Friday, March 26, 2010

George Grant's "Lament for a Nation: the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism" - Review by Ron Dart

"Lament for a Nation should be respected as a masterpiece of political meditation."
Peter Emberley 

"Masterpiece is not a word to use lightly, but Lament for a Nation merits it."
William Christian
It is forty years this year (1965-2005) since George Grant’s Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism took wings and left the press. It is most appropriate, therefore, to reflect on this timely text and meditate on its perennial relevance for Canadian thought and political life.
There is no doubt that Lament for a Nation is a compact and succinct masterpiece. It says much in a few pages. It is very much a tract for the times. Alex Colville, the well known Canadian painter, called Lament for a Nation, a political novel. When this missive was published, the arguments in it awoke and stirred many in the New Left and Counter Culture in Canada to fight for what Grant seemed to think was passing away. Lament for a Nation has appealed to many audiences for many different reasons, but the truths in it are as relevant today in an age of globalization and an 9-11 imperial world as they were in 1965.
What, then, are the ideas and arguments in Lament for a Nation, and what can they still speak and say to us?

The 1963 Federal election in Canada set the stage for Lament for a Nation.Tommy Douglas (NDP) joined ranks with Lester Pearson (Liberals) to defeat John Diefenbaker (Progressive Conservatives). Grant had pleaded with Douglas not to side with Pearson. President Kennedy had backed Pearson, and Grant knew that if Douglas tipped his cap to Pearson, this signaled a green light to Kennedy’s brand of American imperialism and the defeat of Canadian nationalism. Kennedy despised Diefenbaker, and although Grant was no uncritical fan of Diefenbaker, he did stand by his nationalism against American imperialism.
Chapter I of Lament for a Nation is a rapid overview of the liberal pack of wolves (academics, journalists, politicians, business leaders) who turned on Diefenbaker. The opening lines begin like this: “Never has such a torrent of abuse been poured on any Canadian figure as that during the years from 1960 to 1965. Never have the wealthy and the clever been so united as they were in their joint attack on Mr. John Diefenbaker”. The turn from Diefenbaker to Pearson-Kennedy was a turn from a unique and indigenous Canadian nationalist way to the American liberal and imperial way. Grant laments this choice by Canadians. He laments this fact as a parent would the death of a child that was most loved Life will go on, of course, but something is lost in the passing of what was loved and cared for, something that offered life and hope. Diefenbaker offered such a nationalist hope, but Canadians would have none of it. Most preferred Kennedy’s Camelot to the True North. A vision was being lost, also, and Chapter I ends with the opening lines of Hooker’s (16th century Anglican theologian) Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: “Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream”. There is more to Grant’s lament than merely the passing away of Canadian nationalism, but in the early chapters of Lament for a Nation this is the main motif. Grant did not want things to pass away as in a dream.
Chapter II takes Diefenbaker to task. Grant was no uncritical fan of Diefenbaker, and in Chapter II of Lament for a Nation he clearly and succinctly summarizes many and most of Diefenbaker’s foibles and failings, and they were many. Grant does point out, though, Diefenbaker had inherited a Canada from William Lyon Mckenzie King-C.D. Howe and Louis St. Laurent that had become a colony and branch plant of the USA. Diefenbaker had to do battle both with those in the Progressive Conservative party that longed for integration with the USA and with the Liberal party. In short, he had a rather significant battle to fight on a variety of fronts. “How did Diefenbaker conceive Canada?
Why did the men who run the country come to dislike and then fear his conception? The answers demonstrate much about Canada and its collapse”. It is these sorts of questions and answers to them that Grant probes. Chapter II makes it clear that the questions raised about the fate and future of Canada are complex, and Diefenbaker, in an imperfect way attempted to answer such questions in a nationalist way that challenged Kennedy, the USA and the Canadian colonialism of Pearson and Douglas.
