He was Canada’s ultimate political gadfly, with a pen often dipped in acid and a history of shifting allegiances that at various times endorsed Canada’s three major parties. Despite that, during a career that spanned more than 60 years and included at least a nodding acquaintance with 11 prime ministers, no one ever described Eugene Forsey as an opportunist. And few, when faced with his twinkling eyes and sharp wit, held a
grudge. Forsey, who died last week at 86, was remembered by friends as a leading constitutional expert and one of the country’s most trenchant commentators. Said Conservative Senator Arthur Tremblay, a friend for almost 40 years: “He educated with humor but was pugnacious in his fight for what he believed was right.”
The strength of Forsey’s convictions—that Canada should remain united, with a strong central government—was enhanced by wideranging experiences. Bom in Grand Bank, Nfld., in 1904 and raised in a bilingual home in Ottawa, he embraced Conservatism while studying economics at Montreal’s McGill Uni-
versity. Then, he went on to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and became a socialist. In the 1930s, he helped draft the Regina Manifesto, the founding charter of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which in October, 1961, became the New Democratic Party.
But Forsey angrily left the NDP over its support for the concept of special status for Quebec. In 1968, he supported Pierre Trudeau in his successful campaign for the Liberal leadership and wrote the text for Trudeau’s original campaign leaflet. In 1970, Trudeau named him to the Senate, from which he retired in 1979. He also wrote nine books, mostly on the parliamentary and constitutional process. His last book, the autobiography A Life on the Fringe, is on Maclean ’s bestseller list.
In spite of that self-deprecating title, Forsey was often in the thick of the nation’s constitutional battles because of his expertise. Using two index fingers to tap at an aged, battleship-grey typewriter in his Ottawa office, he was a prolific writer of letters to the editor—a forum that he used with often biting humor. In 1978, attacking proposals for radically decentralizing Canada, Forsey wrote that the measures would reiz suit in changing the national a anthem’s lyrics to “O Canals da, beloved referee, of cus| toms dues, and fiscal policy.” 5 But despite his strong opposition to the failed Meech Lake constitutional accord and special status for Quebec, Forsey always argued eloquently on behalf of the concerns of francophones.
In private, Forsey was a lifelong teetotaller, a devoted husband and a gifted mimic renowned for his imitations of John Diefenbaker. After the death of his wife, Harriet, in 1988 following a long illness, friends say that he was devastated and lost much of his vigor. When he left the Senate, he declared that he was glad to retire “while the signs that I am going downhill are not as visible to other people as they are to me.” In his lifelong pursuit of excellence, Forsey judged no one more strictly than himself.
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