Issues

October 2010

Re: “Big Brother No More,” by Matthew Mendelsohn

Matthew Mendelsohn gives us a devastating critique of the myth of Ontario as the big brother of Confederation. Certainly some Ontario premiers and perhaps a significant number of Ontario citizens subscribed to that myth, but I doubt if many Canadians outside of Ontario ever bought into it. If they did, it was surely the myth of Ontario as a big bad brother. I do not think that will change.

Even though Ontario is no longer the richest province, it has, by far, the largest population and is right in the middle of the country. Those who live to the east, west and north of us will continue to define themselves as not being us. While we Ontarians no longer rip them off in any obvious ways, I am sure that fellow Canadians in those parts will find reasons for blaming us for what they don’t like about Canada. That is just the way identity formation works. As the most numerous and most diverse folks in the middle, Ontarians’ primary geopolitical identity will remain solidly Canadian. Mendelsohn’s research indicates a strengthened sense of Canadian identity outside of Canada. That is nice to hear—but I doubt that it will save Ontarians from regional jabs.

Up to a point I like Mendelsohn’s focus on interests—in particular his urging the end of federal social programs, other than equalization, which attempt to redistribute wealth and opportunity regionally. We in Ontario should resist such programs, and above all the employment insurance system. In all areas of the country, the working victims of that destructive gale of international competition that Mendelsohn seems so content to live with are in equal need of the benefits of a strong employment insurance program.

Fiscal equalization, on the other hand, fairly defined and administered, is fundamental to Canadian identity. It distinguishes us from our market-dominated federal neighbour to the south whose national vision requires citizens in less prosperous regions to leave home in order to enjoy decent public services. Thank goodness, in this era of populist conservatism, equalization is entrenched in our constitution.

What I cannot identify with in Mendelsohn’s vision of Confederation’s future is a country that “will be determined far more by its competitiveness on the global stage.” What on earth are we competing for? I identify with that small, but growing non-geographic province that refuses to accept the Great God Growth as the ultimate measure of well-being. Now there is something to debate in the next phase of our country’s development.

Peter H. Russell
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “An Exaggerated Demise,” by Dimitry Anastakis

Though you might think the value of all forecasting had declined almost to zero after the events of the last two years, it’s still good, in the glowering gloom, to have Dimitry Anastakis’s unorthodoxly cheerful long-run forecast for the Ontario economy. No non-Ontarian looks forward to the day when the province gets its swagger back. But it will only be good for the country if its largest jurisdiction returns to more normal rates of growth and employment.

Still, there is room for a quibble or two. Why, for instance, so much emphasis on manufacturing? As Anastakis demonstrates, making things remains an important part of Ontario’s economy, even if three quarters of its citizens, as in most other rich countries, work in the service sector—albeit often providing services to manufacturing. Bailing out the auto industry may have been, as much as it pains this free marketer to say so, a good short-term response to a financial hurricane, but with India and China ramping up their industries, is car-making really a good long-term bet?

Not that a contrary judgement would require us to do anything: if the province eventually does become uncompetitive in autos, investment and jobs will dry up, people and capital will move on to other things or places, and no amount of subsidy will or should halt that process. Ontario’s long-term advantage is a large, relatively well-educated population that still, despite the efforts of collectivists over the years, generally operates under the capitalist rule that it must earn its living in the marketplace. If autos become unprofitable, Ontarians will have try something else. It would be folly to try to devise an official opinion about what that something else might be, though no doubt several ministries will try.

As for Toronto, it’s clearly important to the provincial economy, much of which is connected to it. But is it really Canada’s “economic city of the future”? Were Toronto to collapse under the weight of its self-importance and slide into Lake Ontario, we who live in the hinterland cities of Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary doubtless would struggle to find things to do with ourselves. My guess, though, is we’d survive. Does future Canadian economic growth depend on Toronto’s being well managed? It probably wouldn’t hurt. But Torontonians themselves presumably want their city to be well managed. They live there, after all. Making city dwellers better off, not satisfying a pet theory of economic growth, is the best reason to run cities well.

Finally, what does it mean to say that “the province needs to continue diversifying the destination of its products and services so that it is not so dependent on” the U.S. market? If it means Ontario businesses disappointed with the slow American recovery decide to try to sell their products elsewhere, fine. Let them. They know their business best. But if in the end they decide doing business down the road is still a lot easier than navigating corrupt bureaucracies half a world away, well, that too is their business.

