The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Eugene Forsey: Patriot of the Old Canada

One hundred and fifty years ago today the British North America Act came into effect and a new nation was born. A nation in the political rather than the cultural sense, she was given the name Canada, which had previously belonged to the provinces that after Confederation would be known as Ontario and Quebec, and the majestic title of Dominion. She was a federation of provinces, four at first but whose number would eventually swell to ten, governed by her own parliament under the monarchy she shared with the rest of the British Empire and later Commonwealth of Nations. She was founded, in other words, as an experiment in nation-building that was the exact opposite of that which had been attempted a century earlier in the land to her south. The Americans built their republic on the foundation of a revolt against and severance from the British Empire. Canada was built upon the opposite principle of loyalty to the Crown and the maintenance of the family connection to the British Empire/Commonwealth. It is fitting, on this important anniversary, to commemorate her birth with a look at one of her patriots who maintained his faith in the vision of the Fathers of Confederation throughout the twentieth century – the century in which the Liberal Party was doing everything it possibly could to remove Canada from her foundation and roots.

Eugene Alfred Forsey was born in Grand Bank, Newfoundland in 1904. This was forty-five years before Newfoundland joined Confederation and so Forsey joked in his memoirs that “At the age of eight months I became an involuntary immigrant to Canada.” This was when his mother moved back to live with her family in Ottawa after his father, a Methodist preacher and school teacher, passed away due to weak health worsened by a bout of bronchitis contracted in Mexico . He grew up, therefore, in the nation’s capital city, listening to the speeches and debates in the House of Commons, where his maternal grandfather served as Chief Clerk of Votes and Proceedings.

“There are many good Tories in the Labour Party”, Enoch Powell once said, and in Canada, Eugene Forsey was the classic example of this. Forsey was raised Conservative and in McGill University, which he initially entered with the idea of following his father into the Methodist ministry, but where he ultimately studied Economics and Political Science in the Department headed by arch-Tory Stephen Leacock under professors such as John Farthing (the author of the Canadian Conservative classic Freedom Wears a Crown), he was the vice-president of the Conservative Club. When, however, in 1926, he went off to Balliol College in Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, he joined the Labour Club. When he returned to Canada he joined a socialist think tank, founded by F. R. Scott and Frank Underhill, entitled the League for Social Reconstruction and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation for which he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate in several elections. After lecturing in Leacock’s department at McGill for twelve years, he went to Harvard on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and when he returned to Canada in 1942 accepted the position of Director of Research with the Canadian Congress of Labour. He nevertheless continued to call himself a “John A. MacDonald Conservative” and proved by many of the stands he took that this was not just rhetoric.

When he entered Balliol College as a socialist this was in part because he had been converted to this economic doctrine. In his memoirs, however, he wrote of Arthur Meighen “Had he remained Leader I do not think I could ever have left the Conservative Party.” Meighen resigned the leadership of the Conservative Party on September 24th, 1926. This was ten days after Mackenzie King’s Liberals had won a majority government in the election that ensued after the famous King-Byng affair. In this incident, Mackenzie King, whose government had less than a plurality in the House but was propped up by a third party, the Progressives, had asked for a dissolution when his government stood to censured by Parliament following a customs scandal. The Governor General refused the dissolution and asked Meighen, whose Conservatives held the plurality in the House, to form a government when Mackenzie King handed in his resignation. The Meighen government was shortly defeated in a confidence vote when Mackenzie King accused Byng and Meighen of acting improperly and unconstitutionally. Forsey, in his memoirs, wrote:

I was in the gallery of the House of Commons for almost every word of the debate on the Customs Scandal of 1926 and the subsequent constitutional crisis…I was also in the House when the King government was defeated in the small hours of June 26, and I was sitting behind Mrs Meighen when Meighen’s confidential messenger brought the news that Mr King had asked the Governor-General, Lord Byng, to dissolve Parliament that he had refused. King thereupon resigned and Meighen became Prime Minister. I had not, even then, the slightest doubt that Lord Byng’s refusal of Mr King’s request for a dissolution of Parliament was completely constitutional, and indeed essential to the preservation of parliamentary government. Nor had I the slightest doubt that Meighen’s temporary government of ministers without portfolio, acting ministers of departments, was constitutional. I watched with anguish from the gallery the fumblings of the Conservative front bench in reply to Mr King’s attacks on the constitutionality of the temporary government (attacks which, of course, were wholly and demonstrably without foundation).

