Written by Robin Mathews
The Early Twentieth Century and the Second World War
The 1911 election revealed a Canada unwilling to get too close, by agreements or treaties, to the U.S.A. When the election was over, none realized that within a few years Canada would be a participant in the First World War (1914-1918) and would lose 61,326 men, and bring home 172,950 who had been wounded – from a population of less than eight million. Canada showed itself to be a significant force in the War, and at the insistence of Canadian prime minister Robert Laird Borden, had gained a voice in war councils and a seat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as well as at the League of Nations, established in coordination with the Treaty of Versailles.
Canada was gaining in political independence. Few Canadians are aware that Confederation didn’t produce a fully independent nation in Canada. That condition came only, formally and unequivocally, with the Westminster Act of 1931, though by practice Canada was gaining more and more independence of action through the years. Until 1931, however, Canada didn’t – formally – have the right to undertake treaties with foreign nations. In 1926 the report of the Imperial Conference of that year, known as the Balfour Report after its writer, declared that Britain and the Dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Irish Free State were
autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
As a result Canada welcomed a British High Commissioner to Ottawa to recognize the new status, and Canada sent a diplomat to Washington since this country would now deal alone and independently with Canada/U.S. relations. In 1931 the Imperial Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster by which all restrictions on Canadian sovereignty were lifted except those Canada wished to keep. Canadians couldn’t – at least didn’t – find a way to amend or repeal the British North America Act and so that power remained in Britain as did – for many years – final appeals to the Privy Council of Britain. But only by Canadian choice.
Appeals of cases to the British Privy Council ended in 1949 and Canada’s Supreme Court became the last level of appeal. The long road to full independence had ended in the shadow of another World War. And the fight to get out of The Great Depression was truly only won by the crisis of the Second World War – estimates of the unemployed in 1939 still running as high as 600,000. The seriousness of the crisis for Britain, as German troops literally raced through Europe, required that Canada undertake difficult negotiations for aid with a United States pursuing neutrality and aware of its growing power – and determined to increase it.
The only person in the Canadian Parliament to vote against the Declaration of War with Germany – made after one week of nominal neutrality – was J.S. Woodsworth, leader of the CCF. Parliament was of almost one mind about the Canadian role. Some ordinary Canadians remained sceptical. Perhaps with reason .... In the early 1950s, at summer work among veterans of that war, sitting in the lunch-time sun on a wharf at Powell River in B.C., one of the veterans asked me a question. Preceding it with the usual note of humour they employed, the veteran said to me
“You go to university. You can answer my question.” He paused. “On August 31, 1939 none of us could get a job anywhere in Canada, not for fifty cents a day, not anywhere. But on September 30 – only a month later – we could all get work, free room and board, even our clothes supplied to us, and thirty dollars a month. In the army. Where did all that money come from – suddenly – to look after us? You explain. You must know. You go to university."
The power of Empire was rapidly shifting across the Atlantic to the U.S.A. That country had stayed out of the First World War until 1918, gathering wealth while Britain’s (imperial) power was being expended and Canada gave up – as many remarked – a huge resource in men it needed for the future direction of the country. In the Second World War, while Europe was being literally shattered, the U.S. remained apart for more than two years. And when it entered, it did so from a fortress untouched by the ravages of war and even – despite its dedication of men and materials to the war effort – growing in wealth and power. At the end of the conflict in 1945 physical Russia was decimated and lost 22 millions of its people. Britain was close to financial ruin and had to take what were almost the dictates of the U.S.A. in order to pull away from financial disaster.
Canada, too, was physically untouched and ended the Second World War strong and potentially ready to exert a genuine independence on all fronts. Independence. But the forces at work – psychological, economic, political, cultural, imperial and colonial, that had been at work for at least two centuries, intensified as Canada went into that war, and they have continued undiminished since.
