Last year the Canada Council for the Arts celebrated its 50th year of supporting Canadian artists, and as part of the celebration they invited 50 of those artists to Parliament Hill to be recognized by the House of Commons. Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi, was one of those Canada Council artists, and describes the experience thus:
The Honourable Bev Oda, Minister for Canadian Heritage, whose seat on the government benches is as far away from the Prime Minister’s as is possible for a member of the cabinet, rose to her feet, acknowledged our presence and began to speak. We stood up, not for ourselves but for the Canada Council. Her speech was short. There was a flutter of applause. Then Minister Oda sat down, our business was over, MPs instantly turned to other things, and we were still standing. That was it. Fifty years of building Canada’s dazzling and varied culture, done with in less than five minutes.
We should have been prepared. How many Members of Parliament do you think showed up at a reception the previous day on Parliament Hill meant to be a grand occasion on which the representatives of Canada’s people would meet the representatives of Canada’s artists? By my count, twenty, twenty-five—out of 306—with only one cabinet minister, the one who absolutely had to be there, Bev Oda. There we fifty stood around, for two hours, waiting, each one of us a symbol for one year of the Canada Council’s fifty. I, for example, was 1991, the year I received a Canada Council B grant that allowed me to write my first novel. I was 27 years old and the money was manna from heaven. I made those $18,000 last a year and a half (and compared to the income tax I have paid since then, an exponential return on Canadian taxpayers’ investment, I assure you). By comparison, the equivalent celebration of a major cultural institution in, say, France would have been a classy, flashy, year-long, exhibition-filled affair with President Chirac trying to hog as much of the limelight as possible. No need to go into further details. We all know how the Europeans do culture. It’s sexy and important to them. The world visits Europe because it is so culturally resplendent. Instead, we stood around, drank our drinks, and then petered away in small groups.
So we should have been prepared for this perfunctory salute in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, I was surprised. Even embarrassed. Not for myself. I mean for all artists, from Jean-Louis Roux, great man of theatre, electrifying doyen of the fifty celebratory artists, to Tracee Smith, a young aboriginal hip-hop dancer and choreographer, recipient this year of her first Canada Council grant, to unknown emerging artists throughout this country. Do we count for nothing, you philistines, I felt like shouting down at the House. Don’t you know that Canadians love their books and songs and paintings? Do you really think we’re just parasites feeding off the honest, hard work of our fellow citizens? Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!
To help the government repent, Martel decided to go straight to the top and to use what he knows, literature. He has vowed to send Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every two weeks, along with a letter explaining why he should read it, until Harper leaves office (which could be many years, as things stand now). Here is what he has sent so far:
The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
The Bhagavad Gita
Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan
Candide, by Voltaire
Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems, edited by Simon Armitage
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez
Miss Julia, by August Strindberg
The Watsons, by Jane Austen
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson
Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Island Means Minago, by Milton Acorn
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren
Imagine A Day, by Sarah L. Thomson and Rob Gonsalves
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg
The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye
The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway
Meditations, by Marcus Aurellius
Martel’s covering letters are conversational and personal, and seek to point out not just the books' artistic merits, but their broader, philosophical, political, or psychological merits, all part of the quest to demonstrate to our Prime Minister the incalculable value of art. To read the letters, visit What is Stephen Harper reading? Maybe we should all start sending art to our elected officials. What would you send?