• A Festival of Ideas
  • January 28 - 31, 2021
  • Guelph

A Decade of Ideas


As I was writing this column, a month before tonight’s 10th Guelph Lecture—On Being Canadian, a message popped up on my screen from Eramosa Institute President Valerie Hall, telling me that The National was on, featuring one of the Lecture’s previous guests. Well, two really, since Peter Mansbridge made a cameo appearance onstage in 2006. In a segment by Wendy Mesley, Alexandre Trudeau (guest, 2004) was being interviewed on his new documentary, called The New Great Game about shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. It was timely to watch the footage and ponder a global issue that is far from our consciousness here in the West, at least among the general population.

Out of an exposé on shipping lanes, filmed from The Progress, a 228-metre-long oil super-tanker, a much larger set of ideas arise. Since Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer, those who control the sea lanes for transport of this oil, control the “game of empires.” Five US military bases are key to safe passage. Add to this that 90 percent of the goods in the world are transported by sea, and the size of the issue comes into focus.

But the longest coast in Africa is owned by Somalia, a failed state driven to desperation by drought. As Alexandre interviews young Somali men, you can see the lack of choice in their eyes: “If you have a gun you can make a living.” These young men climb into small skiffs to float about for weeks on end and are surprisingly successful at piracy. Once launched, “there is no going back.”

But other powers, not controlled by the West, are also getting into this new, great game of imperial dynamics. China, Russia and Iran are attempting to reduce American control of the sea lanes. And since no one is interested in changing the root cause of the problem, warships have a perpetual job, perhaps an unspoken goal.

But, as The Guelph Lecture—On Being Canadian has demonstrated, the fields of politics and economy are not the only ones that give birth to issues and ideas. The arts speak to many of us. Music, literature, film, as Alexandre well knows, all present us with ideas that we connect to our own experiences, often seeing them in new ways. Guy Maddin’s (2008) films tease out seemingly forgotten memories and traumas that influence the present, colliding in bizarre ways that jar us out of our linear thinking; Rawi Hage’s (2008) and M.G. Vassanji’s (2007) novels powerfully present us with the experience of immigrants to Canada and life in their countries of birth; Martha Henry (2006) is a powerhouse on stage, demonstrating emotions, evoking the human condition; and Oni the Haitian Sensation (2010) uses slam poetry to treat issues particularly aimed at youth.

Although the lecture occurs only once a year, I frequently find that these guests and many others I have not mentioned have all provided filters through which I view the happenings of my life and the issues of the day. I want to attend other community conversations at events like Maddin’s retrospective in Paris at the Centre Pompidou, or the award ceremonies for M.G. Vassanji, or Martha Henry’s new performance in Winnipeg.

I also read with heightened awareness provided by a variety of perspectives. For example, sitting on my desk is a recent Globe and Mail article about the Museum of Civilization. I will ponder it more but, thanks to John Ralston Saul (2009), who reminded us of Canada’s past, lest we buy into newer versions of the story that exclude key players, I am amazed that our federal government is set to meddle in the museum’s offerings and name, in order to give greater emphasis to the monarchy and military achievements.

I’ve decided The Guelph Lecture—On Being Canadian is more relevant and necessary than ever before; I hope you agree.