Would Robert Kroetsch Defile the Museum of Human Rights?


By Barbara Romanik

I have never met Robert Kroetsch. Once, in 2007, I sat almost beside him at a Prairie writing conference. I wish I had gone with my truest instincts and reached across and stroked his beard, leaned in, bit his left nipple, and run out of the room. Instead, I sat and wondered why Kroetsch wasn’t stabbing himself repeatedly. How could he tolerate the rest of us, so humourless, and abysmally conservative?

This was even before I read Gone Indian (1973) and re-read Studhorse Man (1969).  Read together, the irreverence and smuttiness of those two books is amazing. Perhaps they are simply true to their time; it was the late sixties and early seventies, and Cohen had already written Beautiful Losers. But there’s something about Kroetsch’s humour, and its playful and restless deviancy. A deviancy that not just opens up to critique his characters, or the various figures, places and mythologies of western Canada, but the writer himself. There is little Kroetsch leaves undefiled in those two books. In prose that at first may come off as slightly self-indulgent, crass, full of smut for smut’s sake, and (perhaps the biggest sin by today’s standards) postmodern, I would argue he does something honest and necessary.

Sexy concrete and rampant ramps...

What does this have to do with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that is under construction in Winnipeg? The breadth and naiveté of the endeavour and its mandate “to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue” strikes me as typically Canadian, and western Canadian in particular. The museum’s website claims that the building creates “a path for the visitor from darkness to light”; this path starts “in the museum’s roots and rises up from the hallowed ground of the Forks.” The highlight of the museum is a Tower of Hope. This twenty-storey glass structure is reached by a series of ascending bridges and overlooks the horizon. The building’s architect, Antoine Predock, was apparently inspired not only by Canadian “cultures” but also by a hodge-podge of Canadian landscapes “including vast prairie skies, northern lights, and snow and ice.” Clothed in 21st century bells and whistles, these words echo the familiar, old story of struggle at the frontier — a frontier in need of civilizing, a darkness in need of enlightening, and people in need of educating.

I am not beyond falling for that old Prairie saw. We all need stories to keep us negotiating the mundane whether it’s the public transit in winter, the wariness of putting on and taking off layers, or trying to reach the closest bar on a Saturday night when it’s thirty degrees below zero. Perhaps for western Canadians these stories protect them, allow them a semi-heroic stance, and shield them from those who would suggest they need to build huge malls or large museums for human rights to even get people to visit prairie cities, not to mention live in them.

And there’s no guilt in admitting to liking a good tall tale, a big idea, a nice dream. As critical as I am of the large beached whale of a building that is coming into being at the Forks, I can’t help but be fascinated with it. While I have seen photos of what the museum will eventually look like, a cross between a space station and a glass helmet, I like it better now, under construction, naked. I love modern architecture; monumental and ugly gets me off. I admit that the black and white towers, the metal cages and the concrete ramps remind me of the geometrics of prison. And the yellow construction crane that overlooks this pile of concrete and steel clearly underlines that there is little that is organic or rising out of any ‘roots’ about the building. It’s the unbridled scheming artificiality that gives the museum’s ugliness its attraction.

I doubt the controversy of the museum’s location and what it meant and still means to native people will change anything at street level. Will all the wheezing asthmatics, having climbed the Tower of Hope, see a different Winnipeg? Will a guy peeing on Main Street garner more of our compassion from above rather than below?

But I am not saying any of this so you can easily dismiss the museum, quite the contrary. There is a certain propensity to shrug off and disengage with our past and future which one might argue is typically western Canadian. We know better than to simply turn away; we’ve been shown other paths and been given modern anti-heroes like Kroetsch’s characters or Kroetsch himself. With irreverence and humour these characters have shown us how to engage in the dialogue about what it means to be human and live in western Canada.

Take Jeremy Sadness in Gone Indian. Dressed in Aboriginal garb, Jeremy follows in his hero Grey Owl’s footsteps and engages in the reality and delusion of a winter carnival in a northern Alberta town. Or take Hazard Lepage, the Studhorse Man himself, on the quest to breed his horse Poseidon, whose story is told by his mad biographer and rival in love Demeter Proudfoot. Hazard has sex with a wax artist on the fifth floor of Alberta’s Legislative Building in a bed that’s a replica of a chief factor’s. As the lovers copulate they are surrounded by the life-sized wax figures of an Indian chief, an explorer, a Mountie, a missionary, a premier and a university president. In a complex way, Kroetsch offers readers the ability to revel in the old Western stories, take something worthwhile from them but also to critique and defile them. With his humour and smut he keeps us engaged.

But I began this article under a false premise; I don’t really have a clue as to how Robert Kroetsch would defile the Museum for Human Rights. I have a few ideas that I think Kroetsch might approve of, such as having humans of all races, religions, sexes, shapes and sizes fuck righteously over every bit of every surface of the museum. No? It does sound slightly unsanitary. Perhaps we can all lobby for Stephen Harper, instead of entertaining his caucus at Christmas with “The Seeker” by The Who, to provide relevant political commentary by re-enacting, with Lady Gaga, her video for the song “Telephone”:

“Wha-Wha-What did you say? Oh, you’re breaking up on me… Sorry, I cannot hear you, I’m kinda busy. K-kinda busy. K-kinda busy.”

I look forward to seeing the Aboriginal Writers Collective mount several dogsleds and use the museum ramps to catapult themselves into the air and down to the Inn at the Forks during next September’s International Writer’s festival. And I hope to see Robert Kroetsch waiting for them with open arms and a leering smile.


Barbara Romanik

Barbara Romanik’s collection of short fiction, 10 Things To Ask Yourself In Warsaw, was published in 2009.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty