There has been much praise for the Department of External Affairs (now Global Affairs) that oversaw Canadian foreign policy after the Second World War. Just as the British still take pride in the former reputation of their intelligence service, Canadians might point to the quality of their foreign service in the 1950s and ’60s. Some might even be familiar with such names as O. D. Skelton and Norman Robertson, who were at the helm during the department’s “golden age.” Brendan Kelly’s absorbing political biography, The Good Fight, makes a convincing case that Marcel Cadieux’s name should be added to that elite cadre.
Cadieux’s origins were far from elite. The son of a postal worker, he was born in 1915 and raised in a duplex on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, in a working-class district of north Montreal. In the mid-’30s, he began his studies at the Université de Montréal by taking night classes; he eventually earned a degree from its law school, although he considered the institution “a gigantic sham: a conspiracy to keep up appearances.” His decision to pursue a career in the public service was met with disapproval from his family, who had entertained high hopes for his future as a lawyer. For his father, having a son “work[ing] for the English in Ottawa” was tantamount to “having a daughter who is a prostitute.”
Nonetheless, Cadieux arrived in Ottawa in 1941 — a French Canadian nationalist about to join a DEA dominated by Anglo Canadians whose cultural ethos was heavily Oxonian. He faced enormous obstacles, including the expectation that he perform in English to the same standard as his British-educated colleagues. Rather than seeing only doors barred to his ambition and retreating resentfully back to Quebec, he took on the challenge and forced his way onto the larger stage.
The trajectory of the career Cadieux ultimately built — from a third secretary of External Affairs to an undersecretary (that is, head) and finally ambassador to the United States — testifies to a remarkable combination of energy, determination, and talent. He felt driven to demonstrate, both to the anglophile civil service and to his fellow Quebecers, that the federal stage should and could belong equally to both of Canada’s founding cultures (his vision of Canada at this point did not include Indigenous peoples as a third founding culture). For almost a decade before Pierre Trudeau burst onto the scene, Cadieux promoted a bilingual civil service, reflecting a Canada where the French language would not be confined to one province.
Marcel Cadieux was living testimony to the idea of the dedicated public servant, akin to a secular priest, whose position and influence are based on merit and hard work alone. He believed ardently in the role, the mystique, and the “higher interests of the state.” Perhaps nowhere was the mystique better expressed than in The Canadian Diplomat: An Essay in Definition, which he published with the University of Toronto Press in 1963. It soon became required reading for candidates preparing to sit the foreign service examination, as they endeavoured to join those “clever, quiet, well-informed young men” whom a British diplomat remembered meeting in foreign capitals. Doubtless, the book now appears dated. Yet its underlying theme remains as relevant as ever: Just what is a Canadian? Since a diplomat is “representative of his country,” Cadieux thought that “we might apprehend through him . . . an approximate image of a Canadian” and become more clearly aware of our “national personality.”
Cadieux was in a position to make major real-world decisions that would give shape to that image. Of course, these decisions had to be taken within certain real-world constraints. Canada was a relatively young “middle power,” finding its way in a world of rival empires, and was itself the outcome of a complex negotiation between distinct peoples.
Much of The Canadian Diplomat charts how this country gradually came of age through the first half of the twentieth century, ceasing to be a de facto British colony in its foreign policy. How a truly sovereign Canada would project itself into the next half of the century, Cadieux believed, would depend on decisions taken in the middle decades.
As head of External Affairs, Cadieux was the top bureaucrat overseeing foreign policy during the turbulent ’60s, a time of high drama: the refusal of the Conservative government under John Diefenbaker to accept U.S. nuclear warheads on Canadian soil and the subsequent fall of that government in a 1963 election marked by American interference; the scene at Camp David in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson manhandled the prime minister, Lester Pearson, after the latter spoke at Temple University and called on the U.S. to halt its bombing of North Vietnam; and, in Canada’s Expo year, Charles de Gaulle’s cry of “Vive le Québec libre” from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall.
Cadieux was at the centre of these events, discreetly, of course. But that discretion did not preclude his writing of a journal intime. It was a form of unofficial record keeping, as well as an outlet for venting about the various ministers and prime ministers under whom he served, including Howard Green and Paul Martin Sr. as well as Diefenbaker, Pearson, and Trudeau. Kelly’s lively use of this previously unpublished material takes us behind the scenes of Ottawa decision making.
