BOOKS

People power

A writer describes the 1988 election

MARC CLARK November 6 1989
BOOKS

People power

A writer describes the 1988 election

MARC CLARK November 6 1989

People power

BOOKS

A writer describes the 1988 election

Jerry Rubin is selling stocks, Jane Fonda is counting royalties from her workout tapes, and Anne Cools is in the Canadian Senate. But Rick Salutin, Toronto playwright, novelist and socialist gadfly, remains true to the radical 1960s credo that the others left behind. In Waiting for Democracy: A Citizen’s Journal, Salutin again saddles up to do battle with the Establishment in his analysis of the 1988 election. Salutin contends that antifree-trade forces outside the mainstream turned the election into an exquisitely democratic debate about the future of Canada. But his political passions distort the message into a tale as two-dimensional as a Ronald Reagan western. Good battles Evil in a free-trade shootout—only, in Salutin’s script, socialists and nationalists get to wear the white hats.

The villains are big-business, professional politicians, including the nominally socialist New Democratic Party and the mainstream media, including Maclean’s. His heroes are fellow activists—“old war buddies,” he calls them—who battled free trade. The book is first and foremost a paean to the spirit of those volunteers and their fight to turn the election into a referendum on the Free Trade Agreement. Their efforts, he writes, generated a few “heady weeks of democratic chaos ... during which it looked as if the normal forces of wealth and power in our society might be routed.” Salutin also discovered an unlikely hero in the enemy camp: Liberal Leader John Turner. He draws a clear distinction between the man and his party, which he describes as “a corrupt

and decaying body.” Under Salutin’s pen, Turner’s metamorphosis from corporate lawyer to anti-free-trade crusader is a near-religious conversion from capitalist darkness to the enlightenment of nationalism. “Taken over by the business class to become one of them, embracing them in return, placed as prime minister to serve them, and somehow it went wrong,” he writes in one passage. Watching Turner attack free trade on the hustings was like watching “a conventional pol, an Establishment Man, suddenly discovering his soul.”

As for Salutin, his status as a model citizen is never in doubt. He and Montreal cartoonist Terry Mosher, better known as Aislin, created the cartoon booklet that became the main weapon for the Pro-Canada Network, a national coalition against free trade. The group spent $750,000 to distribute 2.2 million copies as newspaper supplements in major cities across Canada. Salutin concludes that his work with the coalition elevated him from a mere voter into a polites, the word used by ancient Athenian democrats to describe a responsible, politically involved member of society.

It took the fulcrum of free trade to lever thousands of others into action and turn the election into a wide-open debate about the future of Canada. That taste of true democracy, Salutin says, frightened the business elite, whose members pull the strings on mainstream politicians. “The people kept trying to vote on issues rather than candidates, and to enter the fray directly themselves,” he writes, “even as the custodians of political realism strove might-

ily to shift them back to their traditional role as mere voters for leaders and parties.”

Salutin’s contempt for mainstream politics is manifest. Tories and Liberals both are “sewn with their guts to the pillars of wealth and power.” At a rally in east-end Montreal, “you feel the sleaze of the Liberal party all over this church basement.” The Tories fare even worse, as Salutin makes several allusions to nazism. But after the second comparison, Salutin writes solemnly, “I hasten to add that the Tory program, grungy as it is, is not Hitlerian.” His attacks on Ed Broadbent and the NDP are more cogent. Salutin rails at the party for downplaying the free trade issue in the belief that an all-out attack would cost them votes, and for attacking Turner in an effort to attract anti-free-trade voters. In effect, Salutin says, the NDP played into the hands of big business by putting party ahead of country and splitting the anti-free-trade vote. For Salutin, “this is getting close to treason.”

The true patriots, he says, were the people who struggled to open the democratic debate and air the trade issue. In the end, of course, they lost. But Salutin pays breathless homage to the activists “who had presumed to question business or government authority, and who almost overthrew it.” That is clearly an overstatement. But Salutin is clearly convinced that he and his colleagues fought the good fight, and that they will continue to do so. “In the meantime,” he writes, “what keeps them going is the tales they can tell about those who tried to do the right thing, even if they failed.” Waiting for Democracy will take its place among those tales.

MARC CLARK