Part 2: Confederation and radical thinking
The Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation, radical thinking and the future of radical politics
During the late stages of my research for my Masters degree, I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with T.H.B (Tom) Symons, the founding President of Trent University and a central member of the Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation (OACC), the hugely influential and all-but-unknown body of advisors to the Ontario government in the 1960s that would do so much to shape the future of Canada.
The OACC’s recommended policy adjustments to the Ontario government in that era are felt today: the proper and just place of Franco-Canadians, the need to recognize the changing nature of the country, and the need to properly place and recognize minority cultures in Canada in education, society, and politics. Of greater importance, the OACC had many of their better ideas adopted by Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s governments in constitutional, social, and political battles with separatism in Quebec, whether intentionally or by coincidence. The shape of Canada post-1981 is a clear reflection of the advice, work, and conclusions of the OACC, and we can thank these thinkers in Ontario and Quebec for saving the country, as much and probably more than federal efforts.
When I spoke with Symons, I hoped he would help me work out a fundamental intellectual question. The work of the OACC and, moreover, the mentality of so many reformist red Tories in Ontario through the early and middle 1960s was distinctly progressive. The great intellectual problem of political history in Ontario from 1945 until the end of the Tory dynasty in 1985 is, unquestionably, this:
How did the province could go through such enormous political, social and economic change under a “conservative” government?
This question begs other questions about what it means to be a conservative and what the relationship was (and is) between governors and the governed. President Symons had, in his wonderfully straightforward and clear-minded manner, an answer that I might have anticipated. Politics and politicians in Ontario and Quebec in the 1960s were, in many ways, considerably “ahead” of society and citizens. Civil rights, equality, progressive politics, internationalism, French-Canadian equality, same sex rights, liberalization of abortion, a reduction in the power of churches, were, in the estimation of many progressives in the 1960s, ideas (as yet) too controversial for mass appeal. Symons recounted to me (and you can’t tell him that I told you) that Premier Levesque of Quebec adopted many of the most progressive ideas concerning homosexual rights from Premier Davis of Ontario, because, as Davis would later admit to Steve Paikin, Ontarians probably were not ready for such ideas where Quebecers probably were.
I disdain the sort of history that looks back romantically to any particular era and seeks to project utopian visions thereupon. At the same time, the terms of radical progressivism in the 1960s do seem to have certain contours that we can recognize and point to confidently – sexual, political, social, and even economic equality; civil rights; anti-war (and anti-Americanism); and in the Canadian context, an awareness of the need to reframe and remake the institutional and political terms of Confederation along more equitable lines for French and English Canada. If the period of 1945-1993 is to be known for anything, it is for the emergence of a completely new sort of Canada. Radical politics in the 1960s would not be recognizable as radical today; today, these politics are simply dubbed progressive.
Even in the American context, we have seen radically conservative and viciously outdated politics become politically marginal rather quickly – from Donald Trump to the Tea Party or the Ryan Plan on health care. This doesn’t mean, of course, that many aren’t fighting battles that work against a more equal and just society – note the issues in Wisconsin over the outrageous demand from public employees for jobs that don’t suck, the constant battles over abortion, the obvious economic discrimination (as any outcome-based analysis will make clear) African Americans face, or the fact homosexuals still can’t get a divorce like everyone else.
The failure of modern politics, whether progressive or conservative, is tied to the disappearance of radical ideas. A legacy of the last 50 years in North America has been an uncomfortable recognition for defenders of stability that being radical and having radical ideas does not lead to the untangling of society. No, radical ideas have made society more just, equal, fair, and stable. But we do not appear to have modern, common, mainstream radical politics working in the same way that the OACC and people like Tom Symons worked in the 1960s – working as the leaven in the bread of an emerging society. It is important to note, of course, that most Ontarians didn’t really have an awareness that something like the OACC was working and making recommendations through the late 60s, and because the size and complexity of government has expanded since then, it is possible that the political public has missed similar reform efforts by provincial and federal governments.
The grand irony of my question to Tom Symons must be this: in the midst of Conservative rule and in a popular culture full of reformers anxious to foist the mantle of progressivism ever onto themselves, it was conservative, white males who in fact articulated and enacted significant reforms premised on linguistic, sexual, cultural, and political equality of French and English Canadians. Naturally, interactions between progressives and conservatives in the 1960s were dynamic, and ideas flowed across ideological and social spectrums; but the one of the legacies of the OACC in Canadian history must be that radicalism and conservatism are not essentially opposed political forces.
The ideas of radicals in the 1960s didn’t all work and weren’t all fully implemented, and radical politics in the 1960s wasn’t a one-dimensional thing. Moreover, radicals frequently disagreed with each other, splintered, and worked at cross purposes. And I don’t mean to suggest that Symons or the other OACC members were identifiably radical. The men – for, as proof of the need for radical change, it was all men on the OACC – were, in many ways, emblematic of the Conservative Tory tradition in Canada. But there is no getting around the fact that the recommendations of the OACC produced (as its members knew they would) a radically different and more just Canada.
The radical ideas that have shaped our society in profound, almost unimaginable ways have had to push against huge resistance before penetrating and becoming mainstream. I don’t see the same processes going on today. I hope that in 40 years someone writes about a modern day OACC and points out how ideas, as yet unseen, transformed our world. As we are beginning to understand, however, some of the most fundamental and cherished changes to Canadian society in the post-war era have come from the depths of Conservative institutions, which ought to be a considerable object of reflection for progressives. I would urge policy makers and politicians to dare to embrace radical ideas and to defy what appears to be traditional notions and norms. Pierre Trudeau, noteworthy for his willingness to borrow ideas, once urged Canadians to “overthrow the totems, and break the taboos.” A more just and equitable future for Canadians requires radical thinking from citizens and elites, and the courage to embrace change.
|John Mullin is a co-founder of Thought Out Loud. He currently lives in Peterborough, Ontario and North Bay, Ontario. He writes most often about politics, current events, culture, and history. He will be moving to Kuwait in September of 2011 for two years, where his Masters in Canadian history will prove useful in teaching Grade 5 math, English and science.|