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Russell in Canada
by Douglas Fetherling

THE ENGLISH PHILOSOPHER, mathematician, and political activist Bertrand Russell spent the last part of his very long life working for two causes. One was nuclear disarmament. The other was a plan to bring the American government to justice before an international tribunal for war crimes in Vietnam. To help finance the latter, he sold his personal and professional papers (and their copyrights) to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. For McMaster, which used funds provided by the expatriate left-leaning Canadian industrialist Cyrus Eaton, this was very big news indeed, an extraordinary international coup.

McMaster also hired the young Canadian, Kenneth Blackwell, who had been Russell's secretary. Thus began the awe-inspiring publishing megaproject called The Collected Works of Bertrand Russell: The McMaster University Edition. When it's completed, perhaps as early as 2005, it will comprise 33 volumes. The IIth, 12th, and 13th volumes, edited by Blackwell and Harry Ruja, are just out now under the joint title A Bibliography of Bertrand Russell (Routledge). This is a work of punctilious scholarship, containing many surprising little nuggets of information or perspective, the way such annotated descriptive bibliographies can so often do. One of these is the exact nature, full extent, and comparative complexity of Lord Russell's relations with Canada.

"Of course, he visited Canada many times," says Blackwell, "first in 1914, then on his way back from China and Japan in 1921 (when he commented on the 'endless wheat fields'- hardly an original observation), and once again in 1929 and finally in 1931" But his relationship with Canada really got under way in the very late 1940s, during the Cold War.

One of the most prolific and facile writers of his time (this Bibliography is a three-decker after all), Russell also possessed invisible antennae that permitted him to pick up signals from any publication in the English-speaking world that seemed to be emitting a hint of liberalism. He was a great favourite with the Globe and Mail, much less conservative then than it is today, which reprinted many of his speeches and public statements, and also with the pre-Southam Vancouver Sun, which until the late 1950s had support of the Liberal Party actually written into its corporate charter and printed many of Russell's letters-to-the-editor -- and even interviewed him over the phone from his home in Wales.

Russell was an intellectual celebrity of course. This made him attractive in such situations and put his pronouncements in demand. "But the main thing was that he had a point of view which many Canadian editors echoed," Blackwell says. "He was more popular with them during the Cold War years than at any previous time, because he had a message of neutrality that fitted in with the traditions of Pearson-era policy." To be sure, Russell had pieces in the socialist magazine Canadian Dimension and the communist newspaper Canadian Tribune, but he also found a home in Saturday Night in the period just after B. K. Sandwell's editorship of the magazine. In the same way, he appeared often in the small-l liberal Montreal Star (but only once in the Southam-owned Gazette). Though many of us tend to think of the political polarization of Canadian media as a recent phenomenon, it has in fact roots extending all the way back to the beginning.

What's clear from the Bibliography is that even publications that would have found his politics repugnant printed him on rare occasions, because, as Blackwell explains, "being an aristocrat, a part of classical culture and a great individualist," Russell had an entree to institutions that nonetheless despised his left-wing principles. This explains, for example, how his very liberal views on the future of marriage got past the internal police at the Toronto Evening Telegram, an institution so conservative (and Conservative) that it displayed the Union Jack on the front page every day. Not surprisingly, his best and most important Canadian markets were the Daily Star of Toronto and its sister publication the Star Weekly. He sold them literally dozens of articles, particularly during the height of the anti-nuclear agitation in the early 1960s. Consider, for example, this page-one banner from the Star of September 12,1961: "Mac, JFK, Mr. K. Plan End to Human Life -- Russell." Mac was of course British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Mr. K. was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Russell had so solid an audience in Canada than there were even separate Canadian editions of some of his books (a comparative rarity in those days), particularly of his three-volume autobiography. He even supplied a blurb for the first edition of The Comfortable Pew, Pierre Berton's best-selling attack on the Anglican Church. Now, that's fame. It's also the kind of information that makes these three volumes such a valuable addition to Russell's Collected Works. 0

Douglas Fetherling's Travels by Night (Lester) was short-listed for the Trillium, Ontario's book award.


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