Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

Download and read insightful views

The Great Escape: A Canadian Story by Ted Barris

Everyone knows the story of The Great Escape. Forever enshrined in cinematic history, the iconic movie tells the tale of a group of prisoners-of-war digging a tunnel underneath their containment camp and escaping their German captors. But is that really the true story? History tells us a different tale.


As author Ted Barris states, “Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a good story.” The fact of the matter is that many of the key players in the true story of The Great Escape —the diggers, scroungers, forgers and stooges—were Canadian.


This is Ted Barris’ third time at the Ottawa Writers Festival and, as soon as he begins speaking, I can see why he has been invited to return. The energy and passion with which he talks about history—about this story in particular and the men who conspired to make it happen—is contagious. He talks about the men as if they are close family members, his voice soft with compassion as he speaks their names; Roger Bushell, Wally Floody, Gordon Kidder, Johnny Weir, Tony Pengelly, Kingsley Brown, Frank Sorenson and Don McKim—to name but a few. And he has become like family to them too; in 2011, Barris was awarded a Minister of Veteran’s Affairs Commendation, chosen and honoured by the veterans themselves.


The setting of this remarkable story is Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp in Sagan, Poland. The Germans thought that housing all their worst flight-risk prisoners in one place would be a good idea, and the resulting compound was built with escape deterrence in mind. The barracks were raised up off the ground on stilts so that the patrolling Luftwaffe guards could look under the buildings to make sure the prisoners weren’t tunnelling beneath them.


Microphones were buried in the ground around the barracks so that any sounds could be detected. What the Germans didn’t take into account, however, was that by putting their most troublesome, inventive and brilliant prisoners in one place, they were forming a dream team of escape artists.


Just one year after it was built, Stalag Luft III housed 5,000 Commonwealth airmen. In the story of the Great Escape, approximately 2,000 of these men would play some part. The sheer scale of effort and hard work that went into the planning of that single night in 1944 is astounding. The men who were involved covered every detail meticulously; from the forged work permits with near-authentic stamps created by carving into wooden boot heels, to the cardboard suitcases and dyed and modified prison uniforms to make them appear like civilians.


The ingenuity of the men, and their unrelenting commitment to their cause, meant that on the night of March 24, 1944 — 71 years ago today — 80 of the prisoners crawled through one of the four tunnels they had dug, 360 foot long ‘Harry’, and were able to escape the camp. However, the ending is not happy but tragic. Upon finding out about the escape, Hitler ordered the capture and execution of every man who had fled.


In the end, because there were German POWs held by Allied Forces and the Germans feared retaliation, 50 of the 80 escapees were murdered. They were shot, cremated, and buried in a corner of the compound that they had spent so long planning to be free from.


The Great Escape is a story of teamwork, companionship, and the ability to never give up hope, even in the bleakest and most hopeless of situations. At the site of the former Stalag Luft III camp , the barracks, guard towers, and wire fencing may be gone but the memory of The Great Escape—and the men who took part in it—are commemorated by a monument often wreathed in flowers.


The previously untold stories, now forever remembered in the work of Barris. Not Hollywood, but history.



Love Enough


In her most recent novel Love Enough, Dionne Brand provides readers with glimpses into the daily lives of an eclectic cast of characters whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. Set in Toronto, the novel explores from multiple perspectives what it means to love—and to love enough.


There is June, a middle-aged social activist discontented with her relationship with her lover. She gives temporary haven to Bedri, a young man going deeper and deeper into a life of crime with his best friend Ghost. Bedri’s choices disappoint the wishes of his immigrant father, Da’uud, a polyglot and talented economist who drives a taxi in Canada. Ghost’s sister Lia gives up the opportunity for companionship and adventure with Jasmeet, feeling tied to her irresponsible and chaotic mother Mercede.


As each of these characters navigates their lives in the largest city in Canada, they work through what it means to love those around them—lovers, mothers, sons, and strangers.


Brand writes with such easy familiarity about a city that she knows and loves deeply that readers feel instantly at home in the setting. Love Enough invites us to walk Toronto’s streets alongside the characters, to inhabit ordinary corners of a vibrant city and explore its secret haunts. The novel’s opening lines beckon with both invitation and instruction:


The best way of looking at a summer sunset in this city is in the rear-view mirror. Or better, the side mirrors of a car. So startling. All the subtlety, the outerworldliness of the sunset follows you…. If you ever travel east along Dupont Street, at that time, look back.


Brand’s lyrical language paints pictures like that throughout the book. Lake Ontario “oscillates like green-blue wet glass,” while “Toronto sits disconsolate, humid in its thick pink fibreglass insulation.” This language, rarely clichéd or expected, is one of the book’s high points—unsurprising, given that the author has won the Governor General’s Award for her poetry.


The story-lines, on the other hand, sometimes fall flat. The novel’s worst moments read like character sketches written in preparation for something else; Brand often tells us about June’s life instead of letting us watch her live it. She states conclusions rather than painting scenarios from which we could draw our own conclusions, and so June’s life often feels detached, aloof.


