The french-fry heiress, the culture czar, and the divorce that exposed scandal at the top of the Canadian arts world
By Anne Kingston
On April 28, 2014, a joyful Eleanor McCain shared her love for Jeff Melanson on Facebook, posting a photo of the two of them sitting next to one another on a stone bench. The daughter of the late frozen french-fry titan Wallace McCain, who has carved out a career as a singer, is wearing a pink dress and vintage jacket while smiling adoringly at the man she called her “fiancé.” He’s attired in a dark blue suit, looking away from her, into the distance, a beatific smile on his face. The accompanying message—a hybrid love-letter/PR statement—pays tribute to Melanson, citing his 2½ years running the Banff Centre and his recently announced position as president and CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra: “I am very proud of Jeff for his recent appointments, all of his accomplishments and most of all the integrity, character and grace with which he handles everything in his life. Congratulations my love!” she wrote, attaching links to media stories celebrating Melanson’s return: The TSO “needs a miracle worker and it has found one,” the Toronto Star gushed in one.
Melanson responded in the comment thread: “My love, what a beautifully touching post. You are truly a wonder in every way. As you know I am following my heart to Toronto to be closer to [his three children] and to be closer to you. Thank you for loving me. I love you so very much and I won’t ever take what we have for granted.”
The pair were married in April 2014 (left) after a four-month relationship (Facebook)
The social media declaration masked the reality that the picture captured Melanson and McCain after their private April 26 wedding at Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, the stealth culmination of a four-month, long-distance courtship. He was not her fiancé, but her new husband. That would make their trip to New York City that weekend—where Melanson represented the Banff Centre at a gala and the couple attended a performance of Madame Butterfly at Lincoln Centre—a working honeymoon of sorts. The final expense account Melanson filed at the Banff Centre in early May included the $2,134.16 four-night hotel bill.
That the first opera McCain and Melanson saw as a married couple featured the story of a marriage of convenience that ends tragically with the wife committing hara-kiri now serves as foreshadowing of an acrimonious public battle between the two. McCain launched the first salvo on March 2 with a court application for annulment of their nine-month marriage. She was deceived, she alleges: Because Melanson “lied to her, deliberately misrepresented himself to her and tricked her going through a ceremony of marriage with him, she did not give her free and enlightened consent to be married to him,” the statement reads, claiming Melanson ended their “fairy tale” union “abruptly” in January 2015 via email, two months after the couple’s Nov. 23 public reenactment of their wedding.
At times the 34-page legal document reads like a plot out of Henry James or Edith Wharton: the heiress duped by the duplicitous cad, complete with chapter headings such as “Jeff Seeks Out Eleanor” and “Jeff Relentlessly Courts Eleanor.” “Had [Eleanor] known the truth about Jeff, she never would have married him,” the filing states. That truth, according to allegations that have not been tested in court, paints Melanson as a seducer, personally and professionally. “Jeff has taken advantage of the Canadian arts community,” the statement reads, going on to describe him as a “shameless self-promoter” who overstated his achievements, misled employers, and sexually harassed at least one employee at the Banff Centre who reached a settlement with the organization on the issue; the document names the woman. Her own hasty marriage to Melanson was part of that deception, McCain alleges: “Eleanor now believes that Jeff pursued her and pushed to marry her so quickly because he thought that marrying her and being associated with her family would help redeem him from his scandalous behaviour in Banff and would give him an excuse for not being able to fulfill his grandiose plans at [the Banff Centre].”
Two weeks later, the filing made front-page news, predictable given the players and such nuggets as the charge that Melanson used the Banff Centre’s IP address to log into the adultery website Ashley Madison under “Sarastro2012,” a reference to a character in Mozart’s Magic Flute. On Twitter, Melanson called the claims “inaccurate and undignified.” The damage had been done. By month’s end, Melanson was out at the TSO.
