Spring, 1988 | Comments (0) – Report an Error Share on facebook Share on email Share on twitter Share on favorites More Sharing Services
Rick Salutin’s home is a handsome, three-storey Victorian townhouse in downtown Toronto. Of its seven rooms, perhaps the most striking is Salutin’s office, which takes up the entire third floor. In this pink-walled, blue-broad loomed eyrie, Salutin writes on his MacIntosh 512 bounded by a wide wooden desk on one side and more than 100 neatly shelved books, some in English, some in Hebrew, on the other. Here one can find both the words of Karl Marx and a gathering of theological thinking, works that have fueled one of the country’s most important voices on the left.

Salutin, whom a friend describes as “full of paradoxes,” is aware of the seeming incongruity of his owning such a house. “As we look around-urn, I realize,” he starts. “I mean, I used to live in a smaller place and then I realized when J moved here that I had this fantasy. After I moved in I was going to invite over people, like Fulford, who have made it difficult for me to make a living. And I was going to say to them, ‘I want you to look around this place and see how solid it is. I just want you to know that I’m not going to be blown away.'”

For 18 years, Salutin, now 45, has been writing plays and articles that are sharply critical of Canadian society. At one time a self-described Marxist, though non-doctrinaire (” most Marxists I know sort of dismiss me as too much of a liberal”), Salutin regularly lambastes the government, big business and the media, which he feels toadies to both. He’s a nationalist who favored an independent Quebec. He’s a Jew who sympathizes with the Palestinians in Israel. Journalists who have reached almost cultural-icon status-Barbara Frum, Robert Fulford and Peter C. Newman-have been targets on his critical shooting range. His writing has appeared in such magazines as Toronto Life, Saturday Night and Maclean’s, and currently he’s a columnist for both Canadian Business and The Globe and Mail’s Broadcast Week, but his most consistent outlet has been the small, alternative This Magazine, where he has been a member of the editorial collective since the early seventies.

“He’s one of the most articulate critics of social crisis we have,” says June Callwood, who has known Salutin for 10 years. “He has a very clear view of what fairness constitutes and an intellectual analysis that makes him very powerful.” Toronto artist Charles Pachter, who has known Salutin since childhood, evaluates his friend’s contribution this way: “He’s made complacent people uncomfortable and in doing so has raised the consciousness. The end result is that he creates an arena for discussion, and that’s what really matters.”

But the role of the outspoken social critic involves a price. As Call wood says, “He could have been a much more successful man if he’d decided to wear blinkers. I hope his rewards are self-esteem in the knowledge that he’s moving in the right.”

The cost has been more than economic. In Marginal Notes: Challenges to the Mainstream, a collection of his work published ~n 1984, Salutin hints at the psychological toll he’s paid. “At times marginality can seem attractive, even romantic: marginal man, the existential hero, standing alone against the currents of the time,” he writes. “This may be fine for characters you create, or admire, but not for the character you are. Perhaps some artists of a nihilistic turn enjoy occasional marginality, especially if it is marketable that season. But most writers wish to connect, not withdraw. As a writer with political concerns, you want to affect your fellow citizens, join in the process of government and change, act as a member of your community. Being right…is no compensation for being miles from everyone else.”

“I hate not knowing what’s really going on, or how things really work. And I hate more than anything having the wrong idea,” Salutin says as he hunches over his kitchen counter sipping cafe au lait. “I had that feeling when I was growing up: that almost everything we were told, why things work the way they work, was wrong.”

Earl Richard Salutin was born August 30, 1942, in Toronto. He and his younger brother, Lome, became the second generation of Salutins in Canada. Their grandparents, Russian Jews, arrived in 1910. That same year, Salutin’s great-uncle Victor escaped to North America after five years of Siberian captivity for participating in the 1905 revolution. Victor brought his younger brother, Sol, along with him to America. Once settled, Sol chummed with anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Victor later returned to Russia to support the Bolsheviks in the Communist revolution.

Rick’s father, Saul, and uncles Abe and Harry worked together on Spadina Avenue for 46 years as agents for Montreal dressmakers, and when Rick was born, his family lived on Montrose Avenue near Christie Pits. But in 1951, when some business success dictated a new address to show improved social standing, the Salutins moved to Forest Hill Village. The success had been modest, though: unable to really afford their new neighborhood, they rented an apartment in the south end of the village.

“So we were in that place, but absolutely not of it,” Salutin explains. “I was living in a situation where I felt I didn’t belong. I was the only person I knew who didn’t live in a house we owned, didn’t have a backyard, didn’t go to summer camp, didn’t go to Florida in the winter. If we’d stayed downtown, probably I would have felt like I belonged. Because we were in Forest Hill and all my friends were in this much more affluent kind of life, I was wondering, ‘Well, where do I fit in? I don’t fit in anywhere.’ I think that was useful. I’m very grateful to my parents for not fitting in anywhere. It gives one the kind of thing that turns one towards becoming a writer.

