Image: Mel Watkins

My dear friend and close associate Melville (Mel) Henry Watkins (1932-2020), the celebrated Canadian political economist, passed away in Ottawa on April 2, 2020, with his beloved wife Kelly Crichton by his side.

The romance that led to Mel and Kelly marrying was not without unanticipated obstacles.When they began seeing each other, Kelly, who was working in radio (she would eventually become a senior reporter for CBC’s flagship The National, and later its executive producer) judged it best to inform her superiors that she was dating Mel Watkins, former leader of the radical Waffle movement within the NDP.

Mel was a national figure, an advocate of socialism, an outspoken critic of Canadian complicity in the war the U.S. was waging in Vietnam and a supporter of the right for Quebec to self-determination.

The reaction was: “Well alright, we are not going to interfere in your private life … just don’t marry him.” 

Meanwhile, following a divorce, Mel was in court seeking custody of his dear son, Kenny. The judge was convinced that this loving father had all that was necessary to bring up his son, and he granted Mel custody.

In a helpful spirit no doubt, he added: “would Mr. Watkins please regularize his relationship with Miss Crichton.”

Not many couples begin a life together heeding a judicial decision to marry, instead of obeying an employer saying the bride-to-be should not show up at the altar. 

Whatever the circumstances, nothing got in the way of the happy union. 

Nothing, that is, until I took it upon myself to suggest to Nancy Riche, then executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, that the CLC should bring Mel back from London to strengthen the labour movement in the battle against the Mulroney-Reagan trade deal. 

Mel had agreed to accompany Kelly to the U.K. on a CBC posting. It was a normal thing to do. Previously, Kelly and the family had agreed to spend a year with him in the far North. Mel had become an advisor to the Dene Nation, assisting in preparations for its response to the Berger Commission enquiry into the case for a Northern gas pipeline project.

Mel did come back to Ottawa for a number of months, with Kelly’s blessing. Her charge to the two of us was not to fail in our quest to stop the so-called free trade agreement from becoming law. Hélas!

The fallout from the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement preoccupied us at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Along with myself as president, successive executive directors, Jim Davidson, Sandra Sorenson and Bruce Campbell all turned to Mel for his assistance and counsel. 

His fine mind, and keen interest in the welfare of others, made it natural to turn to Mel for advice. He was a source of wisdom for his students, colleague and friends throughout his life, but it was not simply a one way communication.

The development of his thinking as a “radical” emerged as Mel engaged with his students. He worked with them to organize an important teach-in on the Vietnam War, listened to their arguments about how to reform the authoritarian university, and responded to issues raised in his classrooms by taking students’ ideas seriously. Indeed he adopted some key ones, and made them his own, as he moved further to the left in his political views. 

As a child, Mel skipped three grades, yet claimed that his twin brother Murray, who also skipped three grades, was a better student, finishing first, with Mel second in every subject. By his own account Mel did do better at oratory competitions; Murray stuttered, added Mel. 

The brothers, who knew legendary Toronto Maple Leaf play-by-play announcer Foster Hewitt from summers working at a Georgian Bay marina, were his special guests to watch a Leafs game from the famed “gondola” above the ice surface at Maple Leaf Gardens on Carlton Street. 

As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, where he would later make his academic career, Mel took a course with Harold Innis in Canadian economic history, a field he would enter himself, and dominate for years after. 

Innis, the only Canadian economist residing in Canada to be elected president of the American Economics Association, inspired Mel to research how exports of staple products like wheat, pulp and minerals linked back into communities, defining their character, and how government planning could promote industrial upgrading of raw materials, and improve production techniques. 

Following his undergraduate degree, Mel became the first holder of a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology major doctoral fellowship in economic development (the second went to Jagadish Bhagwati, who became a noted international trade theorist). 

At MIT, Mel co-wrote with professor Paul Samuelson the fourth edition of the instructor’s manual for Economics, the Samuelson introductory textbook that sold in the millions worldwide.

Watkins would later remark that only economists from the currently hegemonic super power were allowed to contribute to economics. This was not said entirely in jest. British authors had dominated the profession in the U.K.’s two centuries as the world’s leading imperial power. After the Second World War, it was Americans who were being listened to.

Along with his University of Toronto colleagues, Abe Rotstein and Stephen Clarkson, Mel Watkins pointed out the dangers to Canada of using economic thinking developed in the U.S. — a large market economy — to govern a quite different mixed public and privately owned Canadian economy. North of the long border, prices were regularly imported from South of it, and certainly not automatically adjusted in an imagined competitive Canadian market. 

Unlike the U.S., which had the world using its currency, Canada had to pay attention to how capital flows impacted the supply of U.S. dollar reserves and the foreign exchange rate in formulating Canadian national policy. 

Innis had come up with concepts like margin and periphery, and staples exports. These were essential in understanding how the Canadian economy grew with rising commodity prices for staples exports, and faltered when they fell — as oil prices are doing now — and as wheat prices did in the 1930s, contributing to the depths of the depression on the Prairies. 

Walter Gordon, the Toronto Liberal friend to party leader Lester Pearson, had identified in a Royal Commission report, and two popular books, the dangers to Canada of foreign (U.S.) ownership of Canadian manufacturing capacity and resource projects. 

Gordon’s message was that when a country was dominated economically by U.S. corporations, it was inevitably subject to U.S. political influence as well. His argument favouring Canadian economic independence was getting a hearing in Canada as the centennial year revealed potential for the country many of its citizens had never imagined.

