Category Archives: Rita Smith’s Blogs

Brandied Fruit: Start NOW! It’s so easy









I actually wrote up the process for Brandied Fruit in response to a Facebook request – short and sweet, but this is basically it. Start in June! There is no “making Brandied Fruit” at Christmas. 

“Sue, it’s not a recipe so much as a process. It is different every year, depending on what berries I can get and when I find the time! 

Basically a cup of rum or brandy and a cup of sugar poured over berries in season, start with that. 3 or so cups of berries. 

The lid is left on loosely, not sealed. Sit it in a cupboard or counter (not in bright sun) until new berries come into season.

By then the first batch will be sitting in a pile of liquid, sugar, brandy, fruit juice. Wash the new berries and add to the jar. Every now and then you might slosh in some more brandy and more sugar. 

As the summer goes on I have to dump everything into a giant mixing bowl and divide it out into MORE jars as I add more berries. These 4 jars will grow to 8 or 10. 

Generally the order of the summer goes: 

  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • raspberries
  • peaches (skin removed, cut in big chunks). 

You can add gooseberries and wild blueberries if you can get them. 

Some people add pineapple, I did that once it was good but not “Ontario.” 

In a perfect world all the fruit is local but I got great raspberries and blackberries on sale Sunday so I started an impromptu batch! Still waiting for local strawberries. 

Use cheap brandy, I usually use Ontario Small Cask brand. Rum is also good. The liquid starts to get fizzy and ferment-y, that’s fine, just don’t seal the jars tightly to allow the gas to escape.  (These jars are never heat processed; the preservation is in the brandy and the sugar.)

When you are done adding fruit, pack the jars away until Christmas….you won’t believe the flavour! It’s quite magical.”

Measles: A failure to communicate

Needlessly exposing kids to measles puts them at risk of blindness and death. How did Science fail to make this clear?

(I researched and wrote this article five years ago. Recent reports show that many parents have still haven’t gotten the message – which means, Science has still failed to deliver it.)

In February, there were news reports of California families hosting “Measles Parties” to intentionally expose their children to the potentially fatal disease in order to gain immunity while avoiding the measles vaccine.

Here in Canada, a recent poll by Angus- Reid showed that nearly nine-in-ten Canadians say vaccinations are effective at preventing disease for the individual who receive the vaccine (88%) and for the community as a whole (86%); and yet, the same poll found that two-in-five Canadians (39%) agree that “the science on vaccinations isn’t quite clear.”

In attempting to understand what vaccine-doubting or even measles-promoting adults could possibly be thinking, Landmark Report spoke with Canadian virologist and post-doctoral research fellow Dr. Logan Banadyga, and Dr. Baruch Fischoff, professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Neither man could fathom what such parents were thinking, but both pointed squarely at communications by the scientific community – or lack of such communications – as a major contributor to the incredible, entirely preventable situation North Americans now face.

Westerners may believe that measles and mumps are relatively benign diseases, because science has not made a concerted effort to communicate the more serious risks, Fischhoff believes.

“People view the diseases merely as an inconvenience because they don’t know of complications that can arise; the medical community knows these things, but other people generally aren’t aware… we haven’t provided them with the evidence, or communicated the risks. The risk of blindness and death, my guess is that very few people know about that,” Fischhoff points out.

“I can guarantee you that most scientists don’t think about communications at all, because they don’t trust communications people, or they don’t trust journalists,” Banadyga says. “Most scientists think it’s easier to avoid them in the first place; and then we end up in situations where people listen to Jenny McCarthy.”

Banadyga conducts research in virology in western Montana and has dedicated his life to fighting infectious disease; he is particularly concerned with children’s health.

“We know from decades of research that vaccines are one of the most effective public health measures that we have ever undertaken,” he points out.

“So rationally, vaccines are a great idea. We have the data to prove that. It’s not just a bunch of scientists or big pharma getting together and deciding that they could make money off this. We know how to improve quality of life and it improves children’s’ lives – that’s a FACT.

“When you think about these Californians who are having measles parties – people have been doing this with chicken pox for years – you think, ‘You are exposing your child to a disease to which that kid does not have to be exposed and sure, they’ll probably survive if they get measles, but they’ll still get sick, they could potentially get very sick, and they could potentially die.