The Liberal version of these events, in which Mackenzie King is the champion of Canadian domestic sovereignty against Lord Byng as representative of British imperialism quickly became a cornerstone of what Forsey’s friend and colleague, conservative historian Donald Creighton, mockingly called “The Authorized Version of Canadian History.” Fifteen years later, however, in his Ph.D. thesis entitled “The Royal Power of Dissolution of Parliament in the British Commonwealth”, Forsey examined the crisis in depth, comparing it with precedent in the UK, elsewhere in the Commonwealth, and here in Canada, demonstrating that Lord Byng was in the right, that the request for dissolution under such circumstances was disgraceful and that the Crown’s right to refuse the request was “an essential safeguard of constitutional liberty.” Trimmed to about half its length – the dissertation is 440 pages long – this was published as a book by Oxford University Press in 1943 to the outrage of Liberal apologists such as Mackenzie King’s biographer Robert MacGregor Dawson and Winnipeg Free Press editor John Wesley Dafoe. Throughout his entire life he never deviated from the Tory position he took in that book, that the monarchy is important not merely as a symbol and a connection to the past, but as a safeguard against Prime Ministerial tyranny essential to the preservation of responsible parliamentary government and liberty and that its reserve powers can and should be used, whenever necessary, to prevent a Prime Minister from acting as a dictator. He would reiterate these arguments in the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 in defence of the actions of their Governor General Sir John Kerr.

His “John A. MacDonald Conservative” principles were also on display when he sent back his membership card in the New Democratic Party in 1961. The CCF, of which Forsey had been a member since it was founded, joined with the Canadian Labour Congress, the successor of the Canadian Congress of Labour for which he still worked as Research Director, to form the NDP that year. He turned in his membership card, which had come automatically, because in his words:

It stated that by accepting it I accepted the constitution of the NDP. I wrote the ‘federal’ (not national! perish the thought!) secretary that I could not accept a party constitution from which the word ‘national’ had been deleted seventy-six times on the grounds stated by Mr. Brockelbank.

J. H. Brockelbank had talked the NDP founding committee into eliminating the word “national” from the new party’s constitution on the grounds that referring to Canada as a nation would offend French Canadians. Forsey, present at the meeting where Brockelbank had made his case, considered it to be an insult to the intelligence of all present and said so. He quoted from the French-speaking Fathers of Confederation such as Cartier and Tache who spoke of their work in putting together the Dominion of Canada as the founding of a “great nation.” He would later sarcastically comment:

This is probably the only occasion in the history when some thousands of people met to form a new national political party and began by resolving that there was no nation to form it in

The word nation has a double meaning. It can mean a group defined by its culture – a shared language, religion, and ancestry. It can also mean a state with sovereign control over its own territory. It has this double meaning in both English and French, but Quebec nationalists, Forsey argued, were dishonestly attempting to pull a switch-and-bait in which recognition of French Canadians as a “nation” in the cultural sense of the term would be used as a stepping stone to obtaining recognition of Quebec as a “nation” in the political sense of the term. Such recognition would mean the end of the Confederation project of building the Dominion of Canada into a strong and united nation.

Canada’s English-speaking politicians were far too willing to appease the Quebec nationalists on this matter, Forsey, believed. This included not only the NDP but the Progressive Conservatives as well. In 1967, in the leadership convention that Dalton Camp had forced upon the party in order to oust John Diefenbaker, who like Meighen had been a long-time friend of Forsey’s, the Progressive Conservatives also voted on a resolution, drawn up by a pre-convention meeting of the party’s intelligentsia at Montmorency Falls, embracing a “two nations” view that was indistinguishable from that of the NDP. At the conference the party voted to reject Diefenbaker’s leadership and to accept the two nations policy. Although this was internally consistent – Diefenbaker, who would title his three-volume memoirs One Canada, was adamantly opposed to the two nations policy and spoke against it at the leadership conference – it was a reversal of the position the Conservative Party – the party of Confederation – had taken ever since Sir John A. MacDonald. It would become an albatross around the PC Party’s neck, dooming Mulroney’s Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords to failure, and leading to the party’s decimation in the polls in 1993.

This is why Forsey was able to write “When I was in the Senate I used to say that I sat as a Pierre Trudeau Liberal because I was a John A. MacDonald Conservative, and it was not just a witticism.” Forsey’s acquaintance with Trudeau had begun while they were both Quebec socialist intellectuals in the 1950s but his enthusiasm for Trudeau’s taking over the leadership of the Liberal Party and the premiership of Canada was built upon Trudeau’s strong support for Canadian national unity against Quebec separatism. “In my judgement”, he wrote, “Pierre Trudeau kept Quebec in Canada when nobody else could have done it.” I do not agree with Forsey’s judgement here, I must say, and consider it akin to the folly of those in the United States who credit Abraham Lincoln, whose election was the catalyst that split the American Republic into two warring factions, with keeping their country together.

