IN A RECENT editorial meeting at Books in Canada, we got to jawing about some of the books we missed reviewing in 1991, and what we ought to do about it. Inevitably, the discussion began to circle around the magazine's mission. We're first and foremost a magazine focusing on books written by Canadians, one that has a strong interest in literature and in matters pertaining to the various print-using subcultures that make up the nation. Most of those Subcultures are ethnic or intellectual, but more and more frequently they are crossing technical, social, political, and cultural boundaries. In a sense, therefore, Books in Canada is interested in all culturally significant books written by Canadians. The problem is that trying to define exactly what we mean - or what anyone means - by "culture" is like trying to nail Jello to a wall. The result is that we had, at the end of the year, a grab-bag of books (some of them quite important) we weren't able to do timely reviews for, but which were identifiably within the magazine's mandate. Sometimes the problem was ours (we couldn't decide or a reviewer didn't come through) and sometimes the publishers decided for us by not sending in review copies (some of them tend to think of Books in Canada as exclusively interested in literary books, which hasn't been true for quite some time). Since I was among those most concerned about missing culturally significant books, it was decided that I should take care of it.
A few days later, while I was reading through the list of this year's Governor General's Award nominees, I had a depressing thought. Not one of the nominated works is what I'd call "culturally significant," except for the Robert Hunter/Robert Calihoo collaboration, Occupied Canada, and perhaps Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey, which is culturally significant about another country. Not to criticize the Governor General's Awards, which are meant to reward aesthetic merit across a number of literary genres - I'd be the first to point out that most of the nominated books are sweetly crafted. But their ambitions are, well, limited. So what do I mean by "culturally significant"? For these purposes, a "culturally significant" book would be one that takes a big, direct bite of the key issues facing Canada, its social, political, and economic systems, and its cultural condition. The GG nominees, when they bite at all, take discreet, aesthetically satisfying nips.
When I read the books that made up our grab-bag, I found that quite a few of them - seven to be exact - took big enough bites to be, in my terms, "culturally significant." In fact, I had in front of me nearly all the books published in Canada in 1991 that met my criteria for cultural significance, with the exception of Douglas Coupland's Generation X - the only work of Canadian fiction that I saw in 1991 that qualified John Sawatsky's Mulroney, and Mel Hurtig's partisan tract The Betrayal of Canada.
So I decided to make this review a competition for my own private award - the Canadian Book of Greatest Cultural Significance, 1991: the book Canadians most need to read. I've made a short list of four books, and I'll discuss these first, then the also-rans. At the end, I'll confer the award, which thus far, alas, involves no prize except an effusion of compliments suitable for dust-jacket blurbing.
One of the best things 1991 brought us was Peter Gzowski's The Fourth Morningside Papers (McClelland & Stewart, 469 pages, $19.95 paper). Gzowski himself calls it "the ruminations of ... the smartest and most literate audience in the world." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is part almanac and part anthology of all the nice things nice Canadians thought about in the last two years. As a bonus, it also includes an introductory state-of the-Dominion address by Gzowski. Ostensibly, it's about golfing on Baffin Island with the Morningside Royal Family, but by the time he's through, he's given us a surprisingly clear overview of the crisis Canada is mired in. Gzowski's introduction is ridiculous and charming and pertinent, and so is most of The Fourth Morningside Papers.
It's hard to be skeptical about Gzowski. He writes well- rounded English sentences in defence of the country, its and, and its people, sentences that are filled with rich, succinct images about how wonderful Canada is and somehow manage to be corny and convincing at the same time. He's our very own William Wordsworth, as his distinctive voice - like listening to someone speak and hum along at the same time - ponders the Canadian scene. After 30 pages of him, your cynicism dissolves, and you find yourself thinking like him. And one could do a lot worse than to think along with Peter Gzowski.
Two worthwhile books that easily made my short list are Knowlton Nash's Visions of Canada: Searching for Our Future (McClelland & Stewart, 304 pages, $19.95 paper) and English Canada Speaks Out (Doubleday, 360 pages, $17-50 paper), edited by the historians J. L. Granatstein and Kenneth McNaught. Together they offer almost 700 pages of expert opinion on the constitutional crisis Brian Mulroney has backed us into in his ongoing attempt to make Canada a hostage to the multinational corporate sector. If Canadians really want to know what's going on in this potentially nation-ending crisis, they can now find out.