“You’re exposing them to that virus for no other reason than the completely fallacious belief that you think vaccines are causing more harm than good.” Science, he believes, has not done enough to combat such emotional beliefs which often trump rational thought.

“Part of the North American challenge is that the current generation has no direct experience of diseases like measles and mumps,” he says. “Now we have the case of these parents who are considering vaccines for their children and they have no experiences of these diseases. So their decision is easier to make, because they don’t see the kinds of havoc that these diseases caused in the first place.”

Banadyga believes there has to be a concerted effort to get these messages across to parents. Currently, “the message isn’t strong enough; or it’s not being absorbed clearly enough; or perhaps not enough of an effort is being made to deliver the message.”

Fischhoff agrees that the communications effort has been found lacking: “Scientists, like everybody else, overestimate how much of what they know is common knowledge. This is called ‘the common knowledge effect.’ If you think people know something, you don’t bother repeating it. I think scientists have dropped the ball for a very understandable reason: most scientists don’t have access to the public, so everything the scientist says goes through the funnel of the media.”

“We also,” Fischhoff adds, “overestimate how well we read people’s minds.”

Both Banadyga and Fischhoff commented on the frustration and exasperation scientists and even doctors feel in attempting to communicate well-documented, factual evidence to parents who cling to irrational beliefs.

“Scientists generally communicate in situations in which they are the boss, such as the classroom. We get pretty good at communicating complicated material, but that doesn’t mean we listen to the needs of people who actually need this information.”

Banadyga stresses the importance of family doctors who will listen to parents’ fears and take the time to allay them: “I think physicians are beginning to learn that this you can’t approach this subject as a cold-hearted machine and say, ‘Vaccines are the only way to go and if you don’t vaccinate your kids, you’re stupid.’ That’s going to turn a lot of people off.”



Risk Communications Sidebar


Dr. Baruch Fischhoff, professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University is one the pioneers in the development of Risk Communications, a precise process in which testing how a message is received, understood and acted upon is a critical component in decision-making. He was instrumental in assisting the Public Health Agency of Canada in developing its Strategic Risk Communications Framework, which was released in 2006.

“Tested messages really are the ‘gold standard’ in effective communications, and I don’t know if that is being done anywhere right now,” he says. “We’ve had 40 years of Risk Communications research in support of communications and decision making. I think we know how to communicate these things in a comprehensible and respectful way; I think what’s missing is simply use of the practice…people are just shooting from the hip.”

When public health officials fail to test their messages, Fischhoff says, “they are not doing their jobs.”

“If they don’t have message-testing procedures, then they’re just digging the hole deeper…they could do $500 million dollars’ worth of damage with a $50M campaign, if they don’t test their messages.”

Unlike one-way communications processes like DAD (decide, announce, defend) or persuasion campaigns, Risk Communications includes:

  • identifying the risk information that is most critical to decisions about risk;
  • characterizing the dimensions of risk that matter most to decision makers;
  • helping people make difficult risk choices and weighing competing outcomes;
  • communicating information about the magnitude of risks (and benefits), as well as the processes that create and control them;
  • describing people’s mental models of risks, in order to identify the critical missing pieces between what they know and what they need to know;
  • evaluating the success of communications programs.

“Although it would be nice to know more about all of these things,” Fischhoff wrote in the Strategic Risk Communications Framework, “this knowledge has limited value unless it can be translated into operational terms, usable by organizations with front-line communications responsibilities.”


Canada’s Food Guide: Another way of saying, “Let’s argue!”

My keto version of the Food Guide eliminates the Whole Grain Foods quadrant; but that’s just me. The Food Guide is a GUIDE, not THE LAW.

Health Canada announced its new Food Guide in January, and first and foremost, I congratulate all the scientists, researchers and staff who worked for a decade to get the job done.

The rollout is an absolutely enormous project, a job I had the privilege of undertaking with a fantastic team in 2007.

The Food Guide – which is a GUIDE, not the law, not carved in stone, not meant to dictate the same diet for 35 million different people – has been part of life in Canada since 1942.

