The minister, the Government and its vehicle, the Canada Council, are weak and full of fear—fearful of not appearing avant garde, fearful of being labeled culturally illiterate.Robert Wenman, MP Fraser Valley West (PC), 13 December 1977
they got a sause calld houses uv parliament for meat at th tabul hp sause it sure tastes shitty too bill bissett“in nova scotia th peopul call shit houses housus uv parliament”
Taken at face value, the bissett affair of 1977–78 seems rather mundane, hardly worth noticing. A group of mostly opposition MPS, headed by Bob Wenman, the Tory member for Fraser Valley West, attempted to take the government to task for, in their eyes, the fiscal irresponsibility of the Canada Council for the Arts, a semi-autonomous Crown corporation. This irresponsibility was evident in the fact that Canada Council was funding “what anyone in [parliament] would term as offensive and demeaning pornography” (Canada 1845) and, as Hugh Anderson, the Parliamentary [End Page 147] Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries, put it, “a degradation to the printed word in Canada” (Canada 4084). It had the potential for great political theatre, linking as it did excessive government spending and morality—Jake Epp, another Tory MP, falsely alleged that certain unnamed publishers, likely alluding to bill bissett and his blew ointment press, had received “in excess of $100000 to publish poetry which … the average Canadian would call pornographic”1 (Canada 4989)—but the scandal never materialized and the stated goal of Wenman and company, the review of the Canada Council’s mandate, was never accomplished.
The bissett affair has all the hallmarks of a by rote political scandal. There is little new in the way it attempts to tear strips off the Trudeau government’s hide and gain votes, primarily in conservative areas of the country. The moral panic angle—the poetry of bill bissett at the centre of the scandal is described as “evil,” and Wenman suggested that the government had an “obligation to fight” this evil lest it negatively affect the Dominion (Canada 1845)—had been played numerous times before. In the late 1940s and 1950s, E. Davie Fulton—a Conservative MP for Kamloops—made his political bones by joining Dr. Fredric Wertham’s campaign to control the publishing of crime and horror comics on the grounds that they were a threat to the youth of the nation and lead to juvenile delinquency (Bell 94–98, Palmer 187). Fulton went on, partially in thanks to this crusading, to the position of Minister of Justice under Diefenbaker and eventually ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. Interestingly, the bissett affair wasn’t even the first time in the 1970s that a poet would become a lightning rod in the House of Commons. When bpNichol won his Governor General’s Award in 1970, it provided MPS with an occasion to remark on what they perceived as government subsidizing of Marxism, pornography, and obscenity, which, as Caroline Bayard establishes, is at its core a thinly veiled attack on the counterculture by the establishment (112–13, 304).
The other angle, focusing on government arts spending as misappropriation and waste, is also a common trope in Canadian politics. Wenman’s charge that not even “one half of one percent of the Canadian people would say [bissett’s work] is acceptable” and “Common sense judgment says that taxpayers’ dollars not be used to support such work” (Trueman), while allowing him to neatly sidestep the issue of censorship echoes the comments [End Page 148] of Prime Minister Stephen Harper about cuts to the arts in the run-up to the 2008 federal election. There Harper stated that “when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up—I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people” (Benzie, Campion-Smith, and Whittington). Harper’s “ordinary working people...