Thursday, 3 May 2012

The foresight of Eugene Forsey

I'm spending my time these days reading through the letters of Eugene Forsey. Who was Eugene Forsey? It's a complex answer for he was a unique man: he was a key intellectual on the left in Canada in the middle of the 20th century. He not only played a key role as a CCF thinker and intellectual, but he was a labour intellectual, someone who was a researcher for Canadian Labour Congress. But if you think you have him pigeon-holed, you're wrong. He was also a good friend of the Conservative prime minister Arthur Meighen. He was a British Canadian, with an emphasis on both of those terms, someone who failed to see a contradiction in them. The Conservatives under various leaders kept trying to get him to run for office. They did appoint him to the Board of Broadcast Governors after Diefenbaker won in 1957. But then Forsey later ended up as a Liberal Senator, largely I think because he agreed with Trudeau's approach on the constitutional question. He was, as I say, a unique man.

Here's Forsey at my institution, Trent, (one in from right) with a young Margaret Atwood (not to forget T E W Nind on left and Louis Haminsky on the right!)

In reading his letters, I'm reminded of how the past is always with us, but especially so in our politics.

Here is Forsey (in a letter to the editor of Saturday Night in 1951) explaining why it would be a bad idea to appoint a Canadian born Governor General: 'The appointment of a Canadian will throw the office into the whirl-pool of national politics and sectional, racial and sectarian feeling. The French-Canadians will insist, most reasonably, that every second, or at the very least, every third, Governor shall be a French-Canadian. The Irish Roman Catholics will insist on one of their number once in so many times. The various Protestant denominations will want their turn. The Maritimes will jib at a succession of "Upper Canadian" Governors. The Prairies will want their turn. So will British Columbia. Indeed, it may well prove that each individual province will press its own particular claim. One would think we already have enough of thiskind of trouble without deliberately inviting more.'

Of course, Forsey was exactly right - only the kinds of identities to be represented spread out to include more than religion and region.

But most importantly he was right, earlier in the letter, when he said it would cheapen the postion and make it impossible for the GG to act independently, to truly exercise his/her authority [ok, I added the 'her].  This is exactly what happend over the prorogue scandal. Michaelle Jean was doomed if she gave Harper the prorogation, but even more doomed if she didn't. She didn't have the room to move because she's nothing more than a patronage plum and pawn.

You don't have to be a great lover of British Canada to see that the position of GG is now in betwixt and in between. It hangs on to the vestiges of the British parliamentary model, simply replacing a token Canadian in place of the former British aristocrats. No one would accept a British aristocrat telling a Canadian prime minister what to do. But the nationalization didn't go far enough to confer enough authority on the (unelected) GG to actually exercsie the very few, but fundamentally important, remaining reserve powers of the Crown.

The consequences for Candian democracy are as profound as they are obscure. There are hardly any checks left on the authority of a prime minister with (or even without as we saw) a majority government. As the current government daily runs roughshod over the parliamentary process, it's one more thing to worry about...

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