Graeme McElheran
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The Dissident

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Rick Salutin has made it into the mainstream. After heart surgery, first-time fatherhood, and 30 years of critical commentary, you might think he'd have mellowed. He hasn't

Rick Salutin was recovering at home after bypass surgery in 1999. The veteran dissident had missed his weekly Globe and Mail column, and he was bound to miss some more. That was until he read a column by Marcus Gee, one of the Globe‘s neoconservative voices, calling communism a “crackpot theory.” In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction, Gee wrote, “The genius of communism was that it enslaved people in their own name.” Salutin was so infuriated-and inspired-by Gee’s words that he phoned the Globe‘s Comment page editor, Patrick Martin, and announced his intention to return to work immediately.

Two days later Salutin’s column was back on the op-ed page. “[Marx], like many of us…was struck by how much worse things are for most people than needs be by any rational or moral standard,” he wrote. Free-market economy was “also a formula for poverty.” His rebuttal lambasted Gee’s “bold pass” at the significance of the communist era and warned: “Beware the arrogance of the winners.” It was classic Salutin: educated, audacious, and acidic.

Today, Gee chuckles when he thinks of how he “incensed” Salutin. Their exchange over communism was one clash in a long-standing adversarial relationship. “I looked it up,” he says. “He dissed me 14 times in theGlobe. It was mostly him taking potshots at me for things I said that he considered, I suppose, right wing.” He smiles ruefully, and says Salutin’s “an old lefty from way back.” Despite their differences, Gee respects him. “Although I disagree with just about everything he says, his writing style is conversational and very accessible.”

Now 59 and largely in a class of his own, Salutin is read and respected by critics who span the range of ideology. Left-wing author and journalist Linda McQuaig says, “He challenges those assumptions that form our lives, in areas of economics, politics, and culture.” And though he’s not the only writer who does this, in McQuaig’s opinion, “He does it particularly well.” Meanwhile, former Toronto Sun editor Peter Worthington says, “I tease him and call him the ‘establishment radical.'” Even when his opponents think he is wrong-and some think he is never right-they never fail to read him because he engages from a unique perspective.

Originally a playwright, Salutin has been tackling complex issues-free trade, Quebec nationalism, Israel and Palestine, the list goes on-as a journalist since 1971. He has written regular columns for This magazine,Canadian Business, Toronto Life, and TVTimes. Although still a contributing editor of This, he’s best known for appearing weekly in the Globe since 1991, a gig that earned him a National Newspaper Award in 1993. His words now carry more popular weight than ever before. Yet his fierce criticism of the establishment that eagerly publishes his work has never softened.

A second-generation Canadian descended from Russian Jews, Salutin went to high school at Forest Hill Collegiate in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Coming from a modest working-class background, he developed a distaste for high society. At the same time, though, he developed a passion for theatre. As Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby, who knew Salutin then and remains a friend, says, “Unlike most people, whose anger doesn’t get focused, his was focused when he was 15.”

In 1960, after a year at Toronto’s York University, Salutin fled to the United States, “where the world was real.” He was dissatisfied with Canada, which he saw as “America manque” where nothing was at stake. “America was in store for us all,” he later reckoned, “so why wait?” He studied Judaism at Brandeis University, just outside of Boston, and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Armed with his BA, he moved to New York City to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but his rabbinical inclinations faded, and he dropped out. But he did get his MA in religion from Columbia University in 1967, and then put two years into a PhD in philosophy at the New School University in New York. After 10 years in the States, “morbidly infatuated and playing at rootlessness,” he returned to Canada, seeking a sense of his own nation. He repatriated in 1970 with the realization that he was “an imperialized dupe” of American culture, and began to consider the agenda of the English-Canadian left.

While helping organize trade unions, he embarked on his career as a journalist. His first published criticism-a deliberation of Quebec nationalism-appeared in Harper’s in 1971. Quebec, he wrote,”could become the Cuba of the North-and Marines in Montreal are imaginable.” The Front de Liberation de Quebec’s manifesto “tapped wells of feeling, deep and wide,” Trudeau was “thoroughly Americanized,” and Canada “was sold by a small group of businessmen and politicians, many of whom interchange frequently.” (When Trudeau died almost 30 years later, Salutin noted in the Globe that his legacy included “flagrant trampling on human rights…done with a joie de combat fuelled by a lifelong enmity” against Quebec nationalism. But he also lauded Trudeau for the patriation of the constitution and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)

From 1973 to 1994, Salutin was on the editorial board of This magazine. He kept a column called “Culture Vulture,” and picked apart issues such as wage and price controls and Canadian content on television. In the late ’80s free trade became his grandest crusade. For four years he met weekly with a coalition of activists formed to organize protests against Mulroney’s free trade deal. But just as he was launching his biggest battle with the establishment he also began writing regularly for the mainstream with columns in Canadian Business and the Globe’s Broadcast Week .

