150 Years of Storytelling with Douglas Gibson

In the aftermath of Pierre Laporte's murder during the 1972 October Crisis, a CBC producer had the inspired idea to invite author W.O. Mitchell to address the nation on television. As Douglas Gibson points out in his presentation 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, Mitchell opened his address with the words, “There's been a death in my family.” It's a message of unity that helped heal a nation reeling from the threat of violent fragmentation. Meanwhile, as we find out later in Gibson's presentation, the one man both Pierre Trudeau and Paul Rose would trust with the task of negotiating the FLQ's surrender proved to be acerbic Quebecois novelist Jacques Ferron.

It's hard to think of a more striking example of novelists taking a central role in Canadian politics and history. In the context of Gibson's presentation, however, the story comes across as almost inevitable: the richness of life in Canada, his two-hour multi-media presentation implies, has always depended on the participation of our greatest storytellers.

Douglas Gibson's enthusiasm for Canadian literature is contagious. Armed with a binder of typed notes and bedecked in his “publisher's uniform” of a navy blazer and striped tie, Gibson, like a university professor delivering his dream lecture, seemed on Saturday to be utterly delighted at the opportunity to talk about the subject he loves best.

This all stands to reason, of course. Canadian literature has been Gibson's life's work. As an editor and publisher, he worked with authors who defined the Canadian literary canon for the past fifty years. Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod and Robertson Davies are names he speaks with the fondness of friendship as much as the admiration of a devoted reader.

Since retiring from publishing in 2008, Gibson has been at work writing books on his experience of the Canadian literary world, first in Stories about Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, and more recently in Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure. Instead of simply reading excerpts from his books in promoting them, Gibson has opted to craft multi-media stage presentations he can take on the road.

It's the right choice. Not only is Gibson an engaging, personable storyteller, but the multi-media format lets him re-imagine his books' content in light of the demands of public presentation – a liberty I wish more authors felt free to take.

His most recent “show,” 150 Years of Great Canadian Storytellers, takes on the ambitious task of presenting a highlight reel of the major Canadian authors who've written fiction since Confederation. “It's an arrogant thing to do,” Gibson admitted in his first minutes on stage. To curate a list of Canadian authors (English, French and Indigenous), particularly one condensed enough to explore over the course of two hours, makes exclusion and omission a feature of the presentation.

That being said, throughout most of the two hours, what struck me most was, delightfully, Gibson's enthusiasm for literature of all sorts. Limiting himself to two or three writers per decade lets him share (often very personal) stories about each writer, as well as providing some timely cultural context through art, photographs, headlines and music. In Gibson's accounts, Robertson Davies is a man who “looked like God,” while Stephen Leacock's restored cottage gives the visitor a “'Goldilocks feeling' that the owners will return at any moment.

Notably – and refreshingly – Gibson has made a point of centering francophone literature in this English-language presentation: 14 of his roughly 30 featured works were originally written in French. I'd argue there isn't nearly as much cross-pollination as there could be between anglophone and francophone literature in Canada, and it was wonderful to see one of our star bookish taste-makers celebrating our two official literary traditions side by side.

In the midst of this exuberant and jam-packed presentation, the demand for selectivity did make me reflect on how we build literary canons – that process of selection and, inevitably, exclusion. This struck me most in light of Gibson's decision to feature writer Joseph Boyden, whose work and public persona has been the subject of increasing criticism by Indigenous communities over the past year. After praising Boyden's work, Gibson drew attention to this controversy, adding, “Is Joseph Boyden really an Indigenous writer? I don't know – it's not for me to say.” He then followed this with an affirmation of the role of Boyden's work in fostering broader awareness of aboriginal narratives in Canada.

It struck me that it is difficult to acknowledge the impact of Boyden's work without letting the noise of that impact muffle other Indigenous voices. On the one hand, a discussion of 21st century Canadian literature that omitted Boyden's work would likely seem ahistorical. On the other hand, I'm certain many audience members were previously unaware of the criticism Gibson alluded to, and while it's possible they left feeling the need to look into it, it seems equally likely that Gibson's gentle, diplomatic framing of the controversy allayed their concerns rather than arousing them.

