George Grant’s Lament for a Nation

Grant wrote his book so that “posterity may know that we have not loosely through silence permitted [our independence] to pass away as in a dream.”

is essential reading for any Canadian interested in the question that he posed in his introduction to the Carleton Library edition in 1970: “in what ways and for what reasons do we have the power and desire to maintain some independence of the American empire?” As a matter of record, I was the editor of that edition—the first book that I edited for McClelland and Stewart. Reading it changed my ideas and my life. I had to track down Mr Grant for delivery of that introduction and he was very crabby with me, for good reason I found out, as he had just endured a very serious automobile accident.

William Christian has called the book a “masterpiece.” It is not that, I don’t think, for its many weaknesses. Yet it stirred discussion of Canadian nationalism and its central concern is just as relevant today as it was then.

The book was written out of particular events, namely the election of 1963, in which Grant argued the Liberal Party under Lester Pearson, and the NDP under Tommy Douglas joined ranks to defeat the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker. Grant believed that if Pearson was successful it would open Canada to John F. Kennedy’s American imperialism and spell the end of Canadian nationalism (Kennedy hated Diefenbaker). Though not uncritical of Diefenbaker, Grant contrasted his brand of indigenous nationalism to “American liberalism” (an odd phrase today). In the end most Canadians preferred Kennedy, and his guise of “Camelot,” to Diefenbaker’s “True North.” Grant wrote his book so that “posterity may know that we have not loosely through silence permitted [our independence] to pass away as in a dream.”

The continentalist vision brokered by the Liberal Party establishment prevailed. “Canadian nationalism! How old fashion can you get” declared billionaire E.P. Taylor. Or, as Liberal Cabinet minister Mitchell Sharpe said to me in a seminar, “I look up at skyscrapers on Bay Street and on Wall street and see no difference.”

Problematic in the book of course is Grant’s declaration that it is the values of liberalism that erode any chance of Canadian nationalism (individuality, capitalism, the pursuit of personal self-assertion), and that only a faith-based conservatism could preserve it. Yet his argument seems even more relevant now as globalization and American style consumerism and popular culture destroy traditional values, a sense of local community, languages and culture.

It was this strain of an independent destiny that so affected me in wondering about the preservation of a distinct society on the northern half of the continent—or at least the possibility of developing one. In Grant’s mind it would be impossible when technology, consumption and individual liberty are the virtues we value the most. After all, Canada was put together, Grant noted, by two peoples “who did not want to be Americans.” (My italics.) Grant denied that he was a pessimist. I am.

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