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Shaping cultural policy

Oration honouring John Crosbie Perlin
Wednesday, May 28, 3 p.m.

In the days before satire, before Rick Mercer was conceived, at a time when Mary Walsh was still going to confession, Joe Smallwood decided we needed a Division of Culture – a government division being a necessary prelude to developing a culture. The year was 1967, and we had just built an arts centre (this very building) and it was empty. John Perlin was appointed to fill it, appointed as the first director and, subsequently, as director of Cultural Affairs.

While his cousin, John Crosbie, was a government minister and his father, Albert, Newfoundland’s leading journalist, and his mother, Vera, our leading civic volunteer – those connections had nothing at all to do with Mr. Perlin’s sudden distinction. He had two essentials for the post: an involvement in theatre and a sound administrative head – culture and commerce in happy combination. And he used the combination well, taking a major role in shaping cultural policy in Newfoundland from 1967 until 1989. He oversaw the creation of five further arts centres and the development of their programs, bringing in a broad range of shows from Shakespeare and modern ballet to Reveen and the Carlton Show Band.

The program, perforce, had to be elitist – to avoid the criticism of the dinner-jacket set – and populist – to avoid the criticism that it was elitist. But John neglected the nationalist side of culture and perhaps that is not surprising because, at the time, it might have been (if, Vice- Chancellor, you would permit some exaggeration) gathered in a banker’s box. This neglect of the nationalist cause produced a response in the jeans-and-joints set, the toked-up troops who occupied the downtown: they took over the LSPU Hall and, reacting to Perlin’s palace and its very English taste in shows, created their own indigenous theatre. John does not, but could, also claim a role in the development of that nationally-regarded aspect of our culture.

Being centre-stage, hobnobbing with international stars and possessed of a few manners, Perlin also got drawn into matters of state visits. The opportunity to associate with monarchy, especially with the English Royals meant that Perlin had attained a kind of nirvana for now he could wear formal clothes all the time – and charge them off to the government account without any question from the auditor general. But good work does not go unrecognized and now he has so many medals that he looks like a stereotypical South American dictator.

This, with his capacity for fixing things on the social side, suggests that he should be known as the “Star-Spangled Spanner” – if the American reference wasn’t so déclassé. We should, however, note that he does not come by his manners genetically. His grandfather, Sir John Crosbie, was knighted but no gentleman for it was he who was quoted in banner headlines as saying “The Pope and the Archbishop may kiss my [hinder parts]”. Vice-Chancellor, please understand that that is not a direct quotation; our most decorous occasion forbids use of the original indecorous language. The grandson, no knight but certainly a gentleman, served his Queen well and has been her Canadian private secretary, is a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Knight Commander of the Order of St. Lazarus, recipient of the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilee medals as well as of the Order of Canada.

His contribution has not been limited to Queen and culture, he has also given to the country, and to the environment. The Fluvarium and the Quidi Vidi/Rennie’s River trail system that now do so much for St. John’s, would not have happened without the leadership of John Perlin. While the energy and imagination of others was essential, it was his organizational capacity and ability to find funding, which brought the project to completion. It has had two major impacts on St. John’s: it has made citizens more involved in walking – improving their health; it has made citizens more aware of the importance of preserving the environment – making the city more attractive to visitors as well as to locals. However, we are obliged to note that not all his contributions have been positive: one night he lost control of his car and ended up in a pond – polluting the very waterways he intended to protect.

Vice-Chancellor, you have some sense of the depth of John Perlin’s involvement in his community – look now at its breadth for he has also chaired organizations as diverse as the Regatta Committee, the Salvation Army Advisory Board and the Public Library Board. That he now holds honourary chairmanships in a number of these is a tribute to his achievements and a mark of the regard in which he is held. For service to culture, Queen and country, Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, John Crosbie Perlin.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator