Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Toronto visionary David Pecaut succumbs to cancer

David Pecaut, of Boston Consulting Group, photographed on Bay St. in downtown Toronto, Ont. May 20/2009.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

David Pecaut, the best mayor Toronto never had, a civic entrepreneur who found his opportunity, his cause, and his legacy in Toronto, died this morning surrounded by family at his home.

Mr. Pecaut, who was 54, had been fighting colorectal cancer. He is survived by his wife Helen Burstyn, four daughters and his extended family. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Even now, amidst private grief and public outpourings, it is tempting to imagine Mr. Pecaut washing up on a desert island, even one as much in danger of sinking into the ocean as Tuvalu in the Pacific. He would dry himself off, figure out a way to convene an international summit on global warming, followed by an e-commerce task force on innovative ways to export coconuts.

Story continues below advertisement

And once he had tapped into the brain waves of his far-flung global partners, he would convince them to join a diversity round table and a mentorship initiative across the diverse economic and social sectors of the minute island.

Naturally, he would persuade a series of strong, capable, organized women to run these projects. Then he would blue sky an annual cultural festival that would attract tourism dollars, enhance local artistic standards, and build international audiences. And he would do all of this for free, earning nothing more than the praise of the islanders and the satisfaction of making his island a more innovative, competitive and diverse place.

Short, with a beatific smile and a magnetic pull to his wide-eyed gaze, he was an insatiable talker about lofty ideas and grandiose schemes, and a nonpareil convener of the mighty, the needy and the cutting edge. Mr. Pecaut was "so bold," said Alan Broadbent, chair of The Maytree Foundation, that he could imagine him making "a cold call to the Pope" and expecting the Pope not only to call back, but to attend a meeting at the end of the week. "That kind of boldness really served everybody well," said Mr. Broadbent. Pessimism was not an entry in Mr. Pecaut's lexicon; neither was postpone, or waiting for government to take the lead.

Convinced that Toronto could be a model for the world, he set about forging inclusive working partnerships among the social, economic and cultural sectors, and spawning "do tanks" rather than think tanks. He wanted Toronto to work for everybody - poor as well as rich, immigrants as well as descendants of United Empire Loyalists. Unlike, say, the up- from- the- sidewalk, self-organizing, approach that urban activist Jane Jacobs espoused, Mr. Pecaut brought his management consulting and entrepreneurial skills to the table. Both left the city a better place.

Bringing smart minds together was not an idea that Mr. Pecaut invented. His genius was to take that team approach, and use it to bring new and key business players to the table to work pro-bono on seemingly intractable projects - from the Toronto Alliance to rejuvenate tourism in the wake of the SARS in 2003, to the City Summit Alliance, the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) which has created about 5,000 mentorship partnerships and close to 1,000 internships for qualified new arrivals, to Luminato, Toronto's wildly successful annual early summer performing arts and culture festival.

"It was fundamental to his being to create, to be positive, to be a catalyst, and then to lead, to make it happen," said his friend Anne Golden, now head of the Conference Board of Canada. "He was "indefatigable," she said, using a word that encapsulated Mr. Pecaut's energy, vision and determination. Besides his altruism, which Ms. Golden thinks was central, he was a big thinker who understood that "we are in a new global era," one in which "connectedness and innovation" are the "routes to sustainable prosperity as a city, a province and a country."

Early in 2004, in the wake of SARS, and before the door-opening celebrations of several cultural organizations, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and The Royal Ontario Museum, Mr. Pecaut met Tony Gagliano, CEO of St. Joseph's Communications, for lunch in Grano, a North Toronto eatery and cultural petri dish. The two men knew each other only by reputation, but as soon as Mr. Gagliano mentioned the idea of a one-off cultural festival in Toronto, "the sparks flew."

Story continues below advertisement

By the time lunch was over, they had hatched the genesis of an annual arts and creativity festival that they called Luminato. Mr. Pecaut went one way as a convener and fundraiser while Mr. Gagliano canvassed his network and supporters.

"Working with David has been one of the greatest joys of my life," according to Mr. Gagliano. "He is the smartest person I have ever met, but I have met a lot of smart people and smarts on their own, although nice, are limited in their importance. When you combine smarts with the ability to get things done, then it is look-out time. And that is what you've got with David."

Many people, including William Thorsell, president of the ROM, were counting on Mr. Pecaut to run for Mayor in 2011. Calling it the "next logical chapter" for a man with such a successful record of building civic projects from the ground up, Mr. Thorsell suggested that Mr. Pecaut's strong public policy orientation would have forced other candidates to campaign on issues rather than personality.