At any rate Forsey accepted an appointment to the Senate from Trudeau in 1970 and upon doing so joined the Liberal Party in 1970. Rex Murphy, another Newfoundland-born Rhodes scholar, said that he was “one of the great ornaments of the Senate” by contrast with the “lickspittles and placeholders” who filled the Upper Chamber in more recent times. He remained in the Senate until he reached the upper age limit in 1979 and had to retire. During that time he spoke out and voted against the Trudeau government more often than in support of it. A particularly prominent clash occurred in 1978 when the Prime Minister tabled Bill C-60, the Constitutional Amendment Bill. Forsey, who saw that the bill would weaken both the monarchy and responsible government, campaigned vehemently against it. Charles Taylor, in his account of this conflict wrote:

During the battle, he was accosted at lunch in the Chateau Laurier Grill by Trudeau’s chief political aide, Jim Coutts. “Why are you doing this to us?” Coutts asked. Forsey looked at him scornfully: “Why are you doing this to the country?”

The Trudeau government lost this battle when the bill was referred to the Supreme Court of Canada but in 1982, three years after Forsey’s retirement from the Senate, Trudeau succeeded in having the constitution, repatriated to Canada. The process required the addition of a constitutional amendment formula, and Trudeau also tacked on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and devolved a considerable amount of power to the provincial governments. Forsey, in his retirement, was not silent on the subject. Charles Taylor, who heard him lecture on the subject at Erindale College in Toronto, gave this account:

“Had I been in the Senate I would have voted against it,” Forsey declaimed. “I would have voted for the original version – before the provincial warlords got at it.” In particular, he ridiculed “that ghastly ‘notwithstanding’ clause” – the clause that gives the provinces the power of opting out. “If you’re going to have a charter of rights – on balance I’m for it, but not without reservations – it had better be entrenched.” In fact, said Forsey, the new document offered the average citizen only a dubious protection for his rights.” “The thing is badly drafted. Chances are it will take a very long time for the courts to determine what it means. The lawyers will have a field day. For them, it’s a license to print money.” Above all, putting the courts above parliament was creating a very dangerous situation: “Judges should not mix themselves up in matters which are essentially political.”

He did, however, find some good mixed in among the bad, namely that the Monarchy and its vice-regal representation, as well as the Senate, had survived the process intact and entrenched. He was particularly exuberant over the fact that “Dominion” had also survived as the country’s official designation. He had been fighting Liberal attempts to eliminate it since the premiership of Louis St. Laurent and always referred to what most Canadians would call a general or federal election as a “Dominion election.” He saw the attempt to eliminate “Dominion” as a particularly bad example of the Liberal Party’s “attempts to rob Canada of her history”, other examples of which included the elimination of “Royal Mail” as the name of the Post Office and the introduction of the new flag in 1965. He fought on the side of the old traditions in each of these battles but objected particularly to the attack on “Dominion” because it was conducted in an underhanded, sneaky, and dishonest manner and because it was based on an outright falsehood – the idea that the title indicated a subservient or colonial status when it had actually been chosen from the Bible by the Fathers of Confederation themselves. The Liberal lie about “Dominion” was very similar to other myths they had been propagating in their efforts to undermine the constitution. Forsey, talking about the fight over Bill C-60 in his memoirs, wrote:

I had to cope more than once with people who suffered from the delusion that the British North America Act of 1867 had been imposed on us by the British Government when in fact it was based almost wholly on resolutions adopted at Quebec in 1864 and in London in 1866-7, by delegates of the British North American provinces, with not a single representative of the British Government even present.

Forsey’s life-long stand for the monarchy and our parliamentary constitution, for the vision of Canada as one nation that had been held by the English and French Fathers of Confederation, and upheld by every Conservative leader from Sir John A. MacDonald to John G. Diefenbaker, and for our British history, traditions, and symbols, was not typical of the average member of the CCF and would be even harder to find in that party’s successor, the NDP, whose typical members are more Liberal than the Liberals in their rejection of the traditions and heritage of the old Canada. It shows him, however, to have been a great patriot of the Dominion of Canada, worthy to be remembered on our nation’s sesquicentennial.

So in memory of the Honourable Eugene A. Forsey, PC, I say to you all:

Happy Dominion Day!
God save the Queen!


Forsey, Eugene A. A Life on the Fringe: The Memoirs of Eugene Forsey. Toronto. Oxford University Press. 1990.

Forsey, Eugene A. The Royal Power of Dissolution in the British Commonwealth. Ph.D. Dissertation. McGill University. 1941.

Murphy, Rex. “Eugene Forsey and the Senate.” The National. CBC. May 23, 2013. Television.

Taylor, Charles. Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada. Toronto. House of Anansi. 1982.

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