Sunday, September 14, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #35: June Callwood (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was radically starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a couple of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large


author and activist June Callwood.

One of the book's chapters, The Arc of the Cold War, dealt with both its peak and decline since the Soviet Union would dissolve by December 1991. The interviews in this chapter, which included SF author Frederik Pohl on his novel Chernoybl and spy novelist Fletcher Knebel's Crossing in Berlin, provided a cross-section of observations about the psychology of the Cold War rather than detailing the different aspects of it. In their film, Seeing Red, documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and James Klein examined the early years of the American Communist movement, its beginnings in the Thirties, its rise in the WW II years, the later disillusionment with Stalin, and then its legacy in the Eighties. Author June Callwood was (until her death in 2007) a Canadian journalist, activist and author, who wrote Emma: The True Story of Canada's Unlikely Spy (Stoddart Publishing, 1984). It was the story of Emma Woikin, the daughter of a Doukhobor family in Saskatchewan and a child of the Depression years, who became a spy for the Soviet Union. Woikin's life was complicated by a husband who committed suicide and her losing her only child at birth. When she left the prairies to work in Ottawa, she became entangled with Soviet agents and was arrested, along with thirteen others, in the Igor Gouzenko affair in the fall of 1945. Gouzenko had escaped the Soviet Embassy with over 109 documents that proved there was an existence of a Soviet spy ring in Canada. Emma Woikin would eventually come to serve three years in prison. These revelations and arrests contributed to the beginning of the Cold War.

kc: Why do you think espionage books have become so popular?

jc: I saw a very interesting interview with le Carré recently where he said that the spy genre has come to replace the Western. Our own inability to be absolutely sure what's good and what's evil is more prominent in the espionage books where the spies are alike – no matter what side – and where they are operating in a moral vacuum. He thought somehow that was a reflection of our interest there today.

kc: In your book, Emma, it's not even as clear-cut as that. There's a larger tragedy here.

jc: There's indeed a great tragedy for all thirteen people involved in Gouzenko's defection. But there's a special tragedy where Emma is concerned. I was very drawn to her life story. There was so much despair that she had to live with. And she lived with it in a way that was typical of certainly women of the Fifties who pretended that nothing was wrong. You find a lot of that valour today especially in older women. That style of woman is essentially to be an actress. And Emma was a consummate actress. So I was drawn to the play between her outward appearance of being enthusiastic and confident and the black sorrow of her heart.

kc: We all know that the world of espionage is a brutal place where betrayal is pretty much common place. But in Emma you create a more personal story.

jc: I wasn't interested so much interested in the espionage angle as I was in the area of civil liberties. There was no period in all the times we have suspended civil rights – and I'm even thinking of the odious War Measures Act in 1970, as well as the Japanese-Canadian internment – where we did the damage done to those thirteen people of whom Emma was one. If we don't know what we do, how can we improve our behaviour? It's our reaction when the government behaves badly that worries me more than the government. Instead of automatically asking, when there's a War Measure's Act, whether the government is justified in doing this, we tend to think instead that the government must be right. Over 83% of Canadians supported these thirteen people being arrested and held. Even though, when this material was moving around, Russia was our ally then. They were not giving it to any enemy government. It was also innocuous material. Since the RCMP would never have to reveal in open court what the material was that these people had given, they could let the country and let the world assume that it was powerful stuff – maybe as powerful as the UK physicist and spy Alan Nunn May passing uranium to the Soviets.

kc: How did the Americans react?

jc: The State Department leaned on Prime Minister MacKenzie King to such an extent that I think there's good reason to believe that they were glad this happened because they knew that we could suspend civil rights in Canada. So they knew we could get them. The State Department could then say to all of North America that Russia was plotting to kill us. This flipped North Americans from thinking of Russia as the heroes of Stalingrad to becoming our enemy. So Emma was at the crux of a massive shift in consciousness that began the Cold War. That's why she matters.

Emma Woikin.

kc: The poverty of the Depression years created a lot of idealists who embraced the Communist cause – How much of a role did that play in her choices?

jc: She was in a part of the country where that came quite natural. When World War II was declared, the Mounties just rounded up most everybody on the prairies. That was because the prairies' vision of the Depression was quite different from those living in Ontario. The people in the prairies saw the worst part of the Depression – the dust, the grasshopper plagues, the farms abandoned and the women who went crazy. But they tended to blame the East. The East represented to them capitalism. So they were very drawn to the idea of a socialist world in which people didn't suffer this way. Those who were Ukrainian, or Doukhobor – Russian-speaking people –began to mythologise the worker's world of the Soviet Union where they believed this injustice didn't occur. None of them had been in Russia since the turn of the century. So they were operating without any information about the 1917 Revolution and some of the dreadful things that happened. Living in as much despair as they did, it was understandable that they just didn't know the truth.

kc: You could perhaps compare that despair you raise in the prairies to the American black experience that led to actor and singer Paul Robeson to make similar claims for the Soviet Union because of racism in the U.S..

jc: The thing is these assumptions couldn't be refuted because there was a wall between the Soviet Union and the democracies. No one went through that wall except people they thought were already converted and wouldn't blow the whistle. Whereas the most committed communist in Canada had great reason to doubt their orders particularly after the pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. The Jewish communists were appalled because they knew what was beginning to happen about anti-Semitism even if they didn't know about the death camps. Yet they still felt compelled to defend this perceived ideal even when it was behaving badly. You could say that another tragedy was how these followers were so ultimately duped and betrayed.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

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