In 1975, Salutin would recall those teenage years of social estrangement in a Maclean’s article about his job at Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ontario: “I am the counsellor for fifteen incredibly beautiful sixteen-year-old girls…all the girls I never could have when I was sixteen…at Forest Hill Collegiate and I wasn’t cool, didn’t belong to a fraternity and didn’t have a sports car my parents gave me for continuing at the Holy Blossom Religious School even after my bar mitzvah.”

His parents, who weren’t religious, were a little dismayed by their son’s intense interest in his Jewishness. “One form the passion for understanding how things work took was looking for religious explanations,” he says now. “But in a way, the basic question was still there: how do things work, what’s really behind it?”

In 1960, after a year at York University, Salutin entered the Near Eastern and Judaic studies program at Brandeis University near Boston. It was an escape made possible by money saved from summer jobs and teaching at the synagogue, supplemented with some loans and scholarships. “I wanted to go away to the States desperately,” he says, “because back then that was the definition of reality. If you were going to go away, why go away in Canada? Canada was pathetic. But the U.S. was real. It was the centre of everything. I just wanted to get out.”

For his third year, Salutin traveled to Israel to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After his graduation in 1964, he married his high-school girlfriend and they moved to New York City, where Salutin entered the Jewish Theological Seminary. “I don’t think I ever actually wanted to be a rabbi, like someone who goes to a suburban synagogue and gives sermons every week,” he says now. “But I did sort of want to know what rabbis know.” The religious intensity didn’t last. “There wasn’t a sort of blinding moment of un-revelation or disillusionment. The thing, the feeling, just dropped away.”

After leaving the seminary in 1966, he went on to complete his MA in religion at Columbia the next year. He spent the next two years working on his PhD in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, but left the program without writing his thesis.

Around the time Salutin’s beliefs and academic life were ending, so was his marriage. What remained was the craving for understanding that had been nourished by his theological studies. “I think that my idealism, that longing to become part of the world, had taken this kind of vertical direction,” he says. “And when that dropped away, in some ways it went more horizontally, out in the world, in the society.”

The catalyst for this shift in outlook came in 1965 when he happened upon a protest against the on-campus recruitment of students into the armed forces. The police were called and suddenly the peaceful demonstration became an all-out battle. Salutin’s eyes narrow as he recalls the scene: “When I saw those cops throwing those kids on the ground and stomping on them, it suddenly became perfectly clear that all that stuff I’d learned from textbooks about how society works was absolute crap. And the basis was force and violence, and whoever controlled it had whatever they wanted. It was sort of like”-and here he laughs-“instant Marxism or something.” This was, Salutin says, “the first time I felt differently about how the world worked, but there was nothing to attach it to.”

But when he returned to Canada in October, 1970, he found there was plenty here to attach his new ideas to. The War Measures Act had just been invoked and he was dismayed at how passively English Canadians accepted the suspension of their freedom: “Going from the U.S. to Canada was like passing a kidney stone.”

“All those years in the States,” he writes in Marginal Notes, “I wrote not a word. Yet when I moved back 10 Toronto at the end of 1970, I began writing immediately. I felt I had a right to speak out, because I was at home. While I was in the U.S., I had thoughts but lacked confidence. Home is where-as Frost might have said-when you go there they have to let you talk.”

Salutin’s first article was a piece for Harper’s in 1971. He now chuckles about it: “It was just sort of a very heavy leftist analysis of Canada and the FLQ crisis and the War Measures Act and American imperialism in Canada. And the mood in the States was such that you could say things in Harper’s that you would be embarrassed to put in This Magazine today.”

In 1973, Salutin joined the editorial collective of This Magazine, which had recently been transformed from a chronicler of the free-school movement to an intelligent, critical publication at the forefront of the nation’s alternative press. Salutin’s “Culture Vulture” column has been a regular feature since 1975. The column is a consistent forum for his stinging social criticisms-criticisms that owe much to his early religious values.

“I think his zeal for the left is in many ways an outgrowth of early Jewish tradition,” says Pachter. “He was steeped in it. In the Old Testament, it is the role of the prophets to cry out against the excesses of money changers and tax men.” June Callwood echoes this idea. “He operates totally unselfishly,” she says. “I think he has a theological part of him that drives him-a principle of responsibility that comes from a religious heritage.”

