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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

The prairie Prime Minister and his renegade biographer

Stephen Harper has recently been lauding John Diefenbaker for his achievements, arguing that these have been unfairly underestimated over the last half century by “liberal historians.” He may have had in mind Rogue Tory, the unflattering 1997 scholarly biography by Denis Smith, although it has not been very widely read. But there is a far more important reason that remaining memories of the Diefenbaker era are largely bleak: It is the enduring impact of the forty-year old, still-in-print Renegade in Power, by Peter C. Newman, which is not a conventional biography, but a unique literary phenomenon, and which has been affecting all Canadian political writing ever since. Newman is now 84, replete with honours, and with an immense volume of books and articles behind him, but he has also by now often got as rough treatment by other writers as he meted out to Diefenbaker half a century ago, including a fine 2013 National Post demolition by Conrad Black. But neither Black nor anyone else has ever really evened the score. Renegade in Power actually inaugurated no-quarter Canadian political journalism. Similar books, abusive but persuasively argued and entertaining, had long been familiar in the U.S. and Britain. In the 1950s, English readers could gasp and groan over the ferocious debunking of Emrys Hughes, in his Winston Churchill in War and Peace (1950); American ones could do the same over John T. Flynn's The Roosevelt Myth (1948). But Hughes, a far left Welsh journalist-politician, and Flynn, a disillusioned former New Deal supporter, had little impact. To indulge in some Newman-like metaphor, they were two little piranhas biting ineffectively at the two greatest political whales of the whole century; Newman was more like an unexpectedly arriving barracuda, tearing chunks out of a big Canadian tuna, already wounded and bloodied by sharks. Newman… Read More

Jacques Parizeau Remembered

When the Quebec Legislature began its first post-election session in November of 1989, the first speaker was Jacques Parizeau, It was my first day there as an Equality Party Member, and he surprised me, by giving a very non-partisan address, almost the kind one would expect from someone like a Lieutenant-Governor. He was amiable and wide-ranging, and drew our attention to the painting above the Speaker, of an early sitting of the Lower Canada Parliament in 1793, when it was first decided that French would be allowed, entitled 'The Language Question in Quebec'. He almost seemed to be hinting at an underlying reality: that the Legislature was on most days an oil painting masquerading as an action film, or a theatrical performance, in which he was looking forward to playing the role of a lifetime. Throughout the five years that followed, he mostly continued to maintain this distant, de haut en bas, approach in both criticizing the Liberals and in dealing with his own colleagues. These latter referred to him in his absence as “Monsieur", recalling a Bourbon heir to the throne, and not with great affection. The fiercest attacks on Robert Bourassa and his Ministers were not led by him, but came from the PQ House Leader, Guy Chevrette, and the Party Whip, Jacques Brassard, Member for Lac Saint-Jean, and the wittiest speaker in the House. Parizeau was slow and ponderous in Question Period, and was sometimes the worse for drink, but I soon learned that he was going through a difficult time, as his Polish-Canadian first wife was dying of cancer. When her funeral came, it was in a beautiful service at the Église Saint-Germain in Outremont, and seemed almost a state occasion. He was bowed down with visible grief. All kinds of notables were present; I observed… Read More

From reputation to celebrity in half a century

Exactly fifty years ago, in June of 1965, two men almost unremembered each had had a moment of “stellar” importance, in two senses of that adjective. One was a former federal Canadian MP named Hector Dupuis, the other an American astronaut named Edward White. Dupuis had started his federal political career in 1935 in the now-forgotten Reconstruction Party, more arch-conservative than the R. B. Bennett Tories, which briefly drew a fairly substantial popular vote, but which soon faded. He was afterwards an undistinguished backbench Liberal MP for the now extinct east-end Montreal riding of Sainte-Marie, an insurance broker and businessman—his main form of loyal service was probably as a writer of cheques to his party. He had been awarded an O.B.E., but his moment of fame came when he sent it back. He was outraged because the Queen, advised by Harold Wilson, had awarded M.B.E. decorations to the Beatles, whose astronomical overseas record sales were substantially improving the British balance of payments. Dupuis commented bitterly that “British royalty has put me on the same level as a bunch of vulgar numbskulls.” A few other British public figures joined in outraged returns. Nine days earlier, Edward Higgins White, a USAF Lieutenant-Colonel and aeronautical engineer, had stepped from a Gemini space rocket to become the first American to walk in space, just three months after a Soviet cosmonaut had achieved this. Two years later, White and two of his fellow astronauts were killed in a test of the projected Apollo mission. Only 37, he was one of 17 astronauts who had died in such accidents, all of which astronauts were posthumously awarded a Congressional Medal. The complaint of Dupuis today looks snobbish and comic, but in its time, many people were at least greatly surprised at the idea of giving a royal… Read More

The gamblers of 1940 & the raising of the stakes

The most historically significant dates of great wars are not always those marked as their beginnings or endings, but the ones in which major contending powers choose actions that take their countries, and sometimes whole civilizations, in permanently changed directions. The beginning of the Second World War came at least as much with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, as with the Anglo-French declaration of war on September 3. Prime Minister Harper and a group of surviving Canadian veterans are marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war this May, but its exact date has not endured in public consciousness. At least for historians, however, what happened five years earlier, just seventy-five years ago, astonished the world, and changed it forever. After nine months of limited and desultory ground warfare in Western Europe, May 10, 1940 began the spectacularly successful German offensive on France. and also saw Winston Churchill become the British Prime Minister. By mid-June, France had collapsed, and was now also being attacked by Mussolini's Italy. None of these events had been expected, and their consequences have still not stopped unfolding. The failure of the fortified Maginot Line is now often recalled, but France was by no means weakly defended otherwise. It had the troops, military equipment, and industrial resources to fight a long and savage war. Their generals had even been contemplating an offensive, but one that would not be ready for another two or three years. Most of them were expecting an updated version of the 'attritional' fighting of the previous war. Hitler, on the other hand, while he wanted to follow his victory in Poland with a major offensive in the West as early as October of 1939, had run into problems with weather, incomplete preparation of his own forces, and the… Read More

The Prodigal Daughter and Her Predecessors

The Weekly Standard, an American conservative periodical, has a contributing editor named Jonathan Last. His favourite topic is demography; he has written a book on What To Expect When No One Is Expecting. However, he ranges over many topics and likes to cite a Christian conservative writer, Ted Dreher, whose own most recent book is about Dante's Divine Comedy. Last and Dreher have both recently discovered and praised a long essay, Everything is Problematic published anonymously last November in, of all places, The McGill Daily. It is the cri de coeur of a young gay female, about to graduate from McGill, about her gradual disillusionment with radical identity politics. She begins with her first high school gay liberation protests in an unfriendly small town, goes on to describe her following three years at McGill of ardent absorption in a battery of noisy and sometimes violent groups, and concludes with her eventual despairing departure from the lot. She insists that she remains fond of the other young people she met through these adventures; also that she remains a 'social democrat', favouring a guaranteed annual wage. But she also completely rejects Marxism-Leninism and anarchism, and also concludes that the extremist politics she once endorsed had 'taken a dark path'. She has ended her career as a shouting protester, sign-bearing marcher, classroom occupier, and even physical battler with security guards and police, coming to realize that they had brought her into 'the darkest period of [her] life'. She now saw four radical follies as highly damaging to her own life and those of others: dogmatism, fanatically rejecting all individuals not holding 'correct' positions; groupthink, incubating irrational extremism; a 'crusader' mentality, taking the supposed urgent necessity of helping the oppressed as justifying all kinds of foolishness; and 'anti-intellectualism'. On this last, she does not… Read More
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