The Ottawa Writers Festival’s opening night concluded with Poetry Cabaret, an intimate conversation about listening to Indigenous voices and finding balance. The event was hosted by writer and scholar Tracey Lindberg, who is a citizen of As’in’i’wa’chi Ni’yaw Nation Rocky Mountain Cree and from the Kelly Lake Cree Nation community. Phoenix Sandrock of Poetry in Voice opened the event, reading aloud Billy-Ray Belcourt’s “Love is a Moon Time Teaching.” Poetry in Voice is a Canadian organization that encourages students to read, recite, and write poetry. Silence fell across the room as Sandrock brought Belcourt’s words to life. Afterwards, Lindberg welcomed both Belcourt and Katherena Vermette to the stage to read from their work.
Katherena Vermette opened with the haunting title poem from her newest collection, river woman. Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory and much of her work refers to her hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her previous works span several genres, including North End Love Songs, her first book of poems, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. Vermette is also the author of the novel The Break, a series of children’s books and graphic novels, and short documentary film, this river. “I like to acknowledge the rivers in these places; they are why we are here,” she said, reminding the audience that most major Canadian cities were settled along shorelines. Vermette related her experience of writing while also shooting the documentary this river, which follows the work of the volunteers from the non-profit organization Drag the Red as they search the Red River in search of evidence of missing loved ones. Vermette also read aloud “where” and the beautiful love poem “I write you into every word every.”
Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation and the author of two books of poetry: This Wound is a World, which won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize and his newest collection, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field. His forthcoming work, A History of my Brief Body, will be released in next year. Belcourt read “Flesh,” a powerful work based on the erasure of words from Walter L. Williams’ 1986 text The Spirit and the Flesh. He followed with “The Wall Clock Caught Fire from Neglect” and ended with an homage, “NDN Brother.”
After the readings, Tracey Lindberg opened the conversation with the seemingly simple question: “Who got you into this room?” Both Vermette and Belcourt’s replies spoke to the strong tradition of Indigenous writers before them. Belcourt characterized this “chorus” of Indigenous voices as “rebellious but joyous,” while Vermette credited earlier Indigenous writers with tearing “down those walls so we could come forward.” As the conversation continued, both also spoke of their experiences presenting their works to non-Indigenous audiences, each describing their own coping mechanisms and the need for a balance between offering an open and honest venue for exchange and safeguarding their own time and energy. The conversation was at turns serious and light, as Vermette and Belcourt expanded on the themes of melancholy and anger in their poetry, as well as the need for resistance through the arts, but also noting the humbling effect of spending time at home with a toddler. The evening closed on an optimistic note, as Katherena Vermette captured the energy and excitement of reading emerging Indigenous voices: “Indigenous writers, we are just getting started.”
Every year, the Scotiabank Giller Prize brings together writers and readers alike to explore a series of important questions: what does it mean to write, to read, to be inspired, to be Canadian? The prize is one of the largest and most prestigious awards in the nation. In 2019, as in so many other years past, the Writers Festival partners with the sponsors of the Giller Prize to bring these questions to the forefront in an event called Between the Pages. The public event is an opportunity for readers to listen to the six prize finalists in their own words.
It is also, as host Jael Richardson noted in her opening, a chance to consider which stories land in mainstream culture, and to think about how we can honour “the stories that were lost, the stories that were taken too soon, the stories we will never hear.” It is a necessary reminder: literary awards are about merit, yes, but are also very much a gamble, a game of chance. Each of the Giller nominees represents excellence in Canadian literature, but the group by no means represents the only excellence in Canadian literature.
All the same, this year’s lineup presents six stunning books: Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis; Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles; The Innocents by Michael Crummey; Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin; Lampedusa by Steven Price, and Reproduction by Ian Williams.
The Ottawa audience was the first to hear the nominees read from their works as a group, on the first stop of their national Giller tour, and the first to listen raptly to the authors explain just what, exactly, it’s like to be nominated for Canada’s biggest literary award—starting with where they were when they heard they had made the shortlist:
“I was in synagogue,” David Bezmozgis laughed as he recalled the moment the foundation had placed their call to him. “It was Rosh Hashanah, and my phone was locked in my glove box. I had no idea, for probably twelve hours.”
