Pointing the Way

Mar 24, 2013 | News Item, Postings

In the little notebook I carry around with me, I jotted down something my mother said about a year ago. “I’ve had a good life, all things consoled.”

We’re coming up to the first anniversary of her death. April 19. In the last few years of her life, as her mind slipped and slid, she often managed a poetic turn of phrase worthy of Samuel Beckett. One of her last remarks to me was, “Good luck with all your in luck things.”

The great broadcaster Max Ferguson died a few weeks ago. I loved him and so did my mother. As a child I hung on his every word, listening while eating breakfast to his political skits invented on the spot from the morning’s headlines and delivered by him doing all the voices: Rawhide and Granny and Marvin Mellowbell, and all the politicians he was mocking. Then years later, when I came back to Canada after a long absence and found myself out of step with a country that had gone on without me, I discovered to my everlasting joy that he was still on the air, and I hung on every word again.

I read his memoir And Now … Here’s Max while doing research for Late Nights on Air and I stole a few things, as I always do. Readers often assume the fictional Harry Boyd was based on another fabled CBC broadcaster, Peter Gzowski, and it’s true they have certain things in common, including a recipe for cauliflower soup, but there’s a lot of Max Ferguson in Harry Boyd too.

The full obituary in the Globe ended with his final words, and they made me cheer. Knowing the end was near, he looked up at his family and said, “And so ends our broadcast for the day.” How marvelous that he got off such a good parting line.

Something else this month made me cheer: the ruling by the Supreme Court in favour of the Métis, a victory 140 years in the making, as the coverage said. The court ruled that the Canadian government has never lived up to its promises, having failed to provide the land grants to Métis children agreed upon in the Manitoba Act of 1870.

The lawyer for the Métis was Thomas Berger, who in the 1970s famously headed the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, which forms the political backdrop in Late Nights on Air. Thomas Berger, as himself, appears in the novel as a beacon of the sympathetic imagination: a man who listened and drew out of First Nations witnesses, especially, their deepest fears and convictions. His recommendation for a ten-year moratorium on the pipeline effectively delayed that massive development and spared the North, underscoring the truth, so often overlooked, that there is more to life than the economy.

After the Supreme Court made their ruling a few weeks ago, Berger was quoted as saying there was “every reason for negotiations now to remedy a historic wrong. That is what Canada is all about. We don’t leave a trail of historic wreckage behind us as we move from one decade to another.”

At almost eighty years of age, he is still eloquent, still effective, still pointing the way. It’s not the case, of course, that Canada leaves no trail of historic wreckage. But as Berger says so trenchantly, it should not. Not if we’re to have a good life, all things consoled.