The news that Ontario Premier Mike Harris and the now-blond ex-news anchor Sharon Dunn are an item raises an important question in voters' minds: Is Harris really up to the job of going out with a glamorous woman?
Ontario's politicians are notoriously the dullest in the land, and that's what voters expect and prefer: clones of affable and honest Bill Davis, who married a good woman, stuck with her and never moved out of Brampton, by cracky.
Harris, 54, separated from his wife of 25 years, is living in a condo on the Toronto harbour and looks to be headed for his second divorce. His wife, Janet, 51, now lives in their hometown of North Bay with their two sons, whom he sees on weekends.
Dunn, a highly attractive woman in her early 40s, has two sons and has also been divorced twice. "We are good friends," Dunn told reporters this spring in a fount of coy euphemisms. "We are seeing each other. We spend time together." As to whether they were also sparking, pitching woo or walking alongside the riverbank on cool evenings, she did not say.
Dunn is a Nova Scotian, raised in Sydney, and reportedly educated by nuns. She may well have been a small-town girl but she has grown far from her roots, achieving success in television, marrying high rollers, changing careers and building a fruitful and interesting life for herself. Harris, try as he might, still seems to be a North Bay golf pro, fond of tractor pulls, an ardent admirer of the achievements of the state of New Jersey, and utterly unable to find his inner sophisticate, should there be one.
Dunn's history has never been dull. She had been working happily at CBC Halifax for five years when she was talent-spotted and brought to CBLT in Toronto in the early 1980s to read the evening news. It was a difficult job but she carried it off.
Women had only recently made inroads into TV news in those days -- the U.S. newsreader Christine Craft's firing for being "too unattractive and not deferential enough to men" took place in 1983 -- and reading coverage of that time is jarring. "Miss Dunn reads intelligently and as a bonus shuffles us nightly through a wide range of things to do with her hair," was the conclusion of The Globe's Ross McLean. (Other female anchors he variously described as "sweet and uncommonly lovely," and "languid." Of one, he said, "I would never call her plain.")
One of Dunn's co-anchors, covering sports, was Vic Rauter, now at TSN. He remembers her with great affection. "She's very bright," he says in a car-phone interview while driving his kids to a water park. "She impressed people and maintained that. And she's a survivor."
They used to throw barbs at each other on air. "Some were somewhat sexual in nature. She was married and I wasn't and we went on vacation at the same time. Some columnist wrote, 'Is there something going on between Sharon and Vic?' "
Well, was there?
"No, gosh, no. You don't do that. We used to play pranks on each other. I did this thing called Vic's Briefs to wrap up the show. Instead of my briefs coming up one night [on the monitor] she put in a Playmate picture. These breasts were coming out of the screen and staring me in the face. She was out of camera range and just beside herself," Rauter says, the background noise in his van dimming as the kids presumably work on their stealth listening. "The crew was cracking up."
Earl McRae, who also worked with her as sports anchor and is now a newspaper columnist in Ottawa, recently wrote about Dunn, defending her then-notorious decision to mark her 1983 move to the CBC late news show by posing for the cover of a TV magazine in a bubble bath accompanied by a rubber duck.
McRae said the station's TV journalists gathered a petition against her, protesting against the photo as "an embarrassment and insult to professional journalists," but their complaint went nowhere with management. When he started working with her, McRae says in an interview, he was warned not to chat with her on-air because, he was told, "She's not too bright; she doesn't know how to respond."
But McRae did so anyway and found her competent and at ease. "She was a woman who was troubled by thoughts," he says. "She was just fine, if a bit reserved, probably stunned that someone actually felt she was worthy of being treated like a human being."
He remembers her "designer fashions, dangly earrings and sexy makeup," as a man would. Her female co-workers recall fashion specifics: tight leather skirts and high-heeled mules. She stood out among "these dull, drab people," McRae says, and they resented her for it. The consensus is that Dunn was an unaffected person who genuinely didn't realize that her sexuality impressed some people and made other people ("bag ladies," snorts McRae) extremely jealous.
Long after Dunn had left news anchoring to marry a wealthy horse breeder and have a baby (she also has a son from a previous marriage), she would return to TV to do a show on women's makeovers called The New You. She defended herself in an interview. "Watching the reactions of those makeover ladies gives me a much more positive feeling than reading the news ever did."
