COLUMN

Ducking the Rushdie challenge

Allan Fotheringham March 6 1989
COLUMN

Ducking the Rushdie challenge

Allan Fotheringham March 6 1989

Ducking the Rushdie challenge

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

As a card-carrying nationalist, it is very hard to embarrass this humble scribbler about my own country. I mean, I rank right up there with Margaret Atwood and Jack McClelland and Walter Gordon and Mel Hurtig in beating the breast and brandishing the Maple Leaf. The nincompoops in Ottawa, however, the quivering, quavering people in charge, have done it in the Salman Rushdie caper.

Once outside these borders, I will even stand up at a bar and defend Harold Ballard, as unsettling to the stomach as that task may be. I thank the gods in their feminine wisdom that this faithful Canuck was not abroad recently and had to explain why Canada in the world view proved to be so craven, so bush, so fourthclass.

While global outrage was mounting at the mad mullah in Iran and his death sentence on the embattled author in Britain, what was Ottawa doing? What Ottawa was doing was revealing to the world that semiliterate gumshoes in Revenue Canada, of all places, were the government-approved arbiters of what Canadians are allowed to read. For one incredible weekend, the duly elected government of this country waited while some cipher who is an expert oh customs regulations read The Satanic Verses and determined for all Canadians whether this dangerous package of words could be further allowed into this supposedly civilized country, although it had long been sitting in bookstores, having been published sue months ago. It was right out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

That celebrated duo would have loved the dunderheads in our current government, who are heavy on bean-counting but seem lost once they get past the decimal point. While the rest of the world unites in its outrage and pulls diplomats from Tehran, Canada waits for the lip-readers in Revenue to decide our tastes. One would like to laugh if one were not crying—for a country humiliated.

As the puzzled editorial writers of The New York Times have pointed out, in some countries—France and West Germany—publish-

ers have backed off but in Canada the actual government considered using trade laws to ban the Rushdie piece of fiction. As journalist Richard Gwyn pointed out in a dispatch from New Delhi, the news of a ban by nervous, despicable Ottawa was great news and great publicity for the fanatic Moslem forces. Here was proof! Here was ammunition! Even sane, dull, ponderous Canada was perturbed and doubtful about this dangerous book.

Churchill once said that the real test of any nation is how it treats those who are in prison. True. And another good test is its sensitivity to such matters as censorship. What the goofs in Ottawa don’t realize is the sudden “fame” this obscure country achieved in one weekend in the world press—Canada, of all places, had aligned itself with such countries as South Africa and Bangladesh as going catatonic over Rushdie’s novel and hinting it was as one with the book-burners who have always been with

us and unfortunately always will be here.

This Tory government has now been given two consecutive majority terms by the Canadian public. Brian Mulroney has rightly been given credit for that. He can do anything he wants with that majority in the Commons. He can do anything he wants, with this new mandate, on his own.

He can, for instance, stand on his hind legs next week and announce that Canada, this great democratic institution, cannot withstand further embarrassment such as accidentally (we will allow the usual obfuscation) happened over the Rushdie novel. Henceforth, he could announce and pronounce, the ability of the intellectual giants in Otto Jelinek’s revenue department to determine our tastes will be abolished. Legislation to that effect will shortly be introduced in Parliament.

The Prime Minister of all he surveys makes

suchlike statements most every week. The environment will be cleansed. The tax system will be reformed. The deficit will be reduced. The Prince Edward Island causeway will be built. The problems at the Toronto airport will be eliminated. Legislation to that effect will shortly be introduced in Parliament.

But those are all dollar items. It’s easy to make brave pronouncements on dollar items. The public can’t keep track of dollars, especially when they go past six zeros. Politicians know this. Senator Everett Dirksen, an American icon, once said, “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

What takes a little more courage—which Brian Mulroney would like to be known for—is to stand up and be counted for a cause.

Pierre Trudeau is remembered for saying that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Why can’t Brian Mulroney stand up next week and announce he had unfortunately inherited a disgraceful situation from the Liberals (it’s their fault!) wherein mumblers from Revenue Canada to his great surprise were the censors on what Canadians could read and he, on being apprised of this disgusting fact, had determined to put it to an end and legislation would be shortly introduced in Parliament?

He could do it. He could do it tomorrow. Or he could leave his wobbling external affairs minister, one Joe Clark, just back from being battered in Harare with the revelation that our trade with South Africa is increasing and the venal bloodsuckers of the Canadian banking system are laundering their South Africa loans through Luxembourg, to justify our Rushdie caper.

Or we could continue to delight Gilbert and Sullivan.