Report from the Writers’ Union, or, Why Should Not Old Men and Women Be Mad?

June 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Featured, The Column

The Writers’ Union of Canada held its 2017 Annual General Meeting at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus June 1-4, and Brian Brett, one of its past chair-thingies, talked me into going. I agreed to go because the Union seemed to be in a state of over governance, and aside from wanting to hang out with Brett, I wanted to see which way the Union would go on that, and how it would handle the once-again hot issue of cultural appropriation.

I hadn’t been to an AGM for nearly a decade, and haven’t been a highly active Union member since the debates over the Canada-U.S Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, during which I headed a quixotic task force called the “Charter 94 subcommittee” that was quickly suppressed by the Union’s then-executive director, who recognized how open-ended the subcommittee mandate was, and that it thus might sap energy from her plan to expand the Union’s membership. “Charter 94” took Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77 as its model, and like the original did for Communist Czechoslovakia, it proposed a charter of rights and citizenly obligations for Canada’s cultural workers that could have caused all sorts of confusion if I’d been allowed to pursue it.

The Writers’ Union of Canada has been around since 1973, when writers were still rare in Canada. At its founding the Union had just 43 members; by 1988 there were 605; 1639 in 2007, and with self-published writers now eligible for membership, its membership rolls today quite possibly number in the millions.

It’s relatively safe to suggest—and impossible to prove—that the Union has, as it has grown larger, become more bureaucratic, less tactile, and less effective. What is certain is that with the growing infusion of children’s and YA authors, the Union has also become noticeably less well-dressed, and less prone to party during its AGMs.

It has also, alas, grown old, and despite valiant attempts to recruit younger writers, particularly those from Canada’s progressively more diverse population, it has become, in an odd way, “whiter”. The percentage of minority writers among its membership has no doubt increased, and certainly minority writers have become prominent on the Union’s many committees. But the first thing anyone visiting the Union’s AGM plenary sessions would notice would be the sea of snow-white hair. And that is a problem there’s no way to solve.

The Union now consists of three constituencies, each with widely diverging priorities and intentions. There’s the old guard, which is now literally “old”. It consists mostly of politically centre-left writers and citizens, many of whom attend the AGMs, and if they no longer party very hard, they remember when they did, and with affection. The new guard, many of them minority activists, seem to regard the Union as an opportunity to exercise small-scale social justice. On balance, they’re more interested in social and individual self-determination and reparative social justice than in democracy, the protection of cultural institutions from foreign or corporate intrusion, and less interested in the traditional issues of intellectual responsibility that preoccupy the old guard.

Beyond these two groups there’s the majority of Writers’ Union members. They tend not to attend AGMs, aren’t vocal when they do, and see the Union as a provider of professional services designed to increase their writing incomes and enhance their market-focused professional credentials. They exist as a kind of “silent majority” and were often deployed at the AGM by the Union’s paid administrative staff as a dampener amid all the shouters so they can set “manageable program priorities”.

I’m part of the Union’s old guard, albeit not a very faithful or consistent part of it. I have a long history within the Union as an unreliable cultural skeptic and heckling smart ass, and I’ve been more likely to prank the Union than to support its always-shifting Zeitgeist. I’ve consistently wanted the Union to be more political and radical than it has been willing to be, and I’ve wanted it to be more playful than is its nature. Since I haven’t changed, what I report here should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

There were two live issues at the 2017 Writers’ Union AGM. One was a set of governance alterations to the Union’s constitution: Its supporters, which include the outgoing chair-thing George (Doug) Fetherling, who’s either been taking acting lessons from some South American tree sloths or is turning into Abraham Lincoln, want to extend the terms of the Union’s elected executive, reduce the legislative powers of the AGM and thus to alter the Union’s character from that of a member/commune-run organization to that of a bureaucracy/client-oriented service organization controlled, ultimately, by its executive director and a small elite among the membership.

Until the early 1990s, most of the Union’s policy was formulated and vigorously debated at its AGMs, which were hot-bloodedly collegial. Much of the crucial Union policy was formulated late at night, in the midst of the energetic partying during those years. The Union was comfortable in its skin, sure of its collective mission to help create a distinctive Canadian literature, and certain that it was at or near the radical edge of Canadian culture.

But then the Union grew in size, and instead of a third of its members showing up for the AGM to instruct the executive and its executive director, the ratio stretched to a sixth and then to a tenth. If you accept the logic of the authors of the governance review, major alterations in the Union’s structure are therefore justified by that silent majority of members who don’t go the AGMs. But it also changes the fundamental nature of the Union, along with its structure, into a bureaucratic body to which activists will be asked to apply pressure, instead of the Union being an activist organization in and of itself.

The other live issue at the 2017 AGM was, in a single but very elastic term, “Equity”.

But what, really, is “equity” and what are its implications to and within a voluntary organization of writers, most of whom are wondering if the marketplace and technology change has rendered all of them obsolete, culturally and economically? It depends on who’s making the definition. The issue of equity arose within the Union in much the same way as it has across Canadian society in general, and particularly within Canada’s governmental structure and post-secondary education system. It has had similar results, too: demands for special privileges for minorities, committee quotas, reparations and apologies, even financial privileges.

In one sense, it’s the status quo and the Patriarchy versus, in roughly descending numbers, women, the working class, ethnic minorities, visible minorities, sexual and gender non-conformists, people with strong unorthodox preferences all the way to, say, weirdos who enjoy sticking screwdrivers into their forearms (not that I’ve seen any of the latter among the Union’s membership).

But in another sense, it’s about whether human equality should or even can be reparational and/or retroactive—or, put another way, about where, why, and how hard the now-old Writers’ Union membership has to tug on its collective forelock—because if we’re being rational about all this, the Union is not in a position to be effective in doing much more than that. The pursuit of social justice and equity within a voluntary organization is, in that respect, highly problematic.  On occasion, it can be seen as comedic and absurd.

