05.22.2017 11:32 AM

This week’s column: on the CBC, cultural appropriation and my friend Steve

“All novelists are liars.”

Thieves, too. So said Mordecai Richler.

We were in the dark at the back at the Bovine Sex Club on Queen West, my friend and I were, waiting to see the Chicago punk band, Off With Their Heads. My friend had just told me the story of how, years ago, he organized a debate at the University of Toronto between Richler and a brilliant feminist academic. The topic: “cultural appropriation.”

Richler had insisted that the brilliant feminist academic go first. He even suggested she get more time than him.

The assembled students were all on her side, my friend said. When she finally finished, Richler – perhaps the greatest novelist and writer this country has ever produced – all but shrugged.

Cultural appropriation, he said, wasn’t just defensible. It was, he said, absolutely necessary. To write great stories, Richler said, writers must adapt and adopt cultures – the language and the idiom and the symbols and the stories and the words – that are not theirs.

In this way, Richler said, all the best novelists are thieves. “They are liars,” he said.

The U of T students erupted in wild applause, said my friend, himself a former National Post columnist with a liberal and Liberal pedigree. Richler then walked out to a near-ovation, off to go drinking with one of the Rabinovitches in a suite at the Four Seasons.

My friend was relating the Richler tale on the very afternoon another friend, Steve Ladurantaye, had been in the news because of cultural appropriation. His employers, the CBC, had removed him as managing editor of The National.

His sin: to joke, in a tweet of a half-dozen words, that he would make a donation to a fictional “cultural appropriation prize” that other prominent Canadian journalists had conjured up. Steve’s tweet had been in jest, but the response was anything but laughable. Almost immediately, a tsunami of rage descended on the writers, prompting deletions, apologies, retractions, demotions and resignations across the Canadian media demi-monde.

Steve – who, inter alia, signed up plenty of minority and indigenous writers for the CBC’s new opinion space – was out.

Now, columnists aren’t supposed to write about things in which they are personally involved, but after kicking off this column with the Mordecai Richler story – one about culture, one that I plainly appropriated – what the Hell. Five points.

One, Ladurantaye is a close friend. We are even in a geriatric punk band together, and we are going into the studio this week. Not a few of our songs attack racists and bigots. One is even called Donald Trump Is An Asshole. Not exactly the cultural output of a racist, that song.

Two, as a lawyer and a consultant, I’ve worked under four different Prime Ministers on First Nations files in six different provinces. My firm has represented dozens of First Nations, from the Yukon to Ontario. The work I’ve done, however varied, is always about just one thing: theft. Theft of First Nations land. Theft of their way of life. Theft of their economic independence. Theft of their sovereignty. W. P. Kinsella’s banal little novels – no relation, I assure you – never once came up in all that time.

Three, I’ve got a novel of my own coming out in the Fall, with Dundurn. It’s called X: Recipe for Hate. It’s about teenagers and racism and punk rock. One of the main characters is a young Miqmaq woman, conjured up entirely by my imagination. In the book, which I hope will horrify some, I unreservedly appropriate things about her indigenous culture. Should I have sought someone’s permission to do that? Or should I have not even written about her? Those are rhetorical questions, believe me.

Four, I am father to a beautiful and sweet and perfect indigenous daughter, a proud citizen of the Carcross Tagish First Nation. She knows Steve and adores Steve, just like the rest of us do. Sitting at our kitchen table, under two (2) Kwakiutl totem poles, my daughter has never had any problem with Steve. He would not have been sitting at our table if she had. She, like me, thinks he is a good and decent and tolerant man.

Fifth and final – and this one deeply pisses me off. The “cultural appropriation prize” – which, make no mistake, was stupid and insensitive and condescending – resulted in literally thousands of news stories, from coast to coast. More than 40,000, according to the oracle of Google. 

Meanwhile, outside the velvet confines of the Annex and CBC HQ, me and my wife and a few others have been labouring to persuade Canada Post to stop delivering an actual NEO-NAZI NEWSPAPER to Toronto-area mailboxes, and to shut it down. The hate rag, called Your Ward News, regularly features tributes to Adolf Hitler, promotes Holocaust denial, calls blacks “niggers,” and defames every minority on Earth.

But do you think that we can get just one (1) of the presently-offended multitude to help us oppose it? Do you think we can get one (1) of them to write an op-ed or a letter to the editor, opposing the delivery of neo-Naziism to peoples’ doors? Do you think we could get just one (1) of them to consider, just for a moment, that the promotion of actual National Socialism and anti-Semitism and race hate merits their attention?

Not on your life. In the Deepest Annex, or down in the conference rooms at the CBC, cultural appropriation is more important than, you know, any of that stuff. Holocaust denial? Naziism? Real racism? To them, those things aren’t as important.

Mordecai Richler, wherever he is, is laughing his ass off.

7 Comments


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    Kevin says:

    Right on.


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    Charlie says:

    The crux of the matter that you’re missing here is that Steve, a white guy in a position of power for which he is very well compensated, displayed a stunning lack of arrogance in his attempt to minimize a very real issue. So is the case with the several others white management-level individuals who not only tweeted out support for this idiocy, but also offered up their money; once again, reminding everyone of the compensation they are rewarded for the positions of power they occupy, and that many minorities in the field don’t. All this while advocating for the basic theft of narratives from those who have experienced themselves and wouldn’t be able to tell if Steve and friends were successful in their oh-so-noble struggle, is why these individuals deserved the criticisms they received.

    The takeaway from this whole situation for me isn’t that these folks are malicious, rabid, racists; but that they are pompous, disconnected ivory tower dwellers who thought spitting downwards would exhibit thoughtful insight and earn them praise from their peers.

    On the plus side, hopefully these individuals saw the gross self-congratulatory nature of their world that many outside of their privilege see.


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      Charlie says:

      *stunning degree of arrogance*


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      Bob says:

      Exactly for humor to be effective you have to punch up not down. That’s why it should be left to the professionals.


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      Sean Cummings says:

      Respectfully, what on God’s green earth is “the basic theft of narratives “????? It is nebulous language like this which makes it impossible to even discuss the matter.


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    Aongasha says:

    This is really political correctness run amuck, aided and abetted for shock value by many in the media for clickbait and revenue purposes. Many professors are threatened if they don’t knuckle under, but some on the other hand can preach & teach from a position of prejudice. Public speakers are denied access to public venues by bullys and free citizens are attacked in universities and elsewhere because of their religious or political beliefs. Taxpyer funded parades & other demonstrations are run by groups that exclude or profile certain people and occupations. This is not what ordinary folks really want and most of these perpetrators are in the minority, though they seem to control the agenda through their noise. That will not last once enough folks are pissed off.


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    Sean Cummngs says:

    Cultural Appropriation is the kobayashi maru for anyone in the arts. There is no solution to this because in the myriad of news stories and editorials I’ve read over the past two weeks, not one person has offered a viable solution. And the reason is because there can be no solution. Literature should stimulate debate, encourage moments of quiet contemplation and enhance our understanding of an issue. But all literature is not issue-based.

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