In this presentation (as in the prioritizing of one's reading list), including one book means saying “no” to another. The editor's skill of paring the fat from a story is one Gibson has mastered over the course of a long career, but it was moving to see that in conversations about books, he seemed disappointed by the need to leave anything out.

There was a moment at the end of Gibson's presentation when he invited the audience to suggest storytellers he unjustly omitted. It's an excellent idea, and it's a part of the session I was really looking forward to. Sadly, in this case, the session ran out of time before audience could make their suggestions.

Despite this, I was grateful for everything that fit in the allotted time, particularly Gibson's personal stories about writers like Alice Munro. Though it's an account I'd heard before, I loved hearing him recall his conversation with Munro early in her career, when she felt that, since everyone in publishing was telling her she should stop writing short stories and focus on novels, she ought to listen. All of Canada (and the international literary community, no doubt) owes Douglas Gibson a debt of gratitude for telling her, “If everyone is telling you to write a novel, then everyone is wrong.”

Having a champion like Douglas Gibson is an absolute game-changer for an emerging writer. The whole, broad spectrum of Canadian storytellers (and their readers) deserves more of them.


The Bond Between Us : Claire Cameron and Barbara Gowdy in conversation

Claire Cameron and Barbara Gowdy inspired knowing smiles, laughter, and a spirit of contemplation in their captivated audience on the festival’s second evening, celebrating women in writing. CBC’s Alan Neal guided a delightfully meandering, dance-like conversation between the two beloved Canadian novelists, whose disparate backgrounds and approaches to their art nonetheless resulted in works that summoned similar questions and themes.

Cameron, best-selling author of The Bear and staff writer at The Millions, instantly endeared us to her with her honesty about her writing struggles and her outspoken admiration for Gowdy, an internationally acclaimed and award-winning novelist and short story writer, whose The White Bone reenergized Cameron’s commitment to her latest novel, The Last Neanderthal, and inspired its opening line. Cameron mused that in a way she sees herself as a “chip off Gowdy’s block.” That sentiment, in fact, became a strong theme of the evening: how are we shaped by our experiences, the people we encounter, and, most mysteriously, those we may never meet? And is this method of self-discovery via ‘other’ perhaps a way of responding to the Delphic maxim, “know thyself,” to which Gowdy made reference?

By nature, we seek belonging, the sense of inclusion a family provides, and so we embrace and cling to the familiar; in the path of discovery, it is necessary to make distinctions, to allow the mind to both separate and unite, and thus it is important to seek out the unfamiliar, as Cameron and Gowdy challenge us to do. In their novels, both women take us to the limits of this possibility, to not just the unfamiliar, but to the never-truly-knowable.  Both Cameron and Gowdy write about women who develop a fascination with another woman whom they will never meet. In Cameron’s novel, the object of fascination is a Neanderthal separated by millennia, while Gowdy imagines, in Little Sister, a world where the female protagonist supernaturally enters the body of an unknown woman, whose physical and emotional states she is permitted to share. And when it comes to self-knowledge, as both women reflected, this is all the more necessary. As Cameron spoke for all for us, “It is easier to know someone else. It is hard to be self-aware.” Encounters with others will little by little reveal aspects of ourselves, shape who we are, or directly inform us, if we are but willing to listen and be moved. Gowdy comically illustrated this when she interjected to provide the psychology behind Cameron’s confessed taste for the macabre by suggesting that her relationship with her even-tempered, relaxed, Californian husband liberated her to explore places that perhaps one with a brooding and dark New Yorker could not. Cameron agreed.

Flannery O’Connor, the great short story writer of the 20th century, claimed that “the type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” If this is true, then a fortiori, fiction writers must be willing to do the same. The interplay of reality and mystery is woven into both story lines with a foreign faraway world at the characters’ fingertips, as in Gowdy’s line “the farthest thing you can imagine is closer than you think.” But it was above all a treat to hear about the reality of the authors’ own lives, most notably their fondness for nature and wildlife, and how their daily experiences guided them to ask the bigger questions, such as what it means to be human, what true empathy is, and what the bonds are that unite us. In the end, these celebrated women leave us with an impression of what they personally hold most dear.  After recounting pieces of her career and personal life, Gowdy, who enchanted the audience with her regal presence and old-soul wisdom, reflected, “what seems to matter way more now is the people I love,” harmonizing with a line in Cameron’s latest novel, “It is the things that don’t fossilize that matter the most.” 