In some ways Canada blossomed in the dark days of the Second World War, dragging itself out of economic Depression, devoting itself with genuine comradeship to the prosecution of the War, and living on the edge as news of casualties filtered back to cities, towns and villages all over the country. The sonorous and eloquent voice of Winston Churchill from London, holding off “the Nazi horde” almost by incantation, probably brought Canadians closer to Britain than they had been for a long time or ever would be again. I well remember walking along a country road as dusk was falling when radio was broadcasting one of Churchill’s wartime speeches. I could almost follow his words as I walked because every house on the road in that summer dusk, had its windows open … and every household was listening to the great orator.
If the war served in many ways to increase Canadian solidarity and self assurance, and even to provide some measure of cultural activity in the country – outside Canada, in the diplomatic realm, dark manipulations were afoot that would bring economic disaster to the world, subjecting it to a new Imperium whose reckless greed would imperil the economies of much of the world into the twenty-first century.
In 1944, foreseeing the end of the Second World War, Britons and representatives of the U.S.A. and others (Canadians were present), met at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to plan for an international fund and bank to stabilize international trade and to assist post-war reconstruction. John Maynard Keynes was the chief British negotiator and also chief negotiator of a large loan from the U.S. to Britain in 1945. He was not only, perhaps, the leading economist in the world, but he was both a committed Englishman and a committed internationalist. And … he was ill with a chronic heart condition which killed him in 1946.
His work at the Bretton Woods negotiations certainly was intended to serve the needs of his country. But, as almost always, his vision was long and his understanding deep. Details of both his ideas and the transactions at Bretton Woods are complex, because the international politics of the occasion were Machiavellian and ornate. But they can be summed up quite simply. Keynes saw an exploding world in which trade would be a constantly increasing irritant and an obstruction to a just and balanced world, unless contained and regulated. He proposed a “World Bank” which would produce a special currency that all nations would have to use, through the international bank, in trading. When nations developed large surpluses in balance of payments for trade, they would have – through the bank – to rein in exports, or raise the value of their currency, or something else in order to move to a balance. By the same token countries which found themselves in a negative balance of payments situation – importing much more than they exported, would have – by the supervision of the World Bank – to redress the balance.
Keynes wanted a democratic ruling body, in which participants in the program each had a vote – regardless of size and power. He wanted (what became) the International Monetary Fund to be an adjunct of the structure described, and a functional organ of its role. He wanted, also, (anathema to U.S. interests) an instrument to assure the rights and security of working people anywhere on the globe. His most complete biographer, Robert Kidelski, makes clear that the U.S. – having arrived at dominant power in the world – wanted hegemony, not justice. It wanted to be the arbitrar of trade and wealth the world over. And so it rejected almost all of Keynes’s proposals. It took dominant power in the World Bank, in the International Monetary Fund, and in the World Trade Organization as they were created on the basis that giving them the most financial backing, the U.S. had the right to the most power in the organizations.
By the same token it took paramount power in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], founded in 1949 to help contain the expansionist ambitions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. NATO, always a U.S. instrument essentially, described as a cooperative organization of assenting countries, not only followed U.S. policy but was seen by the U.S.A. as a countervailing force to the United Nations which – because of its democratic character – occasionally resisted U.S. policy. Upon the fall of the Russian Empire in 1989, NATO reinvented itself to be, in fact, an instrument of U.S. policy outside the United Nations, often (because of U.N. weakness) getting the assent of the U.N. to undertake “humane” actions to support the “democratic” life of nations in which the U.S. had or has or wants economic interest.
For Canada, both developments were fraught with implications for its own independence. To be a part of NATO is, in effect, (and has always been) to be a supporter of U.S. expansionist policy in the world. To consent to the outcome of the Bretton Woods negotiations was to accept that the U.S. would dominate trade policy and trade negotiations in the world. For the sake of peace and good relations, Canada chose to support the U.S.
Bretton Woods might be called “colonization by negotiation concerning international institutions.” The indications were clear. The U.S. was taking over. Canadian representative W.A. Mackintosh “was worried by the manner in which the United States had achieved its goal [at Bretton Woods] and perturbed at the American assumption that the United States could now benevolently prescribe what rules the rest of the trading world should follow.” Though very carefully, the neo-liberal authors of Canada since 1945 admit that Mackintosh and Canadian diplomats in Washington knew they were facing “U.S. imperialism.”
