At Queen’s Park on Thursday evening, during the final sitting day of the legislative session for the year, the Poet Laureate of Ontario Act was unanimously passed, thus creating the province’s first poet laureate position. The legislation, in memory of the late singer-lyricist Gord Downie, was a long time coming.
“It’s a good bill,” said Percy Hatfield, the New Democratic Party member from Windsor-Tecumseh who proposed it. “But it’s been an uphill battle.”
Hatfield’s private member bill to establish the office of the poet laureate of Ontario was first introduced in 2017, two months after the Tragically Hip frontman Downie died of brain cancer at age 53. Upon arriving to Queen’s Park in 2013, Hatfield discovered that Ontario, unlike Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and the Yukon, had no provincial poet. “It surprised me,” said Hatfield, who was a city councillor in Windsor, Ont., when that city established a laureate position in 2011.
Speaking on Thursday, Hatfield, who points to Hip songs Bobcaygeon and Long Time Running when asked about his favourite Downie lyrics, explained that his bill had been in front of the legislature previously but never got past a second reading. That changed in 2018 when it appeared the bill had the support of the Liberal government. But, when then premier Kathleen Wynne prorogued the legislature for a day, Hatfield’s proposed legislation died.
One might wonder why the bill finally passed now, particularly by a Conservative government led by Premier Doug Ford, whose middle name his Robert not Wadsworth. “I think they wanted to send a message that they’ve turned the corner, and that they’re a kinder, gentler, government,” said Hatfield. “My bill was low-hanging fruit, and they selected it.”
The creation of the poet laureate position won’t be a costly initiative for the Ford government. By way of comparison, Georgette LeBlanc, the current Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, receives an annual stipend of $20,000, up to $13,000 in annual travel expenses and a budget for programming. The job of the Ontario Poet Laureate, which will be a two-year-position, is to promote arts and literacy in Ontario, raise the profile of poets in the province and to visit schools and arrange poetry readings.
Though the role of Ontario Poet Laureate was established in Downie’s memory, the position will not bear Downie’s name. Known for his evocative, often opaque lyricism, the musician published one book of poetry, 2001′s Coke Machine Glow. But if there is any controversy to be had over a songwriter being associated with a literary honour – as was the case when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 – the poets who spoke to The Globe and Mail were having none of it.
“It’s true that Gord Downie was better known as a singer and lyricist than as a poet, but in a way that’s exactly what’s great about this initiative,” said the novelist and poet Steven Heighton. "It’s a reminder that poetry is not something remote and academic but something we encounter all the time in different forms.”
Downie had a “poet’s heart,” according to Toronto’s Kate Marshall Flaherty. "If I were awarded it, I’d be honoured his name was associated with it.”
Added Ottawa-area poet Claudia Radmore: “Gord Downie wrote poetry because he felt it was important. We poets think it’s important for people too, but it’s not getting out there.”
Downie’s poetry got out there in 2001, when 10,000 copies of the book-and-CD package of Coke Machine Glow sold out from coast to coast in a couple of days.
In 2009, Roland Pemberton, also known as rapper Cadence Weapon, was named Edmonton’s poet laureate. He released his first book of poetry five years later. If he were still alive, Downie’s championing of poets alone might have made him a candidate for Ontario Poet Laureate. In 2002, he acted in a five-minute short film based on Al Purdy’s beer-stained poem At the Quinte Hotel. The Tragically Hip’s Poets is one of the Hip’s most well-known songs.
It is possible Downie would have been too modest to want his name attached to the legislation. “He was humble about his accomplishments as a poet, and whenever I spoke to him he was deferential to me and other poets,” said Heighton.
“He’d blush a little, I imagine," said Albert Moritz, Toronto’s current poet laureate, who attended the bill’s third reading and sponsored a get-together afterward with MPPs, other representatives of the League of Canadian Poets, former Hip bandmates and members of Downie’s family. “But he was a real poet, and he took himself seriously as a poet."
Downie’s modesty is a trait shared with most other poets, in that they are gratified creating work that has little public demand. Coke Machine Glow begins with the poem Sailboat, which Downie opens with, “Can I engage you a while? Can I tug on your elbow?” Which is all any poet wishes to do, to get our attention, if only for a verse or two.
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