04 January 2010

Senator Frum's Cold War Campuses

Another year, another prorogation. Bracing for this season's round of senate appointments, thoughts reach back all of four months to the last batch: Conservative Party election strategist Doug Finley, Harper advisor Carolyn Stewart-Olson and Judith Seidman, who proved instrumental in Harper's victory at the 2004 leadership convention. There were many others, of course, including Linda Frum, who is now enjoying the first of her 28 years in our upper house. The daughter of Barbara, the sister of David, she hasn't exactly been a Chatty Cathy; it was not until last month that, during the debate on the Economic Action Plan, Frum rose to deliver her maiden speech. She spoke at length about her family history, her husband, her volunteer work, her views on the military, her misgivings about diplomacy and the pride she takes in having her name "associated with the Harper government". "The moral courage shown by our Prime Minister is a model to leaders around the world," she said of the man who had bravely appointed her.

Senator Frum never did get around to talking about the Action Plan – just a fleeting observation that reports are good things – but she did devote a couple of paragraphs to the decades old Linda Frum's Guide to Canadian Universities, which holds the grand distinction of having been the subject of my very first book review. And so, I present this forgotten piece, published in the 13 November 1987 edition of the Montreal Mirror. Though I had come of age, please think of it as juvenilia.

No cover image, I'm afraid. I had to throw the book away after my dear cat Morley peed on the thing. It was his only "accident".


Linda Frum's Guide to Canadian Universities
Linda Frum
Toronto: Key Porter, 1987

"University gave me lifelong respect for those who labour to produce a book."
– Barbara Frum, quoted in Linda Frum's Guide to Canadian Universities

Linda Frum is her mother's daughter – and it is presumably for this reason that her name and photograph dominate the cover of this, her first book. Consider this a form of introduction.
Former McGill students might remember Frum as the editor of the short-lived McGill University Magazine, a flimsy paper with the stated goal of recapturing the traditions of Old McGill, but apparently more interested in criticizing the left and extolling its own perceived virtues of the United States.
Frum's Guide to Canadian Universities contains a few brief examples of her political thinking, including a nonsensical argument against the public funding of universities, a reference to the Contras as anti-Soviet guerillas, and this example of Reagan Era paranoia: "At every urban university there is a tiny, highly visible clique that cares passionately, but fleetingly, about El Salvador, Nicaragua, East Timor, South Africa, or whatever issue the Soviet Union is pushing at the moment."
However, for the most part, the political side of the 42 universities covered in this book is ignored – as are academic qualities. "It's not that I don't care about that stuff," Frum writes in the introduction, "but let's leave that stuff to your parents and guidance counsellor. These pages are dedicated to the subjects your family and guidance counsellor are too embarrassed or respectable to talk about."
What follows is a light-weight guide that dwells upon – among other things – the excellent parking facilities at McMaster, the beauty and wealth of the students at Western, the filthy toilets at the University of Toronto and the ease with which one can get laid at Laurentian. Also included are statistics concerning the male/female ratio on each campus, along with a handy section on which universities to attend if the student's goal is to be married by commencement.
If there is any one major flaw in all of this, it's that the author's sweeping generalizations confuse and mislead. Students at the University of Guelph are either leftists or centrists, depending upon which page one is reading. When Frum describes the typical McGill student as dressing in "outfits of all black, including dyed hair, eyebrows, lips", we Montrealers know she's exaggerating (and is really just writing about the ladies).
McGill, it is noted, is located in our fair city, and much of its attractiveness is attributed to this fact: "The best moments at McGill are spent munching on croissants and sipping cafés au lait, touring Montreal's beaux-arts palaces, getting drunk in the bistros of St-Denis, shopping for fresh groceries on St-Laurent, skiing on Mount Royal and going to hockey games at the Forum."
In Linda Frum's world, Concordia is located in a much less idyllic city – one barely worth mentioning. It is a rough place, attracting "off-the-map left", ""off-beat, unconventional characters", most of whom are ethnics who live with their parents.
Inexplicably, the Université de Montréal, the Université de Québec à Montréal and the country's other French language universities are not even mentioned. What can we read from this? That anglophones never attend francophone universities? That Frum knows no French? Is the exclusion in itself a political statement?
Linda Frum's Guide to Canadian Universities can only disappoint. While friends and foes of the McGill University Magazine will lament the near-absence of Frum's entertaining political views, serious students will invariably discover that his or her chosen university bears little resemblance to the one described in his book. Those who have chosen Laurentian will be the most disappointed.



Twenty-three years later, Senator Linda Frum discusses Linda Frum's Guide to Canadian Universities. with Cathrin Bradbury of Maclean's (19 November 2010):
Q: You called York University “ugly, impersonal, bleak, isolated and depressing.”
A: I was there recently, and they have tried very hard to change that. Actually, they’ve put up some quite wonderful buildings.
And now this, from the 15 November 2003 Globe and Mail profile of Howard Sokolowski, Linda Frum's husband:
Mr. Sokolowski, 51, builds homes by the thousands, mainly in the 905 belt, through his company, Tribute Communities. He is the guy who "doesn't put the garage door in the front of the house," he says; his latest venture is what he calls an "integrated" community of 500 homes near York University.
Again, Linda Frum is a Stephen Harper appointee.


  1. Pets can have uncanny political wisdom--our dog crapped on the front lawn of the then Foreign Minister, a posh, very right-wing Conservative Royalty-loving xenophobe who, the joke goes, was given his seat by his parents for his 21st birthday.

  2. It seems grossly unfair that dogs and cats do not have the vote.