When Dunn gets up every morning, she told a reporter in 1986, she puts on her makeup first thing. "Just like I've been doing ever since one day when I was in Grade 10. My teacher was worried that I wouldn't win the big debate of the year because I looked like I was getting sick. I looked in the mirror and realized that my sallow complexion makes me look green. So I got out all my mother's cosmetics and put on lipstick and rouge. The next day the teacher stopped worrying. I won the debate and I've been wearing makeup ever since."
Perhaps this sounds a bit Miss Annapolis Valley. But friends confirm that Dunn at that time still had an element of naiveté in her when it came to men. She went out with men who, they felt, were simply not worthy of her. One such friend says, "I don't know if she grew up poor but she used to tell me he took her here and he bought her that. I always used to say, Sharon, pay your own way. You don't have to be beholden to anyone when you pay your own way. She didn't get that."
In 1984, Dunn married a millionaire horse breeder named John Sikura, a man who had come to Canada in 1950 as a Czech refugee, dirt poor and unable to speak English. By the 1980s, he had climbed his way up to wealth in a shadowy industry. News files on Sikura show a man whose business associates often appeared to be on the wrong side of something. He was a secretary-treasurer at a junior mining company whose president was arrested and fined $1-million for stealing from the company. Sikura's home was raided, but he was not charged. He was in a horse-buying syndicate with Joe Burnett, who was investigated for misconduct by the OSC. In 1991, Burnett was acquitted of tax evasion after an eight-year trial.
By the time of his horrible death in a car fire in 1994, Sikura's fortunes had collapsed along with those of the thoroughbred industry, a decline reporter Tony Van Alphen covered for The Toronto Star. Sikura's companies had lost millions in the previous decade, Van Alphen reported, and he had been separated from Dunn since 1992, even though they had a young son whom they both adored.
"We were passionate. We fought for 10 years. What can I say? It was an unusual marriage," Dunn says with admirable candour.
According to court documents, she and Sikura met for dinner on Nov. 25, 1994. Sikura, 60, ordered a $150 bottle of champagne. Dunn sipped wine. They began to argue and Dunn left. Fifteen minutes later, Sikura, who had a blood-alcohol level of .177, more than twice the legal limit, drove his black Cadillac Seville home, using his car phone on the way. He parked in his driveway. Fifteen minutes later, the car exploded in flames, and Sikura, who may have fallen asleep, failed to honk the horn, unlock the car or use his cell phone to get help. He was burned to death.
In a subsequent lawsuit filed by the family against General Motors (it was settled out of court), a medical examiner told the court that Sikura's larynx and trachea were severely burned, showing that he was conscious and must have suffered terror and great pain as he was overcome by smoke and flames. There has never been a conclusive explanation of his bizarre death.
Dunn recently wrote a touching Father's Day article in The New York Times describing how her nine-year-old son, Luke, has coped over the years with his father's death. For a time, they celebrated Brother's Day (with Luke's older step-brother) instead of Father's Day, but she came to realize it was no substitute.
At a party one day, she wrote, "Luke blurted out, 'My dad's dead.' All conversation stopped as embarrassed guests looked toward him. 'But my mom's reallllyy alive!' he finished. He'd saved the moment -- and given me a description that, since then, I've tried daily to live up to."
"She's crazy about her son," confirms Betty Ann Tutching, director of operations at ROBTv, who worked with Dunn in her CBC years. "After [Sikura's]death, she said her focus was to take care of him."
Tutching says Dunn was highly popular with the cameramen and the technical staff. "There's not a snob bone in her body. She's as down-to-earth as you can be, friendly, sincere and honest."
As for the bubble-bath photo, "I think she didn't have a clue that people were yakking about her behind her back. But after, I don't think she let it bother her. She's a great person, full of life. She is beautiful and a beautiful person."
It remains to be seen whether Mike Harris is the man who will prove himself Dunn's equal. She is upmarket in a flashy way; he isn't. And they do look a little incongruous together.
Over the years, stress has gotten to Harris, who has begun to take on the big meaty look that can afflict an older man. Dunn, on the other hand, went blond a few years ago, and looks slim and youthful. She now works in marketing for a real-estate firm building expensive condos in downtown Toronto. When they go out, it looks as if Mike Harris on Sharon Dunn's arm, even if he is the premier.
How will the relationship work? It's not a question Ontario voters are used to asking about the guy who does the budget, runs the bear hunt and sells you the sticker on your car licence. It's a 416 problem in an all-round 905 province, and everyone's going to have to adjust.