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Renfrew Nipissing Pembroke NDP

Mel Watkins – a Backgrounder

Joanna Szymanski

Mel WatkinsMel Watkins is many things to many different people. Notwithstanding that he is a very private man, he has a long history of acting on the left of, and keeping a critical eye on the developing political scene in Canada.

Those of us who remember him from over thirty years ago remember the huge impact he made in 1968 with his Watkins Report. In the face of an overwhelming fatalistic attitude in official circles about the inevitability of American control of our Canadian economy, he measured foreign (especially U.S.) takeovers and control, and described the huge costs to Canada and Canadians. The economic costs and distortions introduced to suit U.S. priorities were and are large and real. In addition, the social, moral, cultural and philosophical costs were and are immeasurable. No political economist since has attempted to discuss all the implications because they are so numerous. Watkin’s political and economic suggestions and solutions were daring. They and their obstruction by the powers-that-be have defined Canada’s political history ever since.

Two more reports commissioned by the Liberal government followed because of the public hue and cry raised by the Watkins Report. And yet very few of these reports’ recommendations for nationalization of key industries, socialization, and stricter laws to prevent foreign takeovers were acted upon. Trudeau admitted that to do so would “upset the stockmarkets.” Only two significant changes were made: the Foreign Investment Review Agency (which turned out to be toothless tiger), and Petro-Canada were created. The latter inserted a much-needed Canadian presence into the almost wholly foreign-owned “Canadian” oil and gas sector. The U.S. heavily pressured and threatened the government to cease acting to make Canada more economically independent, and succeeded. The fact was that the U.S. government and alarmed U. S. corporations believed the independence policies of Canada would be effective in limiting their opportunities to exploit Canada, and so they brought out the heavy artillery to end these “unfriendly” policies.

It was in this era of national concern and reappraisal (and the national fervor engendered by Expo 67) that the Waffle Movement led by Jim Laxer, Mel Watkins and a few others within the NDP, was formed in 1969. Against the widespread public determination to achieve independence on various fronts—cultural (e.g. Writers’ Union of Canada), educational (Canadianization of texts and source materials), and social (National Action Committee of the Status of Women)—political change was also sought. Even the Liberals were arguing for greater government intervention in the economy and culture, while Tories produced the Red Tory (socially progressive) approach and were active in the Committee for an Independent Canada.

A reprise of the main points of the Waffle Manifesto make it clear that much of it continues to be relevant today!

Today, change some of the terminology and, plus ça change plus c’est le même chose.

So what happened to the Waffle movement—it was turfed out by the party under pressure from conservative labour leaders from the American international trade unions. (Not only governments were vulnerable to American manipulation.) A consequence of this was the creation of Canadian unions such as the CAW, with Canadian sensibilities. But what a costly loss to the party of its young and intellectual leftist activists of the day.

However, Mel Watkins has returned to the NDP, claiming to be “suitably subdued.” He continues to lend his voice to similar issues—the fights that continue to be fought—to this very day.

Whether it be standing against MAI or nuclear proliferation, or militarism, demonstrating against the corporatist policies of the WTO or rampant globalization, or protesting Canada’s role in the American missile defence plan, Mel can be heard. O Echoes of the Watkins report and the Waffle ideology.

In conferences and debates on globalization and foreign policy, Watkins speaks on the side of those who do not see that globalization is the sole world view open for consideration. Watkins says that globalization is a poor starting point for framing social questions properly. It is a bloodless economic concept that requires too much unjustified faith in the untrammeled rights of corporations and markets. They have caused the dilapidation or dismantling of the very structures and services that contribute to the high quality of life in a country like Canada.

Watkins has spoken in his political science classes about the role of a national government, beyond the obvious maintenance of economic independence, in the face of trans-nationals. Governments are required to act positively and decisively because they now have even heavier responsibilities to provide to their own people and land social justice, protection of the environment, sound economic policies so that confidence in their currency is maintained, and to seek international cooperation so that new economic players like China act within the constraints of a rules-based system while holding others like the United States to obligations and agreements already made and accepted (dealing with U.S. continual violation of the Free Trade Agreement; rectifying the flaws in the agreement itself).

And finally, Watkins is addressing today’s popular disaffection, the current perceptible move to the left of Canadians and of the party, to encourage the party to seize this momentum. Roy Romanow, like Watkins, quotes Tommy Douglas to the world at large, not just to the party faithful:

“Government is simply the community writ large; it is the instrument by which we do for ourselves co-operatively what we cannot do alone.”

Watkins sees that the NDP must strengthen its commitment to community, social change and social action. It must use its accumulated political wisdom to reclaim the left and social democracy. It must look to, celebrate and emulate our statesmen, great Canadians all.

Roy Romanow could have been paraphrasing Watkins when he said in 1995 in Washington:

“I believe we must fashion responses to today’s pressures which preserve our core Canadian values. These are: a commitment to community, caring and compassion, tolerance, sharing and co-operation, and opportunity. It is these values that are at stake if we lose our confidence in government and it is these values that will guide us through the challenge of debt and unity that we are now facing.”

Do we have an answer for Mel: Are we in today’s NDP up to today’s challenges?

Mel Watkins was guest speaker at our AGM in Pembroke on May 14, 2005. Insightful and humourous, he was well-received, and his words excited further dialogue both in the following Q&A and afterward, among members. It is hoped that the above essay, while not a complete biography of the man or full analysis of his invaluable contributions to civil discourse for over thirty years, will stimulate further thought and debate.