Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Where Literature and Politics mix. . .

Canadian politics is getting very interesting (yes, really). Our next Prime Minister may just be a Booker short-listed author!

To recap briefly for my international readers (where Canada hardly makes front page news) - we've had an interesting few weeks to say the least.

In our recent federal election, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was re-elected with a minority government. His lacklustre proposals for dealing with the economic crisis have angered the three main opposition parties who threatened to form a coalition government and vote against his budget (effectively ousting the Conservatives from power). Canadians have been quite divided over their support for a coalition government (which would include members of the Bloc Quebecois - the separatist party) questioning whether it's really democratic or not. Harper then went to our Governor-General and invoking a rarely used constitutional clause (more heated debate), got her to suspend Parliament until January, thus avoiding a non-confidence vote and buying some time for his party. In the midst of this, and under severe pressure from his party, Stephane Dion, the Official Leader of the Opposition, resigned as leader of the Liberal Party, leaving two main candidates in a race to replace him - Bob Rae and deputy leader Michael Ignatieff (who were once college room-mates). Then this week, Rae dropped out of the race leaving Ignatieff as the new Leader of the Opposition. He has been cautious and cagey about his support for the coalition government, so when and if the budget vote goes against Harper at the end of January, either a new election will be called and of course if his party wins, Ignatieff becomes the new Prime Minister. Or this coalition government may be called upon to form the government and he would be the head of that. A lot can happen between now and then.

Still with me? And who is Michael Ignatieff? Well, he's an academic, historican, journalist and author of numerous books. His novel Scar Tissue was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 (losing to Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). I haven't read that novel, but I have read and enjoyed The Russian Album, his biography of four generations of his family. It won the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, one of our top literary prizes. He's also written a critically acclaimed biography of Isaiah Berlin. I met Ignatieff many years ago when I was still a bookseller and we hosted a reading for one of his books. I found him charming and very intelligent. He gave a fascinating talk and insisted on engaging with the audience and taking multiple questions even though his frantic publicist was trying to get him to stop, as he had a plane to catch. If Ignatieff becomes Prime Minister, he will almost certainly give Bob Rae a prime Cabinet position. Rae has also written several books and most recently was a judge for the prestigious Giller Prize (he had to read 90 plus novels this year). Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (one of the parties that would make up the coalition) is a staunch environmentalist and socialist, and has also penned a number of books, including one on homelessness.

What's going on here? We have prominent and powerful politicians who actually read! (As opposed to Harper who thinks the arts are just for elitists and has severely cut arts funding). And with world leaders (and ordinary citizens too) looking to emulate Barack Obama (another reader and author) this can only be a very, very good thing. I have to believe it's going to make a difference in terms of funding for libraries (particularly school libraries which are just absymal in terms of their collections and the lack of full-time librarians), literacy programs, and an overall heightened awareness and attention to the societal importance of books and reading.

I have this vision of Ignatieff and Obama meeting officially for the first time and exchanging gifts of signed first editions of their books. And then the conversation would go something like this:
"Mr. President, before we tackle the economy and NAFTA and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I really have to know - what are you currently reading?"


Juxtabook said...

There seems to be something in the water with Canadian writers and politics. I have been an intermittent follower of Yann Martel's series of letters to Stephen Harper. I am not sure exactly what I think of them but they are an intriguing read.

You're right to assume international ignoranace on such matters. Our 'esteemed' BBC does not mention Michael Ignatieff in this context but it does give promience to your weather! Linked from the BBCs front page - .

Blithe Spirit said...

Hee hee - well weather is the universal, global topic of conversation, isn't it? It doesn't seem too out of whack for Toronto, but it's very odd for Vancouver to get snow. Ah well, it's good for staying indoors and reading!