A Possible Roadmap to a Less Pale, More Prosperous Future
I caused some distress a few weeks ago when, in the rowdy virtual pub that is Facebook, I offered a possible explanation for why the Canadian theatre is so damn white.
My claim, which I made way too glibly, was that the vast majority of new Canadians from Not-Europe seem more inclined to seek lucrative work in mainstream sectors like finance and technology, for instance, than to hurl themselves down the economic rabbit hole that is the arts. Whether that observation is true or not, it was wrong of me to speak of race-related matters in the flippant, generalized way I did. It was a mistake — lazy, facile, distracting — to approach such a complex issue with quips instead of rigour.
This essay, then, is the product of research and reflection to which I was compelled by my own dissatisfaction with my careless words. It’s an attempt to move past glib politicking, test intuitions with data, examine some of the economic forces at work in the Canadian theatre, and propose a speculative but potentially revolutionary model for change.
You think you’ve seen all the forms of Internet outrage, and then along comes an essay about Canadian poets and the House of Saud. An account of the ties between Griffin Poetry Prize founder Scott Griffin and the recent $15-billion Canadian arms deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, poet and critic Michael Lista’s “The Shock Absorber” is quite the polemical performance. It’s researched in depth; it unites such excellent topics as Great Power Politics and Petty Poet Politics; it even has some decent one-liners, as when Lista notes Griffin’s sometime desire to do altruistic work in a benighted nation and clarifies: “That underdeveloped country wasn’t Canadian poetry; it was Kenya.” (Wocka wocka.) A former poetry columnist at the National Post, Lista’s in fine form here: casually virtuosic, anticipating and karate-chopping objections, prosecuting his case with judicious flair.
His case is this. Scott Griffin, who not only funds the Griffin Prize but also owns the Canadian literary publisher House of Anansi, is the controlling shareholder of a Brampton, Ontario military parts manufacturer called General Kinetics Engineering Corp. General Kinetics, Lista reports, “has a subcontract on the largest foreign trade deal in Canadian history. It is an arms deal — one that violates our own export regulations — negotiated by the Harper government on behalf of London, Ontario’s General Dynamics Land Systems, for the delivery of $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles.” The buyer is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a land of Wahhabi haute couture and persecuted liberal writers. As Lista presents it, the deal’s a grotesquery with the geometry to please a perverse Spinoza: profits from arming a despotic regime, one that imprisons and brutalizes its subjects who advocate liberal democracy on their blogs, are sluiced into subsidy for writers in the liberal democratic West.
What an elegant equation. Guilting, nauseating — and quite beautiful in its symmetry. Lista’s argument offers an aesthetic satisfaction that’s part of what makes it tricky to dismantle. To my taste, his essay is an excellent poem. But it asks to be read also as politics, as activism, which means tugging a little on its loose threads, however fine the fabric.