The NATO Association of Canada’s Robert Baines on what ‘Star Trek’ taught him about life
“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” quipped Robert Baines the other night.
Quoting Mark Antony at Caesar’s funeral, by way of Shakespeare, Baines was cheekily addressing a black-tie gang out to celebrate his 40th birthday inside the storied library of the Royal Canadian Military Institute on University Avenue. The evening was business meets pleasure for the man about town, particularly considering Baines’s post as president and CEO of the NATO Association of Canada.
Though the occasion was celebratory, it had undercurrents of solemnity, what with the state of geopolitics. For the first time in a generation, NATO appears to be on the lips of le tout. “I always feel like I am proselytizing a religion when I talk to people about NATO,” he tells me later.
“Comparing NATO to a group of hockey players in a rough bar gets the point across immediately,” he adds. “Nobody messes with a hockey team, and if they do the team can defend themselves. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve found many more Canadians making the connection between the lessons learned from the Second World War and the institutions like NATO that were created to stop another major world war from happening. When people reflect that the death and sacrifice that we honour every year on November 11th led directly to the urge to maintain our hard-won peace by founding NATO, it adds a layer of gravitas to what might otherwise be seen as a faceless multilateral bureaucratic entity.”
A man in uniform
It was a circuitous road for Baines to his present position. His university studies leaned largely in the direction of history and philosophy (he is a Trinity College grad, and later did a masters at York), but things took a turn when he joined the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve. That led to an internship at the Atlantic Council of Canada (the NATO Association’s previous name) – a formative experience for him.
I ask if he ever leads with his military stint on a first date or when trying to woo someone. “Military service is certainly a complex conversation to introduce on a first date,” the unmarried Baines says with a laugh. “In most cases, discretion is the better part of valour.”
The Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, he says, is an amazing amalgam of experiences. Though he started out as a member of the Infantry in the Toronto Scottish Regiment at Fort York Armoury, Baines is currently in the Navy with Toronto’s HMCS York reserve division. “I have always recommended the reserves to anyone looking to challenge themselves,” he says. “It serves to develop initiative, self reliance and teamwork.”
The final frontier
Turning 40 has Baines taking stock. “I have always had a healthy respect for the finite nature of human existence,” he confesses. “Reading Greek philosophy in my youth certainly helped in this regard, but I must say that I have been most influenced, by far, in the acceptance of mortality by the instructive character and experiences of Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’ I sincerely think he may be one of the greatest fictional representations of humanist and enlightenment aspirations ever created. The trial never ends, and it is immensely fulfilling.”
What’s on this Trekkie’s to-do list? Certainly, more travel. “The pleasure of walking among ruins around the Mediterranean is a constant draw and will never grow old,” he says. “Italy, in particular, is always the eternal return for me. In my university days I participated in several archaeological excavations in Spain and Cyprus – perhaps I will sign up for another.”
When he is not spreading the gospel of the “greatest defensive alliance in the history of the world,” Baines is enmeshed in many of the city’s cultural organizations, including the ROM Young Patrons Circle, AGO NEXT and the Canadian Opera Company’s VOX progam.
Happy to see glimmers of life again in these institutions, he tells me, “Our society needs more of this kind of social buttressing, and each Torontonian should make an effort be part of an arts or cultural organization – for their own well being and for the general health of the city.”