Notes on 36th Text for Reading Field: Granatstein

Canadian History, Week Six

Francis Ridley, “Canadian Maple Leaf flag at Toronto’s harbourfront just west of HMCS York Naval Reserve Base on Victoria Day,” posted to YouTube 22 May 2009. Viewer comments include statements of preference for the red ensign over the ‘new’ flag.

J.L. Granatstein. Canada, 1957-1967:  The Years of Uncertainty and Innovation. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.

J.L. Granatstein supplies a kind of general history that is well-suited to covering the Pearson years (1963-1967), and the Diefenbaker phenomena (1957-1963). He sets out to study the Canadian nation as relative certainty about goals changed into a decided uncertainty over which matters were most important. Granatstein organizes the history using a “case study” approach. Events are treated as discreet within chapters. As the chapters are marked by pronounced breaks, the timeline is discontinuous. The reader is left, therefore, to surmise general trends and infer any overall framework. What Granatstein is best at in this text – perhaps because it holds the greatest fascination for him – is political biography: describing individuals in positions of power, with an indication of how they got there, supplying fairly minute descriptions of what they did once in power, and how what they did may have contributed to falls from power’s grace. Innovations of the period surveyed are largely attributed to individual inception on the part of authorities (as opposed to being adopted by people in positions of power after a general mood in their favour has been discerned within the populace). The uncertainties of the period, Granatstein concludes, were due to the fact that Canadians were faced: first, with change that became “too rapid”; and second, less than perfect political leaders.[1]

Granatstein presents John George Diefenbaker as an odd sort of ‘prophet.’ He offered up “A New National Policy” because, he insisted, “Unity requires it .. Freedom demands it … Vision will ensure it.” Diefenbaker’s intent seems to have been to preserve a past by adhering to an old, British-derived, Orange Order-flavoured myth of colonial nationalism that promised stability to some Canadians (a nationalism that now seems like a chimera that was visible only to a select group of Canadians resolutely committed to ignoring the views of ‘others,’ perhaps in the hope that they would go away). Diefenbaker was best liked by “the elderly and the rural, the poor and the Protestant,” and proved a difficult man for bureaucratic officials, and other people in positions of power, to work with – notably Quebec’s premiers, Joey Smallwood in Newfoundland, and the United States’ presidents. Yet, Diefenbaker is credited with securing a declaration in principle of a Canadian bill of rights in 1960. It was, however, subject to change because it was a statute and not a constitutional amendment. In the end, according to Granatstein, the problem with Diefenbaker was that he was not very good at running an administration charged with running a country. As Granatstein puts it, “effective management was not his forte.” Diefenbaker fell from power because of the array of complexities that were in need of effective management in the areas of foreign policy, the economy, financial policy, and defence.[2]

Far less space is devoted to examining Lester B. Pearson, who, in Granatstein’s view “never seemed to be a politician.” It is not entirely clear whether this was a failing on Pearson’s part, or an almost Machiavellian tactic. On the one hand, Pearson was apparently regarded as “the embodiment of reason and intelligence in Canadian public life.” This perception was bolstered by his having won a Nobel Prize during the Suez crisis of 1956, and by comparison to Diefenbaker’s idiosyncrasies. On the other hand, Pearson had a reputation for a regrettable disinterest in domestic policy. And, according to Granatstein, he was without “ideal prime-ministerial traits,” though what exactly those might be is not explained.[3]

Major issues or events that Granatstein details include the Suez crisis, which is treated as marking a turning point in Canadian relations with Britain. At Suez it became clear that once-powerful imperialist countries no longer possessed the military might they once commanded, and that the American star was ascending. The question raised by the waning of Britain, coupled with its interest in the European Economic Union, was what was to become of the commonwealth ideal if the metropolis was no longer capable of maintaining its centre?