Double Trouble: Reading with Heather O'Neill & Mary Walsh

It was a packed house on Friday night to see Heather O’Neill and Mary Walsh at the Christ Church Cathedral—and well worth the short wait in line.


O’Neill, known for her brain-ticklingly gorgeous writing, is a veteran of the Ottawa International Writers Festival and easily warmed up the crowd with a few anecdotes before her reading. (I’m not kidding about the brain-tickling gorgeousness, by the way. If you haven’t read her books yet, fix that immediately.) She noted that her inspiration for writing The Lonely Hearts Hotel came partly from her dad, who was one of nine (!) boys raised in Montreal single-handedly by her grandmother after his father passed away. Since those boys came of age during the Great Depression, “they, naturally, turned to crime.” Her dad was rather talented in the field of crime, as it turned out, and he lamented the fact that he didn’t pursue it as an adult. He had missed his calling, but he did have lots of bedtime stories for O’Neill that were filled with 1930s gangsters. Her novel, which is set mostly between World War I and World War II, is infused with the spirit of those bedtime stories. In fact, she noted that Rose, the female protagonist in the book, is essentially a cross between a 1930s gangster and Simone de Beauvoir.


Walsh, who has kept Canada laughing for decades, was at the Festival to promote her first novel, Crying for the Moon . Known for her characters and for creating the CBC’s This Hours Has 22 Minutes , she surprised the crowd by saying that she had actually wanted to write a novel since she was eight years old. She joked about being a month away from collecting her CPP (Canada Pension Plan), and said that she had a moment before she started writing the book when she had to ask herself, “If not now…when?”


Dr. Susan Birkwood, the moderator for the evening, led the discussion smoothly and touched on the various imagery and influences in both novels. Both O’Neill and Walsh talked about how a first novel almost inevitably includes more autobiographical details than subsequent novels—as O’Neill noted, “You have a treasure trove from your childhood, so you use it”—but both authors emphasized how much research still goes into the writing process, even if the times and places in the novel reflect some of their own experiences. “There are also themes that you get stuck on, and the novel radiates around them,” explained O’Neill as she joked about how her editor pointed out that she was once again creating motherless characters. “I was just like, ‘Ahhh, I forgot to give them mothers!’” she laughed. (O’Neill was raised by her father and added that “your autobiography can come through [in your writing] from the strangest perspectives.”)


After a fascinating discussion that included comparisons between childhood and war, insights into abuse and escape, and links between oppression and language (which I will not spoil here and will instead use as a marketing ploy to encourage you to read these books!), the audience members were invited to ask questions.


Asked about how her lifetime in the performing arts had influenced her approach to writing a novel, Walsh emphasized that she needs to do it “out loud.” She prefers to write by hand, and then she reads the text to an assistant who types it up for her. “It gives me the chance to edit as I read it and hear it out loud,” she explained. “Plus, I can read [her assistant’s] face. If she pulls a face, I think ‘hmm, was that an undigested piece of potato or was that a bad line?’”


O’Neill writes mostly about Montreal, and she was asked if she thought she could ever write about another city in the same way. While she said that she could see herself writing about a different city, she knows that it wouldn’t be the same. “It wouldn’t have the same intimacy,” she explained. Given her own history there—and her family’s lengthy history there—Montreal “feels like my story to tell.” She also noted that she felt she could say things about Montreal that she wouldn’t be able to say about other cities, much in the same way that we can say things about our own families in ways that we would never tolerate coming from someone else. “I also get to move buildings,” she joked, “because in my Montreal, this street would be better off here . If I did that with another city, I’d be told that I was bad at geography.”


As the session wrapped up, I imagined a practical stampede to the book signing (I had to leave, but I heard lots of excited chatter about getting books signed as I dashed out the door), and on another night I would have been the one leading the charge. I am a huge fan of Heather O’Neill, so I will happily attend any and all future Writers Festival events that feature her, and I sincerely hope that Mary Walsh—despite the immense relief that she described upon finishing her novel—will also return for more books and more laughter.