William Watson
Montreal, Quebec


Re: “Cinderella City,” by Trina McQueen

As a native Torontonian my heart glowed with warm pride as I read Trina McQueen’s account of the cultural ascendency of my hometown. But then I hit a sentence that read “first, there is no such thing as enough government support for the arts” and all my warm feelings chilled. It was followed immediately by the opposing view of “second, there is no such thing as too little arts funding for some taxpayers.” I am entirely in the second camp.

It may come as a surprise to the professional cultural classes to know that there are many of us out here, fiscal conservatives and libertarians that we are, who attend cultural events and generously support the arts, who buy and read a lot of books, who subscribe to the LRC and even the NYRB, who adored Peter Gzowski and who are convinced that government should not be giving one cent to cultural organizations, especially in places as wealthy as the Greater Toronto Area. Our reasons include the following.

Government shekels are government shackles. Every experienced grant writer knows that when applying for government funds the first thing you do is check out the criteria for the grant and make sure your proposal religiously adheres to them. Then you look at what has previously been funded by that window of government and adjust your submission so that it is obviously not too different. Enlightened and benevolent though the bureaucrats and their advisors may be, they still call the tune. It is a dangerous and slippery slope that begins with government approval for support and descends to agitprop and propaganda. Better that artists be fewer and poorer but free and truly independent than beholden to any government office.

Robin Hood in reverse. Use of taxpayers’ dollars for the arts is a case of “take from the poor and give to the rich.” You only have to look at the rest of the attendees at any GTA symphony, opera, art gallery, museum, live theatre or Broadway musical to see that we are all old and rich. The working stiff who loses one third of every paycheque to taxes and can’t afford even the second balcony is subsidizing the entertainment and cultural pleasure of those of us who can easily afford to pay for it. If you can afford a $150 ticket for Wicked, then you can afford $200 for the same seat. If the Canadian Opera Company had, as recently reported, a sold-out season and still incurred an operating deficit, then they just weren’t charging enough for tickets or sponsorships. Better that taxpayers’ money stayed in their own pockets—they earned it—than be transferred to people like me who really don’t need it.

There’s no need. Ms. McQueen reports that “the institutions … did not raise $488 million from the private sector. They raised $899 million.” If there is that much money awash in the GTA, then why does any worthwhile cultural institution need to go cap in hand to government? Just keep on delivering good work, hire effective fundraisers and send your board members and other volunteers out to lean on their wealthy friends, and the money will be there.

Junk culture. How many of us have sat through a painfully bad production, sighed and concluded that only a government grant could have made something so dreadful possible? (Support gratefully acknowledged in the playbill.) The GTA and indeed all of the major population centres of Canada that support a multitude of arts events are also sophisticated cultural marketplaces with discerning audiences that are much better than the most dedicated mandarin at determining what is worthy of support and what is not.

Back in 1946 Irving Berlin summed up show business with the words:

The opening when your heart beats like a drum,
The closing when the customers won’t come.

Please note that he did not write: “The closing when the government grant runs out.” Some of us still believe that it is better for the arts, for artists and for public policy to keep the government out and let the “customer” determine what does and doesn’t get built, hung, written, produced, danced or sung.

Craig Copland
New York, New York


I found profoundly illuminating the letter published in your December issue, signed by Craig Copland. It brightly illustrates for me the depth, complexity and subtlety of the famous North American democracy, in which a person like Mr. Copland feels free to express an opinion on the financing of national culture, to authoritatively put it on paper, to send it to a review and be published. Here he feels free to speak not only in his name, but in the name of “many of us out here … who attend cultural events and generously support the arts,” the “old and rich,” as he puts it more precisely.

And that is not all. He also feels free to speak in the name of the artists, who are better off “fewer and poorer but free and truly independent.” And what is really awesome is that he even speaks in the name of the “working stiff,” who can’t afford the “entertainment and cultural pleasure,” and is going to be kept out of them for ever, as the good customers can raise the bid and pay $200 where today they pay $150.

As for the cultural institutions, why indeed should they “go cap in hand to government,” when they can go to their “wealthy friends” (nothing about where the cap should be in this case), who become “discerning audiences” and then “customers” to an art and culture seen as commodities, obeying the laws of the market.

Copland writes nothing about more access to culture as part of a general education and nothing about subsidized cultural institutions choosing their own policies, independently managing public and private funds, respected as builders and guardians of a nation’s culture. He writes nothing about nations that are proud of their culture and treasure their artists, nations defined and kept alive by their culture. And, guess what, they are even making money out of it!

This blessed democracy, which provides so many rights and so much freedom for Mr. Copland, can restore artists’ right to dignity, giving them the freedom to breathe and to create, instead of perpetually selling something to the rich.