Last week, Melanson fired back. McCain’s allegations are “distorted and untruthful,” his legal response claims, part of a larger “smear campaign . . . under the guise of requesting an annulment.” He blamed the marriage’s breakdown on McCain, referred to as “a vengeful, angry person with extreme wealth and incredible amounts of rage.” In his version, the marriage ended after a couples therapy session on Jan. 23, “part of a continuing attempt to make the marriage work.” McCain’s “severe rage and anger management issues” found expression targeting one of his children, the filing alleges; McCain “forbade one of Jeff’s three children from attending the [public wedding] ceremony.” He had to rent a condo in order to see them, he added. Melanson “will not respond to the specific employment matters,” the filing states, before taking some sneering potshots at his estranged wife’s professional aspirations, describing McCain as a “self-funded amateur musician” who paid for stage time (under the chapter heading: “Eleanor’s Artistic and Financial Dishonesty”). Melanson asks for the marriage contract—rumoured to net him a mid-seven-figure payout—to be enforced as well as legal costs.
McCain’s 34-page legal filing against Melanson reads like a Wharton novel (Keith Beaty/Toronto Star)
That Melanson, who studied opera as an undergraduate, is enmeshed in the soapy version of the genre is only one of the many ironies of Canada’s ongoing War of the Roses, a mutually assured destruction destined to expose the underbelly of the Canadian arts scene. One arts insider is aghast: “It’s damaging to Jeff, it’s damaging to the TSO, it’s damaging to the Canadian arts community and it’s damaging to the McCain family. It’s a train wreck.” Lawyers are chattering: one shudders at “the abuse of the legal system to try to ruin someone’s career.”
But the combatants also represent the extremes of the insular Canadian art world—buyer and seller, donor and visionary—and at least some of what’s wrong with it. If McCain bought her way into the arts scene, “[losing] money on her ‘artistic’ endeavours,” as her estranged husband alleges in his claim that she “buys opportunities for herself and loses money on her ‘artistic’ endeavours’,” Melanson sold his way in: catapulting to celebrity status, particularly among the philanthropic elite, with a compelling, marketable vision of how the arts enrich communities, nations and economies. Such was Melanson’s charisma and celebrity that this is a world in which the hare, not the tortoise, gets the spotlight even if he doesn’t finish the race. It’s seldom acknowledged that his near-$1-billion plan for the Banff Centre was abandoned 2½ years in, and his epic $166.4-million plan for the money-losing TSO to build a recording studio and media lab went unquestioned publicly.
Those who know him speak in terms of Melanson as a fictional character. “Everybody is always comparing people to Gatsby, but Jeff really is Gatsby—but Gatsby with no money,” says one. And since he’s a Canadian Gatsby, he used cultural institutions as his shiny mansion. “He throws these fantastic parties of ideas. And then instead it turns out he’s the guy who ends up face down in the pool.” Yet Melanson’s ability to convince is such that some predict he’ll spring back to life. “If anybody could recover from this, it’s Jeff.”
While the end of their union is a source of fractious division, McCain and Melanson’s legal filings agree on the relationship’s beginnings. They met in 2006, when Wallace McCain, Eleanor’s father, set up an introduction in hope that Melanson, then transitioning from dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s community school to a position as administrative director of National Ballet of Canada School (NBS), could offer his daughter career advice and provide some introductions, which he did. The McCains were the school’s primary benefactors; Wallace and his wife, Margaret, well-known for their philanthropic giving, had spearheaded a major capital campaign to fund major renovations. (This would also, in an ironic twist, help seal Melanson’s reputation as a “turnaround artist.”)
The two met again after Melanson wrote McCain in November 2013 to invite her to an event at the Banff Centre. McCain, unable to attend, agreed to meet for coffee in Toronto in mid-December. “It certainly wasn’t a date,” McCain told Maclean’s in an email. “We were acquaintances catching up.”
At the time, Melanson was months into a formal separation with his first wife, Jennifer Snowdon, who was known around Banff as the “absentee wife” because she was studying graphic arts in Toronto while the children lived with their father. When their separation was made public in early 2013, the children moved to Toronto to be with her. (In yet another twist, Snowdon is now a yoga instructor offering a “Shift Happens” workshop for people going through divorce.)
The newly single Melanson became known at Banff for his active romantic life, on and off campus. “Tails were twitching in the grass,” says one Banff insider. “He was considered a primo catch.” One Banff insider marvelled at the effect Melanson had: “Some of the toughest, smartest women I know became like overcooked pasta at the sight of him—all soft and starchy.” By late 2013, he was dating Calgarian Tamara Loiselle, a months-long relationship that began in the fall.
McCain, for her part, had been divorced twice. Her first marriage lasted four years, her second, five-year marriage, ended in 2004; the next six years would be spent in custody disputes over their daughter.