Over 30 years Salutin has published numerous TV and radio scripts, plays, articles, essays, and novels (he’s currently working on a new one). He has taught media ethics at Toronto’s Ryerson University and still teaches media philosophy at the University of Toronto’s University College. But he’s best known as a columnist. His first Globe column lasted just over two years, but in 1991 he began a weekly media column in the Arts section. When the entertainment editors made changes in 1999, just before Salutin’s surgery, Patrick Martin put in his bid for Salutin’s addition to the op-ed page. “He’s one of those rare journalists who argues persuasively from an ideological perspective,” says Martin. Although the Globe is traditionally a conservative paper, Martin wanted balance, and considered Salutin a very credible voice on the left. “People were a little surprised,” Martin says, “including Rick.”

Salutin knows his good fortune. His “On the Other Hand” column has now been a regular feature in Friday’sGlobe for two and a half years. “It does feel like a privilege to be able to watch this stuff go on all week and then weigh in myself,” he says. Salutin is essential to the ideological debate, McQuaig says, because “he takes mainstream mythology and deconstructs it very skillfully.” But some left-wing journalists, like Judy MacDonald, editor of, an alternative news site, insist the portrayal of Salutin as “the lonely man in the desert” is unfair. “There are many of us with that point of view,” she says. “It’s just not how the mainstream packages things.” McQuaig’s “Counterpoint” column, which appears every two weeks at the back of the Financial Post, is not as prominent as Salutin’s column. And while Naomi Klein also appears weekly in the Globe, she does not wield the same clout across the ideological spectrum.

After more than three decades of writing from the left, Salutin has earned a special kind of respect. “I wish there were more people who came out of that community who were willing to articulate their views in public like he is,” says National Post columnist Robert Fulford. Fulford always reads “On the Other Hand,” even though he thinks Salutin is “sometimes drastically, seriously wrong.”

Their differences came to a head over the 1988 Free Trade Agreement. “A group of Canadian citizens,” says Fulford, “most prominently Margaret Atwood and Salutin, made it appear, falsely, that the new trading arrangement was going to destroy Canada.” But their conflict goes beyond ideology. Fulford-like Peter C. Newman-was once the editor of a Canadian establishment magazine that refused to publish Salutin. Newman wouldn’t give him a column in Maclean’s and Fulford wouldn’t run his articles in Saturday Night, Salutin says.

Still, Fulford does not consider himself Salutin’s enemy. Neither does Newman. “He’s the Globe‘s token radical,” says Newman. “He is a professional iconoclast who straddles the narrow suspension bridge between the status quo and anarchy.” However, Salutin annoys him becasuse he “thoughtlessly” condemns all of his works, even though Newman insists they are often on the same side of issues-like free trade. “I opposed Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade Agreement as strongly as he did,” says the former Maclean’s editor, “but he has always considered me his enemy.” Nevertheless, Newman says, “I do respect him, and I certainly read him.”

It’s contemptible, really, to try to carve pieces from a man’s personality in order to write about him. Rick Salutin knows this. I suspect that’s why he just told me he doesn’t care for the profile genre. His blue eyes unapologetic, his arms folded across his chest, he leans back in his chair as he waits for his chai to cool at his favorite cafe in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.

He’s been a regular at Dooney’s for years. He protested in the Globe repeatedly when the cafe’s landlord decided to cut a deal with Starbucks and oust the owner in 1996. “Do we ever get to have anything real, instead of a corporatized version of what used to actually exist somewhere in the world?” he asked in one column. All his life he’s watched Canadian culture-his culture-get sold. He promised his readers more than once to quit writing about the Dooney’s ordeal, and apologized more than once for failing to keep that promise. But that’s Salutin: he’s tenacious. When something bothers him, he thinks and reads and writes about it until he’s satisfied. And he’s hardly ever satisfied.

I wonder why he agreed to this project. I was surprised he did, because he has a reputation for being prickly. But I was also excited. This guy wrote a column on September 14, 2001, that asked what the West “owns” in the airplane bombings. “There are days when it seems that George Bush and Osama bin Laden deserve each other,” Salutin wrote. “Bizarrely, the rise of fundamentalist religion as a political factor in many parts of the world owes something to American policy.”

We met for the first time at his house in early October 2001. He was a lumpy figure, smiling thinly, with long, weathered hair that hung in a crescent from the edges of his naked cranium. His clothes were rumpled and familiar-laissez-faire appeared to be his preferred style of dress, if not economics. We talked about September 11. He knew people in New York, and was naturally anxious. The most upsetting part, he thought, was the way the buildings collapsed, “like an accordion-it gave you a sense of fragility.”

