It was an impressive turnout Tuesday, both in quantity and quality, for the launch of business leader, policy thinker, philanthropist and arts patron Thomas d’Aquino’s new memoir, Private Power, Public Purpose: Adventures in Business, Politics and the Arts.
He held his event at the National Arts Centre, where, more than half a century ago, he danced the night away in white tie and tails with his wife, Susan Peterson d’Aquino, during the opening celebrations of the NAC.
“To be able to be here tonight to launch this book is a great privilege,” said d’Aquino, 82, before paying wonderful tribute to one of our “great heroes”, the late Peter Herrndorf, retired president and CEO of the NAC. Herrndorf, who was also 82, passed away from cancer just days before. The audience showed its respect with warm applause.
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D’Aquino is probably best known for his time as “CEO of the CEOs”. He was head of the Business Council of Canada, previously known as the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and the Business Council on National Issues before that, from 1981 to 2009.
Among the nearly 200 attendees were former governor generals David Johnston and Michaëlle Jean, former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz, Canadian Museum of History CEO Caroline Dromaguet, Librarian and Archivist of Canada Leslie Weir, Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister David Morrison, Canadian Heritage Deputy Minister Isabelle Mondou, National Gallery of Canada retired CEO Marc Mayer and several heads of diplomatic missions. Also present was Jayne Watson, long-time CEO of the NAC Foundation. The award-winning professional fundraiser has announced her plans to step down at the end of May, believing it’s time to pass the baton.
Well-known emcee and entrepreneur Catherine Clark interviewed d’Aquino on stage. The event was held in the NAC’s breathtaking O’Born Room, which offers views of downtown Ottawa through its floor-to-ceiling windows. Clark’s father, former prime minister Joe Clark, is long-time friends with d’Aquino, ever since they shared an apartment together as young law students at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Introductory remarks were given that night by Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. He’s also a former federal cabinet minister, and has previously led such organizations as the CBC and Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.
Beatty told the room how he was invited to read the penultimate draft of d’Aquino’s memoir last summer. “It became my beach novel during my vacation,” he said light-heartedly before calling it “a fascinating read”.
“It both gave me a sense of the formative elements of an extraordinary Canadian’s life and career, and it reminded me of the numerous events and institutions that Tom has helped to shape over the course of decades.”
There were “several bright threads weaved throughout the tapestry” of the book, said Beatty of d’Aquino’s love for Canada, his sense of duty, his belief in the arts’ ability to elevate and enrich us, “and his optimism, even in bleak times, that better days are ahead for our country, if only we’ll work for them.”
The room heard how d’Aquino, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in small-town Trail, B.C. He grew up in the nearby community of Nelson, surrounded by the Kootenay mountains and crystal-clear lakes and rivers. That’s where his love for fly-fishing began. He was president of the student council and delivered the valedictory address at his high school graduation.
D’Aquino met Susan while doing his undergraduate degree at UBC in Vancouver. She was from Montreal. “I was beguiled,” he wrote of the woman he fell in love with and married 57 years ago.
D’Aquino has dedicated his memoir to his wife, whom he refers to as his North Star.
The room heard from Beatty how d’Aquino turned a “somewhat sleepy” business council into a strong voice for Canada’s most senior business leaders. D’Aquino also spoke highly of his successors, former deputy prime minister John Manley and current Business Council of Canada CEO Goldy Hyder, who was in Asia.
D’Aquino remains chairman emeritus of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, having served as a founding director and chair for 18 years. He worked for former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s and early 1970s, describing those years as “among the most exciting” of my life.
His book speaks about Canada as being a country that once punched above its weight. “That is no longer the case,” he writes. “In projecting and practising soft power, our lofty words have not been matched by deeds.”
He blames complacency. “When you consider all the benefits we have, all of the resources that we have, we’re a country that, at times, is far too complacent,” said d’Aquino, who identified political will and good public policy as key factors to making Canada a stronger nation.
D’Aquino started writing his 462-page memoir during the pandemic lockdowns, getting up around five o’clock each morning to spend a few hours writing on his iPad. He thanked more than a half-dozen friends who read chapters of his manuscript and offered comments. Stephen Poloz and Ottawa author and journalist Andrew Cohen both reviewed his manuscripts at different stages. His executive assistant Cheryl Eadie helped him to prepare his drafts.
Guests were handed a signed copy of Private Power, Public Purpose on their way out. “It is a gift in the hope that you will read the book,” he earlier told his audience.
“For me, so many of you – and many beyond this room — contributed to the adventures that you’re going to read about, that it gives Susan and me enormous pleasure to be able to share it with you.”