Within days McCain and Melanson were in a long-distance relationship, an “aggressive courtship,” according to McCain, a “mutual romantic interest,” according to Melanson.
The laws of attraction are impossible to divine; superficially, the pair shared an obvious love of music. His was seeded in the public school system, sparked by high school musicals, and developed at the University of Manitoba. Though he now has a position of greater status in the arts world, he grew up, he likes to say, “lower middle class” (his father was in the military, and then a postal worker, his mother a travel agent). He told Canadian Business in 2010 that he recognized his limitations as a singer early on: “I began to realize that, as much as I loved being on stage, many people were as talented as I was.” He joked in a talk that everyone has an artist within, but “that is not to say that you all are going to make a living as artists—please don’t try.”
That was never a worry for McCain, who grew up in privilege in Florenceville, N.B., headquarters of the McCain empire, now estimated to be worth $7 billion. Eleanor’s musical aspirations were inspired, she has said, when she saw Annie on Broadway as a girl. She studied “classical singing techniques” at Mount Allison University. “I don’t have a huge Wagnerian voice,” she has said, a fact that didn’t stop her from releasing five CDs featuring lullabies, Celtic songs and covers of artists, including Billy Joel and Sting; the orchestral tracks on her most recent CD were recorded with the Moscow symphony.
Melanson’s filing reports that the romance “blossomed over holidays”—though she spent New Year’s in Jamaica at the family compound, he with his parents in Winnipeg at a Mennonite church. The couple travelled to Cuba in January; soon after they were talking marriage.
McCain has released five CDs; her most recent was recorded with the Moscow symphony (Rob Swyrd)
For Melanson, the beginning of the relationship coincided with the start of another, professional one: that month, not halfway through his five-year contract at Banff, he began discussions with the TSO board, which had been trying to fill its top job since Andrew Shaw departed in August 2013. “It was a quick hire but not so quick that the board didn’t do due diligence,” a board member reports. Melanson was “a breath of fresh air,” one close to the hiring process says: “We were enthused by his enthusiasm and his rapport with the orchestra; Jeff thought outside the box.” Contrary to the allegations in McCain’s filing, affiliation with the mighty McCain family did not factor in Melanson’s hiring, says the source: “Nobody thought of it as a disadvantage, nor was anybody rubbing their hands saying, ‘Oh boy, now we have access.’ ”
Melanson formally proposed to McCain on April 4 in the McCain family home in Florenceville, on the opening night of Eleanor’s “Maritime Swing Tour with Matt Dusk,” a project Melanson dismisses in his court filing as a “tour of small venues.” Colleagues in Banff watched his Twitter feed with amusement, an insider says; senior staff believed he was out fundraising: “Meanwhile, he’s chasing some lounge singer around the Maritimes who happened to be Eleanor McCain.”
Melanson’s announcement that he was leaving Banff on April 11, 2014, for “family reasons” was met with shock if not surprise. He’d just orchestrated a wildly ambitious reinvention of the centre; his contract stipulated 12 months notice—he gave four. Many had never expected him to last 10 years in Banff but always assumed he was headed for New York City, not making a lateral move to Toronto. In his filing, he called Banff a “dream job” and said he was “upset” to leave.
Melanson’s social debut as McCain’s fiancé melded personal with professional, at McCain’s splashy Toronto launch party for her fifth CD, in late April. Melanson brought his three children. Onstage, McCain confessed her love for “cheesy love songs,” before singing a few. Days later they wed secretly. In her court filing she says she “felt pressured” by Melanson; it was a stressful time given her touring schedule; she insisted Melanson plan the wedding. (The pre-nup was signed two days prior.) One insider who knows McCain was surprised by the under-the-radar behaviour: “It’s so unlike Eleanor.” Yet their marriage remained under wraps; Hello proclaimed that “Canada’s newest arts power couple is talking about a fall wedding.” The November 2014 issue of Toronto Life’s 50 most influential people dubbed Melanson the “turnaround king”; among his “friends in high places” it named Margaret Atwood and the McCain family: “Melanson is engaged to singer Eleanor McCain.”