The Union has been under pressure over “equity” and some related issues since the early 1990s, and although the pressuring has been largely civil and collegial, it has, in recent years, become more intense and divisive. Recently, it has resulted in the equity task force, and the hiring of an “equity consultant” to facilitate the formulation for the Union of both altered and alternate policy, and changed nomenclature and administrative procedures. One of the most strident demands that has arisen from his tenure has been a call to hire a full-time equity “officer” for the Union, which is an organization with less than a half-dozen full-time employees.

The equity consultant hired by the Union was at the 2017 AGM, armed with a ten page document loaded to the rafters with jargon and with the intention of holding a series of “focus groups” that would choose between a series of pre-winnowed options for “future actions”. The more docile among the Union’s AGM attendees dutifully participated in his focus groups and made their choices, among which (to give readers here a sense of the kind of alterations they were prescribing) was one that proposed that the Union “give all TWUC resources and infrastructure over to a group of people of colour to run (for about five years)”. The focus group choices, which were cooked to be positive reparational equities of one sort or another, were sent on for the Union’s newly elected (all by acclamation) executive to translate into action.

But others among the attending members read the ten-pager and didn’t join the focus groups. The next morning, while the AGM Plenary Sessions were in progress, they produced the following manifesto, which should be self-explanatory:

Manifesto of The Mad Writers Task Force

Whereas any document issued from an organization of writers ought to be grammatically sound, relatively free of obscure jargon and ill-defined terms;

And whereas the 2017 Writers Union of Canada’s AGM background materials included a document titled “The Writers’ Union of Canada: Focus Group on Indigenous and Equity Issues”, presumably produced by paid consultant charles c smith (lower case) but subsequently endorsed and acted on by some Union members without any evident objection to the fact that the document was frequently ungrammatical, badly spelled and used un- or ill-defined terms and jargon-ridden shorthand, including a shifting list of acceptably authentic kinds of minority writers who have been either historically marginalized or under-appreciated in the present, and which listed among its authentic minorities writers who are or were “mad”;

A group of Writers Union of Canada members who are chronically angry, mentally deranged, clinically depressed, or otherwise suffer from emotional or cognitive deficits (or additions) listed in the current DMSO manual, or are simply pissed off about bad writing and fuzzy thinking, therefore seek official representation and generous consideration within and by the Writers Union of Canada. We also make the following specific demands. (Please note that membership in the Mad Writers Task Force (MWTF) is open to all, and that any and all task force members have the unrestricted and inalienable right to add to or revise this manifesto)

  • That the Union recognize that a multicultural democracy automatically recognizes any societal group or individual, however they self-define, as a legitimate minority, and that all minorities should to be treated equally, without special privileges. Further, we ask the Union to recognize that the authentication of one’s minority status is subservient to one’s responsibilities as a citizen of our democracy, to human kindness and common sense.
  • That the Writers Union of Canada consider changing its current name to “The Writhers Union of Canada” to reflect its chronic agonizing over societal inequities it is not in the remotest position to rectify. We believe that the pursuit of in-organization social justice easily turns into status- and privilege- gathering, and leads to the pernicious pressuring of others. It is not to be confused with the general and political pursuit of social justice, which is the duty of every citizen of a democracy, without exception.
  • That the MWTF membership, meanwhile, recognizes that we live under capitalism, and that most forms of equity are financial. Likewise we agree that other forms of “equity” are and will likely remain problematical and difficult to define, but that they are subservient to the citizenly duty to pursue social justice, and to practice human kindness and common sense.
  • That the Union membership, executive and staff recognize the right of MWTF members to say whatever they want, however seemingly irrational, unfashionable and/or non-received as wisdom, out of respect for our delicate and volatile condition(s).
  • That the Union membership and executive seriously consider banning all forms of moral earnestness from Union activities, along with any form of righteousness that excludes others.
  • That the Union recognize the existence of those very large green birds with purple beaks that have been directly harassing and persecuting members of the MWTF and covertly turning the hair of the Union’s overall membership white.
  • That the Union recognize that MWTF members are deeply and sincerely dedicated to the literary and intellectual practice of being angry or crazy, but that they reject, categorically, the moral and cognitive condition generally known as “shocked and appalled.”
  • That the Union agree to disband itself when and if the average age of its members appears to exceed the age of 65.
  • That the Union offer a coherent and boundaried definition of the term “historically marginalized,” and that it make clear which historically marginalized minority writers, if not all, are entitled to fiscal or other reparations from the balance of the Union membership and from society in general. Our position is that, because the goals of art and those of the state or multinational corporations are contradictory, all writers are marginalized, always have been, and will continue to be. We have no opinion about the small minority of “entrepreneurial” writers who simply wish to crawl into the lap of authority and dictate the behavior of others. The MWTF currently does not seek reparations, or any other form of special consideration other than the suppression of the very large green birds with purple beaks.
  • That the Union ban the wearing of polyester leisure suits, which we sincerely believe has been attracting the very large green birds with purple beaks.
  • That the Union, in the spirit similar to that of offering reduction of membership fees to “historical minorities”, immediately issue members of the MWTF with either Get Out of Jail or Get Out of the Asylum cards.

It’s hard to say, at this point, if the Writers’ Union of Canada will survive these two self-inflicted crises, and harder still to decide if it should. But at least satire and levity isn’t dead. The unresolved issue in the manifesto, which concerns the wisdom of practicing the pursuit of social justice inside a voluntary organization without the power to effect meaningful change, will be treated in a longer article about cultural appropriation and the controversy around it.

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.