Bedri’s narrative acts as a counterpoint to June’s, drawing readers in with its immediacy and intensity. Having committed an awful crime, and knowing each miserable way he has failed his family, Bedri is both desperate for love and desperate to love. After a desolate encounter with his sister, he realizes that his family is afraid of him, and he decides that the best way to love them is to disappear from their lives. Yet he still longs for love. At a bus stop, “something made him hold his hand out for the people standing there to see.” The people rebuff him, not understanding, and Bedri “stood for a while, his hand still outstretched, then he turned and began running down the street with his hand extended.”


Like Bedri, Love Enough’s other characters are often more concerned with receiving love than giving it. Lia focuses on her mother’s failures. June is preoccupied with the ways in which her lover, Sydney, disappoints her, and this preoccupation “bounces and bounces like a pendulum” in her head. 


As the novel progresses, however, they learn to give love in small and imperfect ways, coming to understand that “there is nothing universal or timeless about this love business… It is hard if you really want to do it right.” Ghost fathers a child, and when he’s at home, “the baby crawls onto him and plays with the scar on his chest and he feels as if the baby’s hand is sinking past the scar and into his heart.” Sydney tells June that June collects sadness, and this single sentence of understanding, of knowing, fills June up.  


The novel opens with that shimmering sunset on Dupont Street, a street that Brand describes as grim and ugly, filled with car-wrecking shops and taxi sheds, desolate diners and hardware stores. Ethereal beauty juxtaposed with the grim, concrete realities of the city. “A sunset is in the perfect location here,” Brand says. “Needed.” As though the simple, subtle beauty of a single sunset is love enough.  


In many ways, this opening scene stands as a metaphor for every other moment in the book. As Brand takes us through the small and large catastrophes of each individual life, we see the characters’ baggage and their flaws, out on display like wares of a pawnshop or greasy car parts in a mechanic shop. Yet we also see moments of love, beautiful not because they are perfect, but because they are needed.  


Dionne Brand’s novel is a flawed but beautiful homage to our broken, seeking humanity. It’s not perfect love. But it’s love enough.

The Paying Guests



At just 26, Francis Wray, the protagonist of Sarah Waters’ latest novel, has already let life slip through her fingers.  Burdened by her late father’s debts, her life seems as drab as the postwar London suburb in which she lives with her widowed mother.  In a house absent  of servants, it is left to Francis to fill the role of housemaid and cook but even these  efforts   are not enough to maintain their once-grand house. In a moment of considered desperation, the  Wray women  place an advertisement for lodgers .  


As  the novel opens we see how their reduced circumstance bring them  into strange intimacy with the Barbers – the titular “paying guests”  –   who rent  the advertised rooms and transform them  to  their image:  


It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick. The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs. The lovely pier-glass had been draped slant-wise with a fringed Indian shawl … the wicker birdcage twirled slowly on a ribbon from a hook that had been screwed into the ceiling; inside it was a silk-and-feather parrot on papier-m â ch é   perch .


The young couple and their invited intrusion  quickly  upend  Francis’  orderly life,  “She  simply hadn’t prepared herself for the oddness of the sound and the sight of the couple going about from room to room as if the rooms belong to them. When Mr. Barber, for example, headed back upstairs after a visit to the yard, she heard him pause in the hall. Wondering what could be delaying him, she ventured a look along the passage and saw him gazing at the pictures on the walls like a man in a gallery. Leaning in for a better look at a steel engraving of Ripon Cathedral he put his fingers to his pocket and brought out a matchstick, with which he began idly picking his teeth.”


Yet Francis is not simply an  observer, she finds herself the observed as well:  “He   [Mr. Barber]  seemed to enjoy watching her work. His blue gaze travelled over her and she felt him taking her all in: her apron, her steam-frizzed hair, her rolled-up sleeves, her scarlet knuckles.”   The first to poke fun at her own poverty, his unsaid observations nevertheless rankle Francis  while  interactions with Mrs. Barber are similarly fraught,  but  for altogether different reasons.  For a time, however, a balance is struck however uneasy ,  and while longtime fans of Waters will not be shocked by the turn of events, those new to her work may be surprised by how the plot unfolds.   


A Man Booker Finalist for  Fingersmith  (2002),  The Night Watch  (2006) and  The Little Stranger  (2009)  the first of  which centered on the Victorian era and the  latter two on the  1940s,  Waters  has  turned to the 1920s for inspiration for her sixth novel.  Far removed from the jazz and gin that characterizes  so many novels set in during the “roaring twenties,”   The Paying Guests  instead focuses on those s hifting social and economic relationships that shook families like the  Wrays  and elevated persons like the Barbers.   Issues of class, gender, love and desire, and courage and cowardice underpin the novel and it is largely the setting that allows for such themes to develop.  


