Image: Mel Watkins

Canada is facing critical shortages of necessary medical supplies right now, but if the country had heeded the advice, five decades ago, of political economist Mel Watkins, we might be far more self-sufficient today.

Watkins, who died at the age of 87 on Thursday, April 2, chaired the Lester Pearson Liberal government’s task force on foreign ownership, in the late 1960s. 

In its report, that task force identified the conundrum of Canada’s branch plant economy. 

A good deal of Canada’s productive capacity, the report noted, especially in such industries as automobiles, oil and gas and rubber, was foreign — that is American — owned. To those foreign owners, the interests of Canadians and the Canadian economy were secondary to the interests of their home country.

The Watkins report led to the creation of the federal Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) — which lasted for about a decade and a half before the Brian Mulroney Conservatives abolished it — and other measures to encourage home-grown Canadian industry. 

But none of it was far-reaching and radical enough for Mel Watkins. 

He went on to help found the left-wing, Canadian-nationalist Waffle group within the New Democratic Party, and his chief collaborator in that enterprise was James Laxer, who died two years ago. 

Socialism and Canadian nationalism combined 

In later years, Watkins gave Laxer most of the credit for the movement whose “Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada” dominated debate at the 1969 NDP convention. After Laxer’s death, Watkins wrote, here in the pages of, that the Waffle “was radical in rhetoric and conservative institutionally, a very Canadian creation.”

The kind of Canada that Watkins and Laxer envisioned was one with a significant measure of public ownership, but also with a thriving Canadian-owned private sector. Canada would be a trading nation, yes — we don’t grow bananas here — but it would scrupulously avoid trade agreements that were, as Mel Watkins described the North American Free Trade Agreement and other similar pacts: “charters of rights for the corporations.” 

The Waffle didn’t last. 

Laxer mounted a spirited challenge for the NDP leadership against heir apparent David Lewis in 1971 and did well, but lost on the fourth ballot. Then the NDP establishment drummed the left-nationalist faction out of the party. Leading party figures of the time, including Stephen Lewis, argued that the NDP could not tolerate a party within the party.

Watkins went on to a productive career that combined activism with teaching, academic research and writing. When Watkins’ long-standing friend and fellow political economist Abraham Rotstein died in 2015, he said of him that he was “not your conventional economist; he was that rare creature, a public intellectual.”

The same could be said of Mel. He devoted his life both to the expansion of knowledge and to ways in which that knowledge could help advance the cause of humankind. 

A intellectual giant

Virtually everyone who knew Mel describes a generous and open person, who inspired with his warmth and friendliness as much as with his intellect.

The former executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Bruce Campbell, says of Mel that he had a profound effect on his thinking throughout his professional career. 

“He introduced me to Harold Innis and the staples theory of economic development,” Campbell says, “which shaped my understanding of political economy within Canada, its relations with the US, and internationally.”

Economist Roy Culpeper, who leads both the progressive foreign policy institute the Group of 78, and the Coalition for Equitable Land Acquisitions and Development in Africa (CELADA), explains that the staples theory, which Mel expanded, based on the work of his mentor, Harold Innis, “provided an account of Canada’s economic development according to which the production and export of commodities from cod, to beaver pelts, to wheat, to lumber, minerals and oil fundamentally shaped Canada’s political economy.”

Watkins was Culpeper’s teacher at the University of Toronto, and had a profound influence on the course of his life. 

“I first met Mel,” Culpeper relates, “after a rather unrewarding first year studying maths, physics and chemistry. He persuaded me to switch in second year into political science and economics. He also influenced my thinking about economics as a discipline. In particular, Mel believed that economic history is vitally important to fully understand how economies actually operate in the real world.”

Economist Andrew Sharpe, head of the Ottawa research institute the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, expresses similar sentiments. 

On the one hand, Sharpe says, “Mel was a political economist who combined a rigorous training in mainstream economics at MIT, under Paul Samuelson, with strong sympathies for the underprivileged of society.” 

On the other, Sharpe says, at a personal level, “Mel was an ideal colleague, approachable, collegial and personable. I enjoyed many lunches with him and will miss him greatly.”

For Armine Yalnizyan, economist and Atkinson fellow on the future of workers, Mel was “an intellectual giant on Canada’s economic scene.”

Mel’s powerful insights, says Yalnizyan, “helped Canadians and their elected officials understand both our economic history, and see the possible trajectories of its evolution in real time. His analysis of foreign ownership of Canadian businesses and resources for the federal government led to the regulation of foreign investment in Canada. He never failed to see ways to improve economic and social justice, even in seemingly hopeless situations.”

At a personal level, Yalnizyan describes Mel as an “immensely generous and deeply moral man, with a wicked sense of humour.” 

Toby Sanger, executive director of Canadians for Tax Fairness, also came under the spell of Mel’s magnetic personality: “Mel was also an incredibly kind and delightful guy, with a great sense of humour. With his wonderfully mischievous smile, he always had an interesting story and humorous anecdote or observation to share.”

Sanger — who was landlord for a while to Mel and his wife Kelly Crichton, former executive producer of CBC television’s The National and the Fifth Estate — reflects on Watkins’ journey in life: 

“From his modest beginnings growing up on a farm near Parry Sound, Mel has been extraordinarily influential in many ways: on Canadian economic theory, on left politics, on policy, and on how we think about ourselves as Canadians.” 