A month after their wedding re-enactment, on Dec. 24, all seemed well, as the couple sang Christmas carols for Cassidy Sheng, a Paralympic swimmer in the last stages of terminal cancer. On New Year’s Eve 2015 McCain posted a picture on Facebook with her daughter in Jamaica: “Missing Jeff and his kids this New Year’s Eve.” Weeks later, by both of their accounts, the marriage was over. In his filing, Melanson says a deciding factor was McCain’s exclusion of one of his kids from the public wedding, their multi-page Christmas card, and the Jamaica holiday. McCain denies all three charges. Melanson and the child had “a serious breakdown in their relationship over many months,” she told Maclean’s in an email. “While I continued to hope that everyone would be present and happy, it became obvious that the relationship would not be repaired in time. As a result, we agreed [the child] not attend the wedding or the vacation in Jamaica.”
Three weeks after the split, McCain writes, Melanson’s lawyer contacted her, demanding the pre-nup be honoured. That’s when McCain’s lawyer contracted a private investigator to dig. “Following Jeff’s termination of our marriage I began to learn more about him,” McCain wrote in an email. “My lawyers felt it important to get the facts.”
It was an inglorious end to a romance that had begun so promisingly, so filled with poetic declarations of love: McCain alleged that texts Melanson sent to her—“I want to whisk you away,” “You are making me a better man”—echoed verbatim those sent to a former Banff colleague who alleged sexual harassment.
On March 28, 2013, long before Melanson’s professional achievements were scrutinized and then trashed in a divorce filing, he stood before an audience at Museum London in southwestern Ontario, delivering a keynote on “Creativity and Change,” in which he explained how arts fundraising was like romantic seduction. “I was doing a talk recently about fundraising where I made the comment, ‘I’ve never been turned down,’ and people who worked with me laughed because I get turned down 90 per cent of the time—much like dating,” he said, pausing for laughter. “If you see fundraising as an opportunity to talk to someone that you know about what you value and what they value and engage in a really robust conversation that will be beneficial.” He added, “That being said, it’s always great to walk out with the cheque.”
The courtship analogy is germane to Melanson’s line of work. By the early 21st century, arts administration had become a matter of seduction: teasing money from donors, inspiring staff, getting people in the seats, and securing talent. The Museum London curator, one of two who introduced Melanson, then the president of the Banff Centre, said she was “captivated” by Melanson’s “philosophy of cultural enterprise.” Her colleague expressed a similar enchantment. He’d never heard of Melanson, he said; a quick Google search wowed him. “He’s accomplished, he’s bright, he’s young and I saw a picture of him . . . he’s good looking and he’s tall, and I really want to hate him but he’s really nice,” he said, adding: “Jeff also pursued vocal study at Oberlin Conservatory. It gets more sickening as it goes on.”
Melanson’s skills of professional seduction extended to the media, which overheatedly referred to him as an “oracle,” “cultural wunderkind,” “arts visionary,” “Canada’s cultural turnaround man” and “cultural rock star.” Melanson denied McCain’s charge in her filing that he had an “extensive network in the media.” Yet there’s no question he was skilled in cultivating connections, even friendships, with highly placed editors and writers. While at the Banff Centre, a partnership with The Globe and Mail saw an “embedded” reporter at the Centre for six months. Melanson tried, but failed, to get the New York Times interested in a similar deal. His press was consistently glowing; the fact that there was an unresolved charge involving a former employee at Banff when he moved back to Toronto was known but not investigated. He was routinely presented as the saviour the arts community desperately needed: “The United Colours of Melanson,” a 2010 Globe and Mail story, sounded an alarm: “If Toronto’s arts institutions want to survive, they’d better start listening to Jeff Melanson.”
They did. Melanson’s attention-getting innovations included building the Royal Conservatory of Music community school into the largest of its kind in North America, adding world music, jazz and hip hop to the curriculum, as well as outreach to marginalized communities. He introduced business know-how, or “cultural entrepreneurship,” to students at the NBS—he also built the ballet’s digital brand via a flash mob at Toronto’s Eaton Centre. He made headlines in 2010 as special arts and culture adviser to Toronto mayor Rob Ford, a man known for his love of football, not Flaubert. Then there was his ambitious plan to turn the Banff Centre, a globally recognized arts colony and leadership centre, into a world-class hub, a Davos West or “marquee project” of the West, as he liked to call it—“what I’m supposed to do with the next 10 years of my life.”