Requiem for the Croppies: An Afternoon of Irish Children's Literature

Having grown up loving the folk and fairy tales of my father’s own Irish childhood, and then later, transitioning to reading some of the literary greats of that country’s notable array of authors, poets, and playwrights, I was particularly excited for Friday’s noon hour session on “Children’s Literature from Ireland”. I was looking forward to being inspired by these three descendants of an artistic culture that is known for its knowledge of the classics, for its easy sense of familiarity with and occasional irreverence for Western tradition and culture, and for its darkly hilarious cynicism bred of a combination of enduring survival and cultural vibrance in the face of poverty, starvation, and oppression. Needless to say, I had great expectations.

The event was conducted as a conversation with three authors: Deirdre Sullivan, a YA writer and award-winning author of Needlework , among others; Oisin McGann, an outrageously prolific YA author specializing mostly in science fiction and fantasy; and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, a children’s book author and illustrator. Unique to an event profiling those who write for young people was the palpable sense of enthusiasm and desire to support and love whatever it was that these authors had to say – stemming from the widely-held belief that, in a world saturated with devices and virtual activities that compete and often win the attention of young people, whatever gets them reading books must be a good thing.

And what sorts of ideas and tactics do these particular authors deem best to draw in their young audiences?

Sullivan was asked about her book relying on the tradition of fairy tales (the pre-Disney, horror-filled, cautionary ones, that is) and responded, saying that she tries to build upon the difficulties that are actually being experienced by teens today in her writing, in the belief that sharing experiences is a key way to build empathy. And empathy, as all of the writers agreed, is a key purpose of fiction. Fitzpatrick, speaking about whether the ideas in her children’s books are conceived for the parents or the children reading them, pointed out wisely that adults reading the books can only look back and remember what it was to be a child, while children can only look forward, and thus each will perceive the books in quite different, but hopefully equally enjoyable, ways. McGann spoke about the storyline of his recent book
Ancient Appetites, that in some ways, seemed to follow the entrancing horror of in-group sacrificial murder bound by complex rules made popular by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games . Speaking as he did later about writing being a craft, and imitation being the best way to perfect this craft, McGann himself would likely not resent this comparison.

Although hearing selections from each of their books was enjoyable (particularly Fitzpatrick’s wordless delight Owl Bat Bat Owl ), when each author was then faced with the question of how they viewed their role as a contributor to forming the ideas and worldviews of young people and to cite this with one or two main points that they hoped to communicate through their work, their answers were more lacklustre than anything. Sullivan faltered a bit, and then relied on the ever-popular but culturally damaging and, not to mention outright falsehood, of saying “I write for me”, following up with a mention of hoping to nurture teens through the difficulties of their lives through her writing. Fitzpatrick admitted (perhaps disturbingly) that she hadn’t really thought about the question before, but came up with ultimately the most satisfying answer of the three by saying that in all of her books she focused on moments in which small children overcame fear and loneliness. And McGann ignored the question entirely, instead stating that in YA fiction, it was important to get rid of the parents and any other adult authority figures in order to “give children the ability to solve their own problems”, this perhaps being a reactionary overcompensation for the helicopter-parenting of today’s culture. However, pitting parents and adults as the bad guys who hold teens back from doing what needs to be done? This seems hardly healthy or logical.

Where is the thoughtfulness of the great Irish literary tradition in which these authors are following? Where is the acknowledgement that great ideas can be best communicated through fiction, rather than books simply being another form of cheap entertainment for scroll-happy, action-seeking kids and teens? Where is the idea of the endurance of the human spirit through humour and a dogged sense of survival that Ireland has built herself upon? Ireland has changed drastically in the past twenty-five years, desperately playing socio-economic catch-up with America, and it seems that perhaps her literary tradition has also lost its characteristic flavour in the mad dash to leave the past behind.

Why Not? : An evening with Scaachi Koul

“Usually when I write something I don’t think about how it will feel to read it in front of 180 people,” says Scaachi Koul before launching into an essay on oral sex and body hair from her debut book of personal essays One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. But she feigns no shyness, recounting aloud the events that led to her first knuckle-shaving attempt at age eleven (a boy from her class who was a “Hollister t-shirt personified” asked why she was so hairy) and reflecting on the politics of female body hair in 2017 (when Lena Dunham does it, it’s a rebellion, but when a woman of colour does it, it’s a mutiny). The reading set the tone for the evening - equal parts discomfort, vulnerability, and hilarity – kicking off one of the most rousing literary events I have personally ever attended.


