Made in Canada?

A provocative argument about the origins of European integration.

In July 1907 an 18-year-old Frenchman travelled as a saloon-class passenger on the SS Virginian from Liverpool to Quebec City, then took the CPR westward. On assignment as a sales agent for his family’s cognac firm, he was heading to Winnipeg, home of the Canadian headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Given HBC’s sizeable bulk purchases of high-quality French brandy, Winnipeg would serve as a recurring destination in the young man’s peripatetic existence over the next seven years.

Jean Monnet was already fluent in English thanks to a two-year apprenticeship in London and reacted to his new surroundings with fascination. From his rooms in Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel, he marvelled at the disembarking trainloads of immigrants. “They were not refugees: they were not starving,” he noted in his memoirs. “They had come to hard, rewarding work—the conquest of new lands.“ Just as impressive was their openness to dealing with one another on the basis of trust. This characteristic had struck him even more forcefully while travelling near Calgary:

I wanted to visit some Scandinavian farmers to whom I had an introduction. I asked a blacksmith who was working in front of his forge what means of transportation there were. Without stopping work, he announced there were none. “But,” he added, pointing to his horse, “you can always take this animal. When you come back you just hitch him up in the same place.” His confidence was perfectly natural: and if I had shown him how surprised I was, he would certainly have been hurt.

Monnet compared this with his Cognac home, where “people are wary of their neighbours and distrust newcomers even more. Here I encountered a new way of looking at things: individual initiative could be accepted as a contribution to the general good.” Just as foreign was the willingness of so many Canadian newcomers to turn their backs on their Old World roots. “What was going on in Europe had no interest for these Europeans making the West,” he observed. “Their efforts, their vision of a broader, richer future, that was what we talked about nearly all the time.”

The potential significance of Monnet’s extended travels in Canada is not the originality of his impressions, but the influence they may have had on his later achievements as the architect of European integration. Leaving Canada just before World War One, Monnet joined the French civil service as a purchaser of wartime food supplies. In 1919 came a three-year stint as deputy secretary general of the League of Nations, cut short by the need to return to Cognac to save his father’s firm. As soon as he had guided the company back to profitability, he launched a new career as an international banker. Making and then losing a fortune during the late 1920s, he spent much of the 1930s travelling around the globe on various financial assignments. World War Two saw him again involved in government, this time as chair of the Anglo-French Coordinating Committee. Important as this work was for the Allied cause (no less a figure than John Maynard Keynes commented that Monnet probably shortened the war by a year through his efforts to increase American armaments production), it was only after the war, once Monnet had rejoined the French civil service, that he gained his legendary status as father of European integration. He took the lead role in designing the European Coal and Steel Community, which over time was transformed first into the Common Market and later the European Union.

From the standpoint of today, Monnet is a remarkably cosmopolitan figure. He was committed not just to European unity but also to fusing the broader interests of North America and his home continent, even going so far as to call for a shared Atlantic community. His stature has continued to grow in recent decades, and his intellectual and practical debts to friends and colleagues in the United States have been well documented. Yet the formative years he spent in Canada have been downplayed.

In Jean Monnet and Canada: Early Travels and the Idea of European Unity, Norwegian-born Bishop’s University professor Trygve Ugland seeks to rectify this oversight. More provocatively, he claims that Monnet’s Canadian travels played “a vital role” in laying the groundwork for his later championing of European integration. Ugland contends that it was Canada’s prosperity and sense of well-being, along with its distinct form of federation, that were key in this regard. “Just as Tocqueville’s journey to America in 1831 convinced him that he had witnessed the future, it appears that Monnet’s trip to Canada in 1907 formed the quintessential core of the inspiration for his lifelong fixation on European supranational unity.”

If true, this intriguing hypothesis would mean that Canadian values helped shape what Ugland grandly refers to as “the most remarkable international political integration project the world has ever witnessed.” Unfortunately his supporting evidence is sketchy at best. Ugland has been able to document Monnet’s ongoing affection for Canada and the occasional resurfacing of his interest in Canadian affairs. During World War One, for example, Monnet convinced the French government to enter into several important contracts with HBC as a purchasing agent of civilian products. Similarly, soon before World War Two, Monnet had much to do with what has become known as the Canadian Scheme—a plan (made unnecessary by subsequent American legislation) that would have seen American plane parts assembled in Canada and transported to France to overcome the constraints of the U.S. Neutrality Act. But such actions hardly prove the sort of overarching hypothesis that Ugland is making.

Part of the problem is a paucity of surviving documents. Ugland makes effective use of previously underutilized archives, but has had to do without Monnet’s letters to his family during his time in Canada. These were destroyed when the Nazis occupied his Cognac home during the war. In any case, as Ugland admits, the young Monnet was not prone to reflective theorizing—his interests at this stage of his life seem to have been entirely practical.

If Monnet did have anything substantive to say about the Canadian federation and its influence on his own thinking, such remarks are missing from the extant corpus of his writings. When Ugland confidently contends that “the Canadian federation certainly served as inspirational model” for Monnet’s views and goes on to highlight “Canada’s horizontal integration, not its vertical integration” as Monnet’s main reference point, such statements must be taken with a hefty grain of salt. Even if Monnet’s views on European integration were inspired by his first-hand knowledge of North American notions of federalism, this inspiration could just as easily have been centred on America as on Canada. Monnet was to spend considerable portions of time in later decades living in the United States, due both to his career as an investment banker and his subsequent wartime work for the Allied cause. And his most long-lasting and potentially influential transatlantic friendships were with American figures such as John Foster Dulles, later secretary of state under Eisenhower.

If Monnet’s admiration for Canada’s social and political values—an admiration which he maintained through his life—did influence him in substantive ways, we will probably never know exactly how. Of course, Monnet himself was aware that his mature political outlook had been fashioned to some extent by his exposure to successful forms of political integration—of which the Canadian federation was one. As he remarked in his memoirs: “On my travels I had learned that economic forces were not blind and abstract, but could be measured and steered. Above all, I had come to realize that where there was organization there was real strength.”

Ugland’s book leaves us to ponder various tantalizing visions of what Canada’s role may have been in influencing Monnet’s quest for new forms of political dynamism through European integration.