Cadieux’s long-serving secretary was once asked if her boss was as funny in French as he was in English. She responded, “Much funnier.” Kelly offers many gems that exhibit Cadieux’s humour and insight. For instance, on the French president’s state visit to Canada, he remarked: “De Gaulle could have been received with honour by the lady of the house in the stately rooms. He prefers to enter by the back door and to grope the maid.” There is also this comment on the enigmatic Trudeau: “What is extraordinary about this young, vigorous, supposedly very articulate university professor prime minister is that we can never figure out what he wants.”
When it came to Canada’s most important international relationship, Cadieux’s position was crystal clear. As Kelly puts it, the U.S. found in Cadieux “one of the most pro-American under-secretaries ever to hold the position.”
Harold Innis once said that in a remarkably short period, Canada moved from “colony to nation to colony.” This trajectory was in no small measure shaped by the belief among senior civil servants that Canada must, at all costs, be the “good ally” of the United States in the struggle against international Communism. In Kelly’s words, Cadieux “had become a cold warrior, and a cold warrior he would remain until he died.” His intense hatred of Communism seems to have been largely due to first-hand experience: short stays behind the Iron Curtain, in Warsaw and Prague, in 1951, and later in that decade a stint in North Vietnam as a member of the ineffectual international commission that monitored the peace accords following France’s departure from the region. If his hawkish stance had a more theoretical origin, it might have been found, Kelly suggests, in the Roman Catholicism he absorbed as a youth in Quebec.
On every key issue of foreign policy during the ’60s, Cadieux opposed attempts to lessen Canada’s dependence on the United States. He was relieved when the defence crisis of 1962–63 resulted in the election of Pearson’s Liberals, along with the government’s immediate acceptance of nuclear warheads. In 1965, realizing that Pearson was determined to make a speech against U.S. policy toward Vietnam, it was Cadieux who suggested he call on Washington to pause its bombing in order to encourage the North Vietnamese to come to the peace table. But, as he confided in his journal, he made the suggestion only on the assumption that the North Vietnamese would not agree, thereby strengthening the administration’s moral credibility among its increasingly doubtful allies. When the minister of external affairs, Paul Martin, met with the State Department’s William Bundy to voice concerns about the lack of cooperation in a Vietnam peace mission, his own undersecretary backed up Bundy. As Chester Ronning, the retired Canadian diplomat leading the mission, observed, Cadieux was “deeply prejudiced” in favour of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Kelly’s account of Cadieux’s role in promoting Ottawa’s complicity in the Vietnam War is not meant to impugn his loyalty to Canada or his devotion to the ideal of the selfless civil servant acting in the best interests of the state. It does, however, highlight an all-too-human fallibility: busy and powerful decision makers tend to fall back on ideas acquired decades earlier. An extremely close military alliance with the U.S. was necessary during and immediately after the Second World War. The Soviet Union was an expansionist power, and life behind the Iron Curtain was a miserable affair. But there were global realities that increasingly called for more nuanced attention from those overseeing a middle power’s foreign policy twenty years later. There was a significant difference between the Soviet-style Communism that suppressed Polish and Czech nationalism, for instance, and a Communism that a nation like Vietnam might harness after decades of colonial rule. By 1965, as the Pentagon Papers later revealed, even the White House knew the conflict was an unwinnable debacle, though it continued to fight for another decade with hopes of salvaging American prestige. Still, as public opposition to the war grew, Cadieux felt “shock” at Tommy Douglas’s statement that the intervention in Vietnam was legally and morally wrong.
In 1947, the senior diplomat Escott Reid circulated a report on the possibility of a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Cadieux rejected the report’s underlying thesis that both countries were expansionist powers. Indeed, perhaps the most glaring reality overlooked by the overseers of Canada’s foreign policy during these years was the nature of the United States itself: a democracy that is also expansionist, different than older European empires but an empire nonetheless.
As George Grant pointed out in his 1965 book, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, our country’s history and geography have kept us from charting a defence and foreign policy entirely independent of the great republic to the south. But a middle power should strive for as much balance as possible, so that the “good ally” does not become a mere satellite — as Grant thought had happened to Canada. At least we had no troops on the ground in Vietnam. And with what little foreign policy sovereignty we’ve maintained in the years since, we avoided direct involvement in Iraq, another imperial debacle.
Cadieux was a hawk on Quebec separatism, too. His conviction that France was meddling in Canadian affairs by supporting, overtly and sometimes covertly, the separatist movement was perhaps the most passionately felt of his foreign policy concerns. One colleague likened him to Captain Ahab, with le général as his great white whale.
