To quote Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over all again.”
The recent news that L.V. Rogers graduate Zoë Caron is working as an environmental advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded me of another LVR grad who worked as special assistant to another prime minister of Canada nearly half a century ago. His boss was Justin’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Born in Trail in 1940, Thomas Paul d’Aquino moved to Nelson with his family at age six and attended Hume School, a few blocks from his home on Third St., then Trafalgar Junior High, and Nelson High School before moving with everyone else in the spring of 1956 to the new L.V. Rogers High School. He excelled in debate and public speaking competitions, and went on to become a lawyer with multiple degrees. At LVR his extra-curricular activities included membership in the Publications Club that produced the school newsletter and yearbook, and he acted in the first play to be performed at the LVR auditorium, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
In 1968 d’Aquino was hired as executive assistant to cabinet minister James Richardson. A year later he began three years as special assistant to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau before becoming a highly-regarded leader of the Canadian business community.
When LVR principal Gerald Lee retired in June 1972, he received a cable of congratulations from Trudeau, who noted “My special assistant Thomas d’Aquino, a former student of yours and valedictorian of the first graduating class of L.V. Rogers High School, has told me you are retiring from the teaching profession after 43 years of dedicated and outstanding service.”
In his October 2014 convocation address at Western University in London, Ont., d’Aquino reflected on a remarkable career in public policy that began with his work in the first Trudeau government. “During the three years that I served the prime minister, I observed Canada’s most charismatic leader of the 20th century come to terms with his meteoric rise to power and fame. I watched as he audaciously launched the deeply unpopular official languages act; crusaded for a charter of rights and for patriation of the Canadian constitution; reached out to the People’s Republic of China when other western leaders dared not do so; and confronted separatism and FLQ terrorists in Quebec,” d’Aquino said.
“I also saw firsthand how this proud man responded to near electoral defeat at the end of his first term. My experience in Mr. Trudeau’s office taught me several things about leadership: that it is lonely at the top; that the physical demands of high office can be excruciating; that the buck really does stop on the leader’s desk; and that a leader’s hold on power can be extraordinarily ephemeral,” he said.
During his convocation speech d’Aquino said his time in government gave him early lessons in the importance of good public policy, and how hard it is to achieve, but it was his subsequent three decades at the helm of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (formerly known as the Business Council on National Issues) that “engaged me in public policy in a profound way.
“My mission from the outset was to challenge deeply-rooted conventions and have business leaders play a direct role in the shaping of public policy because we had something to contribute, and because it was the responsible thing to do.
“We promoted Canadian leadership in health care, education, the environment, and the reform of corporate governance,” he added, working with eight Canadian prime ministers as well as opposition leaders and provincial premiers of all political stripes.
He has long been acknowledged as one of Canada’s most influential thinkers and strategists, helping to shape fiscal, taxation, international trade, energy and environmental policies. Canadian historian Jack Granatstein lists d’Aquino as one of the 100 most influential Canadians of the 20th century. In his 1998 book The Canadian Establishment: Volume Three: The Titans, Peter C. Newman describes d’Aquino as “the most powerful influence on public policy formation in Canadian history.”
He retired as head of the Business Council of Canada in 2009, succeeded by John Manley.
Today d’Aquino lives in Ottawa with his wife Susan Peterson d’Aquino. They share a great passion for the performing and visual arts, architecture, gardening, fly fishing and travel, and co-chair a foundation for business leadership, public policy innovation and excellence in the arts.
His arts involvement includes being chair of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, and he has served on the boards of the Calgary-based National Music Centre, the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada, the Fathers of Confederation Buildings Trust, and the international advisory committee for the Calgary International Organ Festival.
He is recipient of numerous national and international honors and awards, including the Queen Elizabeth II Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, the Aguila Azteca conferred on him by Mexico’s president, and the title of Commendatore conferred on him by Italy’s president.
The story of the d’Aquino and Mandoli families in Trail is told in the 1995 book Trail of Memories. Tom d’Aquino’s maternal grandfather Atillio Mandoli came from Tuscany to North America in the early 1900s and was working at the Trail smelter in 1907. After Tom’s father Caeteno died in 1959, his mother Anna returned to Trail from Nelson.
The name “Thomas d’Aquino – Canadian Business Leader” is on the Home of Champions monument in downtown Trail that honors past and present residents who have excelled in business and sports or greatly contributed to the cultural landscape of the region. While Trail can claim him as a native son, Nelson deserves credit as the community of his formative years and where he had all his schooling.
Castlegar resident Sam McBride is an occasional Star contributor.