Melanson with Rob Ford (left) and Toronto Councillor Michael Thompson in 2011 (T Sandler Photography)
The conditions that gave rise to Jeff Melanson also reflect a new onus on cultural administrators in an era enamoured with charisma at every level. The days of dusty, bookish academics heading the museum are over; in a competitive market it’s necessary to charm and sell. The sorts of jobs Melanson has held require a broad leadership skill set: management, financial acumen, fundraising, marketing and communications, says Daniel Weinzweig, a managing partner with Searchlight Canada, a headhunter for cultural institutions. “It’s a challenge to find the complete package, particularly in Canada where the talent pool is shallow and we’re bad at cultivating the next generation of leaders.”
Melanson—a towering and striking presence at six foot six who bills himself as “an artist with an M.B.A.”—fit the role with suave aplomb. Then there’s the voice, a professionally trained baritone: “I do have a soothing voice,” he told the crowd at Western. His message comforted and inspired at a time of rising costs, declining government funding, and worry over how digital platforms are changing cultural consumption. His insistence that Canada could be “world class” fed aspirations in a country trying to shed the “lumberjack model,” as he’s called it.
The fact these so-called trailblazing ideas had been trailblazed by others—Charles Landry, John Howkin and most famously Richard Florida, whose book The Rise of the Creative Class touted the “creative economy”—was irrelevant. They fed into the notion of entrepreneurship, as interpreted originally by Schumpeter—his “gale of creative disruption,” beloved by business leaders. Melanson was a popularizer and perfect frontman for the transformative power of the arts, personally and economically, and the value of embracing the “creative economy.” His champions and critics alike cite his brilliant communication skills. “It’s the sort of charismatic aura that exists in digital and high-tech industries,” says one arts administrator. “Jeff is a chameleon,” says another. “He mirrors you; whatever I ordered he ordered, whatever I did, he did.”
Melanson checked all the boxes, appealing to a younger audience in a way older donors could appreciate. At Banff, to the consternation of some, he shifted focus from classical music to jazz, world music and indie bands. Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew was given a residency; Melanson sang backup on a recording project. He reached out to First Nations, staging a Banff first: an all-night ceremony that saw elders bless the campus. It was a pattern repeated at the TSO; partnerships included one with the Polaris Music Prize that saw the orchestra cover Drake’s Know Yourself and DJ Skratch Bastid headline a show.
But other patterns emerged: initial excitement followed by questions. “Banff was such a staid place, like working at an accounting firm,” says a Banff veteran. “Then Jeff came in and it was like, ‘This guy is amazing’—it was a huge cultural shift. He walked his kids to school, he skied, he went hiking. He’d sit in the cafeteria with whoever was sitting there. He had good ideas. He acted the part of breathing life into an organization that has been through the ringer really, really well.” His ambition could prove exhausting. Melanson didn’t add “buildings,” but “infrastructure.” Redevelopment on a campus that had just seen renovations included proposed new art studios, a broadcast centre, a music, sound and dance facility, media space, new residences and an Indigenous arts and leadership pavilion. Focus shifted from presenting cultural works to creating content accessible through technological channels, or “the prioritization of dissemination,” as Melanson called it. The local radio station was rebranded Banff Centre Radio and a TED-esque Internet TV platform was developed. Naysayers exited. Melanson taking to the press before budget approval frustrated some board levels. Chair Brenda Mackie put it diplomatically to The Globe and Mail in 2012: “He just has so many dreams. I think working with us as the board, he’s going to have to kind of prioritize those dreams along with us.”
In July 2013, a month after the Alberta floods, the board signed off on the big vision whose budget had ballooned to just shy of $1 billion; it was a colossal, some predicted doomed, ambition for a non-profit with a $58-million operating budget, $21 million of which comes from government, largely from the province, which would soon be struggling. Melanson downplayed the price tag, saying it wasn’t exceptional compared to multi-billion-dollar cultural builds in Hong Kong and Dubai, even Toronto.
Similar excitement prefaced Melanson’s arrival at the TSO, though his “disruptor” reputation was known. “Everybody was excited,” says one former staffer, “but I was hesitant because of his ‘shtick.’ He used ‘innovation’ as a buzzword but when pressed on the issue it wasn’t clear what he meant. He’d say, ‘We’re going to be super innovative, we’re going to have Feist perform with the symphony.’ But that’s not innovative. You’re going to get a person who appeals to the rich, white one per cent but in a different genre?”
