HAPPENS TO A COUNTRY WITHOUT A CINEMA?
(first published in The Beaver, February/March 2005)
This summer we caught Canadian writer-director Ian Iqbal Rashid's film comedy Touch of Pink at the local multiplex. Although American Kyle McLachlan's spot-on star turn as the ghost of Cary Grant generated most of the buzz, Touch of Pink offered a cultural-diversity theme that was more Toronto than Hollywood. Alim, the Cary Grant-worshipping hero, is a Canadian working in Britain, and the comedy depends on his self-affirmation. He learns to accept being gay in a straight world. He accepts working in the arts instead of something sensible. He accepts being an Ismaili Muslim in a world where most people aren't.
The only condition Alim (and the film) cannot accept is being from Canada. Alim's imaginary friend Cary Grant mocks him every time Toronto is mentioned, and Alim cringes at being tied to so contemptible a place. Touch of Pink is a worthy film, and unlike most Canadian films, it actually got screen time amid the Hollywood blockbusters, but its effort to show sophistication by dissing its own origins seems to typify Canadian cinema.
Mostly we just take it for granted that we don't get to see movies that grow out of Canadian situations. On historical subjects, I could think of occasional exceptions like Black Robe and The Grey Fox, but the picking are slim compared to what we expect from Canadian writing, Canadian music, or Canadian painting. When these genres don't hide where they are from, why does Canadian film mostly strive to be so international - meaning from somewhere else?
Thinking about the absence of Canadian history from our cinema, I called George Melnyk, who has just published One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema, the first overview history of the long struggle of Canadian cinema.
Melnyk is prepared to venture that "we have a maturing cinema history" in Canada. It has always been hard to sustain a film industry in Canada, and yet Canadians have kept trying. Melnyk describes the efforts of early filmmakers in such places as Brandon, Calgary, Trenton and Montreal before 1920. (In another recent book, A Century of Canadian Cinema, critic Gerald Pratley reviews two thousand twentieth-century Canadian films.) Melnyk places himself with "those who value the feature film as an expression of creative identity," so he concludes that the National Film Board's documentary tradition became a "barrier to the evolution of the Canadian film industry." Canadian cinema, he says, "did really not get going until the 1970s, while in some countries film has been going strong for a hundred years." But amid the expanded production and improved quality of recent decades, Melnyk sees the elements of a distinctive Canadian cinema emerging.
Melnyk observes that the difficulty of making careers in feature film here means most Canadians in the field are "auteurs," writer-directors creating from personal vision. With personal stories driving so much Canadian filmmaking, our films are that much less likely to engage in historical themes or historical storytelling (one spectacular exception: Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner).
A larger problem is what Melnyk calls the absent audience. In English Canada, he says, Canadian films get about one per cent of the available screen time. "Compare that to the huge audience for Canadian music, writing, and so on." About fifteen features are made in English Canada each year, "and maybe one or two get shown in art house cinemas. No audience means no films, which means no audience. It's a vicious circle." There's often a larger audience outside Canada; no wonder filmmakers seek respect elsewhere.
George Melnyk studies film as an art form, seeking instances of great films and distinctive styles of filmmaking. (And he emphasizes the plural, stressing the many distinctions within English Canadian film, let alone between English Canada and Quebec). But cinema is also an industry, perhaps more than any other art form. Even more than other arts, film needs a sustainable, income-making industrial base as a precursor to sustained aesthetic achievement and the expression of national themes.
Much of the filmmaking activity in Canada is still the runaway American kind, providing work for actors and crews but no Canadian films. Vancouver in particular has been very successful in attracting American productions, but Melnyk suspects that may be why we have not seen a Vancouver director portraying his hometown on film as Winnipegger Guy Maddin, Toronto's Atom Egoyan, or Montreal's Denys Arcand have done for their cities.
Would we start to see more Canadian films if the rising Canadian dollar and Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign against "runaway productions" drove Hollywood North to start making its own films? Melnyk suspects that despite the ups and downs, the Americanized productions will survive. He's equally skeptical of a theory floated in Peter Rowe's recent and lively documentary about Canadian film, "Popcorn With Maple Syrup," that the infamous "tax shelter" era of the 1970s, for all the waste and dreck it produced, at least started the critical mass a film industry needs. Melnyk prefers the Telefilm funding system of the 1990s. "If you compare the 1970s with the 1990s, I can assure you that you got ten times the quality in the 1990s. In the end, the tax-shelter era meant big losses to taxpayers, without the quality coming back in return."