Alix Ohlin was making lunch for her first-grader and listening to the CBC Radio coverage. “I told him, ‘Mommy was just nominated for a prize, isn’t that cool?’” she laughed. “And he just said, ‘Hurry up, I want to get to school early so I can trade my Pokémon cards.”
Michael Crummey just shook his head at the idea of answering the question — the announcement is too nerve-wracking, he said, so he tries to forget about it entirely. “I don’t know how you can sit there and watch it,” he grinned.
As entertaining as it is to hear writers dive behind the scenes—it turns out both Crummey and Price are at least a little disappointed with the titles of their novels—the best part of the evening was listening to the authors read from their novels. Megan Gail Coles held the audience particularly rapt with a long section from Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, belying her artistic roots in poetry and theatre — a performance something like the tales a grandmother tells by firelight after nightfall wraps the house in darkness. Ian Williams read from Reproduction entrancingly and comfortingly— channeling the voice of an older brother or a favourite professor, who loves you but expects you, unerringly, to be able to keep up.
All six of the readings twined together in a way that could not be planned, could not be expected, and yet remained breathtaking—six sections from six very different books that nonetheless return the reader and the listener to the things that focus us, anchor us, provide the pinion point for centrifugal force to tear us apart. What is the importance of a shoe, a phone bill, a car door unhooked from its door? What can be gleaned, like a sense memory, from a child’s drawing, a digestive biscuit, a twisted piece of coral?
“It is a dead thing, and yet it will outlive me” ponders a character in Steven Price’s Lampedusa. As Price read, his audience considered the ramifications of this idea. After all, aren’t books the same? They are lifeless objects, and yet somehow take on a life of their own. These words will outlive their writers, their audiences, their literary prizes — bringing together lovers of the written word and narrative force for years to come, just as they did in this evening of reading, passion, and literary celebration.
“I always marvel my life turned out that way,” said Beverley McLachlin. The former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada was speaking to an eager crowd present for the launch of her memoir Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law, an event jointly organized by the Writers Festival, Library and Archives Canada and the Ottawa Public Library. Former clerks, young hopeful lawyers, and many other eminent guests, including the former Governor General of Canada David Johnston and his wife Sharon Johnston, all gathered to hear the former Chief Justice speak.
McLachlin spoke about her early years in Alberta, outlining the main events of her career as well as summarizing her landmark cases. McLachlin also reminisced about meetings with inspirational women like Sandra Day O’Connor and Hillary Clinton, as well as a formal dinner where she found herself seated next to her childhood hero, Queen Elizabeth II. McLachlin acknowledged her life path has been unusual. People often ask if she could have foreseen her future, McLachlin told her audience, her reply is always the same: “Never!" In McLachlin's early years, it would have been inconceivable to imagine someday she would be Chief Justice. When she was growing up, the only jobs available to women were teachers, secretaries, nurses, telephone operators, and receptionists.
McLachlin recounted how her own mother, Eleanora Gietz, had married young, as was typical of the time and place. Hardship befell Eleanora’s family during the Depression and she was unable to realize her dream of becoming a writer. After her marriage, Eleanora devoted all her energy and time to raising her own children. McLachlin described her mother in glowing terms as a “dynamic, empathetic, and marvellous person” and it is clear that Eleanora had an important impact on the development of Beverley McLachlin’s character, intellectual curiosity, and literary bent. McLachlin also recounted how her mother had prepared her for her first day of school, making her excited to spell her name for the first time, then repeating it over and over again, until she learned it. Both McLachlin’s mother and father loved literature and encouraged her reading habit. As a child, McLachlin devoured every book she could get from the library, leaving the confines of her small town in her mind’s eye and exploring the riches of ancient Egypt and the rest of the world through the library's treasure trove of fiction and non-fiction.
It was not always easy growing up isolated on a ranch in small Pincher Creek, Alberta. McLachlin addressed some of these challenges, sharing how she had endured periods of depression where she struggled even to walk across a room. She thought about ending her life. Overcoming her early experience with depression was her first real triumph in life, McLachlin acknowledged, noting that adolescence is a hard time for many. Choosing to write about her painful moments was a deliberate choice she made with the hope that she may help some other struggling teenager by showing it is possible to come through and be fine, that “there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” As McLachlin grew and moved forward in her life, she stayed focused on a singular vision: “I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny, and I wanted to use whatever small talents I had to the full,” she told her audience.