In 2007, our group of stakeholder scientists and nutritionists numbered over 600. The Guide had been researched, discussed and argued for 13 years. It was the source of much controversy and dispute; journalists were (and are) highly suspicious of Canada’s Food Guide ever since it was revealed in the early 1990s that the number of eggs recommended had been influenced by the egg lobby.

I can vouch for the intense desire food lobby groups have had over the years to influence the Guide: in 2007, brand new in my job as the Director of Communications to the Minister of Health when my phone rang. I picked it up; it was a man I had never met before. He introduced himself as the lobbyist for the soft drink industry.

“We are very disappointed that Health Canada has decided to label soft drinks as an “occasional item,” he blustered into the phone.

“We are very disappointed that childhood obesity has tripled in the last 15 years,” I responded without hesitation.

Not surprisingly, I never heard from him again; I still laugh thinking about that call.

In one meeting, as we wrestled with the fact that we were doomed to upset SOMEBODY no matter what the Guide recommended, I grew frustrated with the talk of “the meat lobby this” and “the egg lobby that.”

“Why are we worrying about the most expensive things people can buy, when really we should be encouraging them to eat more of the most nutritious and inexpensive foods? Who stands up for broccoli?!” I wanted to know.

Staff kindly humoured my fevered ideas about inventing Broccoli and Carrot mascot costumes and sending them to schools and sporting events. We never did any of those things, but it was a great rollout nevertheless.

The Food Guide is the second-most requested document the federal government provides. Only Income Tax forms are requested more often.

In 2007, the new Guide was in such demand, our first print run was 4 million copies. We had not only a printing press on stand-by, but a PAPER MILL on stand-by. The pressure to get the Guide finalized was immense. Scientists, nutritionists and journalists were still arguing the day we went to press (as they are still arguing now) but somehow, they were able to come to enough of a consensus to get the thing done and distributed.

In 2007, some of the big new changes included making fruits and vegetable the basis for a healthy diet. Now, in 2019, Health Canada is recommending fully half of “the plate” be fruits and vegetables. It clearly states that water should be the drink of choice; and that culture is important and we should eat together. These are great advances!

Of course, I disagree with the grain recommendations, but then, it wouldn’t be Canada’s Food Guide if we weren’t arguing about it.

Bon appetite, eh?