Melnyk quotes Fellini as saying "two things always look good in a film - a train and snow." We have mostly lost the trains, but we still have the snow. Can Canadian filmmaking hope for a future brighter than its past? "Canadian cinema has always struggled against the American tide that engulfs film in Canada," Melnyk writes in One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema. Unless the vicious cycle of the absent audience is overcome, cinema may continue to be a poor relation among Canadian art forms.
Does it matter? "Is cinema as an art form something that forms public consciousness?" muses Melnyk "Yes, we know that it is. For example, we know that the films of the twentieth century have been fundamental to how the United States sees itself. So what happens when you don't have a cinema? Do we lessen ourselves? Or is it irrelevant?"
Melnyk's One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema
is published by University of Toronto Press. Gerald Pratley's
A Century of Canadian Film is published by Lynx
Images. "Popcorn and Maple Syrup: Canadian Film
from Eh to Zed," produced by Peter Rowe Productions,
was broadcast on CBC Television in November 2004.
Moore Editorial Ltd, 2004
Last January I was surprised to read of the death of Louis Robichaud, the eloquent and charismatic little Acadian who was premier of New Brunswick from 1960 to 1970. I thought he had died years ago.
But Robichaud was only in his late seventies when he died. After being premier, he held a Senate seat, but he never became hooked on the drug of power or celebrity. If he receded from view after he left the premier's office, aged just 45, it was because he had achieved most of his ambitions. His achievements back in the sixties still command attention.
Not many provincial premiers will seem significant in forty years, particularly those from smaller provinces remote from national media. But I've been reading two biographies of Louis Robichaud recently, and how many provincial premiers have two biographies? They have rather different ideas on why Robichaud still looms large.
Professor Della Stanley's scholarly study Louis Robichaud: A Decade in Power emphasizes government and considers Robichaud as a case study of what a provincial premier can do. Michel Cormier's recent Louis J. Robichaud: A Not So Quiet Revolution is less heavily documented but more personal and more passionate, with extensive input from Robichaud himself. For Cormier, Robichaud's vital contribution was to be both symbol and facilitator of the Acadian renaissance.
Cormier begins with the personal impact Louis Robichaud had on the Cormier family. Robichaud's reform of provincial education standards meant that the salary Cormier's mother received as a rural schoolteacher in Cocagne, New Brunswick, doubled overnight. (She thought there was a misprint on her paycheque.) Cormier himself, like so many successful Acadian professionals today, launched his own career at another Robichaud creation, the Université de Moncton. He's now a rising journalist and broadcaster as a European correspondent for Radio Canada.
But in the 1960s, observes Cormier, Acadian communities like his had more in common with Alabama or Kentucky than with Saint John or Fredericton. Beset by poverty, limited education, minimal social services, they were also politically powerless. As he describes how Robichaud's provincial government began attacking poverty, lack of education, and lack of opportunity throughout the province, Cormier emphasizes the impact those reforms had on the mostly Acadian counties of northern and eastern New Brunswick.
Cormier also emphasizes how Robichaud opened paths for francophone New Brunswickers in New Brunswick (facing down anti-French backlash in a province where Acadians were barely a third of the population) but also nationally. Premier Robichaud made New Brunswick the only officially bilingual province and became a national statesman by presenting Acadians as a linguistic minority committed to their culture and language, but also to Canada and to federalism.
"When I was a child," writes Cormier in his theme-setting first sentence, the name of Robichaud received "the same reverence as that of Mahatma Gandhi." How many premiers will ever get that kind of tribute?
Della Stanley's biography disputes none of Robichaud's impact on New Brunswick's Acadians, but she suggests quite another reason to remember him. Robichaud was one of the post-war Canadian premiers who showed just what provincial governments could do when they put their minds to it.
In 1960, the New Brunswick legislature met for just a couple of weeks once each year. There as in other provinces, provincial politics was a spare-time, part-time kind of thing. Civil servants had limited skills and few pressing duties because provincial governments simply did not do much. Schooling, public services, health, and welfare were run and paid for by county and municipal councils or private and religious charities. For New Brunswick, the consequences were dire. Many of its communities lacked the resources, the educational facilities, the leadership, and the administrative tools to attack their own backwardness. And the poorer they were, the less they could do.
