Ottawa Writers Festival: Aislin celebrates a half-century of cartoons and controversy

Terry Mosher aka Aislin celebrates 50 years of cartooning. Photo: Nate Dove

By Nathaniel Dove

He holds the rare honour of being denounced in the House of Commons and being awarded the Order of Canada. And for 50 years, he has made his living by satirizing all that he sees ripe for his wit.

Now Terry Mosher, better known as Aislin, is looking back at his career with the Montreal Gazette and his countless controversies.

As part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, the 74-year-old is showcasing some of his work and presenting his latest book: From Trudeau to Trudeau: Fifty years of Aislin Cartoons.

The exhibition, which opened Thursday, has been in Montreal and Toronto.

Surrounded by a number of his most famous pieces, he describes his favourite targets.

“Certainly René Lévesque. I thought I’d have to quit after he resigned,” said Aislin. In one of his most famous cartoons, he put Quebec’s separatist premier in bed with then-mayor of Montreal Jean Drapeau. Drapeau’s speech bubble reads: “I’ll be gentle.”

It was drawn in 1977 and Aislin didn’t think that it would see the light of day. “It somehow got into the newspaper.” 

Aislin knows his work often challenged the limits what could be printed.

“When I first started out, it was strictly a diet of political cartoons. And in the English press in Canada, you did not touch the Queen. I resolved that. You were not allowed to touch religion — I resolved that. And you were not allowed to touch sex — and I’m the guy who started to get sex into political cartoons.”

The Queen has been a recurring subject. It was, he says, the 1973 cartoon of Queen Elizabeth with Prince Philip as a puppet on her knee that opened the doors to poking fun at Her Majesty. He has continued to reap the benefits, including one cartoon from 2009.

A photo opportunity from the time when the Obamas first met the monarch highlighted the height difference between the Queen and the First Lady. The result was an Aislin cartoon showing the Queen’s hand on Michelle Obama’s bum. “Not one letter of complaint,” said Aislin with a smirk.

He denies his job is to stoke controversy. Instead, he says, it’s to be part of the public conversation. If that conversation involves controversy, so be it.

He acknowledges his cartoons can test those who appear in them. That’s satire. “Can you laugh at yourself?” he says. “Are you human?”

Aislin points to “many religions” that can’t laugh at themselves. At different points in history — even in Canada, he notes —  “Orangemen could not laugh at themselves here in Ontario, or certainly the church in Quebec.”

Some prime ministers are better than others. “Stephen Harper wasn’t very good at it. On the other hand Paul Martin collected originals.”

On the question of what he decides to draw, it’s more a matter of what not to draw, he said. And his own political leanings influence his choices as well.

“The business of being totally neutral is bullshit. Just bullshit,” he said. He described himself as liberal-left, more prone to being sympathetic to an Ed Broadbent than a conservative.

But it’s more than that. “I don’t believe in left and right so much as I believe in decency . . . (Politicians) all pretend to be (decent), but if they’re genuinely decent, then they’re probably not going to appear in my cartoons.”

But he also draws people he likes, he said. “I was very fond of (Pierre Trudeau) at the beginning. I didn’t really draw too many critical cartoons at the beginning.” It was only after the October Crisis that Aislin  said, he started to take him seriously.

Aislin said he thinks it will be the same for Justin Trudeau, whom the cartoonist has known for years.

“I knew that he was going to surprise people. I knew he was not a lightweight.” But “everybody is different from each other, even fathers and sons,” said Aislin. “The father was much slyer and much more caustic than Justin is. There’s a nice innocence about Justin.”

He added: “I don’t know if I will be doing him in a critical way, or if it will be a younger person.”

Aislin was born in Ottawa during the Second World War. He turns 75 on Remembrance Day. He wants to slow down, he said, and for him that means producing the occasional book, drawing one cartoon a week and no longer reading seven newspapers a day.

“I’m mellowing,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’m done. But I’m going to say I’ve done a lot . . .  If something comes up and I want to do it, I will. But I’m not burning the candle at both ends thinking about what I can do.”

The Aislin exhibition is at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery until Oct. 29. The gallery is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Carleton University journalism program and Centretown News.

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