McLachlin believes it is important to help other young women to succeed as well, to be proactive in championing the next generation. Tell them they are good, she advised her listeners, hire them, give them confidence, and empower them in their work. Change is possible. Things in the world have to change, and the law is the way to do it said McLachlin. When you come up against unfairness in the world, “don’t let it stop you.” You may not be able to change other people’s attitudes, but you work around them and change will come.
Charming, witty, and thoughtful are three words that all describe the exuberant personality of Emma Donoghue. A prolific wordsmith, she is as vibrant in person as her words are on the page. At Southminster United Church, attendees filtered into the space, eager and chatting excitedly to one another. One had heard from a friend that Donoghue was an excellent speaker. Another was attending an author event for the first time. The room was abuzz with conversation as the guests eagerly anticipated the renowned author’s entrance. Discussion host and CBC Radio personality Alan Neal of All in a Day walked into the room and took his seat at the front, clipboard in hand and smiling. Using Donoghue’s own words, Neal began to paint a picture of the author’s humour and skill. Quoting from her books, he hooked the audience from the onset before welcoming her to the stage.
Donoghue took her place wearing a vibrant turquoise jacket that shimmered in the church lights. All eyes were on her as the conversation opened on the topic of Donoghue’s children and how they are often the inspirational subjects behind the characters and scenes within her stories. What shone through above all else was the author’s boundless love for her children and her struggle to know and understand the connected world that they inhabit.
Akin, Donoghue’s latest novel, explores the intergenerational relationship between a boy and his great-uncle. The night’s conversation explored the contrast between the experiences of the young and the elderly. Neal posed questions about the benefits of these two varying perspectives and the inevitable generational divide, identifying age a cause for contention throughout her novel. Donoghue agreed, citing her own conversations with her kids as the inspiration for many of the scenes and dialogue in this new book. With a laugh and a wry smile, she admitted her own lack of experience with the technology her children use daily. Their experiences with video games change the very way that they interact with the world around them, she asserted, causing them to perceive events in less sequential and more expansive way. She examined their outlook in an amused and awe-filled way, highlighting how incredibly different their interactions with the world are from her own.
The night was full of engaging dialogue and witty banter as author and host connected through a fast-paced and lively conversation. The idea of memory and perception came up time and time again as a central themes in Akin. Neal’s questions surrounded the idea of how we witness the world around us and whether or not we learn from the past or from others’ experiences. In response, Donoghue questioned whether memory can even be cited as a true source, as often what one believes to be a truthful memory may simply be something imagined and then taken as truth with the passage of time. Either way, she asserted, if a novel draws inspiration from memory, and memory is a key theme throughout, then all that truly matters is the pleasure and enjoyment derived from the story and the act of remembering as a whole.
Akin draws on many of Donoghue’s own experiences, including time spent living abroad with her family in Nice. Set in the French Riviera, Akin features characters who live the stories from Donoghue’s memories. Donoghue is a self-proclaimed observer and note-taker, and many details that she observed and meticulously chronicled made their way into the book. There’s no doubt that Akin is a vibrant read with its tactile, life-infused inspiration.
Indeed, it was a stimulating and witty conversation. Donoghue was quick to laugh and spoke openly and genuinely. Her candor and honesty about her home life kept the audience hooked until the end. Donoghue admitted that she writes as an escape and a relief. She is motivated to write primarily to find that one story that will satisfy her the most, and she finds joy in knowing that she has led others to feel something when they engage with her books. As she noted, “I want that moment of connection with a stranger.” Truly, it was a night of connection, forged through shared memory, lively discussion, and the pure joy of reading.
It’s not often that Ottawa is treated to a fireside chat with two of Canada’s most renowned writers. That is exactly what happened when one of the city’s own brought an enticing historical mystery to this year’s Ottawa International Writers Festival.
Award-winning biographer and historian Charlotte Gray launched her latest book, Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine, and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise, to a capacity crowd at Library and Archives Canada. Hosted by acclaimed novelist Jane Urquhart, Gray delivered an international tale of wealth, power and murder.
