'Je me souviens, too'—Eugene Forsey and the British Fact

Eugene Forsey believed French and British glory were Canada’s glory, writes Christopher Dummitt, with a Burkean anti-revolutionary idea of history and an abiding faith in the impartial and benevolent state.

Originally published in The Dorchester Review print edition, Vol. 4, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2014, pp. 9-12.

THERE WAS A TIME, not so long ago, when those who were proud of Canada’s British traditions weren’t only conservatives. Labour activists and socialists, Liberals east and west, once spoke naturally of Canada’s place in the British Empire and Commonwealth. No longer. In 2014 the Harper government was accused of creating a new nationalism by harkening back to old symbols — setting itself apart from the (Pierre) Trudeau-era Liberal nationalism of the Charter, multiculturalism, and peacekeeping. 

It’s worth looking back to a time when an easy categorization between British and Canadian, Conservative and Liberal, was not so natural. One man, Eugene Forsey, lived on the precipice of this change. A socialist and trade union advocate friendly to Progressive Conservatives, and later a Liberal Senator, Forsey (1904-1991) spent much of his life decrying the faulty logic that put Canada’s British traditions into the conservative camp. His early 1950s fight to preserve Canada’s official title of “Dominion” shows how far our contemporary impressions have drifted. 

“My tragedy,” Forsey wrote in 1951, “is that I’m too radical to be a good Conservative, and too conservative to be a good radical. I am also too academic to be a good trade unionist, and too good a trade unionist to be a good academic man; too partisan to be independent, and too independent to be a good party man.” Forsey knew himself well. 

He was a socialist who wrote about a third of the League for Social Reconstruction’s Social Planning for Canada and worked on the CCF’s Regina Manifesto. Yet his closest friend from the 1940s onward was Conservative heavyweight Arthur Meighen, former Prime Minister and Opposition leader, and a Senator from 1932 to 1942. It was Forsey’s Ph.D. research into the 1926 King-Byng controversy that put him at odds with the Liberal prime minister, W. L. Mackenzie King. Hence his affinity for Meighen, and the genesis of his side career as the one man determined to resist the Liberal assault on British traditions and especially parliamentary democracy. Throughout his life Forsey became a kind of national fact-checker and professional writer of letters to the editor.’ He was the only man, aside from the paper’s owner, ever asked to proofread his own obituary in the Globe and Mail. He found “a few minor errors” and attached seven pages of corrections. 

In 1951, when the St. Laurent government engaged in minor tinkering with Canada’s national symbols, Forsey leaped into the fray. The Liberals had long billed themselves as the party of loyal national autonomy, winning majority governments under Laurier, King, and St. Laurent by traipsing the “colony to nation” path in small evolutionary steps. The late 1940s saw the introduction of a separate Canadian citizenship, the elimination of appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and patriation of those areas of the constitution exclusively in federal jurisdiction. (The rest of the constitution took slightly longer to be patriated.) 

In 1951 the colony to nation caravan threatened to run off course at two points. In the summer, someone noticed mail trucks labelled “Canada Post” and not “Royal Mail.” The issue came up in parliament and the minister, Rinfret, bumbled the question, leading to news stories across the country about the government’s surreptitious attempt to eliminate royal symbols. 

In November 1951, the government introduced an amended Dominion Lands Act titled the Canada Lands Act, a small but significant change. A private member’s bill calling on the government to stop using the term “dominion” had been defeated earlier in the year, lending credence to the notion that the government was acting surreptitiously, making changes without fanfare. In the House, the minister tried to sidestep the issue, invoking efficiency and convenience. 

Forsey rose to the attack. “Where is it all going to stop?” Forsey wrote in a letter to the Globe. “Are we going to wake up one morning and find ourselves citizens of the Republic of Canada?” Forsey’s letter sparked a national response, and it was clear that those favouring the preservation of “Royal” and “Dominion” were in the majority in English Canada. Even Liberal newspapers like the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun urged the government to stay its hand. Those who supported the government claimed that “dominion” had a subservient ring. R.J. Bruce from Val D’Or, Que. wrote to say that he had seen a reference in the Saturday Evening Post to Canada’s “dominion status” and “her degree of autonomy.” How could this not imply a kind of subservience? 