Yet health, education, welfare, and social services are provincial responsibilities. By the 1960s, many provinces were beginning to awaken to the possibilities in expanded, modernized provincial administrations. Across Canada, provincial civil services and provincial programs grew rapidly, but New Brunswick's relative backwardness made the opportunity there all the greater. Robichaud's government, notably prompt and notably effective in expanding the scope of provincial programs, deserved the national attention it got.
Robichaud's "Equal Opportunity" program was partly about linguistic and cultural equality, but even more it meant transferring power and responsibility from ill-equipped local councils to a rapidly expanding government serving the whole province. In a few years, Robichaud's government combined new provincial tax revenues with federal transfer payments, applied them to province-wide programs in health, education, and social services, and built a professional civil service to run them. It meant a huge transfer of authority to the provincial government in Fredericton. But for the first time, there was a government actually able to do things for its citizens.
Perhaps the clearest proof of the new power of government was Robichaud's confrontation with industrialist K.C. Irving. Acadians appreciated one of their own who stood up to the anglophone billionaire and the taunts from his newspapers. But the real threat to Irving was a provincial government that for the first time had the resources, both financial and managerial, to stand up against resource giveaways and tax holidays if it chose to.
Today, many Canadians take for granted the presence of large, powerful provincial governments with professional bureaucracies, extensive taxing powers, and broad ambitions. In recent years, the most newsworthy premiers have been those most determined to attack that consensus, by cutting taxes, privatizing programs, and chopping services. The eventful decade of Louis Robichaud's premiership in New Brunswick is a reminder of how recently provinces emerged as governments to be reckoned with. And how much of the public infrastructures we often take for granted depends, not on Ottawa but on how well or badly we are served by our provinces.
Louis Robichaud: A Decade in Power by Della Stanley was published by Nimbus Publishing in 1984. Louis J. Robichaud: A Not So Quiet Revolution by Michel Cormier, translated by Jonathan Kaplansky, was published by Faye Editions of Moncton in 2004.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2005
The centennials that Alberta and Saskatchewan celebrated on September 1 and September 4 were actually a couple of months late. When Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier announced the creation of two new provinces early in 1905, he declared their birthday would be July 1, not September 1. The delay and its causes cast light on the enduring national issue of the west and its power within the Canadian confederation.
Provincehood marked the culmination of a not very edifying process. Canada's early nineteenth-century political thinkers - Etienne Parent, Joseph Howe, Robert Baldwin, Louis-Hyppolyte Lafontaine - had established the great principle that citizens, even colonial citizens, had a right to governments accountable to legislatures that represented them. But when those men's heirs, governing Canada later in the century, acquired the North-West Territories, they managed mostly to imitate the worst traits of autocratic colonizers.
Ottawa provided Canadians living in the Territories with no representation at all in the House of Commons until 1886, and the territorial government remained firmly under the thumb of Ottawa officials for more than a decade after that. Only in 1897, after years of campaigning by western statesman Frederick Haultain, a pioneer lawyer from Fort Macleod, did Ottawa accept the principle (familiar to the eastern provinces since the 1840s) that the territorial government must answer to the people's elected representatives.
After that achievement, surging immigration made it only a matter of time before the region built up a population and economy large enough to sustain full provincial status.
There's a legend that in 1905 Ottawa made two provinces instead of one big one (the preference of territorial premier Haultain), in a plot to keep them both weak. Actually regional identities were already powerful. The foothills ranchers of Alberta saw themselves as quite distinct from the flatland farmers farther east. They wanted no chance of going on being governed from Regina, the territorial capital since 1883.
There's also a legend that sheer spite provoked Ottawa officials into preventing Haultain, their persistent critic, from becoming founding premier of either province. But Liberals looked certain to dominate in both new provinces, making it appropriate that Liberal party leaders (Alexander Rutherford in Alberta, Walter Scott in Saskatchewan), rather than the tory-leaning Haultain, would be invited to form the first governments. Each indeed remained in power for years. (Haultain eventually became the long-serving Chief Justice of Saskatchewan.)
But it was not those issues that caused the delay in provincehood. It was education - which meant language, and religion.
In February 1905, when Prime Minister Laurier introduced the federal legislation to create the provinces, he cited a constitutional tradition that a province entering confederation would thereafter maintain the educational rights that minorities had previously held there. Laurier's bill declared that the Catholic French minorities of Alberta and Saskatchewan would have the educational rights established for the territory back in 1875.
This was, to say the least, unpopular in the west in 1905, where francophones were a small and diminishing minority. Left to set their own educational policies, neither Alberta nor Saskatchewan was likely to do much for minority-language schools. Territorial premier Haultain condemned Laurier's decision as another Ottawa attack on local self-government.