For a s much as anything, this is a story about a house.  Once, we are told, it was a “fine old house,”  fringed by  spacious gardens,  set on a leafy street  on Champion Hill , surrounded by other  stately homes.    Indeed, despite its location, set firmly in the  suburbs of London , the  house brings to mind those  grand  country homes that seem to populate so much of  the British literary landscape –  from  Thornfield   and Wuthering Heights to  Atonement ’s  Tallis  House  and  The Little Stranger ’s Hundreds Hall,  as featured in  Waters’ 2009 offering.  


These houses, with their twisting corridors and  darkened corne rs, create the ideal set ting for whispered secrets and longing glances, making them the ideal setting to explore forbidden attraction.  Yet the house is also a testament to a bygone era, serving as a sort of crumbling mausoleum for a way of life that has been  lost in the trenches along with a generation of young men.  Indeed, the house is so central to creating tension in the plot that when the characters move outside ,  the novel at times seems to sag. This is in large part because of  the character of Francis; privy only to her thoughts and motivations, which provides a sense of intrigue for the reader, her self-imposed exile and subservience to the house means that her movements outside of it read as somewhat false. For  while she may feel t rapped by the house, this  sense  of   captivity gives her power and energy as a character.   


The novel is divided into three sectio ns and while Part One is eminently readable, ending  delicately and perfectly about  200 pages in, the rest of the novel lacks the tautness that propels the first section.  It is not that the plot meanders, but rather the direction it takes seems a bit predictable. There are some overly convenient twists and turns toward the end of the novel and the final pages, unfortunately, read as rather anticlimactic if true to the characters.  Yet ,  Waters’ characteristic eye for detail makes the novel worth reading. She does not overwhelm her characters with stuffy period dialogue nor does she transport modern characters into the past. Rather she creates believable characters trapped by the expectations  of the time in which they live.  

Douglas Coupland's Kitten Clone


There is a cartoon on the web showing a stick figure sitting at a computer, thinking to himself:


An x64 processor is screaming along at billions of cycles per second to run the XNU kernel, which is frantically working through all the POSIX-specified abstraction to create the Darwin system underlying OS X, which in turn is straining itself to run Firefox and its Gecko renderer, which creates a Flash object which renders dozens of video frames every second.


Because I wanted to see a cat jump into a box and fall over.


I am a god.[1]


Divine status conferred by the viewing of cat videos; it is an image very much in line with Douglas Coupland’s project in Kitten Clone. On a journey through the multinational IT company Alcatel-Lucent, Coupland explores the phenomenon of the Internet at a point where its growing adoption and burgeoning speed are significantly impacting how humans do things and even relate to one another. His hope is that conversations with a technology giant responsible for building many of the physical components comprising the Internet will illuminate these effects and serve as “a stepping stone into a larger meditation…about what data and speed and optical wiring are doing to us as a species.” 


Kitten Clone is divide into four parts: a fictional scene in French Alsace in 1871, followed by descriptions of visits to global Alcatel-Lucent offices to explore the past, present, and future of the Internet. The past is examined at Bell Labs (New Jersey, USA), where much of the basic research underlying modern telecommunications was done starting in the mid-twentieth century; the present at facilities in France (Paris, Calais) and Canada (Ottawa); and the future at operations in China (Pudong, Shanghai). The book “has a “surfy” feel to it”: 87 of 176 pages are photos by photographer Olivia Arthur, the format intends to mimic web pages and thus how we see and use information on the Internet. At each stage, Coupland gives his thoughts and reflections on Internet technology, the industry creating it, and its impact.


The book has some successes. A range of themes are examined that are relevant to a society where information technology is increasingly pervasive: the simultaneous bewilderment and awe felt by lay people towards technology and those who produce it; the rapid and widespread adoption of high-speed Internet; the underfunding of long-term scientific research, even when focussed on technological (and thus industrial/business) ends; the growing view that fast Internet connectivity is a utility akin to the power grid; and the removal of class distinctions through Internet use and availability. Arising from these themes are a host of good questions. Is “technological determinism” true, the idea that “humans exist only to propagate ever-newer technologies”? What have we learned about ourselves via the Internet that we didn’t already know? And what will all of this bandwidth do to us? Interacting with the people who build the Internet (rather than Internet users, web designers, or cultural critics) also provides an unusual perspective on these questions.


Coupland achieves the “surfy” feel that he sought; Kitten Clone really is reminiscent of a web page. Too much so. Each stage of the book visits a new place, scans it, makes some observations, asks some questions, and quickly flits to the next location and collection of images; the forms of the web are mimicked without redeeming their failings, much of the discussion floating on the surface of subjects of great depth. Coupled with that, and all too fitting, the prose is too often and too obviously overdone. Describing the Head of Bell Labs Research, Markus Hoffman, Coupland writes that

[he] looks like a school principal who’d discipline you without resorting to corporal punishment, and his eyes tell me that, at any given moment he’s probably figuring out the natural logarithm of his Visa card number or what his lunch might look like connected by strings into the fifth and/or sixth dimensions.


This is trying too hard to be clever without advancing the book’s project at all.