Koul is known for her wit and her outspokenness, usually online and usually on matters of race and feminism. Depending on who you are, this makes her either a hero or a villain. In person, she’s as admirably antagonistic, smart, and clever as she is online, giving CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld a run for her money when it came to the interview portion of the evening. When Oldenbarneveld asked her how she made her book relatable to a wide audience, for instance, Koul was quick to point out that this question is typically only asked of non-white people and women. She also admitted that she had not given relatability much thought when writing, that her book was primarily for “brown girls”, and that if other people liked it too, that was fine. While some interviewers may have gotten defensive at a moment like this, Oldenbarneveld was as good humoured as ever. She retorted, “Well I mean, I read this book and liked it and I’m not young and cool like you,” to which Koul laughed, “I’m not cool. This is my bedtime.”


Though Oldenbarneveld and Koul covered a wide range of topics, the theme of the night seemed to be anger. Take Scaachi’s relationship with her parents (“I get my anger from my dad…the immigrant experience creates pathways of anxiety”), or her writing process (“this book was written on rage”), or even her online persona (“there’s this sense of women having less of a right to be angry about men”). Naturally, this led to a discussion of the one major time in Koul’s life that anger wasn’t enough to protect her. She made headlines last year when, as Buzzfeed Canada’s senior editor, she tweeted a request for pitches from only women of colour, drawing the ire of online trolls led by Ezra Levant, Milo Yiannopolous, and Ottawa’s own Scott Gilmour (who accused Koul of committing a human rights violation). When the trolls finally went as far as to threaten her life and her family, she removed herself from social media for a period of two weeks. Speaking emotionally to Oldenbarneveld, she said the experience felt like a loss of safety and access: “I can’t play on the Internet like I used to.” She says now she never posts pictures of her family online, never has location services turned on, and only picks fights that “seem fun.”


Ultimately the evening was fun and full of laughs, but Koul and Oldenbarneveld also did an exemplary job of discussing uncomfortable topics like race, gender, and sex openly and honestly in public. There was a refreshing, no bullsh*t air about the entire event that more literary panels and journalists, especially in Canada, would do well to take note of.

A Woman's Work Is Never Done

The spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival kicked off on Thursday night, ushering the city s beloved   celebration of storytelling into its twentieth year. Despite its popularity, the festival s anniversary huddles in the shadow of a more vexing historical milestone: that is, one-hundred-and-fifty years of Canadian confederacy. In her introductory remarks to the evening s first panel, A Woman s Work, director of media and communications for the Nobel Women s Initiative, Rachel Vincent,   commented on the role our public intellectuals play in ensuring that the Canadian future [is] better than the Canadian present. How fitting, then, to open the festival with a glimpse at the risks and possibilities that arise when those touted as the bearers of national futurity refuse to reproduce its dominant narratives.

Indeed, while the panelists offered very different reflections on their relationship with Canadian-ness,   each woman testified to the profound influence of private familial histories on her public advocacy. Sandra Perron, a self-professed army brat, grew up in a military family before joining the Canadian Infantry s 22nd Regiment as its first female officer. Her new book, Out Standing in the Field , details her twenty-five year journey to speak out against the unrelenting sexual harassment and abuse that she suffered within the armed forces: an institution for which she still feels much love and loyalty. In lieu of addressing her memoir s more uncomfortable truths about white-masculinist supremacy and nation-building, Perron delivered an optimistic message of   solidarity that imagined no contradiction in the pursuit of both military advancement and gender equity. Notwithstanding her efforts to amplify those voices that have been smothered by patriarchal violence, Perron s talk left one audience member wondering, “W here, exactly, is the place for anger?


