Some old men do not forget, and the memoirs of at least three great Canadians decorate the current publishing lists.
The most interesting personality among them is businessman-jurist J.V. Clyne, whose Jack of All Trades (McClelland and Stewart) beautifully captures his life as a cowboy, deckhand, mounted policeman (during the 1926 London labor troubles), expert on the laws of the sea, chairman of the Canadian Maritime Commission, justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court and chairman of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., the huge West Coast lumber company that became a profitable multinational under his direction.
Now 83, Clyne is still thundering against Pierre Trudeau’s Constitution Act of 1982, claiming it is far too loosely worded and “puts judges in the position of making political decisions that should be made by legislators.” Clyne has led a charmed life, getting to know everybody who mattered, easily switching from the private to the public sector and back again, believing in a loosely defined set of structures that allowed him to get things done without hurting too many people in the process. Unlike most corporate chairmen, he was always intrigued by testing new techniques and trends to see what might happen—and he was never out of touch with the subterranean pressures that reshape the nation’s power structure.
My favorite anecdote in the book concerns an obscure point of federal shipping policy. Clyne was then chairman of the Canadian Maritime Commission and, as such, a member of the External Trade Policy Committee, a body of senior civil servants charged with advising cabinet ministers on how to improve Canada’s trade situation. When Clyne pointed out that one of the options being discussed by the bureaucrats was contrary to current government policy, Clifford Clark, then deputy minister of finance, leaned across the table to ask, “Jack, are you absolutely sure you are right?” “Absolutely.”
Clark, who was probably the most powerful civil servant ever spawned by Ottawa, smiled beatifically at his colleagues and delivered his verdict: “In that case, gentlemen, we must change government policy.”
Another, far less interesting, but
useful memoir is The Entrepreneurs (McClelland and Stewart), in which Albert Cohen reminisces about the founding and flowering of Gendis Inc., his family holding company. A high school dropout, Cohen, with his five brothers, turned a tiny Winnipegbased importing distributor into a major corporation with 1985 sales of $525 million. “I never had a youth,” Cohen complains, “I went straight from childhood into business, and I missed
that part of my life.” What pushed the Cohen empire into 40 years of uninterrupted forced-growth was Albert’s amazing inability to recognize impossible challenges, so that no matter how tough a business problem seemed to be, he bulled his way through it.
The Cohen family was the first to import Paper-Mate pens (“Brings you eight miles of permanent writing”) and Sony electronic products. The greatest value of the Cohen book is a meticulously documented description
of how he has dealt with Japanese businessmen over the past three decades. (Sony, incidentally, got its name from the Latin word sonus, adapted to the company symbol at the time, a doll called “Sonny Boy”.)
In The Unfinished Country (Douglas & McIntyre), Bruce Hutchison, the West Coast sage who has spent a lifetime ruminating about what makes this country unique, has what he says is his last word. It is an essential chronicle of a long and productive marinating. Despite his 84 years, Hutchison is still slightly ahead of his time. “Canada’s last election in 1984,” he notes, “was a frightening exhibit of reality evaded, the hard unpopular decisions postponed though not for long.”
A confidant of half a dozen Prime Ministers and still plugged into the U.S. political power structure at its highest levels, Hutchison calls the Princeton house of longtime presidential adviser Bill Bundy his “second home,” and details how he revised the writings of Dean Acheson, secretary of state under Harry Truman.
In a spirited chapter on the prospects of free trade, Hutchison explains how the quest for an increased sense of sovereignty, not economic gain, has always decided the issue. “The nation is more than an economy,” he contends. “It was born and lives on factors intangible, instinctive, inexpressible. Those mindways and clustered memories are well understood, or felt, and shared by most Canadians whatever their political views may be. If that spirit is lacking, if the original idea of Canada is dead, the nation will die also, whatever economic policies are enforced to save its life.”
The Unfinished Country is a haunting book because it revives many ghosts of Canadian history—the conscription crisis of 1917, the notorious Annexation Manifesto of 1849 and Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy of protection among them—and applies their lessons to current events. Bruce Hutchison’s final judgment is tough and realistic. “There is no guarantee,” he writes, “that real free trade would make Canadians richer. The effect could be the opposite if existing, American-owned industries in Canada, now dependent on the protective system, moved home to the United States.... The lure of full continental economic union has always been rejected in the past and is likely to be rejected again if the chance is offered.”
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