Burly, bearded George Grant was a brooding presence on the landscape of Canadian thought. The retired Dalhousie University philosopher— who died of cancer last week in Halifax at 69—was a devoted traditionalist in a world that more commonly exalts the values of progress and rapid change. In books such as
Lament for a Nation (1965) and Technology and Empire (1969), he decried the modem tendency to abandon tradition and what to him were the absolute truths of religion. Deeply pessimistic, Grant viewed contemporary society as a kind of hell where the human spirit was being crushed by the effects of technology. He was also an ardent nation-
alist—one of the first to warn that a branchplant economy would lead to Canada’s absorption by the United States. Directing his arguments less to specialists than to concerned citizens, Grant had a knack for catching the social anxieties of his times. The critic George Woodcock, noting a preacherly strain in Grant’s books, once called them “sermons for believers and unbelievers alike.”
Grant came by his role as public sage honestly: his grandfather, a noted Presbyterian minister, was a principal of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.; his father was a scholar and the much-respected headmaster of Toronto’s renowned Upper Canada College. Bom in 1918 in Toronto, Grant was a superior student who in the mid-1940s won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Afterward, he taught philosophy at Dalhousie until, in 1960, he accepted a post at the recently
opened York University in Toronto.
There, Grant weathered a crisis that typified his passionate dedication to his beliefs. Rather than use a textbook with which he radically disagreed, Grant left York. It seemed a brave thing to do, especially under the circumstances: he was the sole supporter of his wife, Sheila, and their six children. But a year later, he became chairman of the religion department at Hamilton’s McMaster University and he stayed there until his return to Dalhousie in 1980.
One of Grant’s most popular and influential books was Lament for a Nation, written in response to the Canadian government’s 1963 decision to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. To Grant, the act pointed to a fatal erosion of Canada’s sovereignty. He claimed that the governing elite—the Liberal party and the Central Canadian business establishment—were determined to achieve
economic integration with the United States. “The society produced by such policies may reap enormous benefits,” he wrote, “but it will cease to be a nation.”
Although temperamentally an old-style Tory with a deep allegiance to Canadian institutions, Grant was a supporter of the New Democratic Party in its formative years. Then, as the NDP grew away from its evangelical roots, Grant gravitated to the Conservatives. But when they seemed as determined as the Liberals had once been to forge close ties with the United States, Grant became deeply disaffected with mainstream politics. Toward the end of his life, he devoted his public energies to the anti-abortion movement: the bumper of his car was plastered with stickers proclaiming the rights of the unborn.
A popular teacher and colleague, Grant had a rich, sonorous voice and a magnetic
personality. His friend J. Patrick Atherton, a classics professor at Dalhousie, recalled that a conversation with Grant was “never a peaceful occasion.” Said Atherton: “He loved argument and had a great capacity for surprising you. He also had a great gusto for life—and particularly the life of the mind.” Two of Grant’s greatest passions were the music of Mozart and the philosophy of Plato. He claimed that without Plato, he could never have understood Christianity. An Anglican, Grant took tremendous solace from his unwavering faith and, just before he died, told a friend, “My children are grown up, I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities in life, and death holds no terrors for me.” Yet for the nation about which George Grant wrote so well and cared so much, his death can only be lamented.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.