Offering one partial, provisional answer was Monia Mazigh, a local author born and raised in a politically active Tunisian household. Mazigh s name first entered public consciousness in 2002, when her husband Maher Arar was detained in Syria based on   unsubstantiated RCMP evidence of terrorist ties. Her passionate campaigns for her husband s release are narrativized in her first book Hope and Despair ; however, in her new novel, Hope Has Two Daughters, Mazigh explores the legacy of two revolutionary women:   Nadia, a member of Tunisia s increasingly poor middle class who flees to Canada during the 1984 Bread Riots, and her daughter Lila, who, when sent to Tunis to explore her maternal history, gets caught up in the furor of the Arab Spring. As Mazigh pointed out, the English title of her book comes from a quote by St. Augustine: Hope has two daughters: one is anger, and the other is courage. Well acquainted with the dangers of   being the angry Muslim woman in a society that hears about Muslim women rather than from them, Mazigh nonetheless testified to the importance of anger and dissent in forwarding more equitable futures. While Western nations are know for exoticizing the struggles of those they have colonized, Mazigh noted, there is nothing so fragrant or delicate about the pursuit of political freedom.

Riayah Patel, a seventh-grade student at Hadley-Philemon Wright High School and activist for indigenous rights, rounded out the panel. During her impassioned speech on the plight of indigenous children s education, Patel acknowledged that she was schooled in the ethical necessity of activist work from an early age. Her father, a survivor of South African apartheid, and her mother, an immigrant from Lebanon, encouraged their daughter to heed the words of African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who argued that power concedes nothing without a demand.   Though much of the evening s conversation was directed towards Mazigh and Perron, Patel spoke eloquently on the Canadian government s amnesiac approach to indigenous children s welfare and on her own indebtedness to the legacy of Shannen Koostachin, a fifteen-year-old activist from Attawapiskat First Nation who died tragically in a car accident in 2010. Patel s self-deprecating jokes about her social media obsession aside, hers was a crucial commentary on the privilege of ignorance and the   responsibilities that the young bear for their ancestors traumatic and violent histories.

As the festivities of July 1st, 2017 approach,   the stories of Perron, Mazigh, and Patel challenge us to move beyond empty ceremony. Diversity in national narratives and in the politics of everyday life is more than just a buzzword: it is an enduring labour. And, like a woman s work, it is never quite finished.


Earth Day in the Capital

“We should give more than we take.”

These words, spoken by award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Saturday night, illustrated one of the evening’s themes. In observance of Earth Day, the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival brought Betasamosake Simpson together with Ian Hanington and David Suzuki for an evening of storytelling, reflection, and calls to action.

It can often seem difficult in the bustle of modern living to appreciate the impact of our species on our planet, and many people struggle with connecting to the natural world.  The stories shared by Betasamosake Simpson reflected upon the fundamental relationship between humanity and this sphere we call home, and the responsibility we have to ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants to become actively engaged in protecting and improving it. Her reading—a mix of modern legend, traditional stories, and insightful commentary—held the audience in thrall.  She used an understated yet direct approach, skilfully using her storytelling to deliver a compelling message about the responsibility of individuals to take action.

For people seeking solutions to the environmental crises facing our planet, it can be overwhelming to consider their complexity and discover ways to make a difference.  Ian Hanington and David Suzuki co-wrote Just Cool It! in an effort to describe not only the current state of climate science, but also the actions that can still make a difference.  When Hanington described the early days of the book, he said the goal was to make it, “at least two-thirds about solutions.”  His discussion of the book, and the importance of becoming scientifically informed and taking part in the movement which is demanding change, provided a backdrop for Suzuki’s insight and passion.

It goes without saying, David Suzuki is a powerful speaker.  His depth of knowledge was readily apparent, and his scientific approach, very convincing. Suzuki, too, understands the power of storytelling to motivate people to action.  His stories, about meeting with business people and politicians from the other side of the divide, shed light into one of the major obstacles to the environmental movement: the force of the economy.  His stance begins with fundamentals.  He says that the cleanliness of the air, water, and soil along with the biodiversity that keeps food chains and natural cycles intact are the highest priorities of humanity.  Yet the economy has no measure for the value of these things, and this is a crucial problem.  He said, “We’re constantly asking nature to fit our constructs - to feed our economies.  It’s the other way around.”  His call to action involves making it clear to elected representatives that the environment is a priority, “we have to inform the leaders what we expect them to do.”