Indeed, Mr. Pecaut did think seriously about running for mayor, but in the way that bad luck and lousy timing can dash Teflon-coated expectations, it was not to be. By the time Mayor David Miller announced on Sept. 25, 2009 that he would not seek a third term, the colorectal cancer that Mr. Pecaut had been fighting with his typically super-charged determination had metastasized to his lungs. He was in a bigger struggle, one he couldn't win, and that meant putting aside earthly political ambitions.

And yet, those last months gave him time to reflect on his life, his ambitions and his legacy. "I am the kind of person who loves making change happen, but who also has a bit of an antipathy to being in a power structure," he said in an interview late last month. Being on the outside, rather than in the trenches, appealed to him about consulting as a career. He could feed his insatiable curiosity working for a range of clients in a variety of fields and exercise a lot of influence in a particular company without having to endure "all of the rigmarole of being in a hierarchy."

That need to get in, get out, and move on also made elected office problematic for him. He didn't want to be bogged down by the constraints - dealing with a fractious and lumpen council at City Hall, the incessant public and media scrutiny, adhering to the molasses-like pace of the committee structure, kowtowing to ministerial authority, abiding by party loyalty in the provincial legislature and the federal parliament.

Story continues below advertisement

Instead he had found a unique way to effect change by turning himself into what he called "a civic entrepreneur." He didn't invent that term, which combines civic virtues and an enterprising spirit to achieve projects that are of benefit to the community, but he made it his own. "When I look back," he said in late November, "I feel I have been able to achieve much more for our country and our city by working in this kind of civic entrepreneurial process. I have huge respect for politicians, but it feels to me that this is a very special role and that is the way that I want to be remembered."

David Pecaut was born in Sioux City Iowa in the mid-1950s, the eldest of four children of Richard (Dick) Dick Pecaut, a stock broker and his wife Dorothy (nee Kent). Gustave Pecaut, his fur-trading great-great-grandfather, settled in the area in about 1850, one of the first Europeans to do so. His parents met at Iowa State University. His father was a stockbroker who ran the small family-owned investment business; his mother, who was from Chicago, was a homemaker and a volunteer who retrained in her 40s as a painter and eventually became a deacon in the Anglican Church. Both were articulate, intelligent and civic minded, and passed those traits on to their children.

David was a very verbal child, which shouldn't surprise anybody who knew of his silver tongue. When he was about four or five, the family took the train to Chicago to visit Mrs. Pecaut's parents. When it was time to board the train for the return journey, David went missing. After much scurrying about, his grandfather found him sitting on the steps of a Pullman car, quizzing the porters about career opportunities and job satisfaction, in what must rank as his first foray into management consultation. By the time he was ten, he had stockpiled enough cash from his paper route earnings that his father suggested he pick a stock from his portfolio and see if he could make his money grow. "He was the kind of guy who really wanted you to take things into your own hands," he said.

Looking back, he decided that his mother was ultimately a greater influence than his father. Sitting by her bedside, as she was dying several years ago, he asked for advice and she told him to "stay open spiritually, don't close down," and pointed out to him that a person's contributions to family and community mattered much more in a final life reckoning than business and financial achievements.

After graduating from high school, David went to Harvard College in Boston, working summers in a gory meat packing plant, the one that was profiled in Fast Food Nation . Compared to that, Harvard was like "a candy store." He grabbed whatever was on offer from music and philosophy, theology and physics, as well as joining the debate club and taking up running. He wanted a liberal arts education and he got it big time, including studying under Mark Granovetter, the sociologist who developed a networking theory based on the "the strength of weak ties." He argues that people, who are not related by blood or tradition, can form powerful social and political alliances based on common interests, issues and pastimes. For his undergraduate thesis, Mr. Pecaut applied for and won a national science foundation grant to hire researchers to study how poor communities in East Boston mobilized to oppose school busing and the expansion of the airport into their neighbourhood.

The conventional wisdom at the time said that poor communities didn't have the tools to organize a political movement, but Mr. Pecaut's research showed that poor people might not mobilize in traditional ways, such as writing letters, but they certainly could combine forces through community organizations, such as schools, churches and bowling leagues, when they wanted to protest decisions that affected them all. Having absorbed the concept of "the strength of weak ties," Mr. Pecaut would later apply the theory to bring diverse immigrant communities, such as the Chinese, South Asians and Italians, together in Toronto on civic networking issues and causes.

He graduated magna cum laude with an AB in sociology from Harvard in 1977 and won a fellowship to study philosophy and music at the University of Sussex in England, which he deferred for a year to go back to Sioux City to test his tolerance for business and for living in his home town. A lifetime of pushing paper in the family investment firm was not for him, a guy who craved variety and figuring out how things work, so he devised a plan to apprentice himself for a year to a successful CEO. The man who took him on was Bill Dible of Terra Chemicals International, who gave him a title as Special Projects Administrator, and a lot of scope - going so far as to send him to Washington to represent the company at Senate hearings. At the end of the year, he had completed what amounted to an unofficial MBA, determined that Sioux City was too small for him, and had begun thinking seriously about a career as a management consultant.

