Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Jeffrey Simpson

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Jeffrey Simpson

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing announcement is drawing near! The winner of the prize, who will receive $25,000, will be announced at Ottawa's premiere social event, Politics & the Pen on March 6, 2013. In addition to the finalists, the event draws hundreds of politicians, staffers, diplomats and philanthropists as well as playing hosts to dozens of respected Canadian authors. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

Today we speak with nominee Jeffrey Simpson, whose Chronic Condition: Why Canada's Health Care System Needs to Be Dragged into the 21st Century (Allen Lane Canada) tackles a great sacred cow of Canadian identity; our health care system and its flaws. A previous winner of the Governor General's Literary Award, Jeffrey is unflinching in his discussion of what we are unwilling to admit about our current system and where we might go from here.

Jeffrey talks with Open Book about the dirty secret of our health care system, a case of mistaken identity and a view of literary prizes from both sides of the jury.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted and how the project came about.

Jeffrey Simpson:

Chronic Condition is a description of the history, current realities and future prospects of the Canadian health-care system. It came about because Canadians had come to believe that they have the best system in the world, whereas our system ranks at best in the middle of the world rankings. It was time to shatter that mythology so that Canadians can see their system as it is, as opposed to what they think it is, so that fear of change can be banished and the system made better. I was also aware that the system’s rising costs — without any commensurate improvement in access or quality — were crowding out other important programs of government. Of this I was convinced the public remained ignorant. Although politicians knew this dirty secret, they were afraid of revealing it to the public. So fierce is Canadians’ attachment to the health-care system that they have made into the country’s most important national symbol. Starting from the premise that we dare not keep doing what we had been doing, I began to write a book to alert us to this very costly danger and to outline what we need to do to make things better.


In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book qualifies as political writing?


Politics can mean two things: partisan politics, full of the drama of political actors, and I have written that kind of books about “politics,” one of which won a Governor-General’s award long ago. Politics in the wider sense means public debates about public matters, which is what Chronic Condition tries to do. Yes, there are elements of the partisan drama in the piece, especially in reviewing the history when political men and women had choices to make; but the book is more broadly about public choices, past, present and future. And that is politics.


The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?


I’ve been to many Politics and the Pen dinners because one perk of being an author and living in Ottawa is that you get invited every year and don’t pay for a ticket! My funniest memory, by far, was the year that the organizers ordered 15 or 20 books to be placed at tables by an author named Jeffrey Simpson, assuming the book was by me. Instead, it turned out to be by a namesake from the United States about growing up in New England. As my close friends know, my family had a summer cottage in Vermont for many decades. I decided to play along all night, signing someone else’s book and telling people that I had written this book without telling anyone. When apprised of the mistake, the organizers were deeply apologetic. They had no reason to be; mistakes happen and I thought the whole thing quite hilarious.


If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?


I thought Richard Gwyn’s two volumes on John A. Macdonald were exceptional, and one of them won this prize. Quite deservedly.


If you win the prize, how will you celebrate?


How will I celebrate? With a smile, and a sharp memory for having been a nominee for prizes that I have won and lost, and having been a juror for the Charles Taylor Prize and the Cundill Prize for History. Both experiences, as author and juror, instructed me in the vagaries of fate and the impossibility of predicting the preferences of juries. So I am flattered to be nominated. If chosen as winner, I will remember the times when I lost and think of the other finalists.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I am gratified that having written one book on an important subject, I am in receipt of many invitations to speak about this subject as if a book qualifies you as an “expert.” This will keep me busy for a while. My previous book was about climate change, a subject of tremendous complexity, and now health-care comes along as a subject, another brain-whopper. So I might give myself a break for a while, given how hard it is to find a market for a serious non-fiction book in Canada for any author who is not a television star, a personality (however defined) or a hockey player.

Jeffrey Simpson has been the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist for more than 25 years. He is the author of eight previous books — including Discipline of Power, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award — and is an officer of the Order of Canada. He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public-policy journalism. He lives in Ottawa.

For more information about Chronic Condition: Why Canada's Health Care System Needs to Be Dragged into the 21st Century please visit the Allen Lane Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

For more information about the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, please visit the Writers' Trust of Canada website.

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