Dear readers and tea lovers everywhere, welcome to a regular feature of our blog,
‘Afternoon tea with ….
people of note’
Today, we’re taking afternoon tea with Ellen Roseman, journalist, author, public speaker and well-known advocate for the Canadian consumer for nearly four decades. She’s the ‘it’ person at helping consumers fight back against injustices. Her Ladyship (that would be me!) knows this for a fact: if, when dealing with corporate customer service reps, Her Ladyship perceives she’s not getting full satisfaction, the mere mention, nay the mere whisper of Ellen’s name, seems to trigger a satisfactory outcome.
Ellen sticks up for ordinary Canadians. And we are grateful.
Ellen’s columns, which focus on personal finance and consumer issues, appear in the Toronto Star’s business section on Wednesday, Saturday and Monday. Her latest book, ‘Fight Back: 81 Ways to Help You Save Money and Protect Yourself from Corporate Trickery’ is a must read for savvy consumers. All Ellen’s books are available from amazon.ca or through her website.
Ellen has been an editor and an associate managing editor. She teaches investment and personal finance at the University of Toronto’s continuing studies department and financial basics at Ryerson University. She is also well known for commentaries on CBC radio and television. She’s the first public representative on the board of the Financial Planners Standards Council and Chair of the board of Fair Canada, a foundation that addresses the lack of an independent, experienced voice in securities regulation.
Her books, Money 101: Every Canadian’s Guide to Personal Finance, and Money 201: More Personal Finance Advice for Every Canadian, are an easy-to-understand introduction to personal finance for those of us who are short of time and money. She’s the author of four other books, Ellen Roseman’s Money Guide for Modern Families, Canadian Parent’s Sourcebook, Canadian Consumers’ Survival Book and Consumer, Beware!
Today, Ellen’s preferred tea is Earl Grey, but truth be told, she has a very adventurous palate and recounts how she sipped a hot chocolate–macaroon flavoured tea recently and pronounced it wonderful, ‘tea and dessert in one serving’.
Her Ladyship (that would me) is way more traditional in her tastes, and opted to brew a pot of Earl Grey. Two steaming cups are on the tea table and we begin our conversation.
You were born and raised in Montreal. What are your best memories of growing up in Montreal?
I grew up in the Town of Mount Royal, or TMR as everyone calls it. TMR was very quiet, peaceful and only 10 minutes to downtown Montreal. So even though TMR seemed very suburban, it was also very multi-cultural because of the proximity to downtown Montreal. Here are some of the memories I have of growing up in Montreal: Greek food, nuns on the bus, Chinese food, my first pizza at Nello’s, the TMR public library – the original room above the fire station and then the new one named after long-time TMR mayor Reg Dawson and another memory is skating at the rec centre and my Dad whirling me about.
What or who inspired you to become a journalist?
Definitely the McGill Daily (student newspaper at McGill University). I was looking for campus organizations to join and wasn’t sure where to go or what to join. I hated composition in high school so didn’t think of daily journalism as my forte. Somehow I found myself in the offices of the McGill Daily; I was made very welcome; I was taught the ropes and a month or two after signing on, I was sent on a reporting assignment. I overcame my fear … and fell in love with journalism. I spent more time at the Daily than in class!
You never intended to become a journalist?
I started at McGill in Science – I thought I would become a scientist. But for one course – literature with Professor Louis Dudek – he opened up my brain – and because of him I switched to Arts. In my second year, I discovered philosophy courses and thought philosophy was the epitome of a critical education – small classes and smaller groups with a Teaching Assistant where it seemed I was arguing with Plato and Socrates.
How did you did end up in Toronto?
I did my M.A. in philosophy in Toronto because the University of Toronto had a one-year Masters program. That meant going to classes all year. After graduation, I stayed.
What was your first job?
I always loved books so I thought I would work in book publishing even though I knew jobs were scarce. I applied to every single publisher. Every single publisher replied ‘forget it’. So I had to look elsewhere for my first job. Through a family friend, I was able to get an interview with Maclean-Hunter, the parent company of several consumer and trade publications. I interviewed, underwent tests and landed an editorial position at Style. I learned a lot and from there I went on to several other publications, first on the retailing beat and then the business beat.
You own the personal consumer beat in Canada. How did this come about?
