Terry Fallis looks back at an intense four days of debates

My heart rate did not return to normal until late Thursday afternoon. I was exhausted. Watching Canada Reads 2012 brought back wonderful memories of last year's competition, and kept many Canadians glued to their computers, television sets or radios.

Day one of the debates opened with controversy, courtesy of rather incendiary comments made by panelist Anne-France Goldwater. Many were outraged. The media reported it. There was much soul-searching and teeth-gnashing. For the remaining three days of the debates, Anne-France Goldwater tempered her words somewhat, but never backed down.


The Canada Reads 2012 panel with moderator Jian Ghomeshi on Day 1, February 6, 2012. (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/CBC)

Prisoner of Tehran was eliminated on day one, The Tiger on day two and On a Cold Road on day three. This set up a memorable finale pitting Ken Dryden's The Game against Carmen Aguirre's Something Fierce.

These are two very different books. One was written by a man, nearly 30 years ago, and takes a probing look at life in Canada through our national game. The other was written by an immigrant woman, published just last year, and takes us to South America to join the resistance movement fighting for democracy. It was almost as if the final debate challenged the panelists to look inwardly at a mainstay of Canadian culture or outwardly, lifting their eyes beyond our borders to the life that many of our immigrants experience before coming to Canada.

All of the panelists were passionate about the books they were defending, and that led to some tense discussions. Shad, the Juno Award-winning rapper who defended Something Fierce, was very impressive. He did not speak as much as some of the others, but when he did, it was with precision, concision and power. There was a lot of hopeful online chatter that one day Shad might be our prime minister. Such was his impact on the Canada Reads community.

Stacey McKenzie, the former supermodel defending Davie Bidini's On a Cold Road, clearly brought a deep emotional commitment to her book. She wore her heart on her sleeve. She also made a fashion statement each day, appearing in outfits that captured her book.

Dragons' Den veteran Arlene Dickinson spoke with conviction about Prisoner of Tehran, and despite seeing her book voted off first, wielded considerable influence in the other debates and votes. She had strong support among those participating in the online chats that accompanied each debate.

Alan Thicke did just a fantastic job defending The Game. He was thoughtful, gracious and always funny and respectful. Whenever it grew tense in the debates (which happened about every 15 minutes or so) Alan had the uncanny ability of injecting levity with such a deft touch that he often single-handedly lowered the temperature and brought the panel back to civilized debate. He impressed many.

Finally, I've already mentioned Anne-France Goldwater, whose forceful and sometimes unpredictable comments kept Jian Ghomeshi, the panel and the whole country on our toes. She ardently defended John Vaillant's The Tiger, noting the parallels between the Russian wilderness and the Canadian North. She made her case well. After her less than flattering comments about Carmen Aguirre earlier in the week, Anne-France Goldwater surprised us all by actually supporting Carmen's Something Fierce for the Canada Reads crown by voting against The Game in the finale. I confess I did not see that coming. What a week.

So what does it all mean? Well, it means that a huge number of Canadians online and around their living rooms and kitchen tables thought about books last week. Forget the controversies. Forget the strategic voting. Forget the backroom jockeying for position. Regardless of which author triumphed, what's really important is that Canadians once again committed time, energy and thought to a national discussion of five outstanding books.

As a result, thousands and thousands of books have been, and will be, bought, borrowed, read and discussed. That's the crowning achievement of Canada Reads. At a time when there seems to be so much to lament in Canadian publishing, Canada Reads has colourfully embroidered and considerably strengthened the cultural and literary fabric of the nation. That's what Canada Reads does so well. And that's why it's so important.

My congratulations to all five of the authors. You have written what Canadians and the panelists consider to be five of the finest non-fiction books in the country. That's high, and well-earned, praise. To Carmen Aguirre, I proudly surrender my sash and tiara, and wish you well on what will be a whirlwind year. I hope you savour and enjoy it as much as I have this past year.

All I can think of now is, what will CBC do to top it next year? Only nine months until the five finalists for Canada Reads 2013 are revealed. I'm counting the days...


Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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