Cadieux paid a heavy price for his determined resistance to the Quebec-France alliance. In his home province, his unflinching federalism earned him the opprobrium of the largely separatist intelligentsia; even in Ottawa, he was looked at askance by French Canadian colleagues. One of the best moments in Kelly’s biography is the scene around the cabinet table the day after de Gaulle openly called for Quebec to become a sovereign state. When Martin reminded the cabinet that Cadieux had been warning for years about such interference, Pearson agreed. The ministers banged their fists on the table in Cadieux’s honour.
While predicting that de Gaulle would use his visit to stir the separatist pot, Cadieux did hope to take the opportunity to bring the French president in contact with French Canadians outside Quebec, and with English Canadians who were seriously interested in the French language and culture. A desire to demonstrate that the French fact could endure in North America without an independent Quebec reflects Cadieux’s own beau risque. He bet on the possibility that Canada could grow into a country able to preserve French Canadian culture without political separation. Two subsequent failed referendums, in 1980 and 1995, might well have vindicated that bet.
After overseeing Canada’s foreign policy for a decade, Cadieux was appointed by the Trudeau government as ambassador to the United States, where he would serve from 1972 to 1975. As the first French Canadian to fill this most important of postings, Cadieux embodied a national personality at once Canadian and Québécois. Although he had spent his honeymoon in Florida and had often visited relatives in Massachusetts (descendants of the mid-nineteenth-century French Canadian diaspora seeking work in the textile mills), he felt hampered by an insufficient understanding of ordinary life in the U.S. In an effort to learn more, he took his wife and two children on a caravan tour of the country. As he later told an American audience, he was deeply impressed by this “glimpse at the soul of a great country.”
Yet, as Kelly notes, Cadieux’s ambassadorial experience was also disenchanting, as he discovered that Americans were “generally uninterested” in learning more about the French dimension of Canada. Indeed, the Nixon administration seemed generally uninterested in Canada at all, except when the “good ally” acted out, for instance when Parliament passed a resolution deploring the massive bombing of North Vietnam. Cadieux’s own support of Washington’s Vietnam policy did not protect him from being cold-shouldered by the White House, and he seems to have spent much of his time fretting about the Trudeau government’s inclination to “indulge in nationalistic binges to placate the anti-American element in Canada.”
The final years of Cadieux’s career were devoted to files with a lower profile but of major significance. As a dutiful civil servant, he put aside his own skepticism about Trudeau’s efforts to lessen Canadian dependence on the U.S. by forging stronger connections with Europe, and he successfully negotiated a framework agreement on economic cooperation with the European Community. He was not surprised that the agreement ultimately went nowhere, largely because the consensus among Ottawa’s mandarins was that more integration with the U.S. economy was the way forward. After his mission to Brussels, Cadieux was tasked with negotiating an extensive agreement on maritime boundaries and fisheries with the United States. It was a tough slog — as Cadieux noted in his journal, “the small countries, Canada in particular, must never tire of demanding justice”— and only partially successful: the most important segment of the treaty was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.
Cadieux’s last assignment, in 1980, brought him back to the national unity question, this time as a key adviser to the federal government on post-referendum planning. But health problems, as well as personal frustrations with Jean Chrétien, who was leading the No campaign, prompted him to leave his position just weeks before the vote. He did not, however, leave the question of Quebec and Canada behind. Less than a year after retirement, he had drafted a book about de Gaulle’s role in promoting Quebec separatism, written from a French Canadian federalist perspective. Before his manuscript could be published, however, he died of a heart attack in Florida, in March 1981.
If, as Cadieux once opined, we can apprehend through the Canadian diplomat a clearer image of a still relatively young national personality — as it is and as it might become — we have in Kelly’s biography rich material for reflection on two of the fundamental tensions within it: between French and English, and between those who want closer integration with the U.S. and those who favour a more independent Canada. In regard to the former tension, Cadieux’s stance as both staunchly Canadian and Québécois holds out promise for the future. But as for the latter, the continentalism that was his default position has little to offer a country that seeks its foreign policy image in a world (dis)order where the U.S. itself appears bent on discarding the old concept of the good ally.
* Corrections: The printed version of this piece misstated the year of Diefenbaker’s election as 1964 (not 1963), and misstated the years of the defence crisis as 1963–64 (not 1962–63).