Salutin sees his work this way: “I really think that writing is altogether a matter of telling the truth,” he says. “That’s all it comes down to. And if you honestly describe what’s there, then I think that’s your job, and that’s what helps people to improve things and to take hold of their lives. It’s not twisting towards a left or finding the left stuff in it. You don’t sort of have to pour it in or slop it on like paint. And if it’s not there in reality, then there’s something wrong with your analysis, not something wrong with reality. In the end, it’s an encounter between you and what you meet.” This quest for Truth has not made Salutin popular. “He’s critical of things many people don’t want to face,” says Pachter. “He surprises people, and he’s generated a lot of ill will in the middle classes because of his causes.”

But unlike many critics, Salutin does not just write about his causes. In 1974, for example; he helped the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union organize the McGregor Socks plant in Toronto’s Spadina district. For benefits, such as the one for striking Eaton’s employees in May, 1985, Salutin writes short plays to show his support. More recently, he linked arms with members of the artistic, literary and cultural communities in the fight against free trade. At “A Night in Defiance of Free Trade,” held at Massey Hall last November, he called MP Flora MacDonald “the Benedict Arnold of Canadian culture.” His longtime friends, actors Eric Peterson and Cedric Smith, roused the capacity crowd with an adaptation of Salutin’s 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.

1837, a 1973 collaborative effort with Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, is one of 11 plays Salutin has written. In 1977, his Les Canadiens, which juxtaposed the rise of the Parti Quebecois with the victories of the Montreal hockey team, won the Chalmers Award for the best Canadian play; other works have included 1981’s The Organizer: Kent Rowley and a 1984 stage adaptation of friend Ian Adams’s S: Portrait of a Spy. In a review for Marginal Notes, the Globe called Salutin “a major pioneer in the creation of the improvised theatre form in Canada.” Like his articles, Salutin’s plays are usually about social change; unlike his journalism, they have reached a wide audience. Salutin offers this explanation for the lesser impact of his writing: “I’ve always felt I can write what I feel and vast numbers of ordinary readers out there will listen to it and be interested. They might not agree, but they’re quite willing to hear it and discuss it. It’s only those at the top of the tower-the gatekeepers-who really oppose.”

It’s these gatekeepers-the political bodies, the publishers, producers and editors-who Salutin feels have tried to silence him by making it difficult for him to write for a living. This suspicion was reinforced last July when The Globe and Mail reported that This Magazine’s editorial board and freelancers had been investigated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (an allegation CSIS denied). Salutin was outraged, but not surprised. In fact, in his view, the CSIS investigation explained some earlier incidents. “One of the things security services do when they put people under investigation is make inquiries at their places of employment,” he says. “That’s all it takes to make someone’s job insecure. And for myself and a lot of other people, there have been numerous cases where jobs that were right there just sort of disappeared overnight. For instance, that happened at The Toronto Star.”

Back in 1985, Salutin says, he made a deal with Alan Ferguson, then editor of the Saturday Star, to write a weekly column for the paper. The first column was about the Blue Jays. Salutin was told the piece had been typeset and his picture was taken to run at the top. But before the story was published, Salutin was told the column was canceled. “Now, I don’t know whether [Ray] Timson [at the time managing editor] read it and couldn’t stand it,” he says. “And I don’t know what Timson thinks. And one doesn’t know if Timson had a call from the RCMP or whoever it was at the time. But we do know these calls are made, because occasionally it leaks out.”

Ferguson offers another version. “We were looking for some alternative columns at the Saturday magazine [section],” says Ferguson, now an assistant managing editor at the Star. “I invited several writers to submit sample columns, but it is not to my recollection that he was at any time hired for a column.”

The incident at the Star closely followed Salutin’s dismissal from a column for TV Times, a weekly guide published by Southam and distributed through its 18 newspapers. “After six months, a memo came from Southam head office saying, ‘Get rid of him,'” Salutin says. “Was it a visit from the security service? I don’t know.”

TV Times national editor David Wesley denies that politics had anything to do with it. “There were complaints [from the papers that carried the magazine] that they didn’t want opinion pieces,” he says. “They had enough of them in their own papers. There may have been some latent politics in his dismissal, but nothing overtly political. We didn’t get the publisher calling him a communist or anything.”

But Salutin regards these incidents as examples of how the system works to keep his kind of thinking out of the mainstream. “And another way it works is that the people who are in the positions-I don’t mean the Secret Ruling Class,” he says, laughing, “I mean the editors and publishers and producers-they tend to be a close-knit social group who know each other and see each other and share opinions. And it’s very easy for the entire group to turn their backs on a writer.”