But Ottawa had always had its way with the west before, and Laurier led a newly-elected majority government with clear authority to legislate for the territories. What could the west do?
What the west did, in fact, was successfully flex its muscles in Ottawa. And since lack of muscle in Ottawa would be precisely the west's great complaint for the next hundred years, it's worth looking at how it happened in 1905.
First Clifford Sifton, MP for Brandon and Laurier's powerful Interior Minister, resigned to protest the educational clause. By going to the backbenches, Sifton became not less but more powerful. As a cabinet minister, he was bound by cabinet solidarity. As a backbencher, he successfully organized the western Liberal MPs (and many of their colleagues in Ontario and the east too, it seems) to defy the Prime Minister.
The details were mostly cloaked in the secrecy of caucus deliberations. There's hardly a hint in Hansard. But Laurier gradually discovered he lacked the votes to put through his educational policy, because much of his Liberal caucus would not stand behind him. Finally, at the end of June, the prime minister meekly backed down rather than suffer defeat. Laurier introduced a new education clause, one that entrenched not the 1875 guarantees but much weaker ones set by the territorial legislature in 1901. It may not have been wise, and it may not have been pretty, but the west got its way.
This kind of backbench eruption hardly ever happens in Canada. Even in 1905, the west protested how Laurier's bill deprived the new provinces of control of their natural resources - clearly provincial powers under the British North America Act. But the MPs did not fight on land as they fought on education, and that clause passed.
In the century since 1905, Canadian MPs have allowed themselves to become ever more tightly bound by the dictates of their party leaders. Western-backed initiatives for reform - separate western parties, populism, proportional representation, recall - have often seemed designed to prevent the kind of independent backbench initiatives that served the west's ambitions rather well in 1905.
In recent years, backbench MPs have rarely wielded that power of dissent in Ottawa, though in many parliamentary countries such sectional muscle-flexing within national parties is the essence of political life. Comparing the recent defections on same-sex marriage with what happened to language rights in 1905, it seems that the only thing that can stiffen a Canadian backbencher's spine is intolerance.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2005
I'm a historian, I don't do the future. But recently it's been hard to miss the vision of the next century that has been dominating the news: the rise of China as the new great power for the twenty-first century.
Commentators observe with fascination the construction cranes over Chinese skylines and the automobiles being purchased by newly-prosperous Chinese, the relentless export growth of China's new industries, and its growing demand for resources and oil. But if the commentators are Canadian, they also worry what that future means for Canada. Can Canada compete? Where will Canada fit in the world of the new Asian superpower? Can our fast-growing and highly enterprising Chinese-Canadian communities help this country find openings to China?
That mix of fascination and foreboding with China has been a Canadian concern for a very long time. Late in 2005, just as the Canadian government announced a controversial package to address historical wrongs done in Canada to people of Chinese ancestry, I found myself reading about the mixed feelings with which Canadians viewed China and the Chinese 120 years ago.
It's no coincidence that 1885, the year that saw the introduction of the infamous head tax - a per-person levy never applied to anyone other than Chinese immigrants to Canada - was also the year the transcontinental railroad was completed. When the railroad was being built, thousands of Chinese were a vital part of its labour force, and Chinese immigrants became the fastest-growing segment of the west-coast population. By 1885, there may have been 15,000 Chinese in British Columbia, compared to perhaps 40,000 Europeans and 25,000 aboriginal Canadians.
British Columbia politicians had been fearful and angry for years about the threat they perceived in Chinese immigration. It was the imminent completion of the CPR and the abrupt drop in demand for immigrant labourers that made the matter a national issue. In 1885 the Canadian parliament passed two measures related to Chinese immigrants. One imposed a head tax on all Chinese immigrants upon entry. The second deprived Chinese in Canada from voting.
Yet even then there was appreciation of the actual and potential Chinese contribution to Canada, and ambivalence about what Canada was doing. Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, the former Quebec premier who as Canadian Secretary of State introduced the head tax bill in Parliament in 1885, acknowledged that racial limits on immigration abrogated a long British tradition that "British soil was open to any member of the human family." He saluted the contributions Chinese immigrants had already made to Canada, and he denied that they brought disease or caused trouble. Opposition to them, he said, had no other cause "than the competition of cheap labour with labourers who want to exact a higher price."
