Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

GET UP! STAND UP! On loyalty, community and our democratic voice.

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Get Up Stand Up

On the first beautiful Saturday of the spring, one Canadian taxpayer (that’s me — and I use the word taxpayer because I am one, though as a non-citizen I do not (yet) get a vote) joined 1000 or so others at Convocation Hall to explore the importance of our democratic voice.

This gathering of civic-minded souls was Get Up! Stand Up!, part of Random House of Canada’s fifth Open House Festival. Over its lifetime the event has raised more than $300,000 for its beneficiaries: Frontier College, PEN Canada and the Toronto Public Library Foundation.

The Open House Festival has always been about hot-button issues and the reader-writer relationship, but the format has fluctuated a little over the years. Initially featuring a greater number of panel discussions and interview events over a weekend or two, the festival has since been pared back to just two events. As with Luminato, whose 2013 lineup I wrote about last month, Random House is pursuing a model of big ideas and multiple speakers condensed into fewer requests for your time. Event one, Torn from the Pages, was a night of words and music that took place at Hugh’s Room on April 27. Event two was Get Up! Stand Up!

Six speakers each had one hour in which to give a 20-minute address, have an on-stage Q&A with either Carol Off or Gillian Findlay, and take questions from the audience. The whole shebang was slated to run for eight hours. The crowd ranged from twenty-somethings to eighty-somethings. The tech crew was possibly the handsomest of any event venue in the city. The seats were a trifle hard on the buttocks, but a handful of clever souls (among which I sadly cannot count myself) knew to bring a cushion.

And so we began. Micah White, Editor-at-Large at Adbusters and father of the Occupy movement, spoke of “leaderlessness,” “meme warfare” and “We Are The 99 Percent.”

Chris Hedges, Pulitzer-winning journalist, author of books including Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, and subject of that Kevin O’Leary interview, stepped up next with a powerful speech about corporate ownership of government: “The public face of power masks the fact that [our government representatives] are, in essence, corporate employees.”

On the subject of the muzzling of government scientists, Can-Lit icon Margaret Atwood delivered a characteristically dry address that elicited many a laugh. She compared our prime minister to Stalin, noted such “good news” items for our times as vampires no longer being “ugly baddies” and that the zombie apocalypse hasn’t happened “yet,” and encouraged everyone to donate to the Indiegogo campaign “Shit Harper Did,” raising money to run a prime-time-TV attack ad against the government.

After a break for lunch in which everyone ran off to bask in the sunshine, National Chief Shawn Atleo spoke of the passion and power of indigenous youth to elicit change, and shared his grandmother’s entreaty that we fight a fight with education instead of with fists. Following which Wade Davis, Explorer-in-Residence to National Geographic (coolest job title ever), spoke emotionally about the threats to his home in BC from mineral and gas companies. The day concluded with a summing up by public intellectual and President of International PEN John Ralston Saul.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Get Up! Stand Up! audience was a gathering of red, orange and green voters, and yet many of the speakers made a point of talking outside political lines. In reference to the principles of Occupy, Micah White spoke of a 99 percent united across left and right, and on the subject of government interfering in the delivery of information to a citizenry who paid for that information, Atwood made clear, “this is not about party politics, it’s about proper behaviour in a democracy.”

Alongside talk of anarchy (White) and the idea that “civil disobedience is all we have left” to fight corrupt government (Hedges) were the guiding principles of loyalty and community. Loyalty to a set of principles, to a geographic location, to information; community forged around the same. Hedges spoke of journalism as a form of activism for its loyalty to truth above loyalty to news. Echoing this sentiment, Atwood later said, “an honest scientist owes a loyalty to truth.” Quoting Atwood, Wade Davis noted that “the key to understanding Canada is our landscape,” and that “only loyalty to place can give us the drive to stand up and protect it.” Atleo spoke of generations of loyalty to the land.

I asked Scott Sellers, who has organized Open House since its inception, about the goal for the festival as a whole and this event in particular. The festival is about “[bringing] together writers and readers to explore the most important issues of the day,” he said, and that “it was clear to many of us that there is no more important issue right now than standing up to government, the business community and the media (those who decide the agenda for issues that are important to all of our lives) and make sure that our opinion is heard.”

“The space in which we can express ourselves is diminishing,” said Chris Hedges. Our Prime Minister “does not wish to entrust the citizens of this country with any sort of voice,” said Margaret Atwood. But on a Saturday in May, a community of civic-minded, culturally engaged citizens took a space, expressed themselves and examined the importance of their democratic voice.  It’s great to see a publisher creating this kind of community from its network of readers, writers and ideas.

Podcasts from Get Up! Stand Up! will be available soon at CBC Books.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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