A Life on the Fringe:
Memoirs of Eugene Forsey

by Eugene Forsey,
250 pages,
ISBN: 0195407202

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Perimeters Of Power
by Desmond Morton

ANYONE WHO INSISTS that Canadians are dull characters Without much to say for themselves or even the words to say it has not met Eugene Forsey nor, to judge from his book, a great many of the people he has encountered in a long, varied, and very useful life. Some years ago, I had the occasional privilege of inviting Forsey to share his knowledge of labour history with my students. It was an exhausting but thoroughly selfish pleasure. At dawn I would collect the senator from Toronto`s Union Station; late that night I would deliver him I still faintly audible, through airport security. In between was a day of uninterrupted anecdote, opinion, and cautionary tale, all of it beautifully embroidered with bibilical quotations and literary references. My sole regret was the certainty of losing this treasure when "life`s brief instant flickered." Once, I managed to manoeuvre Forsey in front of a video camera to record the best of his tales of Silby Barrett, Forsey`s fellow Newfoundlander and a legendary labour leader. Summoned for a eulogy at the passing of Joseph Atkinson, owner of the Toronto Star, Barrett asked the reporter if Atkinson was wealthy: "`Den `e `ad a million dollars. H`in my book, no man make a million dollars honest. So if `e was a millionaire, `e was a t`ief. Now `e`s a dead t`ief." There were more such characters of course: the Hickman ancestor, born prematurely and almost buried at sea until his mother cried: ... E`s not deed yit!" and rescued him to live a further century, or the McGill dean who, like Queen Victoria, addressed the world in the third person: "the dean thinks," "the dean expects"; and who attempted to trash Forsey`s own academic career by finding him "injudicious." There is Arthur Meighen, whose refusal to hand all Canada`s railways to the CPR made him (and young allies like Forsey) virtually "Bolsheviks" in the eyes of Montreal`s capitalists. Forsey`s brilliant defence of the Royal power of dissolution, unavailing though it was against the Liberals who have rewritten our constitutional history, was an act of homage to the old Tory leader. There is less about the formative years of the CCF than there might have been had Forsey not broken with his old party in 1961 when, he believed, it sold its soul to Quebec nationalists in return for very brassy coin. Forsey has more to tell about the labour leaders he encountered in his 27 years as Canadian unionism`s top intellectual, from Charlie Millard, to A. R. Mosher, whose chief weakness was a tolerance of monetary cranks in no way shared by his research director. Forsey himself is needlessly modest about a life "on the fringe," following as it did a Rhodes Scholarship and other glittering academic prizes. Even his publisher assumes that he is best known for his crisp and merciless letters to the editor, not as a senator, author, historian, and member of the late and not wholly lamented Board of Broadcast Governors, and certainly not as co-chairman of the Parliamentary joint Committee on Regulations and Other Statutory Instruments (on which, by Forsey`s own account, he may well have played his most useful public role). In fact "the fringe` is not a bad place for an intellectual to be. Only there could he have seen and remembered so much from the naval debates before the 1911 election to the Meech Lake controversy of 1990. Only there could he have preserved the sharp, intelligent independence that allowed him, as a Liberal senator, to vote more often against his party than with it. Forsey`s most important battles have been with those who have wanted to change our constitution, often in ignorance of its content and history, sometimes to meet the demands of Quebec nationalists or federal bureaucrats in a hurry. He describes himself as a defender of John A. Macdonald`s constitution, no bad place to be since the courts, academics, and politicians have carried Canada a long way from its original moorings. A Life on the Fringe is as full of sparks of light and life as a conversation with its author -- itself almost always a dramatic monologue. Dutiful self deprecation aside, Forsey is not modest in the causes he espouses and not all of them matter equally. If the Anglicans bury their Book of Common Prayer they are the chief losers; but if Canadians forget their history and the rights of Parliament because Department of justice lawyers cannot read or because we choose to accommodate myths invented by Quebec nationalists, we shall all be losers.

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