Arms and the man and flowers in the rain

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

I was out walking the canal on the first day of the tulip festival. It was the start of a rainy spell, the air damp chilled. I was all alone out there of a Saturday. The tourists had opted for room service and snuggling up. The flowers were just starting to open and would be in full blossom in a week.

In the late days of the festival they were wilted but still a kaleidoscope of colour though wet and cool continued in the weeks after my walk. The Bollywood film program would be cancelled “due to inclement weather” on India Day. But it’s not foul weather that tolls the last gasps of this traditional celebration of spring and welcome for the summer oncoming. Public indifference will kill it. The city doesn’t care. NCC gives the festival no financial support. Saved from bankruptcy five years ago, the festival has responded by dropping $2 million since.
Allen%20Vanguard2-213X111.jpgI passed the polished stone tribute to Doug Fullerton and thought of Ottawa’s other weather-plagued festival. It was Doug who invented the Rideau Canal Skateway, the longest skating rink in the world, which led to Winterlude, which led to god only knows how much wealth for Ottawa merchants. Not only that. Fullerton, an affable economist who had put the Canada Council on a sound financial footing as its investment guru before being handed responsibility for the NCC, understood the importance of people and spaces in urban planning. He conceived and had built, I quote from his stone near Patterson Creek, "the network of recreational pathways that weave their way through the National Capital Region, uniquely linking waterways, green spaces and the urban core." Hard to believe he only held the job for four years, 1969-73.
Then I thought of David Luxton, who rescued the tulip festival when it was about to go under a few years back and has been its moral centre as well as its chief idea guy ever since.
Tulip%20Festival%20logo%202011.jpgNot that he’s around a lot. The last time I had seen him was over a year before. As we were chatting, he excused himself while he took a few brief calls. He spoke in English, French, German and Arabic. He was spending much of his time in Afghanistan and other exotic places. He often moved, he mentioned, in a convoy of armored vehicles. He’s not an arms dealer. More an anti-arms dealer. It just happened that when the weapon of choice for terrorists became the improvised explosive device (IED), David Luxton had the antidote — electronic gear that jams cellphone-triggered improvised bombs. Not a hundred percent effective, of course. This is war after all and a hundred and fifty five Canadians have died, almost two out of three of them as the result of IED explosions. But there could be hundreds more casualties, and thousands more in other armies now engaged, without the kind of protection David’s company provides.

