Apr 032012
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New book illustrates long-term nature of "current" struggles.

by Ish Theilheimer

Where is Eugene Forsey, when we really need him?

Although known as Canada's foremost constitutional expert, Forsey — who died in 1991 — was far more than that, as his daughter Helen Forsey recalls in her new book. Eugene Forsey: Canada's Maverick Sage (Dundurn, 2012) tells how Eugene Forsey, born in Newfoundland in 1904 to wealthy parents, went on to become one of Canada's leading voices for social justice and the common good.

Stirred by his own conscience and a restless intellect, his radical activities in the 1930s in Montreal — which included co-founding the League for Social Reconstruction and helping found the CCF (forerunner of the NDP) — made him a target. Later, he was fired from work as a McGill University professor, but then hired as first research director of the Canadian Congress of Labour, forerunner of today's Canadian Labour Congress. Later still, Pierre Trudeau — whose vision for national unity he vigourously supported — made him a Senator.

Through it all, he developed an unmistakable identity as one of Canada's great public intellectuals and someone who considered it his duty to speak his mind, no matter what anyone — friend or foe — might think.

In reading about Forsey's work and accomplishments, it is hard not to be struck by how the issues with which he grappled decades ago keep coming back. Take this week's rash of austerity budgets at the federal and provincial levels, for example. This excerpt (provided by the author) is typically timeless:

Then, as now, that hypocrisy liked to wrap itself in the cloak of "objective analysis." In 1937, when a "Citizens' Research Institute" appeared on the scene with a supposedly objective report on taxation, Dad noted wryly: "[This group] announces almost in one breath that its reports are 'non-political and impartial,' and that it believes they will be welcomed by 'every man who realizes that governmental spending must be cut and taxes lowered.'"

These days we hear a great deal of supposedly "objective" commentary from right-wing party hacks turned academics, and from corporate-funded think-tanks. Their claim that government "costs too much" is a perennial favourite, and one Dad countered with his own analysis. "What big business propagandists usually call 'the cost of government,'" he wrote, "is nothing of the kind. It is the cost of services which the democratic electorate requires the government to undertake, plus the interest on public debt… The cry of 'overgovernment' is often an attempt to lure innocent voters into supporting candidates who will 'economize' by eliminating, not the governments, but the services."

He also pointed out who would benefit if such "economizing" measures were put into effect, and who would pay. He seems to have had a crystal ball to so cogently anticipate the course governments would be taking years later: "The way would then be open to reduce the income tax and other levies on the well-to-do and throw the whole burden of public expenditure, instead of merely [putting] most of it on the shoulders of those least able to pay."

    In 1933, when government authorities issued a call for "equality of sacrifice" by all citizens to help the country through the Depression, Dad dug up the data to see who was already sacrificing what. Not surprisingly, he found that shareholders were still raking in dividends while workers were suffering the devastating effects of rock-bottom wages and vanishing jobs. "To any humane person," he wrote, "this sort of thing is morally hideous and intolerable, made more so by [the] pretence of trading for the public good." A few years later, when the government announced the beginning of economic "recovery," he published similar comments in theCanadian Forum on the hypocrisy of the elites.

    • Unfortunately, it is now clear that the chief social-political consequence of recovery is an intense and bitter campaign of reaction. This takes [several] forms, by no means unrelated to each other: …postponement of further social services, drastic relief cuts, stiff resistance to trade unionism, [and] ruthless disregard of civil liberties… The attitude of… the capitalist class seems to be: 'This is our recovery, and we're not going to have organized labour muscling in on it.' (Recovery For Whom? August, 1937)
    • …Nor should the government be allowed to skulk out of its responsibilities on the plea of lack of funds… It is unmistakably clear that Canadian and external capitalists did extremely well for themselves in this country last year… The money is there, and any government which means business can get it. A good stiff succession duty, a tax on undistributed profits, a levy on wealth to reduce debt charges, would enable even a Liberal government to work wonders. (More Unemployment Less Relief February, 1939)
    • Mr Dunning's budget must have warmed the hearts of his late business associates… His new tax exemptions offer them the chance of saving from the Treasury's clutches perhaps as much as $50,000,000… The taxes of the poor, it will be observed, remain as they were. The one tax the Minister reduces is the tax based on ability to pay. The poor pay about two-thirds of Dominion taxes, but it is the rich who get relief… 'To him that hath shall be given.' (The Budget<, June 1939)

With governments at every level slamming unions, eliminating services people rely on, and upholding tax cuts for the wealthy and big business, very little, it seems, has changed since the 1930s.

Current conditions never to seem to produce the likes of Eugene Forsey, and that’s too bad. We need his like today more than ever.

We need the likes of Eugene Forsey all the more. For lack of his presence, it is incumbent on all Canadians to denounce the pious claptrap of the powerful and speak up against injustice.


Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage by Helen Forsey; foreword by Roy Romanow is now available from Dundurn Press. 978-1-92657-715-9 April 2012 488pp, Hardback $35.00

Born in Grand Bank, Newfoundland, Eugene Alfred Forsey (1904-1991) became one of Canada's foremost constitutional experts and served in the Senate from 1970 to 1979. Legendary for his sharp wit and his distinctive view of Canadian society, Forsey brought deep research, high principle, and irascible tenacity to the cause of constitutional democracy, justice, and equality for all. Those themes resound through this book.

Raised a Conservative, Forsey converted to social democracy as a young academic in the 1930s. He spent the following decades working for the labour movement and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now the New Democratic Party) and calling governments to account in speeches, articles, and letters-to-the-editor. As a senator, he sat as a Trudeau Liberal, but soon resumed his more natural role as non-partisan critic and gadfly.

Whether delivering his urgent messages in labour halls, university classrooms, broadcasting studios, or the Senate chamber, Forsey entertained even as he educated. So, too, does this account of his works and life, which blends the personal and the political to provide a rich resource for Canadians facing the challenges of the twenty-first century.

About Ish Theilheimer

Ish Theilheimer is founder and president of Straight Goods News and has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca. He lives wth his wife Kathy in Golden Lake, ON, in the Ottawa Valley.

eMail: ish@straightgoods.com

© Copyright 2012 Ish Theilheimer, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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