Coupland’s questions and pool of interviewees are mismatched as well. Being a telecommunications engineer myself, and knowing many others, this is no surprise. Most of my peers in the technical disciplines would readily admit to having no good answer for the question of what the Internet is doing to us, for the simple reason that they don’t see it as their role to address such topics. Coupland is quite right that technically trained voices have a place in the conversation, but few will have the tools or interest to engage it; in terms of their training, their perspective, and the demands of their work, it is just not on their radar.


What technical people tend to do instead is acquiesce to common narratives about technology and our relationship to it, and Coupland does the same. One striking example is his discussion of narrative itself:

The now-fading notion that our lives should be stories is a psychological inevitability imbued in readers by the logic of the book and fiction as a medium: focus; sequencing; emotional through-lines; morals; structure; climax; denouement. One can look back on the print era and witness true poignancy: readers the world over were determined to see their lives as stories, when, in fact, books are a specific invention that creates a specific mindset.


That is, the use of narrative to express meaning is an outgrowth of the printed word that is being lost in the Internet Age. To see such a contentious thesis offered without supporting evidence is actually stunning, particularly when one reflects that tribes of the Amazon basin, playwrights of antiquity, and present-day technological determinists are united in being incorrigible storytellers. Asking how our tools of communication, such as broadband Internet, affect the stories we tell and how we tell them is very much to the point; rejecting narrative as such is not. Another example is his discussion of technological determinism. To Coupland’s credit, he poses the question of whether or not we shall be ruled by the Almighty Bit, but he does little to explore that question or what alternatives might exist. Indeed, when we read early on that “[l]ooking at human history and the history of technology, there’s a certain sort of inevitability to its parade,” one suspects that the fix is in.


And it is. Coupland offers an answer to his key question in the end. In a closing mini-narrative depicting a future where kittens are cloned and synthesized in mere moments but are eaten as soon as their presence becomes inconvenient, we learn our fate: we shall have unimaginable technological power, and be monsters. The Internet will rewire and reprogram us, causing us to forget much and learn little about ourselves and our world. The meditation ends not with a bang but a fatalistic whimper. We shall be slaves, with hardly a shot fired.



Donna Thomson's The Four Walls Of My Freedom


There is something both familiar and recognizably heart-wrenching in the story of a person who is pulled into the position of caring for someone who has become, either suddenly or over a long duration, completely dependent. We see this tale played out regularly by those with aging parents needing help with daily tasks, and perhaps we know or have heard of those caring for victims of accidents or degenerative conditions. Almost always in these stories, there is a sense that something is being, and has been, lost by the caregiver. A loss of freedom, a loss of financial resources, a loss of leisure—in short, the implication that the caregiver is bound without benefit to the one who requires help.


Donna Thomson, in her memoir The Four Walls of My Freedom, shifts this narrative, and shifts it intentionally and unapologetically. Throughout her book about her life spent caring for her son, Nicholas, who is affected by cerebral palsy, she states again and again how much her son, and others like him with major disabilities, has to offer the world around him. Her refrain enters our Canadian social consciousness at a timely moment, as we (at the moment of this writing) sift through the ethical questions surrounding physician-assisted suicide, and as further debate regarding euthanasia catches fire in the public sphere. She addresses many of the questions of this debate explicitly in her autobiographical tale of her life with her son: What role can suffering have in human life? How do we value lives that do not only ever contribute economically to our system, but that even require additional resources from us? Who is responsible for caring for the sick, disabled, and elderly? What does it mean to be a citizen and to have rights, and what, if any, changes should be made in the case of the disabled?


Thomson’s book is at once a story of her family, and a story of disabilities activism. She illuminates the world of raising a child with severe disabilities in Canada as one of facing constant battles with healthcare providers, funding and support associations, governments, and the general public. Throughout her book, she points to the central issue being one of public perception of the rights of people with disabilities versus those of people without disabilities, and how and why they do and should differ. She argues, through introducing her reader on a personal level to her son and revealing the intensity of love and dynamism present in him and his life with his family, that people with disabilities are exactly that: people, and citizens, and as such, deserve the same rights as other citizens of our country.


This seems like a simple statement, but she develops the idea further with each chapter, filling out the different facets of her argument in an essay-like form. Without quite realizing it, Thomson is forced into a position of not only have to defend the value of a vulnerable person’s life, but also of trying to convince a public audience that seems to have largely ignored or forgotten any sort of existing definition at all of what it means to be a human person. Our system is one that tends to privilege economic success and contribution over any other activity, and mistakes the possession of wealth for an end rather than simply a means of attaining freedom and happiness. As a result, it becomes altogether too easy, and in fact, intuitive, to base a person’s worth on his or her abilities rather than nature. Drawing from various theologians and philosophers, Thomson rejects any definition of human worth that is based in abilities, capacities, or relationships. Rather, she states that worth is intrinsic, that dignity is part and parcel of being human, and that as such, it cannot be added to or taken away.