Rita’s Excellent Keto Adventure

Over the past 6 years, I allowed myself to slide from half-marathon condition to almost 200 pounds. I never could have imaged it would happen so fast! I did not weigh this much in any of my 3 pregnancies. I was short of breath all the time; climbing a flight of stairs was a giant effort.
This is one of my favourite “after” photos – at an event with Jax the Wonder Drug-Sniffing Dog in September 2018, after 7 months on the Keto Diet.
There are A LOT of videos on YouTube that can get you started on Keto; I’ve watched hours and hours of them. Some are so complex you almost need a degree in biochemistry to stay awake for them; others are extremely short and simple.  I will post a few of the most helpful ones that I’ve found below. Before I do that, I’ll give you my short summary of “The Keto Experience.” 
  1. I was never hungry, and have never felt in any way deprived, on the Keto diet. 
  2. Our grain-based diet is a horrible, harmful lie. 
  3. A high fat, low carbohydrate diet seems counter-intuitive and maybe for some people, it is. However, for myself and several others in my family (diabetes runs in my family) have found ENORMOUS success on this diet – including all measurable blood metrics including cholesteral, tri-glycerides, HDL and LDL.
  4. Once you get your mind around the idea of “no white” (no rice, pasta, bread or potatoes) everything else is pretty easy. 
  5. Tons of green vegetables are a lot more palatable when you can flavour with fats (fry in bacon fat, top with butter or toss with salad dressing). You’ll come to enjoy it! 
  6. You are probably already eating all the protein you need; once you start paying close attention to protein (as I did) it was not hard to make sure I got enough. 
  7. For several months, I tried to keep my daily carb intake below 20 grams. This took effort and A LOT OF LABEL READING! You’ll be shocked at all the places you find carbs, which will surprise you. (Even in sugar-free gum? C’MON……) 
  8. You will need to give up virtually every fruit except berries. Fortunately you can get those all year (fresh in summer, frozen in winter) so you’ll be OK. Apples, oranges, melon and grapes are out, full stop. 
  9. Juice, pop, beer, wine, Gatorade….all forms of liquid sugar will be GONE from your diet. On the bright side, water from the tap is a lot cheaper! Herbal teas (hot or cold) are also flavourful and inexpensive. Coffee is still good! And you get to put real cream in it. 
  10. When I lost 60 pounds and reached my goal, I looked around for something to add to my diet to maintain my weight and settled on seeds: roast melon seeds (which feel crunchy and salty, like chips) and Chia seeds in my breakfast shakes. This seems to be working. 
Here are two of my favourite videos to get you started:  And here are my best, most useful recipes. Some I videoed years ago; others I have developed just recently specific to a Keto Diet. For fun, I’ll start with delicious Sugar-Free Chocolate, so that you can see there are LOTS of great things to eat while losing weight on this diet. I’ll update this post with new recipes in the weeks ahead. Good luck! Sugar-free chocolate – a hands-down favourite recipe! This is low carb but NOT low calorie (the recipe is half butter. And it tastes like it!) Eat it as a treat, not a meal, and you’ll be fine on your Keto diet. Fruity Fluff – thick, rich, tangy with strained 6% fat yogurt and frozen berries. Better than ice cream! Chia Puddings and Shakes – use one of nature’s “superfoods” to add fiber & omega 3s to your diet. Shiritake Noodles – put your favourite pasta sauce on this! Tomato sauce, meat sauce, clams, creamy or cheesy sauces, everything you love works on these low calorie, low carb noodles. The Smithopoulos Greek Dinner – every item on this menu is a perfect Keto food (just skip the rice or pita bread). The video for Tzatziki also details how to strain yogurt with cheesecloth, which you will want to do for the Fruity Fluff recipe above. Opa!! (Oh also – one of the few videos in which you can see me before my weight loss.) Perfect Eggs – Hard boiled or soft boiled Did you know that the USDA has removed cholesterol from its list of dietary substances of concern? Eggs have ALWAYS been good for you; and if you are on a Keto diet now, eggs are virtually the perfect food. Eat the whole egg, yolk and all. How to fry an egg – on a Keto diet you are not only allowed but ENCOURAGED to fry your eggs in a bit of butter. You can also eat bacon and eggs. Mussels – are almost pure protein and so easy to prepare (they do not need to be pried apart like oysters). I dip my steamed mussels in soy sauce and wasabi mustard and eat with pickled ginger like a rice-free sushi/sashimi experience. Pho – replace the rice noodles with Shiritake noodles. With that small change, Pho is a perfect Keto dish! Vitamin Supplements on a Keto Diet I figure it’s less a matter of what you take (you can always switch products anytime) as a matter of finding a system/process/routine that works for you, which is what I was able to develop over a period of a few months. I really HATED the handfuls of vitamins and avoided taking them whenever possible; I actually enjoy the supplement beverages, made ahead of time and chilled in the fridge. Find out what YOU like, and what you WILL do – Keto Slaw – this really helps when you are trying to eat 8 cups of green vegetables per day. While most squash (and carrots) are “out” on a low-carb diet, high-fiber, low-net carb Spaghetti Squash is fine to eat and very nutritious. You can use it as a replacement for spaghetti with your favourite pasta sauces, or as a replacement for high-carb squash in your favourite squash recipes – a double win! I have found the biggest challenge people face using Spaghetti Squash for the first time is that they tend to under-cook it. In order to get the long, stringy strands you want for your recipes, the squash needs to be thoroughly baked – easily 90 minutes or more at 350 degrees for an average size squash. Here’s a video I made some time ago to help you figure out the basics:
New Year’s Day seems as good a time as any to ask, “Is there alcohol on a Keto diet?” Generally speaking, no. I gave up all forms of alcohol when I went on Keto, which I think helped a lot. The reasons eliminating alcohol helped a lot are so complex (your liver naturally processes alcohol before carbs….) that it’s just simpler to skip alcohol. If you go on Keto AND skip alcohol as part of your 2019 program, you’ll have a massive weight loss advantage. This video is helpful and reasonable:
Roast vegetables are a real mainstay on a Keto diet! I ate two ziploc bags today while on the road….you can add cauliflower, broccoli, onions, celery, red green or orange peppers – the variations are endless! It’s a bit of a trick to cut the pieces to sizes which allow everything to cook to roughly the same doneness. You don’t want anything to be too soggy if you plan to eat them out of a bag, but they are also great for stir-fries, pasta sauces and just as hot vegetables with dinner.
Here is the biggest reaons I felt compelled to commit to recovering my health and getting back into shape: the birth of Adeline Grace in November 2017, and then Ada Nightengale in September 2018.

