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The story behind the book
Except for individual study purposes, no print-outs or copies are to be made without the express written permission of the author.
|The nationalist argument, despite the obstacles, touched a growing number of
people in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During Canada's one period of independence, from the 1930s to the end of World War II, the country had done some remarkably creative, bold, and self-reliant things, culturally and economically. When the American takeover gathered force in the 1950s, we still had the historical memory of what it had been like to be ourselves and eventually we began to push back.
I wrote my first book, A Nation Unaware: The Canadian Economic Culture, in this period. It explored how Canada was different from the United State and how this had expressed itself in economic originality.
It had begun with my reading about John Diefenbaker, in that article in Maclean's, and my musings about the crucial factor that the magazine writer had left out. Diefenbaker, not being a socialist, wouldn't take advantage of crown corporations to help repatriate our economy - wouldn't even be able to think of repatriating it. This led me to wondering why we had crown corporations in Canada in the first place, unlike the private-enterprise United States. I vaguely ascribed this in my own mind to the influence of the CCF - we actually had socialists here - or to a generally more left-wing consciousness in Canada. I wanted to get this story out, talk about the
difference, show how unAmerican we were, and somewhere along the line I decided this was such a great idea that I would write a book about it.
I was launched into a voyage of discovery that I had not in the least anticipated. I began reading everything on the subject I could get my hands on - this seemed to me the way to do it - adding new titles to my reading list as I went along. I found that the great Canadian public enterprises, like the CNR, the CBC, and Trans-Canada Air Lines, had been established not from any left-wing politics but as building blocks to keep an economically small Canada abreast of the United States and, with that, separate from it, rather than our falling into American arms. There wasn't enough private capital to do this, so we did it collectively. Conservative and Liberal governments had led the way.
A professor of economics, Hugh G.J. Aitken, had coined a brilliant phrase for this
strategy: "defensive expansionism." It went back to the building of the Lachine Canal in
the early 1820s, for military purposes, after the War of 1812. The Welland Canal also
fitted: our response to the Erie Canal. So did the CPR which, although structurally a
private company, was a government-initiated and government-supported national project in defiance of American market economics.
So crown companies were part and parcel of keeping Canada a separate country. Moreover, I realized, when we did it this way, we were capable of the boldest ventures, were highly original and inventive, and often did it better than the Americans. If we looked at ourselves in our own terms, instead of private-enterprise American terms, we weren't a second-best country after all.
Provinces had their own crown corporations and they, too, had little or nothing to do with socialist governments - except for Saskatchewan, there hadn't been any - and everything to do with regional affirmation. The most creative economically were Ontario Hydro and the provincial telephone companies. The story of Ontario Hydro - the populist, anti-capitalist movement for "people's power," led by Conservatives - was
particularly intriguing. Still more interesting for me was Hydro Québec and the other,
relatively new, Quebec crown corporations; their creation, during the Quiet Revolution,
was so explicitly a part of French-language Quebecers self-assertion.
I began to see - or maybe it was the case that I began to feel - how the impulses which drove us to create this powerful economic stream, piece by piece, were so much an expression of who we were, and one that went far beyond economics. We were a country, and regions within a country, striving against obstacles to affirm themselves collectively.
By this time I had read Louis Hartz's book, The Liberal Tradition in America, with its discourse on the American liberal myth and how Americans, in subscribing to it, made up the American nation. I applied the same thinking to China, which I had done work on. China, in its origins, had opposite roots to the United States. From their earliest days of settlement on the Yellow River, the Chinese had realized that only a strong central authority could maintain the diking and canal systems necessary to keep the river under control. Their national psyche followed suit: centralized imperial control, with an administrative class and attached codes of behaviour (Confucianism, Maoism). These were American and Chinese "civilizations" respectively ("American civilization" might be an oxymoron, but we all knew what it meant).
