Charles Pascal is a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). He’s also the former executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation and a former Ontario deputy minister.
Two groups have been battling over the future of Torstar Corp., the owner of the Toronto Star. One seems to have reigned supreme in the courts after Ontario’s Superior Court Justice Cory Gilmore ruled in support of a bid by private equity firm NordStar Capital, which is favoured by those in control of the paper. But, as Yogi Berra noted, it’s not over until it’s over, given that the other bidder, Canadian Modern Media Holdings, is going to appeal the decision. So, what’s the big deal? What’s at stake?
The ebb and flow regarding the ownership of the Toronto Star has captured far more than my attention. It has stirred my soul. I spent 15 years as the first executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, an organization created by former Toronto Star owner and publisher Joseph Atkinson. I was – and always will be – emotionally and intellectually captured by his legacy. Much has been made recently of the importance of the Atkinson Principles that informed his remarkable 20th-century influence over much of Canada’s most significant and progressive ethos. His unrelenting fight for social justice, civil liberties, workers’ rights and the important role of government as a buffer between the individual and society has been central to our national journey and the “Canadian experiment.” Always way ahead of his time, he advocated that the child-care centres set up during the Second World War to support women’s efforts to “run things” remain open once the fighting ended. He foresaw both the right and need for women to participate in the work force. He fought for the many rather than the elite few.
It is not the first time the Star’s soul is up for grabs. Mr. Atkinson created his foundation so that upon his death, it would own his paper with any profits going to charity. A year after he died in 1948, the Ontario government – hostile regarding Mr. Atkinson’s progressive beliefs – passed the Charitable Gifts Act that ruled void the intent of his will, noting that a charity would not be allowed to own more than 10 per cent of a business. This legislative act only affected a single entity and was designed solely to deal a deadly blow to the Star. In 1958, rather than see the paper fold, Premier Leslie Frost – through either his good graces or guilt – allowed it to be bought by the five trustees (and their families) of the foundation, who are the “sellers” in the current context.
What’s at stake 62 years later? Last week, the “winning” bidder had expected a judicial rubber stamp to confirm it as the new owner of Torstar. But after a review of the competing submissions, Justice Gilmore temporarily reserved judgment. It seemed like a wise move because the issues before the court were whether the bidding process has been fair to each side and whether shareholders had the right to have access to the details of each bid. I am not a lawyer, but at the most basic level, why would it be in the best interests of the shareholders for the bidding by the two sides to be frozen? Why wasn’t an auction allowed to proceed? And regarding the protection of the Atkinson Principles, so central to me personally and, I believe, central to a better Canada, I simply have real difficulty accepting that enough is in place to assure this commitment with the “chosen” bid.
What is the rush? My hope remains that a more thorough and public opportunity to hear arguments from both sides will take place. We need a thoughtful understanding of the complexities of what ownership of the Star means to Canada going forward. There are, indeed, complex issues that require moving beyond the simple and the expeditious. Quality trumps speed.
In his time, how would Mr. Atkinson have expected the issue to be resolved? It’s hard to imagine him selling the paper to anyone without a deep social-justice background, but I believe he would have urged the court to ensure all shareholders have a full understanding of what was being offered by each bidder, what would be in the best interest of his employees in the long run and, importantly, which bidder was most likely to continue the paper’s unique mission. The beat goes on with a possible appeal that will hopefully pull back the curtain to see what’s best for the many rather than a few.
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