As well as protection against IED’s, this company — Allen-Vanguard Corporation — produces the world’s best body armour to shield first responders from explosions. This was a product developed by Richard L’Abbé at an Ottawa company called Med-Eng. L’Abbé, who was famous for having himself blown up on 20 occasions while wearing his own gear, until his life insurer clamped down, became quite wealthy when Luxton engineered a $650 million merger of Allen-Vanguard with MedEng, one of the biggest deals of the decade in Ottawa’s tech sector.
(One way the still-young L’Abbé stays active is by leading the foundation to keep St. Paul University running, a task he was at during a breakfast gathering earlier this month where I was a guest at the Lonergan Table. Monsignor André Drouin, recently named St. Paul Alumnus Of The Year, was at the next table. St. Paul is Ottawa’s third university and the stub of uOttawa. It formed to retain the Catholic intellectual tradition when uOttawa went secular in 1965. St. Paul, which retains uO’s papal charter and still names a quarter of the bigger school’s board of governors, is one of 22 universities worldwide that host an institute inspired by the work of Buckingham’s Bernard Lonergan. With a groundbreaking merger of science and philosophy in his classic Insight, this local boy did with the method of understanding what Marshall McLuhan did with communications. He made intellectual life exciting and proved that Canadians can think with the best of them. More than McLuhan, though, Lonergan is sticking. As well as the 22 university institutes, Bernie has found his way into crevices as distant from academia as Canada’s border patrol. That’s another story.)
It may surprise some, probably not many, that defence and security is one of Ottawa’s major tech sectors. Always has been. Lt.-Col By of Britain’s Royal Engineers built an engineering marvel of global distinction as a defence against American incursion. The Rideau Canal was an inspired military project, deemed essential by the Duke of Wellington himself, hero of Waterloo, who was Master General of Ordnance when the decision to build the canal was taken after the War of 1812.
General Andrew McNaughton led the National Research Council before World War II, when he took command of the 1st Canadian Army and later became minister of defence. McNaughton invented the cathode ray direction finder, which enabled gunners to locate enemy artillery posts. He assigned rights to the invention — a direct tech precedent of radar — to Canada for $1. Over 60 tech companies trace their origins to the NRC. Many of the earlier startups, such as Computing Devices and Leigh Instruments, were geared to military requirements.
Marc Garneau, now a Member of Parliament, was a navy captain before he became Canada’s first astronaut and icon of the space research program that produced Canadarm and some astonishing visual capabilities out of Ottawa’s Neptec Design Group. Neptec’s laser camera system inspects areas of the shuttle once invisible to astronauts.
In all of this and much, much more, the military and technology have been entwined. It’s been a live-or-die necessity for soldiers to have the best weaponry and counter-terror devices, or at least better than their adversaries. It’s been great for business because a lot of what is designed, built and provided to the military and security forces gets used up quickly — ammunition perhaps the extreme example — and needs replacing.
More than 200 companies and between 10,000 and 20,000 workers in the greater Ottawa area are directly employed on defence and security (def/sec) tasks. No-one knows for sure what the totals are, which may be as it must be in the def/sec biz. “Greater Ottawa” might stretch to Belleville and Cornwall. Luxton357X323.JPGThere are certainly more techies in uniform in Ottawa than anywhere else. Ottawa generates well over 10% of the estimated $10 billion of def/sec income generated by Canadian companies each year. But Ottawa is also the national purchasing centre and as such swings a mighty bat in the game from coast to coast to coast. As well as the headquarters of National Defence, Ottawa is where the RCMP is run from, as well as the border security agency, NavCanada, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, the Defence R&D Canada, the Communications Research Centre (once the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment), Canadian Space Agency, the national police research centre, the electronic warfare centre, and on and on.
David Luxton (pictured at right) is chair of the def/sec cluster in Ottawa and he notes that, “Changes in the nature of armed conflict, coupled with natural disasters and terrorist threats, have stimulated demand for a wide range of new technologies to upgrade preparedness and response in public security, civil disaster and better protection of troops and first responders. For a variety of reasons the National Capital Region is where it's happening.” The Harper government, even before its majority, made a commitment to rebuild the military, pledging $240 billion over 20 years.
The legend goes — I’ve not heard him deny it — that Luxton made a bundle originally by inventing the game of paintball, which is now a sporting pastime in more than 70 countries. He and a partner are said to have sold it “lock, stock and barrel” after it sprang to 200 franchises all over NA. What gives credence to this start is what happened next.
Approached by a counter-terror organization, never identified, he was asked if he could adapt the tech of the paintball gun to actual weapons that might be used in close quarters combat training. He said “sure” but when he brought an engineering team together he was told it had been often attempted and was deemed impossible. The next night he awoke with a design in mind and took it to them asking, “tell me why this wouldn’t work?” It would work and it did, right off. SNC-Lavalin, Canada’s largest ammo supplier, paid millions simply for the right to negotiate a purchase, which eventually they did. (SNC sold off its ammo division to General Dynamics in 2007.)
He took a master’s in management at Templeton College, Oxford and did a tour as an infantry combat officer, followed by several years in policy and management with government. Now 60, his three decades as an entrepreneur culminated in the strategic build-out of Allen-Vanguard. If you read the very brief bio that company provides of its chairman, you’ll find it noted that “Mr. Luxton also Chairs and supports the Canadian Tulip Festival, celebrated in Ottawa each Spring to commemorate the international friendship arising from Canada’s role in liberating the Netherlands and providing a safe haven in Ottawa for members of the Dutch Royal Family during the Second World War.”
For the most part free to the public, the festival is far from free to produce. Yet institutional indifference is palpable. This is hard to understand given the huge surge to the local economy from tourists tiptoeing through.
Each year I’m thankful for the festival revival — the international pavilion, Celebridée, the Mirror Tent. But I wonder if the bloom hasn’t faded. Each year, I know, the losses grow. Rainy weather doesn’t help. Never rains but it pours.

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