Intellectual history, whether performed textually through the analysis of documents or biographically in terms of studies of focal authors, is a tricky business. It is not exactly the history of ideas, nor is it the study of the social origins of concepts and beliefs. If it is anything at all, it is more like a sociology of knowledge—but of a specific sort of knowledge. It is not, for example, the study of a particular personality such as Kant or Hegel, nor it is a Platonic (which is to say an ahistorical, idealistic and abstract) inquiry into some concept such a justice or mercy. It is, rather, an attempt to analyze and assess the relationship between a certain concept or set of ideas and the society that produced and in turn was influenced by them in social practice.
Such a definition, however, despite or more likely because of its elasticity is unsatisfying. As Harvard history professor Peter E. Gordon put it: "intellectual history is an unusual discipline, eclectic in both method and subject matter and therefore resistant to any single, globalized discipline."
The subject of Damien-Claude Bélanger's book is the relationship between Canada and the United States from the death of Sir John A. Macdonald to the end of World War II. He is interested in the shape of the guiding ideologies that shaped Canadian thought and he focuses on Canadian intellectuals for his data. Accordingly, he has produced an intellectual history of intellectuals, so to speak.
For those unfamiliar with Canadian history and with the specific time frame of this work, it is sufficient to make a few brief background points. In 1867, Canada was created initially out of a confederation of four British North American colonies to be called Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (soon to be joined by Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island). The project was ambiguous from the outset, for Canada was called a "Dominion" and the definition of a dominion was a work in progress. The country was uncertainly identified as something more than a colony (it was largely self-governing), but not quite an independent, sovereign nation. Its foreign policy was dictated by the United Kingdom. Its final court of appeal was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, not its own Supreme Court, and so on. The evolution to complete independence dragged on until 1982, when the Constitution of Canada was finally "patriated" (before then, any change to the main Canadian constitutional document, The British North America Act, had to be referred to the British parliament in order to become law).
For the first decades of its existence, Canada was dominated by its Conservative Party, which maintained the British connection, was preternaturally suspicious of the United States of America and dedicated to "nation building," through the construction of a continental railroad, the erection of a protective tariff mainly against imported goods from the United States and a robust immigration policy which sought to populate the prairies with hardy farmers from parts of Europe other than France or the British Isles. With the death of Macdonald in 1891, the political ground began to shift and in 1896 the Liberal Party took office. With relatively brief interludes, it was to remain in power for most of the rest of the 20th century gaining the mock title of the "natural ruling party of Canada" during much of this time. It is mainly this era, overseen by the two great Liberal prime ministers, Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, that mainly concerns Bélanger.
The designated era, arbitrary as all such designations ultimately are, saw a struggle for the nation's "soul." It is, of course, a struggle that was not limited to this particular period of fifty-four years. It had been going on since at least the time of the American Revolution and, in a different form, it continues on today. For Canadians living before the end of World War II, the existential question was not so much how to become a new nation, but to which power should Canadians pay obeisance.
The contenders in the first half of the 20th century were, of course, the British Empire and the emerging American behemoth. If this sounds incredibly antique to people born after the final year covered in Prejudice and Pride, I can only say that I recall well a neighbour who fought for the Empire in the Boer War, had two uncles who saw action in World War I and a cousin who battled his way up the Italian Peninsula in World War II. All esteemed the "Union Jack." It was some time ago, but not quite ancient history.
Those whose loyalties were wrapped up in British traditions were called "imperialists," and were quite proud of the fact. Those who saw themselves as North Americans and looked for cultural guidance and economic gain through relations with their American neighbours were called "continentalists." Today, when we look back upon those days, events that elicited great passion now seem merely bizarre.
For instance, Canadian political economist and humourist Stephen Leacock make this affirmation: "I am an imperialist, because I will not be a colonial." Such patriots saw the future greatness of Canada as intertwined with the future of the Empire. They saw no contradiction between Canadian nationalism and imperial loyalty. In the alternative, in 1940, the University of Toronto historian Frank Underhill delivered a public lecture at the annual Couchiching Conference near Orillia, Ontario. In it, he advanced the idea that, following World War II, Canada would likely have closer ties with the United States than with Britain. For this he was accused of treason and the leaders of both the provincial Conservative and the Liberal parties called for his dismissal. It might be worth recalling that Leacock's most famous book of levity, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town was set in the fictional Mariposa, which represented, of course, the town of Orillia. Small world.
It is this tension that Bélanger seeks to capture. He opens with a description of his intellectuals and their heritage. He then details the opinions of these select wits on topics such as politics, economics, religion and race relations. Finally, he comes to the core issue, the nature of Canadian-American relations and a host of specific issues involving linkages between the two societies.