Nevertheless, Chapleau went on, "It is a natural and well-founded desire of the white population of this Dominion that their country should be spoken of abroad as being inhabited by a vigorous energetic white race of people." Some M.P.s criticized Chapleau for moving a bill and attacking it at the same time, but the motion to establish a $50 head tax passed by a voice vote without any recorded opposition.
The law that deprived Chinese of the right to vote also passed that session, but only after similar doubts about its legitimacy were aired. The Prince Edward Island M.P. Louis Davies (a future Chief Justice of Canada) said robustly in Parliament that "a Chinaman who has become a British subject by naturalization, who resides in this country and has acquired the necessary qualification, has as good a right to be allowed to vote as any other British subject of foreign extraction." No one denied the principle, but the bill passed.
Mixed feelings about anti-Chinese laws also existed outside Parliament. Toronto's Globe newspaper soon reported the story of an Englishman arriving at Victoria, B.C., with his Chinese wife and six Anglo-Chinese children, "all fluent in English and following the customs of their father's native land." The family had to pay $350 (or roughly $6300 in 2005 values). Could a law stand that denied the settled legal principles that husband and wife were as one and children take the father's nationality?
Criticisms such as these were whistling against the wind. Even the Globe generally supported limits on Chinese immigration, as did the other who raised doubts and hesitations. Yet perhaps the most striking evidence that even in 1885 there was some awareness of the potential of China and the Chinese also appeared in the Globe.
November 9, 1885, as part of its coverage of the last
spike, driven the previous day at Craigallachie, B.C.,
the newspaper noted that Canada was not the only place
building railroads. European colonizers were building
railroads and ports and factories in China, it said.
And surely as a result the same prosperity that railroads
and industry were bringing to Canada must also blossom
in China. Then, said the paper, as railroads and industry
transform China, " the laborious, sober, ingenious
Chinese will have become penetrated with modern industrial
civilization, and then Chinese will not need to emigrate.
They will have but to stay home and manufacture for export
and manufacture on such terms as Europeans and Americans
workmen could not even look at."
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2005
THE SENATE -- THE FIRST TIME
In the 1850s, the upper house was elected, not appointed.
Ironically, the intent was to place a check on "rampant democracy."
(first published in The Beaver, June/July 2006)
consequence, you might say, of a country that neglects
its history, particularly its political history, is that
all questions seem eternally new.
Early in 2006, with the election of a government pledged to implement Senate reform, an elected, powerful Canadian Senate seemed about to shift from an idea to a practical reality. Yet at the same time, the idea itself began to attract skeptical reappraisals from some of its original proponents.
In March 2006 the National Post, long supportive, ran a series of articles highlighting doubts about the idea. Roger Gibbins, head of the Canada West Foundation, a longtime force for Triple-E, suggested Prime Minister Harper should "proceed fairly cautiously. My concern is that we will rush too quickly into an election format." New attention began to be directed to a 2004 Fraser Institute paper, Challenges in Senate Reform, that laid out potential problems in an elected Senate. That paper was particularly notable as the work of Gordon Gibson, who in 1981 was co-author with E.C Manning of Regional Representation, the book long considered to have launched the Triple-E Senate idea.
Debate about an elected Canadian senate has been largely unconstrained by the fact that Canada had an elected senate once before. The first person elected to a Canadian upper house was Philip VanKoughnet, and he was elected to the Legislative Council of the United Canadas in 1856, precisely 150 years ago. The fate of that elected upper house is a story with some possible lessons for our twentieth-first-century debate.
Getting the upper house elected in that era was not a western initiative, but it was a conservative one. Much as many westerners have felt in recent years, Canadian conservatives of the 1850s felt the lower house was not functioning as it should. They wanted a powerful upper house as a counterweight to the lower house. They got one in 1855, with the help of the Clear Grits, the left-wingers of the day, who favoured electing everyone, and the first elections were held the next year. At first an elected upper house seemed to serve the conservative interest well.
Many of those elected to the Legislative Council in the following years were rather like Philip VanKoughnet, a prosperous, establishment lawyer of solidly conservative views. The upper house's large ridings, long terms, and substantial property requirements gave strong advantages to conservative candidates. Indeed, the upper house of the 1850s and 1860s seemed about to become not so much Triple-E as Triple-R: rich, rural, and reactionary.
That indeed had been the plan.
In 1853 William Henry Boulton, one of the intellectual architects of the elected upper house, argued the lower house was infected with "rampant democracy." He proposed an elective upper house to create a check upon democracy. Conservative Canadians argued that the lower house, newly empowered by responsible government in 1848, was too democratic, too much under the sway of ordinary people and their representatives. A reliably conservative upper house seemed to be the corrective that was needed.