After earning an MA in philosophy from Sussex, he moved to Toronto because he was dating a woman who lived in the city. As that love affair fizzled out, his passion for Toronto began to sizzle. Back in 1980, when Mr. Pecaut arrived in an ancient Dodge Colt, the city was riding a wave of citizen activism. Transplanted American urban theorist Jane Jacobs had marshalled a self-organizing protest to halt the Spadina Expressway in 1971, before it could bisect the downtown core, reformist Mayor David Crombie, who had run the city for six years, had stepped down in 1978 and been succeeded by radical neighbourhood advocate, John Sewell.

Everything about Toronto surprised and delighted him - the ravines, the ocean-sized lake, the multicultural population, the history - and the more he lived in the city, the better he liked its openness, its possibilities, its diversity and its fluidity. A lot of places pinhole you by social class, occupation, the schools you went to or the amount of money you earn. Not so, Toronto, according to Mr. Pecaut. It enabled him to "express all parts of his nature," become "immersed in the arts of all kinds" and to work "at the highest levels" in the business community, "not just in Canada, but internationally," and to move across electoral boundaries and party lines in politics. He found that refreshingly different from Washington, where advisers and lobbyists are either Democrats or Republicans and nothing in between. Finally, he had always been "drawn to the possibilities of the underdog" in sports and in life. So he welcomed viewing the world, and especially the U.S. from a Canadian perspective. As time went by, that distance from the U.S. became pivotal in recognizing where he had come from, where he was, and where he wanted his adopted city to go.

Before he could redefine himself as a civic entrepreneur, he had to earn enough money to be able to offer his services pro-bono and make his name known in enough boardrooms to ensure that key players would take his calls. He got a job with Canada Consulting Group, the firm that had been founded by Jim Coutts, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's principal secretary and management and governance guru David Beattie, and which had links with the global McKinsey consulting company. Five years later, Mr. Pecaut moved back to the U.S. to work with Ira Magaziner, as a principal in his consulting firm, Telesis (which he had formed after leaving Boston Consulting Group, another management consulting firm with a global reach), but he retained his ties with Canada Consulting, becoming a partner in 1988, and he kept crossing the border to work in Ontario for clients including Premier David Peterson's Premier's Council.

That's how he met Helen Burstyn, a communications consultant and senior civil servant in the Ontario government and the mother of two young daughters. They married in 1990 and soon had two more daughters. For ever afterwards, Mr. Pecaut, who, for a time, coached his youngest daughter's school basketball team, delighted in referring to himself as a Martian on Venus because he was the lone male in a household of five women - and a succession of female dogs.

By 1993, he had merged Canada Consulting with The Boston Consulting Group, opening BCG's first Canadian office. He concentrated on e-commerce and intellectual property issues and built up the local and international practice while feeding his own growing interest in public policy. He was beginning to attract the attention of Toronto figures such as Anne Golden, then head of the United Way, who, in 1995, invited him to advise the Greater Toronto Task Force, which she also chaired, on an economic analysis of the 416 and 905 sectors of the region.

A silken arm twister from way back, Ms. Golden still likes to recount the telephone ruse she used to lure a reluctant Mr. Pecaut to the lunch table. "I told him I was tall, blonde and have high cheekbones and it will be worth your while, if you meet me at Acqua [in BCE Place.]rdquo; When he arrived at the restaurant, he looked at her, blurted, "You are short, dark and Jewish like my wife," and they have been friends ever since. By the end of the lunch he had agreed to take on the job, but only if he could work on a "pro bono" basis. Already, he knew that there were some projects, especially public policy ones, that he wanted to work on without the cash register ticking, partly because it gave him a freer hand and partly because he saw it as way of contributing to his adopted city.

When asked why Mr. Pecaut would be too busy to work for a paying client and yet available to do the same job for free, Ms. Golden explained his decision by saying he was "totally generous" and "an extraordinary Canadian" who wanted to produce "landmark research and he wanted to have the opportunity to make the case that the GTA was an integrated economy. He accepted the job because he felt so strongly about the mission."

The 1990s were not a good decade for Toronto, beginning with a deep recession, moving into Premier Mike Harris's "common sense revolution," the downsizing of many social services from the province to municipalities, the amalgamation of the inner city and its satellite communities, and the election of former North York Mayor Mel Lastman as Mayor of all the Torontos, or the "megacity," in late 1997. It was a time when Toronto was beginning to doubt its self-proclaimed status as the centre of the Canadian universe.

