Remembering Stephen Clarkson: Public intellectual, teacher and scholar

Friday, April 22, 2016

Mel Watkins, Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, University of Toronto

Stephen Clarkson was my colleague and friend for more than 50 years. Gracious and congenial, he was an intensely private person.

He was a legendary teacher who could give a polished lecture without notes. I taught a course with him for many years and he set the bar high. He was much respected by students, who gave him high evaluations.

He was a prolific researcher and writer who received many awards. Fittingly, indefatigable at 78, still not retired and with serious health problems, he was in Portugal on a research tour with students when he fell fatally ill. He died on the go, students in his wake, with pen in hand.

He was proficient in English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Italian.

He was an engaged scholar, a public intellectual.  Early on, he sought a nomination as a federal Liberal, and ran as a Liberal to be the mayor of Toronto. He succeeded in neither, to the advantage of scholarship.

Having joined the old Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto in 1964, he quickly became involved in a reformist Canada first group, the University League for Social Reform. When the Department split some 25 years ago into Political Science and Economics, though formally a political scientist, he persisted in identifying himself as a political economist, even keeping his private hoard of Department of Political Economy stationary which he used over the years.

In 1967, as Head of a Task Force on Foreign Ownership, I asked him to write a background paper on foreign ownership policy as an aspect of Canadian foreign policy. The two of us met with two senior officials of what was then the Department of External Affairs to seek their cooperation.  Stephen was, as always, elegantly dressed, looking himself like a mandarin.  Both of us opposed the War in Vietnam, which was not germane to his project, but when it was mentioned by one of the officials, he persisted in deploring whatever Canada was doing in supporting the Americans to the point that we almost didn’t get the cooperation we needed for his project. I admired him deeply for what he did.

In his teaching and writing, he became an acknowledged expert in Canadian-American relations.  Not always the raciest of topics, his writings thereon, of the first rank in scholarship, were invariably a lively read.

The great debate on the free trade agreement with the United States, the issue that more than any other defined the Canadian-American relationship, lost by its opponents, including Stephen, he mourned that sorry event by wearing a black arm band.  He was a nationalist when the powerful thought nationalism to be irrelevant. He continued to write voluminously about Canada and continentalism in the era of globalization.

He began his university career as a specialist on the Soviet Union, his first book The Soviet Theory of Development: India and the Third World in Marxist-Leninist Scholarship.

His Canadian-American writings include Canada and the Reagan Challenge, and the trilogy Uncle Sam and Us, Does North America Exist? and Dependent America?: How Canada and Mexico Construct US Policy (with Metto Mildenberger).  Is it possible, I wonder, that his tendency to use the question mark in his titles was evidence of that curious and questioning mind which is the true mark of the scholar?

Stephen’s best known book – books actually – are the two volume Trudeau and Our Times which he co-authored with the renowned journalist, his wife, Christina McCall, the first volume winning them the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 1990. It famously begins “He haunts us still.”

After Christina’s death in 1990, Stephen lovingly edited a collection of her writings.  The title, My Life as a Dame, was hers for a memoir she had begun writing.

Few now remember a book, cleverly titled Visions 2020, edited by Stephen, published by Mel Hurtig,  in 1970 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the magazine Canadian Forum (now regrettably defunct) where 50 people were asked to share their thoughts about what things would be like in 2020. Stephen introduced the book with a letter to his daughter Kyra on her first birthday that she might read when she was 51. If Stephen were able to be here, he would be organizing the survivors of the contributors to the book, like myself, to do something to keep himself and us busy.

Stephen was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a member of the Order of Canada, a Senior Fellow at Massey College and at the Center for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.

May he be long remembered by his wife Nora Born, his children, his grandchildren, his circle of friends, his former students, and Canadians.


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