Politics and the Pen is one of those rare and special occasions in Ottawa where some of our country’s most influential figures come together for drinks and dinner, enjoyed with a few good jokes, while raising considerable sums of money to encourage, celebrate and support Canadian writers.
A predictably sold-out crowd of 500 business leaders, politicians, writers and “anybody who thinks they’re anybody,” as it was later quipped, gathered Wednesday at the Fairmont Château Laurier. So balmy was the evening air that many guests ended up on the terrace, soaking up the scenic views of Parliament Hill.
Masquerading that night as an extrovert was novelist Terry Fallis, two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.
“It’s great for people watching,” he told OBJ.social as guests began to arrive at the glitzy gala.
The cocktail reception was followed by a formal dinner, where each table was joined by a politician and an author. Fallis was looking forward to rubbing shoulders with the political set that night.
“We get to spend a whole dinner sitting next to them and bending their ear about the importance of a vibrant arts and culture sector,” he added.
The gala was organized by a volunteer committee. It was co-chaired by Dan Mader, senior vice president with NATIONAL Public Relations, and Alayne Crawford, director of corporate affairs for Shaw Communications.
The evening raised a net total of $380,000 for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a charitable organization that supports Canadian writers through various programs, including literary awards, financial grants, workshops and scholarships.
The dinner was co-emceed this year by House Leader Bardish Chagger, who’s also minister of small business and tourism, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who made his way to the podium Bollywood-style — one of several jabs taken that night at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over his recent trouble-plagued trip to India.
The pair yukked it up on stage, at the expense of others, each other and themselves.
“It’s great have to you here in Ottawa,” Chagger told Singh, who does not yet have a seat in the House of Commons.
The opening video was enjoyable to watch and genuinely funny. It featured Cape Breton Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner seeking a replacement for his usual sidekick, veteran journalist Tom Clark, who insisted it be someone who’s equally handsome, with great hair and charisma.
The audience — led to believe Clark was talking about Trudeau — burst into laughter when it turned out to be Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose wife, Jill Scheer, is on the gala committee. In the video, the affable politician from Saskatchewan proceeds to go through a series of amusing fashion makeovers, with advice from the folks with platinum gala sponsors CIBC and Microsoft.
By the end, Scheer is exhausted but not without his sense of humour.
“Four outfit changes in one day; I don’t know how the prime minister does it?”
After dinner, the winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing was announced. The finalists were Christopher Dummitt (Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life), Carol Off (All We Leave Behind: A Reporter's Journey into the Lives of Others), Sandra Perron (Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada's First Female Infantry Officer), Ted Rowe (Robert Bond: The Greatest Newfoundlander) and Tanya Talaga (Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City).
The $25,000 prize, which is awarded to an exceptional book of literary non-fiction that captures a political subject of relevance to Canadian readers, went to Talaga. Her book, published by House of Anansi Press, investigates the deaths of seven Indigenous students in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011.
“Just to be nominated was a prize in and of itself,” she told the audience before accepting her award from executive vice-president Sean Finn with CN, which was another of the platinum sponsors.
The author spoke of how she’d originally travelled to Thunder Bay, before the 2011 federal election, to do a story for the Toronto Star on why so many indigenous people weren’t voting. It was Stan Beardy, in his role as grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, who persistently raised with her the subject of the missing students. This caused her to realize that there was a more important story that needed to be told.
"This was a book I wish I didn't have to write, but I had to," said Talaga.
She quietly read out the names of the seven deceased students, which was followed by respectful applause from the audience.