Threaded throughout Thomson’s narrative are instances of frustration with the way in which Canada has set up care, education, and treatment for children with disabilities. She paints her move towards disability activism as the logical outcome for any parent faced with the inefficiencies and injustices she faced. She states simply that, “activism was and continues to be a core part of my sense of being a good mother.” As an activist, she has brought her vision of citizen rights for people with disabilities to the forefront of discussions surrounding funding, accessibility, and care. She emphasizes the rights of parents in particular to not be forced into providing 24-hour, lifelong care for their child with disabilities, but to still be able to maintain an active role in their child’s life without relinquishing custody or any parental rights to the state. Describing the numerous challenges that parents of children with disabilities face, Thomson seeks to convince her readers of the necessity for change, and of the need for the support from those outside of the disabilities community.


One would assume that the title of her book is a way of describing Nicholas’ life, confined as he is now as an adult to his bed, unable to move without assistance and intense pain. Thomson instead describes to the reader how the title—taken from a line of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography—was actually chosen as a way of describing her own life. She describes the loneliness that is faced by most parents of children with disabilities, and the very real experience that she and many others have had of letting go completely of their own desires, ambitions, and dreams for their futures. She describes this process as painful, strengthening, and finally, life-giving. She realizes that giving up a cornerstone virtue of our modern society, freedom of choice, was key to her survival and happiness. In submitting to her role as caregiver, and in choosing to love her son Nicholas, “normal” things like going back to work, going out with friends for a carefree evening, and traveling, among others, were simply no longer options. She suggests that mourning these losses is what seems to be expected of her by those who would hear her story. But a state of mourning is no way to live life. She again draws her reader back to the ways in which she insists that her life has become more beautiful and full as a result of caring for Nicholas, and of all of the ways in which he is a gift to that world around him that so quickly moves to pity and then dismiss him.


While The Four Walls of My Freedom is a book that provides a well-written and heartfelt appeal to those within and outside of the disabilities community to consider more deeply the ethics of rights of the vulnerable, it could more correctly, and perhaps usefully, be read as a collection of essays. Thomson’s penchant for repeating parts of her narrative, reusing anecdotes in different contexts, and citing the same research or scholarly opinions in different chapters means that by about the halfway point, the circularity can begin to leave the reader a little confused. After another few instances of the same, that confusion develops into a touch of frustration. It appears that the book, which begins very much as an autobiographical narrative, interspersed with some helpful references and contextual information from experts and scholars, is rather a collection of essays that uses Thomson’s story as a jumping off point from which to tackle larger issues of disability rights, discussions of the definition of the human person and of citizenship, and the injustices present in a system that fails to recognize the vulnerable as entitled to care. These are important messages to share, of course, but might be more effectively communicated with some help from an editor.


Despite the organizational weaknesses of the book, The Four Walls of My Freedom remains an excellent resource that introduces and familiarizes the reader to the issues that are most relevant for those who care for vulnerable people in our society, whether they are people with disabilities, the elderly, or the sick.  One cannot help but be drawn into the story of her life in all of its difficulties and joys, and to sympathize deeply with the arguments about ethics that is prevalent throughout her tale. 


Chantal Hébert's The Morning After


Something big was going to happen that night—that much I knew. Growing up in a nationalist household in Québec as a child of the 80s, I was all too aware of the gravity of that night’s referendum on sovereignty—a difficult word at that age. I had seen my mother’s distraught look as revered Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard announced his improbable diagnosis of flesh-eating disease; I had heard extended family members debating the colour of their future passports; and I had watched, past my bedtime, as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made a last-ditch appeal for reason. Very little of it made sense to me at the time, and answers to my innocent questions remained vague and convoluted—but something was about to happen, I knew it. Only what, no one could tell me.




Twenty years later, it turns out that answers are still hard to come by. While much ink has been spent chronicling the campaign and its aftermath, very little remains known about either camp’s intentions should voters have tilted the scale the other way. Would a narrow Oui vote have been enough for a unilateral declaration of independence, or would it have led to a redistribution of powers within a federal system? What were the leaders really planning behind the double-entendres and political euphemisms? Still, no one could tell me.


In comes The Morning After, star political columnist Chantal Hébert’s hard-hitting account of the day that almost was. With the help—and personal contacts—of former federal politician Jean Lapierre, Hébert set out to interview the key actors at the centre of the referendum saga in a bid to understand what would have happened in the event of a Yes vote. Leaders, cabinet ministers, and aides all opened up—some requiring more prodding than others—and unpacked their version of events as Hébert’s recorder blinked on. Page by page, one could sense the tension in the interview room as painful memories finally saw the light of day, two decades after the fact.


The resulting revelations are perplexing, even to a veteran of the political arena like Hébert. As both sovereignists and federalists detail the events leading up to that fateful night, the reader is left with only one logical—if frustrating—conclusion: that neither side had seriously prepared for the possibility of a Yes vote. In fact, silent chaos seemed to dominate political war rooms even as votes were being counted, with the country on the brink of breakdown. On the Oui side, Hébert reveals, Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau and star campaigner Lucien Bouchard were no longer on speaking terms over their disagreement on the meaning of a Yes vote (Parizeau favoured outright independence, while Bouchard remained more cautious). Meanwhile on the Non side, Chrétien had admittedly not entertained the possibility of a Yes vote, leaving his team scrambling for a plan as polls surged in favour of independence later in the game. At times, it feels as if the whole ordeal had been lifted from a bad satire: our political leaders had all been peddling a vision that even they had not yet worked out.