Introducing the audience to the meticulously researched characters at the heart of the historical drama, Gray sketched out the life, and violent death, of Sir Harry Oakes, a prominent gold-mining tycoon, philanthropist and household name in remote Northern Ontario. Tracing Oakes’ rise to wealth and power during the Ontario gold rush in the early twentieth century, his time as an active philanthropist in England, and his arrival on New Providence Island in the Bahamas, Gray gave an intriguing introduction to her latest book. She enriched the talk with a discussion of Sir Harry’s posthumous reputation, including earlier biographies and media coverage of his murder. Gray explored some of the contradictory accounts that have emerged since the world-renowned murder and spoke to the differing perspectives that may have shaped those tales.
The evening, however, was really focused on the interplay between Gray and Urquhart, who have known each other well for many years. Urquhart asked Gray about the book’s captivating characters, including Sir Harry’s debutante wife, Lady Eunice, his smarmy son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny and the Duke and Duchesse of Windsor. Urquhart also jovially pressed Gray for her thoughts on the likely murderer, though his or her identity remains unknown to this day.
Gray and Urquhart also talked about some of the social and economic forces that shaped Northern Ontario, including interactions between mine employees and Indigenous communities. Their conversation was coloured by Urquhart’s own experiences, as she revealed that she had herself grown up in a small mining town in the area.
Throughout the discussion, one could feel Gray’s enthusiasm for Canadian history and her fascination with the wild and uncharted places that shaped this country. Gray noted that she was equally fascinated and appalled by the discomfort experienced by the pioneers, miners, explorers and settlers who eked a life out of the land; that fascination that no doubt permeates her latest work. Gray and Urquhart speculated on whether Sir Harry’s life, and business, shaped in the isolated Ontario bush, would have contributed to his uncomfortable fit in the stodgy and traditional British Bahamian society.
Prior to the close of the evening, there was a palpable reminder that Gray’s books are factual history rather than fictional accounts, when an audience member identified herself as the great-granddaughter of one of Sir Harry’s two original business partners, the Tough brothers. To the audience’s amusement, she wanted to know why Gray had never looked at her forebearers as the potential murderers. Not even Charlotte Gray herself could have conceived of a better way for history to come alive.
Having been a regular attendee at the Ottawa International Writers Festival for years, I was eager to participate for the first time in a session held at Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South. I arrived about 6:15 pm for the 7pm session, and noted immediately that the church was already beginning to fill up quickly. By the time the event started, pretty well all 600 seats were occupied, and those in attendance didn’t hesitate to show their appreciation for our guest author by giving her a standing ovation when she entered the stage. It was an emotional event from the start.
Jody Wilson-Raybould appeared exactly the way I imagined: a true introvert, slightly uncomfortable with all the attention but still happy to be there. Wilson-Raybould was warm and gracious, and moderator Paul Wells did a superb job of setting the tone for the evening. Wells advised the audience that this particular event would not explore either the SNC-Lavalin affair or the relationship between the former attorney general and the current prime minister. Instead, the interview and ensuing discussion were to be around the perspective and path outlined by author regarding how we as a country can move forward with the long-overdue reconciliation process with Indigenous peoples. Wells’ intention was definitely heard and understood, as at no point in the evening did anyone step outside those respectful boundaries.
Wilson-Raybould’s new book, From Where I Stand: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada, is the culmination of more than a decade’s work in politics. The book is comprised of a series of speeches and papers written by Wilson-Raybould while she held several key positions of authority and leadership. Wilson-Raybould has served as British Columbia Regional Chief, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, as well as being a citizen and an advocate. Nowhere in Wilson-Raybould’s answers to the excellent questions put forth by Wells did I see a trace of arrogance or the so-called “difficult” aspects of her demeanor. She appeared thoughtful, reflective, unrehearsed and authentic.
Without a doubt, though, her answers and opinions were direct and strong. Wilson-Raybould told the audience of a 2012 meeting with Stephen Harper, where she had felt her views as British Columbia Regional Chief were totally “unheard,” was the moment when she decided to become more directly involved with politics at the national level. Wilson-Raybould already knew that Indigenous people were perfectly capable of self-government, making their own collaborative decisions, and that they were incredibly resilient in dealing with the harsh realities of daily life forced upon them by colonialism. What she had not anticipated when she enthusiastically joined the current Liberal Party, was the limited view of options seen by the team, and their hesitation in moving beyond the Indian Act.