But the legislators who created the elected upper house in the 1850s rather quickly turned against their own creation. Even amid the constitutional deadlocks of those years, moderate conservatives and moderate liberals in the united Canadas began to reaffirm their trust in the representative lower house. And if the lower house worked properly, they concluded, a too-powerful upper house became a nuisance and a threat. Part of the confederation bargain of 1867 was an agreement to kill the election of senators. In 1855 the great reformer George Brown had stood almost alone in opposing an elective upper house. By 1867 almost all his colleagues had come back to his point of view.
Our modern senate debate has been haunted by myths about why the confederation-makers of 1867 opted for an appointive upper house.
It was not because they feared parliamentary democracy. They understood the focus of parliamentary democracy lies in the lower house, the common house, the one elected on the basis of representation by population.
They were not looking for a house of the provinces either, for they took steps to disconnect Senate seats from the provinces, and they gave the provinces no part in filling them. They did speak of regional representation, but region was a nebulous concept, not a real source of power or authority.
The confederation-makers' real concern was that the upper house be carefully limited. They would let it live, they would let it protest against majoritarian excesses that might arise in the lower house, but they agreed it should not wield an effective veto on the place where the people were best represented. In 1867 the elected senate of 1855 went back to being appointed, and that has kept the upper house restrained to its advisory role ever since.
Second thoughts about appointing legislators in a democratic era began to emerge soon after confederation, but influential proposals for an elected Senate really returned in the 1980s. The reason was much as in the 1850s: a conviction that the lower house was not working properly. Particularly in Western Canada, the sense that a Commons majority made in central Canada could ignore the rest of the country and that MPs were powerless to serve their constituents effectively led to efforts, not to fix the dysfunctional Commons, but to create an effective counterweight to it in the upper house.
Prime Minister Harper says he is committed to an elective senate, even one where provinces like Alberta and British Columbia will be outvoted by much smaller ones. I'm inclined to suspect the constitution-makers of the 1860s had the better sense of things: the problem may be in the Commons, but so is the solution, and an elected and powerful upper house would be bad for western Canada, bad for Canada, bad for democracy.
But if we must go ahead with electing senators, history at least suggests there could be a cure. The experiment with an elected Senate that was launched with Philip VanKoughnet's election one hundred and fifty years ago lasted barely a decade before Canadians plumped for something better.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2006
everyone you met last summer just back from Newfoundland,
or talking of going soon? In my circles, it seemed that
When you go, one place you are likely to visit is Trinity, a beautiful town that has been home to fishing fleets and merchants since the early 1600s. Though it had yielded economic and political primacy on the island to St John's by the 19th century and became mostly a local port and supply centre, today it's widely considered "the jewel" of Newfoundland heritage tourism.
When we were there, we stayed at a charming local inn. Ate seafood at a sophisticated restaurant in an old workshop. Took in a revue at Rising Tide Theatre. Followed Kevin Toope on his lively walking tour. Toured the reconstructed home of 18th century merchant prince Benjamin Lester and many other heritage properties. Browsed through Island crafts in the stores.
Okay, we passed on the whale-watching and kayaking, weren't there for the Historical Pageant, and walked only one of the many spectacular coastal trails. Whatever we did, the central draw was the heritage preservation district that covers two-thirds of the town of Trinity: streets, gardens, fences and private homes all evoking the distinctive look and feel of a traditional Newfoundland seaport town. Trinity is a great place just to walk around in.
But hundreds of places on the Island are no less beautiful, no less historic than Trinity. And most of those have been abandoned to nature and ghosts, or else modernized beyond recognition. What made Trinity special?
Mostly, it was a handful of people about forty years ago. In the 1950s, Walter White, a customs officer, began restoring his family's old home in the centre of Trinity. "In those days, people were going around tearing down old buildings, but a few people thought they should be preserved," says Jim Miller, who at twenty-eight is too young to remember but today is both coordinator of the Trinity Historical Society (THS) and mayor of the town. According to White's daughter-in-law, Florence White, his restoration project "was his way of saying, 'These houses are valuable,' at a time when everyone was tearing places down. He was giving by his own example the message that these homes were worth saving."
