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The Staple Theory at 50: Mel Watkins as teacher, scholar and activist

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Photo: Mel Watkins

For the next installment in our special series of commentaries marking the 50th anniversary of Mel Watkins' classic article, "A Staple Theory of Economic Development," we provide excerpts from the preface to an edited collection of Mel's writings assembled by Hugh Grant and David Wolfe, which provides some great personal perspective on Mel's personality and passion.

For anyone first exposed to Canadian political economy in the 1960s and 1970s, Mel Watkins was an iconic figure. Through his strong association with the Watkins Report, commissioned by Liberal cabinet minister Walter Gordon in the mid-1960s, and his critical role in the drafting of the Waffle Manifesto in 1969 (documented in Dave Godfrey's Gordon to Watkins to You), he gained instant recognition among a generation of students and activists deeply concerned with the growing degree of foreign control over the Canadian economy and the inadequate response to the issue by the mainstream political parties of the day. Through his subsequent involvement with the Berger Commission in the 1970s and his passionate opposition to the Free Trade Agreement and the NAFTA in the 1980s and 1990s, political activism was, and remains, a central part of Mel's contribution to Canadian society and politics.

Along with his continuing engagement in Canadian political life, Mel was always an active scholar, born in the Innis tradition of Canadian politics, and shaped by the work of a contemporary generation of economic historians and political economists, including Kari Levitt, Jim Laxer, Tom Naylor and Wallace Clement. Through his many contributions to magazine columns, government reports and books and scholarly journals, Mel profoundly influenced the intellectual development of Canadian political economy over the course of more than four decades. The scope of his work ranged from theoretical writings on the staple thesis; analysis of foreign investment, the multinational corporation and international trade; observations on the state of Canadian economics and political economy; commentaries on a range of political issues; and reflections on technology. The themes addressed and the arguments made continue to resonant and offer important insights into the nature of Canadian political economy today.

His contribution to Canadian political economy is, or will be, apparent to those who have an opportunity to read his work. Less well known, except to those who had the good fortune to enroll in one of his courses, is his influence as a teacher and mentor to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Toronto.

Our association with Mel dates from the early 1970s at a time when the Department of Political Economy was a rarefied, if not rather strange, place. In the politically charged atmosphere of the Vietnam War period, it was not unusual for incoming undergraduates to be familiar with the Waffle Movement, the Committee for an Independent Canada and the findings of the Watkins and Gray Reports on foreign ownership, or to read regularly Canadian Dimension and The Canadian Forum. Eager first-year students in search of their lecture hall in Sidney Smith Hall ran the gamut of newspaper sellers from a wide range of political parties and factions of the day. Most of the writings of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Tim Buck were available for purchase. Rare times indeed.

Once acclimatized to the University of Toronto, it was possible to find a number of courses scattered through various academic departments that dealt with the issues pertaining to the New Left. This was less true in the Department of Economics; however, Ian Parker was a source of inspiration and two faculty members had definite name recognition: Abraham Rotstein and Mel Watkins.

Despite the presence of Parker, Rotstein, Watkins and others, pursuing an alternative program of study in Economics grew more difficult as the neo-classical orthodoxy extended its grip on the former home of Innis and Easterbrook and the Keynesian consensus crumbled. The Political Economy Course Critique for 1973/74, published by the students' association, observed that "Numerous students emphasized the need for courses on the exploitation of multi-national corporations or on Marxist economic theory." Lest students' criticisms be shrugged off by faculty and administrators, they were accompanied by a warning: "We, the editors, sincerely hope that this course critique will aid in pinpointing some of the inadequacies in each individual course. This, however, is not enough. Words must be followed by action."

In a curious act of pluralism, or perhaps product differentiation, the department responded by creating two versions of a course on Canadian Economic Issues, one taught by Ed Safarian and the other, not recommended for Commerce students, by Mel Watkins. Presumably designed to assuage the small band of dissident students, the department was doubtless surprised when the latter was consistently over-subscribed and was the overwhelming choice of Commerce majors seeking to complete their Economics requirement. The Course Critique for "Eco 337: Contemporary Issues in the Canadian Economy" reported that: "Professor Watkins' course is one of the few, if not the only economics course to follow the Marxist viewpoint of economics. Watkins is, in addition, not afraid to point out the shortcomings of the Keynesian school of economics." Despite this blessing, he did not escape criticism, "because he spoke for practically the entire two hours each lecture." When Mel was seconded to work for the Dene during the Berger Inquiry, the course's popularity forced the Department to arrange a last minute replacement. The best it could come up with was the equally witty and urbane, yet less renowned academic from the Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Jacques Parizeau.

As the opportunity to study political economy within the Department of Economics slowly disintegrated, Mel took refuge in the undergraduate Canadian Studies program at University College and in teaching a graduate course in Canadian Political Economy with colleagues David Wolfe and Stephen Clarkson in Political Science, and distanced himself, both physically and intellectually, from his colleagues in Economics. Just the same, his courses -- whether offered in Economics, Political Science or Canadian Studies -- became a rite of passage for those concerned with political economy, drawing students from every discipline and interdisciplinary program. One observation was unavoidable for his students. Political Economy could be a strongly grounded theoretical discipline while commenting on the immediate issues of the day. The former required an acute awareness of the intuition, or vision, that informed the theoretical model, while the latter demanded a personal engagement in the current issues.

For his part, Mel was never far removed from the important political issues of the day, be it through his principal authorship of the Watkins' Report on Foreign Ownership, his involvement in party politics (from the Waffle Group to his candidacy in two Federal Elections under the NDP banner in the Woodbine riding), as an advisor to the Dene Nation during the Berger Commission hearings, as an anti-free trade advocate for the Canadian Labour Congress during the FTA debates, as a columnist and contributing editor at This Magazine, and through his work for Science for Peace. Yet throughout these various activities, Mel could almost always be found in his office and the lecture halls at University College, University of Toronto where he providing a guiding hand to the intellectual development of successive generations of students until his retirement in the 1990s.

Throughout this period, he continued an active program of scholarship, contributing new papers to academic conferences, participating in several versions of edited collections on the development of Canadian political economy and to academic journals. As scholarly trends evolved over the course of these decades and the dominant academic issues of the day changed, Mel remained firmly committed to two critical values: the seminal contribution of the Innis tradition for an understanding of the development of the Canadian economy, society and the polity; and the need to analyse the factors contributing to, and the political implications of, a growing loss of Canadian sovereignty. His intellectual contribution to understanding these issues remains as critical today as when he first started writing about them in the 1960s. It is our fervent hope that this collection will expose his work to a new generation of students and scholars for whom these issues are as pressing today as they were when Mel joined his first anti-war teach-in at the University of Toronto.

Based on material originally published in Hugh Grant and David Wolfe (eds.), Staples and Beyond: Selected Writings of Mel Watkins (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2006).

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