Did you hear the one about John A.?
Award-winning novelist Terry Fallis was the guest speaker at Orillia’s 16th annual Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner Saturday at the Best Western Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre. (NATHAN TAYLOR/THE PACKET & TIMES)
Sir John A. Macdonald “understood humour and its strengths,” Terry Fallis told a crowd gathered Saturday to celebrate what would’ve been Canada’s first prime minister’s 199th birthday.
Fallis gets it, too, having won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 2008 for The Best Laid Plans, in which the protagonist seeks a seat in Parliament. (The book has also been turned into a miniseries of the same title that’s currently airing on CBC.)
But despite having been intimately involved in Canadian politics, including his work on former prime minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal leadership campaign, Fallis isn’t the typical fare at Orillia’s annual Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner. Previous speakers include former Ontario premier Ernie Eves, Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn and Queen’s University political history fellow Arthur Milnes.
But Fallis, too, knows the power of humour when it comes to politics.
“The leader who uses humour and wit is in control,” he told the audience at the 16th annual event at the Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre.
That point really hit home for Fallis years ago while he was representing the Young Liberals of Canada at a conference on racism and xenophobia. The speaker was Donald Woods, a newspaper editor in South Africa who fiercely opposed apartheid. The conference took place on the heels of the death of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who died after being beaten while in police custody. The Young Liberals and others at the conference were still seething over the tragic loss.
Woods, however, had his audience in stitches.
“I’m laughing about apartheid. How odd is that?” Fallis recalled thinking.
Not odd at all, it turns out. As Fallis learned, “to laugh at it is to weaken it.”
“This was an epiphany to me,” he said. “There is power in humour, and I thank the late Donald Woods for that.”
Macdonald, Fallis noted, used humour “sometimes to charm” (see: “Let us be English or let us be French ... but above all, let us be Canadians”) and “sometimes to chide” (see: “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober”). But Macdonald did so with the best intentions of Canada at heart, Fallis added.
Would Macdonald have remained prime minister as long as he did (between 1867 and 1891) without his quotable sense of humour? Would he be remembered as fondly? Probably not, Fallis guessed. However, today’s politicians should “take a page from Sir John’s playbook,” he said, and tone down the rhetoric — a comment that earned him enthusiastic applause.
“Just as the pen is mightier than the sword, I am convinced wit trumps rage every time,” Fallis said.
Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth. A bicentennial committee headed by Wally Bremner is organizing a local celebration.
ON TELEVISION AND SATIRE
Terry Fallis is “really enjoying” the CBC miniseries based on his Leacock Medal-winning debut novel, The Best Laid Plans, the Toronto author said during a question-and-answer session following his speech at Saturday’s 16th annual Orillia Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner.
Fallis was a story consultant on the miniseries and, “generally, my comments were respected and reflected.”
Spoiler alert: Fallis makes a cameo in the sixth episode.
Fallis was also asked about the importance of television satire.
“I think we do it very well and I think it does have some influence. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t find politicians lining up to be on the Rick Mercer Report,” Fallis said, noting former Liberal leader Bob Rae even shed his clothes to go skinny-dipping with the host.
Fallis also praised the work of American TV satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
“Everybody comes in for their disdain when it’s due and I think that’s what satire ought to be.”
Find out more about Fallis at terryfallis.com.