White's gesture helped inspire others. In 1964 townspeople founded the historical society. White's collection of artifacts became a museum. His (and his father's) collection of local records, some literally saved from bonfires, became an archives. "I remember Walter White, back in the 1960s, going out to abandoned communities and collecting artifacts and records," says Kevin Toope, the walking-tour impresario, whose own family came into Trinity from the abandoned outport called Ireland's Eye. "In those days, homes and their contents lay abandoned in the resettled communities. You could just pick them up." Such ideas were still strange; the THS's new museum was the first anywhere outside of St John's.
But the preservationist idea caught on. In 1969 the town was incorporated, with strong THS representation on the council. Under a new by-law passed in the 1970s, preservation of traditional architectural styles was no longer an eccentric whim. It became mandatory in most of the town, with federal and provincial grants helping to cover the costs of compliance.
With that commitment made, notable buildings were restored to period and opened to the public. Churches and cemeteries were preserved. Provincial and federal historic-sites services, archivists, and conservators provided support. As visitors began to arrive, B&Bs opened, and marine biologist Peter Beamish opened both an inn and a whale-watching business.
Early in the 1990s, theatre joined the mix. Donna Butt of Rising Tide Theatre Company was casting about, she said recently, for "a festival of Newfoundland theatre, a way to place the plays geographically and to perform them where they happen. It seemed to me we could marry a professional expertise in theatre to the people they were about."
It wasn't always an easy marriage, but soon the Trinity Historical Pageant offered a fresh take on local history, and visitors still follow actors through the streets performing scenes inspired by the THS archives. Butt and Rising Tide eventually moved permanently to Trinity and launched the full season of plays Butt dreamed of. Today Rising Tide Arts Centre occupies a modern theatre inside a new reconstruction of a long-demolished mercantile warehouse.
Trinity's crowning success may have been the rebuilding of the Lester-Garland House. Begun in 1762 by the powerful merchant Benjamin Lester, the three storey house of imported brick had been condemned as unsafe and demolished in the 1960s. "It was heartbreaking for Walter [White] when the Brick House came down," his daughter-in-law recalls. "A brick mansion begun here in 1762; that was proof that this community was not founded on mere transience."
In the 1990s, White's son David, by then mayor and head of the THS, helped see the Brick House rebuilt at a cost of over a million dollars. Much of it, including the bricks, came from friends of Trinity in the Dorset, England, town of Poole, home port to many Trinity settlers including the Lesters.
Today Trinity educates and entertains visitors and Islanders all summer and fall, but concerns remain. Not only is fundraising an endless demand but, as Kevin Toope explains, "Since our shipyards that employed 100 people closed last year, it has been hard to support people year round. People are moving away for permanent jobs. Even for the tourist economy, it is a problem. We used to have lots of post-secondary students who would come home for the summer and work in tourism and heritage. Now whole families are moving away." Florence White, who now runs the THS museum, fears that if community support falters, the whole heritage project will wither.
Last summer was the first time in over a decade that Newfoundlanders were permitted "a recreational food fishery:" five cod per person per day for just over one month of the year. Newfoundlanders took to it as if they had regained a basic human right, for without a sustainable fishery, rural Newfoundland's challenges remain huge. Tourism alone provides no panacea, even in Trinity.
Still Trinity has built something important from the vision of a few individuals: not only jobs, but cultural affirmation, artistic achievement and, for visitors like me, a historical experience unique in the world.
"Trinity was a place of big businesses and beautiful homes," says Florence White. "We want to remember that."
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2007
I cannot bring myself to write more about the craven behaviour of the CBC in betraying the Tommy Douglas drama Prairie Giant after some viewers complained of its characterization of Douglas's rival, the Liberal politician James G. Gardiner. A label on the opening of Prairie Giant declares it is a dramatization in which characters have been "condensed, composited, or fictionalized." Anyone unaware that drama is fiction and that in fiction things are invented should not have responsibility for running a television network.
Still, the character called Jimmy Gardiner in Prairie Giant was not slavishly faithful to the historical figure, no small giant in his own right. Rather than encourage squabbles about how to control history, I thought it might be more edifying to pursue a different question. If that was hardly Jimmy Gardiner in Prairie Giant, who was Jimmy Gardiner? Has he maybe got a story of his own?
Jimmy Gardiner was a little guy, physically a bit like Tommy Douglas, a teetotaler, and as hard as the times that shaped him. (His brothers were First World War casualties, his son died at Dieppe, and he buried two wives, one a suicide.) Like so many of the west's early leaders, he was an Ontario farm boy, born in 1883, and he first went west as a labourer on a harvest excursion. He stayed, settled, and got into the Saskatchewan legislature in 1914. By 1926 he was premier.