“I don’t think it works that way,” says Marq de Villiers, editor of Toronto Life. “There are things that are just shared in the air. With South Africa, for example, Rick is very much a part of the’ conspiracy’ that way. He believes in sanctions and so does the editor of Maclean’s. But I don’t think Salutin and Kevin Doyle chatted at a cocktail party and decided to get together on this. If we don’t agree with something, it’s a conspiracy. If we think it’s a good idea, it’s not.”

In fact, one reason Salutin may face chilly receptions at some magazines is that he can be difficult to deal with, both professionally and socially. But is this reputation for being hard to work with another result of his outsider role? As Salutin writes in Marginal Notes: “Marginalization starts to take an unforeseen toll, penetrating areas of your life unrelated to writing. Socially, when in doubt, you are surly: they expect it. You import the stance of outsider into your private life.”

In their long friendship, Pachter and Salutin have had their share of stormy moments. “He can be so intimidating and angry,” says Pachter. “If I don’t agree with him about something, we don’t talk about it. With Rick, there is a whole question of social ease. He can often be off-putting. He’s pretty good with good-looking young women, but not with others; He loves getting into confrontational situations and it’s a test of the other person’s mettle. He likes an intellectual battle, and if the other person measures up, it’s okay.”

Pachter, obviously, has measured up, and in fact, it’s his old house that Salutin purchased almost two years ago. Pachter bought it in 1976 and did much of the renovation that makes it the charming place it is now. Pachter jokes that the house is very much like many of Salutin’s clothes, which come from the closet of Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby. “Castoffs of the bourgeoisie are safe,” says Pachter, “otherwise it’s too self-indulgent.” Ruby has passed clothes along to Salutin since they were teenagers in Forest Hill. Ruby is one of Salutin’s many friends who are so fiercely loyal that they won’t talk about him. In return, Salutin is so protective of all who are close to him that he refuses even to name the woman and her teenage daughter who share his home.

In a protective move all their own, some unexpected allies jumped to the defence of This Magazine the day the Globe broke the news of the CSIS investigation. By 9 a.m., spurred by Penny Williams, then editor of Your Money magazine, the editors of Canadian Business, Chatelaine, Toronto Life, Maclean’s, Saturday Night, Report on Business Magazine and Moneywise had signed a petition damning the investigation. “It was just the mainstream that within three hours got behind us and signed up,” Salutin says. “I thank them a lot.”

The action in part was evidence that while mainstream colleagues may not agree with Salutin’s politics and may not like his social demeanor, most readily admire his writing and his devotion to his causes. “I think his is an important point of view,” says de Villiers, “and his influence is quite significant. It has the power of reminding people of their ideological sins.” Salutin himself has a slightly different analysis of his place in the journalistic community. As he says in Marginal Notes: “In some ways the mainstream even requires you: to provide something different from time to time, and to prove they are open to many opinions.”

Among those proving they’re open to many opinions are the editorial staff at McClelland and Stewart, which will publish Salutin’s first novel in the fall. Tentatively entitled The Book of Heinz, it is a fictionalized story about his teacher at the Holy Blossom Religious School, who escaped the Holocaust and who, a friend says, “instilled a love of learning in Rick which I think he transformed into an intense love for Canada.” He’ll follow the novel with a book for Penguin on the next federal election. He is also helping longtime friend and former NHL hockey star Ken Dryden with plans for a book and a television miniseries-both about hockey-that they expect will be a couple of years in the making. And in January, Salutin began his tenth year of teaching an undergraduate course-An Introduction to Canadian Culture-at the University of Toronto. With these various projects, plus columns, freelance articles and returns from plays, Salutin is able to earn between $25,000 and $45,000 a year.

Salutin doesn’t seem concerned that he seldom makes his age in thousands. “The main thing about writing is you need to say certain things. You don’t write for money-at least I don’t,” he says. “You need money to pay the bills in order to keep writing. So it just seems to me obvious that as long as I’ve got enough money to live and pay the bills, I’ll keep writing whatever I feel I ought to be writing or want to write.”

Despite this outward assurance, Salutin sometimes has moments of doubt. “A couple of years ago, around the time I lost the TV Times thing and the Star thing, I got quite worried about being able to make a living and I started to think, What would it take to sell out so I could just make a living?” he recalls. “I’d never been so close to the line before that I’d even thought about it. And I thought, I’m probably not someone who is capable, not because I’m so moral, just because I don’t think that way. But I figured it out. It wouldn’t be that hard. I would write about the same things, but I would just take the edge off. I think I could do that. Write about the same things, sound angry, go through the same motions, but just not insult people in the same way, not dig underneath, not go that extra step whatever it is. And then suddenly you become iconoclastic, moral, outraged, but you’re suddenly not offending anybody in power. I never tried it,” Salutin says, smiling, “but I figured it out.”