George Elliott Clarke, University of Toronto professor, has been appointed the new Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate.
The acclaimed poet became the seventh person and the first African-Canadian to hold the position in its 14-year history. “This is a great honour, a great privilege,” Clarke told The Varsity. “There are 35 million Canadians and counting; and now, I have a special role… to try to encapsulate the collective dreams and ideals and hopes of 35 million Canadians.”
Clarke adds, “I know we’re not supposed to think of it as… representing the people in some way, but I do.”
The selection was made by a committee, based on the recommendation of parliamentary librarian Sonia L’Heureux and others. A public statement by Geoff Regan, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and George Furrey, the Speaker of the Senate, announced the new poet laureate on January 5.
Previously, the 55-year old Clarke served as Toronto’s poet laureate since his appointment in 2012. His successor, author Anne Michaels, was announced last December.
According to the Library of Parliament, the role of the parliamentary poet laureate is to “encourage and promote the importance of literature, culture, and language in Canadian society.” The position was created to “draw Canadians’ attention to poetry, both spoken and written, and its role in our lives.”
“George Elliott Clarke has been a true ambassador of the work of Canadian poets,” said Furey in a public statement. “His contribution to Canada’s cultural fabric is exceptional.”
“His talent as poet, playwright, and literary critic is undeniable,” said Regan. “He is an immensely versatile and engaging writer and will bring great honour to the position.”
From Windsor, Nova Scotia, Clarke is a seventh-generation Canadian of African-American and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage. His lineage traces back to a group of Chesapeake Bay slaves, freed by the British during the war of 1812 and sought refuge in Nova Scotia.
Clarke received his bachelors of arts in English from the University of Waterloo in 1984, his master of arts from Dalhousie in 1989, and his PhD from Queen’s University in 1993. He went on to teach English and Canadian studies at Duke University from 1994 to 1999. He was also the visiting Seagrams chair in Canadian studies at McGill from 1998 to 1999.
Clarke worked as a parliamentary aide at the House of Commons for MP and civil rights activist Howard McCurdy from 1987 to 1991. He was also a social worker and legislative researcher at Queen’s Park between 1982 and 1983. He was appointed as the inaugural E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian literature at U of T in 2003, where he taught Canadian and African diasporic literature.
Clarke’s work delves into many topics, including race, social justice, and governance. He writes poetry, prose fiction, and opera.
“As a black youth in the 1960s and 1970s in Halifax, I was very aware of lots of movements of various peoples to get more equality and get more justice and that had a huge impact on me,” Clarke said.
He coined the term ‘Africadian’ to refer to black culture from the maritimes. Clarke believes the difference between black culture in Atlantic Canada and the rest of the country is the “long history of distinct settlement” that has brought a culture that is “distinct and unique.”
“So Africadians [or] Black Nova Scotians, had no choice but to grow up or survive as a distinct culture from the rest of Nova Scotia because our communities were positioned outside of larger white villages and towns,” Clarke said. “And that was done on purpose, so that the black populations had to work for cheap wages for white employers in nearby towns.”
In 2002, he was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his work Execution Poems. The poems are based around two of Clarke’s ancestors who were executed for murder in 1949.
He has received honorary degrees from Dalhousie, The University of Waterloo, Saint Mary’s University, the University of Windsor, the Royal Military College, and the University of New Brunswick for recognition of his work. Clarke was named the William Lyon Mackenzie King visiting professor of Canadian studies at Harvard University in 2013.
Clarke’s upcoming novel, The Motorcyclist, is based on the diary of Charles Fletcher, a Nova Scotian who went from being a janitor to becoming Harvard’s first black professor. Clarke found Fletcher’s story during his time at Harvard.
From having his poetry as part of the official Magna Carta exhibit, to writing a poem for Toronto City Hall, Clarke said of being Toronto’s poet laureate that “it was a great experience, I truly enjoyed trying to represent the people of Toronto at various events and the poems that I wrote for City Council, that I read to City Council every April, I got to address City Council.”
Race in Canada
One of the recurring themes in Clarke’s poetry is race, extending to experiences of being black in Canada. “Questions of police maltreatment in Canada have a long history, going back decades, even centuries,” Clarke said, noting the police brutality that Indigenous peoples also experience. “The continued activists and scholars who are activists, calling to attention of deficiencies in the justice apparatus of the nation is a good thing.” Students at many North American universities, including U of T have taken to the streets, holding protests on their campuses. Black students and students of colour have been protesting against institutional racism and pressuring university administration to rectify issues such as a lack of diversity training, and for a commitment to employing a diverse faculty.
“Speaking as a professor, anything that makes students feel more comfortable in fulfilling their studies… has to be a good thing,” Clarke said. “If that means more equity training, then possibly that is what it should be.”
In February of last year, Clarke publicly supported for the students of Mount Allison University, who had protested against the racial discrimination they experienced at their campus.
A multicultural Canada
One of Elliott’s heroes is Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Clarke wrote a play in 2007 called Trudeau: Long March/Shining Path, that focused on the personality of the former prime minister.
In a 2010 interview, Clarke referred to “the Trudeau who appeals to me is the person who represents multiculturalism and projects these values to Canada and the world,” adding, “we don’t see diversity as strange or unusual, or dangerous, which partly a legacy of Pierre Trudeau.” Clarke goes on to say that, “if you had the experience of traveling, as he did in 1948 and ’49, deliberately so that you can experience different cultures and different ways human beings have organized themselves to live. You can’t come away with the provincial attitude, that ‘only our way of life is the very best’ and ‘only our way of doing things count as being right and civilized and humane.’”
As the parliamentary poet laureate of Justin Trudeau’s government, Clarke emphasized the importance of Canadians supporting Canada’s multiculturalism. “I think all of us are promoting multiculturalism, including all the opposition parties,” Clarke said. “This prime minister, like all the prime ministers before him, including Mr. Harper, need to respond conditions as they are right now… regardless of the directives of the past or the ideals of the past, the past as a guide, but it cannot let it dictate solutions to current issues. In other words, the current prime minister must be free to conduct government in the best interest of Canadians and voters.”
Canada in Poems
For the next two years as parliamentary poet laureate, Clarke has a line up of initiatives for his tenure. Among his plans is the creation of a database of Canadian poetry in celebration of the 150-year anniversary of the confederation of the country.
“By July 1, 2017, I would like there to be a program to be in place, whereby Canadians will have sent to the Library of Parliament or their respected MPs, lists of poets and poems that they believe represent their particular neighbourhood, city, province,” Clarke said. “Almost any particular poet could be represented by poems in different parts of the country, which I think helps make it a national project, a national treasury of Canadian poetry in both official languages, which is what I’m looking for.”