Voyageur Storytelling in Ontario, Canada: Leacock Sesquicentennial Missves 1 & 2

Voyageur Storytelling Lunar Loon

A Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial in 2019

A Project of Voyageur Storytelling

in Northern Bruce Pennsula, Ontario

Missives 1 and 2

March 28, 2018

Missive No. 1

Preparing for Celebration

Missive No. 2

The Leacock iSymposium

Stephen Leacock was born in Hampshire, England on December 30, 1869, emigrated to Canada in 1876, and died in Toronto on March 28th, 1944. Next year—2019—will thus be the 150th anniversary of his birth and the 75th anniversary of his death, a sesquicentennial and a septuagintaquinquennial in the same year.

To cut down on polysyllables and because we fully expect that others will organize other celebrations we call ours simply “A Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial”. This missive is the beginning of preparation. We will link with the others as vigorously as they wish and our resources allow.

This Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial practices celebration by exploration. We explore who Stephen Leacock was: his life, his works, his ideas, his time, the myths by which he lived, his contemporaries, his legacy, his call to us. We explore, portray, and celebrate him, warts and all, for the inconsistent Canadian prophetic genius that he was.

We tell his story, and stories, because however much he may represent only a stage in the progress of the Canadian Enlightenment—evolving as it is, not yet fully flowered—he certainly was one. We can forget about him, we can ignore him, but we cannot get rid of him. He is a skeleton that will not remain in his closet because he spoke so forcefully and remains such excellent company, like a favourite uncle : raffish, jolly, wise, foolish, intriguing, loveable, occasionally deplorable.

We celebrate him as one of of the earliest, perhaps the first, of the chain of academic “idealogues” who wove, and continue to weave, the tissage of beliefs and forms of intellectual, literary, poetic, and artistic expression that constitutes the Canadian Enlightenment.

We celebrate him because in important aspects of Social Justice, especially economic, we have today the country that he prescribed. In other respects we have moved beyond him; his contribution to the tissage nevertheless remains enormous and permanent.

We celebrate him because he left us with work to do. He warned us against habits of mind, common practices, and sources of corruption that have done us much harm. These have not yet been purged.

We celebrate him because he speaks to us of and in Unsolved Riddles, a powerful trope describing the worldly maze we navigate daily in our private and public lives—natural, individual, collective, political, economic, social, legal, constitutional, cultural, spiritual. Much as we may struggle to escape we remain People of the Unsolved Riddle.

We celebrate him because he gives us an intellectual tetrad of organic elements by which we may continue and perhaps even speed the progress of the Canadian Enlightenment. The four elements are Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. These are habits of mind and practical measures that we can apply to our maze of Unsolved Riddles and our dreams for our country and world.

We will celebrate primarily through organization of a Sesquicentennial iSymposium whose participants—we hope they will be legion—will contribute in whatever way they think will illuminate the conversation and contribute to the celebration. For details of the iSymposium and how it will work please see Missive No. 2.

We will celebrate in a book about our adventures with Stephen Leacock, which go back many years and take many forms, most recently last year’s Stephen Leacock “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour of 13 cities in western Canada. Much of 2018 will be devoted to writing this book.

We will celebrate thirdly by continuing the various elements in our Stephen Leacock Project including performances, booklets, a data-base, extensions, and articles arising therefrom. These will be described in subsequent missives.

We look forward to your participation. Please write if you have suggestions.

This Sesquicentennial iSymposium builds on Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal, published in 1986 by the University of Ottawa Press, reporting on the Leacock Symposium held by the Department of English, University of Ottawa on April 26-27 of the previous year.

We are particularly stimulated by three ideas presented there:

i. David Staines' introductory observation that: “Although Leacock's lasting fame rests on his humorous writings, the other dimensions of his long and distinguished life are central to an understanding of his place in Canadian history. The[se] essays begin to sketch a portrait of a remarkable individual who left his distinctive mark in many areas of national and international concern." (p.2) We observe that a great many people now identify him with a few, often only one, of his humorous writings: a tragic loss of memory.

ii. Ian Ross Robertson's hope that: "Perhaps, in the future, literary critics may examine Leacock's non-humorous works more carefully and integrate their findings into a holistic interpretation of him." (p.49) That may be found in Leacock’s trope of the Unsolved Riddle, appearing first in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (1920) and also, before and after even if unnamed, in his more substantial humorous works and other economic, political and historical writings.

iii. Ed Jewinski's conclusion concerning Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town: "If the work fails to be an integrated work, it is only so because it is a supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness." (p.120) We think this insight applies to Leacock’s whole oeuvre and approach (Unsolved Riddles), and is what makes his cast of mind interesting and useful to us now. It describes the world we face and the restricted nature of the intellectual and perceptual tools we bring to the job of understanding and facing it.

We hope that the iSymposium will take these ideas further, along with any others that may invade the conversation as it progresses.

In particular, a hypothesis emerges concerning an intellectual evolution that we are calling the Canadian Enlightenment, whose mention we always qualify with the proviso that it remains a work in progress. Obviously this begins with ideas imported from Europe, but at some stage it takes on a distinctively Canadian hue. We believe that Stephen Leacock spoke near the beginning of this process, along with others no doubt. Exploration continues. Perhaps in the very beginning it was a collective endeavour represented by such sweeping enterprises as The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science Art and Literature, launched in 1893. Perhaps Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan (cf. the recent book by B.W. Powe) can be viewed as climactic figures in the European (classical, British, French) phase of this phenomenon, and transitional towards urges now being realized to incorporate an indigenous, aboriginal perspective or set of perspectives along with others from more recent immigrants. The Canadian Enlightenment was never a simple concept—history, geography and circumstances prevented that—but it was not nearly as complicated as it is going to become, at least for a time, if it is to remain of any interest and use. An Unsolved Riddle indeed.

We view Stephen Leacock as an important figure in this story, but only one, doing his bit and making his contribution, receiving the torch, sharing the flame with colleagues and the public, and passing it to others in his turn. He was, after all, primarily a teacher, in his academic as well as the larger public domain. Who else has contributed, and how?

We invite participants of diverse backgrounds and interests to join the Leacock iSymposium in whatever way they think will illuminate the conversation and contribute to the celebration.

A good way to begin would be to send us an e-mail (as long as you like) outlining your interests and ideas, or a copy of one of your papers. Or, you can use the comments section on one of our blogs, linked on This is an open process and all contributions are welcome.

Paul W Conway


Voyageur Storytelling 2018

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