Rudyard Griffiths in Motion
The Trinity alumnus has taken the Munk Debates, and his family legacy, a long way.
By Vikram Nijhawan, Contributor
“Is there a meaning to your green socks?”
On stage at the Roy Thomson Hall on Oct. 12, 2017, Newt Gingrich digressed from a serious political debate to compliment the moderator’s funky footwear.
Rudyard Griffiths – the debate’s moderator and a graduate of Trinity College’s class of ‘95 – just beamed. “I don’t know,” he responded, with bashful gratitude. “I just thought they looked good.”
The former U.S. House Speaker followed up by asking, “Is that just a Canadian thing?” His debating partner, the American conservative columnist Kimberly Strassel, chimed in on Rudyard’s emerald socks, by joking, “It looks kind of like The Wizard of Oz.”
It’s hard to imagine that up until this moment, they were discussing one of the most sobering topics of the time: the state of American democracy under then-President Donald Trump. But the Munk Debates, much like their longtime host, have always aimed to deliver entertaining moments alongside high-minded discussion.
The debate that took place last May, centered on the recent Russia-Ukraine War, ended with Edwin Starr’s Motown song “War” ringing throughout Roy Thomson Hall. It was a lively return to in-person events after the pandemic, during a two-year hiatus when our world seemed to be thrown off its axis in every which way. To Strassel’s glib observation, there seems to be “no place like home” for Rudyard other than on this stage, leading bi-annual public debates on the most pressing issues of the moment.
As the Munk Debates’ chair and organizer, one of Toronto Life’s “50 Most Influential of 2012”, Rudyard has spent much of his career in public life and yet rarely appears to wear his heart on his sleeve. He wouldn’t cast the impression of someone who enjoys kiteboarding at Cherry Beach in his spare time. Like his colour choice in socks, it’s a detail that reveals playfulness underneath a public persona that’s been largely defined by a three-piece suit.
“He’s got a real stage presence,” his father Franklyn Griffiths, a professor emeritus at U of T, told me when we recently met up at The Buttery. “And that probably comes from his mother.”
An International Relations scholar, Professor Franklyn Griffiths met his wife, Margaret Hogarth, while they were both undergraduates at Trinity in the ‘50s. She was an actress who starred in many Hart House theatre productions, and her son Rudyard also gravitated toward a similar career in the spotlight (although Franklyn, who was sporting a pink ascot, may have influenced his son’s mildly flamboyant fashion sense more than he thinks).
Rudyard followed in the footsteps of his father by attending Trinity as a liberal arts undergraduate. It wasn’t the first time that his path was influenced, whether unconsciously or not, by his family lineage. He was born and raised on Brunswick Avenue in downtown Toronto, a small distance from his eventual alma mater. Across a career journey that often centered in his home city, he has become – in the words of his father – a truly impressive impresario.
“Rudyard’s a genius at planning and putting events together,” said Patrick Luciani, who has co-directed the annual Salon Speaker series with Rudyard for the past twenty years. It’s a sentiment shared by many who know Rudyard, although he would likely equivocate. Like a skilled debater, he is considerate in his word choice and not often prone to hyperbole or overstatement, especially when talking about himself. He described his 2009 book, Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto, as a “modest Canadian bestseller”, amending with some amusement that, “It probably wasn’t the best idea to publish a book during a global financial crisis.”
But his modesty belies a lengthy and impressive journey. His eclectic professional life – which has spanned journalism, broadcasting, fundraising, and public policy – has all led up to his current and best-known position: hosting the Munk Debates. Founded by the late philanthropist who also lends his name to U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the Peter Munk Cardiac Institute, the namesake charitable initiative has welcomed world-renowned thinkers since 2008 to debate pressing policy issues in a lively public environment.
“What I’ve tried to do in my later career is to find a broader canvas to paint on,” said Rudyard. “Figuring out how to make the world of ideas interesting for general audiences and how to do that outside the formal structures of academia.”
