BOOKS

Conscience of a nation

THE POLITICS OF THE IMAGINATION: A LIFE OF F. R. SCOTT By Sandra Djwa

John Bemrose February 29 1988
BOOKS

Conscience of a nation

THE POLITICS OF THE IMAGINATION: A LIFE OF F. R. SCOTT By Sandra Djwa

John Bemrose February 29 1988

Conscience of a nation

BOOKS

THE POLITICS OF THE IMAGINATION: A LIFE OF F. R. SCOTT By Sandra Djwa

(McClelland & Stewart,

528 pages, $39.95)

F.R. Scott was never famous in the way of hockey stars or prime ministers. Yet the tall, beakishly handsome Montreal lawyer and poet was easily one of the half-dozen out standing Canadians of the century. As a constitutional expert, defender of mi nority rights and teacher of politicians,

he had a profound influence on the political life of the country. But he was equally at home with the intuitive insights of poetry, and he played a major part in bringing Canadian verse into the 20th century. This very versatility makes Scott—who died three years ago at the age of 85—a difficult subject for a biographer. But fortunately his story has found a chronicler with the intelligence and breadth of interest to match it in Vancouver English professor Sandra Djwa. Deeply appreciative yet balanced, her book The Politics of the Imagination should help to establish Scott’s reputation with the wider public it deserves.

As Djwa shows, Scott’s lifelong, almost chivalrous dedication to the public weal was first engrained by his father, Canon Frederick George Scott, one of Quebec’s outstanding Anglican prelates. Canon Scott’s constant emphasis on the tradition of Christian service to mankind eventually led the

younger Scott—much to his conservative father’s disapproval—to espouse the idealistic socialism of J. S. Woodsworth, founder of the Canadian Commonwealth Federation. Scott’s anger at what he perceived to be the greed and intransigence of the ruling classes spilled over into his poetry—including his famous satirical lines decrying Prime Minister Mackenzie King. “He blunted us,” Scott wrote. “We had no shape/Because he never took sides.” But it was as a law professor at McGill University that Scott’s influence touched the centres of power. He

was the revered mentor of many prominent politicians, particularly Pierre Trudeau. In 1956 the two men set out together on a reflective voyage down the Mackenzie River—the future prime minister testing his ideas against the knowledge of the older man. Trudeau later said, “Frank taught me everything I know.” It was an exaggeration, but Djwa says that Trudeau’s idea of a charter of rights entrenched in a repatriated constitution came from Scott.

Scott paid tribute to Trudeau in a memorable poem describing how on the Mackenzie trip Trudeau waded into fierce rapids—“A man testing his strength/Against the strength of his country.” By contrast, Scott added his strength to his country’s strength. As The Politics of the Imagination makes clear, Canadians are in his debt because of it.

JOHN BEMROSE