My interest started when I was with the Financial Post in the early 70’s. Inflation in Canada was running wild; the government of the day needed to do something very visible to address inflation so the Food Prices Review Board was established headed up by (the late, great, feisty and self-proclaimed ‘inflation fighter’) Beryl Plumptre. I attended the Board’s conferences regularly and saw the potential, and the merit, of marrying business and the increasingly vocal consumer. This is introduced me to consumer affairs.
What is the best criticism you received?
Someone once told me, “You’re looking at the world through Roseman-coloured glasses.” This criticism was meant to temper my optimism; however much I balance my optimism with pragmatism, I am essentially an optimist. I do not give up; I know change is slow and incremental but I have seen some companies work for the consumer.
Some more tea?
Yes, that would be great!
What are the principal aspects of your personality?
I like to help people so I use my access with companies to help consumers resolve issues. I also like stability – I’ve always worked in newspapers but lately I’ve started to teach and I enjoy it.
What took you into teaching?
An invitation! Teaching was not part of my ‘plan’. Someone at the University of Toronto saw me on TV and offered the opportunity. I took it!
What three words best describe your personality?
Passionate, curious, hard-working.
How do you tame butterflies before a presentation?
To tell you the truth, I’ve been making presentations for so long, I don’t have butterflies.
When you take a vacation, do you focus on luxury, adventure or relaxation?
What is the most amazing thing you have ever done?
About five years ago my husband and I travelled to China and Japan. I was fascinated by the contrast between the two countries.
What is you favourite daily ritual?
I love to walk outdoors and it’s a challenge in the winter but I walk as much as I can every day. I find the more walking I do, the freer my mind becomes. I often compose speeches while I walk.
What are your favourite haunts in this city?
I love the ravines. (Toronto is blessed with an enviable network of ravines). It took me a long time to discover them; they’re totally hidden and it takes an insider to introduce you to the ravines.
What is the best lesson you have taken from a mistake?
I have learned to say yes as much as possible to the many invitations I get to speak or make an appearance. Sometimes I used to decline invitations for any number of reasons; now I accept as many invitations as I can because you always meet interesting people – you never know whom you will meet.
What is the best surprise you’ve ever had?
Hmmm … this is a hard one because I get surprised every day by the exchanges I have with readers. I am always surprised by how grateful people are with whatever help I can provide.
What is you go to method to cheer yourself up?
Bookstores! I love browsing in bookstores.
What skill would you like to learn?
Learn to play the piano.
What never fails to make you laugh?
The Big Bang Theory. (Her Ladyship concurs).
What do you appreciate the most in your friends?
A spirit of adventure; a willingness to try new things. Keeping in touch, especially with older friends because of the shared history.
What are your favourite places to unplug?
In the bathtub; also, at home, I never take my electronic gadgets upstairs to the 2nd and 3rd floors.
Montreal Habs or Toronto Maple Leafs?
Habs for sure.
Toronto Symphony or Tegan and Sara?
How do you celebrate big moments?
A really great meal comes to mind. My husband and I like to celebrate with a meal in one of the many as yet undiscovered eateries in Toronto.
If you could meet any fictional character, who would it be?
The late British novelist Anthony Powell wrote a series of 12 books, titled A Dance to the Music of Time. I would like to meet the hero of the series, Kenneth Widmerpool.
What is your workout routine?
I go to a personal trainer once a week and I also go to the gym on my own.
What is must see TV for you?
I especially enjoy the singing and dancing reality shows – I love the athleticism.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Linda Kelsey who played Billie Newman, Intrepid Girl Reporter, on the Lou Grant show.
Your favourite virtue?
What is your idea of happiness?
Reading a good book in a lovely location out of doors, perhaps with a cool drink and lots of time.
What is your idea of misery?
Running out of books to read; and being shut in because of the weather.
What are three little known facts about you?
I have a philosophy background; I like being a member of a book club and presenting books; I completed the Marine Corps Marathon in DC in 2004 – this was a thrill, as I never intended to enter the marathon. My family was there to welcome me at the finish line.
Do you collect anything in particular?
I collect books.
Best advice you would give your younger self?
I should have had children earlier; we love our two boys and if we had known how much fun they would be, we would have started a family sooner. I would be a grandmother by now!