The majority disagreed. Letter writer C.E. Mark from London, Ont. wrote, “there are many … who know that their birthright of freedom and justice was cradled in Britain’s past.” H. Buck agreed “wholeheartedly” with Forsey. “Let the legislators say what they will,” Buck wrote, “but so far as I am concerned this country is a Dominion and part of the British Empire and I am a British subject and proud of all these.” One could be both British and Canadian simultaneously. 

The following month the government replaced the Dominion Elections Act with the Canada Elections Act. This time, the debate in the house went deeper, with Conservative MPs emboldened by public debate. Howard Green resented “this policy of the government of making the word [Dominion] almost out of order.” The issue divided French and English MPs across party lines with the Progressive Conservative member from Labelle, Que. supporting the government and not his own party. “I have the greatest respect for the empire,” he told the House, “but it is time to do away with those colonial links, which speak for our weakness and dependency.” It didn’t matter that the term had been chosen by Canadians, nor that Conservative MPs opened their dictionaries to read the meaning of “Dominion” into Hansard, the official parliamentary record. French-speaking members, and some English-speaking Liberal nationalists, had identified their own meaning of the term; the dictionaries just hadn’t caught up. 

The prime minister, St. Laurent, interjected to defend the bill. He announced that “it is the policy of this government when statutes come up for review or consolidation to replace the word ‘dominion’ with the word ‘Canada.’’’ Then he questioned the national credentials of any who could disagree, saying “There are some in this country who rather like the name of Canada.” Tellingly George Drew, the Progressive Conservative leader, did not speak. 

Forsey responded with another letter — the contemporary equivalent of a thundering op-ed or Twitter post today. As to St. Laurent’s sly implication that his critics did not “like the name of Canada,” Forsey answered: “We all do. What has that got to do with it?” He made the point that Canada was a dominion like France was a republic and Britain was a United Kingdom. Point by point, Forsey went through the prime minister’s arguments, concluding that “[e]very one of the reasons … is fatuously irrelevant, an affront to the intelligence of the public. What, then, are the real reasons?” 

Forsey was right. The Liberal government was not being entirely honest because it feared a direct confrontation over the British issue. They removed symbolic words like “Dominion” and “Royal” but still made sure to claim loyalty. In the midst of the debate, the historian Arthur Lower wrote to St. Laurent’s chief advisor, Jack Pickersgill, to complain that the party was talking too much about the legalistic reasons for the change. “I myself,” he wrote, “would prefer an uncomplicated battle on the nationalist issue.” Pickersgill considered Lower naive, suggesting that he was “even less qualified than the Prime Minister to be a politician.” This speaks a good deal to Pickersgill’s self-confidence, but also to the fact that Liberal strategy meant not owning up to its real intentions. Pickersgill thought St. Laurent had been too blunt in the House. Better to keep quiet; say one thing and do another. 

The controversy did not let up over the holiday and into 1952. CBC radio’s Citizens Forum asked Forsey to come on the program. Tellingly, Forsey appeared alongside Lower, the Liberal MP Philéas Coté, and Robert MacGregor Dawson, Mackenzie King’s official biographer. In other words, it was three Liberals against the CCF-er Forsey and not a Tory in sight. The Progressive Conservative party had been out of power for sixteen years, and the Tory brass knew that one key weakness of their own party was its reputation in Quebec as too pro-British. Most English Canadians supported Forsey, but they didn’t find a voice in the leadership of any political party. 

