15 October 2013

Beware the Savage Jaw of 1981

Red Maple:
  How Canada Became the People's Republic of Canada in 1981
Kenneth McDonald
Richmond Hill, ON: BMG Publishing, 1975

A few years ago, Preston Manning published a short piece of fiction titled "2018: The new health care" in the pages of the Globe and Mail. It was a fantasy in which the former Reformer imagined a series of fantastical events leading to the abolition of Medicare. Think of those letters of old to Penthouse Forum: the dorm room was Alberta, cancer gave body to the blonde sorority girl and the Supreme Court was cast as her twin sister. George Pepki ignores the tie hanging on the doorknob and Julian Assange comes in for sloppy seconds.

At the time, I called it porn.

Kenneth McDonald's Red Maple is something altogether different. A horror novella, its Randall Flagg is Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the evil philosopher king who within thirteen years transforms an industrious constitutional monarchy into a lazy socialist republic.

Pierre Trudeau with Margaret Thatcher, 4 October 1981.
Its narrator is Alan Tremayne Jackson, the hardworking son of a hardware store owner. Dad dies, or so we surmise, leaving Al a thriving chain of stores and political opinions that date from the time of the Winnipeg General Strike. Fed by the former, blinkered by the latter, Al outlines the series of steps that resulted in the People's Republic of Canada.

At its heart, this is a political novella, which is not to say it lacks romance:
I met Gail about that time [1955] and though we saw as much of each other as we could I was working almost seventy hours a week and she was working, too, so one way or another it wasn't until 1962, six years after leaving university, that we got married.
Gail will be mentioned later, fleetingly, as a travelling companion. The lone image Al provides of the woman with whom he has shared the past two decades places her at a sewing machine in the family's guest bedroom. "We're very close, in that offhand, wholly Canadian way which avoids putting feelings into words," Al tells us.

The most complex character in McDonald's novella is Lester B. Pearson, but this is largely because Al is inconsistent in his portrayal. The hardware store heir first paints the former prime minister as a jovial incompetent, a man suited for nothing more than a life of drudgery within the civil service. Pay no mind to the opinion of the Nobel Committee, the man was a diplomat, and we all know that diplomats are nothing but parrots who repeat whatever governments tell them. Still, Al blames Pearson for setting Canada on the road to socialism. Could it be that Pearson was hiding his true persona and abilities? Might it be that he was in reality a clever, devious, evil man? Al can't be sure.

Trudeau is more of a cardboard cut-out. A man of immense ego who cares not for country but power, this unholy spawn of Quebec is part of a trinity that includes lifelong socialists Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier. Al considers Red Tories, men like Robert Stanfield and Bill Davis, to be "fellow travellers". Look not to Peter Lougheed as a saviour, he revealed himself as a socialist through the purchase of Pacific Western Airlines and in leveling "crushing royalties on Alberta's resource companies."

For the most part, the truly productive members of society, by which Al means businessmen, are too busy supporting their families to counter the growing threat. Besides, speaking out only draws further attention from increasingly hostile government agencies. True heroes are hard to find in this novella; I counted six, including John Bulloch (who wrote the Foreword to Red Maple) and Winnett Boyd (who joined the author in founding BMG, publisher of Red Maple). Gail should be jealous of the amount of space Boyd takes up in her husband's story.

Those who have read Red Maple – publishing history suggests there are many – may quibble with my description of the book as a novella. In response, I point out the obvious: Claude Wagner did not win the 1976 Progressive Conservative leadership race, Bell Canada was not nationalized, the country has never funded guerrillas to fight South Africa's Apartheid regime and our press is not controlled by a government body known as the Ministry of Information. The perceptive reader will note that fabrication is not limited to what at time of publication was the future. McDonald takes liberties with past events and one of the two – and only two – references is simply false. The most succinct example of Al as unreliable narrator might be this: "Canada itself had been at one time a haven of relative labor [sic] peace, particularly in the Quebec of Duplessis."

When reading any work of political fiction it s particularly important to keep in mind that the narrator is not necessarily the mouthpiece of the author. When Al expresses resentment towards those who would apply the word "racist" to Apartheid South Africa, we must remember that he and Kenneth McDonald are not one and the same. Not really. Likewise, Al's description of pre-colonial Canada as "an empty land" should not be taken as the author's. McDonald's BMG Publishing gave us Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow (1977) and Immigration: The Destruction of English Canada (1979), but that is not to say that he agrees with the views of bigoted authors J.V. Andrew and Doug Christie.

Remember, this is a work of fiction.

Best passage:

Object: My copy was a gift from Wollamshram of Wollanshram's Blog. A slim trade-size paperback. Nine of its 117 pages are taken up by an edited list of undergraduate courses offered students at York University in the 1974-75 academic year. "I don't think that I'm oversimplifying to read into the content of these courses an undue emphasis on negative factors," says Al. "There was certainly a shocking absence of constructive approaches."

Here's an example of the type of course that so disturbs our narrator:

Access: Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, the Toronto Public Library and most university libraries have a copy or two.

About a dozen copies are currently listed for sale online, most going for under ten bucks. One hopeful American bookseller is offering an ex-library copy for US$193.70.

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