With the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1989 the U.S. became the world’s sole “super power”, the result being that most countries of the world – and all of the countries of the Western World – became, to some degree, colonies of the U.S.A. Proof of that contention is borne out by the fact that the U.S. took up the whole “offshore”, mock-legal, unregulated sham of subprime, mortgage securitization, fiat money-creating structures (that began to explode in 2007) and exported them all over the Western World – to the extent that the whole financial structure of the West was placed in jeopardy. Constant reiteration that the problem (present since 2007) will be solved carries little conviction. In the meantime the same financiers and investment speculators that brought on the problem are (unchallenged) continuing the activities that created disaster.
The Mirror of Culture in a Contested Society
Confederation not only produced – following its enactment – the Canada First Movement. But – with the passage of a little time – it produced the Confederation Poets, four young men born in the early 1860s. The publication of Charles G.D. Roberts’ book of poems in 1880, Orion and Other Poems, focussed the interest of the other three, and some of the best poetry produced in the English language in Canada was written in the following years by Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carmen, and Duncan Campbell Scott. A contemporary born ten years earlier and dead by 1887, Irish immigrant (as a child) Isabella Valancy Crawford wrote some poetry not unrelated and of the highest order – but she only met Charles G.D. Roberts of the group and only once when he was editor very briefly (1883-4) of The Week, owned by intellectual and annexationist Goldwin Smith.
Anglophone poets before the Confederation Poets and Isabella Valancy Crawford were often excellent at their craft as well as fascinating in the ways they attempted to locate their voices in what, for them and their community, was a new country. But not – it appears – until the magic of Confederation had done its work could poets write with what can only be called a kind of natural confidence that their voices were fitted to the reality around them – and could write poetry of a high order. The culture into which artists are born, we know, shapes their consciousness and their work – however unaware they are of formative forces. The creation of Canada as a nation, its landscape, its social and political striving, its vastness – are present in the poems of the Confederation poets. The poets, at their best, speak with an indelibly and unpretentious Canadian voice.
The same is true of painters who came together in Toronto between 1911 and 1913 and have come to be known as “Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven.” Admirers of the Confederation Poets, they wanted to do in paint what the writers had done in poetry as well as to throw off the conservatism and unadventurousness of the painters considered “major” who were painting in Canada. Propelled by a passion to capture Canadian landscape uniquely in its astonishing variety and drama, the men produced painting that is increasingly recognized as work of the highest order. Lawren Harris of The Group recognized the genius of Emily Carr, working almost alone in B.C., and encouraged her production. That might just suggest we should speak of “Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, and the Group of Seven.”
She, who had studied and painted in England, France, and the U.S., was only happy in herself at home painting in her native province. She is more and more recognized as a major painter of the last hundred years as well as one of the great woman artists. In her best painting and in the best poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford there is a spiritual likeness that is as inexplicable as it seems to be undeniably present.
One is invited to ask – considering the work of those poets and painters – how much a deep concern and a deep affection for the place and culture in which artists live inspires them to peculiar excellence? The question arises because of the still on-going battles – especially about poetry in Canada, and its sources – that erupted at the time of the Second World War. Those battles parallel similar ones brewing or begun or in full contest in the political and economic spheres, in higher education, painting, and less openly in other parts of the society, and they involve independence, imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism. As a community and a geography constantly in contention Canada (with more than two languages at work) has among its majority English language group a steady movement since the Confederation Poets through what might be called a Canadian tradition. That fact is astonishing in the face of the tireless attempts to erase the reality to which the Confederation Poets gave voice.
In 1943 A.J.M. Smith, a native of Montreal teaching in East Lansing, Michigan, at the Michigan State University, published an anthology of Canadian poetry – issued by the University of Chicago Press – called The Book of Canadian Poetry. It may be taken as a marker, a sign-post, bellwether of the battles mentioned. The argument Smith makes in the introduction to the anthology is that nativist poetry in Canada – poetry that takes its subject and inspiration from Canada – is inferior, and cosmopolitan poetry – poetry guided by the poets of England and the U.S.A. (principally) is superior poetry.
