Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage

He reminded us what “strong and free” nationalism should be
April 1, 2013

My father described himself as "a Canadian nationalist – by instinct, upbringing and conviction alike."What did he mean? His nationalism was certainly not the kind of "my-country-right-or-wrong" flag-waving that justifies intolerance and abuse, or the jingoistic fervour that erodes democracy and common sense and too often leads to war. His nationalism meant knowing and loving this country, striving to keep it strong and free, and ensuring its ongoing contribution to a better world.

The principles at the heart of Eugene Forsey's work – democracy, social and economic justice, human rights, equality – are seldom regarded as aspects of nationalism. Yet I see much of what he did as a kind of practical nationalism, applying those fundamental principles to the unique Canadian context and keeping watch to make sure they – and the nation – endured.

It would never have occurred to Dad to indulge in the childish "best country in the world" nonsense so popular nowadays with some public figures. His patriotism was much more serious and more matter-of-fact. In his words: "Canada has a distinct identity. It is different from any other country in the world, and it's worth preserving."

Of course, one of the greatest challenges to preserving that identity was – and is – our giant neighbour to the south. Like many Canadians, my father had a built-in wariness of the United States. Part of it was the natural caution of a mouse sharing space with an elephant, but it also went beyond that. During a debate on broadcasting, he made it clear. "I do not wish to be regarded as one of those foolish people who condemn everything American. I know perfectly well there are excellent American programs... But we have here a distinct civilization, quite different from the American, and I believe in preserving it."

Key elements of that distinct civilization included the bilingual, multicultural nature of Canadian society and its ongoing political evolution as a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. He cherished our progressive policies of universality and equalization, our hard-won programs of Medicare and social security, our rich and diverse heritage of arts and culture, and our unique national institutions like the CBC and the National Film Board. He was unwilling to see all that sacrificed on the altar of American interests or dubious economic advantage, as so many Canadian "opinion leaders" in business and government have since shown themselves far too ready to do.

My father was fierce in his defence of Canada's political and cultural identity. His determination to maintain our political uniqueness was grounded in his belief that the differences between our evolutionary approach and the American model of armed revolution were of crucial and continuing importance. He pointed with pride to the generations of nation-builders, from the Fathers of Confederation to Laurier, Meighen, and Trudeau, who have demonstrated the reasons for, and the value of, those differences. Canada's heritage of gradual, non-revolutionary change is embodied today in our ever-evolving Constitution, and in the ways in which most Canadians seem to prefer to go about doing things.

Some years ago, on CBC Radio's Morningside, Peter Gzowski asked listeners to suggest ways to complete the phrase "as Canadian as..." The hands-down winning entry was "as Canadian as possible under the circumstances." I think Dad would have enjoyed the self-deprecating irony. He might also have seen in the phrase a recognition of aspects of our national character that influenced his own: the thoughtful practicality, the respect for context and complexity, which have evolved from our geographical and historical realities.

That subtle cultural bias takes its political form as a preference for dialogue and negotiations – what might be termed "transformation by discussion." It need not be namby-pamby or half-hearted. Nor does it in any way deny the role of protest and resistance of the sort that, for example, my father and his socialist contemporaries engaged in during and after the Depression. In fact, the methods of Canadian democratic socialism mesh very well with this penchant for deliberate process which combines action with reflection, commitment with respect. If the proof is in the social pudding, Canadian progressives would seem not to have done too badly in comparison with the "revolutionaries" south of the border.

However, this traditionally Canadian approach to change, which my Dad upheld and practised, has been seriously eroded in recent years. Various governments appear to prefer to use a wrecking ball to get rid of things they don't like. It is no accident that former Conservative premier Mike Harris of Ontario officially labelled his program of social demolition – a massive campaign targeting environmental regulations, social programs and welfare – a "revolution."

Those types of destructive policy have now become all too familiar. They were, and are, the product of the imported ideology of "small government" – the notion, so dear to the American Republican Party, that the less government there is, the better. It is a comparatively recent arrival in Canada, but, like purple loosestrife, zebra mussels, and other invasive species, it has been spreading apace. Eugene Forsey's understanding of the responsibilities and mechanisms of Canadian government can be one tool for controlling the plague.

One of the obstacles to that understanding is the notion that Canada is, or should be, pretty much like the United States.