In spite of these realities, Jody Wilson-Raybould remains hopeful. Her grandmother and other mentors instilled in her a firm belief that “if you know who you are, work hard, and stay true to your values, anything is possible.” Based upon some of the questions she was eventually asked by audience members looking for direction, she pointed to the need for transformative leadership if we are to move towards a unified and healthy Canada. Wilson-Raybould does not see this vision happening if the federal government continues to dispute any claims made by those who have been mistreated. “You don’t build relationships in court” Wilson-Raybould asserted. Instead, the hard work of reconciling, collaborating and taking appropriate time to consult is required. “Just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean we don’t do it,” she reminded her listeners. Anyone sitting in that audience Friday night knows how deeply she has lived those words!
Just this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament, marking the start of the federal election campaign. Monday night’s “On Justin Trudeau” event could hardly have been more timely. Robyn Bresnahan, host of CBC Radio’s “Ottawa Morning,” seized on her guests’ political expertise to ask a series of astute, important questions: is the claim that Justin Trudeau is a merely spokesperson for his advisors is a fair one? How is Justin Trudeau described by those who work closely with him, and how can he address the challenge of long memory and family legacy, particularly in Alberta and Quebec? Should he have spoken out against events or issues with which many Canadians taken issue, such as Bill 21 in Quebec or the treatment of migrant families in the United States?
Aaron Wherry, author of Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power and senior writer with the CBC’s Parliament Hill bureau and John Ivison, author of Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister and political columnist for the National Post provided balanced, considered responses to Bresnahan’s questions. If the evening’s discussion was any indication, the two new biographies are packed with behind-the-scenes information and insightful perspectives, and both books will provide readers with a firm understanding and analysis of the historical, cultural and international forces that have led to today’s political context in Canada. Both Wherry and Ivison shared their views on the criticisms which have been levelled against Trudeau, and where they believe he made mistakes or demonstrated skilled responses. Rather intriguingly, each author also claimed not to have read the other’s book, and both refrained from predicting the outcome of the upcoming election. It was clear that the discussion could have lasted all night; towards the end of the evening, Bresnahan noted that they hadn’t yet broached the India trip, Canada’s relationship with China or the SNC Lavalin scandal.
As a result of further questioning from the audience, the conversation touched upon other important issues for Canadians: the new North American free trade agreement (CUSMA); former Liberal Cabinet Ministers Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould and their possible influence on the election; Trudeau’s relationship with President Trump and the G7 tweets; the possible discrepancy between the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and environmental policies; as well as the election campaign. As an audience member who had not yet read Ivison and Wherry’s new biographies, I left the discussion feeling that I perhaps understood Justin Trudeau more as a politician and as a person, with all of the complexities and contradictions inherent in those identities.
Nevertheless, it was arguably the very first question posed by Bresnahan that set the tone of the evening. She had opened by asking how Justin Trudeau would be remembered if the Liberals were not re-elected in the 2019 federal election. Wherry and Ivison agreed on this point: enthusiasm for Justin Trudeau in 2015 has not been maintained, and in many senses this is a disappointment. They both argued that Trudeau had raised the bar so high that any of his accomplishments may seem diminished. That said, Ivison and Wherry confessed that the election is not a referendum on Trudeau’s performance, nor is it a choice between the Trudeau of 2015 and 2019. Instead, it is a choice between Trudeau and the opposition leaders, and we should carefully consider our choices at the polls.
In collaboration with RBC Bluesfest, OIWF brought festivalgoers the third installment of “Random Play” last Thursday. The show is a quirky but wonderful brainchild of Alan Neal, the host of CBC’s All in a Day radio program.
The basic concept of “Random Play” is simple: the show is a shuffled iPod playlist brought to life. Alan Neal gleans random songs from his iPod library, then invites each performing artist to join the program for the event. Neal then engages the artists about their work for the stories behind their creations.
To start off, Alan brought out techno-artist Lydia Ainsworth and discussed her song “The Time,” which had been inspired by the Los Angeles wildfires last year. To Ainsworth’s surprise, Neal had tracked down a survivor of the disaster, and had played him the song in question. The gentleman noted Ainsworth had captured the “sense of when the pressure [of the disaster] is crushing you, but giving the opportunity for the human spirit to come forward with hope. . .”
Next was folk rock troubadour Tom Wilson. Neal’s surprise for Wilson was a fresh revelation from Wilson’s song-writing partner Josh Finlayson, who had explained to Neal how he Wilson had conceived the song “Blades of Grass.” In Wilson’s brash style, he gave a hearty laugh and insisted Finlayson “was high when he did that interview!”