In a state of marvelous contradiction Smith recognizes the destructive qualities of colonialism and then opts for … colonialism. He writes that colonialism “is a spirit that gratefully accepts a place of subordination, that looks elsewhere for its standards of excellence … ” He quotes E.K. Brown with approval as saying that the colonial attitude of mind “sets the great good place not in its present, nor in its past nor in its future, but somewhere outside its borders, somewhere beyond its possibilities.”
Smith writes those things after he has divided Canadian poets into two groups. One group has “attempted to describe and interpret whatever is essentially and distinctively Canadian …. The other, from the very beginning, has made a heroic effort to transcend colonialism by entering into the universal, civilizing culture of ideas.” The “universal, civilizing culture of ideas” was carried, Smith made clear in his work and life, in the literatures of Britain and the U.S.A. Like Northrop Frye after him, Smith was incapable of realizing that a Canadian (or a Nigerian, or an Australian, or a South African … or … ) could concentrate totally on his or her country and culture and enter the universal, civilizing culture of ideas.
Essentially, Smith was rejecting the inspiration and sources of artistic energy that moved the Confederation Poets and the Group of Seven painters, suggesting that only poets whose minds had been colonized by artists from one or other of the imperial English-speaking countries could produce poetry of real excellence and relevance. With F.R. Scott, poet and, later, constitutional lawyer, teacher and theorist, Smith began The McGill Fortnightly Review in 1925 to publish modernist poetry and criticism in Canada. Scott was also a leading thinker and writer on the Social Democratic left in Canada, one of the people to help found – and formulate the founding document of – the CCF. (The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was founded in Calgary in 1932.) In 1961 it was transformed at a founding convention which replaced it with The New Democratic Party [NDP].
Unlike modernist poets elsewhere many of the Canadian modernists, as L.T.R. Mcdonald has pointed out, were politically engaged on the Left – as F.R. Scott was. Scott satirized the fading British Empire and its imperialists. But – significantly – he never acknowledged the presence of U.S. imperialism in Canadian life except to show approval of it. That may be a result of his friendship with Smith and others of like mind. But it may also be his own position and even, perhaps, a marker of Social Democratic thought in Canada in those years, thought that often tended to see the old Imperial power as used up and a bit ridiculous and the new Imperial power as a liberator and a bastion of freedom.
Treatment of F.R. Scott by historians reveals the confusion often present in their thought. Scott was anti-British Imperialism. He was not anti-U.S. Imperialism, and in one satirical poem depicts with approval a young U.S. girl (not a Canadian) shooting a hole through British Imperial rhetoric. Historians in Canada frequently name people nationalists who reject British imperialism and embrace U.S. imperialism, on the basis of their anti-British stance.
J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer call Scott a nationalist. That designation is questionable. In the mid-1960s, the Liberal government of Lester Pearson attempted to respond to the overwhelming presence of U.S. publications in Canada and the public pressure for something to be done so that Canadian periodicals could exist and have an assured life. Granatstein and Hillmer (almost always propagandists for U.S. power in Canada) refer to what they believe was “the naïveté of the cultural Canada Firsters”, and they quote a satirical poem by F.R. Scott, entitled “The Call of the Wild.” Scott was playing with a poem of Bliss Carman’s entitled “Spring Song.”
Scott paints the Canadians concerned about cultural identity as ignoramuses: “Make me over, Mother Nature/Take the knowledge from my eyes” … He continues:
Clear away all evil influence/That can hurt me from the States/Keep me pure among the beaver/With un-Freudian loves and hates, Where my Conrads are not Aiken/Where John Bishop’s Peales don’t sound/Where the Ransoms are not Crowing/And the Ezras do not Pound.