Ada is so beautful and happy! I can’t wait to meet her. It’s hard to be a Gramma from across the ocean.

Baby, it’s smart outside

On December 10th I made the five hour drive home from the United States. Switching to Canadian radio, I was flabbergasted to find we are still discussing the lyrics to the Christmas song, “Baby, it’s cold outside.”

Why, I wondered, is a 50-year-old song about two adults cuddling in front of a fire bothering so many people? I had just left Michigan, proud birthplace of Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem), who became a millionaire writing songs about killing women and raping their corpses. Ariana Grande is singing about wrist icicles. Eeeeeew.

Radio host Evan Soloman pointed out that many listeners feel “Baby, it’s cold outside” is “rapey.” Endless ink has been spilled discussing whether it flies in the face of the #MeToo movement; some station have banned it altogether.

I suggest, once again, that we are failing young women. Why are we engaged in this debate at all, in 2018? Last time I checked, women have the power to say “no” to men and it’s incumbent upon us to do so when the situation calls for it.

The woman in this song has the power to say “no,” get up and go at any time. Why are millions of intelligent people pretending otherwise? This is not a good idea to give young women – or young men.

Here’s a 2018, common-sense version of the lyrics to “Baby, it’s cold outside.” I doubt it will crack the Top Ten, but it will be closer to reality, and it’s good news for men and women everywhere.


“I don’t plan to stay (Baby it’s cold outside)

So I’m on my way (Baby it’s cold outside)

This evening has been (Nice that you chose to drop in)

So very nice (I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice).


I’ll call home so Mother won’t worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry?)

Father will unlock the door (Listen to the fireplace roar)

I’m not stressed by a little snow flurry (Beautiful please don’t hurry)

A drink? I don’t want any more (I’ll put some records on while I pour)


I know how to think (Baby it’s bad out there)

I said “no” to that drink (No cabs to be had out there)

I’m sure I know how (Your eyes are like starlight now)

To break this spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell) (Why thank you)



I’m sure that you heard me say ‘no’ sir (Mind if move in closer?)

At least you can say that you tried (What’s the sense of hurtin’ my pride?)

I’m not gonna stay (Baby don’t hold out)

I can handle the cold outside.






He did….what??

I am not a doctor – I have a high school education.

But here is a partial  list of things I have seen in my lifetime that result in human beings taking part in behaviours which are completely out of character for them:

  • extreme stress including bankruptcy or massive personal loss
  • mental illness, mood disorder or brain disorder including brain tumour
  • blood chemical imbalances including diabetes
  • medications, new medications, or medication changes (brand or dosages)
  • concussion & untreated concussion
  • small stoke or untreated stroke
  • Alzheimer’s, especially Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia
  • heart condition which includes reduced blood flow to the brain
  • food allergies, undiscovered or developed later in life
  • supplements and steroid medications. Creatine taken to build muscles, which is available over the counter, has caused enormous problems for some men that I know who have taken it
  • Substance abuse
  • PTSD

And, added after conversation with a very smart woman:

  • Addiction, including addiction to social media

These situations occur so consistently in my life that I have learned that when someone does something utterly bizarre and out of character, I should just stand back and shut up until I can determine what is actually going on.

Through the mental health training I have been fortunate enough to take, I have learned that often the most devastating consequence of a breakdown or psychotic break is the shame with which the person lives afterward. I would hope never to add to such shame but only be patient and understanding until all the facts are known; I hope I would be afforded the same consideration in a similar situation.

Alpha: Spoiler alert. It’s not what you think.

