A Silver-Tongued Orator

Independent thinking and a quick wit marked Forsey as unique

Helen Forsey’s book about her father, Eugene, is a wonderful piece of writing. One would expect a biography from reading the title, Eugene Forsey: Canada’s Maverick Sage. But instead, after an introductory section that quickly condenses his jam-packed curriculum vitae, one reads chapters that describe various aspects of Forsey’s life, from his support for his family to his interests in several political parties and his passions for many policy initiatives that he made part of his political life adventure.

His own book, A Life on the Fringe: The Memoirs of Eugene Forsey, was published in 1990, the year before he died. His daughter Helen, a social activist in her own right, shows him both from a family perspective and through interviews with friends, colleagues and historians, as well as doing tremendous research through her father’s papers and speeches to provide the reader with an enormous number of wonderful quotes. Early in the book for example, she notes her father’s approach to alcohol. He was a teetotaller and said, “The number of foolish things I’ve done when I’ve been cold sober horrify me. What I would have done had I deliberately depressed my intelligence with alcohol I can’t possibly imagine.” So he lived a sober life and enjoyed it. He came from an interesting genealogical combination of Grand Bank fishermen and the Ottawa mandarinate (his maternal grandfather, William Cochrane Bowles, was the chief clerk of votes and proceedings in the House of Commons, which perhaps helps explain Forsey’s lifelong fascination with parliamentary procedure). The Forsey family stories are also moving and entertaining. He was scrupulously honest and one day heard from his grandson Roddy, who had worked the previous year as a waiter, that he was considering not declaring all his tips on his income tax return. “[Grampa] asked me to pay all my taxes, but he didn’t want me to have less money than I expected to get, so he would make up the difference. I couldn’t do that, obviously. But that’s the way he was.”

The book describes Forsey’s interest in politics throughout his life. He started as a Conservative, became an ardent CCFer, left the newly formed NDP because of its two-nations policy regarding Quebec, and was appointed to the Senate by a Liberal prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Following his retirement, he resigned from the Liberal Party. His friendships with members of all parties were most significant for him and his enduring friendship with former Tory prime minister Arthur Meighen, more than 30 years his senior, stands out in the book in the various quotes from letters exchanged between the two men over a long period of time. In a 1951 letter to Meighen, the maverick wrote: “My tragedy, if that’s not too strong a word, is that I’m too radical to be a good Conservative and too conservative to be a good radical … too partisan to be independent, and too independent to be a good party man.” When Forsey lost one of several elections he ran in, Meighen wrote to him the next day: “It is anything but a happiness to me to see you defeated in whatever you try to do, but my thinking is so definitely the opposite of your own in things economic and social that I could not honestly wish that your ideas would triumph.”

Helen Forsey also includes some of her father’s poems, usually witty ones, to express his views on political subjects. “Macdonald was often deep in rum, / King still sucking his little pink thumb,” is a line that mildly demonstrates his lifelong loathing for Mackenzie King. A sharper example of Forsey’s political-analysis-through-poetry is this from a 1952 verse:

…we are the rulers, and you are the ruled.
You chose us. What matter if then you were

fooled?
That’s just our “astuteness”; it “won the

election.”
That phrase triumphs always o’er every

objection.
Ours by far is the best constitutional plan:
The citizen can’t, but the Government can…

The book gives the reader a plethora of discussions on various issues from constitutional amendments, to social policies and to Forsey’s view on the role of Quebec in Canada. His caustic rhetoric reached one of many climaxes during the 1956 pipeline debate, spurred by Liberal Cabinet minister C.D. Howe’s proposal to subsidize Trans-Canada’s plan to carry natural gas from Alberta to the central United States. In a Canadian Forum article, Forsey seethed: “Who makes Canadian law? Parliament. And who, in this case, controlled Parliament? The Government. Who controlled the Government? Mr. Howe. Who controlled Mr. Howe? The American owners of Trans-Canada Pipe Lines.” As Jeffrey Simpson wrote of him: “How Eugene Forsey could write. His pen was as sharp as his mind. His prose was clean and cutting, sprinkled with literary allusions, turns of phrase, puns, quotations (he once clobbered me with an extensive quotation from Goethe, in German); in short, the whole panoply of literary tools.”

Helen Forsey recounts that at a 1957 conference on education, her father expounded on what he saw as a crisis in the field, beginning with the economic constraints. He noted that the total amount of money Canadians spent each year on alcohol and tobacco was significantly larger than all public and private educational expenditures combined. In Forsey’s own words, “We are told that classes are too large, so that teachers can’t do their best work. Why are they too large? Partly because we don’t provide enough money, but partly also because we don’t chuck the duds out.” One can only imagine the vigorous discussions his views provoked!

It is not surprising to learn that one of Forsey’s academic mentors at McGill University was the great writer Stephen Leacock. There is a somewhat Leacockian tone to more than a little of his prose, such as this excerpt from a 1962 Toronto Star column: “Ghost-writing, in my opinion, is simply dishonest. It is the very opposite of the quality of mercy: it is twice cursed: it curseth him that gives and him that takes. Any man who can’t write his own articles or make his own speeches should go home, go to bed … and stay there until he is ready to get up and do his own work.”

In reading this book, we get the stories of Forsey’s role in Canadian public life with many comments from the people he worked with and debated with in his long career, but we also get the views of his daughter on the positions he took and occasionally those of his opponents. For followers of politics in our country, the book makes an excellent read as it covers such a wide range of issues and views. It is also a wonderful illustration of the important effects of cross-party friendships in political discussion and debate. Eugene Forsey was a master at both and this is well presented in this fine publication.