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Manitoba History: Review: Doug Owram, The Government Generation: Canadian Intellectuals and the State 1900-1945

by Derek Hum
St. John’s College, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 14, Autumn 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

The Government Generation: Canadian Intellectuals and the State 1900-1945. Doug Owram. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986. ix, 402 pp. ISBN 0-8020-6604-6.

The advent of modern industrialized society and the rise of the welfare state in Canada is a familiar theme. Also well recorded is the government response to Depression and WWII, and the creation of new taxes and social services, along with the partisan politics and constitutional wrangles surrounding the reform impulse. Too often in telling the story however, the focus is upon dates, events, legislative attempts and the like, so what emerges is mere chronicle without human warmth. The opposite tendency to concentrate on political leaders and party politics runs the risk of interpreting history as gamesmanship outcomes. Individuals and social attitudes count for little; ideas and their champions do not matter much. Doug Owram’s study of Canadian intellectuals and the state in the pre-WWII period is an appealing antidote for all those cherishing the view that ideas are indeed more powerful than political platforms, and who believe a mission propelled by a coterie of intellectual reformers is more forceful than the barricades thrown up by constitutional interpretation, fiscal reluctance, provincial differences, economic conventions, or moral philosophy.

Doug Owram’s stated aim is to give a ‘mid-range synthesis’ of the intellectual and social forces that affected government reform, particularly springing from “that community of intellectuals who were not only active in observing and assessing the changing nature of the state in Canada but [who] were also the proponents of, and participants in, that change.” (p.x) Accordingly this is a study of the development of ideas rather than programs; and a sketchy group biography rather than political documentary. Despite this, the book is organized chronologically. The first part of the book sets the stage for the arrival of the intellectual reformer. These early chapters give an absorbing account of the early dominance of philosophical idealism and individualism as the main intellectual forces; they also describe how clerics and moral philosophers are supplanted by the secular social reformer in the style of the “expert adviser,” one so identified by professional training in the social sciences. This group of intellectuals first gains legitimacy through government service, and through establishing professional organizations which are based upon a social scientific interpretation of the state and a pragmatic approach to issues. But it is the First World War experience which finally shatters the reign of idealistic volunteerism, bringing with it the notion of the state as a service agency and justifying government action on grounds of efficiency and necessity.

Subsequent progress sees the assertion of ever wider influence by this new reform elite. The professional experts, particularly economists, now achieve recognition and no small measure of power. The depression experience, the Second World War effort, and the planning for reconstruction — together these solidify the hold of the academic expert as legitimate reformer and permanently banish the claims of the interested but sincere, amateur enthusiast. Social Sciences reign supreme as the authoritative disciplines, replacing philosophy and theology.

Doug Owram’s account is, at times, lively and insightful; its sterling contribution is to expose a new perspective on familiar events and facts. Its main theme — the role and influence of the intelligentsia on policy and government — commands agreement but is, in my judgment, vastly overstated. The first difficulty, honestly acknowledged by the author, concerns those included among the intellectual elite. Despite repeated attempts to refine the notion of a network bound together by education, common experience and contacts, the portrait of a cohesive collective group remains unconvincing, with no discussion of such matters as recruitment, extensiveness, identity maintenance and the like. Snatches of conversations, coincidental attendance at public meetings and formal correspondence among various individuals convey an impression totally circumstantial. Part of the difficulty may well lie in Owram’s narrative structure. The palpable influence of expert advisers on specific occasions is often never directly established; the evidence therefore frequently amounts to name-dropping selected intellectuals, whose degree of influence and seriousness of purpose is often indeterminate. Nor is the strength of opposing forces given much emphasis.

More disturbing is the inkling that the intellectual community might not have had the general homogeneity ascribed to it. Certainly, Owram’s account of Harold Innis’ views of the Rowell-Sirois Report (pp. 269ff) suggests that intellectuals of the stature of Innis did not approve of the rise of social scientific expertise in government. And again, the view of modern society as a reluctant collectist state advised by trained experts in the name of efficiency appears too one-sided, for elsewhere, Owram (p.332) notes in passing Grant’s lament that there seemed to be no room for conservatism’s organic view of society.

Yet the uncomfortable feeling one is left with is the suspicion that the truth of Owram’s thesis is a tautology. The intellectuals of influence, with their social scientific expert advice, are significant precisely because of their proximity and contact with those in power. But might it not be the case that it is actually those in power who decide, among individuals tendering advice, the ones who will be accorded legitimacy, access, and counsellor status?

There is much to learn from Owram’s neatly structured and fastidious account. Repetitious in part, the central theme of the role of the intellectual and the state is forcefully argued. But it is useful to note that the discussion is confined to English-speaking intellectuals, mostly men, and without any regional identification of players. For Manitobans, names like John Dafoe, E. J. Tarr, Clifford Sifton, and Graham Spry are simply undifferentiated Canadians.

Page revised: 11 November 2010

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