This wolf, while injured, lay still and allowed a strange human being to tie a muzzle on his snout. This will be hilariously funny to anyone who has ever put a muzzle on a tame, trained dog.


“Alpha: The Movie:” Spoiler alert!

It’s not what you might think. It’s true that as a dog owner, I was surprised that the main character Keda had less difficulty taming an aggressive, fully-grown wild wolf than the typical Labrador Retriever owner has potty-training history’s most docile breed.

I was a bit bemused that a teen-aged boy who can’t start a fire, won’t kill a hog and doesn’t want to leave his mommy to go hunting with the men was being groomed to be Leader of the tribe; but it’s fiction, after all, so I suspended disbelief.

(“He’s not ready!” his mother frets. “He leads with his heart, not his spear!” Geez, I thought, I hope she’s ready to run fast if a hostile tribe descends under Keda’s leadership…)

The crucial plot turn – Keda lacks the good sense to get out of the way of a charging bison – leaves him wounded and abandoned to the elements. He rallies, tames a wolf in no time, and starts the long, cold hike back home. It’s a good thing he has Alpha, the tame wolf, to look after him, protect him, and provide him with food. Why, Alpha looks after him almost as well as his mommy did!

So that, by movie’s end, as Keda (who nursed Alpha back to health, cleansed his wounds, dried his fur, and spent months sleeping next to him) realizes that Alpha is actually a FEMALE dog only when she gives birth to a litter of puppies, it’s hardly a surprise at all. What teen-aged hunter WOULDN’T notice the extreme lack of penis and testicles on an animal?

So, “Alpha” is not the alpha-male, leader of the pack. Alpha is a female. That’s not the surprise. It’s 2018, after all.

The real jaw-dropper was watching the credits roll at the finish of the movie. Out of curiosity, I stuck with them right to the end – watching, watching, watching, watching, got a coffee, watching, went to the bathroom, watching, checked my email, tried to estimate how many dozens – no, hundreds, no THOUSANDS of people worked on the worst movie I’ve ever seen – watching watching watching until there it was: my suspicions were justified.

Funded by taxpayers.


I paid $17.99 for this movie. An episode of “The Littlest Hobo” would have been more entertaining, and more realistic.

Oh, and for good measure, Alpha the Female Alpha is played by “Chuck.”


Click here to view the credits. Get a coffee first.



Wake up! The world is your oyster!

Dave, Johannah and Tom Smith worked so hard to pay for school and get good marks. They work equally hard in their jobs! That’s what young people do when they have hope for a fruitful future; when they are optimistic and believe the effort will pay off. I wish that feeling, belief and attitude for every young person growing up in the United States and Canada right now.

I was working for the Government of Ontario when we reached 3.5% growth for several consecutive quarters, eliminated the deficit, balanced the budget and created 1,000,000 million new jobs. I remember getting the newspapers from the front door to see the headline that Ontario had created 45,000 jobs the previous month.

I ran upstairs, pounding on Dave and Tom’s bedroom doors and shouting them out of bed:


I will never forget the feeling of joy and elation, optimism and energy I felt pounding through my veins. I had worked like a dog for my entire life to keep Casa Des Smiths up and running, lights on, food in the fridge, bills paid, in our Greektown house close enough for the boys to take the subway to University of Toronto. When Mike Harris pulled off everything he promised he would – including enough university spaces for the Double Cohort, which included Tom and Dave – and I could see they could have any future they wanted if they were willing to work for it, I honestly felt like all of my dreams had come true.

All three of my kids worked an incredible daily grind for years, going to school full time AND working full time (how did they do that??) and have landed on their feet in good jobs, with wonderful partners and happy lives. The world is indeed their oyster!

Seeing today’s 4.1%  growth numbers from the United States of America – coupled with virtually full employment – I feel like pounding on the door and shouting the whole continent awake:



*One of my favourite memories from this period was the time I celebrated receiving a large cheque by taking them to Barberian’s Steak House for dinner, where they were allowed to order anything they wanted (“Can we have, like appetizers and dessert too, or just dinner?” they asked me. They were conscious of budget from an early age…)

Looking at the menu, David noted “The ancient Romans used to pay for oysters their weight in gold, because they believed they had an aphrodisiac effect and improved their performance with women.”

