TORONTO — Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize in literature is a morale boost for a country that has been generating an unusual run of bad headlines.
There’s the lurid story of Toronto’s mayor, allegedly caught on video smoking crack cocaine; a jaw-dropping tale of official corruption in local Quebec politics, and a runaway freight train loaded with oil that derailed and set off a fireball that killed 47 people and destroyed the center of a small Quebec town.
On the entertainment side there was an uproar over a maladroit reference by pop idol Justin Bieber to Anne Frank, while in the business world, Canadians are agonizing through the slow demise of their once golden child of technology, BlackBerry.
Overall, Canadians have been feeling self-confident with their rising profile in sports and the arts, their growing oil might and their success in having weathered the global economic crisis.
Yet the bad-news stories seem to have come thicker and faster in the past year or so.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the flow of negative news got so bad that Al-Jazeera, the Middle Eastern TV network, interviewed him about it.
So he has extra reason to celebrate the 82-year-old Munro’s Nobel triumph. “The scandals have blackened our eye to some degree but with this award, it reverberates on many levels; it’s tooting Canada’s horn,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Topping the list of ongoing sagas is that of Rob Ford, the bumbling, tough-talking mayor of the city that brands itself “Toronto, the good.” The Toronto Star says two of its reporters watched a video that purports to show the 300-pound (135-kilogram) mayor sitting in a chair, inhaling from what appears to be a crack pipe.
The Star says it did not obtain the video or pay to watch it. The video hasn’t been made public and The Associated Press hasn’t seen it. Ford has said there is no video and has called the allegations ridiculous.
Meanwhile, Montreal has lost one mayor, Gerald Tremblay, amid corruption allegations, and then his temporary replacement, Michael Applebaum, was arrested on fraud charges linked to two real estate deals. Among the juicy details that emerged from the French-speaking province’s scandals was a safe so jam-packed with cash that the official in charge of it needed help to shove its door shut.
“It’s too depressing, and would make Mordecai Richler do backflips in his grave,” journalist and social commentator Dalton Higgins said in an interview. Richler was one of Montreal’s most celebrated novelists.
Of course, cautions George Stroumboulopoulos, a popular TV talk show host, “Every country in the world has positive and negative moments.”
He noted in an interview that “we have the biggest pop star in the world (Bieber), one of the biggest rock bands in the world (Arcade Fire), we have a Nobel-winning author now, right? And those aren’t the only ones in their genre. We have always punched above our weight in the arts and culture game. Just sometimes people don’t pay attention.”
In the arts and culture realm, “Canada’s really come along and cut out a niche, it’s come out of the shadow of its British colonial past,” Wiseman said. “While we have had our share of dismal stories this year, a lot of people don’t read politics but they read literature so these authors help shape their image of Canada and Munro’s win has helped create a feel-good story.”
And Canada is shining not just in the arts. With a touch of the-Empire-strikes-back, Mark Carney, former chief of Canada’s central bank, this year became governor of the Bank of England — the first non-Briton to hold the post.
The feel-good factor in Munro’s Nobel is heightened by her own modest, homespun manner. Told of the award, her reaction was: “At this moment I can’t believe it. It’s really very wonderful. I knew I was in the running, yes, but I never thought I would win.”
John Degen, the director of the Writers Union of Canada, called Munro’s award “a bright spot” in an otherwise less than enjoyable year for Canada.
“It’s a nice story and I’m glad that it happened to us,” Degen said. “And just listen to how I’m talking about it. It didn’t happen to Alice Munro, it happened to us! It happened to you and I. We claim it for our own and immediately, that’s how proud we are!”