Reciprocity, action, hope: the themes of the night were cohesive and focused.  In a panel that followed, Betasamosake Simpson, Hanington, and Suzuki delved into the importance of deepening our connection to the earth, of sharing that connection with children, and of “being eco-warriors on their behalf,” according to Hanington.  These experts are aware of the overwhelm and even hopelessness that surrounds the environmental issues of the day, but responded instead with a clear message.  “You have to have hope,” said Suzuki, before describing the surprising rebound of the sockeye salmon population in British Columbia’s rivers.   “Nature surprised us, but we have to pull back and give her a chance.  We don’t know enough to say it’s too late.”

The Harper Factor: Objective or Objectionable?

While the pursuit of objectivity is famously thought to be difficult, history reveals it remains an essential virtue in advancing our sum of knowledge in both the physical and social sciences. Raising a standard of objectivity can guide us through emotional thickets and tangled issues that otherwise block a clear view.

If you've lived in Canada in the last decade you'll know there has been no more polarizing political figure than former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a man so partial that only the most brave (or foolhardy?) thinkers would subject him to dispassionate analysis. Yet this is exactly the feat undertaken within the new book The Harper Factor. Co-editors Jennifer Ditchburn and Graham Fox recently addressed audiences at Carleton University and explained that understanding the past is essential to directing our future. They asserted that, love him or hate him, Harper's tenure oversaw an important chapter in Canada's ongoing story and within the larger context of world history. Canadians now have a fresh opportunity to understand the impact of a man who held the nation's highest office for nearly ten years.
Uniquely suited to this task is Jennifer Ditchburn, an award-winning parliamentary correspondent and Editor-in-Chief of Policy Options magazine. Co-editor Graham Fox is currently president and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Together they have assembled an impressive list of cross-partisan contributors that survey and analyze the effects Harper had on policy to reveal "the good, bad and ugly in almost every policy area." 
Impartiality is inconvenient for those of us who like our fish battered on one side. And let's face it, Harper left few voters indifferent. But set aside the personality of the man and the way he conducted himself in public; what then remains is the effect he left for future generations. Unfortunately, as stated in The Harper Factor , "There have been precious few analyses of [Harper's] actual impact on public policy." Ditchburn and Fox appear to be among a rare breed who demand that public policy be appraised by evidence more than partisanship. 
Ditchburn and Fox invited an impressive list of well-credentialed contributors from academia, government, business, media and the non-profit sector to answer the question: What impact did Stephen Harper have on public policy now and for future generations? Each chapter discusses the lasting effect Harper had on national defence; health care; international policy; immigration; law and order; and journalism, to list some topics. 
Following Ditchburn and Fox's reading, many of these issues were taken up by a panel discussion hosted by Professor Susan Harada, Associate Director of the School of Journalism at Carleton. The co-editors were joined on stage by contributing author Paul Wilson, Harper's former policy director, and Derek Antoine, PhD candidate and Instructor in Carleton's School of Journalism and Communication.   
The panel displayed a charming array of informed agreement and civil dissent, much to the audience's amusement. During one notable moment, Fox mused that it was difficult to discern a signature achievement of Harper worthy of future celebration. Wilson's ensuing chuckle was joined by the audience after he countered: "Well, we may indeed celebrate a balanced budget."
Ditchburn and Fox freely admitted that bias is nearly impossible to weed out of any intellectual endeavour, however they stringently demanded that their authors views be based on analysis, evidence, and research. To this, Professor Susan Harada remarked that, in her opinion, "That's what gives the book its heft."
Overall, some chapters of The Harper Factor are critical, others are more complementary of his record. While some of its authors disagree, one consensus remains: "Stephen Harper's record is decidedly more nuanced than both his admirers and his detractors will concede. [This book] is aimed at those who are genuinely curious about his impact on public policy in Canada. To echo the title, what has been the Harper Factor?"

Made in Canada

Corned beef. Shreddies. Life jackets. Pablum. Butter tarts. Zippers. Snow plows. Long johns. Whoopie cushions. Canola oil. Egg cartons. Coffee Crisps. What do these seemingly disparate items all have in common? They’re Canadian inventions.


If your feelings fall anywhere on the spectrum of “mildly surprised” to “wildly astonished” at this revelation, then you’d have fit right in to the audience at Library and Archives Canada last Tuesday night, where the His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, and Tom Jenkins (CEO of OpenText) launched their new book Ingenious : How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier .

Ottawa Writers Fest Artistic Director Sean Wilson kicked off the event by admitting his own lack of awareness regarding many of the items in the book, saying, “This book reminds me of how little we toot our own horn in this country.” However, while it may be true that Canadians are historically modest, the event that followed suffered from anything but a lack of horn tooting. Hosted by CPAC’s Catherine Clark, the evening was full of revelations about our nation’s collective cleverness. “Really? I didn’t know we invented that,” was the crowd’s continually delighted refrain. “Yes, really! We invented that!” was Johnston and Jenkins’s typical response – or in the rare case of a popular board game, “Well actually, we only invented the wooden tile used to play Scrabble.” Even the most cynical of readers would have found it difficult to walk away from this event feeling anything but pride and affection for Canada.


Johnston and Jenkins said they decided to write Ingenious because they felt that Canada was lacking a “collection of our own stories,” by which they meant stories of our country’s history of invention and innovation. They both felt that a collection of these kinds of stories was crucial to advancing the culture of innovation and pride into the future. They expressed that they want the book (which has been released in English and French simultaneously) to inspire average Canadians everywhere – and even children – to think innovatively. “Innovation comes from an attitude rather than an IQ,” said the Governor General. Throughout the evening he repeated that “It’s about looking at things from a different angle” and “being willing to collaborate.” The launch of Ingenious will be followed by a children’s version in the fall, as well as becoming integrated into elementary school curriculums.


As the conversation turned more directly towards patriotism and nation building, audience members questioned the role that contemporary immigration has to play in Canada’s culture of innovation. Jenkins cited the example of the zipper, which was invented by a Swedish immigrant in Canada, and spoke fondly of an earlier time when “anyone could come to Canada and make anything.” Johnston cited the example of barn raising from his childhood in rural Ontario to show how collaboration has a big part in the Canadian narrative. Both authors seemed to agree that a culture of openness has practical value when it comes to situating Canada ahead of the technological and industrial curve of innovation. Their hope is for Ingenious to find its way into every Canadian home, and that includes new Canadians as well.

Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD

People packed the pews at Centretown United Church, surrounded by its seasonal garlands and poinsettia, on a cold, rainy November night in Ottawa. They came to hear Lt.(Gen) (ret’d) and former Senator Romeo Dallaire share a battle story, a battle taking place far from any field.


Dallaire’s most recent book recounts his personal, 22-year struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. A story he says he wrote to raise awareness of and support for this “invisible, honourable injury,” and to inspire other military members suffering with it to come forward to access support and treatment. “I didn’t go through hell a third time [to write this book] because I enjoyed it,” he said.


CBC Ottawa’s Adrian Harewood hosted the evening and pressed Dallaire to describe, as he does in the book, the nightmares and resulting sleepless nights that inspired the title. Dallaire described graphic images, including adult soldiers facing child combatants, and working through the evening and late into the night to avoid sleep. He described post-Rwanda re-integration into his family, Defence headquarters, and Canadian society as “lonely.” He says he knows other returning service personnel to have the same experience.


Harewood invited Dallaire to try to recall himself as a young man, prior to his experience as United Nations Peacekeeping Force Commander in Rwanda in 1994. The Lieutenant-General’s (re’td) sense of humour showed itself and remained present throughout the evening. “A shit disturber,” he said. Dallaire frequently added moments of levity to an evening full of clearly distressing recollections for him.


Dallaire was born into, married into, and has raised, a family of military members. He sees a shift in how conflicts are fought, between his father’s time and that of his sons and daughter. He argues that new types of conflict will require new thinking about how to prepare the next generation of personnel psychologically, and that more remains to be learned about how to prepare them.


He believes that the more military members come forward the more medical and psychological treatment and support methods will be employed. The more they are employed, the better and more quickly they can be refined and improved. He told the audience that he hopes this will spare future generations of members the sort of solitary war he waged, which he describes as “living between the paint and the wall.”