“Good God!” Tom exclaimed. “What did they pay for the WOMEN?”

We laughed so hard. It was such a fun night.




Every dog is descended from a wolf….even Rosie

Beautiful, calm, obedient – Nikita had no future as a sled racing dog, and an abusive owner in Alaska until RJ “stole” her.

Friday the 13th turned out to be quite a special “Dog Day” here at Rita’s Rest Home for Wayward Dogs.

Forest, Leia, Rosie and I paid our first visit to the Bowmanville Leash-Free dog park, where we met up with Dalmations, Labs, a Bassett Hound and a Mastiff presciently named “Ruckus.” Tiny Maltese Rosie held her own with all of them.

The highlight of the adventure, however, was definitely meeting Nikita, a born-and-bred Alaskan sled dog who is actually one-quarter wolf.

I need to preface the Nikita story – very sad beginning, very happy ending – by offering  a belief that I have long shared with my brother Pete about dog souls.

Human beings only think they are the ones in charge when it comes time to find a dog; in fact, somewhere out in the Universe a dog’s soul is looking for YOU. When that soul and the dog in which it resides (albeit, temporarily) locates you, you may persuade yourself that you’ve reached a logical, rational executive decision to acquire a dog.

Meanwhile, that dog soul has been looking for you, has located you, and has no plans to let you get away.

Upon arrival at the dog park, I scanned the perimeters of the field for other dogs; Rosie is very small and sometimes a bit nervous, although that passes quickly. When I spotted Nikita laying in the shade with her owner all the way across the field, I was automatically a bit worried about whether or not she was friendly to other dogs, as not all Husky/Malamutes are.

After the initial introduction, Rosie was not at all intimidated by Nikita and in fact was quite curious about her. Forest sensed no problem.

Wandering along the fence, pre-occupied with picking up dog poos, I did not even notice quiet, stealthy Nikita cross the field; when I looked up, she was sitting in front of Rosie and wagging her bushy tail furiously. With one bright blue eye and one brown, she has an exotic, mysterious look. She seemed to know better than to run or jump around Rosie the way a more obliviously enthusiastic dog would.

Before I had time to get anxious, her owner walked up.

“What a beautiful dog!” I exclaimed sincerely. “She looks like she is part wolf!”

“She is 25 per cent wolf[1],” he nodded. “I had her DNA tested when we got home. Nikita is from Alaska.”

“How did she get here?” I gasped.

“I stole her,” RJ shrugged philosophically.

Fascinated already by the idea of a wolf/dog from Alaska finding her way to Bowmanville, Ontario, I asked RJ how he came to “steal” her and this is the story he told me:

“I was in Alaska, fishing with a buddy who has a boat there. One day we were sitting high up on a hill, and I could see a fenced-in property below us.

‘What is that?’ I asked.

‘That’s a breeding and training business which raises sled-racing dogs,’ he told me. ‘It’s not a nice place.’”

RJ went on to explain that dogsled racing is a huge business and important part of the economy in Alaska; Nikita had been bred and was being raised to race in the Iditarod, the world-famous race which takes place between Anchorage and Nome every year.

“Humans seem to love it, but it is a cruel and awful life for the dogs,” he said. I could feel the anger starting to rise in his voice.

“They spend the first four months of their lives chained to a post on a chain about 3 feet long…they are not pets. Every so often, the owner walks through the yard with a taser and shocks them, to keep them mean. Dogs die running the Iditarod. Nobody cares.

“Coke and Exxon and other corporate sponsors….they pay money to be part of it. Nobody cares about the dogs.”

I nodded sadly: “I caught about an hour of the finals on TV last year,” I agreed. “It looks just brutal for the dogs.  Walt Disney even made a movie about it, ‘Snow Dogs,’ it was so happy and looked like so much fun.” In the real Iditarod in 2017, four dogs died of exhaustion. In 2016, one was run over by a snowmobile.

“The breeder didn’t like Nikita – she is small and too submissive, not mean enough,” RJ continued, obviously upset now. “One day I saw him kick her through the air, right across the yard. That night, I hopped the fence and stole her.

