07 August 2003

A Canadian conservative and nationalist

One of my favourite professed conservatives is George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), who during his lifetime became Canada's foremost philosopher.

He was born in Toronto in 1918 and was descended from two rather prominent families connected with the social élite of Ontario. He was related to Vincent Massey, the first Canadian Governor General, and by marriage to George Ignatieff, former provost of the University of Toronto and Canadian diplomat, and thus, ironically, to Michael Ignatieff.

He studied at Queen’s University and Oxford in England. From 1947 to 1961 he taught in the philosophy department at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Between 1961 and 1980 he taught in the department of religion at McMaster. Then he returned to Dalhousie for his remaining years until retirement. He died in September 1988.

He is probably best known by the Canadian public for his Lament for a Nation (1965), which was written in the wake of John Diefenbaker’s defeat in 1963. He expressed the belief that the downfall of the Conservative Prime Minister was due, at least in part, to the combined efforts of the Liberal Party and the Americanized economic élite, who resented his hesitation to fall in step behind John F.Kennedy’s nuclear defence policy. Although the book was billed as a lament for Canada, it actually became something of a rallying cry for a new generation of Canadian nationalists, who sought to distance the country from American economic and political power.

Grant called himself a conservative in the old-fashioned British tory tradition. He is often referred to as a "red tory" because his particular brand of conservatism took him in directions that may seem strikingly socialist to the typical North American right-winger. For example, he opposed free trade with the US and rejected capitalism, but he was also very much opposed to legalized abortion.

He was a devout Christian and a member of the Anglican Church. He converted to Christianity in England as a young man, but his brand of Christianity is heavily indebted to the tradition of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato and the platonists. He acknowledges the influence on himself of Jacques Ellul, Leo Strauss, and Simone Weil. The latter was something of a personal model for Grant, and he regarded her as a modern christian saint.

I had the opportunity to meet Grant twice during my years living in Toronto. The first time was at a conference at York University. The second was at a famously liberal United Church congregation near the University of Toronto where he preached from the pulpit against abortion, thus rankling the sensibilities of the progressive parishioners, including one of the pastors. It was fun to watch. It was typical of Grant to do something like this.

I like Grant because he helps to shatter some of the popular stereotypes concerning liberalism and conservatism, left and right. Where I find him less persuasive is in his view that economics drives politics and that technology necessarily homogenizes local cultures. A reading of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations has laid this notion to rest, it seems to me.

Yet Grant is always rewarding reading. One need not always agree with him to enjoy his provocative style and his genuine insights.

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