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A case of art imitating politics

The Average Hardworking Canadian stands waist-deep in pamphlets, donut and coffee in hand, with a great big bull's-eye for a head. Carved out of wood and about two feet tall, he is Linda Leon’s artistic rendering.

The Average Hardworking Canadian stands waist-deep in pamphlets, donut and coffee in hand, with a great big bull’s-eye for a head.

Carved out of wood and about two feet tall, he is Linda Leon’s artistic rendering of how she thinks the Conservative government sees Canadians.

“Now we are an oligarchy of people who are discouraged from thinking. Everything is dumbed down, leadership is dumbed down. We have basically been sold to industry and corporations. I’m not even sure we are a democracy anymore. We are an oligarchy like Russia, or China, or Alberta,” she said.

The Average Hardworking Canadian is part of Leon’s new art show, PROUD, The Rebranding of Canada. It opened at the Guild Hall last week.

“I was always going to have a show about the rebranding of Canada,” said the Whitehorse artist.

“The government’s Economic Action Plan logo getting plastered everywhere, the Ten Percenters, I think it’s terrible abuse,” she said.

So-called Ten Percenters form a key part of Leon’s work. They are flyers that MPs are allowed to mail, at no cost to themselves, to up to 10 per cent of the households in their riding.

All the political parties use them. But Leon takes particular issue with Yukon MP Ryan Leef’s use of the flyers, which she says is excessive.

Beginning last year, she started collecting Ten Percenters from people around Whitehorse. She compiled a veritable mountain of them, and collaged them into cartoonish commentaries on the Tories’ evils as she sees them.

In one image, Leef scampers up a mountain hollowed out by hydraulic fracturing. He’s being chased by menacing winged monkeys.

In another, Leef is seen sporting a tutu made of Economic Action Plan arrows and balancing on a high-wire.

“I wanted to have this show about the re-branding of Canada, and at the time we hadn’t been receiving Ten Percenters. But then we started getting a lot, about two or three a month from Ryan. He only did it for about four months, and then he stopped,” said Leon.

“I don’t know if he stopped because the Conservative propagandists are retooling in the wake of the Senate spending scandal, or if it was because he knew I was going to do this art show.”

Under the rules, the flyers must be designed by and contain original material from each of the MPs, but Leon said Leef doesn’t do that.

“This material originates with the Conservative spin doctors. We know this because of the hoopla over the fake Braille flyers. They were the same all across the country,” she says.

Those flyers, which trumpeted the Tories’ work to expand accessibility for disabled Canadians, drew flak from many critics because they included pictures of Braille dots that couldn’t actually be read by a blind person.

But Leon isn’t just angry about the flyers. She’s upset at what she sees as the “rebranding” of Canada, everything from the prime minister’s insistence that his government be called the “Harper Government” to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s gold-embossed government business cards that dropped the word “Canada.”

She’s also not pleased with Leef’s attempt to brand himself as a “new kind of Canadian MP.” Most of the pieces in her art show feature cutouts of Leef, who happens to be a long-distance runner, with a cut-out head atop a cartoonish body running hither and yon, sporting a yellow Conservative running jersey.

“I think he’s just running. He’s running for attention, he’s running for re-election, he’s running to achieve approval from the Conservative Party and Mr. Harper. There’s a little bit of trying to brand himself as this new kind of Canadian politician. But I’m not really seeing it. I think he’s just an empty post,” she said.

“I think I’ve been a little gentle. I could have been a little rougher with him,” Leon said, laughing.

Stephen Harper’s disembodied head features prominently in the pieces as well, floating like a spectre glaring down on the masses. The works are dark, with a sinister feeling, and unapologetically political. They could easily exist alongside cartoons by the Toronto Star’s Theo Moudakis or the Globe and Mail’s Brian Gable.

As for Leef, he says he’s happy to have someone using art to express their feelings, but he also said Leon’s interpretations are off-base.

“Absolutely, I enjoy political cartoons,” Leef said.

“When there’s satire or analogy around those, I do appreciate those. I don’t necessarily agree with what she has to say, and there are times where the record needs to be corrected because her arguments may be truncated or not accurate.

“But if she’s creating a conversation, there’s nothing wrong with that. It gives me an opportunity to have a public discussion,” he said.

Leef is no stranger to Leon’s criticisms. She writes him at least once a month expressing her frustration and anger with the Conservatives and with him.

“She originally started writing to me suggesting that Ten Percenters were banned and the laws were being broken, but that’s not true,” Leef said.

“We actually eliminated the ability for members to send Ten Percenters into other members’ ridings. Under the old rules, opposing parties would flood somebody else’s ridings with literature,” he said.

Leef disputes Leon’s assertion that the government is “rebranding” the country.

“The Canadian flag hasn’t changed, our national anthem hasn’t changed. This is still the people of Canada’s government,” he said.

He also defended the pamphleting practice, saying that the flyers allow him the ability to reach his most remote constituents, even when he is thousands of kilometres away in Ottawa. And, since the flyers are free to mail, constituents can fill out comment forms on them and send them back, Leef said.

“They’re exceptionally cost-effective. Last Ten Percenter was celebrating the arts and culture funding for the territory, and it included quotes of the CEO of the Yukon Arts Centre,” Leef said.

Leon, of course, sees things differently.

“It’s a small form of stealing,” she said.

“If the Conservatives want to put trash in our mailboxes, they should damn well pay for it,” she said.

Contact Jesse Winter at