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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Trudeau helped Canadians tread their own boards
Theatres grew out of gaps created by the prime minister,
Monday, October 2, 2000

Like the man himself, Pierre Elliot Trudeau's influence on what we now call "Canadian culture" (sotto voce, lest Americans apply trade sanctions) affected us in ways that were both direct and oblique.

Direct: Here was a leader who actually personified the Canadian identity -- the bilingual, Jesuit, bon vivant canoeist -- whose physical presence answered the eternal question, "What is a Canadian?" without becoming an embarrassment. At the same time, people who practised the various arts recognized his persona as that of a fellow artist -- the social outsider conscious that he serves a valuable function only as long as he maintains the boundary separating his inner life from the expectations of his audience. As well, he was a fan -- artists love a fan -- and a knowledgeable one, too. His favourite novelist was Balzac; I don't know why I remember that.

(Who is Stockwell Day's favourite novelist? What poet or philosopher gives Jean Chrétien strength?)

Oblique: The much-eulogized cultural nationalism of the 1970s and early 1980s took place not from some kind of focused campaign but as the indirect result of a philosophy of government Trudeau summed up in two words: Create Counterweights. I don't know why I remember that either, but it was my first indication that a Canadian political figure actually had a political philosophy, other than Forever Incumbent.

I arrived in Vancouver in 1968 to study theatre, from Nova Scotia (I voted for Bob Stanfield), where to announce that you planned a career in theatre was like joining the circus to become a fire-eater. At the time, Canada boasted 12 professional stages (today there are something like 360), where England predominated, on which a Canadian play was a rarity on a par with Hailey's Comet, behind which sat a semi-closed shop where you got no work without experience (and an acceptable English accent), and no experience without work.

Designed as fountains of high culture to which the yokels would look for sustenance, our so-called regional theatres were essentially colonial constructs, and when their artistic directors gently pointed out that they were unable or unwilling to produce Canadian plays because there were no good Canadian plays to produce (and not the other way around), Canadians believed them. It's not easy to explain to someone in the year 2000 how in the 1960s Canadians assumed we were born with a missing creativity gene -- hence, the performance of English plays on our stages, and the absence of Canadian rock music from the country's radio stations.

Trust me: In 1968, the greatest obstacle a Canadian artist encountered was the innate suspicion that she was genetically incapable of producing interesting art.

In Vancouver, I and my colleagues responded by starting a company on our own -- meaning, we begged rehearsal space, stole costumes and put on plays for a dollar a ticket in an art gallery. Naively, we thought that by proving our ability we might gain acceptance in the majors, but of course that's not how the majors work. We produced one show after another, but our clothes just became shabbier and people took off when they found real jobs.

Then came Opportunities For Youth and the Local Initiatives Projects, introduced by the first Trudeau government. True, these grants weren't intended primarily for the arts, rather to provide a socialized outlet for the idealism of youth. But if a theatre company spun the application in a "socially responsible" direction (theatre for children, theatre for prisoners, theatre as therapy, anything), one could score a grant -- meaning a minimum-wage salary. By working at half pay, we funded an entire season that way.

True, many companies were stretching it almost to the point of fraud. But given that impoverished theatre types tended in a radical direction, and given the overbearing power and presence of American culture, the end result (ask around) was surprisingly close to the "create counterweights" principle that informed the legislation.

If you want an indication of what this meant to Canadian theatre, the big picture, make a list of significant Canadian plays, any Canadian plays you can name, any you like. I guarantee you that not one of those plays (with the possible exception of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe) originated in a regional theatre. Canadian plays were born (still are) in converted churches and railway stations and funeral parlours, occupied by neo-hippie theatre types in the absence of anyplace else to go. Like dandelions, Canadian theatre grew out of cracks in the established surface -- gaps created by Pierre Trudeau.

Fifteen years later, I and my partner (with whom I started that theatre company back in 1972) received an ACTRA television award for Billy Bishop Goes to War, which originated in a converted church made possible by grants in the Trudeau years. The award was handed to us by the man himself, and as we shook hands I wanted to tell him about the role he played.

But it wasn't the place. And there wasn't time.

John MacLachlan Gray is a Vancouver author and playwright. His column, Gray's Anatomy, appears in Globe Review on Thursdays.

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