Montreal couple’s weekly discussion nights are legend

Written by  //  July 25, 2015  //  The Salon, Wednesday Nights  //  4 Comments

WN 1742 Dario Ayala montreal-que-july-22-2015-david-sitting-second-from Diana Nicholson stands behind her husband, David, during their discussion night, where well-informed guests are invited to speak freely in a non-partisan atmosphere. Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette
Montreal couple’s weekly discussion nights are legend
By Wayne Larsen Special to the Montreal Gazette

Imagine hosting 20 to 40 guests in your home every week, without fail, for a whole year.

Now, multiply that by 33 years and you get an idea of what Montrealers David and Diana Nicholson have achieved with the Wednesday Night salon discussions they have organized and moderated every single week since early 1982.

That’s now 1,742 consecutive weeks — and counting.

What began as a series of lively dinner conversations about financial markets has ballooned into a Montreal institution — known simply as Wednesday Night to the initiated — that takes on any topic of public interest.

From economists and financial experts to politicians and international diplomats — with a wide range of academics, scientists, journalists and artists tossed in — the Nicholsons have hosted more than 3,000 well-informed guests over the years in an effort to share expert opinion on key issues and current events in what is best described as a modern-day version of the Algonquin Round Table transplanted in Montreal.

“The focus of Wednesday Night has really expanded over the years,” says David, 83, a retired portfolio manager and computer pioneer who designed an early stock options trading program. Before that, he had a successful career in the Royal Canadian Air Force and commanded the pilot training school in Centralia, Ont.

“We still talk about the stock market, but we’re older and wiser, and so we want to talk about all kinds of things now. Wednesday Night has become a lifestyle for us and for many of our friends.”

“Wednesday Night fills a need for informed, civilized, and non-partisan discussion on public policy writ large,” says Westmount Mayor Peter Trent, who was a weekly fixture at the Nicholsons’ table for more than 20 years, sometimes bringing along his guitar. “A sense of humour is a prerequisite, as is an abiding respect for the opinion of others. It is something Montreal managed to produce that other world cities should emulate.”

Ron Meisels, a prominent stock market analyst who has been attending since 1982, cites the Nicholsons’ knack for networking as a major factor in their salon’s longevity. “They always manage to attract very interesting people, and always the right people,” he says. “There is right now a Greek crisis — or if Putin does something in Ukraine — they will have somebody from that part of the world who knows a lot about that area and can comment accordingly. Their forté is finding people.”

“We have always been politically neutral,” says Diana, who has a background in journalism and public relations. She was a key player in the organization of Expo 67 and later worked in government affairs.
WN 1742 Dario Ayala _2 Diana Nicholson stands behind her husband, David, during their discussion night, where well-informed guests are invited to speak freely in a non-partisan atmosphere. Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette

The non-partisan nature of Wednesday Night is strictly enforced — the Nicholsons have always supported individual candidates rather than parties — allowing politicians from all levels of government to relax and speak freely in an atmosphere where candid conversations are encouraged. But as Meisels points out, some first-timers are naturally on their guard and must be prompted to talk.

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and former PQ premier Pierre-Marc Johnson — whom Diana describes as a dear friend — have all accepted invitations to discuss the intricacies of various public policies. As well, three Montreal mayors — the late Jean Doré, Pierre Bourque and Gérald Tremblay — have each come to the table on a few occasions, but never at the same time.

“Jean Charest and Pierre-Marc share the questionable honour of having broken the same chair,” Diana recalls with a chuckle. “And neither offered to have it repaired!”

You never know who you might bump into at Wednesday Night — Julius Grey might be there to explain a point of law, Dr. Mark Roper might drop by to reveal a new health care policy, or Margaret Somerville might be on hand to discuss a facet of medical ethics inspired by recent headlines.

“I’ve always seen it as a forum — a place where people come to share stories,” says Margaret Lefebvre, whose many endeavours have included pension fund manager and member of the National Research Council.

Meisels agrees. “It is based very much upon give and take,” he says. “I give some of my knowledge, and receive back the knowledge of the others.”

But while attendance is by invitation only and guests are encouraged to speak candidly, not all conversation is private; everything is videotaped and notes are carefully taken by a designated scribe. The Nicholsons follow up each Wednesday Night with an update on their website, complete with still photos and video clips of the previous evening’s proceedings.