Drew Gonsalves, frontman of the band Kobo Town was next to be interviewed about his song “Tick Tock Goes the Clock,” a surreal representation of the apocalypse. Gonsalves confessed to being nervous about having his lyrics scrutinized by such a well-read crowd as the one in attendance that night. He and his band then played the song; a perfectly offsetting presentation to such a morbid theme.
Neal then brought out pure folk songbird Basia Bulat who was effervescent and enthusiastic. Bulat even brought out her own old iPod from 2005 to show Alan what she had been listening to back then. She then performed her song “If Only You,” and the smile on her face showed that she truly loves to sing.
The last performer of the first segment was Ottawa’s own Kathleen Edwards. Edwards was candid when describing her upbringing, as well as the process of falling in love with Ottawa when her family finally settled here. Neal then played a clip from poet David O’Meara, where he recited a poem dedicated to her, entitled “Autobiography.” Edwards then sang the song “Away” for the audience. Edwards’ voice has a gorgeous cadence when she holds a note, and the room’s ambience added an angelic dimension to her whole performance.
After a short break, Alan Neal challenged the participating artists to perform covers of other songs plucked from his playlist. Drew Gonsalves and Tom Wilson played a duet from a Muppet movie, with Gonsalves as Kermit and Wilson offering his trademark growl as Rowlf the Dog. Backed by Kobo Town, Basia Bulat sang “Music Makes Me” by Ginger Rogers. Bulat then accompanied Lydia Ainsworth and Tom Wilson to recreate Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Moonshot.” Kathleen Edwards followed with Willie Nelson’s “Forgiving You Was Easy”; she was then urged by Alan Neal to debut her new song “Redfern.” Lastly, Lydia Ainsworth joined with Kobo Town and Basia Bulat to perform Bonnie Tyler’s “Faster Than The Speed of Night.”
The finale was the most absurdly wonderful segment of all, when the ensemble performed a classic Aquaman radio play. Kathleen Edwards played the villain, Tom Wilson played Aquaman, and Lydia Ainsworth provided the sound effects. Alan Neal observed from the side, beside himself with laughter at the ultimate chaos he had designed. The crowd joined Neal in his evident pleasure. Indeed, the evening had been the product of Alan Neal’s mind, made only the better by the star quality of the performers he had invited to perform for the evening. It made for a truly unique and memorable event.
Rush and Ottawa have always seemed to be two passing ships in the night. Ottawa has often been overlooked on Canada’s premier rock trio’s touring schedule. In return, Ottawa has often looked away from the Toronto scene. Last Wednesday, the stars aligned for the two to connect in the most intimate way with at least one of Rush’s three members: its bassist, Geddy Lee.
Lee’s tour, which promotes his new book, Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass, stopped at the new Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on Cooper Street. At the event, Lee was interviewed by CBC Ottawa’s Alan Neal amidst an audience composed of festival members and diehard t-shirt-donning Rush fans alike.
To start off, the venue itself was stunning. Carleton University purchased the former Dominion-Chalmers United Church last year, and spent the interim renovating its interior, creating a fitting setting for an interview with rock royalty. The interior of the new arts centre, resplendent with its fine wood trimming, gold stenciling, features a stage backed by a full pipe organ occupying the entire rear wall. Since the centre just opened to the public back in April as a rehearsal, performance and lecture space for Carleton University’s music program, the Geddy Lee event was one of the first events to be held in its new incarnation.
After a thunderous standing ovation for Lee finally died down, Alan Neal posed questions in his affable way, using lighthearted jokes in reference to the sheer size and weight of the book. Neal’s tone was a perfect match for Lee’s brand of humour, which frequently employs thinly veiled cutups and jovial self-deprecation. Lee responded to Neal with his own witticisms and brainy shop-talk about his love for the electric bass.
Lee spoke of his own journey as a bass player, meeting his heroes and taking his own misguided steps in emulating their sounds before settling on what would become his own sound. The conversation followed Lee’s steps as he found his way to becoming a rock-and-roll hero in his own right. Alan Neal had really researched his topic, asking Lee pointed questions about the exasperation of finding the right tone for the bass to complement the projects at hand, such as his decision to use his 1972 Fender jazz bass to cut through the wall of sound in the song “Tom Sawyer.” Neal and Lee also revisited Lee’s memory of meeting Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, a moment when Lee had to fight the urge to geek out as Jones played the bass lines for “Heartbreaker” for himself and his friend.