"The carbon copy theory of Canada," my father wrote, "assumes that this country really is, and certainly ought to be, a carbon copy of the United States. (Why on earth there should be a second, no one bothers to explain.) But plainly, it is a poor copy. The Fathers of Confederation smudged it. It is time we got busy with erasers and cleaned it up.

"There could not be a wilder misconception of the origin and nature of Canada. The Fathers of Confederation were not a lot of mixed-up kids who tried to copy the United States and failed. They tried to make a very different kind of country, and they succeeded.

"The Americans deliberately broke with their past. We have repeatedly and deliberately refused to break with ours. The Americans deliberately set out to make theirs a country of one language and one culture. We deliberately chose to preserve two languages and two cultures.The Americans chose a decentralized federation. We set out to create a highly centralized federation... The American Congress and state legislatures are hedged around by constitutional prohibitions. Our Parliament, within the limits of subject and area laid down by the [Constitution] Act, can do anything. So can our provincial legislatures, subject to the Dominion power of disallowance.

"No wonder our Constitution does not work like the American! No wonder the 'carbon copy' looks smudged!"

Dad's highlighting of these differences caused a miniature international incident during the World University Service seminar in India in 1953, demonstrating why, despite his many aptitudes, he could never have made a career in the diplomatic service.

"I was giving a lecture on the Canadian and American Constitutions, and I observed, with truth, that the Canadian was much the more modern of the two. To liven what I felt was a somewhat tedious discourse, I was foolish enough to say that the American Constitution was an eighteenth-century sedan chair, which only the political genius of the American people enabled them to manoeuvre through modern traffic.

"I had spoken lightly of sacred things. The Americans were deeply hurt. Their chief delegate told me: 'We always think of the Canadians as just like us.' I felt inclined to say that that was just the trouble. But she was so distressed that I hadn't the heart."

Diplomatic missteps aside, my father viewed with alarm the many forces at work to draw Canada ever further into the American orbit. The political face of this continentalist agenda was what he called "creeping republicanism" – the subtle undermining of Canadian traditions and institutions, whether through ignorance or through deliberate efforts to erase our distinctiveness.

One instance was the covert but sustained effort by post-war Liberal governments to eliminate the word "Dominion" as the title of our country. Our status as a constitutional monarchy has also been chipped away at in other ways, from the surreptitious removal of the word "Royal" from the mail trucks in the 1950s to a more recent suggestion that we should have a hockey star as Governor-General.

Dad responded to that suggestion at the time: "If we [were] to have a second republic north of the [forty-ninth] parallel, we'd all struggle to keep our own identity, to keep the one thing which would mark us off from every other people in the world – a hockey-player head of state. Let laws and learning, wealth and commerce die, but leave us still our hockey-hero head!"

The pressures pushing Canada towards absorption by the United States have had a powerful vehicle in the mass media. Dad did his best to resist those pressures, on the Board of Broadcast Governors, in the Senate, and as a private citizen. In a Senate debate on media regulation, he summed up his view. If controls on Canadian content were loosened and the private broadcasters given free rein, he said, "we would get American tripe dished up to us morning, noon and night over the air."

Another of his nationalist battlefields was education, where he tried to combat the encroachment of American content and methods into our schools and universities. In a 1957 speech, he denounced "the uncritical worship, or lazy copying, of American education."

A year ago, a friend of mine, a very distinguished political scientist, was asked to write a simple book for Ontario schools on how Canada is governed. He agreed, but said it would take him some time. One of the departmental big-wigs pooh-poohed this: 'All you need to do is take a simple book on American government and change a few things here and there.'... Just think of ignoramuses like that being in positions of power in the educational system of Canada's largest province! ... If Providence had not intervened, the children of Ontario would have been hit with a textbook almost every word of which they would have had to unlearn before they could act as intelligent Canadian citizens."

It was not a lack of respect for the Americans that motivated my father's resistance to mimicking the U.S. It was his love for Canada, combined with his customary insistence on common sense. "The worst of it is that we so often seem to take over the silliest things," he said, "just when the Americans have come to realize how silly they are. We pick up their cast-off clothes of ten or twenty years ago, and go strutting around in them under the impression that they are the latest thing from Fifth Avenue. Let us learn from the Americans, and from everyone else, but let us use our heads about it."


(Helen Forsey is a writer and activist based in Eastern Ontario and Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. This article is adapted from her book about her father's legacy, "Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage" (Dundurn, 2012.).)