Until I moved to Canada three years ago I had never heard of The Canadian Forum; nor had it occurred to me to be curious about Canadian politics and culture. I did not know that in 1920 a group of University of Toronto faculty and undergraduates founded the Forum, a monthly journal that, after half a century, flourishes and still occupies a unique place in Canadian letters. There is no American journal quite like it. The Nation and The New Republic come closest; but the Forum publishes fiction and engravings as well as social commentary and poetry, and its tone is different. It retains something of the style of the elegant amateur—justifiably, since it pays neither its contributors nor its editorial board. Its editors today are, as they have usually been in the past, university professors; and it draws more of its contributions from academic sources than an American counterpart would, as might be expected in a society in which prominent people still know one another personally and share a common cultural standard.
All this may make Forum a source of nostalgia to American readers despite—or indeed because of—its polish. The journal is, in any case, unfamiliar to American readers. An aphorism quoted in an article, “Uncle Sam Again,” by Kenneth McNaught in the May, 1963, issue, still seems apt: ” ‘Americans are benevolently uninformed about Canada; Canadians are malevolently informed about the United States.’ ”
Great events seldom occur in Canada; Canadians may still even be able to avoid the 1976 Olympics. No earthshaking occurrences disturbed Howard Hughes’s recent brief residence in Vancouver, as they subsequently did in the comparatively provincial capital of Nicaragua. Such significant events as do occur here, The Canadian Forum discusses fully and sometimes participates in. The December, 1971, issue, for example, was largely devoted to “an abbreviated but authentic version of the Gray Report on foreign ownership,” which is not nearly so gray as it sounds. The report discusses the extent and the workings of foreign—now largely American—domination of the Canadian economy, and suggests measures for reducing it. It was prepared for the cabinet by the then minister of finance, the Honorable Herb Gray; but the Trudeau government refused for months to release it despite repeated requests in Parliament and insistence by the press. It thus fell under the legal protection of the Official Secrets Act, and its publication by The Canadian Forum was an act of courage similar to the publication of the Pentagon Papers—and rarer in Canada, where authority is still seldom defied.
The Gray Report is in fact a highly compromising document, since it establishes very clearly the complicity of Canadian banks, which have been and probably still are more willing to lend to large American investors than to smaller, less well established Canadian entrepreneurs; and it shows how little American capital is actually invested by those firms which are usually depicted, even by their adversaries, as huge contributors to the Canadian economy.
Though the December, 1971, issue of course falls outside its scope, there can be no better place to begin a study of Canadian society and politics than with this anthology, Forum, since the works included in it tell the reader so much about the peculiar texture of Canadian life. Several articles in the anthology, beginning with “O Canada” by Frank H. Underhill, taken from the July, 1929, issue, discuss the question that nags Canadians continuously: Is there a distinct Canadian identity? Americans in Canada cannot escape this question, since we are given most of the blame if the answer should be no, though the Quebeçois are also given a small share of it. Yet the fact that the question is a hardy perennial seems much more interesting than the question itself, since it is obvious to a non-Canadian that Canadians do have a national identity, and a very distinctive one. The problem is that it is a very passive identity; Canadians tend to think of themselves as a nation to which other nations make things happen despite its efforts and often to its disadvantage.
This applies even to the formation of the country itself. Canada is, in many respects, a residual state whose boundaries developed as a result of decisions made by statesmen who were thinking about something else, much as the boundaries of Africa and the Balkans did. Canadians do not trace, as Americans do, the origins of their country to the willful act of a group of charismatic patriarchs. The Dominion of Canada, by contrast, was formed out of what was left after the British, American, and French statesmen had wrangled for a century over geographical arrangements that reflected their growing awareness that good trading partners would be more profitable than colonies. Before the French and Indian wars French Canada—the only part that was called that—included the present state of Illinois. As late as 1842 the British ceded to the United States the part of its loyal dominion that included most of what is now the state of Maine and the Iron Range of Minnesota. But for the Webster-Ashburton treaty, which is a real monument to Daniel Webster’s powers of advocacy, Bob Dylan would be as Canadian as Joni Mitchell.