After years of Toronto eclipsing Montreal, there was the possibility of a reversal in position. In 2002, newly elected Mayor Gerard Tremblay held a City Summit in Montreal that so impressed Mr. Lastman that he was determined to hold one as well and asked Elyse Allan, David Crombie, Frances Lankin and John Tory to organize the first Toronto City Summit at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in June, 2002.

Mr. Pecaut arrived like Cinderella at the ball to give the closing address from the perspective of an outsider, somebody who had come from away and who was regularly commuting to New York on business. Essentially he looked at the city and its challenges the way a consultant would analyze a thorny management or marketing problems: Help his clients figure out how to get where they want to go.

"It just blew me away. Here was this fellow who was helping us to see our city in a different light [by]comparing us to Seattle, to Boston and putting on the table how many patents are produced the city of Toronto versus Silicon Valley," said Ratna Omidvar, president of Maytree. "One of his greatest capacities is to understand complex problems quickly and to communicate them in simple, graspable terms. He gave us a sense that we were a city in decline, but that it was possible to pull out of that decline and bring us back to a place of civic dignity and prosperity." Ms. Omidvar considered Mr. Pecaut a remarkable combination of "action, wisdom and empathy - Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Atticus Finch all rolled into one."

Ms. Omidvar was not the only one to be knocked out by Mr. Pecaut's presentation. At the end of the day, he offered himself as chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, a position he held for the rest of his life. And the rest is history.

Mr. Pecaut's genius lay in putting an operational framework around ideas "that other people had been working on for some time, but couldn't figure out how to get them done or were unable to put a couple of the critical pieces together," says Mr. Broadbent. For example, Maytree had been trying to establish an employment policy to support and integrate qualified immigrants in the work force for some time, but couldn't sell it to the business community in a significant way, according to Mr. Broadbent. Establishing the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) was one of the first initiatives of the Toronto City Summit Alliance under Mr. Pecaut's chairmanship. His triumph was to bring key business leaders to the table, such as Domenic D'Alessandro, then president and CEO of Manulife Financial, who chaired TRIEC for its first six years, and Gordon Nixon, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, who became chair in September, 2009.

"Having that top level leadership in place, really brings the employer community to the table," said Mr. Broadbent, "and not just as nice guys, but as people prepared to work on their own Human Resources practises. "That capacity to get the biz community at the table with their sleeves rolled up and shoulder to shoulder with other people was a real achievement."

Cancer was one of the very few problems that Mr. Pecaut couldn't round table or task force into submission. That doesn't mean he didn't try. Long after most people would have submitted to a foreshortened life, Mr. Pecaut was still seeking experimental treatment, funding research studies and undergoing brutal chemotherapy protocols. He wanted a cure for himself, but he also wanted to push research and treatment into new directions for the benefit of other patients.

When the cancer metastasized into his lungs last summer, Mr. Pecaut's colleagues at the Boston Consulting Group asked what they could do, perhaps thinking of the high tech equivalent of chicken soup. "Give me a case team and help me sort through the leading-edge cancer therapies because I want to make certain I am throwing everything at this, not just standard care," he replied. So, in the same way that Mr. Pecaut would investigate say a marketing problem for a paying client, or blue sky an arts festival for free, he worked with a project team to battle his own late stage cancer, including mapping his genomic structure, identifying genetic mutations and seeking out specific drugs highly targeted to his tumour cells. Inevitably, the project went beyond one man's relentless search for a cure: it helped create an experimental template for oncologists treating other patients.

As his lungs became more compromised and he became dependent on oxygen, he kept on working, dictating his memoirs, filming videos, struggling to ensure that his legacy of civic entrepreneurship would prevail for generations to come, talking up his latest scheme for Toronto to become Canada's financial services hub.

At Thanksgiving, he made a heroic appearance as one of two fathers of the bride at his step-daughter Lauren's wedding in California. Friends and family were astonished by his stamina. He returned home spent, and although he continued to rally and to defy prognostics, he knew his time was short and began making his goodbyes.

"I am very much at peace with death," he told the Globe, his breathing assisted by oxygen, his voice raspy, but still waving the flag in his favourite black Luminato t-shirt with its slogan about seeing the world in a new way. "I am surrounded by my loving family. I have received more love from this family in the last 20 years than most men would get in a hundred. I don't feel any sense of sorrow or regret. I feel in the time I have had that I have been lucky enough to do so much that it feels like a rich and full life."

David Pecaut was born in Sioux City, Iowa on Sept. 14, 1955. He died of colorectal cancer at home in Toronto on Dec. 14, 2009. Mr. Pecaut, who was 54, is survived by his wife Helen, four daughters and his extended family.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.