A similar desire to monumentalize was evident at the TSO where Melanson launched the Toronto Symphony Studio Project, a $166.4-million plan to build a “world-class film scoring stage and studio.” Toronto’s musical and film communities shook their heads in disbelief. His Power Point presentation to government and industry showed “recording for motion pictures, digital media, and gaming that requires large-scale orchestral sound,” a “media and music lab and accelerator,” and an “e-learning content studio and workshop” for schoolkids (“further expansion across Canada and the world could follow,” it suggested). The TSO was to be the majority stakeholder; that was seen as a way to secure funding and a stable revenue stream to support TSO operations. Melanson’s presentation was rife with the argot beloved by donors and corporate sponsors: “the ultimate social enterprise as it weaves tremendous artistic, social and economic innovation”; “cutting edge global training facility for music and arts e-learning for professions”; “community outreach and education.”
One arts administrator who attended a presentation left unimpressed: “It’s a big visionary project presented as a big idea people could rally around but basic questions weren’t answered: Do we really need it? Does the film industry want it?” He thinks not. “Unless you’re John Williams or a few others, most film scores get done by two guys in a basement with synthesizers. Most orchestral scores get done by eastern European non-unionized orchestras because they’re cheap. What’s going to make a British or American film company come here and hire the TSO at union wages? They could go to Bratislava.”
People thought Jeff was nuts; he thought he could do it, says a government insider familiar with the project. “Jeff said the symphony was behind him and he had the connections.” He expressed doubt: “There was no way Jeff was going to get $100 million from the government and fund the rest privately. It would have to be something led by the private sector or a film industry consortium; that would make the TSO a minority stakeholder.”
Melanson’s style as a “disruptor” was part of his appeal. At Banff, says one, “he made some obvious and smart cuts. But as the hires and cuts continued, the mood shifted because it appeared that some were personal.”
Late in the summer of 2012, Melanson created a new position of director of government affairs, reporting to him, and appointed a Banff employee. The two travelled to Melbourne in October 2012. After they returned, she was sidelined, ultimately put on paid leave and terminated in September 2013 after months of mediation. In February 2014 she threatened to sue, claiming Melanson abused his position to pursue a personal relationship. Melanson’s defence, accepted by the board at the time, was that he was the victim; she pursued him. By the time a settlement was reached in September 2014, with non-disclosure clauses all around, Melanson was in Toronto about to take over at the TSO.
Melanson was executive director of the National Ballet School from 2006-11 (Fernando Morales/Globe and Mail/CP)
As one insider told Maclean’s, to make change, you have to break some eggs. But in the end you also have to make the omelette. At both NBS and Banff, he arrived on the heels of multi-million-dollar capital campaigns; Banff raised $140 million and had seen some revitalization on its campus by architect Jack Diamond, though work remained to be done. Similarly, when Melanson became executive director and co-CEO of NBS with Mavis Staines in 2007, he got the credit for increasing revenues from $13 million to $20 million, erasing the deficit, and increasing its endowment from $8 million to $32 million; in a Jan. 22 Salon West event in Toronto, now on YouTube, he told the room: “At the ballet school, when I started there, we were insolvent basically. I love to take on these challenges. As it turned out we managed to turn it around in a year or so in a way that was positive brand building for me—that it seemed I saved the day.”
Others who know the financials see it differently: “It was not a moment of insolvency; it was a transition moment,” says a former NBS staffer. Raising the final money—transforming capital donors to ongoing donors—is difficult, he says. “But the big job, the glorious job—the transformation—had been done.” Melanson hired a professional fundraiser he later fired, who sued the NBS, a protracted battle he won.
