An intimate group of 16 attendees gathered for this auspicious event on a beautiful summer-like day at the Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame, across from the newly-installed Diversity Gardens at the Assiniboine Park. This Hall of Fame may well be unique in the world for its method of recognizing its city’s favourite daughters and sons, complete with bronze likenesses by accomplished local sculptors of Winnipeggers who have significantly contributed to their fellow citizens’ quality of life.
Peter Squire, Vice President of External Relations and Market Intelligence for the Winnipeg Regional Real Estate Board (WRREB), began the ceremony with the following Land Acknowledgment:
We are gathered here on Treaty One Territory, home of the Anishinabe (Ojibway), Dakota, Dene, Ininew (Cree) and Oji-Cree peoples, the Birthplace of the Métis Nation, and the Heart of the Métis Nation Homeland. People from around the world have come to call Winnipeg home and our community prides itself in its cultural diversity. We respect the Treaty signed on this Territory. We acknowledge the harms and mistakes of the past. We thus desire to collaborate in partnership with our Indigenous sisters and brothers, to redress those wrongs in a spirit of truth and reconciliation, because we are all Treaty People.
Cliff King, Chair of the Hall’s Selection Program within the WRREB, welcomed everyone to the ceremony, and introduced Howard R. Engel, Founding Director and CEO of The Marshall McLuhan Initiative (MMI), to acknowledge the induction of Herbert Marshall McLuhan (HMM) into the Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame.
Mr. Engel began with the following story, taking off his own watch, checking that it was working, and, with a grand flourish, laying it on the pedestal supporting HMM’s bronze bust:
A story is told of two friends, one Catholic and the other Protestant, who were interested in learning about each other’s faith. One of the best ways they found to do this, was to attend each other’s worship services, hoping to understand what this or that ritual in the service meant. So, on one Sunday when it was the Catholic friend’s turn to attend the Protestant worship service, there came a point just prior to the sermon when the preacher made an elaborate show of taking off his watch, checking that it was working, and, with a grand flourish, laying it on the pulpit in front of him. Puzzled, the Catholic turned to his Protestant friend and said, “So what does that ritual mean?” The Protestant rolled his eyes and sighed, “Not a damn thing!”
As McLuhan often said, “Jokes are grievances,” so Engel disclaimed, “You can’t say I didn’t warn you!”
If there had been a microphone there (and there wasn’t), Engel would have asked, in McLuhanesque style, “Is this thing on”? Why? Engel explained that because, as McLuhan once said of a microphone in an interview, “it changes everything,” as it mediates our relationships in ways quite apart from its original purpose (in this case to extend the normal reach of the human voice) and it can do so much more forcefully than we may realize. One of McLuhan’s most famous sayings is “The medium is the message.” In other words, every medium (or piece of human technology, whether it be a microphone, the park bench, the car on the road, the road itself, etc.) carries with it many messages and consequences that reach far beyond the original purpose for which it was intended. The process of discovering the meaning and effects of these otherwise hidden messages and consequences constitutes a new discipline that began with McLuhan’s own “probes” (or explorations), a discipline called “Media Ecology”. Engel invited his audience to “Hold on to that thought.”
Engel gave his own greetings and welcome to the gathered friends of the late, great Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), born in Edmonton, raised in Winnipeg, and educated here at Gladstone School, Kelvin Technical High School and the University of Manitoba. (In his chapter on McLuhan in The Greatest Manitobans, published by the Winnipeg Free Press in 2008, Morley Walker modified the Neil Young song lyric to comment about HMM: “All his changes were here”). Marshall spent most of his Winnipeg years at 507 Gertrude Avenue, where the Assiniboine River was at one end of the street, and the Red River at the other. He maintained not just one, but two boats; he would sail up the Red River in his sailboat, and would row down the Assiniboine in his rowboat, just a stone’s throw from today’s Installation ceremony. Marshall subsequently flourished in Toronto after he became a devout Catholic, (or as McLuhan once quipped, “the worst kind — a convert”). He became a beloved professor of English literature; a prophetic poet; a biting satirist; and the renowned communications visionary, public intellectual, and media guru recognized today.
