Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Imagine, a lefty media star!

The Waffle group held that Canadian nationalism and socialism are mutually essential.

By Rick Salutin
Straight Goods

Monday, December 13, 2010
(Join the Mel-abration at Straight Goods HERE)

Mel Watkins (left) and Cy Gonick at the 1969 NDP National Convention
Mel Watkins is one of the few media stars produced by the Canadian left (leaving aside NDP leaders, who get a kind of complimentary pass into the media, and premodern figures like William Lyon Mackenzie, Louis Riel or Norman Bethune). Mel taught economics and Canadian studies at University College, the University of Toronto, until he retired in 1998. He's been my friend and colleague for 25 years, but I'm going to write about him anyway.

In the early 1960s, Liberal finance minister Walter Gordon asked Watkins, a young economist, to study the effect of American ownership on Canada's economy. The grim result, The Watkins Report, became a media buzzword and has been a subtext in discussions of the national destiny ever since.

Given his start, just being a respected, contentious voice in this society, puts him ahead of the game.

Watkins then co-founded the Waffle group in the NDP. It supported nationalism and socialism, arguing that in Canada's case, each required the other — contrary to the orthodoxies of left and right. He became a familiar enough figure to appear regularly in editorial cartoons. A radio satire show had a character called Melville Tear (as in bleeding-heart).

Watkins has been part of every debate from the 1980 Quebec referendum through free trade to the MAI (Multi-Lateral Agreement on Investment). I don't mean he has the media presence of Don Cherry, but Cherry didn't get there by being a leftist professor. Hardial Bains, head of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), was on the scene for more than 30 years but rarely made the media till he died in 1997. Watkins has done it pre-mortem.

True, Watkins is far wittier and less dogmatic than Bains was — less left, you might say. But that's the point: You can be as far to the right as the Western Report or the Fraser Institute and be media-worthy. But if you're John Ralston Saul — who, I'd say, in many of his ideas is close to the New Deal of the Thirties or Trudeau on federalism — then just by restating those ideas in this age, you sound like some new kind of dangerous radical.

Towards the end of his life, columnist and Tory icon Dalton Camp read like a major media leftist, not because he moved in his views, but because the media generally did. For Watkins, who has even used the word "socialism" non-pejoratively, just to survive as a media figure in this era is a feat.

Speaking as someone who once travelled as far left as Maoism, I'd say what I most admire in Watkins is what I used to disapprove: his openness and non-dogmatism. He never displayed the intellectual Stalinism you often found on the left — flat, categorical assertions about truth; a style which, I'm glad to say, has passed largely to the right.

For example, take book reviewer Andrew Allentuck in The Globe and Mail on Murray Dobbin's The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen: "Dobbin's case against the market and international trade is wretched because it is wrong." The mix of moral histrionics ("wretched") and doctrinal declaration ("it is wrong") was common on the left and had, I confess, its pleasures. But I prefer, in the long haul, Watkins's kind of principled, humane openness.

He's had his frustrations. People are always encouraging you to stand by your principles even if it means risking failure, till you actually go ahead and fail, when they leave you alone to encourage yourself. Watkins abandoned his Liberal connections to work in the NDP, then was expelled from that party in the 1970s, along with the Waffle. He incurred resentment from official labour for dealing with independent Canadian unions. Bob Rae's NDP government in Ontario kept him at a distance, as a kind of subversive.

What has kept him going – not to mention, funny – all these years? He said, during the free-trade election of 1988, that debating the advocates of a lean, mean, Americanized Canada and having to hear their mean-spirited arguments, was enough to calm any doubts about the side he'd chosen.

There's also his sense of where he came from. He grew up on a poor farm near Parry Sound, Ont. His father logged on the Ottawa River in winter. He went to university on scholarships.

Given that start, just being a respected, contentious voice in this society, puts him ahead of the game — like some union leaders. Canadian Labour Congress head Bob White, for instance, before he went on national TV to debate an ex-premier and a corporate mouthpiece during the same free-trade campaign, muttered, "Not bad for a guy with Grade 10."

Rick Salutin (left) and Mel Watkins
Many people rise above their origins. The difference in Watkins or White is they've managed to do so without abandoning those roots; they've stayed true to the people and values who brung them.

Now that he's retired, Watkins still attends regular meetings of the left-wing alternative journal This Magazine, with editors who are 40 years younger than he is. He joins in, not as an elder but as an equal, and as much for what they give him as he gives them.

At the 1998 conference celebrating his retirement, Watkins asked that there be natives and young people on the panels. He got a new Andy Garcia haircut, leaving behind the last tonsorial remnants of the sixties, and prepared to face — in his own undogmatic, principled way — a new century.

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