Mel did grow up near Parry Sound, Ontario, home of hockey great Bobby Orr, and, as a teenager, worked as a babysitter for the future star Boston Bruins defenceman. 

Sanger also talks about Mel’s pioneering work in Canada’s Northwest Territories (N.W.T.): “He was also very much ahead of his times, embracing Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Canada in working for the Dene Nation.” 

Helped build Indigenous capacity

Mel Watkins worked, in the 1970s, with the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (which later renamed itself the Dene Nation), at a time when a number of companies were pushing proposals for pipelines to carry natural gas from the Beaufort Sea, north of the Arctic Circle, to refineries and markets in the south. 

Peter Puxley, who went on to become a producer and manager for CBC radio and research director for the federal NDP, was an advisor to the N.W.T. Indian Brotherhood in the 1970s. 

Puxley decided they needed to recruit someone who could give “academic credibility” to their efforts to design a new kind of Indigenous rights claim, one that would result in a self-government as well as property settlement, and he thought Mel would be a “perfect fit.” 

“I recall our first meeting with him in the North,” Puxley says. “We sat outdoors on the ground on a mosquito-ridden spring day by the Cameron River, east of Yellowknife. I remember marvelling at Mel, so recently a national public figure, sitting in those remote and humble surroundings and listening intently to the young Dene gathered there.”

For Puxley, that was the “start of an important and fruitful collaboration.” Mel had a faculty position at University of Toronto at the time, but decided to take a leave of absence and, with Kelly, move their young and growing family to the N.W.T. capital, Yellowknife.

Puxley explains the historic context. 

In 1974, Justice Thomas Berger — appointed by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau — led an inquiry on the terms that should govern construction of the proposed pipeline, which says Puxley, “was so successful it has never been repeated.” Most important for the Indigenous Peoples of the North, Berger “provided the stage on which to demonstrate the justice of a negotiated settlement recognizing the Dene right to self-determination.” 

Watkins played a crucial role in building the Indigenous organizations’ capacity at this crucial juncture. 

“In addition to travelling widely throughout the MacKenzie River Valley,” Puxley says, “Mel worked tirelessly to raise awareness in southern Canada. Both the Berger Report and a book of essays, Dene Nation: The Colony Within, edited by Mel, bear the imprint of his influence.” 

“In the history of the fight to re-establish Indigenous rights in Canada, they stand as landmarks whose impact is still felt today in that unfinished business.”

A charming and amiable person

Over the past decade or so Mel wrote frequently for His prose was like his personality: quirky, ironic, bemused and compassionate all at once. 

He wrote often about economics and world affairs. In recent years he had some fairly pithy observations on the puzzling, disturbing and disquieting choices our neighbours to the south too often take — most notably in the election of 2016.

Not too long ago, Mel had taken to Facebook to post some stories about his own upbringing and life growing up in McKellar, Ontario. Here is some of what he had to say about his father, Wilmot Watkins. 

It has been said of me by my friend Marjorie Cohen that I am “funny — unusual for an economist, even rarer for a radical intellectual.” 

My father, a school dropout, was neither radical nor an intellectual. He was a man of the land with an earthy touch; and quick on the draw.

I have a vivid memory of him, plowing a field next to the road on our farm in McKellar, north of Parry Sound. A friend of his, also a farmer, from further north in Dunchurch, was driving by. He stopped to chat. For whatever reason he said that, “McKellar was the asshole of Canada.” My father’s instant retort: “that puts Dunchurch twelve miles up the arse gut.” 

My wit is my father’s gift to me. Clearly genetic. In my turn, I have six grandchildren to continue the tradition. 

There was the occasion one summer on the farm when my mother proposed that we have a picnic lunch on the house’s surrounding grass. My father’s response: “If God had intended us to eat outside, he would not have let us build houses.” A retort especially clever and much enjoyed which we children much enjoyed, since my mother believed in God and made all her children attend Sunday school while my father never went to church.

On another occasion my mother was preaching the need to eat more food with iron. To which my father said he would take a chaw off the stove. 

When he died, at the funeral service in the church, the minister said, “I never met Wilmot, but I heard well of him.” I heard my father’s chuckle.

Reading those words, I can hear Mel’s gentle voice and distinct Georgian Bay accent, and I can see the twinkle he never lost in his eyes. Although our lives intersected in the North — my wife and I lived in the N.W.T. during the time Mel and Kelly were in Yellowknife — we did not meet then. 

I first met him, although only briefly, when he was a guest on the now-defunct CBC Morningside show, in 1977 or 1978, where I worked at the time. It was only in much more recent times that I got to know Mel better, at book launches, such as for Judy Rebick’s and Libby Davies’ memoirs, and other public events, usually political. 

Kelly and Mel even came out for a fundraiser for CELADA, last year, at Jambo restaurant in Ottawa’s west end, where I and a few musical co-conspirators played some jazz. (I am still sorry it took so long for them to get the meal they ordered; in defence of the restaurant, they had a full house that evening.) 

Mel always encouraged me in my current work for rabble. Once he even wrote to thank me “for my service.” 

Many today would like to thank Mel for his.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Mel Watkins


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...