It does not feel like 20 years ago that I was at a party in Calgary, unloading a theory about the purpose of children. My theme was that it’s an important mission of children to get their parents off the planet. For example, your baby gets sick, cries and frets for days and nights, then gets better, with a beefed up immune system to boot. Meanwhile, worry and lack of sleep makes both parents sick, and they stay that way for weeks. In the little group listening that night was Jackie Flanagan. She was about to launch Alberta Views and she asked if I would be her wit columnist. What would I write? I asked. She said I could start with the story about children and parents. And so it began.
In the early years I wrote less often about politics and more about suburbia and my children, who were then growing up. An early column was about Pamela’s and my only truly suburban home. We had a house built for us on the very outer fringe of the city, and I likened the process to homesteading, with the added handicap of developers scraping the prairie down to the clay before you start. Our first spring was windy, dirty and dry—vast clouds of dirt always above us. Great gusts spun garbage can lids into the sky. My conclusion was that those in the inner rings of the city should thank—or even pay—the outer-ring dwellers for knocking down all that wind and debris before it got to them.
In 2001, in a monologue from the point of view of a Banff elk, I described how the park managers expelled a great number of elk, never to be seen again. My POV elk mused about how hard it was to be patient with humans, especially during the elk rut. He really felt a desire to lower his rack of horns and put one where the sun don’t shine. All in all, elk were finding it harder and harder to deal with humans, who seemed to be losing their fear of elk. Some elk felt the worst-behaved humans should be put down.
For many years I directed the Wired Writing Studio at the Banff Centre, in the first two weeks of October—smack in the elk rut. To every group, I read this column.
In 2003 my daughter Kate was in Grade 9 and was taught to write the essay. I was all nostalgic, thinking of her embarking on this great old literary form. She presented a rule sheet she’d been given. The instructions were endless and very strict. In an ensuing column I pretended that Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” had been submitted to my daughter’s teacher for grading. Not only did the piece consistently fail to use a transitional word or phrase to begin each paragraph, it didn’t state its theme until almost the end. Considering the essay was 300 years old, the teacher thought Swift should be given a C for effort.
Like the elk column, this one had a surprising afterlife. It was used a few times as a reading sample on the Saskatchewan provincial English exam.
Now here was a leader and a political party I really did not like. In fact, it became hard for my editor to get me to write about anything else.
Another animal-sympathizer column came in 2005, when I read two news stories in the same week advocating hunting in strange ways. One was a scheme out of Texas whereby a person (perhaps an inmate or other shut-in) could sight a gun on the Internet and shoot an actual ungulate on a game farm. The other was a local column advocating Alberta’s grizzly bear hunt on the basis that it was impossible to count grizzly bears, and so we should shoot them. There was also in this column some mumbo-jumbo about hunting bears as a way of propping up flagging manhood. Let’s just say I responded.
Inevitably my column became more political. Though the Klein era might have seemed ripe for satire year after year, very few of my columns even mentioned Ralph. Maybe I was afraid of his popularity. A wit columnist wouldn’t make it far tearing up the local heroes. What finally changed that was the “Ralphbucks” phenomenon: $400 per Albertan for… well, for nothing. My column was titled “The Old King and the Surplus.” The king had a trough where his royalties accumulated, and it was constantly spilling over. There he sat, worrying aloud: “What to give the kingdom that has everything?”
Though I did devote many more columns to Alberta politics (for example, to Ted Morton’s attempt to eliminate the whole subject of homosexuality from Alberta schools), my focus shifted almost instantly to federal Canadian politics when Stephen Harper led his non-progressive Conservatives to their first minority victory in 2006. Now here was a leader and a political party I really did not like. In fact, it became hard for my editor to get me to write about anything else.
Let’s just say 2015 was a very happy year for me and for my column. No more Mr. Harper, and Rachel Notley’s NDP had broken the 44-year stranglehold of the PCs on Alberta politics. I was almost too happy for a while to satirize anything.
That’s my brief history of 20 years of wit columns. Hooray for Alberta Views, 20 years young and going strong.
Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.