||A Topical Nerve
by Gordon W. E. Nore
Marlene Webber is dedicated to the serious analysis of important social issues
MARLENE WEBBER has been talking a lot lately about her newest book, Food for Thought (Coach House, 1992). So have the media. Food for Thought is about the growing institutionalization of food banks in Canada, and suddenly, many of the media outlets that used to simply promote food drives are now asking the same questions Webber asked in the book, about the ethicality of using food banks to resolve hunger.
This is not the first time that Webber has struck a topical nerve. That was when she wrote the biography Square John (University of Toronto Press, 1988), with the late Tony McGilvary, a 300-pound, chain-smoking bear of a man who was in and out of prison much of his life, until he started a job-placement program for ex-offenders. When he was a kid, Tony did time at the Alfred Training School, near Uxbridge, Ontario. With startling candour, Webber and McGilvary described the sexual abuse of boys at the school. Later, when a number of survivors of abuse at Alfred went public, they pulled out a copy of Square John at the press conference.
Then there was Street Kids: The Tragedy of Canada`s Runaways in 1991, also published by U of T Press. In it, Webber put names and stories to dozens of the thousands of anonymous children who roam the streets of Canadian cities. In her second major book, and first solo project, she was on her way to establishing herself as a chronicler of social justice issues in Canada. Again, every columnist in the country was scrambling to quote her:
The street is a factory of depressing stories. But depression was not my predominant response. Rather, I felt anger, and hope - anger at the injustices done to children, adolescents, and young adults by the warped values of our social system; by killer poverty in the midst of plenty; by destroyed and destructive families, especially those grounded in male violence; by incompetent schools; by ineffective childrescue and rehabilitation bureaucracies; by the whole tangle of forces tightening around young, vulnerable Canadians.
Odd as it may seem, I culled hope from these stories. Most are remarkable for what has been overcome rather than for what has been endured. Kids` struggles to survive and improve against crushing circumstance testify to heroism and strength in the human spirit.
Anger and hope are pivotal to Webber`s writing and to much of her career and life: "I think that writing makes me feel in touch in a very visceral kind of way with what`s going on. I`m the kind of person who talks to the television, who lives in a state of controlled rage all the time. I`m very affected by what`s going on all around me, and sometimes - like during the Gulf war - I feel that I`m just going to lose it, because I feel such raw anger at the barbarity of what the rich and powerful perpetrate in the name of freedom and democracy."
The hopeful side emerges from her work. Her energy is inexhaustible. Every sentence she speaks about her politics and passions is delivered as if by high-voltage cable. Her writing brings her face to face with society`s injured, and yet with the conclusion of each project, she can hardly contain her excitement about beginning the next. Somehow Marlene and her subjects survive together, and move on.
BoRN in 1947, to Harvey and Ethel Webber, she learned as a youngster in Nova Scotia about oppression and sampled it from both sides of the trough. Her family was part of a small community of Jewish people back then in Sydney, Cape Breton, making her an outcast. At the same time, her folks were local patrons of the arts and the owners of a major clothing store on the main street, making the Webbers one of the town`s more prominent families. Being a Jew kept her out; but being relatively wealthy kept her in.
"My fondest dream," she recalls, "was that my father was a steelworker, so that he could just be like everyone else, and my family could just be like everyone else. And so I was very antiintellectual, and anti-culture, and anti-anything that was associated with having this special position."
Being "somebody`s daughter" in a small town also meant living with high expectations and testing the limits of tolerance. "I was doomed to success. I was expected to succeed. I knew that I could do anything and get away with it. I could break the law. I was not a good kid. I was very rebellious. There was nothing bad that could ever happen to me. For example, I could never fail school. It didn`t matter what I did because I was protected by the position of my family in that small town. So I was always mouthing off."
When it came time for university Webber applied to
Carleton journalism school, but lacked the grades, so she was off to Dalhousie, where she earned B.A.s in social science and English, and a Master`s degree in social work. Webber chose social work thinking that it was about making social change. "I didn`t think it was about managing the status quo. I was always against the status quo and in favour of social change in very broad terms.
"It turned out to be the most atrocious formal education that you could imagine," she
winces. "When I went to graduate school
the emphasis was on personal growth. It was just obnoxious stuff. Our interview tapes with clients [she forms this word with great difficulty] were evaluated by women from the junior League who would give us marks for our `empathy levels. `What we were being trained to do was to empathize with the poor and oppressed and to make them feel that we could get inside their experience, which just totally disarms people because they think that you`re their ally, but then you never do anything for them. There was no discussion whatever about changing the conditions in which people were living.
"I didn`t want to have a counselling career, because I wasn`t pretentious enough to think that I could help anyone sort out their difficulties." Instead, she helped to form and run one of the early crisis centres, in Halifax. The agency became a monitor of what would happen to clients in the other agencies. "It gave me a quick reference to what the whole social welfare system was like."
It was during this period that a friend dared her to apply for a job as a freelancer at a local radio station. (The CBC, according to Webber, was trying to recruit more women for on-air jobs at the time.) She did, and she got the job. All of a sudden, the young woman from Sydney who grew up a rabid anti-intellectual and couldn`t get into journalism school was hosting a weekly spot on CBC Radio. So Webber quit her job and worked full time as a broadcaster and journalist.
About a year later, while Webber was on a chance visit to Waterloo, Ontario, another friend encouraged her to apply for a teaching job at Renison College at the University of Waterloo, in "this mutation of a program called applied social science." Within three years of graduating university, Webber was into her third career.