Hébert is ostensibly aghast at these juicy revelations—and the book is chock-full of them—but refrains from overt judgement or scrutiny. And therein might lie the one shortcoming in this work: while it is evidently a must-read for political junkies and well-informed citizens alike, The Morning After reads like well-presented interview notes peppered with historical context, and little more. This was, it seems, Hébert’s goal all along—to record this untold part of history for others to analyze—and she has certainly achieved it. However, readers seeking Hébert’s trademark analysis will be left fending for themselves, for the most part. One could hardly be faulted for wanting just a little more of a great thing.




Something big indeed almost happened, that day in 1995—that much I still know now. Only what, it appears no one ever knew. As is often the case in Canadian politics, it took Chantal Hébert to find the answers to this decades-old mystery, however baffling and unsatisfying they may be.


The Morning After with Chantal Hébert

Chantal Hébert was about to take the stage at the Knox Presbyterian Church on Monday night, in front of a packed audience of political junkies waiting, with bated breath, for their next fix of astute political commentary. Just as she took excited first steps toward the lectern, her CBC colleague and tactful interviewer for the evening, Rosemary Barton, began reading off Hébert’s long—very long— list of accomplishments, at which point the guest of honour took a step back down to her seat, stole a sip from her glass of wine, and let out a confident laugh in the comfort of her chair.

There really needs be no introduction for Hébert nowadays. With columns in the Toronto Star and L’Actualité, a regular presence on CBC’s At Issue panel, and a legion of followers across the country, Hébert comes as close to being a rock star as a political analyst can truly be on either side of the Ottawa River. Her trademark wit and no-nonsense commentary has earned her praise, a few cold (and powerful) shoulders, and, luckily for us, was on full display that night.


Fresh from the publication of her surprising new book,  The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was  (written with the support of former federal politician Jean Lapierre), Hébert spent the evening sharing crunchy—and highly unsettling—revelations from her series of interviews with the politicians at the centre of the 1995 referendum campaign that almost tore the country apart. Focusing on both the federalist and sovereigntist camps’ plans in the event of a Oui vote on that fateful October day, she slowly built up to the stunning conclusion that neither side had prepared for that possibility. In fact, confusion and silent chaos seemed to dominate political war rooms leading up to the final vote count. 

This revelation, it turns out, took even the seasoned columnist by surprise. Shaking her head in disbelief as she spoke, Hébert reported that on the day of the referendum, Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau would no longer return Bloc leader—and star of the Oui campaign—Lucien Bouchard’s calls. The sovereigntist camp, it now appears, could not agree on the significance of a Yes vote, with Bouchard seeing it as a chance for renewed federalism, whereas Parizeau was fully intent on swiftly declaring independence. “Imagine that,” she said, still exasperated. 


Meanwhile, as Hébert shared with authority, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had “not seriously entertained the notion of a separatist victory for most of the campaign,” despite Reform leader Preston Manning’s calls for action, resulting in a last-minute appeal for votes and the formation of a positively Orwellian-sounding Unity Cabinet. The author, much like her audience, was aghast at the implications of such recklessness in the face of national divorce. Yet close to 20 years later, these revelations were often greeted by laughter in the audience. The emperor had no clothes, yes, but how could we not laugh in the comfort of our seats as Hébert detailed these absurd interviews with her deadpan delivery? 


“You are much funnier than Peter Mansbridge allows you to be,” quipped Rosemary Barton near the end of the evening. Perhaps so. But we would be remiss if we did not underscore the importance of Hébert’s work, in documenting the history of the day that almost was. For while we greeted her work with resigned laughter on Monday night, we—political junkies or not—owe Chantal Hébert, once again, much of our understanding of the Canadian political scene.


Restoring the years the locusts hath eaten: Canada's History with Conrad Black

The theme of restoration is an inescapable one with Conrad Black. In a recent interview with Peter Scowen, Black invoked the Old Testament passage from Joel, almost as a morale-boosting incantation. It was a bit surreal to finally see Black in the flesh at the final event of the 2014 fall edition of the Festival; for his absence from the country, and relative rebuilding phase upon his return in the preceding years left a void that very few, Canadian or otherwise, can fill. The latest book that he was in Ottawa to promote is Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present.


