Eugene Forsey reflects on a life of public service
E. KAYE FULTONNovember51990
The sage of the Hill
Eugene Forsey reflects on a life of public service
A LIFE ON THE FRINGE: THE MEMOIRS OF EUGENE FORSEY By Eugene Forsey (Oxford, 241 pages, $24.95)
He is a familiar figure in the nation’s capital—crossing Wellington Street at O’Connor daily in a slow and measured pilgrimage to his special office on Parliament Hill. In his new book of memoirs, Eugene Forsey recalls running across that Ottawa street as a child to meet his grandfather, William Cochrane Bowles, a senior clerk who worked in one of the few offices in the old Centre Block that was not reduced to rubble and ashes in the great fire of 1916. To his dismay, Forsey missed that spectacular event—he was having his appendix removed —but for years he kept a fist-sized piece of melted window glass and wire as a souvenir. Few events connected to Parliament or its procedures have escaped him since. At 86, Forsey has long been heralded as the dean of Canadian constitutional and parliamentary affairs. But he is also a storyteller with a vivid memory, as he makes abundantly clear in A Life on the Fringe: The Memoirs of Eugene Forsey, a warm and witty account of how a curious child evolved into an incisive scholar of the state of a nation and the rules that bind it.
Forsey has written eight earlier books, including How Canadians Govern Themselves, all crammed with constitutional or parliamentary arcana. His highly entertaining new one, however, is filled with the memories of a man who claims to keep no diary yet inexplicably can remember the serial number of a bicycle given to him when he was 8. Forsey’s autobiography spans more than three generations. It includes personal glimpses of 13 of the 14 prime ministers since 1894, and chronicles a near-century of Canadian political and social development. Beginning with family history in the outports of Newfoundland, where the author was born, Forsey shifts to the McGill University classrooms where he studied political science—and where humorist Stephen Leacock taught in tattered gowns—to the birth of the trade union movement and of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and finally to the country’s constitutional crises. They are not the recollections of a man who has lived life lightly. “I have been around a long time,” writes Forsey, adding with under-
statement: “I have known a great deal of very interesting people.”
Forsey has managed to maintain his fierce independence while cultivating all of those friendships—and while juggling as many as three political allegiances at different stages of a full and varied life. He was an early member of the CCF, and helped draft its manifesto. Yet, 25 years later, he accepted an appointment to the Board of Broadcast Governors from John Diefenbaker’s Tory government. And then, in 1970, he was given a Liberal Senate post by Pierre Trudeau, whom he once promised to support “by any means in my power, even to the point of total silence.” The Ottawa Establishment has tolerated Forsey’s partisan shifts—even Diefenbaker, known to carry grudges, forgave him. As for his own position in the ranks of opinion leaders, Forsey writes modestly: “I have often said that Canada is a paradise for humbugs. If you have enough nerve, gall, rind, crust, you can palm yourself off on most of the population as a reincarnation of Socrates, Caruso, or Pope Innocent III.”
Forsey has long been renowned for his flair for words and penchant for hyperbole, not only through his books but through the tart, twoparagraph letters-to-the-editor—one terse paragraph for the error; a second for the correction—that he has been writing for the past five decades. Forsey reveals in his memoirs that he learned such crispness while his grandfather and his mother taught him the basics of cabinet government when he was a boy. “They must have been superb simplifiers, for I have never had to unlearn anything they told me,” he writes.
As for his skill in spinning a colorful tale, Forsey credits his Newfoundland kin, many of whom are the subject of his yams. He begins the book with a story about how his lineage was almost prematurely snipped. According to lore, a Forsey ancestor, bom on the passage from England to Halifax in 1747 and considered too weak to survive, was about to be tossed overboard in a box packed with oakum. The boy’s mother stopped the seamen with a cry, thick with a Devonshire accent: “ ’E’s not deed yit!” Writes Forsey with flourish: “They unpacked him and he lived for 100 years and five months .. . and begat 10 children.”
Not all of Forsey’s recollections are as frothy. Unfettered by the limits of academic study, he relishes the opportunity to once again attack the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which he insists would have “disemboweled and castrated” the country. He bites at those who “bark and snap” at the Senate, where he served until 1979. Throughout, however, he maintains the mood of a person who, near the end of life, remembers the good, not the bad.
There are those who will agree with Forsey when he says that much of A Life on the Fringe will be dismissed as frivolous. Few, however, will begrudge the gentle memories of an author who—unlike too many of those who sit at the centre of power—knows the value of courtliness and the endurance of integrity.
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.