Food for Thought: Dirty Secrets of a Prime Minister Draw a High-Calibre Crowd

April 24, 2013

Frost Centre Brown Bag Lunch Generates a Filling Discussion at Traill College

Food for Thought: Dirty Secrets of a Prime Minister Draw a High-Calibre Crowd

Imagine your lunch hour at a large round table, surrounded by many distinguished professors from different disciplines, ready for an informal and lively conversation. What questions would you ask? That’s the opportunity that Trent University’s Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies provides through the Brown Bag Lunch Talks.

Founding Trent University president Tom Symons and his wife Christine joined the table on April 18, with Dr. Julia Harrison, director of the Frost Centre, and distinguished faculty including Canada Research Chair in Canadian Studies, Bryan Palmer; professors emeriti David Morrison and Bruce Hodgins; faculty from Canadian Studies and History and Politics; award-winning Frost Centre Research Associate, Shelagh Grant; students from various Trent graduate programs and staff members. They gathered together at Kerr House at Traill College to hear History professor, Dr. Christopher P. Dummit’s talk, “Mackenzie King's dirty secrets and the making of a prurient democracy”. Professor Dummit’s talk was the last of a series of four brown bag talks that included Frost Centre faculty and research associates from Geography, Sociology, and Canadian Studies.

Prof. Dummit focussed his exciting talk on the 'Weird Willie' phenomenon, (the many revelations of Mackenzie King's oddities after his death), and how it influenced changes in Canada’s political culture over the last fifty years, including the decline of deference and the democratic deficit. He spoke about why Canadians in the 1970s and 1980s wanted to know so much about Prime Minister Mackenzie King's private life – if he was a spiritualist or mentally disturbed.

“This is history that everyone here knows better than me,” said Prof. Dummit to twitters from the renowned academics in the room. He pointed out that his purpose was to examine how a political figure can become a figure of popular culture, and what that says about society-wide thinking and a decline in deference to authority.

With Cultural Studies, Canadian Studies, Biology, and International Development Studies represented in the room, an animated conversation followed about that shift in the political cultural environment, when what became important was the “dark under presence” along with a “distrust of shiny surfaces.” The private life of a politician was then what mattered more to the public than the political work that was done. “That was a wonderful presentation of a complex subject,” said Prof. Symons.

“Why does it matter?” asked Prof. Dummit. “Because it is about people challenging the meaning of democracy and who makes decisions – pushing for more information and the right to know about politicians. It’s about more than politics. It’s about how people think.”

Trent University prides itself on developing a collegial, interdisciplinary and collaborative atmosphere between students and faculty, something readily fostered by the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, which draws together scholars and students from the local, national and international community to enjoy a variety of intellectual, social and cultural activities and a rich research and learning environment.