The 1968 Watkins task force report, which Gordon as president of the Privy Council in the Pearson government commissioned Mel (and a group of economists he assembled) to produce on foreign ownership, revealed appalling weaknesses. 

Foreign ownership typically took the form of American corporations establishing wholly owned Canadian branch plant operations. Canadians could not invest in these companies, which were occupying a growing share of manufacturing and resource extraction, except by buying shares in the parent U.S. company. 

The payments going back to the U.S. of interest, dividends and profits on American ownership capital in Canada, had Canada borrowing in the U.S. to fund the outflow of money.  

Though nominally Canadian companies, Canadian governments were unable to require U.S. branch plants to report on their business activities. If ministers wanted to know what a U.S. company was up to in Canada, they had to seek answers in Washington D.C. 

Mel was an engaged intellectual. Moreover, he identified issues that needed to engage Canadians, political economists and his fellow New Democrats. 

He enjoyed working with like-minded people in small groups. For years, working with Rick Salutin, John Saul, Susan Crean and others, he was a central figure in the editorial meetings of This Magazine, where he wrote his monthly Harold Innis memorial column, and later was named editor emeritus. 

Mel saw clearly what others on the left missed. The Canadian working class cared about their country. “Capital is mobile, labour is not,” he explained. This working class patriotism was shamefully exploited by the political class — in the interest of the dominant class. Mel saw it could also be a force for political change, if the labour movement and the NDP could organize and mobilize regular wage earners and the precariously employed.

Mel was on the advisory committee of the Council of Canadians from its inception, and worked closely with its founder Mel Hurtig, and its long time honorary chair Maude Barlow.

In the 1980s, the central bank declared that unemployment could not go below 7.5 per cent without causing inflation, causing Mel to ask whether the governor of the bank intended to hand out buttons: “I’m not unemployed, I’m fighting inflation.”

The Canadian business class was clever politically. Liberals and Conservatives alike put corporate interests before those of workers, and the Bank of Canada simply followed suit.

Mel ran for the NDP in 1997 and 2000 in Beaches-East York. In 2001, we went together to Winnipeg to support the New Politics Initiative at the NDP convention. The NPI resolution failed. But, at a small Winnipeg dinner gathering that included Libby Davies (later deputy leader to Jack Layton) Mel initiated a conversation about soliciting Jack Layton to run for leader. Mel tipped off Jeffrey Simpson, the Ottawa columnist for The Globe and Mail about Layton’s possible candidacy, and the campaign was launched.

Within the NDP, Mel had to tackle an unfortunate gambit by party strategists — to gain the esteem of those who would never support it — by adopting a “balance the budget” approach to federal fiscal policy.

Globe and Mail editorials, and C.D. Howe Institute studies denouncing government deficit spending never specified that limiting public borrowing denied Canadians needed Crown corporations, hospitals, schools, public transit, recreation facilities and infrastructure for amateur sport, and the arts. 

The business class kept the knowledge to themselves that public austerity left room for floating corporate bonds at better interest rates.

The “good governments balance budgets” storyline that Mel opposed sank the 2015 NDP campaign. It was most recently debunked by the coronavirus pandemic, as the truth began to leak out: the federal government could create money, not just the chartered banks.

Mel’s audiences appreciated his exceptional wit, something he had in common with other well known political economists, notably the celebrated humourist Stephen Leacock, and the expatriate Canadian John Kenneth Galbraith.

In the academic world, people from very diverse fields of study come together to settle university business. How to decide who to defer to? What qualities gain one authority across disciplinary lines? 

Having a fine sense of humour can be persuasive; Mel routinely witnessed his views win his peers to his point of view, aided by a well placed quip. 

A student of nuclear power politics, and a fierce advocate of “swords into plowshares,” Mel was elected president of Science for Peace when he formally retired from the University of Toronto.

After he relocated to the Ottawa Valley, Mel continued his long standing association with the Carleton University Institute of Political Economy, encouraged by academic friends Wallace Clement and Rianne Mahon. 

A founding editor of the journal Studies in Political Economy, Mel took special pleasure in seeing Brendan Haley publish work Mel had inspired on how the staples approach to the build-up of investment in bitumen sands revealed the vulnerability of the Canadian economy to a downturn in prices, like the one currently being experienced. 

When Mel’s mentor Harold Innis died, his wife received a letter of condolences from then-prime minister Louis Saint-Laurent. 

Today, in the age of social media, Mel’s passing was marked by an unbelievable outpouring of respect, admiration and friendship online, a special display of affection for his person, and appreciation of his life and achievements. 

Mel was scheduled to be received into the Order of Canada this past March; it will now be awarded posthumously.

In addition to his wife, Kelly Crichton, Mel leaves his adored children Kenneth, Matthew and Emily, and his six grandchildren who brought him so much joy.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: Mel Watkins

Editor’s note, April 10, 2020: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He was an expatriate Canadian, not an ex-patriot Canadian. We regret the error.

Editor’s note, April 8, 2020: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kelly Crichton was working as a senior reporter for CBC’s The National when she started seeing Mel Watkins. Crichton was in fact working in radio, and not for The National when she started seeing Watkins.

Editor’s note, April 8, 2020: An earlier version of this article misclassified the 1968 Watkins report, as a royal commission study. It was not a royal commission, but a task force.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...