In 1864, representatives of what was left of the British colonies met in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to draw up Articles of Confederation that were then accepted by the British Parliament in the British North America Act, which established the Dominion of Canada in 1867. The BNA Act is the only formal constitution Canada has; and even now it does not have full power to amend the act except with the concurrence of Westminster. Adherence to the Confederation came slowly, with each district holding out for the best terms on which to share the scarce resources available; and Newfoundland, the tenth and latest province, which became part of Canada in 1949, struck the hardest terms of all with the federal government in Ottawa, which subsidizes a large part of its poor economy.
An essential part of Canadian life, in sharp contrast to American, is this feeling that one is patient and clever at making do with leftovers economically. There is very little belief that Canada can affect the rest of the world greatly in return, and exaggerated pleasure when an occasion that appears to provide this opportunity arises, as during the first few days after the signing of the Vietnam cease-fire agreement when the CBC played up the role of Canadian members of the four-nation observer teams in getting the observers out of Saigon and into the field—to what end is not exactly clear. This sense of usually being relegated to a passive role is reflected, both by inclusion and by omission, in Forum. The Canadian Forum seldom discusses events or personalities that have no immediate bearing on Canadian life, in contrast to The Nation and The New Republic, which often discuss developments on every continent. But there is nothing that happens anywhere in the world that Americans do not consider their business; and not much that may be assumed to have occurred without covert or overt American intervention. Canadians are less salient.
The scale of American political events, moreover, has become so grotesque that personages who have figured prominently in them tend to be reduced to moral pygmies: ordinary men, exultantly human in their ordinariness, whose trivial, face-saving decisions kill hundreds of thousands of civilian victims at a time. The scale of Canadian political events seems, by comparison, so small that the personal qualities of public figures are magnified to the point of caricature. Following Canadian politics closely is a little like being a devoted reader of Peanuts or even Pogo; it’s the characters that hold your interest, not the story line. However melodramatic that may get, nobody is going to get hurt really badly, much less eliminated. If Harold Stassen, for instance, were Canadian, he would long ago have been appointed to the Senate for life.
Some of these characters, moreover, are more rewarding subjects of study than their American counterparts. The situation in which they are observed is less confusing, and their place in the stream of twentieth-century political development, which has run much the same course in all developed industrial countries, is clearer. Forum provides a less isolated observation point than American journals of opinion have usually done; its editors, who are frequent contributors, have played major though not central roles in Canadian political life. Frank H. Underhill, whom I have previously cited, was one of the founders not only of The Canadian Forum but of Canada’s agrarian socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). He wrote the first draft of its original party platform, the 1933 Regina Manifesto, and later became one of the more distinguished historians on the faculty of the University of Toronto. The CCF, for its part, merged with Canada’s moderate socialist New Democratic Party in 1961, in response to the growing urbanization of the left; three of the ten provinces, all west of Ontario, now have NDP premiers.
This mixing of literary, academic, and political elites provides certain advantages of access; but it also contributes to one of the most annoying features of Canadian journalism, from which Forum, too, suffers. To an American, far too much of what Canadians regard as news, whether in the papers, on the TV, or in journals of opinion, has to do with the statements, actions, and policies of officials. Since the people who edit the news, at higher levels, are likely to have been officials themselves, it is understandable that they should regard official statements as more significant than an American would; but Americans are, I think, more likely to be right.
Official actions are likely to affect as little as official statements reveal, and politicians everywhere overemphasize the importance of their own games. In the United States, the real movers and shakers are at least regarded as newsworthy; in Canada, news reports lead one to believe that the government actually governs, instead of responding to the pressures upon it. I do not mean that Forum or the CBC hesitate to expose and condemn public malfeasance; they harp on it all the time. But they still seem to be astonished at it, and their indignation keeps them from formulating a useful and coherent view of how government actually functions. Canadian political commentary often sounds as if it were written by the one Trobriand Islander (or whoever it was) who had finally inferred the connection that exists between childbirth and fucking.
But this bias in the direction of taking officialdom seriously also makes Forum a very good source of candid, bewarted portraits of officials-in-action. In particular, it covers the era of William Lyon Mackenzie King. “For the first thirty years of the Forum,” it is observed in the Preface to Forum,
there was scarcely an issue that did not curiously examine the Liberal Prime Minister as a unique wonder of the Western world. How did the dumpy little wizard from Kingsmere do it? He offered no leadership, he had no principles, no charisma…In many ways King dominated the pages of the Forum until 1950, much as he dominated the country.
