Readers of this book, Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom: C.B. Macpherson, George Grant and Charles Taylor, are fortunate; they will be exploring the tradition of Canadian philosophical idealism. I was at least as fortunate, years ago, because my initial contact with the subject was firsthand and personal, and had a profound impact on me.
The year was 1968—a time of bold ideas and new directions … A growing and deep questioning of the post-war military‐industrial complex and the expanding materialism of the day was emerging. In a powerful contrary trend, corporate marketers were urging people to find happiness through the purchase of new products endlessly put on the market to respond to needs that consumers had not even realized they had. A new generation was greeting all this with a search for deeper meaning and freedom to engage. New ways of thinking were emerging. Those of us coming of age at that time felt we were part of a movement of change.
Against this backdrop, a couple of hundred students were noisily settling into a packed lecture hall at McGill in the fall of that year—the buzz of late‐teenaged sophomores sizing each other up. Suddenly, bounding down the stairs two at a time from the back of the room, a tall and lean and very intent professor left a wake of hush settling in behind him as he took the podium. So this was Charles Taylor!
“Never mind your physics, chemistry and math classes,” some of my friends had said. “Don’t miss this course!”
Like many of Taylor’s students before me, and many more who have followed, I was to find that the course of my life had just changed permanently and for the better.
Faced with the evident hushed enthusiasm as students squeezed to sit on the stairs because all the seats were taken, Taylor searched for some place on the ceiling as though trying to locate the spot where his memorable arching eyebrows were pointing—establishing a focus. He paused for a couple of seconds and then launched us into the realm of ideas and, as I was to discover, idealism. Within minutes I could sense that something extraordinary was happening. I picked up my pen and notepaper and started writing every word I could. My hand was cramped and my mind was racing, but reflecting on that moment now, I realize that I never looked back. I still have those notes.
In class after class, from Plato to Aristotle, Augustine to Rousseau, I became more thoroughly hooked. By the time the course ended, I had my plan. I switched mid‐stream from a partially completed science degree to arts and took every opportunity to explore political philosophy and its ideas about how we could build a better world. I did as much of that exploration as possible with Charles Taylor.
Fast forward 40 years: a new acquaintance, Robert Meynell, was telling me about his research and writing on the tradition of Canadian Idealism. He was focusing on the work of C.B. Macpherson, George Grant and Charles Taylor. Our kitchen was buzzing with predictable but enthusiastic debates at an open house hosted by my wife and member of Parliament, Olivia Chow, in our home near Toronto’s downtown Chinatown and Kensington Market, just next to the University of Toronto. Meynell cut through the buzz because he rekindled fond memories of my own early journey through the world of philosophy and ideas. “That’s a fascinating project,” I said and told him about my first class with Taylor. I added that I had subsequently taken every course Taylor taught, even his graduate seminar on Hegel—despite being a lowly undergraduate—at the time when he was writing his definitive book on the German Idealist philosopher. “I wanted to continue my studies and do a master’s degree with Taylor at McGill,” I told Meynell, “but when I asked for his advice, Taylor gave me a rather abrupt ‘No!’” With a wave of his hand he pointed west, toward the Ontario border and Highway 401: “Go to Toronto. Study with C.B. Macpherson and his students.”
I dutifully rented a U‐haul and headed down the 401, taking up studies at York University where many of Macpherson’s students were teaching in the Political Science Department and where I could attend some of his lectures. James Laxer was lecturing there and he steered me toward George Grant’s Lament for a Nation. I was by then fully immersed in the thinking of the Canadian Idealists …
Like many of Taylor’s students, I followed his work over the subsequent years. I quoted him in papers, passed on his ideas in my own classes, studied his articles and books. I told Meynell what an honour it had been, decades later, to have Charles Taylor, by now a world‐renowned thinker, at my side in Montreal. He helped me in my present role as leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada at the kick‐off to a campaign to successfully elect the first NDP member of Parliament in Quebec in a general election—Thomas Mulcair in Outremont.
Can a better understanding of the tradition of Canadian Idealism give us renewed insights, especially as we grapple with such present predicaments as growing global and local economic inequality, the growing environmental crisis, or the clash of identities and values that seems too often to drive conflict and violence today? Can these ideas and this tradition suggest ways forward, particularly in our Canadian context? I believe they can … The Canadian Idealists’ positive formulation of liberty as an approach to directing the human project and to governing ourselves opens doors that have been closed for too long …
“Courage my friends, ’tis never too late to build a better world.” This optimistic exhortation was given to us by “The Greatest Canadian” (in a CBC contest), Tommy Douglas, and it hangs on the wall of my parliamentary office.
Tommy Douglas understood that our human journey had to be a collective project, something we would, could and should do together for and with each other, as a community of free individuals. Freedom, in this view—an idealist view—has enormous positive potential, not just for individuals but for all people as part of a fabric of diverse communities.
Obvious questions flow. How can the pursuit of what would be right and good for the whole community be sought, at the same time, by each free and independent individual? How can a group effort not limit liberty but rather enhance it?
The idealist current holds that human society has the potential to achieve liberty when people work together to form a society in which equality means more than negative liberty, the absolute and protected right to run races against each other to determine winners. Idealists imagine a positive liberty that enables us to build together toward common objectives that fulfill and even surpass our individual goals.
In Canada and in other “developed” democracies, we have seen positive understandings of social institutions pushed aside in recent decades. Suspicion has been cultivated of anything done by “government” …
Canadians have not been quite so quick to jump to these absolute positions, however … When asked what they value most about their country, many Canadians will cite the fundamentals of our public healthcare system, even as they underline certain shortcomings. A collective project, caring for one another irrespective of financial means or resources, is seen as a fundamental, a defining characteristic, a source of quiet pride and a good reason to stay at home. Canada’s healthcare system is, in many ways, an incarnation of the positive perspective on freedom—the power to work together, through our democratic institutions, to build the kind of community in which we want to live.
In response to the challenges we face, we need to work together to build a Canada in which government is the vehicle for our collective efforts to make the better world we all hope to leave to future generations. Canadian Idealists can help guide our thinking.