Culture

Stuart McLean: Laughter, Tears and the Soul of Our Country

Storyteller touched millions, and made Canada a better place, and us a better people.

By Jim Sinclair 16 Feb 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jim Sinclair was president of the BC Federation of Labour for 15 years.

I sat down late last night, full of sadness and a desire to find some way to celebrate, with my inadequate words, the passing of a man who so often reached into our lives and opened the door on the soul of this country — and made us laugh at ourselves while he did it.

The real story of Stuart McLean was not just his amazing ability to listen profoundly, find the important truths of our lives and hold the mirror up for all to see.

No, if we are to draw one large conclusion about our friend — and to millions of listeners and readers, McLean felt like a friend — it is that the dreamers who believed that if our country had any hope of surviving we desperately needed to have a way to listen and talk to each other were right. It was, after all, impossible to imagine a viable country if citizens could not hear their own voices and tell their own stories. So the dreamers imagined a way for all Canadians, no matter how big or small their community, to connect to each other across this vast land, and they called it the CBC.

Make no mistake, the CBC made Stuart McLean possible. And Stuart McLean spent most of his life keeping Canada possible. It didn’t matter where you lived, who you voted for or how many neighbours you had, McLean put our lives on national radio for all to hear. He not only found our humour and our humility, he also celebrated the strength of ordinary folks to create beauty in the face of difficult lives and tough times.

He knew so many of us hungered for a country where people listen to each other and cared about each other. From prairie towns to coastal harbours to northern hamlets, every place had a story to tell and McLean made sure it was told. We always laughed — it was his weapon of choice — but we also learned.

The stories and the people in them are timeless. We all have favourites. On Christmas Day, my ritual is to play his story “Emil.” I cannot imagine a Christmas Day when I will not listen to this story.

In true McLean fashion he tells the story in a way that lets us grow to respect this homeless person, and forces us to face our own preconceived ideas of who we are. Never dogmatic, McLean confronts us with the dilemma of how much do we give, and at what point are we creating more harm than good. The questions take on new meaning because McLean helps us see Emil not as a “homeless person” but a human being with his own dignity and humanity. In a real way, he succeeds in portraying the life of Emil as just as important as the middle class lives of Morley, Dave and their family. His gift to us was that in McLean’s Canada, we were all important people.

It is not surprising that McLean saw himself as someone searching for the truth. He would quote children’s writer E.B. White, who described his job as taking readers to the place where laughter meets tears. It was then that people would get close to the “big hot fire that is truth.”

“When I am writing I am always trying to take people to the place of laughter but also to the place where laughter meets tears,” McLean would say.

In one of his last engagements he was invited to help the City of Prince George celebrate its 100th anniversary. Perhaps knowing he was facing an uphill battle with cancer, or just because he had become one of the wise people of our country, he took the occasion to reiterate the challenge and the truth that was at the core of his work for decades.

What kind of people are we to be? How are we to live together? In particular he used the occasion to talk about the struggles of First Nations, to acknowledge past wrongs and, more importantly, to call for increased efforts towards reconciliation. He described our collective history as a “painfully slow” journey from injustice to justice.

And, as only Stuart McLean could, he left us with an eloquent challenge.

“And so, I would say today as we toast the last 100 years, our toast should contain certain humility. A modest acknowledgement of our stumbles and our quiet determination to try harder, to listen carefully, to be thoughtful of new ways, to be sure that we are on the right side of history.

“That is, to continue our coming together with open minds and hearts.

“And finally to ask ourselves from time to time how people will look back at us, 100 years from now. “Will they say of us we were tolerant and enlightened?

“Will they say we did the right thing at the right time?

“Will they find people among us who stood firm and inched things forward, who made the world a better place?”

When people look back 100 years from now in the search for those who stood firm and made the world a better place, one thing is clear: they will have no difficulty finding our friend Stuart McLean.

Thank you, Stuart, for a life well lived and a job well done. You will be missed.

Stuart McLean died Wednesday of cancer. He was 68.  [Tyee]

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