Walter Gordon: the last liberal

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Liberal Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff wants Canada to have an east-west energy corridor linking provinces producing low greenhouse gas emitting electricity with those still burning coal, and increasing energy security. Speaking to Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin, Ignatieff was quick to qualify himself. He favours a made-in-Canada energy strategy, but noted: I'm not a Walter Gordon nationalist.

Not just Ignatieff, but for over two decades, all Liberals have been rejecting Walter Gordon, with the important exception of John Turner in the 1988 free trade election. In Gordon's mind Canadian liberalism was about freeing Canada from the domination of the U.S., it was about using liberal democracy to rescue Canada from absentee owners, and it was about making real the political internationalism of Lester Pearson, and his External Affairs diplomats (including the fathers of Ignatieff and Bob Rae).

Gordon wanted the Liberal party to be the instrument of this Canadian liberalism, not the tool used by big business to shape Canada in the American image. Ironically, Gordon's liberal nationalism had its strongest echoes in the explosion of Canadian cultural activities in the 1970s, and in the Canadian Auto Workers 1980s fight on behalf of Canadian workers against concession bargaining by its then parent union in the U.S., the United Auto Workers.

In an important sense the Honourable Gordon was the last liberal Liberal from Ontario. Most liberal ideas the Liberal party adopted after Gordon came from Quebec, specifically from Pierre Trudeau, Jean Marchand, Gérard Pelletier, Monique Bégin, Marc Lalonde and others. By the time Jean Chrétien took power, the Liberal party base had shifted from Quebec to Ontario, and the Liberal party had become conservative in policy and orientation, much as Canada's largest province had been in the immediate post-war period.

Though Gordon left the Liberal party a better place than he found it, his career as Finance Minister was brief and controversial. He was elected in 1963 and declined to run when Trudeau began his first stint in office with a majority victory in 1968. He resigned from cabinet when the 1965 election campaign failed to produce a Liberal majority.

Gordon blamed himself for convincing his close friend Lester Pearson to go to the polls, and then, as campaign strategist, not delivering as promised (Liberals today urging an election please note). Gordon was coaxed back in 1967 to serve a ceremonial role as President of the Privy Council, and agreed to do so on condition the government study the political implications of foreign ownership in Canada. Prime Minister Pearson agreed, and, forty years ago, though it was not implemented, the wonderful Watkins report was the result.

By usual standards, Gordon noticeably failed. His party routinely rejected his agenda, as Minister of Finance he was forced to withdraw his budget proposals to implement a tax on foreign takeovers, and he left no visible legacy.

Gordon was, however, an unusual force in Canadian public life and his ideas live on in Canada, if not in the Liberal party, and, indeed, can be applied anywhere where people want to live free of domination.

In his most accessible work, A Choice for Canada, published in 1966 Gordon argued that Canada needed economic sovereignty in order to exercise political independence from Washington. Gordon laid out how American corporations took far more money out of Canada in the form of interest, dividends and profits than was brought in to buy Canadian resources and companies. Americans benefited from ownership of Canadian assets more than Canadians because head offices, direction and financial control were in the U.S. not Canada. Wholly owned Canadian subsidiaries of American corporations obeyed U.S. laws, seldom ventured abroad and denied Canadians the opportunity of investing in their own economy except by purchasing stock in the parent U.S. company.

Gordon was an accountant, and he knew how Canadian business worked. He foresaw a continentalist alliance in which American multinationals dominated Canadian business, and together they dominated Canadian politics. He worried that the Liberal party would be the instrument of that domination. In this he was partly wrong: the alliance of the like-minded that drives economic subservience to Washington included Conservatives under Brian Mulroney and Michael Wilson, as well as Liberals under Chrétien and Paul Martin, before Stephen Harper became the latest to welcome American domination of Canada.

Political leadership in Canada is custodial in nature, looking after the country in the interests of business. That was what angered Gordon, and made so many join him in the Committee for an Independent Canada in the 1970s, and later sign on with Mel Hurtig when he founded the Council of Canadians in the 1980s.

Gordon hoped Canadians would choose to govern themselves in the interests of Canada and the world, not American capitalism. He may still be vindicated, but not likely by the current Liberal front bench where Ignatieff looms so large.

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