His steady cadence suits someone who’s spent much of his life as a public speaker. As a child, Rudyard struggled with dyslexia, something that may persist in his distinct pronunciation of the word “permanent” (which he often says by transposing the ‘m’ and the ‘n’). But his career positions have been anything but permanent. On the contrary, his professional journey has been defined by restlessness – an ambition that has led him to constantly seek out new opportunities, a momentum that defines his modus operandi.
That moment during the Oct. 12 debate in 2017 is just one example. Gingrich and Strassel would have likely riffed on Rudyard’s socks even more if given the chance. Instead, he steered the evening forward, chuckling through a deft segue.
“There is a debate here, and we have an audience. Can we please get going?”
To look at the three generations of Griffiths’ who have attended Trinity College across more than a century is to glimpse a snapshot of national history. Their family history was intertwined with and shaped by Canada’s.
The Griffiths trace their roots to British loyalists who arrived in Canada from the United States in the 1830s. Francis Wilson Griffiths, born in Pelham, Ontario, attained his first degree from the college and then a law degree from Osgoode Hall in 1905. He began a practice in Niagara Falls that he ran for the rest of his life.
His son, John “Jack” Francis Griffiths, served as an R.A.F officer, leading a daring reconnaissance mission and attack on the German navy early in the Second World War. For this, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first of this medal awarded to a Canadian in the war. As part of his pre-war training, he was sent to Estonia, where he met Tamara Juliana Wender. Her family had enjoyed a well-heeled life in Moscow before they were forced to flee to Tallinn after the Bolshevik Revolution. They married, and soon had two sons in Scotland – Franklyn was the older. The boys spent the war years with their mother on a California beach, while their father contributed to the British bombing effort on the Germans in Europe.
On May 9, 1945, Jack Griffiths was driving through Belgium to deliver intelligence he had collected about German supersonic missile technology. A fatal car crash prevented him from completing his mission. It was only a day after the war ended in Europe. Before long, Tamara took the boys back to Niagara and life in Canada.
“I suppose I developed an awareness through that tragedy, and it led to my interest in peace,” said Professor Griffiths, who went on to become the Chair of U of T’s now Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies program. He joined the U of T faculty in 1966 and stayed there until 2001.
Rudyard momentarily followed suit. After graduating from Trinity, Rudyard went on to attain his master’s degree at Cambridge and began a Ph.D. there, before realizing that academia wasn’t for him. “I remember at one point during my master’s, I was in one of my seminars,” he said, “I looked around the classroom at the seven other students and noticed that among the eight of us there, six of us were the children of academics.”
It proved to be a wake-up call for him and inspired him to take the next step of his journey. While completing his graduate studies at Cambridge, Rudyard worked part-time at the High Commission in London, but all roads eventually led him to home—which for the Griffiths family, had long been Canada. He later worked as a policy advisor at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa as a contractor.
At a pivotal moment in his professional life, Rudyard co-founded the Dominion Institute—now known as Historica Canada—a think tank dedicated to educating and promoting Canadian civic identity. He successfully co-ran that organization for a decade, which brought him into contact with one of the country’s most prominent figures, Peter Munk.
As a Jewish-Hungarian immigrant, Munk fled from the horrors of Nazi occupation in his home country, arriving in Toronto as a student in 1948. He went on to found the company Barrick Gold and became one of Canada’s wealthiest businessmen. Later in his life, along with supporting many other charitable causes, Munk was looking for a signature event to promote and celebrate the country that had allowed him to create a successful life.
He envisioned a bi-annual debate series, where the world’s most distinguished speakers came to Canada to discuss important issues. He needed a host and organizer, and he saw no one more fit for the job than Rudyard Griffiths.
“I think the debate that made us was the one with Christopher Hitchens,” said Rudyard.
It was the sixth Munk Debate, and the first one to take place at its now-default venue, the Roy Thomson Hall. The Nov. 26, 2010 evening’s motion: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” It was an eloquent, all-English affair, with former British prime minister Tony Blair arguing for the motion and atheist writer Christopher Hitchens opposing him.