Both books provide a wide and surprisingly readable galaxy of viewpoints. Many are partisan, and a few are fairly loony. Taken together, they lead to two inescapable conclusions: one is that Canada is facing a very real, if self inflicted, crisis, and the other is that the odds are very high against things staying the same as they have been. As Jane Jacobs implies in one of the Nash interviews, we've awakened a sleeping dog, and it is a very large and bad-tempered one.
I was initially skeptical about Visions of Canada, because of Nash's position in the CBC television hierarchy, the comainducing dullness with which CBC has presented the constitutional crisis, and the list of his interviewees, which reads like a check-list of what CBC Toronto thinks is the perfect Canadian demographic cross-section. The surprise is that, in print, most of these people are articulate and interesting, and Nash's questions are incisive and intelligent. I wasn't surprised to find that the least articulate interviewee was Michael Walker, from British Columbia's belligerently right-wing Fraser Institute. Walker's view of the future consists of strung-together sentence fragments and macho corporate slogans, and is in sharp contrast to other right-of-centre contributors such as Ted Byfield, who is at least able to express a coherent dislike of Quebec. The book has its moments of silliness -P. K. Page seemed to think the interview was about how sensitive poets are, instead of whether or not Canada is in trouble - but there are also pleasant surprises: the Ken Read and Elijah Harper interviews offer far more sophisticated and wide-ranging answers to the questions than I expected. That may be a function of having seen them mainly on television, which is always at its weakest when dealing with ideas and people who have ideas. I most enjoyed the interview with Jane Jacobs, who once again convinced me that she is the best mind operating in this country.
Granatstein and McNaught's English Canada Speaks Out consists of essays by an array of mostly left/centre academics and journalists, and consequently covers its ground more widely and thoroughly. The editors have dealt not only with the burning issue of Quebec's continued presence in Canada, but the rest of the constitutional package as well: citizenship and rights, regional imperatives, and what the future is likely to hold. The most startling piece in the book, curiously, is the one that is getting little television play: Al Meghji's ringing denunciation of recent Multicultural policy is deeply thought-provoking, and deserves to receive more attention than it is likely to see buried in this volume.
The fourth book on my short list is Linda McQuaig's The Quick and the Dead: Brian Mulroney, Big Business, and the Seduction of Canada (Penguin, 258 pages, $27.99 cloth). I've been reading McQuaig's byline for years without really seeing much more than a writer who has mastered the Time magazine terse prose manual. But The Quick and the Dead is considerably more than just terse journalistic prose. Here McQuaig has given us a masterly, intelligent analysis of what's happening to Canada because of the Mulroney regime's commitment to the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, and the other parts of its mystical "globalism" agenda. Her thumbnail sketch of seven-year-old Brian Mulroney singing in front of the American newspaper magnate Colonel McCormick in Baie-Comeau - and enjoying it -provides a metaphor that absolutely and chillingly captures our prime minister's character and aspirations. The metaphor also provides us (notwithstanding John Sawatsky's Mulroney) with the only biographical materials we really need to understand this man.
I could live without the snappy chapter headings (the opening chapter, for instance, is titled "Carrot Top Meets the 800-pound Gorilla" - a reference to the American and Canadian free-trade negotiators Peter Murphy and Simon Reisman), and the Tracy Kidder-style historiography ("history is the study of what top executives dream about and then go out and do"); but if that's what it takes to get business people to read this book, I'm happy to go along. I hope members of the business community do read this book, but they're not the only ones who need to know what's in it. We all do.
Peter C. Newman's Merchant Princes (Penguin, 502 pages, $29.99 cloth) is the least interesting, and -mercifully - last volume of his history of the Hudson's Bay Company. The trilogy may have established Newman as the Farley Mowat of the Canadian corporate community, but frankly, I just don't get it. His subtitle calls the men of the Hudson's Bay Company, past and present, 'A Company of Adventurers," but they seem more like a gang of mercantile Visigoths to me, and this volume is just 500 pages of overblown corporate propaganda.
The book traces the progress of the Company from 1867 to the present, a descent that Newman admits has, in changing
the Hudson's Bay Company to merely The Bay, made those in the organization feel like members of a monastic order who
once prayed to God but now simply fill bottles with brandy. Unfortunately, such moments of sobriety are rare. Newman
describes the current majority shareholder Kenneth Thomson and his son David as "among the world's, not just Canada's,
most fascinating capitalists." (I leave to your imagination what constitutes a "fascinating" capitalist, and who the others might be. Is Conrad Black fascinating? How about Peter Pocklington?)
