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Manitoba History: Review: J. L. Granatstein, Canada, 1957-1967: The Years of Uncertainty and Innovation & J. L. Granatstein, Irving M. Abella, David J. Bercuson, R. Craig Brown and H. Blair Neatby, Twentieth Century Canada, second edition. & J. L. Granatstein, Irving M. Abella, David J. Bercuson, R. Craig Brown and H. Blair Neatby, Twentieth Century Canada: A Reader

by David G. Burley
Department of History, University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 12, Autumn 1986

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Canada, 1957-1967: The Years of Uncertainty and Innovation. J. L. Granatstein. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986. xvi, 375 pp, ill. ISBN 0-7710-3515-2.

Twentieth Century Canada, second edition. J. L. Granatstein, Irving M. Abella, David J. Bercuson, R. Craig Brown, H. Blair Neatby. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1986. x, 454 pp, ill. ISBN 0-07-549074-9.

Twentieth Century Canada: A Reader. J. L. Granatstein, Irving M. Abella, David J. Bercuson, R. Craig Brown, H. Blair Neatby. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1986. viii, 455 pp. ISBN 0-07-549075-7.

“To many of those who came here in the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries, Canada was truly God’s country. So it remains.” Thus, the authors of Twentieth Century Canada—J. L. Granatstein, Irving M. Abella, David J. Bercuson, R. Craig Brown, and H. Blair Neatby—conclude their survey (p. 446). For them, more now than three years ago when the first edition of their popular text book appeared, Canadian history promises to fulfill Frank Underhill’s definition of a nation as a body of people bound together in the present by the conviction that great things have been accomplished together in the past and can still be achieved together in the future. A desire to sustain this consensus, to participate themselves in its forging, appears to this reviewer to have been the major reason for this new edition.

The 1986 version of Twentieth Century Canada hardly contains sufficient alterations to warrant a new edition. Five maps are now included and the photos of political buttons that begin each chapter have been changed. The eleven new paragraphs on women and eight on labour after 1920 do not absolve the authors from criticism that in 446 pages these themes receive cursory coverage. Given the book’s title, one might have expected the elimination of the first chapter on “The Age of Sir John A.” rather than its expansion, although perhaps this reflects an attempt to encourage its adoption for post-Confederation courses.

The most substantive additions are twelve paragraphs on events since 1980 and a new seven page conclusion. Their effect is to diminish the uncertainty of the first edition. “This history,” they wrote then (p. 433), “cannot end with a ringing call to faith or with assurances that the future will be better than the unsettled present.” But now, they believe, the restoration of the national consensus may be possible. In 1984 the Conservatives, now a truly national party, formed a government which promised to alleviate many of the tensions of the Trudeau years. A partisan unity might calm tensions between most of the provincial governments and the federal government; the ability to strike energy accords quickly with the western and eastern producing provinces suggested as much. Relations with the United States have improved, although Granatstein et al. caution that the assumed economic gains of free trade ought to be weighed against possible long term changes in American interests. For them the welfare state—the great achievement of earlier consensus—still constitutes an area of doubt. Current economic problems do concern them, but confidence, undeclared in the first edition, is proclaimed in the second (p. 446) in the capacity of Canada to provide “a good life in peace for all its people.” Difficulty arises not from an inability to support “the social policies of the previous generation,” (p. 443) but from fiscal priorities set by a fear of the public debt. About the solution to this problem, they seem more positive. In 1983 they regretted that Trudeau’s administrative reforms had centralized power in the political branches of the civil service, the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, and drained it from the operating departments of government. This fear of an emasculated bureaucracy has now been removed. Is their’s a quiet hope that the public service might once more generate and apply innovative policy?

It may seem strange in a historical review to focus upon the authors’ evaluation of the present. Yet, Granatstein et al. do see in it the impact of the past. Implicit in Twentieth Century Canada is the argument that past consensus has been achieved through organization of two sorts, political parties and the civil service. Electoral success, they argue, has generally depended more on party organization—leadership and patronage—than upon principles. The objective has been to draw upon the support of those who hold, in Robert Borden’s words, “moderate opinion[,] who vote now with one and now with the other party.” (p. 92). However, the middle in the early twentieth century was considerably narrower than at mid-century, as was evidenced most pointedly for the authors in western labour radicalism. The Winnipeg General Strike and the One Big Union demonstrated that “most Canadian workers had still not found their place in the sun.” (p. 183).

Bureaucratic organization resolved their exclusion. In response to the crises of the Great Depression and the Second War, “the Ottawa Men,” as Granatstein has named them elsewhere, applied systems of administrative control and new Keynesian policies to stimulate the economy and to support welfare programmes. As well, their advice and skill in international negotiations contributed creatively to postwar security. In combination, the able political leadership of Mackenzie King and a talented bureaucracy created a state of peace and prosperity which solidified a “great consensus” (p. 356) behind the Liberal party from 1935 to 1957.