Rudyard is used to playing the neutral moderator during heated debates like this one, but thirteen years later, he was happy to share his take on the matter.
“Christopher demolished Blair,” said Rudyard, with a bit of retrospective glee. He didn’t mince words in his praise. “It was like looking at a deer in the headlights. Tony Blair was just eviscerated by Christopher’s wit and humour and flashes of anger.”
It’s difficult to rewatch that debate and not feel pity for Blair. The Con side won the debate with a convincing 13% voter turn-around. It was far from the first time in his career that Hitchens made a victim of an interlocutor on a stage, but it was one of the last; he passed away a little over a year afterwards.
Hitchens is remembered as an intellectual icon, a thinking man’s pugilist. He set the standard for what public discourse now encourages: the archetype that, perhaps more than anything else, is responsible for the Munk Debates’ enduring appeal among younger audiences—the frisson of witnessing an intellectual beatdown. The feeling that I imagine courses through the veins of the Munk School graduate students on the stage at every event, and a feeling that Rudyard as a former student likely shares.
As the face of the Munk Debates, he’s witnessed many of these moments up close, but beyond that primal thrill, he’s also enjoyed equally rare and more substantive encounters with intellectual giants. The year after Hitchens’ appearance, he had the honour of welcoming Henry Kissinger on stage for the former U.S. State Secretary’s first-ever appearance at a public debate.
“Rudyard and I always joked that if we weren’t organizing these events, we wouldn’t be invited to them either,” said Luciani, who is no stranger to interacting with the same caliber of guest speakers through the Salon series.
Over fifteen years, the Munk Debates have welcomed distinguished analysts, academics, Nobel Laureates, and world leaders to Toronto. But not all guests have been received with equal warmth. Steve Bannon’s invitation to the Autumn 2018 debate on the rise of populism was met with local furor. The Honourable Charlie Angus, a New Democrat M.P., called for the event to be banned. Pickets formed outside Roy Thomson Hall on Nov. 2, protesting the appearance of President Trump’s incendiary right-wing strategist. Toronto police officers were injured in the process of containing the protests, and during the event itself, Rudyard had to remove a disruptive audience member.
It may have been the Munk Debates’ height of controversy, but that didn’t stop tickets from selling out within fifteen minutes of its announcement. Even though the New Yorker had already dropped Bannon from its speaker series earlier in the year, the Munk Debates chose to live up to their mandate of protecting civil and free public discourse.
“I think from 2008 to now, the public square has become so divided and polarized,” said Rudyard. “I’m honestly not sure if we could have a debate like that today.”
For fifteen years, the Munk Debates have spoken to our most pressing concerns, a goal that has only been possible because of Rudyard’s interest in having difficult conversations. Janice Stein, the founding director of U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, attributes many positive traits to him, one of them being his attunement to the zeitgeist – the sense that he’s listening to the political concerns of everyday citizens.
“We live in a very noisy, Twitter-driven world where smart quips often substitute for conversation,” said Professor Stein, “I think everything Rudyard’s done has been to make smart conversation possible.”
Stein, a distinguished U of T faculty member, has known Rudyard since he was an undergraduate at Trinity. Now, they co-host the Munk Debates’ weekly news podcast show, Friday Focus. Since the start of the pandemic, the two of them have convened every Friday to discuss the most pressing issues for their audience of online listeners.
Along with many other traits, Rudyard inherited his array of subject interests from his father. Franklyn Griffiths has explored multiple areas throughout his career. Most recently, as a former Arctic researcher, he’s taken to learning and writing about the impacts of climate change.
The ongoing ecological crisis, the rise of AI, and the resurgent armed conflict worldwide are just a few of many issues facing us in the near future—topics that will undoubtedly receive their due on the Munk Debates stage in years to come.
At this critical moment, Professor Griffiths sees one solution. “Right now, I think we need to be paying more attention to civility than civilization,” he said. If his son’s bi-annual event was ever in need of a new motto, they would be hard-pressed to find a better one.♦