“I’ve never had a dog before,” he noted. “She is the first dog I’ve ever owned. She is the sweetest, quietest, most obedient dog I could ever have wanted. Now, I can’t imagine life without her.”

I shared with RJ the “Pete & Rita Theory of Dog Souls in the Universe.”

“You think you rescued Nikita,” I pointed out. “Actually, she rescued you!”

“That’s very true!” he laughed, ruffling her head and ears as she gazed up at him adoringly.

I read once about the fact that there must have been something very special about wolves, because aeons ago human beings were inspired to share their food and the warmth of their campfires with them as the very first domesticated animals. Not cats, not bears, not birds, not deer. Wolves.

Humans have been providing food and shelter, and the descendants of wolves have been sharing love, loyalty, companionship and protection ever since. Our souls have been entwined for a very long time.

Stop to imagine: every single dog in that dog park, whether sleek Dalmation, jolly Labrador Retriever, massive Mastiff, baying Bassett Hound, or lap-dog Maltese – traces its ancestry back to the wolf. Vastly different in size, in intelligence, in personality and in demeanor, all those dogs came from the same original dog, the wolf.

It was very special, to have Nikita there to remind us of this miraculous fact. In a symbolic way, she represents the Mother of all Dogs.

It was a nice Friday the 13th.

All dogs are descended from wolves – even Rosie.









[1][1] As far as I know, it is not legal to own a wolf hybrid in Ontario, although they are very common in the north where unsprayed female dogs breed with wolves on a regular basis. They are less common in other areas. In Alberta, owners with a special license are allowed to own wolf hybrids.

Merit based immigration is the OPPOSITE of racist

Congratulations to the United States for preparing to move to a merit-based immigration system, which Canada and Australia have used for decades.


As an immigrant to Canada myself, I have first-hand experience of the thoroughness of the process. It was stressful and nerve-wracking; but it also makes me appreciate the work that goes into vetting legal immigrants to Canada.


This is not an unkind process: organizing a productive and prosperous society allows Canada to take good care of its citizens. We contribute considerable sums of money to international programs; we take in a lot of refugees.


I’m dismayed to hear media pundits in the US claiming that a merit-based system is racist: it is exactly the opposite of racist. An engineer from India or Africa who speaks English or French and has a relative living here will quickly move to the front of the line ahead of an applicant from England or Ireland with less education and no relative living here.


An applicant from China who plans to start a business and create jobs will be considered before an American simply looking for a job.


Canada’s immigration program is not perfect, but it’s one of the most successful on the globe.


My family moved to Ontario from Michigan when I was 13 years old; I arrived as a Landed Immigrant.


I got married and had three kids, started a business and was hard at work and paying taxes. Imagine my shock when, returning from a trade show in San Francisco, I got pulled out of line at airport Customs and moved to a small room where I was grilled for what seemed an eternity.


Officers wanted to know where I lived, what I did, and most importantly, why I had never applied for Canadian citizenship.


Eventually I was told:  “OK. We believe you live in Toronto. But, you should get your citizenship. You have been here for 20 years. Canada expects you to make a commitment.”


I applied, and thus began the most nerve-wracking six months of my life. I almost never slept, wondering what would happen if I failed the test: would Canada make me leave?


The test was 50 questions long, but there were five different tests you could get, so I tried to memorize all 250 possible answers. I kept a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the bathroom so I could review it on every visit.


I had to do two interviews, one with a bureaucrat and one with a judge. I was so nervous at the first interview that I actually lost my vision, walked off of the curb on St. Clair and stepped directly in front of a car – which fortunately stopped before it hit me.


When I passed and was sworn in as a citizen, we had a giant family celebration.


After the 2008 recession, my American nephew asked me about immigrating to Canada. I went onto the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website to check it out, and was thoroughly impressed: there is actually a pre-questionnaire to fill in, to determine if you should bother applying for the full process.


Why do you want to come to Canada? Which French or English test have you passed? Do you have a relative in Canada? Do you plan to work or start a business?


Canada’s merit-based system has served it well. It is hard but fair, and it works.


Good luck, America! Welcome to the 21st century.