Thomas R. Berger's A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas, 1492-1992 (Douglas & McIntyre, 183 pages, $24.95 cloth) is one of those lucid summaries of an immensely complex topic that can only be written by people sure of who they are and what they know. Berger, a former B.C. Supreme Court justice, was the commissioner of the landmark MacKenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, which was the first governmental body to treat environmental and Native issues really seriously. In the early 1970s he was the leader of B.C.'s provincial NDP, but couldn't stand the compulsory baloney sandwiches; and he has also worked extensively with Native and environmental groups since the MacKenzie enquiry. In B.C., at least, he has more moral clout than anyone in the province, and whenever he speaks, everyone - right, left, or journalist - listens in respectful silence.
A Long and Terrible Shadow is a comparatively slight text, more of a summary than an exhaustive study or polemic, written by a mainstream intellectual who sincerely believes in his research, his method, and his intuitions. I don't know of any non-Native in the country who could get away with writing this book, in an era of increasing ethnic and racial political correctness; and that's a shame, because this is a profoundly intelligent and thoughtful study.
Ann Shortell has delivered an interesting tract in Money Has No Country: Behind the Crisis in Canadian Business (Macmillan, 291 pages, $29.95 cloth). To be fair, it ought to be read together with McQuaig's book, because it agrees on most of the facts but contradicts just about all of McQuaig's conclusions. Where McQuaig argues that globalism is often nothing more than neo-conservative hysteria, Shortell embraces it, trotting out a kind of Liberal Party version of 1990s business macho: Canadian businesses shouldn't be afraid of a little international competition, and if we'd just be more aggressive and put more money into R & D, we'd be fine. It seems to me that she's mistaking her main argument (that money has no country) for a moral fact, and then ignoring its implications in supposing that national capital reinvestment and R & D patterns are possible. That our business leaders don't see the need for adequate R & D and capital investment in Canada is far less mysterious to me than that they manage to drive their Mercedes Benzes home from work. They're so short-sighted and stupid that I've seen a flock of rutting bunnies behave with more foresight than our global ism-crazed business community does - and with less nest-fouling.
Finally, there's Jennifer Wells's The Pez: The Manic Life of the Ultimate Promoter (McFarlane Walter & Ross, 277 pages, $29.95 cloth). It's a biography of Murray Pezim, long-time Vancouver Stock Exchange promoter extraordinaire, and current owner of the B.C. Lions. The Vancouver Stock Exchange is well known for being North America's fiscal approximation of Planet of the Apes, and Pezim has long been its alpha gorilla. Wells, to her credit, located a rich vein to mine. When she discovered that Pezim is a diagnosed manic-depressive, the vein should have gotten a lot richer. Unfortunately, her book isn't quite up to the task.
Like Linda McQuaig, Wells has been influenced by the Tracy Kidder school of business writing, but unlike McQuaig she's bought into the content as well as the form. Wells falls for Pezim's perpetually adolescent, wounded-entrepreneur persona. (She's not alone in this. The entire West Coast media have followed Pezim around over the last five years, doting on every silly note he plays as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamelin.) What she misses, in this oddly sympathetic portrait of a very strange man, is that Pezim is the perfect metaphor for the Vancouver Stock Exchange, and for all the stock exchanges around the world.
Our entire securities system is manic-depressive, alternately given to bouts of unbridled, self serving optimism and periods of whining, paranoid depression. Since the stock market is finally about a bunch of guys gambling on the productivity of real participants in the economy, and given that their often imbecilic overreactions have managed to either overheat the world economy or push it face first into the dumper on several occasions in the past decade, Wells's discoveries about Pezim ought to have been sobering revelations. No such luck. She chronicles Pezim and his colleagues as if they are cultural heroes, even though they're all decidedly short on the characteristics we normally associate with heroism. If your little brother acted the way stock promoters do, you'd yell at him and tell him to grow up. With all the evidence on Pezim piled in front of her, that's exactly what Jennifer Wells ought to do, but doesn't She thinks both Pezim and the system for which he is the metaphor are cute.
THE WINNER? Linda McQuaig's The Quick and the Dead:Brian Mulroney, Big Business, and the Seduction of Canada. Why? Because this book takes the biggest bite and manages to get its chosen subject matter - the hysterical and self-destructive globalist movement within our business community, one that our prime minister and his government have bought into for reasons that quite simply aren't good business - by the jugular. Canadians need to know what The Quick and the Dead tells us about our country and where our leaders are taking us; it is the most culturally significant book of 1991.