One who’s watched Melanson’s career notes a growing ambition, almost megalomania, in the proposals put forward, starting with his role as “producer and creator” of the Canada Prizes for the Arts in 2008, intended to be given to emerging artists outside Canada, sold as a partnership between Toronto’s Luminato Festival and a yet-to-be-established not-for-profit organization. After successful government lobbying, the 2009 federal budget earmarked $25 million for the “international arts equivalent to the Olympic Games in the fields of music, dance, visual arts and theatre arts.” When the document pitching the prize to the government was leaked to the national and international “partners” who were named, they expressed anger they’d not been consulted. Robert Sirman, former head of NBS and head of the Canada Council, wrote in the October 2014 Literary Review of Canada that the prize gave Stephen Harper’s government cover when the subject of international cultural funding came up. That it was never given out seemed to make no difference. Quietly the $25 million disappeared from the government’s budget, Sirman writes, and “members of the arts community—most of whom had no involvement or interest in the initiative in the first place—bit their collective tongues.” Such silence is not unusual in the insular world of Canadian arts; while many top arts administrators, business people, staffers and artists were willing to speak to Maclean’s, most asked that their names not be used.
Likewise, as special assistant to mayor Rob Ford on arts and culture, Melanson got credit for a Creative Capital Gains initiative calling for an increase in per-capita arts funding, from $18 to $25 by 2013, unanimously endorsed by Toronto City Council in 2011. Yet no money was put forward to reach the $25 target—an idea that incidentally had been put forward in 2003 by the Toronto Arts Council. (The $25 target will be reached in 2017.)
“In the arts community there’s a kind of irritation not because of what Jeff said—others have been saying it as well, only they never got recognition for it,” says one high-profile administrator. “People felt he got so much publicity that he’d driven. And here they were doing things in possibly a more substantive fashion and yet it was as if no one thought this except Jeff. That drove people crazy.” Melanson’s gravitation to the spotlight was another source of chatter. A high profile is a plus for fundraising, but Melanson edging out music director and conductor Peter Oundjian as the TSO’s face bothered some: “Is it Jeff Melanson’s orchestra?” one symphony goer griped. “The guy in the office never matters.” But Melanson knew how to burnish his mythology, seen in his mention of studying voice under legendary Richard Miller of the Oberlin Conservatory. Oberlin’s registrar has no record of a Jeff or Jeffrey Melanson attending the school or conservatory. When asked, Melanson says he took a “summer vocal intensive” in 2007 as an undergraduate.
Whether or not anyone else took note of Melanson’s failed ambitions, Eleanor McCain certainly did, and marshalls them to dramatic effect in her case against Melanson. Her suit alleges Melanson left “no work product,” a charge he counters with a list of achievements, at the top the “design and development of the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute.” Inevitably, there are conflicting versions of that, too: Some close to the project say Melanson was merely “at the right place at the right time,” and that Edmonton developer John Ferguson, a Lougheed friend and chairman of the board of Suncor Energy, was the real driving force behind the Institute.
The Melanson aura, the whiff of world class, came at a cost: Banff picked up his annual $2,995 membership to Toronto’s Soho House and monthly expenses that averaged some $4,800 per month, including some $5,800 on flight changes over 18 months. The firings at Banff cleaned out its $1.5-million rainy day fund. Melanson declined to comment on any issues relating to terminations, citing the employees’ privacy. During the Syrian refugee crisis, the TSO flew in Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh from Paris on short notice to make a video. In its 2014-15 year, the TSO posted two straight modest surpluses on its $28-million annual budget. Fundraising was up by nearly $3.5 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, but higher expenses resulted in an overall revenue decline: $1.8 million in production, $544,000 in marketing, $696,000 in administration, and $1.79 million funding for a European tour, with stops in Vienna and Reykjavik.
As at Banff, the personal encroaching on the professional was a cause of concern, seen when Melanson’s new girlfriend, Caroline Markos, was named TSO’s manager of social media in July 2015. Melanson met Markos, a talented soprano, in early 2015 when she was a PR associate at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. By July 2015, she was with Melanson, had moved to Toronto and joined the TSO’s small digital marketing team. The day before her arrival was announced, a full-time employee in the department was let go without cause. The relationship was public, pictured in Hello and in a photo gallery of a TSO 2015 opening night gala. By November, the board was alerted and it was agreed she should leave. “We don’t publicly discuss the employment details of any of our current or past employees,” a TSO spokesman says.
Melanson started dating the TSO’s social media manager, Caroline Markos, in 2015 (T Sandler Photography)
Eleanor McCain’s legal battle dovetails with a new professional venture: her cross-country tour, “True North: The Canadian Songbook.” On March 6, The Globe and Mail ran a story with a generic “staff” byline about her “recording 32 famous Canadian songs, newly arranged for 10 symphony orchestras starting with the Edmonton Symphony on March 22 and ending June 13-14 in Ottawa with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.” The next week, the paper broke the story of her court filing.
