By Frank Moher
Some of my fellow writer-types are being particularly irritating these days, and not in a good way. It is, of course, part of an artist’s job to be irritating some of the time, as, for example, the Dixie Chicks were about George Bush’s war. By the time Americans got through being irritated with them, they’d realized the girls were right. Mission Accomplished. The trick, though, is to pick your battles carefully, and to not look like total arseholes while you prosecute them.
Which brings us to Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel, who have been in high dudgeon lately over what they say is the Harper government’s indifference to the arts. Atwood began back in February with an essay in her favourite samizdat organ, The Globe and Mail. “It seems to be the intention of the Harper neocons to bleed and starve Canada’s cultural institutions until they croak,” she intoned (one can hear her saying it in that monotonous voice she uses for poetry readings), following up with this clincher: “Proposed Liberal top-up to the Canada Council before the last election: $300-million. Conservatives have delivered: $50-million.”
Then last week she advised the CBC that the Tories “basically just hate us” (artists, that is). “You know it’s people who have never seen any arts in their own lives — they would rather not have gardens, they would rather have parking lots. They just think it’s a frill probably.”
Right. All those flower-hating, parking-lot loving conservatives. Why don’t they just go back to Alberta where they can, er, step on flowers and kiss parking lots?
Now, I have no unrequited love for the Conservative Party; I’m the guy who, back when they were still the Reform Party, advised my Toronto buddies that rather than making fun of Preston Manning’s hair and glasses they might want to check out the Reformers’ cultural policies, on the off-chance the troglodytes came to power some day. Actually, this was bad advice, as Preston and friends had no cultural policies, and my Toronto friends might have grown old looking for them.
But at least they wouldn’t be sitting ducks if the day came that Myron Thompson was named Minister of Canadian Heritage. (I don’t know if Myron Thompson hates flowers, but he’s the kind of Conservative that Atwood probably had in mind when she applied her broad brush to the party.)
Lo these ten-or-so years later, Myron Thompson isn’t the Minister of Canadian Heritage; Bev Oda is. And just as Stephen Harper hasn’t eaten babies and decorated 24 Sussex Drive in crushed velvet, as his opponents assured us he would, neither have the Conservatives gutted the arts. Not even Margaret Atwood has the fictional powers to turn the act of giving the Canada Council an additional $50 million into some sort of ritual disembowelling. And to compare it to whatever figure the Liberals dreamed up in the midst of an election campaign that saw them growing more desperate by the day, and promising money to everyone and everything in sight, is either silly or tendentious. This, after all, is the party that also once promised to get rid of the GST and rip up the Free Trade Agreement.
But then, Stephen Harper is Margaret Atwood’s worst nightmare, and then some: not only a Conservative, but a Conservative from out west. Dame Peggy seems to have had a hate-on for western Canada, and Alberta in particular, since sometime in the late ’60s, when she had to spend two years in Edmonton as an English instructor at the U of A. Edmonton was cold in winter, so she didn’t like it (though she did get a particularly acerbic short story out of the experience). The same cannot be said, however, of Yann Martel, who is currently back in Saskatoon and working as writer-in-residence at the University of Saskatchewan, having previously spent a year as writer-in-residence at that city’s public library. Martel, apparently, likes a good slap of prairie populism from time to time. What, then, to make of his insufferably pompous plan to send the Prime Minister a new book every two weeks?
We’ll have to think about that one. Check back here in about seven days.
Part II: Yann Martel’s two-man book club