Engel related that this installation event was the culmination of a six-year-long dream that began in 2015, when Engel toured the Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame with his wife Esther G. Juce (present), and Ruthanne and George Wrobel, two attendees of McLuhan’s Faith and Work Conference, hosted by MMI at St. Paul’s College that year. All four searched for the bust of McLuhan among those of the other Winnipeg luminaries, but to no avail. It was later confirmed that indeed, the man had not yet been so honoured. Something had to be done! After three presentations to the Hall of Fames’ Nominating Committee, Esther and Howard, and later fellow Winnipigeon, Richard Altman, were finally able to secure HMM’s proper place in the Winnipeg Citizen’s Hall of Fame. (By the way, “Winnipigeon” was Marshall’s term of endearment for his fellow Winnipeggers.)
The unveiling of HMM’s bronze bust took place on November 27, 2019. This work of art captures both a remarkable likeness of the youthful Marshall, and at the same time something of his later celebrity. At this point, Engel recognized another local Manitoba treasure in sculptor Madeleine Vrignon (present), the creator of this magnificent objet d’art. The unveiling took place in Marshall McLuhan Hall, at the University of Manitoba, McLuhan’s first post-secondary alma mater, no less. Marshall’s son, Eric, present at the official dedication of Marshall McLuhan Hall (formerly the Beausejour Room) back in 2004, quipped that this was the first time he could ever remember when both Marshall’s father’s family, and that of his mother, Elsie Naomi McLuhan (nee Hall), were honoured at the same time! Another teaser is that Marshall McLuhan Hall happens to be room number 204 in the University Centre building. This number is, of course, Manitoba’s first telephone area code. With such connections, McLuhan will forever be associated with the province of Manitoba, and with much pride!
On the very next day, November 28, 2019, the MMI held the “Winnipigeon Homecoming” Symposium, graciously hosted by the U. of M.’s Archives and Special Collections Department, with former Head, Shelley Sweeney, (now happily retired), and Brian Hubner, her successor (also both present at the installation). The captivating keynote speaker at the Symposium was Marshall’s youngest son, Michael McLuhan. (Michael, along his wife Danuta Valleau, were the official family welcomed and acknowledged by the Winnipeg Regional Real Estate Board at the unveiling.)
Being unable to attend the installation in person, two of Marshall’s four surviving children, daughter Teri McLuhan (scholar, film producer, and author in her own right), and son Michael, (Principal of the McLuhan Estate: https://www.marshallmcluhan.com/), wrote the following, which Howard presented on their behalf:
[The installation of the bronze bust of my father in the Winnipeg Citizen’s Hall of Fame] is such wonderful news… I wish I could be there for the installation ceremony and overall event. How special it will be. I [know that there will be an] appreciative audience! So now it’s set in bronze!
Thank you hugely for all that you do to keep the light of the MM legacy burning high so that it may radiate out into the world and confer its mischievous grace.
Thinking of you [all] and sending warm thoughts.
My father was always proud of his Winnipigeon heritage. Born in Edmonton and raised in Winnipeg, he felt himself to be a “child of the prairies”. Although work carried him off to the States for a few years, he was finally able to come back to Canada with a position at the University of Toronto. He spoke of his time in Winnipeg fondly, describing a boyhood paradise of living between two rivers. To my mind it brought into focus a world that existed for me… described in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (without the racist overtones!) He described building boats, hiding them in bushes along the shore, and paddling or rowing with his brother (Uncle Red to us) after school. [“Uncle Red”, a.k.a. Maurice Raymond McLuhan, 1913-2001, became a United Church Minister, and served at Deer Lodge United Church at 2093 Portage Avenue just across the Assiniboine River from Assiniboine Park. Sadly, the Church structure, originally built in 1956 was demolished in 2012, to be replaced by a hotel that never materialized and the land remains a vacant lot to this day. ~HRE]
Childhood is a time for dreaming, and dream he did. Because of the community in Winnipeg which nurtured and formed him, he was able to grow and go on to do fantastic things. I am sure that he would have been thrilled, thrilled and humbled by this honour.
On behalf of the family, I would like to thank you all for bestowing it.