In 1935 he moved on to Ottawa and more than twenty years as federal Minister of Agriculture. Louis St-Laurent beat him in the Liberal leadership race of 1948, and after the Diefenbaker sweep of 1958, he retired to his farm in Lemberg. His monuments include the Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan.
Recently I asked several students of western and national politics whether after half a century there were elements in the Gardiner career that still give a not-quite prime ministerial politician a claim upon our attention.
David E. Smith co-authored a biography of Gardiner. He reminded me that when Jimmy was in power, Saskatchewan had the country's third largest population. Ottawa listened when Gardiner spoke for Saskatchewan and for farmers. That is an experience enjoyed in recent years by few westerners, indeed by few cabinet ministers at all. "For any political scientist, this is quite a story about Canadian political life," Smith says. "It's a story of an unremitting fight for western Canada and for farmers, and about the tools a minister could use for those causes that a minister maybe no longer has."
Saskatchewan historian Bill Waiser told me how Gardiner, early in his career, joined a debate that prefigured one going on today: can Canada accept foreign immigrants without "losing its identity"? In the 1920s, the foreigners were Central Europeans and Catholics, not south Asians and Muslims. According to Waiser, Gardiner experienced Saskatchewan's multi-cultural mix in his rural school-teaching days: "Certainly he saw political potential in those votes, but he was also committed to the diverse population base Saskatchewan was developing." When nativist, anti-foreigner prejudice surged up in Saskatchewan politics in 1929, Premier Gardiner suffered one of his few political defeats. According to Regina historian Bill Brennan, "The Liberal Party tradition has been that Jimmy Gardiner's Liberals did the right thing in 1929, and paid the price."
Mackenzie King biographer Blair Neatby once interviewed Gardiner at his Lemberg farm. ("He was very down to earth and unpretentious, a genuine farmer.") Neatby recalls a politician unintimidated by bureaucrats. Neatby's uncle was a civil servant and deputy minister of agriculture and when Gardiner did not like his advice, he would simply say, "Remember, Ken, I'm the minister." That attitude shaped Gardiner's reservations about the Canadian Wheat Board, which he saw as bureaucratic and beyond the control by farmers; he preferred farmer-run co-ops.
For Saskatchewan historian and legal scholar Beth Bilson, that attitude influenced Gardiner's hostility to Tommy Douglas's CCF. "One of the big issues behind the CCF in Saskatchewan was its advocacy for technocracy, for competence, for the specialization of public administration. And that did set up a tension with popular democracy." Gardiner, convinced that elected politicians must be in the driver's seat, fought a long rear-guard action against non-partisan expertise.
One enduring characterization of Gardiner is "a machine politician," for he ran the Liberal organization in western Canada when it was fearsomely successful. Smith: "If we define machine politics as a patronage-based civil service where civil servants were expected to do their bit to support the re-election of their political masters, he was not much different from many others of his time. It was a fairly normal part of politics."
Gardiner himself rejected the term "machine" -- a political party was nothing without organization, he said -- but he was a ferociously partisan Liberal. "One of the arguments that Jimmy used against third parties," says Smith, was: "What do they think they can do for the west when they are sitting on the left side of the speaker? I think it is a question that has not definitely been answered yet by western third parties."
Jimmy Gardiner was above all a fighter. In his world, politics was a hard-knuckle, no-concession, no-surrender business. That is where Prairie Giant caught something essential about the man. If you could tell Jimmy Gardiner there was a movie that portrayed him as someone who always fought tooth-and-nail for his party and the causes he believed in, well, he might have accepted that. A movie hero needs an antagonist, and the film rolled everything Tommy Douglas feared and fought into one single character labelled "Jimmy Gardiner."
"Jimmy Gardiner dominated Saskatchewan for half a century," reflects Bill Brennan. "What the Prairie Giant controversy showed was how many people had never heard of him." For a last word, here's what Tommy Douglas said of Jimmy Gardiner in 1958: "He's not a loveable figure. He's a tough, hard-bitten politician.... [But] he has tremendous courage.... I never saw him run away from a fight of any kind . He's not a snob.... When he was a Minister of the Crown [he] met with the ordinary people and lunched with the private members and was democratic, friendly and approachable."
Gardiner: Relentless Liberal by Norman Ward and
David E Smith was published by University of Toronto
Press in 1990. The Politician, a novel Jimmy Gardiner
wrote in his youth, was published in 1975 by Western
Producer Prairie Books.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2006