Kitchen crusade

Peter C. Newman on a restaurateur to the rich who now wants to build schools in Africa

Peter C. Newman

Toronto has more great restaurants than great chefs, but of the many places where the empire city’s first-rank power brokers hang out, none is more socially significant and brazenly chic than Canoe, which occupies most of the TD Bank Tower’s 54th floor. Toronto Life originally dismissed its look as “understated butch elegance,” but decor is not what keeps this particular canoe afloat.

Regulars occasionally glance across Lake Ontario to enjoy a horizon view of Niagara-on-the-Lake, but mainly they come to gaze at one another or, more specifically, at each other’s dining companions, to see what mergers or acquisitions might be coming down the pike. Peter Oliver, who along with his partner, über-chef Michael Bonacini, owns the venue, credits Canoe’s popularity to the creation of a club-like atmosphere. “The new-style executives,” Oliver contends, “want restaurants, like everything else in their world, to be direct extensions of themselves. That means slightly ‘hip’ and fashionable, yet unpretentious and understated.” (That lack of pretension has not been translated into Canoe’s à la carte offerings, which include a starter plate comprised of screech-marinated foie gras, B.C. honey mussels and chilled Yarmouth lobster.)

One of Oliver’s most popular hangouts is Jump, built into an enclosed corridor at Toronto’s Commerce Court, which combines glass and dark-walnut decor with serious chatter and New York “urban bistro” food. Regulars—mostly bankers—swear they can tell which way the TSX is heading by the volume and pitch of the noontime buzz.

In his quiet but determined way, Oliver has become Toronto’s most successful owner-operator of upscale restaurants, with a dozen outlets already in his stable that serve more than 40,000 meals a week, producing an annual turnover that tops $60 million, and employing a staff of around 900. The operation includes two new outlets in the Toronto International Film Festival’s new Lightbox headquarters, with a third due to open in December.

It turns out that running the restaurants is only Oliver’s day job. A tough hombre who still moves and behaves like the rugby player he was back home in South Africa, he is preoccupied these days with a more worthy cause than creating yummy appetizers. He is spending increasing time and money on his African ventures that are quietly setting refreshingly practical standards in international philanthropy. His dedication to the cause of helping educate underprivileged children in South Africa, from where he arrived in Canada 43 years ago, has become so passionate and time-consuming that it almost trumps his commercial interests. That’s a side of him that impresses friends and competitors alike.

It all started in 2001, the year Nelson Mandela was granted honorary Canadian citizenship. Oliver’s friend Ray Heard, originally a South African who became a leading Canadian journalist and had arranged the South African’s induction as Canada’s second honorary citizen, introduced him to Oliver at one of the Gerry Schwartz-Heather Reisman soirees in the executive couple’s Rosedale mansion. It was a case of dreams shared at first sight. They discussed the weighty problems of their homeland, agreeing that there could be no cause worthier than providing higher standards of education for the tragically neglected children of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where 27 per cent of the population is unemployed, many are fatherless, and graduation rates are as low as nine per cent in some schools. Mandela stressed that education was his country’s most urgent problem, telling Oliver that, “Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world.” And when Oliver pointed out the size of the challenge, Mandela shrugged: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

A few weeks later, Oliver emailed Heard to confide that meeting Mandela had literally changed his life and upended his priorities. The establishment restaurateur became determined to do something concrete about his home country’s neglect of primary education. “At various stages of your life, many of us feel a need, even an obligation, to help those less fortunate by donating time, money or expertise to causes that make a difference in the lives of others,” he muses. “Personally, I believe that the only way to break the cycle of poverty, especially for young people, is through education.” (His thoughts were bolstered by Heard’s reminder of the H.G. Wells aphorism that history is a contest between education and tyranny.)

Oliver decided that his most valuable contribution would be to establish a cluster of model schools that wouldn’t pretend to solve the agony of the young in the underperforming province. But by providing the formula for financing and building three grade schools in the region, he could establish a template for other entrepreneurs, generous donors and perhaps different levels of government to follow. The model schools are now in operation educating 1,200 students, with lengthy waiting lists despite annual fees of $800.

Oprah Winfrey sponsors one similar project and has used it to attract saccharine personal publicity. Oliver, however, has had no press, and does not employ retainers, consultants or fundraisers. It’s a bare-bones effort without celebrity trimmings. “I have never in my life worked on anything as intrinsically pure as this,” he maintains. “We’re trying to build a model for investment in inner-city schools with problem students to perfect a model that can be used anywhere by ourselves or other people—something that works and doesn’t waste money.”

A collegial but hard-nosed entrepreneur, he is an unusual philanthropist. Oliver makes his own luck and raises funds his own way. A mere 10 per cent of funds raised by his charity, the Stephen Leacock Foundation for Children, are spent on administration; any costs above that are covered out of his own pocket. Last year, the organization had revenues of $868,471. His fundraising is largely through the Leacock Club, which has 300 members, each of whom donate at least $1,000 per annum. Many give a lot more.

The South African schools are located in Queenstown and Whittlesea. Oliver enlisted Toronto’s leading private girls’ academies as partners—Havergal and Branksome Hall—to work with the South African teachers. Canadian teachers, many from Branksome and Havergal, take leaves of absence to work there for an academic term or longer. Also, more than a dozen Canadian students go overseas for around two weeks at a time to undertake leadership training and to work with students from the Eastern Cape. The fragile experiment has evolved into a going concern. Its weakest link is that the classrooms could be filled many times over with just as many deserving students.

“The African educational system is an absolute disaster,” Oliver complains, pointing out, for example, that the country’s schools require tens of thousands of new teachers each year. Oliver’s next project is to sponsor trainee teachers to study courses online and also intern in schools. Each would have a Canadian teacher as a mentor.

“It’s criminal that this should be happening in South Africa, which has all the advantages compared to most of that continent’s countries,” he says. “I believe that this thing we’re doing will get traction and people will say, ‘let’s cut the crap’—which describes government-to-government support that is wasted on both sides. We have no bloody axe to grind.”

The effect on the participants has been transformational. For example, this comment from a Grade 11 student at one of the schools: “I dream for myself to become a civil engineer because what I want to do is help build the new South Africa and help make it one of the First World countries.” According to one of the Canadian Havergal volunteers: “The students have taught me to take a much more optimistic view of life and to treasure every experience as an opportunity, even when it may seem a hurdle.”

The Oliver operational matrix has been to forge a “triangle of hope,” with the Toronto independent academies and the African schools as two of its sides. And the third? It’s an initiative to help solve educational problems in the inner-city schools of Oliver’s adopted Toronto. So Branksome is partnered with Rose Avenue Public School in the densely populated St. James Town (as well as one of Oliver’s schools in Queenstown, South Africa). Toronto teachers identify high-risk students to participate in efforts including homework clubs and arts programs. There is even a family resource centre to help the parents, largely immigrants who may be having a hard time adjusting to life in Canada. The bulk of the money goes to a summer literacy program, designed to stop the seasonal “slippage” of skills, Oliver explains. Students spend a full month at the private schools where they are tutored by volunteers.

The only public face of all these efforts are gatherings of the Leacock Club, which allow Oliver’s supporters to meet and greet, compare notes and share the satisfaction of being involved in a small but essential effort to help less fortunate youngsters find brighter horizons. They feel more like a marching army than a social club or philanthropic enterprise.

The last word should be Nelson Mandela’s: “The spirit of ubuntu—that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings—is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.”