Thereafter the failure of leadership brought the decay of consensus. In Canada, 1957-1967, the most recent volume in The Canadian Centenary Series, Granatstein pursues this theme at greater length. Like Shakespeare’s heroes, our political leaders seem, from Granatstein’s analysis, to have suffered from a fatal flaw, a hubris which drove ambition to overleap itself. Failure of character initiated a chain reaction of cabinet disunity, confusion in the bureaucracy, and a lack of direction in government; in the end, the nation too changed “from an entity that had seemed to understand the verities of life to one that was uneasily adrift on a sea of conflicting choices.” (p. xiii).

John Diefenbaker addressing delegates, Manitoba’s Farmer Union convention, circa 1962.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

John Diefenbaker receives the sternest censure. His charisma cloaked a paranoia that prevented him from trusting political associates in cabinet and from establishing amicable relations with a civil service which was, in his mind, riddled with Liberals. The controversy over James Coyne’s governorship of the Bank of Canada is detailed to demonstrate this failure. Coyne was sacrificed by a government unwilling to accept responsibility for its own policies. Granatstein’s comment concerning Canadian-American defence policy, that “there was an element of capriciousness in External Affairs and in the Cabinet,” (p. 111) typifies his evaluation of relationships among leadership, cabinet and bureaucracy during these years. A former civil servant himself, Lester Pearson fared somewhat better. However, his “frightening and total self-confidence” (pp. 198-9) was teamed with limited organizational talents. This seemed evident in his inept handling of the scandals that rocked his government. Not merely the unsavoury details of corruption and maladministration, but also the abusively partisan tone of inquiry into them debased Parliament and “left the Canadian people desperately sick of politics.” (p. 276). How then could the centre hold?

Granatstein judges the leadership alternatives as scarcely more able. From his discussion of the unification of the armed forces, Paul Hellyer, for example, appears to have possessed the organizational imagination and decisiveness lacking in Pearson. But, in striving for power, he sought to overpower all with whom he dealt and, by alienating too many, he himself destroyed his chances to be prime minister. The next leader, Pierre Trudeau, a man who displayed certainty himself, was in 1968, according to Granatstein, the ultimate uncertainty, since “no one knew what the new prime minister would do.” (p. 308). The decade ended as it had begun with the election of a charismatic leader promising decisiveness.

The incapacity in federal government, Granatstein argues, left the completion of the social welfare state to the provincial level. The aggressive Quebec government of Jean Lesage largely determined the form of the Canada Pension Plan in negotiations with Ottawa, and it was Saskatchewan’s example that moved the nation to the adoption of medicare. There T. C. Douglas cultivated an able civil service as an integral component of his programme to achieve a consensus in favour of social democracy. The exception to provincial innovation was the creation of the Canada Council, though its bureaucratic genesis and careful avoidance of partisanship confirmed Granatstein’s generally low estimation of federal initiative.

Granatstein’s discussion of medicare and French Canada casts light upon his evaluation of social conflict as an insignificant theme in recent Canadian history.

Because of the strength of Douglas’s consensus, opposition to medicare was forced out of party politics and became a struggle of a special interest group, the Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons, against the will of the people. That a doctors’ strike occurred, he attributes in part to the quality of provincial leadership. Douglas’s successor, Woodrow Lloyd, “was able and decent; that he was not as sure-footed as his mentor was a misfortune.” (p. 181).

French Canadian nationalism arose from “problems ... in that murky area of Canadian life, federal-provincial relations” (p. 260): the failure of the federal civil service to recruit French Canadians, the inability of a unilingual bureaucracy to deliver services effectively to francophones, the demands of the Quebec government for participation in diplomatic relations, provincial control of pension funds. All could be resolved through new administrative procedures. No sense is conveyed of more profound expressions of French Canadian alienation, no mention of the Rassemblement pour l’independence nationale or the FLQ, no consideration of the view of socialist nationalists that French Canadians were an ethnic class and Quebec a proletarian nation. In consensus history, voices of dissent presumably have been ephemerae. Thus, Granatstein can just as easily dismiss the New Left as the rebellion of “the children of the privileged middle class ... against the standards and authority imposed by their elders.” (p. 211).

To present the welfare state as the fruition of national consensus denies the contingency of support for it in the past and the significance of conflict in its piecemeal construction. From a perspective different from that of Granatstein, Abella, Bercuson, Brown, and Neatby, the 1980s have revealed contingency and conflict as the welfare state’s true nature. If, as they claim, Canada remains God’s country for many, for others—and the relative proportions of each can be debated—it has not been and still is not. From these two books it would seem that consensus demands the denial of the experiences of these others.

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