Adrian Harewood, in his introduction, has noted that Black has been "at the very centre of our national conversation, he has helped shape it, and has been a subject of it." I entered Black's orbit by picking up free copies of the National Post as a Science undergrad at the University of Waterloo in the mid-2000s. As a newcomer to Canada, the Post, while perhaps past its fast and the furious salad days of its budding years, was my initiation into the Canadian polity and helped articulate much of what I had swirling in my inchoate thoughts on a wide range of subjects. Chris Cobb's fast-paced, and widely underrated account of the start of the Post features Black as a swashbuckling, brash protagonist who managed to be both a man of letters, and a man of action. Perhaps it is no surprise that Black has particularly excelled in political biography. His choice of subjects: Duplessis, Nixon, and FDR, are as varied as they are incisive. Employing prose that is characteristically (and unashamedly) mangniloquent, his reader is often required to switch into another literary gear to match the elevated terrain.


At 70, Black is far from a spent force, having recently completed both a memoir and a strategic history of the United States. His main reason for writing a (comprehensive) history of Canada was that he felt that the sweeping narrative of the country had yet been effectively attempted, and far from being penance, it is instead a paean to the quieter and no less heroic success of Canada as a bi-cultural parliamentary democracy. Excepting Will Ferguson's throughly entertaining and excellent primer, it is hard to summon a single volume title of Canadian history (Bothwell's Penguin History of Canada seems to firmly latched itself onto libraries without making any waves in the general market.) 


One of the main gripes that has been made, almost uniformly, by reviewers of his book is of Black's dismissal of Aboriginal contributions to the formation of this country. Harewood posed a challenge to this Eurocentric vision by paraphrasing a section of John Ralston Saul's A Fair Country that asserts Canada as a Métis civilization. One of the things that struck me during the evening was Black's acquiescence whenever he was challenged (in contrast to the testy exchange in a BBC interview from 2012). His basic response was that he respected Saul's expertise on Aboriginal issues but that he stuck by his position that Native culture was "terribly violent, constantly at war," and "a Stone Age culture that had not yet invented the wheel." It would be quite easy to dismiss Black as prejudiced, but he also takes to task the post-Champlain Europeans whose brutality he denounces as "outrageous." In addition, he has further been chastised for downplaying the contribution of the Canadian Corps during WWI, and not giving sufficient space to Sir Arthur Currie, arguably Canada's greatest military leader Moreover, Black—whose criticism of the US prison sytem is well documented—is very harsh on the Harper government's law and order agenda, calling it a "disgrace," concerning itself with building "prisons to accompany Native people who shouldn't be there." He would add, "no non-violent people should be sent to prison," earning a quip from Harewood that Black sounds like Angela Y. Davis.


Black is very effusive in his praise of Champlain (making me want to move Fischer's esteemed biography higher up the reading list), and the fascinating thing about Black is his willingness to disentangle personal opinion from professional judgment. Hence his ranking of Trudeau into the top tier of leaders for facing down separatism even if, in Black's opinion, the rest of his achievements were moderate at best. Even more impressive is his praise for Chrétien, despite the incident that led to Black having to renounce his citizenship to enter the House of Lords that no doubt strained their relationship. Black is also not a Harper basher; he was effusive about his managerial competence and pointed out that Harper won four straight elections with an increasing percentage of the vote each time, a feat that not even FDR managed.


Some interesting diversions led us into a discussion of Black's teaching in prison (an experience whose fruition at the graduation ceremony for his pupils he called "the most gratifying of my life"), ideas to address inequality, and the eccentricities and brilliance of W.M. King. It is evident, like this review, Black's account leaves much unsaid, but as The Globe and Mail cited in their inclusion of the book in their Top 100 for 2014, "a project this audacious cannot be ignored."

Adult Onset with Ann-Marie MacDonald

As an adult who both reads young adult literature, and who has a dear friend who is writing a young adult novel, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s event was a natural draw for me. With little familiarity with MacDonald’s style, however, I didn’t realize how entertaining and insightful this event would be. MacDonald is truly an excellent writer and also an excellent verbal storyteller. Interestingly enough, this is MacDonald’s first time participating at the Writers Festival (although she was around for Westfest in 2006). As host Lucy CBC's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld commented, I’m sure that once I get around to reading Adult Onset, it will have been worth the 11-year-wait since her last book was published.


One thing in particular to note about this novel is that there is a great blurring of the lines between fiction and non-fiction, which is what I anticipate will be its greatest service. In the same way that Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius feels like fiction when it is really real life, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s most recent work feels like real life when it is—technically—fiction.


MacDonald’s event opened with a various readings from her most recent publication, which skillfully makes indistinct the lives of Mary Rose McKinnon and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s. When talking about her process of crafting stories, MacDonald pointed out that she wrote Adult Onset from what she already had—that unlike her other works, this book didn’t require the same depth of research. Ultimately, as MacDonald happily admits, Adult Onset is a story about things that wouldn’t make the news.


For example, the first page of this novel begins with Mary Rose checking her much-neglected email on a Monday morning, an experience to which I think many of us can relate to all too well. MacDonald goes on to read another section of her novel, in which Mary Rose’s catastrophic thinking leads her to believe that a ringing phone heralds the death of not one but both of her parents. At least for myself, both of these samples prove that Ann-Marie MacDonald both knows the intimate stuff of real life and is able to articulate it on paper. She even manages to accurately capture the sound of snipping scissors—for those who are interested, that sound is “roush.”