In retrospect, people like Forsey would come to be seen as backward and perhaps even anti-French. Yet this would mischaracterize the fluently bilingual Forsey who spoke across the country in English and French. He wrote to Meighen that “I have tried to steer clear of making it a Protestant-R[oman] C[atholic] thing, or a French-English thing.” He knew that his position could be mistakenly presented as prejudiced and was therefore “desperately anxious to avoid making the discussion hinge on ‘race’ or religion.” When someone wrote in the Ottawa Citizen complaining that more French Canadians did not speak English, Forsey took them to task. The French fact “is one of the things that make us distinctively Canadian,” he argued. Forsey tied Canada’s respect for different cultures to the evolutionary and not revolutionary history of Canada. “The Americans deliberately chose to break with their past,” he argued. “We deliberately and repeatedly chose to preserve our links with our past, French and British.” 

This thinking is so foreign to many of us today that it is worth considering in detail. Essentially Forsey was making the case that the preservation of French institutions, culture and language went along with the preservation of Canada’s British traditions. It’s the same kind of argument that the Anglo-Quebec educator John Farthing made in his essays published by Ottawa Journal columnist Judith Robinson in 1957 under the title Freedom Wears a Crown. Forsey’s British Canadianism had plenty of space for cultural diversity, and in fact is the source of that view of cultural plurality. Forsey thought that respecting the British tradition in Canada also meant respecting Canada’s French traditions. He also thought that a constitutional monarchy like Canada made space for cultural and political diversity under a unified crown whereas republican forms of government demanded conformity. 

Later in the year Arthur Lower celebrated a new Canadian identity that owed nothing to the past in a series of articles in Saturday Night magazine. He claimed to see a new national type developing on the prairies which “some day must be as Canadian as French Canada, untrammelled by the disturbing hindsight of the Ontarian or the New Brunswicker.” 

Forsey could barely contain his anger. “French Canada is truly Canadian, because it is ‘untrammeled by hindsight,’” Forsey wrote. “Of course, Quebec’s motto is ‘Je me souviens.’ That rules out the past. The Quebec provincial flag has the fleur-de-lis all over it. The fleur-de-lis is purely Canadian. French-Canadians talk about ‘le fait français au Canada’ and ‘le miracle de la survivance française en Amérique.’ That ‘knows only Canada’ … No hindsight about that” What angered Forsey was the way Liberals like Lower essentially argued that “the English-Canadian must … deny the British fact in Canada and the miracle of British survival in America; he must forswear his British heritage.”This hypocrisy (or blindness) was too much for someone who advocated the importance of both French and British traditions to Canadian nationhood. 

This particular controversy ended quietly when King George VI died on Feb. 6, 1952. It clearly would not do to be seen assailing British symbols in the midst of a period of mourning. The St. Laurent government stopped, for the moment, talking about removing “Dominion” and “Royal.” It helped that a Gallup poll came out showing that there was very little support for the government’s actions. 

Still, we know how this ends. In the 1960s, faced with a more radical nationalism in Quebec, it seemed increasingly urgent to offer the kind of pan-Canadian national symbols such as a new flag, that owed nothing to the country’s British past. The violence of the FLQ made the demands of Liberal MPs whom Forsey had opposed, seem more reasonable. Forsey seemed out of touch. Over the next several decades, generations grew up who knew nothing but the symbols of Liberal nationalism. Those who flew the Red Ensign and longed for a Canadianism that acknowledged the country’s British heritage became, in a true sense, conservative (or reactionary). 

It is worth recalling, though, that British Canada was much more than what it became. It included a critic like Eugene Forsey, a socialist with progressive ideas about French-English relations, ideas rooted not in a universalistic civics but in a faith in the impartial state guaranteed under a monarchical system of government, and a Burkean anti-revolutionary idea of history’s place in Canada. These, not enlightenment universalism and liberal individualism, were the sources of Forsey’s respect for Canada’s cultural diversity. In other words, there were other ways of being inclusive, other paths to modernity than the one Canada followed. 

When Forsey and Lower appeared together on the radio, Lower claimed that Forsey was trying to claim a “greatness not thine own.” He meant British culture. The one thing Forsey regretted after is that he didn’t confront Lower on this particular line. “[T]he whole point is,” Forsey later wrote, “that the greatness of Britain is ours. The British tradition is essentially part of the Canadian tradition.”

Originally published in The Dorchester Review print edition, Vol. 4, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2014, pp. 9-12.

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