title song includes the lines: “The dollar spent in large amounts enrich our bulging bank accounts, and that’s why we parade the aisles in the sleekest, chicest Arctic styles.”
Mr. Porteous’s daughter, Vanessa, a theatre director, thinks My Fur Lady hit when there was little art being made that referenced Canada. “The Canadian identity didn’t even have a sentence to describe it.” But her father and his colleagues ran with it, even reporting on the defeat of prime minister Louis St. Laurent during the 1957 election live from the stage during one performance. “The thing about my dad is, there’s so much colour,” she says.
Later, Mr. Porteous was occasionally asked to exercise his theatrical writing skills. In the late 1960s, the Canadian Opera company commissioned him to pen satirical lyrics about Mr. Trudeau for a song in Die Fledermaus. When McGill and My Fur Lady mate Donald MacSween turned 50, he wrote a song for the birthday party, with lyrics that included: “Birdy flies out and crow fly in. The Liberals lose and the Tories win.”
Mr. Porteous became friends with Mr. Trudeau after they met at a World University Service seminar in Africa in 1958. They were vacationing together in Tahiti in 1967 when Mr. Porteous introduced his older friend to 18-year-old Margaret Sinclair, whom Mr. Trudeau would soon marry.
In 1965, Mr. Porteous took a leave of absence from his law firm job to work as an assistant to Liberal industry minister Bud Drury, and he went on to do media relations and write speeches for Mr. Trudeau, who was running for prime minister. When Mr. Trudeau won, Mr. Porteous became his executive assistant; this was the other great adventure of his life. (He never practised law again.)
Mr. Porteous was meant to offer a young, hip air to the new prime minister’s leadership. He obliged, accompanying Mr. Trudeau to a meeting with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
The political aide caught the attention of Richard Nixon in 1972, when the U.S. president visited Ottawa. According to audio tapes released years later, upon his return to Washington the president referred to Mr. Porteous as “that bushy-haired fellow.” Mr. Nixon then called him an “ugly bastard. Probably very left wing. Why don’t we do something about it?” Apparently, Mr. Nixon tried to plant an unflattering media story about Mr. Porteous, but it never materialized.
During his time with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Porteous often drew on his talent with words, writing, among other things, the message on behalf of Canada that was left on the moon by Apollo 11 in 1969: “Man has reached out and touched the tranquil moon. May that high accomplishment allow man to rediscover the Earth and find peace.”
In 1972, Mr. Porteous began working for the Canada Council, where he advocated for independence from government interference. In 1984, Mr. Trudeau’s government proposed the council and other arm’s-length corporations should fall under the Financial Administration Act, and be subjected to greater government oversight. Mr. Porteous objected, triggering what’s been called the organization’s biggest showdown with the federal government.
“While the Council supports the principle of full accountability to the government, Parliament, and the people of Canada, it opposes the imposition of additional controls by the government on the Council. … This will mean a deterioration in the quality of judgements made about the needs and priorities in the arts,” Mr. Porteous wrote in a background paper on the issue.
“He was a very rectitudinous man, very principled. Very strongly ready to put his money where his mouth was. But in a modest way,” says Sarah Jennings, an Ottawa-based author who was working as a cultural journalist in that era.
While he was associate director of the council, he and director Charles Lussier tussled with the government when it insisted $800,000 be chopped from the council’s budget, and specifically be pulled from the budget of the relatively new Art Bank, which buys art to display in government buildings.
In both cases, Mr. Porteous and his allies prevailed. These battles cost Mr. Porteous the long-time friendship of Mr. Trudeau but left a legacy of a council that still, today, runs with minimal political interference.
He was born John Timothy Irvine Porteous on Aug. 31, 1933, in Montreal. His mother, the former Cora Ann Kennedy, loved literature and shared that interest with her son, often ordering books from England. His father, John Geoffrey Porteous, was a lawyer who mentored a young Brian Mulroney. He had an older sister, Jennifer, and a younger one, named Camilla.
Tim attended a boarding school that valued sport and had a militaristic culture – after all, it was wartime – but the young student preferred poetry and art. There, he did his first and only acting role as Miranda in The Tempest, and he admired that character all his life.
At McGill, Mr. Porteous finished his BA in 1954 and his law degree in 1957, during the hubbub of My Fur Lady. After the musical toured, he took a job at the Montreal law firm Bourgeois, Doheny, Day & Mackenzie.
A few years later, Wendy Farris, a neighbour in his apartment building, asked him to defend her against their landlord in a dispute over a bathtub. The two began dating. Vanessa says the family story was that they were lying in bed in 1968 and her mother said, “What are we going to do if Pierre wins?” Mr. Porteous replied, “I thought we’d get married and go to India and [then] get jobs in the government.” This is what they did, with him working for Mr. Trudeau and her beginning a long career as a civil servant.
Vanessa was born in October, 1970, during the FLQ crisis. Her father was at Pierre Laporte’s funeral the day her mother brought her home from the hospital. The young family spent time with the Trudeau clan, including holidays. Mr. Porteous and his wife divorced in 1982.
While Mr. Porteous clashed with the Liberal government when he was director of the Canada Council, he truly chafed under Brian Mulroney’s newly elected Progressive Conservatives. He objected to cuts to the council while the government increased arts money that it closely controlled. He was fired from the job in 1985.
Mr. Porteous then became the associate director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. By 1988, he had moved to Toronto to be president of the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). “He did fine at these jobs, but he was really at his peak at the Canada Council,” says Geoffrey James, who headed the council’s visual-arts division.
Mr. Porteous met Beatrice Donald in 1981 at a conference in B.C., where he had written a skit to open the event. The two married in 1987, and their son, Nicholas, was born the same year.
When he retired in 1995, he and Ms. Donald moved to West Vancouver. There, he did community work, including launching a series of annual Stephen Leacock lunches, and continued serving on boards, such as the Vancouver Art Gallery and Vancouver Youth Theatre. His board résumé also includes the National Theatre School, National Arts Centre and Royal Ontario Museum.
He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2003 and received an honorary doctorate from Trent University in 1986.
In his personal life, Mr. Porteous had what Nicholas calls “an incredible sense of play.” Vanessa recalls her father declaring he wanted to learn either to skateboard or to ride a unicycle. His wife felt the latter would be safer, and he got one for Christmas around 1978. He would take Vanessa to a parking lot and would put one hand on the mirror of the family’s van and the other on the top of her head and taught himself to balance on it, and then ride it. At one point he even owned and mastered a giraffe unicycle, which is extra tall.
Similarly, he took the fun of special occasions very seriously. Birthdays were elaborate, playful events: Vanessa recalls one involving an all-neighbourhood scavenger hunt with items planted by her dad. The Porteous family’s annual spring party in Ottawa eventually expanded to include the entire neighbourhood.
The night his father died, Nicholas, a professional actor, had a show. “They asked me if I wanted to cancel it. That would have been against everything he stood for. So I did it, and it felt really good to honour his spirit in that way.”
Mr. Porteous, who was 86, died as a result of complications related to Parkinson’s disease. In addition to his wife, son and daughter, he leaves his daughter’s partner, Bruce Weir; younger sister, Camilla Ross; and grandson, Alexander Weir.
Judy Stoffman contributed to this report