A lot of Canadian teachers are rightfully angry at the Conservatives these days — none more so than drama teachers. Barely hours after Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberal Party, the Cons unleashed an attack ad deriding his work experience: as a camp counsellor, white water rafting instructor, and most embarrassing of all, if the sneering tones of the voice-over guy are anything to go by, two years teaching kids to connect their emotions to their bodies and develop self-confidence, which are among the most important things drama teachers do.
I wonder what Stephen Harper’s old friend and mentor, Frank Glenfield, would think of those ads?
A fascinating story emerged back at the end of 2011 — fascinating, at any rate, if you were shaped by Frank Glenfield at an early age as I was, and Harper was too. Frank had died in Edmonton at the age of 87, and the Prime Minister appeared unannounced to deliver a eulogy at his funeral. It turned out, as David Staples related in the Edmonton Journal, that Glenfield had been young Harper’s boss at Imperial Oil, when the 19-year old turned up in Edmonton, having defied his family’s wishes that he continue at the University of Toronto and become a chartered accountant. “I was virtually told to hire him,” Glenfield had told Staples three years earlier, “but I did. And he was a very troubled boy when he came. I think what upset him the most was rebelling against what the family wanted him to do. But he wanted to do his own thing. He didn’t want to just toe the party line.”
Harper worked as an office boy under Glenfield’s supervision. According to Staples, Frank would often come home “late for supper because Stephen had sought him out for a discussion. ‘I think I played an important part in his life when he needed someone to talk to and someone to know,’ Frank said. ‘He was a stranger in Edmonton.'” Even after Harper moved to Calgary, and began the rightward turn that has placed him where he is today, he and his girlfriend would return to visit Frank and his wife, Mary, bringing sleeping bags and camping out on their living room floor.
I knew Frank Glenfield at a similarly formative time in my life, but for an entirely different reason. While Frank’s day-job was at Imperial Oil, he was best-known in Edmonton as one of its theatrical pioneers, a director and actor who, along with Mary, had helped to create Walterdale Theatre Associates, a distinguished amateur theatre company, in the 1950s, and continued to direct and act and mentor young theatre types for all his years. I made my stage debut at age 12 in the chorus of a musical Frank directed. My father had died a few months earlier, and my mother was dying of cancer, and theatre became the cliff ledge from which I hung by my fingers, not least because Frank would praise me to high heavens. That meant a lot to me then. Forty-five years later, I still work in theatre. And I can still sing most of the songs from that show.
Frank was never a drama teacher in the strict sense, but he certainly used drama to teach little lessons, about kindness, and joy, and perseverance, and living full tilt. I expect one of the reasons he had those stores of compassion to offer 19-year old Stephen Harper was because of his time spent around great plays that show us how to be human. That’s one reason Stephen Harper should be ashamed of those ads — because they suggest that that’s not a worthy pursuit. But the other reason is a lot simpler. Stephen Harper needs to ask himself what Frank would say to him about those ads, and then tell his people to knock it off, out of simple loyalty and respect. The same loyalty and respect that brought him to Edmonton for Frank’s funeral. Because he owes it to him. And maybe even — yes, I know you’ll find it hard to credit this — maybe even out of love.
In fact, maybe he already has. If you visit the website created for the attack ad campaign (not that I’m suggesting you do), you’ll see that nothing’s been posted since April 17th. Maybe the Conservatives’ polling told them that the campaign was backfiring. Or maybe Frank showed up in Steve’s bedroom in the night — you know, kind of like the Ghost of Curtain Calls Past — and told him, “Hey, kid, about those commercials . . .”. If so, it would be his finest performance yet.