Friday, May 11, 2012

review of Helen Forsey's new book

Writing Eugene Forsey: Canada's Maverick Sage (Dundurn, 2012, ISBN 978-926577-9) was a project that extended over seventeen years for author/activist Helen Forsey. Her father, Senator Eugene Forsey, (1904-1991) is still remembered and quoted as an authority on Canada's constitution, but, as this biography shows, he addressed many other matters of concern to Canadians.  Appointed to the Senate in 1970, he used his office as a platform to address issues ranging from world poverty to aboriginal rights.

Helen Forsey has taken a thematic approach to her father's life because of her conviction that his ideas are relevant today.  She begins, however, with a short, chronological biography. Born into a well-known Newfoundland family, Eugene Forsey came to Ottawa as an infant with his young widowed mother, and grew up in her family's home. Since her father was Chief Clerk of Notes and Proceeding in the House of Commons, young Eugene became aware, early on, of the importance of Parliament.

Educated in Ottawa schools, then at McGill and Oxford Universities, Forsey was brought up with a sense of duty toward those less fortunate. As a lecturer at McGill, he was appalled by the human suffering unleashed by the crisis in capitalism that began with the 1929 stock market crash.  He became involved in a number of progressive organizations working for social change, including the Student Christian Movement, Canadian Forum magazine, and the League for Social Reconstruction. He attended the founding convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Party (the CCF, fore-runner of the New Democratic Party) in Regina.

Subsequently, as head of research with the Canadian Council of Labour in Ottawa, he supported workers' rights while opposing communism in the trade union movement. He became known as a witty, scholarly pundit. In 1956 he spoke out against the St. Laurent government's use of closure in Parliament to force passage of the Trans-Canada Pipeline bill, which involved massive give-aways of Canadian taxpayers' money to American private enterprise. Throughout his life, Forsey was wary of American influence on all aspects of Canadian life.

The 1926 King-Byng constitutional crisis had such an impact on young Eugene Forsey that he wrote his thesis on the subject. In 1926, when Prime Minister King, facing defeat in the House of Commons, asked that an election be called, the Governor General, Lord Byng, decided to let the opposition Conservatives try to form a government, rather than going to the people. King made an issue of the decision, claiming imperial interference in Canadian democracy. The Conservative government that replaced him soon fell, and King won the subsequent election by beating the drum of nationalism. Forsey believed that King should have respected the governor-general's decision, as it was quite within the Parliamentary tradition. In Forsey's view, King had disrespected both the Crown and Parliament.

Respect for Parliamentary democracy and the Crown were interrelated with other themes in Forsey's life and work. He believed that the monarchy is key to the functioning of our Parliamentary system, and is also a non-partisan force that can speak for the citizenry as a whole. Civility, and respect for rules and procedures, were important to him. The need for the public to be well-educated in language use, civics and history tied in with his other themes.

Christianity had taught Forsey that people have an obligation to take care each other in society. He believed that a uniform social safety net, equally accessible to all Canadians, could  best be provided by a strong federal government. Decentralization to the provinces, he belived, would lead to inequalities. He did not subscribe to the "two nations" view of Canada because he felt it privileged Quebec, and was also unhistorical and divisive.

Many of his issues are still current. The frequent use of closure and other limitations on Parliamentary debate would shock Forsey, who was fond of explaining that "Parliament" was derived from the French word, "parlement", meaning "talking". Only through a thorough airing could all the implications of a piece of legislation be explored.  Prime Minister Harper's use of proroguation in 2008, rather than facing an opposition coalition prepared to replace him in office, would have met with Forsey's disapproval. He would have been shocked by a number of  recent instances in which cabinet ministers have demonized people and groups who disagree with them.

The Attawapiscat crisis, and the plight of other First Nations communities,  much in the news in the winter of 2011-2, would probably have moved Eugene Forsey, if he were alive, to speak out  in support of aboriginal rights guaranteed  in treaties with the Crown.  The economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath are sadly reminiscent of the malfunctioning of capitalism which brought about the Great Depression of the 1930s, in which Forsey was radicalized.

Some of Eugene Forsey's views and causes, however, seem unlikely to be revived.  He left the newly formed NDP in 1961 because it espoused the "two nations" view of Canada. One wonders how he would have reacted to the "orange wave" of 2011 in Quebec which swept the New Democratic Party into the role of Her Majesty's Opposition.  There is little active opposition today to the "two nations" concept, except for those who point out, rightly,  that the aboriginal people were here before the French and English and are our "First Nations."  Helen Forsey notes that her father, though fluently bilingual and fond of living in Quebec, never quite grasped the visceral, emotional aspects of Quebec nationalism.