And what about Canada? I saw clearly now that we were unique and different as well. I sat down and wrote a few introductory chapters about it. I had fun with all the desperate and cockeyed attempts to define Canadian identity, which I had been collecting, especially attempts in American terms - that we were conservative Americans, failed Americans, in effect genetically faulty Americans with penis envy. One only had to look at the country in its own right. Canada, as I put it, was really a series of contradictions: French Canada as against English Canada; the regions as against the federal centre, and Canada as against the United States. These contradictions were never resolved. They were our dynamic. They were rooted in our physical settlement and imprinted on our psyche. They gave us an unmistakeably unique character, baffling to outsiders in its preoccupations and sensitivities.
It was from this unique character that the collective impulses behind our crown corporations sprang. It also led to another profound economic mode, what I called "interregional redistribution," such as equalization payments and regional development programs, which I also detailed. Canada had come together as a compact of regions, rather than as adherence of individuals to a common myth, as in the United States. Each region, accordingly, had a certain claim to fair treatment and equality. This, too, generated its own economic culture, for which the Americans, notwithstanding their pork-barrel politics, had no equivalent. The 1940 Rowell Sirois Report on Dominion-Provincial Relations, which I had struggled through at university, finding it boring and wondering why we were put through the exercise, suddenly became, for me, a kind of Dead Sea Scroll - formal, dense, administrative, but full of clues as to the origins of our culture.
I also wrote a multi-part section on the Canadian public-broadcasting culture, starting with the history of the CBC. Expo 67, the World's Fair in Montreal, had just recently taken place. It was an expression of this culture - non-commercial, artistically uncompromising, aware of community, often brilliant, a pleasure to the eye and spirit. I included a chapter on that.
Like American "civilization," Chinese "civilization," and European "civilization," the way that Canadians elaborated on their contradictions and the sensibilities it produced also constituted a civilization in the proper sense of the word.
Free of American dogma, I could also explore other channels with an open mind. I described how, in cases like transcontinental air travel, a publicly owned monopoly was more efficient, dynamic and creative for Canada than so-called market competition - really wasteful oligopoly - copying the American model. The most severe competitioin Trans-Canada Air Lines ever faced was when it was a monopoly. It was competing against the fares and performance ratios of the American airlines, and without their economies of scale. It was Canada as against the United States again.
I also did a chapter on stock-market promotions, usually of fledgling mining companies, which were all the rage in Canada at the time. The New Brunswick stock swindle that I had earlier looked into - parting American mooches from their money by flogging moose pasture over the phone - had stayed in my mind. Swindles aside, stock promotions were a hopelessly inefficient, silly and marginal way of raising capital.
I looked into the role of stock promotions, and stock markets generally, in the economic development of other countries, including the United States. I discovered, astonishingly given the mythology, that stock markets had played little or no role. Colonial Canada, however, was ideologically captive to just that mythology and symbolism, derived from the United States. The collectively marginal and usually shady stock-promotion schemes - mining money from people's pockets with little or no intention of anything else - were taken as archetypal capitalism at work. No wonder the Americans were eating us alive. Large and rationally organized U.S. corporations, efficiently raising capital through their cash flow from operations, simply needed to expand, while we were supposed to be impressed with trivial con games. Meanwhile, the most logical response from us, crown enterprise, was ideologically taboo for market sectors.
I called this the "ideological double fault." Not only were we captive to American ideology, which was the first fault, we naively mimicked this ideology while it didn't even represent what the Americans themselves had done, which was the second fault. This applied to much of the rest of my book as well. I wanted to call the book "The American Ideology in Canada." My publisher quickly vetoed the idea.
Still, by the time I was through, I had an intimate knowledge of how the American, British and western European economies had developed, going back to pre-industrial days. I also gained an understanding of economic creativity. Such creativity, I learned, was quite different than merely making money, even in American history.