Andreia Mihail
Toronto, Ontario


It’s late on a summer Saturday night in St. John’s. Municipally planted marigolds in raggedy-ass patches of green are wilting from the late afternoon thunderstorm. Jiffy Cabs slowly cruise Water Street. Downtown is filling up with post-prandial revellers, most merely warming up for a full night on the town. Bartenders are bracing themselves for a fresh crush of patrons as clocks tick toward midnight. Flocks of tourists, conspicuous in their clean Docksiders and crisp Polo shirts, have been wandering George Street for hours, confused by the density of pubs. Local girls huddle in their recycled scarves at the outdoor tables at Hava Java. Everyone on the streets is beaming widely at everyone else.

Nearby, in Bowring Park, just over the brow, thousands of people are sloshing through the muddy beer tent, the ground still soggy from the earlier deluge. The air is thick with the sweet smell of cannabis and local brew. The annual St. John’s Folk Festival is swinging in its 34th year. Ticket holders excitedly await the climactic performance by the Wonderful Grand Band. The boys take the stage, Greg Malone fronting the band in outrageous glitter. He embraces the city. A roar of appreciation surges through the air. On Military Road, across from the park, an overflow crowd gawks at a large screen of the stage, a courtesy to those without means. Ice cream cones drip onto the sidewalk, mingling with freshly tossed cigarette butts and chewing gum.

Over at The Rooms, the huge provincial monument of art and culture, the night staff are locking up the galleries housing 400-year celebrations of Cupids, the first English settlement in the province. Just down the road, the recently renovated theatre landmark known widely as the LSPU Hall looms proudly over the city. The night is rocking with laughter and desire.

For anyone living in St. John’s, this is a night like many others. The city has been developing and adjusting itself to the times for well over four centuries. Its cultural and artistic expression is flourishing, as ever. You could spit and hit an artist, writer, composer, accordionist or circus clown anywhere on Duckworth Street. A great cultural city requires artists, audiences, creative spaces, patrons, government support—and talent. St. John’s has goodwill and sizable support from the Williams government. It also has talent in spades. The centre is here.

Noreen Golfman
St. John's, Newfoundland


I hope I am one of many overseas readers of the LRC. As more and more print media moves entirely to digital form, it is a pleasure to hold paper. I also get an old-fashioned kick out of waiting for the postman to deliver the Canadian literary news, which is why I try not to peek at the LRC online. Through some postal miracle the November LRC arrived in Europe just six days after Naheed Nenshi was elected mayor of Calgary, and a few days before I received the October issue. I didn’t notice this leapfrogging. True, the LRC did not try to hide the fact that the November issue was in fact the November issue. But who reads the small print when you’re desperate for Canadian paper news?

I invite you to reread, naively, Noreen Golfman’s November letter, which taught me tonnes about the arts in Newfoundland. The letter was a kindly parody of Trina McQueen’s “Toronto: The Belle of the Ball” from the October issue (“It’s late on a summer Saturday night in St. John’s…”). Now imagine not yet having received the October issue and trying to figure out what in the Hava Java was going on in Golfman’s descriptive paragraphs! That letter concludes, “The centre is here.” This one concludes, “It sure ain’t here!”

Jason Blake
Celje, Slovenia


Re: “A Slippery Debate,” by Patrick Brethour

I’m flattered to be mentioned in not one but two reviews in the October issue.

I enjoyed Patrick Brethour’s thoughtful comments about my book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oilsands. I am grateful for his compliments and will consider his criticisms.

In his review of a different book (Peter Gzowski: A Biography), Peter Newman called my opinions “Precambrian.” Unlike Newman, I wasn’t around back then so I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a criticism.

I think what he is really lamenting is that the cozy club that was represented by the “official” Canadian voices of the 1970s and ’80s—Gzowski, Margaret Atwood, Newman himself, etc.—has been replaced by a broader range of views that don’t all have his approval. Newman dismisses opinions like mine as “imported” because it’s easier for him to call dissenters un-Canadian than to acknowledge that he and his club don’t speak for the whole country and never did.

Newman writes that Gzowski “set our agendas.” No. I and millions like me never consented to that agenda, and to Newman’s consternation we won’t shut up about it.

Ezra Levant
Calgary, Alberta


Ezra Levant describes himself as representing “a broader range of views” than mine. The very opposite is true. His views were amply represented when he was editing and publishing his own magazine, and continue to be propagated on his website. They are, as I noted, of Flintstone vintage, and not to be taken seriously. It is only when his political idol, Stephen Harper, temporarily becomes a centrist that he can nudge up his popular following. I rest my case.

Peter C. Newman
Toronto, Ontario


The LRC welcomes letters. We reserve the right to publish such letters and edit them for length, clarity and accuracy. E-mail editor@lrcreview.com.