But who are these intellectuals? In whose minds does he explore the intellectual history of relations in the northern part of the North American continent? As it happens, he has tilled the fields of the popular press, selecting over five hundred articles from monthly periodicals. Daily newspapers and formal scholarship are excluded. Truly, this seems more an exercise in sociology than a thorough exploration of the minds of intellectuals. Of course, it could be argued that Canadian scholarship provided too small a field to permit much study of the opinions of the intellectual elites or, more generously, that the monthly publication (the domain of what critic Dwight Macdonald called "mid-cult") is as good a place as any to find out what thoughtful people were thinking. It affords Bélanger with ample sources to explore both francophone and Anglophone writers and to survey political attitudes from the right and the left.
It is, of course, one of the curiosities of Canadian history that what is called the political right wing or conservative body of opinion began with an anti-American disposition. The proponents of conservatism stood for resistance to change, the hierarchical colonial social structure and a deep critique of the modernism inherent in American liberalism. Pro-American feelings were the preserve of the left-wing or liberal (and even socialist) political attitudes among people who embraced liberty and equality along with innovative technological and transformative social change. To Canadian liberals, the United States represented the future and Britain the past.
Today, the roles are reversed. People who call themselves conservative are the advocates of big business, free markets and an end to the so-called "nanny state," whereas liberals (and socialists) are more critical of the corporate society. The concept of a Conservative Party that would call the failure to join American forces in their imperial adventures in the Middle East tantamount to treason would surely have appalled Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), never mind John A. Macdonald. In the alternative, the fact that Liberal leader John Turner would threaten to rip up the newly signed North American Free Trade Agreement in the election campaign of 1988, with enthusiastic socialist support, makes something of a mockery of the 19th-century liberal approval of "reciprocity" pacts and its 20th-century quest for a common North American continental market. Of course, when the Brian Mulroney years came to an end and the Liberal Party was back in office in 1993, the new prime minister, Jean Chrétien immediately reversed his position on free trade (and other matters such as federal consumption taxes), much to the annoyance of Canadian nationalists.
The subtleties, shifts and occasional ideological turn-arounds of Canadian politicians and intellectuals are nicely enumerated. Bélanger has an ear for nuance and is careful not to oversimplify the journalistic ruminations of the intellectuals. There is, however, something that he manages to leave out.
In the evolution of the Canadian state and Canadian society from its original "two solitudes" of French-speaking and English-speaking dissenters from the American Revolution through its modernization, urbanization, industrialization and liberalization, a fundamental change in the political economy was ultimately determinative of Canadian culture and individual behaviour and belief. Accordingly, yet another irony emerges.
To hear popular historians like Pierre Berton (1920-2004) tell it, Canada became a "real" country in 1917. That year, Canadian forces won, at immense cost in casualties, a stunning military victory at Vimy Ridge. The heroics served as a potent symbol for a country that achieved symbolic greatness. Canada had "come of age." There is certainly something to the claim. Thereafter, it seemed, the Canadian voice, long muted in international affairs, began to make its presence felt. Canadians did not necessarily make a big impression, but at least they were recognized.
The irony is that the tale of birth and gradual maturity sets 1917 as a decisive moment in the national bildungsroman. If, however, we are attentive to political economy, just the opposite was taking place. In her much heralded but now mostly forgotten book, Silent Surrender: The Multinational Corporation in Canada, economist Kari Levitt brought a simple chart to the attention of Canadian nationalists and anti-imperialists—mostly the "leftists" who, for a time, helped shape debate through the "Waffle" movement in the New Democratic Party, the nationalist element around Finance Minister Walter Gordon (1906-1987) in the Liberal Party and the acolytes of George Grant (1918-1988) in and around the "progressive" wing of the Conservative Party.
In her graphic representation of foreign investment in Canada, Levitt showed how Canada in the 19th century attracted massive amounts of British "portfolio" investment, mainly in the form of government bonds. The accumulated capital allowed the new country to undertake immense public projects, the most spectacular of which was the transcontinental railroad. In exchange for a modest expense in terms of interest payments, Canada controlled what was done with investment from abroad. That had been the pattern from Confederation to World War I. Then, everything changed. The origin and nature of foreign investment in Canada switched from the United Kingdom to the United States, and it also changed from bonds to stocks. American direct investment, largely in resources and manufacturing turned the Canadian experiment into a branch-plant economy. The mercantile colonial elite was replaced by American "franchise dealerships." Canada, the self-described rising star of the British Empire became a junior partner in American enterprise. The country, in Robert Laxer’s phrase, became "Canada Limited."
This fundamental point is largely lost on Damien-Claude Bélanger. He cobbles together an engaging narrative that is interesting enough in its own terms, but those terms describe but do not explain the Canadian experience.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com