I gave the manuscript to Scott McIntyre, who was a McClelland & Stewart rep in Vancouver, and he forwarded it to Toronto. They kept it seemingly forever and then turned it down. So did other publishers in Toronto. Only two publishers committed themselves to the manuscript. One was Mel Hurtig in Edmonton whose publishing firm was just a few years old. He insisted, however, that I cut the first section, on Canadian identity, which he considered off topic and which would only add cost to the book. Being a young author impressed by what I had finally managed to write, I refused. The other was J.J. Douglas, a new firm run by Jim Douglas, a Scot who had been with M&S, and Scott McIntyre, who had joined him. Douglas ran the operation from the basement of his home, on McKechnie Drive in West Vancouver, just up the hill from my place, as it happened. It was summer. I had the impression they held editorial conferences around Douglas's swimming pool. We did the editing at my house, around a card table, in my primitive excuse for an office. A Nation Unaware: The Canadian Economic Culture came out in 1974. I wryly made a point of remembering that the only two publishers who had accepted the manuscript were from western Canada; that if I had depended on Toronto the book would not have seen the light of day.
J.J. Douglas sent me on a media tour. For a few days, A Nation Unaware was the "best-seller" at the Longhouse Book Shop, a Toronto bookstore specializing in Canadian books, which meant it was selling more than just a few copies. We joked about that. Reviews in many places, however, were slow in coming, especially in the Vancouver and Toronto daily newspapers. I ran across Jim Douglas in the local Dundarave, West Vancouver bakery and asked him about the absence of these key reviews. He blew up, not so much because I had complained, but at his frustration at the shabby way Canadian newspapers treated Canadian books generally. He seemed to be angry at me for not being aware of how bad the problem was.
Belatedly, through initiatives of people who had read and liked the book, those major reviews did appear, albeit an eternity after publication date. Pierre Berton, on a trip to Vancouver, had cudgeled the publisher of the Vancouver Sun, a friend of his,
to do something about it. The editor of the Toronto Star called me up to ask me if I
would write an article arguing the case for a crown-owned oil company. He had been
reading the copy of A Nation Unaware in the paper's library. He was surprised to learn
they hadn't reviewed it, and commissioned a review. And so on.
"Eureka!" exclaimed Walter Stewart in his review in the Star. That was the tenor of most of the reviews. I had seen something that was basic and obvious about ourselves, and deeply felt, but that was so much part of us that it hadn't been articulated. I had done it because I had come at the subject new and untrammelled. I hadn't studied economic history at university, with its constricted approach. Being a left-winger, I wasn't trapped by conventional American ideology and its dominant overlay in Canada. I didn't consult with peers across the country about my investigation. I was an autodidact, a lone explorer, dependent on what I discovered as I went along and, even more important, free to follow side trails that caught my interest. Canada's economic history, of course, wasn't terra incognita - legions of people, including many accomplished historians, had been there before me - but I hadn't been there yet. My account, consequently, had an enthusiasm of discovery to it. One academic reviewer, who had done work in the field, found this enthusiasm all too much. "A Nation's Underwear," a witty editor slugged his review. I jokingly began calling the book that myself.
It was the times - the nationalist re-awakening, with the incandescent collective memory of Expo 67 still in our minds. I would have written the book regardless, but the times cast my temper. I was optimistic, excited, impelled by my perception of how different and unique we were as a country. Canada, this very unAmerican Canada, a place unlike any other, was serendipity, I wrote. I believed it, and it was, then, true.
As it happened, the opening section of A Nation Unaware about the riddle of Canadian identity, that Mel Hurtig had wanted to cut, was the one subsequently most cited and admired. Hurtig himself continued to be a fan and advocate of the book. Its sales were not large, but it became something of a classic. A year or so after it appeared, a friend of mine from Toronto stayed at our place. The cab driver, on my friend’s way out from the airport, asked her whose place she was going to. When she mentioned my name, he said, "A Nation Unaware." We laughed uproariously over that. "Even the cab drivers are reading A Nation Unaware," we joked. (This one, as it turned out, had an MA in political science and had read it for a university course.)
In the early 1990s, it was still selling a few copies here and there. People would continue to mention the book to me, telling me how great it was. They would be old enough to go back a little ways. I would respond that the book was outdated, that times had changed. I was no longer as optimistic about the country as I had been. None of us were. Besides, everything had been privatized. I would shrug and say something about a more recent, critical book of mine that they should read. "No, no," they would reply, "some of it may be outdated, that's only natural, but it's still relevant," as if they were holding their copy in their hand at that very moment and swearing a testament to their unabated feelings for their country.