It is the contention of the Marshall McLuhan Initiative, officially represented at the Installation by Mr. Engel, is that everything for which McLuhan became famous was already evident in his writings for The Manitoban, the official student newspaper at the U. of M. Some 14 of his articles were published in this newspaper between 1930 and 1934. Late MMI colleague and fellow Director, Richard Osicki, (1946-2012), wrote the seminal piece entitled “McLuhan the Manitoban”: https://www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/archives/digital/mcluhan.html. The Initiative sponsored Osicki’s article, the digitization of all of the McLuhan articles, and a special print compilation of these same articles in an issue of The Manitoban to celebrate in 2011 the centenary of McLuhan’s birth. Engel invited those present at the Installation to accept as a gift from the MMI a copy of this special issue of The Manitoban, vol. 99 no. 00 [sic] and dated July 6, 2011.
If there’s one idea that Engel, through the MMI, hopes attendees and readers alike will remember about HMM, it can be summed up in two words: “Media Ecology”. This is a relatively new field of study and exploration. (McLuhan would say “I don’t explain, I explore.”) The discipline can be defined as “the study of media (or of any human technology for that matter) as environments”. One begins with the original, intended purpose of any given technology, like the microphone, or the ubiquitous, so-called intelligent phone [Engel pulled out his antiquated flip phone much to the group’s amusement] to which so many have committed their souls and identities. At the same time, however, that same technology can affect human beings in a completely unanticipated manner. This phenomenon is clearly worthy of attention and study, and may involve an urgency to be ignored only at one’s peril. Far from being a technological determinist, McLuhan invites anyone who listens to probe this phenomenon with him. He offers a way of doing this probing through a heuristic, or tool, called the “Laws of Media” (among many other tools or probes, to be sure, but that’s another story). His heuristic was published posthumously in a book by the same name by his son Eric McLuhan in 1988. Marshall McLuhan’s Laws of Media are probably best understood to be summed up in the following four questions:
- What does the medium or technology extend? (e.g. the microphone extends the human voice so that it can be heard and hopefully better understood)
- What does the medium or technology obsolesce? (e.g. the microphone obsolesces the blowhorn)
- What does the medium or technology retrieve from the past? (e.g. the microphone retrieves the town crier “Hear ye, hear ye…”)
- What does the medium or technology flip into when taken to its extreme? (e.g. the microphone flips into a cacophony of voices in a world that’s always on, always present, and therefore, as MM observed, without a point of view that one can understand)
These questions have no fixed sequence, and may be asked of any human technology in order to understand it better, as per McLuhan’s seminal and perhaps most influential work, Understanding Media (1964).
Engel pointed out that one can consider human evolution as a continual progression onward and upward, homo erectus walking tall. Then perhaps in the current electronic human age, humans have become hunched over their computers, sedentary (not unlike the following image, https://www.vectorstock.com/royalty-free vector/silhouette-of-theory-of-evolution-of-man-vector-21099442, accessed Sept. 23/21):
Or worse, if homo sapiens are indeed still walking, they constantly bump into things, if they don’t get run over first, while being completely absorbed by the blue light of their respective I-phones. Talk about survival of the fittest!
McLuhan compared the invasion of communications media to a vortex, sucking everything and everyone into it. As he observed, “We shape our tools. Then our tools shape us.” But McLuhan was not a technological determinist, as some have charged, because he would be the first to say that humans need not get caught up in this vortex. Rather, as he said, “I don’t want them to believe me. I just want them to think…” and he gave us the means to think about the effects of technologies on our lives. Thus, with HMM, Engel invited those present at the Installation, and those reading this media release, to think about the effects of technologies in general, and of media technology in particular, on their own lives. Perhaps they can employ the McLuhans’ (both Eric and Marshall) Laws of Media, especially when they visit the Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame for peace and quiet and contemplation. If there’s any shred of hope for the future, and for the relationship of human beings with their technologies, Herbert Marshall McLuhan may be thanked for that hope. But, as he quipped, “If you don’t like these ideas, I’ve got others…”
At this juncture, many photos were taken beside the newly-installed bust (some of which accompany this media release), a number of copies of the special issue of The Manitoban celebrating McLuhan’s centenary (mentioned above) were distributed (which can be procured by contacting Mr. Engel), and many pleasant informal conversations ensued. A most enjoyable and enlightening time was had by all, continuing long into the evening for some.
For further information, please contact
Howard R. Engel,
Founding Director & C.E.O.
The Marshall McLuhan Initiative
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada