Everything comes back to Queen’s Park — even in Florida

Far from home, you can still run into people with vivid memories of Ontario political history
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 07, 2020
The author (left) and Martin Baranek in Florida. (Courtesy of Steve Paikin)

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Those who’ve worked with me at TVO over the past many years have often heard me say it: everything always comes back to Queen’s Park.

I mean it jokingly, mostly. But it’s just remarkable how many times I’ll be somewhere or be talking to somebody with no apparent connection to Ontario politics, when, BOOM, there it is.

Like the time I was one of hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the streets of downtown Toronto the night the Raptors won it all. A young twentysomething reveller actually came up to me, amidst all the hoopla and mayhem, and said, “Steve, I’m loving the #onpoli podcast. Keep it going!” That was hardly what I expected to be hearing that night.

Or the time in October 2018, when I snagged a ticket to the second game of the World Series and saw the Boston Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Dodgers (no cheating jokes, please!). Just as the game’s about to start, the fella sitting two seats over from me calls my name and says, “So, Steve, how’s Doug Ford doing?”

Seriously? In Fenway Park? At the World Series?

Of course. Because, as I said, everything always comes back to Queen’s Park.

And, so, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised by what happened this past weekend while I was visiting my folks in south Florida. I bumped into an almost 90-year-old gentleman in the lobby of their condominium. I instantly recognized him. And he recognized me as well.

“Hello, Mr. Baranek, how are you?” I asked.

“Just great,” he answered. “I’m down here visiting my son. Do you remember the last time we met?”

“I sure do,” I said. “It was almost exactly five years ago. We saw each other at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in Poland.”

“Exactly right,” he said.

Martin Baranek was an 11-year-old Polish kid who found himself in the most notorious death camp in world history. And somehow survived.

We then talked about how moving that 70th-anniversary ceremony had been — and how many dignitaries and Holocaust survivors had gathered just a week ago for the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

“I came to this country with nothing,” he said. “And I’ve made a life for myself. And it’s been good. It’s been very good.”

We chatted some more about his family. And then I popped another question.

“Mr. Baranek,” I continued, “do you remember where and when we met the first time?”

“We talked about it in Poland,” he reminded me. “It was when I owned my store on Keele Street.”

What a memory. What Baranek was referring to was something that had happened in spring 1985. Ontario Liberal leader David Peterson was campaigning to open up beer and wine sales in the province, to break the monopoly held by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and “Brewers Retail” (as the Beer Store then was called).

The Liberals brought their campaign to Baranek’s North York corner store, and Peterson extolled the virtues of selling beer and wine in places like Baranek’s. I was covering the campaign as a cub reporter for CHFI Radio.

Peterson emerged from that election as Ontario’s 20th premier, in no small part because he was seen as a more modern leader who was anxious to bust up the old Tory way of doing things. The beer-and-wine-in-the-corner-stores promise was a winner, even though, after he became premier, Peterson was never actually able to make it happen. The power of the brewers and the LCBO was just too strong.

When I emailed details of my chance encounter with Baranek to the former premier, Peterson got back to me, saying: “Tell him we have finally delivered on our promise for beer and wine in the corner stores.”

Peterson is right about that. But it was the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne’s that ultimately made it happen — three decades after the original campaign promise was made.

“You are right!” Peterson closed his email to me. “Queens Park is the centre of the world.”

I told you. Everything always comes back to Queen’s Park.

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