One of F.R. Scott’s most famous poems is his satirical poem ridiculing the colonial-mindedness of members of the Canadian Authors Association entitled “The Canadian Authors Meet” in which the authors sit under a portrait of the Prince of Wales. In the early 1970s I wrote a poem modelled on his, about colonial-mindedness of the members of The League of Canadian Poets (a recent creation) depicted seated under a portrait of John F. Kennedy. I had the poem printed on card paper, dedicated it to F.R. Scott and sent him a copy. He did not acknowledge it. A few months later he was at a reception after having given a reading in Ottawa. I was invited to the reception at which the host took me to F.R. Scott and made introductions. Scott obviously did not approve of my work, publicly reported, to have Canadians of excellence hired fairly in universities and other cultural institutions (which would, of course, force a cut-back on U.S. hirings). F.R. Scott looked at me and said, when the host said my name: “Not the Robin Mathews.” I smiled and replied: “Surely not the F.R. Scott.” He relaxed a little. I brought up our two satirical poems about writer groups, and I mentioned that he had not acknowledged the poem I wrote in imitation of his, dedicated to him, and sent him. “Everything you say in that poem is true,” Scott said. “Everything.”
He was a man covetous of his reputation in his lifetime and after it as well, for he assiduously culled and prepared his papers for archives before his death. I believe he didn’t acknowledge the poem I sent him because he didn’t want – on the historical record – a correspondence between us that might be preserved, containing any evidence that he approved of a criticism of the new colonial-mindedness among Canadians – which implied a criticism of the U.S.A. Perhaps with Granatstein and Hillmer he thought of me as revealing “naiveté of the cultural Canada Firsters.” All is not clear in the incident because the politics in the Canadian literary community are as complicated and dense as the politics in any other area of Canadian life.
The feeling on the Social Democratic Left which expressed admiration for the apparently principled energy of the U.S.A. and the worn-out mustiness of Britain influenced thought and action towards a colonial mentality in Canada. The same is true for the attitudes of the Communist Party of Canada. Taking its direction – very really – from Moscow and the Party in New York, the Communist Party of Canada [CPC] was often anti-nationalist, anti – that is to say – moves to liberate Canadians and to give them power in their own society. As late as the early 1970s both the CPC and the NDP at their executive levels fought against independent Canadian unionism and fair programs to hire Canadians into educational and other cultural positions. In his 1975 speech as the new leader of the NDP Ed Broadbent spoke with greatest fervor when defending U.S. unionism in Canada.
When James A. Steele and I found from research that the alienation of the universities from the Canadian population had gained such a high level that eighty per cent of hirings to Canadian universities in 1970 came from outside Canada – mainly from the U.S. and Britain – and that highly qualified Canadians, both at home and abroad, were being rejected for posts in Canada, we tried to have the information introduced in Parliament by the NDP, but were unsuccessful. A U.S. citizen assistant to then leader Tommy Douglas did all she could – as I interpreted her actions – to prevent Mr. Douglas from getting the information. The first question asked about the matter in the House of Commons was asked by the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Robert Stanfield. And the first mention of the subject in a public speech by a leading politician was made by Robert Stanfield.
At an NDP constituency meeting in Ottawa about that time, I asked Cliff Scotton, national secretary of the NDP, why the Party would not take up the issue of rights for excellent young Canadians in Canada. Turning to the meeting, Scotton asked if it was the task of the NDP to take up Robin Mathews’ “private hobby horse.” A woman rose near the back of the room and said in a loud voice: “Thank Christ for Robin Mathews”.
The native/cosmopolitan argument begun by A.J.M. Smith was taken up by John Sutherland, editor of First Statement (1943-5) and Northern Review, which first began publication in 1946. Sutherland championed Canadian literature and insisted on the relevance of writing that found its structure, inspiration, and subject matter without influence from outside the borders. Unfortunately, dogged by ill-health all his life, Sutherland died in 1956 at the age of thirty-seven. That battle simmered on until 1960, though the major English-language poets – poets like Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay, E.J. Pratt, A.M. Klein, Al Purdy, Miriam Waddington, Milton Acorn, and Irving Layton were naturally and unpretentiously writers who found their inspiration, technique, and subject matter at home. With the decade beginning in 1960 the argument exploded again – this time with an insistence by some upon the priority and supremacy of U.S. poets..........
Chapters 5-6 tomorrow..
The Straight Goods
Cheers Eyes Wide Open