As the Coyne affair demonstrated, it became increasingly apparent to nearly everyone but Diefenbaker that Canada needed to develop alternate economic strategies — the position of hinterland to England offered little prospect of growth. James E. Coyne, Governor of the Bank of Canada and President of the Industrial Development, as of 1955, was fired at Diefenbaker’s behest, in 1961. Coyne’s transgression had been to venture the opinion that Canada needed to learn how to live within its means, rely on its own savings to progress, and to pursue self-sustained development. He had been dismissed with innuendo but without just cause. His exoneration by the senate inflicted a “black eye” that “seriously damaged the government’s economic credibility.”

Credibility was not improved by Diefenbaker’s handling of defense issues. For instance, he signed Canada into NORAD (1957-58), without Cabinet or Defense Cabinet Committee discussion. Then he “annoyed and puzzled” the Americans with what they perceived to be anti-Americanism, marked by hesitancy in following their direction. This was particularly evident with respect to securing American nuclear weapons systems and supporting the Kennedy stance on Cuba (1962). American criticism that Canada had reneged on its promise to contribute to the defence of North America coincided with the beginning of the Diefenbaker government’s collapse.[4]

Granatstein devotes a number of chapters to government innovations. One chapter covers the Canada Council’s first ten years. In his opinion this innovation was needed in order to offset Canada’s “small population, great distances, and the overpowering presence of the United States” – all factors that that stifled cultural development.

The Saskatchewan-inspired innovation of a Canada-wide medicare program is likewise allotted a chapter. Granatstein presents this as a signal of increasing provincial strength: in his words “the hour of the provinces was at hand.”

The choosing of Canada’s flag, in Granatstein’s opinion, “marked a new direction for Canada, a step into independence that ranked with the Statute of Westminster and the later patriation of the constitution.”

The issue of the unification of the armed forces was an innovation that Granatstein is less enthusiastic about. It may have settled “who [was] going to set military policy – the military or the government,” but tampering with the uniforms apparently spelled the end of Paul Hellyer’s chances of being recognized as “one of the greatest Defence ministers in our history.”[5]

Granatstein also devotes a chapter to analysing the question “What does Quebec want?” He describes public opinion in Quebec as believing that progressive development had been delayed and there was catching up to do. Quebecers were said to “rejette violemment le cléricalisme mais on ne rejette pas l’Eglise.” Rather than cultural difference, the “root of the [Quebec] problem was economic – there would be no talk of independence if people believed that Confederation had paid off in jobs and wealth.” Unfortunately, neither jobs nor wealth appeared forthcoming without assimilation into an English speaking commercial milieu and assimilation was anathema to the French community.

The Biligualism and Biculturalism Commission “was charged with reporting on the state of ‘B&B’ in Canada” and with determining how best the challenges facing the French Canadian ‘founding race’ might best be met. In Granatstein’s opinion, the commission carried out its task effectively. Official bilingualism was a necessity if the country was to survive, because “for the first time Quebec really challenged Confederation.” Because Western Canadians appeared to be at too much of a remove to grasp the issue fully, the commission served to mediate and ameliorate differences within the polity.[6]

Overall, Granatstein’s main theme appears to be one of reluctance, even resistance, to change. From his descriptions of what outcomes were hoped for with each innovation, what actually happened, and, with some knowledge of what resulted over the long-term, I would hazard a guess that the resistance was based on a perception that government innovations were never quite final solutions. They seemed always only additional steps towards further, but not clearly formulated, changes. To quibble with Granatstein, based on his text, I would argue that it was not the pace of change that was most alarming to Canadians, but the lack of assurance that political leaders where firmly committed to a particular path once they chose to venture down it.

Additional reources:

CBC, “The Great Canadian Flag Debate,” http://bit.ly/4Ee34r, and “The Great Flag Debate,” http://bit.ly/FLd2Y.

Glenbow Archives, political cartoon, “The main event at the House of Commons is a pre-election boxing match between Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker and Liberal leader, Lester B. Pearson,” dated c. 1963, http://bit.ly/9KA0z.


[1] J.L. Granatstein, Canada, 1957-1967:  The Years of Uncertainty and Innovation (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986), xiii.

[2] Ibid., 25, 138.

[3] Ibid., 33, 200.

[4] Ibid., 85, 111, 115, 118.

[5] Ibid., 141, 197, 205, 241.

[6] Ibid., 245, 247.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 6 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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