Today, it is easier than it must have been at the time to understand how such a person could have fascinated the editors of the Forum and compelled their reluctant admiration. King no longer seems a unique wonder of the Western world; his very nonentity makes him a prophetic political phenomenon of world-wide, not merely Canadian, significance. He is the first North American example of the modern liberal politician whose success is rooted in his banality.
The grandson of the irascible pioneer Upper Canadian (later Ontario) editor and radical William Lyon Mackenzie, who died in 1861 six years before the Dominion and thirteen years before Mackenzie King was born, he is said to have admired his famous ancestor inordinately. If so, it did not prevent him from becoming all that William Lyon Mackenzie would most have detested in a public man. Mackenzie became so enraged at the concentration of economic power in Upper Canada even in the early nineteenth century that he led an armed revolt against the colony in 1837. He was obliged to flee to the United States, which put him in jail in Rochester, New York; but he was allowed to return by the Amnesty Act of 1849. Article 56 of the constitution he proposed for Upper Canada provided that “there shall never be created within this State any incorporated trading companies, or incorporated companies with banking powers….”
By contrast, during his twenty-two years as prime minister, King presided over and guided the policies that have established the pattern of Canadian economic development from a rather poorly financed British dominion to a highly industrialized American economic fiefdom, without ever being distracted by the seductive notion of economic autonomy. Mackenzie King even got his real political start in life, after failing of re-election to a second term in Parliament in 1911, from the Rockefeller Foundation, which commissioned him to do a study of the 1913 Colorado coal strike (which was later to provide George McGovern with material for his PhD thesis). King got a book out of it, too, Industry and Humanity, first published in 1918. Thirty years later, when on the point of retirement, he issued a revised edition of it which Frank H. Underhill, in an essay included in Forum, called a “series of sermons.” He was a man; take him for all and all, we shall certainly look upon his like again and again.
Since its founders were also among the founders of the CCF-NDP, The Canadian Forum has taken small political parties seriously, and reported their progress and decline thoroughly. Its reports on the CCF-NDP and Social Credit parties in Canadian political life are of special value to American readers, since smaller parties as such are not taken seriously in the United States as direct political power sources. One asks of Mr. Wallace’s supporters only whether their actions are likely to favor a Republican or Democratic victory. Minor party candidates seldom win even mayoralty races, and hardly ever governorships or congressional seats. This is quite untrue in Canada. Indeed it is arguable that as wielders of the balance of power in the present minority Liberal government, the NDP has more power than the Liberals themselves.
Forum provides a detailed account of the aims and fortunes of the CCF-NDP, including some very moving material on—and two articles by—J. S. Woodsworth, one of the few truly saintly figures to achieve and hold a measure of real political influence in a modern state. Woodsworth, like Underhill, was one of the founders of the CCF, though he was active in politics long before it was founded, and held a seat in Parliament continuously from his election in 1921 till his death in 1942. He was a lifelong pacifist, and though the CCF supported Canada’s entry into World War II, Woodsworth became the sole member of Parliament to speak and vote against it, “to a silent but respectful House,” as Norah Story reports in The Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature.
Saints are perhaps less interesting than devils, however, and American readers, faced with the threat or promise offered by George Wallace and his party, may find a baleful satisfaction in reading about the Social Credit Party, Canada’s fourth largest. Its founder, William Aberhart, who came to power when the SoCreds won the Alberta provincial election in 1935, is one of the very few Canadian politicians who may be regarded as a sinister figure. A right-wing populist like Wallace but without the governor’s appearance of warmth, Aberhart was a Calgary high school principal who founded the fundamentalist Prophetic Bible Institute there and made political capital of his enthusiastic Sunday radio audience. He died in 1943, before his full political potential had been realized.
Alberta is in some respects the Texas of Canada, and in some respects worse, since reaction there is often thin-lipped and costive rather than brutally exuberant. While the rest of the west has gone NDP, Alberta has recently elected a Conservative government; and its wheeler-dealing young premier, Mr. Lougheed, seems determined to play the part of Canada’s Foolish Virgin and sell the oil from Alberta’s ample fields to the United States, if the federal government will allow it. Fertile territory, then, for a movement like Social Credit. But the party took firmest hold in British Columbia, where W. A. C. Bennett, a less comely Ronald Reagan, took office under the SoCred banner in 1952 and held it till the NDP demolished his government in the last election, opening the way to repatriation of some of British Columbia’s magnificent resources.
