The Unviersal Notebook: O, liberal sweep of Canada

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Last week, I drove 1,550 miles to and through New Brunswick, making stops in Edmundston, Fredericton, Moncton, Bouctouche, Sackville and St. John on a whirlwind tour of art and artists in the province.

I have always thought of Canada as a kinder, gentler America, a place less violent, less greedy, less polluted and about a generation behind.

I also tend to think of Canada as our neighbor to the north, but most of the time I was southeast of Houlton, everything north of Bangor being Canada in all but name. It’s almost like the same place – same forest, same Bay of Fundy, same Wabanaki and Acadian heritage. I was surprised therefore when I was detained at the border for a half hour while a Canadian official tried to decide whether I needed a work permit to give a lecture at a Canadian art museum.

The New Brunswick landscape was hundreds of miles of yellow woodlands lined with moose fences (never saw one of the promised beasts), river valleys and highways. At one point we drove from Grand Falls to Renous on Route 108, a woods road without a single sign of human habitation (or gas station) for 125 miles. Driving the road through Irving forests was like driving from Portland to Boston on a logging road, a paved logging road, but a logging road nonetheless.

While I was amazed to find the artists of New Brunswick every bit as engaged with the 21st century international art dialogue as artists in Maine (geographic isolation not being a limiting factor in a digital age), it was even more surprising to see cutting-edge contemporary art being created in a province defined by the feudalism of Irving and McCain corporate interests and the segregation known as “les deux solitudes” – the separate, but equal cultures of the Anglophones and the Francophones, not to mention the First Nation settlements.

I spoke broken high school French as much as possible in Edmundston and Moncton, hoping to get credit for at least trying, but everyone I met was bilingual, a claim I wish we could make in Maine.

Though I did no detect any overt French-English animosity, New Brunswick does maintain separate French and English school systems and hospitals, a language-based apartheid that even extends to separate artists’ organizations – Association Acadienne des Artistes Professionnel du Nouveau-Brunswick (AAAPNB) for Franco artists, and ArtsLink for Anglo artists. I found that troubling, but then I lack any standing to address it.

There is not much of an art market in New Brunswick according to the three dozen or so artists I met, but then Canada has a much more generous government support system for the arts and artists than the United States does. I also found the stipend I was paid for studio visits, a lecture, a workshop and an essay more than generous, but when I got home and deposited the check I was reminded that $100 in Canadian currency is only worth about $75 in the U.S.

I saved a few of the plastic, see-through Canadian bills, as well as a handful of loonies and toonies (one- and two-dollar coins) to show the grandchildren.

In New Brunswick I chanced to meet people who know Gov. Paul LePage’s ex-wife and the two daughters he left behind there. Apparently, he is pretty much the same guy he always was.

As it happened, I was in New Brunswick for the Canadian elections and everyone I met in the art world seemed quite pleased with the liberal victory that swept conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper out of office and Justin Trudeau into power.

When I asked my host, who had voted Liberal, why Harper had been shown the door, she said, “Stephen Harper was always a control freak and suspicious of change. His elimination of the long-form census and firing of so many researchers and scientists put him in the dark ages.”

Apparently, Harper and his conservative cronies governed by ideology alone and refused to let data, facts or the truth get in their way. They opposed and retaliated against scientists whose findings did not support their conservative agenda. Harper led a wrecking crew intent on dismantling government. The good people of Canada threw the bums out.

Trudeau and the liberals have promised to cut taxes on the middle class and increase them on the wealthy, invest in neglected infrastructure, address environmental issues raised by the Keystone pipeline, accept more Syrian refugees and legalize marijuana.

“We beat fear with hope,” Prime Minister-elect Trudeau said. “We beat cynicism with hard work. Most of all, we defeated the idea that Canadians should be satisfied with less.”

Sounds like a winning Democratic platform to me.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.