The comments that drew the most enthusiastic responses were the ones that answered questions from the crowd. Lee admitted that his favourite song to play live was “Headlong Flight” from the album Clockwork Angels. The song is a typical Rush opus of straight-ahead rocking out which drew on the band’s endearing talents. Lee was quite candid and truthful when he spoke of his plans for the future, saying: “I think I am still too young to just stop.”
Indeed, Lee was his usual energetic and approachable self, even while signing copies of the book. It was definitely a dedicated crowd, and he obviously has more to offer as far as his creativity and his connection to his fans. It was a fortunate thing to have him visit, knowing how such opportunities may be rare and precious forthwith, so it was a magical night for Ottawa, its writing festival and music itself.
Non-profit leader Michael Adams chose a glass of Chardonnay, while political theorist David Moscrop chose beer and Playstation. Each man braved the news of the 2016 American election in his own way. However, while each approached the the implications of that night in a manner as different as his choice of beverage, both shared several conclusions. The Ottawa International Writers Festival invited Michael Adams and David Moscrop to speak on their respective books, Could it Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit and Too Dumb for Democracy? for an evening of conversation hosted by veteran columnist Susan Riley. The resulting conversation explored the implications of that fateful evening when Trump became President of the United States of America, the global rise of populism, and the future of Canadian democracy.
Adams had decided that his six published books were enough, but on the night of the US election he felt compelled to write one more. Could it Happen Here? addresses the fears that what happened to our neighbors south of the border might also happen here in Canada. Adams provided reassurance that Canadian institutions and culture are a far cry from that of the United States. As the director of a polling research firm, Adams was able to back his sunny optimism with solid numbers.
The statistics Adams cited are revealing. If Canadians had voted in the US election, Hillary would have won with 60% of the vote. Next after her would have come Jill Stein for the Greens. Adams observed that our political culture has been profoundly shaped by the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the rise of the concept of multiculturalism, and the proliferation of a widespread culture of compromise and acceptance. Adams argued that this provides an inoculation against the kinds of levels of xenophobia seen in the United States. Right now the population of Toronto is 49% foreign-born, and Adams claimed therefore that xenophobia simply cannot make a viable political platform.
Further, Adams argued that in the United States there is a much more widespread authoritarian reflex than in Canada. For example, almost half of Americans believe that the father is the head of the household. In Canada, less than a quarter of the population would agree. Adams traced our ability to have peaceful dissent and a stable means of questioning of authority to the strength of Canadian institutions. The development of the social welfare state in Canada has given people sufficient security for freedom and political participation. Despite the rags-to-riches rhetoric of the “American Dream,” there is twice as much social mobility in Canada as there is in the United States. The strength of our healthcare, our unions, and our teachers all provide Canadians with a sense of existential security.
Moscrop, author of Too Dumb for Democracy, agreed with Adams. If you look around at world democracies, he claimed, Canada will likely be the last domino to fall. Our democratic institutions are extremely strong in comparison to those of the United States. Nonetheless, he reminded the audience, we cannot take these institutions for granted, nor can we assume they will be well-enough equipped to deal with the fast-paced global challenges of the future.
Moscrop believes that we have a strong system but questions how it will weather the impending crises of climate change and a shrinking planet. The Syrian refugee crisis is one example that Moscrop cited where Canadians responded dismally in comparison to other rich nations like Germany. Moscrop posed a thought experiment to the audience: imagine a refugee crisis ten times the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, a migration driven by the failure of crops, water wars, and the rising spread of disease. How would Canada respond? Moscrop urged his audience to think of a future radically different than the one we are living in now. He emphasized the importance of open a space for new conversations about the future.
We are not “too dumb for democracy” noted Moscrop, but we are often played as victims. Our current political climate pressures us to think and respond out of the pathos of our lizard brain. Moscrop cautioned us to slow down and breathe. Rational decision-making is not made in haste or in anger. We do not need town hall forums filled with drama and shouting. Instead, we need new spaces for meaningful debate filled with boring but patient, quiet, and deliberative reasoning. Moscrop envisions the creation of civic nodes of randomly selected participants who can play an agenda-setting role. These new civic nodes would not supplant but rather supplement our existing participatory systems, to build better, more responsive and representative democracies.