BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 13 November 1918
DIED: Halifax, Nova Scotia • 27 September 1988
Canada is not a nation for—or of— philosophers. The Canadian spirit is not generally introspective, nor does it soar. There is a brooding character to it, a sense that, like the weather, matters will probably get worse before they improve.
The feeling also exists that poor, weak Canada cannot control matters. Just as the nation went to war in 1914 and 1939 when someone else called, just as the United States more recently controls the country’s fate, so do Canadians instinc¬ tively understand that their destiny will be decided by other forces.
The philosopher who persuaded Canadians of the inevitability of this gloomy hopelessness was George Grant.A product of a distinguished academic and Britannic imperialist family, Grant was related to the Parkins and the Masseys, and family connections played a great role in his success.
His father was principal of Toronto’s Upper Canada College, and he was a student there. He went to Queen’s University, where his grandfather had been principal, and, though he was not especially athletic, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, the Rhodes Trust having long been administered by his grandfather Parkin.
In England he could call on his relative Vincent Massey, Canada’s high commissioner, and after the Second World War Massey would commission him, a junior academic with a new Oxford doctorate, to write the section on philosophy for his royal commission report that explored the state of Canadian cultural life.
As a scholar teaching mainly at Dalhousie and McMaster Universities, his work was slow to appear but thought to be of good quality. It was not so outstanding, however, that anyone in the body politic would ever have noticed. Grant was all but unknown until 1965, when his little book, Lamentfor a Nation: The Defeat ofCanadian Nationalism, appeared.
Part philosophy, part polemic, Lament was the product of Grant’s despair at the defeat ofJohn Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative government in 1963. The issue was nuclear weapons, and the way the U.S. administration of President John F. Kennedy had intervened to assist Diefenbaker’s tottering government in its preordained fall from power.
To Grant, not someone who understood clearly either the politics of the time or the nuclear controversy, the bumbling Diefenbaker’s ouster was tragic, not comic. To him, the Chiefs political demise marked the end of the possibility of a Canadian nation, the triumph of the ever more pervasive influence of Washington over Canada’s life and distinctiveness.
The continentalist thrust of the Liberals, the technological force of the United States and its liberalism, had guaranteed that the dominion was destined to sink into materialism as a branch plant of American corporate capitalism. “The society produced by such policies may reap enormous benefits,”
Grant wrote, “but it will cease to be a nation.” The same theme was developed further in his 1969 volume, Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America.Intended as a death knell, an elegy to be intoned over the corpse of Canada, Grant’s Lament for nationalist and conservative values instead became the seminal influence in their resurgence.
Although Grant often seemed to be harking back to the traditions of an era when British Canadians ruled the Canadian roost as part of a world that was painted in imperial red, he now coincided with a great burst of nation¬ alism.
Centennial year, the Vietnam War, and the efforts of Walter Gordon and others to check the inflow of American investment capital led to a new sense of Canadianism that was especially strong with the young and in the universities.
Canada, Grant seemed to be saying, was about a greater good than the mere acquisition of more cars and TVs, and Canada’s purpose had to be the protection and development of this good. Grant’s theoretical framework and his argu¬ ment that Canada was in dissolution had started a move¬ ment, afid his lament turned into the motive force that powered a new nationalism.
The loud, difficult, rough-hewn, and bearded philosopher became a Canadian icon.As an academic philosopher, Grant’s influence was limited, and he was never greatly admired by his peers.His arguments against technology, abortion, and euthanasia, and his belief that philosophy had to be based on an under¬ standing of God made few converts.
There would be no Grantian school of philosophers. As a nationalist, as a Red Tory, as a proponent of an alternative way for Canada, however, his importance was huge. The slow slide of Canada to the south was not stopped by Grant’s outbursts in the 1960s; he was not Canute checking the tides.
Yet for a time it seemed that nationalism might carry all before it and change Canada’s fate. For a time, Grant’s influence on the public and the politicians was immense. Even today in a much more integrated North America, Grant’s lament continues to rally the nationalist Tories, the left-Liberals, and the social democrats as they ride to battle against the encroaching American hordes.