Eugene Forsey's calls for clear writing and thorough research are as timely as ever, but some of his pet ideas about word choice are unlikely to be revived. He liked the phrases "Dominion of Canada" and "Dominion Day", pointing to their Biblical origin.  Unfortunately, in recent years, opponents of the environmental movement have claimed that the Lord gave Man "dominion" over the land and other living creatures, in the sense of "developing" or "exploiting" them. "Dominion" is fraught with negative connotations these days.

Regarding the monarchy, which Forsey strongly supported, a 2012 Angus Reid poll showed theat 37% of Canadians support the idea of an elected head of state.  Certainly, the structure of Parliamentary democracy seems to require a figure like the governor general, but would this head of state have to be a "viceroy" - a representative of the Crown?  For some Canadians, the idea of monarchy harkens back to an archaic, undemocratic system, even though they like the young attractive royals who come to visit us.

It seems pretty clear, too, that, for better or for worse, the prime minister has become our de facto head of state and that our governor general will go along with the prime minister's wishes when it comes to calling elections or proroguing Parliament.

While Senator Forsey's books and other writings are  undoubtedly national treasures, his life experiences also convey interesting lessons.  One is that, when you "cut your losses and move on",  it may hurt.  As Helen Forsey puts it:

"In the business of fighting things out with friends and comrades, anguish and loneliness often seem the only recompense. The questions don't go away: when to challenge and when to concede; how to be simultaneously frank yet caring, open-minded yet firm; and - sometimes most painful of all - when to cut your losses and move on. Time and time again my father experienced all these dilemmas. When core principles were at stake, he did not shrink from battle. But although his anger and determination might mask the depth of his struggle, those close to him knew the anguish these choices cost him."

As an example, Helen Forsey cites her father's connection to the CCF-NDP. After having been a CCF member for over twenty-five years, Eugene quite the newly-formed NDP in 1961, over the "two nations" issue. Aftrer accepting an appointment to Canada's Senate by Prime Minister Trudeau, Forsey sat as a Liberal, although he later said he should have sat as an Independent. Later, when invited to the NDP's fiftieth anniversary celebration, he declined, saying that his presence wouldn't be welcomed.

Over the years, in my own little life, I have quit things on principle; for instance, I took a rest from being a card-carrying NDP member during Bob Rae's premiership of Ontario, and I have quit writers' organizations when I felt they were benefitting the executive more than the membership.  It's a relief to see that a "great person" suffered the same sort of inner turmoil as I did over this kind of decision.

Helen Forsey's account of her parents' long (and, over-all, happy) marriage interested me.  I have always felt that it's awfully hard for a couple to have an egalitarian marriage when everything in society works against it, and the Forseys' example reinforced this impression.

 "Neither he nor my mother was entirely immune to the sex role expectations of the 1940s and '50s,  nor did they escape the practical limitations that those norms imposed," writes Helen Forsey.

Both Harriet and Eugene Forsey were well-educated and mature when they married. Harriet had a Master's Degree and was, like her husband, interested in social issues.  (She too wrote for Canadian Forum, for example.) She remained Eugene Forsey's first editor and critic throughout their years together. In an era of limited modern household conveniences, compared to nowadays, they tried to share housework and child care. Indeed, in a letter to Arthur Meighen, Eugene Forsey wrote that he didn't know when he would ever read a certain book that Meighen had recommended. "Even when I finish my share of the evening's work fairly early, I am usually too exhausted for anything but sleep," he said.

As traditional roles became more entrenched in the 1950s, Harriet Forsey, who excelled at everything she did, threw herself into her domestic role, but found it limiting. Meanwhile, Eugene became increasingly in demand and well-known as a writer and speaker. Helen Forsey mentions her mother broaching the subjecd about returning to university for her Ph.D. During the discussion her mother burst into tears, possibly because there were so many factors against this aspiration.

Raised by strong, achieving women, Eugene Forsey was "puzzled, hurt and defensive" when women began claiming "an identity and perspective different from men," Helen writes. Both Eugene and Harriet Forsey encouraged their two daughters in all of their pursuits, including rugged outdoor sports and non-traditional fields of  study, but  Senator Forsey was, at the same time, "blind to the sexism all around him", in Helen's words. Her account of her parents' domestic life reinforced my feeling that women should never give up the struggle for equality but should never imagine that it will ever be easy.

Helen Forsey shows in this biography how her own views, influenced by her father's, have expanded as a result of her ever-increasing knowledge and life experience.  She has grappled successfully with the task she set herself in undertaking to write about "Canada's maverick sage". 

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