In another stroke of timing, that same day Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced the TSO was being awarded $7.5 million for its Canadian Mosaic, a project that will see it commissioning works from Canadian composers on behalf of orchestras across the country. The bequest, the largest in TSO history, is considered a coup in music circles: “That’s Bombardier money, not cultural money,” one arts administrator says. Given the revelations about his marriage, Melanson did not attend the press conference to savour the moment; nor did any TSO top brass attend; the vice-president of marketing spoke to the media.
The Mosaic project is a source of further discord. McCain says it was her idea: it came to her in January 2014 when Melanson was at Banff and they discussed it, and she continued to develop the project after the split, discussing it with a producer in L.A. in February 2015, when she was there for the Grammys. The TSO says it started developing the idea, timed for Canada’s sesquicentennial, early in 2015. When she learned of this via Melanson’s Twitter account in April 2015, McCain says in an email that she alerted the TSO board to “the parallels between her project and Jeff’s proposed ideas.” In January 2016, when she heard the TSO had added multiple orchestras, she sent another missive to the board. “She felt she owned the intellectual property of working with orchestras across Canada,” says one familiar with the drama.
Melanson’s resignation from the TSO, one that resulted from “significant media attention,” he says in his filing, has not been met with sympathy in arts circles. “Some is professional jealousy,” says one staffer at a non-profit. “If he had given credit and been a nice guy, people might feel differently.” The TSO had no choice but to part ways, says another arts insider. “Keeping him would be a fundraising disaster.” There’s also rumbling that the marital breakdown influenced donations. A TSO spokesman denies this: “We are aware of no prominent donors who withheld funding because of [Melanson’s] personal situation.” “It’s a sad set of developments,” says Peter Simon, president of the Royal Conservatory. “He’s gifted, he has the commitment, the passion, the core belief.”
The Melanson-McCain marital fallout extends far beyond them. Some named in McCain’s filing are unhappy about being outed. Tamara Loiselle, who dated Melanson in late 2013, denies allegations that Melanson was a factor in the breakup of her previous relationship. McCain’s P.I. contacted her, Loiselle told Maclean’s, but she didn’t talk.
At Banff, where the expansion plan has been downsized and the digital radio station shuttered, there’s a sense of embarrassment. “After the shock, I think the general feeling was one of being used. It was more a sense of shame that they had been duped into submission by this fast-talking guy and then abandoned,” says one insider. “Eleanor McCain is not the only one jilted here,” said another. At the TSO, the Studio Project is “on the back burner,” says a spokesman.
Meanwhile, the battle royal continues. Melanson has retained family law specialist Harold Niman, who has a history representing spouses divorcing McCains; he represented Eleanor’s ex-husband, Greg David, in their divorce and custody challenges. He also famously negotiated the court order that saw her brother Michael, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, famously pay his ex-wife a record Canadian high of $175,000 per month in 2013 in interim spousal support. Already, the mudslinging has begun. McCain had a psychiatrist offer an armchair diagnosis that her ex suffers from “narcissistic personality disorder.” Melanson countered with the evil stepmother trope, claiming that McCain forced him to rent a condo to see his children and that “she was desperate to have more children” and “enraged” Melanson had children with another woman. A section titled “Community Abuse” contends that McCain refers to the locals near her Nova Scotia house as “low lifes.” McCain is expected to file her response to his response this week. McCain says she’s not out to ruin Melanson’s reputation. “I made a decision, out of a point of principle, to file for annulment,” she said in an email. “This is about our marriage, not Jeff’s career.”
Annulments based on misrepresentation are rare, says one family law lawyer: “If everyone could get an annulment if their spouse turned out to be somebody other than who they appeared to be when they were courting, there would be a f–k of a lot of annulments.” Another theory is being floated: that McCain is testing marital law; “free and willing consent” was added to the Civil Marriages Act in 2015. So far, it has only been applied under the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. That would be the final irony.
CORRECTION, May 5, 2016: This story originally referenced a plan for arts funding erroneously attributed to the Toronto Arts Council. In fact, the story should have referenced a 2001-2003 culture plan produced by the City of Toronto. Maclean’s regrets the error.