Started by fluke

“It all began one night over dinner and a discussion of the stock market,” Diana recalls, adding that the whole Wednesday Night saga is owed to a fluke encounter in a McGill University hallway when she was taking a class in microeconomics. During a coffee break, she chanced upon an old friend of David — noted economist Carl Beigie, executive director of the C.D. Howe Institute in Toronto, who was commuting to Montreal once a week to teach a course in international trade.

They ended up having supper together, and it was later arranged that Beigie would stay over at the Nicholsons’ Westmount home each Wednesday evening through the rest of the semester.

Their late suppers quickly grew in size and scope as more guests were invited to share their insights on the economy and financial markets, as well as the world events and political decisions that influence them. The supper element was soon dropped, and Wednesday Night emerged as an after-dinner tradition where the price of admission was — and still is — a bottle of wine.

From 1987’s “Black Monday” stock market crash and the 1995 Quebec referendum through the Y2K threat, 9/11 and the merger and de-merger of Montreal suburbs — not to mention all budgets and elections along the way — there has been no shortage of topics for Wednesday Nighters to ponder and debate.

Milestones have been celebrated by special events: The 1,000th week saw a mini-parking crisis in lower Westmount as more than 100 guests converged on David and Diana’s Rosemount Ave. home. In early 2007, the 25th anniversary was marked by a musical evening, with guests singing the satirical song Who to Invite, Next Wednesday Night? — a Gilbert & Sullivan parody written by Trent and featuring former Liberal MNA John Ciacca on piano.

Current Notre-Dame-de-Grâce — Westmount MP Marc Garneau, himself no stranger to the Wednesday Night table, rose in the House of Commons on Nov. 30, 2010, to publicly congratulate the Nicholsons on their 1,500th consecutive Wednesday — a milestone that was marked by a black-tie gala at McGill’s University Club.

“These evenings are characterized by openness and respect,” Garneau said in his address, describing Wednesday Night as a haven for “political junkies.”

Tried-and-true formula

The format has changed little over the years. Each week’s topics are chosen in advance, with David compiling brief video clips of relevant television news reports while Diana selects and invites potential guests who might inspire the liveliest and most illuminating discussions.

The first half-hour of the evening serves as an informal meet-and-greet session, as guests arrive and help themselves to a glass of wine. David — usually clad in his trademark scarlet dinner jacket — discreetly slips away at 9 p.m. sharp and rings a ship’s bell to summon everyone to the dining room. Principal participants are called to the table, while others find seats around the perimeter of the room. After brief introductions, David runs a video clip and the first discussion begins.
WN 1742 montreal-que-july-22-2015-guests-have-a-chat-before-t Guests have an informal chat before the start of the Wednesday discussion at the downtown home of David and Diana Nicholson. Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette

he most noticeable difference today is the change of venue. In late 2010, the couple downsized from their Edwardian mansion to a large downtown apartment a few blocks east. The smaller space meant reducing the number of guests, but they can still accommodate about 30 people comfortably — and the discussions have remained as candid as ever.

Also evolving is the diversity of guests. While the first two decades were dominated by the middle-age men of the political and business worlds, there is now an equal mix of genders around the room, with some guests in their mid-20s — many of whom are second-generation Wednesday Nighters or students who have been invited through Diana’s work with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation’s Sauvé Scholars program.

Despite its international flavour, Wednesday Night remains as unique to Montreal as smoked meat and bagels. “One of our regular guests moved to Vancouver and tried to establish a Wednesday Night there,” Diana recalls. “But she found that she couldn’t cope with the week-after-week commitment. So she tried it on a monthly basis, but sadly it didn’t last more than a couple of years.”

As for the Nicholsons, there is no talk of ending the tradition that continues to dominate their lives after 33 years.

“For us, the future is only three Wednesdays out,” says Diana. “We’ve never discussed the possibility of stopping — we’re too busy constantly worrying about what we’ll be doing next week.”

Unlike much of the witty repartee that flew across the Algonquin Round Table nearly a century ago, most of the impromptu comebacks and one-liners from the Nicholsons’ dining room have been preserved for posterity — such as the night in 1998 when Westmount — Saint-Louis MNA (now also president of the National Assembly) Jacques Chagnon’s repeated, unfortunate mispronunciation of the word “focus” prompted Trent to feign outrage and quip, “I believe he’s trying to insult us collectively!”

