Another Trudeau story. For me, the low point in the Trudeau coverage came in the House of Commons, as the political leaders delivered their eulogies. Jean Chrétiens pallor and lowered head were more touching than his plain, heartfelt words. But when Stockwell Day quoted The Rose by Bette Midler, I felt the cultural IQ of the country plummet. I like Bette Midler as much as the next person, but it was an impoverished tribute to a leader who could comfortably quote Rimbaud and Seneca. What will happen to the political imagination now?
As we are all rather tired of hearing, Trudeau was a man of ideas, and imagination. When he was in office, Trudeaus intellect was sometimes seen as an idiosyncrasy that was easy to overlook—you know, Mackenzie King talked to his dog, and Trudeau had this thing for capes and poetry. But the value of imagination in a political leader, not to mention the absence of it in our current landscape, became clear last week. The people who lined the roads and platforms between Ottawa and Montreal to watch the funeral train pass were not an army of political scientists. They were ordinary people of all ages and backgrounds who had nevertheless been touched by Trudeau’s idea of the country. His intellect was beside the point. It was Trudeaus ability to imagine Canada as a whole that made it briefly so.
America, with its dense huddle of states, seems to require more of a football coach than an artist-statesman. But Canada, with its doubt-inducing empty spaces and its thin, wiry necklace of citizens strung along the border, requires a leap of the imagination in order to exist at all. Canada is an idea. One must conjure it into being, and it took a magus like Trudeau to convince us of the illusion.
Many westerners and Québécois will say that it is only one man’s folly or egomania to imagine the country in this way. Perhaps. But despite our individual allegiances to this idea or to that province, everyone also longs to be part of a bigger community—an overriding, all-embracing idea. It was ironic that someone who valued privacy and solitude as much as Trudeau should persist in this rather tender, even foolish notion of a united country. It was a bit like the patriarch of a dysfunctional family saying yes, we’re damn well going to have Christmas dinner together, and we’re going to put up a tree, too. But neither family nor country is easily achieved.
Trudeau was a great reader, who counted many writers, actors and artists among his personal friends. The tributes by writers such as Peter C. Newman, B. W. Powe and Ron Graham reflect this—they are the most eloquent, reflective testimonials you are likely to read for the next few decades. And
their memories made me reflect, as everyone else has, on how Trudeau affected my own history. The answer came as a complete surprise: I owe some of my enduring friendships to one Local Initiatives Project grant, which brought together 10 of us in the cultural heyday of 1973.
The project was an international festival of women’s films that toured the country—130 films made by women, which we unearthed from around the world, and lugged across Canada, in very heavy steamer trunks. We showed movies in St. John’s, Nfld., and Leaf Rapids, Man. In Halifax, we presented a lurid slide show about breast cancer—not the done thing 27 years ago. We hired a pianist to play the score for a silent movie by pioneer Canadian filmmaker Nell Shipman. It was fun—a core value in the Trudeau philosophy—and it brought women together for something other than a bake sale.
The whole thing—10 salaries and a national tour—cost $ 130,000. Corporations now spend that on cases of Evian for board meetings. But I can still remember a letter of complaint that ran in Macleans. The tattle-tale reported that our little band of grant-guzzlers had been observed in a restaurant, sending back a bottle of wine. The nerve! Obviously, people using tax dollars to toil in the cultural salt mines should go straight home, and drink tap water. But I think Trudeau would have approved, and probably would have sent a bottle of brandy over, too.
Were those Trudeau-era initiatives—Opportunities for Youth, and Katimavik were other youth programs—a wise investment? Who knows, but out of our group of 10, eight have been shovelling their talent back into the cultural coalbin ever since. Three went on to help create the Toronto International Film Festival (which as we all know currently rivals the Canadian government in size and efficiency). Among the rest of us, there are two writers, a film producer, an agent and a playwright. It was that first little LIP grant that made us all think a life in the arts was possible. Silly us! The delusion continues.
Of course, the CanLit boom (our strongest export after smoked salmon, it seems) only began when the Trudeau government subsidized small presses like Anansi and Coach House, where “local” writers such as Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn McEwen, Matt Cohen, Dennis Lee and Michael Ondaatje got their start. That was a good idea.
Some say that it was Trudeau’s largesse that landed us deep in debt in the ’80s. I would answer that the debt is ours, for a rich Canadian culture that owes more than we realize to Trudeaus imagination.
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