11 April 2013


On April 9th I attended the wonderful conference hosted by the newly renamed Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History entitled, "The Pearson Government: 50 Years On." This was probably the finest conference I have attended, because of the depth and breadth of insight offered by speakers, commentators, and audience. It was a rare and splendid opportunity, and I'm glad I was able to reschedule my other meetings to attend.

Why was it the finest conference? It certainly wasn't their scheduling or advertising. We're in the midst of the end of classes / start of exams, which is a less than ideal time for a conference, even if it was scheduled to coincide precisely with the 50th anniversary of the start of Pearson's time as Prime Minister. I only heard about the conference in the past couple of weeks, and it was clear that I wasn't the only one.

So why was it so great if it wasn't the timing and advertising? The mixture of attendees and the fact that attendance was limited enough for the setting to be intimate (partly thanks to the poor advertising). The audience was the perfect combination of students, scholars, and intrigued people from all walks of life. My conversations during the breaks and lunch were as great as the formal events (I can only imagine how lovely the dinner was). The speakers and commentators included distinguished academics like Lorna Marsden, David Naylor, and Robert Bothwell, and successful politicians and civil servants like Jean Chrétien, John Turner (no relation, aside from comical confusions), and Blair Seaborn. I have never attended a conference that included academics and their subjects of study in such a critically productive way.

The conference was also a delicate reminder of the realities of studying recent history that I have written about previously. Age has been far kinder to some than others; seeing the historical actors in person, 40 to 50 years after the events under scrutiny is an important reminder that these are real people, and that they lived a life both on and off the historical stage. It's also a very real reminder that the past shapes and informs the present, not least because the people who defined the directions we would take as a country in the past continued to do so for years or, in the case of Chrétien, decades.

The commentators also reaffirmed the reality that the spheres of influence in Canada are limited and exclusive. John Turner knew the Pearsons before Turner entered politics, and Turner's mother worked with Pearson in the civil service. Bob Rae has known John Turner for decades, Bob Rae's father worked with Pearson and Seaborn in External Affairs. Walter McLean, the Token Tory, and his father both knew Pearson through the University of Toronto. The lessons were as clear at this conference as they were in my study of the Defence Research Board - if you want to be successful in Canadian politics, civil service, or academics, your best bet is to study at the University of Toronto, and join or be friendly with the Liberal Party. The alternative - be Jean Chrétien. This advice may have passed it's best before date, but for much of the past 125 years, this has been the path to success for so many.

The unfortunate part of the success of this conference is that it is hard, if not impossible, to recreate in other disciplines. The Canadian Science Policy Conference attempts to replicate this mixture of attendees, but never obtains the level of intimacy, critical dialogue, and most frustratingly is determined to re-invent the wheel rather than recognizing what historians can bring to the discussion. But even other branches of history would have a hard time imitating the reasons for the success of #Pearson50. Politicians are acutely aware of the importance of creating and shaping history, and therefore willing to participate in this kind of event - the sometimes sincere altruism of politicians is what makes studying them both challenging and rewarding.

If you missed the event, I storify-ed the Tweets from the relevant 48 hours.
See also Steve Paikin's excellent summary of the Graham-Chrétien question period.

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