In the early `70s Webber and some of her co-workers and students were advancing progressive causes at Renison. A Native people`s caravan was travelling cross-country to Parliament Hill and looking for support and donations. "There were all these Native studies courses, and here we were in a program where we were talking about social change and social activism, and we said, `Let`s apply it."` The contracts of Webber and the other teachers were not renewed because of their involvement with the caravan.
She headed back east and got an assistant professorship at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where, among other things, she set up a table of Marxist-Leninist literature that she sold on her lunch breaks. She laughs as she remembers the scandal that ensued: "There was no political activity at all at Memorial -maybe there was a Young Conservative Club."
The university refused to renew her contract - Webber still has the letter - for her "political activities on and off the campus and for your views which are inimical to and destructive of the principles upon which our society is based." "First they attacked me for my political activities, but they very quickly switched to saying that I was misusing the classroom to promote MY Political views. But I was smart by then - I knew how the universities operated after my experience at Renison College - and I had bent over backwards to be an exemplary teacher who brought every obnoxious point of view into the classroom to make sure that I wouldn`t be vulnerable." The Canadian Association of University Teachers censured Memorial and Webber was later compensated by the university and exonerated of the charges.
"In the universities," she explains, "there is a tradition of espousing progressive ideas but clamping down on progressive activity unless it is within very acceptable confines of dissent, which means basically the NDP, In the `60s and `70s there was some laxity and a lot of us who stood for social change and progressive ideas got in. But then we got booted out, or sold out, or bought out."
During the late `70s and early `80s Webber lived in Montreal, where she freelanced as an education reporter for CBC Radio, chaired the English division at College Marie-Victorin, and taught composition at Concordia. "I understand having a lot of different interests and wanting to test yourself and to contribute in a lot of different ways. I admire someone who can really dedicate themselves to a skill, and I know that I will never achieve that kind of excellence, because I will be in the midst of acquiring a skill and I will go off and do something else."
Later, in Toronto, Webber became involved as a freelance writer and editor assisting organizations and causes that she was interested in. She worked briefly at the Canadian Association for Community Living (then called the National Institute on Mental Retardation) and at Frontier College, a national literacy agency. While at Frontier, she was approached to do the book with McGilvary, whose HELP jobplacement program was administered by the college. "Few people could work with him, and people hoped that I might be able to, because at least I had a speaking relationship with Tony," she laughs.
McGilvary was a difficult subject. The tendency toward selfdestruction (he smoked up to five packs of cigarettes a day, overate, and was a notorious workaholic) extended even to the book project that was so important to him. He ignored deadlines, failed to deliver promised materials, missed meetings, and made the project a struggle for the fledgling author.
Despite the chaos, Square John was well received by the press and public. Although Webber liked to read biographies, she hadn`t thought about how to go about writing one. A mutual friend sent her to Janet Turnbull at Seal Books. Turnbull showed her a copy of Tiger Williams`s biography as a model to look at. The result was simple but effective: Tony`s voice, as transcribed by Webber, appeared in italics, while her own analysis and background appeared in regular print. She used a similar device in Street Kids.
What did she learn from doing Square John? "The main thing that I got out of that experience was the feeling that if I
could write this book, I could write any book, because it was just so damn hard working with Tony. It was a challenge not to impose my voice on his, not to let my agendas get in the way of his, because it was his story, and I was just the recorder. Tony was an enormously damaged individual, so it was so daunting to work with him, because he was just sabotaging this project all the time." She hastens to add that she still admires the late McGilvary.
Since Square John Webber has been able to pick her subjects -social issues that she is concerned with, so far - with greater freedom. But the freedom of choice has not made the work that much easier. "There is a problem of self-censorship when you care about the content. I don`t believe there is such a thing as objectivity. You go in with your own biases, but when you have a stake in the outcome, there is a process where you deliberately exclude things that might be counterproductive to the direction that you`re hoping to contribute to. If Barbara Greene [the federal Conservative MP whose remarks about food banks offended people in the anti-poverty movement] had written Food for Thought, it would be a very different book."
Though publicly critical of the media and their handling of the issues she cares about, Webber insists that her books are not meant to tell journalists how to do their job: "I wouldn`t presume to do that. While I have contempt for the monopoly media, and for the sensational, non-analytical treatment that social issues get, that doesn`t mean that I have contempt for journalists."
Webber`s target is not a political party or a leader or even an ideology; it is the status quo. She lives for change. In the world,according-to-Webber, Bill Clinton and Kim Campbell are the same animal, "old content, new packaging - the illusion that something new is happening." "Political correctness" is nothing more than a tool of the status quo that splits people who could have common cause against a common enemy. It is not an organized conspiracy in the conventional sense, she maintains, but rather, as the US author Jonathan Kozol puts it, "a conspiracy of effect," one which is systemic.
The years ahead look promising. Food for Thought is winning raves. Webber is convinced her next project (which she has not yet decided upon) will do even better. The Canadian publishing legend Jack McClelland has been her advocate and cheering section ever since he read Street Kids for a book competition. After two years of searching, she and her husband, David Carter, who publishes a monthly newspaper, Toronto Computes, have adopted five-weekold Clayton Carter-Webber.
Once the Carter-Webber household recovers from the recent surge of euphoria and exhaustion, Webber is determined to get back to work: "Writing helps me feel that I`m not doing nothing, and that I may indeed be doing something, within the confines of my limited skills and my preferred working style - I`m a very private person. It suits me to be the cataloguer, the observer, the witness." 4,