The Canadian Forum’s essays on Canadian politics and economics are combative, insightful, and self-contained. There is no sense of inferiority in them, and no bewilderment. Canada’s problems may not be the biggest and most engaging in the world, but they are plenty good enough for us. Since its foundation, however, Forum has been concerned with the state of the arts in Canada, as well as the state of the nation, and this is a matter it has consistently found more perplexing. The state of the arts in Canada is, of course, another perennial source of nagging concern, like national identity, American hegemony, and, of course, Quebec; so much so that a recent Canadian novel has been named, sardonically, “The Great Canadian Novel.” The essays included in Forum, beginning with the very first, “Canadian Poetry” by Huntley K. Gordon, taken from the March, 1921, issue, develop themes familiar to literate Canadians yet never worked through to a satisfactory explanation: the apparent inability of Canadian critics to produce great literature or painting; the willingness of Canadian critics to accept mediocre Canadian work as first-rate; the provinciality of Canadian censorship, formal and informal.
None of these things really seems to be getting any better. Both Alberta and Nova Scotia banned A Clockwork Orange, though the Alberta board of censors was compelled to rescind its stand, and the current nationalistic quest for Canadian content is surely making matters worse by giving works brownie points just for being Canadian. Forum hammers away repeatedly at such issues; it includes a perceptive, 1943 essay by Northrop Frye on “Canada and its Poetry”; an exchange of letters, in 1956, between an outraged reader and the poet Irving Layton, about Layton’s use of “corpological and sexual imagery”; and a series of short stories, each regarded as controversial when it appeared in Forum. So we can trace the gradual liberation of Canadian literary taste from 1927, when some readers attacked the journal for publishing a story in which a young woman is seduced (she commits suicide), to the present time.
Yet no explanation for the continued barrenness of Canadian literature really develops. The facts that Canada is a small country in population and outside the mainstream of world political events won’t really do: Ibsen, Strindberg, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Synge, and O’Casey all lived in countries like that; and what of Naipaul or Cortazar today? Even proximity to the United States won’t suffice as an explanatory factor. Mexican painting in the twentieth century has been at least as interesting as American, and Carlos Fuentes more interesting than Mordecai Richler.
I can’t really explain it either. But from the experience of living here, I would say that the deficiencies of Canadian art and literature are probably related to the absence of a sense of evil, and that this, in turn, is derived from the passive identity to which I referred earlier. That rich, baroque viciousness that has become, I should say, the dominant flavor of American life, and that is not unattractive in and may be an essential ingredient of art, is almost completely absent here. The novelist Robertson Davies, who shows some sense of evil in his work, though wrapped in extreme artifice, has been compared to Thomas Mann, which is a little like comparing the Wentworth valley of Nova Scotia, where you can sometimes ski, to the Bavarian Alps.
Canadians know from bitter experience the menace of nature—but that is unwilled and unfeeling; and of economic exploitation—but that, too, is unfeeling. It is the stuff of politics, not art, and Canadian political writing is first-rate, as many of the pieces in Forum attest. The Quebec hinterland is rural, politically backward—though that is changing fast—Catholic, inbred, dour; but when I try to imagine a Quebeçois, much less most other Canadians; trying to deal with Flannery O’Connor, I cannot. It’s not that kind of Catholicism, and the cooking, though often scanty, is too good.
One of the modern artists I most admire is Francis Bacon, but I can’t take his work seriously while I’m here. The wrong questions keep arising about the subjects he portrays: How did they get in that condition? What could have happened to them? Is there still time to get them to Victoria General? Do they know it won’t cost them anything? Whatever it was, it couldn’t have happened in Halifax, though 1,600 people were killed here when two munitions ships collided in the harbor in 1917.
It would be absurd—though absurdity is sometimes a pleasure—to attribute this absence of evil to the innate moral superiority of Canadians. We are less tempted here, being politically so little in the world, and dwelling so far to the north of Eden. Canadians have little opportunity and no tradition of imposing their will on the world, which is what one must do, I suppose, in order to learn in depth what it is made of. No moonshot and no Mailer, probably ever. Still, Bertolt Brecht’s much cited observation that a good society is not one whose people are heroic, but one whose people don’t have to be, seems very much to the point here. Also sprach Zarathustra nichts; but Nietzsche never reflected a truly Canadian spirit. William Lyon Mackenzie King may not have been as profound, but Industry and Humanity is a book you can settle down with.
May 17, 1973