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Arts and culture supporters gather to celebrate the Walrus Foundation and the launch of its new honour

Shelley Ambrose

The ninth annual Walrus gala took place on Jan. 18 in Toronto, and the event was a spirited happening – something always welcome during the sleepy winter social season. It acted as not just a major fundraiser for The Walrus Foundation, which publishes The Walrus magazine, but also as a kick-off of sorts for an exciting event-filled year ahead for the organization, all in celebration of Canada's sesquicentennial. The Walrus Talks Conversations about Canada: We Desire a Better Country, a national tour supported in part by the Government of Canada and in partnership with the Order of Canada, will make stops in every province and territory bringing with it eight fascinating speakers consisting of four members of the Order of Canada and four youth leaders.

Speaking of the Order of Canada, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and is the highest civilian honours given in this country, the gala, held at the Fermenting Cellar in Toronto's historic Distillery District, was chockablock with its companions, officers and members, among them artist Charles Pachter, novelist and poet Margaret Atwood and The Honourable Margaret Norrie McCain and not one but three of my tablemates: senator Pamela Wallin, St. Joseph Media president Doug Knight and Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch. Also at the table, which was hosted by The Walrus Foundation's executive director Shelley Ambrose, was Jodi Butts, Rise Asset Development's CEO and wife of senior political adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Gerald Butts, McCaig family members in from Calgary including Melanie McCaig, and her husband, television producer Al Magee, and Roxanne McCaig.

On the topic of honoraries, the Walrus has started an order of its own, this one in recognition of those who have made a $150,000 donation to help with the foundation's 2017 cultural mission. The inaugural Order of the Walrus, and the honour's accompanying oosik carved by Inuit artists, was given to this year's event co-chairs Gretchen and Donald Ross, long-time supporters of not just the Walrus Foundation but other cultural organizations across Canada.

The highlight of the night for many was a special rendition of the national anthem, sung in Inuktitut, performed by the wonderful Susan Aglukark.

The anthem was also performed in English by heiress and chanteuse Eleanor McCain and later she took to the stage again alongside the Toronto All-Star Big Band to perform a handful of familiar Can-tunes.

Among those out to celebrate all things Walrus: Ontario's Lieutenant Governor The Honorable Elizabeth Dowdeswell; chairman and chief executive officer of Bennett Jones, Hugh MacKinnon and his wife Laura; shoe designer Ron White and his husband Brad; and The Honorable Mitzie Hunter, Ontario's minister of education. Philanthropic types included Andy and Valerie Pringle, Cineplex Media's Salah Bachir and his husband, artist Jacob Yerex, last year's gala co-chairs Stephen Smith and his wife Diane Blake, mining mastermind Pierre Lassonde and his wife Janelle; Donna Slaight; art collector/bon-vivant Bruce Bailey; and John Haney and his wife Velvet. Also out, of course, was Jonathan Kay, Walrus magazine's editor-in-chief and the chair of the Walrus Foundation, Helen Burstyn.