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Democracy In Peril? What Would Margaret Atwood Do?

See that headline? For the answer, tune in to CBC's As It Happens all week. The program will air selections from this year's CBC Books Open House Festival, which featured lectures from authors including Atwood, Micah White and John Ralston Saul. --CBC Books

In times of great difficulty, times such as these, for instance, when our environment, our economy and whatever else might is in peril, maybe you've taken a moment to reflect: What would Margaret Atwood do?

Or, barring that, maybe you've instead asked some variation on that question: How might  John Ralston Saul or Wade Davis or Chris Hedges handle the situation?

Certainly, the ample crowd at Saturday's CBC Books Open House Festival had been curious. The event, now in its fifth year, is a full day of talks held at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall. With ticket proceeds going to the Toronto Public Library and Frontier College, the theme of the day, "Get Up! Stand Up!" was all about preserving democratic rights.

"Well, our whole idea as a publisher is to try to bring our readers together with our writers," Scott Sellers, festival organizer and Random House Canada Associate Publisher, told CBC Live. "I think what we're trying to do is start a debate, start a dialogue, and give people the opportunity to listen to these great authors share their ideas. And the people who come, the one thing they want to know is: 'What can I do? How can I make a difference?'"

For the answers, listen to As it Happens all week. The program will air excerpts from the Open House Festival over the coming days, beginning with Adbusters editor-at-large, Micah White, tonight. As It Happens' Carol Off moderated the day's discussions with fellow CBC journalist, Gillian Findlay.

Making a difference, however, is messier business than simply tuning in CBC Radio. Lecturers including White and Hedges stressed the importance of individuals standing up to the powers that be, but a brave act wouldn't be brave without risk, a detail Atwood acknowledged in her talk, a lecture focused on access to scientific information in Canada.

Citing the Conservative government's muzzling - or "duct taping" - of scientists and the shuttering of publicly funded research facilities and initiatives, including the Experimental Lakes Area, Atwood stressed how "we must allow our scientists to speak freely." As she said in her speech: "It is our right, in a democracy, to hear what our scientists have discovered. Taxpayers paid for this knowledge. Give us what we paid for."

"I'm old enough to say this stuff," Atwood said during the audience Q&A portion of her appearance, moderated by Off. "Also, I don't have a job, so I can't get fired," she said to applause. "That's why I'm in this position. It's not because these are unique thoughts that I alone have. It's because I can say them."

"But there are other people in that position who could say them. We all could say them," Off countered.

"But that affects the job and mortgage and the kids," Atwood responded. "A lot of people just really feel very inhibited about that because it could directly impact those things I just mentioned. They depend on people like you, for instance, and Chris [Hedges], to be that voice."

And, should some incendiary As It Happens segment put Off out of work, Atwood has a solution. "We'll find you a job," she said to the crowd. "We will build you an IndieGogo campaign, for YOU, and we will raise money, for you."

For real?

"Oh, I'm quite serious," Atwood said of the hypothetical fundraising campaign, speaking with CBC Live after departing the stage.

She doesn't believe a Canadian reporter such as Off is in real peril of being censored by the government. Yet. "It depends how totalitarian things get. We're approaching it. I don't think we're there, but yeah. It is our job in a democracy to head it off. Because once they're there, they're very hard to get rid of."

The immediate issue, she says, is that reporters are being denied government information, information paid for by taxpayers. "Journalists are the messengers in our society. They're tasked with bringing us the news, and if they don't have access to the news, it's not just affecting them, it's affecting us, the public," Atwood said.

Selections from Atwood's lecture will be broadcast on As It Happens this week. Listen to tonight's edition at 6:30 p.m./7 NT on CBC Radio 1.


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