Cui bono? I asked. Who benefits from the airplane attacks?

“I think there’s a huge amount of human behaviour that doesn’t succumb to that particular analysis,” he replied. “At a certain point you just have a kind of dedication to fighting the enemy….” I was crestfallen. I sought insight, but he didn’t give me what I was looking for.

Now, in Dooney’s, at our second meeting, an awkward silence follows his declaration of derision for my project. I try to think of something to say, and notice he has cut his hair. I remember something Judy MacDonald told me: “He’s got his senses up when somebody wants to package him, which is what you’re doing. Because, for one thing, it’s a scary thing to have your self reflected back. But, second, there’ll be distortion. There’ll be things missed. There’ll be misrepresentations, there’ll be misquotes.”

Ahhh, the virtues of journalism, and so candidly expressed. Salutin once wrote that profiles should bring out the subject’s “dark side.” So he knows I’ll be fishing for it, and it’s clear we won’t be going anywhere remotely shady-or personal. Once married to a fellow Jewish camp counsellor (they split around the time he finished with academia) he is not married now, but he lives with Theresa Burke, a broadcaster and the mother of his son, Gideon, who will be three this summer. But I won’t be learning about his son, or his son’s mother, or his surgery, or his morality, or his faith in God, or even why he’s so private.

When our rather fruitless hour together is over, I ask him if we can meet again. Salutin declines. As he leaves I think to myself, “I should have had him as a professor, rather than a subject.” I figured if I showed enough interest in his work or some original ideological thought, he might open up. But he wouldn’t tell me anything about himself or his writing that I couldn’t find at a library.

Rumours suggest I would get better access, so to speak, as a woman. A female journalist who interviewed him about the same time as I did described him as “sweet.” A secretary told me: “Every young woman journalist I know has a story about Rick Salutin.” He invited a female J-school classmate who interviewed him to drop by, anytime, for tea. So I can’t help wondering if it’s my Y chromosome that’s in the way. I wouldn’t hold it against him if it weren’t for the inherent hypocrisy: “What I feel is unjust,” he once wrote in an essay on feminism for This, “and outrages me, isn’t only that women experience certain effects because they are women; but that they and I are alike in so many ways, yet they experience these things and I do not-solely because they happen to be women and I’m not.” Just like female journalists get to experience the genial Rick, and I do not-because I am male.

I’m still in Dooney’s a half-hour later when a woman walks in and asks the bartender if he has seen Rick. She says she is supposed to meet him here for dinner with Gideon. I mention that I just interviewed him. Are they friends? They are, she tells me. Her name is Lynn Spink, one of his old comrades from This. But she doesn’t talk to journalists, she says.

I’m tired of imposing. Salutin knew he was returning, but didn’t tell me. He’s probably hoping I’ll be gone. I tell Spink I’m leaving, and she’s welcome to sit while I gather my things. She has a glass of wine, I finish my coffee. Unsolicited, and contrary to her vow of silence, she tells me she’s known Rick for 30 years. She smirks and asks me, sardonically, how it’s going. I grimace. She laughs, and says profiling Salutin must not be easy, or too much fun.

We’re still chatting when Salutin returns with Gideon in his arms. I take my cue and rise to leave. At the door Salutin is all smiles. And they are genuine smiles, his blue eyes now beaming as he holds Gideon close. He introduces us, and Gideon pouts. He turns his face away from me, into Salutin’s shoulder. Gideon doesn’t want anything to do with me-just like his dad.

As I cycle home I think of something Salutin’s friend Toronto artist Charles Pachter told me. “He kvellsquietly,” Pachter complained good-naturedly-kvell meaning “to take pride in” in Yiddish. “He won’t go on any dinner committees. His weakness is that he would never put on a tuxedo and go to a bourgeois event like an arts award ceremony.” But Salutin, ever the nonconformist, doesn’t share that sense of propriety. He has his own. When Julie Crysler took over as editor of This two years ago, he advised her to imagine what right-thinking people agree with, and then think of things to say at cocktail parties that would make them “look at you as though you farted.”

Salutin’s sense of the proper is grafted to his desire to avoid being predictable. Dissidents would rather be enigmatic, and Salutin is no exception. Strangely, he corresponds with Conrad Black, an obvious ideological opponent. “There’s somebody there, there’s a person there,” Salutin says of Black, with the same wary respect he receives from so many on the right. “Human beings are much too complex,” Salutin explains, “to draw quick equations between who they are and what they stand for.”

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