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4 Comments on "Montreal couple’s weekly discussion nights are legend"

  1. Diana Thebaud Nicholson July 25, 2015 at 12:51 am ·

    Great piece, Diana and David. Nice photos, too!
    John Curtin

    Congratulations, David and Diana! Tony (Deutsch)

    Keeping your doors open on certain nights was a tradition in some upper-class families up to the fifties here [Finland]. When my older brother Kari entered the Polytechnic my mother started “Thursday-nights” at our place. They ended when he married and moved away.
    Kindly convey my best regards to David. TB

    Just read over coffee… Very nice tribute piece and deservedly so. One thing missing….the contribution of Daisy and Fling!
    Sylvia Martin-Laforge

    Saw the super article in The Gazette this morning – Congratulations to you and David !
    Love, Stephen K.

    Very nice article in today’s paper –a whole page no less! Congratulations, well deserved…
    Prof. Karl Moore

    Very lovely Diana. I have often wondered how you guys do it. Bravo
    Carl Ravinsky

    Dear David & Diana, Great article, honoured to have been there on
    night 1742. Congratulations again.
    Nicholas & Matina (Priftakis)

    WOW! Congratulations to you both, Diana and David! Extraordinary achievement! Miss you… hopefully less busy next year but so enjoy receiving the invitations and reading all about the proposed discussion topics. Have a wonderful summer… sure is good! Kindest regards, Louise (Fleischmann)

    Greetings from Oak Bay, N.B.! A beautiful morning here by the ocean.
    I read the excellent piece in the Gazette and just wanted to add my voice and say what a wonderful and important contribution you and David have made over the years.
    We are all richer for it.
    Very best regards, Kent (Hovey-Smith)

    Diana, what a splendid piece and great photo. The only addition should have been mention of Diana’s amazing and elegant weekly commentary on events largely political–a treat for us all.
    Love, Katherine and David (Waters)

  2. Georges Plourde July 25, 2015 at 12:21 pm ·

    When I read that David was at Centralia, my FTS on Harvards in 1953 I knew I would reply ! Beach parties in Grand Bend . Reminiscing is a privilege of old age , particularly when the past is so rich . Being accepted in the RCAF in 1952 as a unilingual francophone was a blessing , a privilege ! I share with you one of many anecdotes during my 43 years as a pilot . In Centralia during the final written exam , time limited , one cadet asked the reviewing Officer if he would consider giving me extra time for the exam , given that I was the only one with a dictionary , english to french. The Officer asked my cadet colleagues if there were any objections. The entire class , about 20 , stood up and said ” No objections Sir “. I looked at them all with emotion and became a Federalist forever! I told that story to Pierre Trudeau. There was a federal election and the Liberal party leased an aircraft from Air Canada. I was asked to be the Captain. When the last person boarded, it was PM Trudeau and I offered him to sit in the flight deck, behind my seat. He accepted with a smile. After the necessary safety briefing, I reminded him that on My aircraft, I was in Command and that he would obey me or face the consequences! He smiled again. I also told him that the Charter of Rights that he had so valiantly defended was not allowed in the cockpit. Inquisitively, he asked why! I told him that there were 5 microphones in the cockpit, recording every sound and that could include some inadvertent and embarrassing bodily sounds! In the balance of convenience, the black boxes, one of them the Voice Recorder, took precedence because it saved lives. To thank me, he invited me to the PMO and asked me to sit in his chair. While seated, he looked at me and said ” May I remind you Captain that in that seat you are the Co-Pilot! I saluted him, in acquiessence!

  3. Wendy Wilcox July 26, 2015 at 12:55 pm ·

    Delighted to hear about Wednesday nite talks. I had the opportunity to meet you after a Ballet Jazz fundraiser many moons ago. Magical moments and By George’s coffee.

  4. Sandra Phillips July 27, 2015 at 5:23 pm ·

    Hi David and Diana,
    How lovely to read the Gazoo article and see that you two are still having fun. We hope to loosen up our schedules soon and perhaps join you in the future.
    Funny that we just bumped into Ron Meisels at a Just for Laughs show and were just talking about you.
    Be well,
    Sandra Phillips and Stan Posner

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