Adult Onset takes place over the course of a week, and will give the reader a clear picture of what “the toddler trenches” are like, and what it is like to feel real anger in the midst of attempting forgiveness. Overall, this novel makes a concerted (albeit perhaps unintentional) attempt to break through the “lavender ceiling” of literature, which I think it does so quite successfully.


Ultimately, attending this event confirmed for me that, should I find myself in a Stranger Than Fiction sort of situation, I want Ann-Marie MacDonald to follow me around and narrate my life. Nonetheless, I hope we aren’t waiting another 11 years before MacDonald publishes her next novel. In the mean time, however, keep your eye out for MacDonald’s forthcoming work on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Canadian band Stars to be featured at the Stratford Festival.


The Comeback with John Ralston Saul

Audience members were rushed in hurriedly, eyeing the best possible seats just before start of the program. Others were fidgeting in their seats i.e., pews, in the majestic sanctuary of Southminster United Church.  In the lobby, tickets were flying away and purchased books exchanged hands with a sense of anticipated urgency.


John Ralston Saul’s fame extends from his Massey Lectures to his executive role as the International President of PEN International, along with a plethora of awards and other distinctions that assure his longevity.  The evening’s opening segment was intiated by a surprised guest that needed no introduction if one is familiar with Aboriginal ceremonies.


The elder initiating the ceremony with smudge smoke was the petite yet tellingly powerful Annie Smith St-Georges, a niece of the legendary Algonquin chief of Willam CamandaElder St-Georges evoked his spirit by addressing the need to aknowledge the ferocious advoacy by Aboriginal youth in the Idle No More movement as well as commemorating Aboriginal ancestors. One could note that Elder St-Georges was cleverly redirecting the lingering Remembrance Day sentiments of the day towards a legacy of men and women of the past whose ghosts may still be haunting us.  But the spiritual prelude set the tone as Saul stepped onto the stage.


And he began.


Commencing by acknowledging the unceded Algonquin land, followed by offering words of gratitute in the form of “Meeguesh” towards Elder St-Georges and finally welcoming the audience in an overly meek posture.  That would be the last resemblance of timidity from Saul, as he would be a resounding tour de force of ideas for the rest of the evening.


He first began with an abridged version of his newly published The Comeback and explained the preamble for its inception. Saul’s talks are passionate a educational narration into the spaces of interdisciplinary subjects from ecology to the humanities, and again referencing everyone from Erasmus to Argentina’s Perón. All that to say, one must be prepared for Saul’s range; it’s truly a treasure.


Alternatively, Saul sought to transform feelings of impotency to a hopeful disposition; working diligently towards working alternatives for both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals going forward.  The mantra of the evening seemed to be “Learning how to listen,” delivered early in his talk and mentioned repeadily.  Rarely did he look down at his notes, confirming how many years advocating for Aboriginal rights has become a heartfelt calling, occupying as a repository in his mind.


As Saul had alluded during this his keynote, The Comeback was chronicling a remarkable and inevitable resurgence by Aboriginals in Canada for the past century; and more importantly his premise was to place an accent on the awakening of Canadian non-Aboriginals. Saul wasn’t demanding for mere social awareness, his appeal was for his audience members, and readers of his work to consciously engage their minds and join this Aboriginal resurgence. It was less of a militant call to action and more of a compassionate challenge to become renewed allies.


There were the expected shots made at the sitting government but brilliantly erased any sign of partisanship by detailing how previous governments in the last century have either remained numb or actively destructive in their governance of matters affecting Canadian Aborginal affairs.


“. ..Canadians have an impoverished view of ourselves ”, he continued.  Saul cited this as a reason for Canadians' disregard or defensiveness on dealing with Aboriginal issues.


While also taking notes, I couldn’t help but glance onto my Twitter feed to quickly sift through the online conversation. One striking statement issued by Saul was tweeted by Indigenous educator Jaime Koebel:“The most important issue in Canada today is the #IndigenousReality”  


The statement was echoed throughout the evening in different ways and it seemed to be an appropriate manner to conclude his talk and transition towards the last segment of the evening. The audience members were treated to a Q & A session with relevant voices in this resurgence movement, Suzanne Keeptwo, a multi-faceted artist and writer. Also joined by Waubgeshig Rice, a veteran CBC producer.


Keeptwo stated since Idle No More, she’s observed a soft-racism, an attitude of dismissal, and an apathy shown towards the state of Indigenous people whether its the lack of media and governmental attention given to the thousands of missing Aboriginal women or the growing incarceration rate of Aboriginal young men.

Some have hailed Saul as Canada’s national conscience. A title a bit far reaching depending on your ideological leanings and political stripes. Yet for tonight, not only with his words but his presence, he called for a reimagining of ourselves as Canadians, with a better history. A history with renewed solidarity between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Canadians as allies in the stewarding of our nation. For tonight, stewardship, at least for non-Aborignals, began with listening.