If Chapter II in Lament for a Nation highlights the fumbling, errors and blunders of Diefenbaker, then Chapter III clearly articulates that Diefenbaker was a man of principle, and he was toppled for such nationalist principles. The 1963 election was fought on the issue of whether Canada would take warheads for Bomarc missiles. Pearson, following Kennedy, said we should and would. Diefenbaker, much to the anger and chagrin of many in his party, said a defiant and firm No to Kennedy’s orders. This was just the tip of the iceberg, though. Diebenbaker had, again and again, opposed and thwarted Kennedy’s plans for Canada. Diefenbaker had questioned the way Kennedy had handled the Cuban missile crises, he had initiated trade ties with Cuba and China when Kennedy had put a trade embargo on them, and he refused to join the Organization of American States (a front for American interests in Latin America). In short, Diefenbaker, as a conservative, locked horns with Kennedy’s liberalism each step of the way. Grant makes all this quite clear. If Diefenbaker had merely wanted power, he would, like Pearson, have dutifully genuflected to Kennedy. He didn’t, and he paid the price for doing so. “The defence crises of 1962 and 1963 revealed the depth of Diefenbaker’s nationalism”. It was in these years that Canadian nationalism was tested and found wanting. Canadians turned to the USA as their great good place, and Diefenbaker did his best to warn Canadians that such a Trojan horse could and would overwhelm the Canadian way. Chapter III is a spirited and animated defence of Howard Green (who Grant has much affinity with) and Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker was a tragic hero, but he was a hero nonetheless. Grant walks the extra mile to make this quite clear for those who only can see Diefenbaker in a negative way.
Chapter IV opens with these words: “in the light of Diefenbaker, I would like to turn to the Canadian establishment and its political instrument, the Liberal party”. The rest of the chapter tells the tale of how the liberal vision of Canada, at essence and at core, is one with the liberal vision of the USA. The Liberal party sees itself as the bearer of such a liberal and progressive vision, and most liberals see the future and fate of Canada as being one and the same (on most major issues) as the USA. Grant makes clear how this annexationist and continentalist vision has been brokered and furthered by the Liberal Party of Pearson-St. Laurent-King-Laurier and tribe. This, in short, is the Canadian establishment, and these are their aims and goals for Canada. A quote from E.P. Taylor sums things up quite nicely: “Canadian nationalism! How old-fashioned can you get?”
Grant points out that there were two ways of opposing the liberal integrationist vision with the USA: Castro and Cuba and De Gualle and France. Canada was not likely to follow Cuba, but the Gaullist tradition had some affinities with Sir J.A. Macdonald’s idea for the True North. But, since the capitalist class in Canada are more American than Canadian nationalist, the Gaullist tradition has as much chance of taking the lead in Canada as does Castro’s experiment in Cuba. It is the Liberal party that has assumed liberalism is the only political philosophy worth bending the knee to, and it is this creed and dogma that liberals see themselves as making sure all Canadians live by. Is there any option to liberalism and the sheer power of the Liberal party to make sure Canadians this is the fate they must accept? Are we indeed at the end of both history and ideology?
Chapter V moves the discussion from the many actors and actresses who play their roles on the stage of history to the ideas and ideologies that are the script and cue for such political thespians. Chapter V moves Lament for a Nation to a deeper, more demanding place. “The confused strivings of politicians, businessmen, and civil servants cannot alone account for Canada’s collapse. This stems from the very character of the modern era”. It is at this point that we can see that there is much more at work in Grant’s argument than merely a lament for Canadian nationalism. The lament goes much deeper.
Grant sees the modern era and ethos as dominated by liberalism. This liberal creed and dogma emerged in the Reformation (as Grant made clear in his earlier book, Philosophy and the Mass Age). The deeper lament is about the passing away of the tradition of the Ancients and the coming to be of the Moderns. Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Hooker, Swift and Coleridge had notions of the self and society, of human nature and the good life that stood in opposition to those like Locke and Hobbes, Paine and Jefferson. Grant makes plain the aim of this chapter: “I must turn away from Canadian history to the more important questions of political theory”. It is in this pivotal chapter that Grant makes clear why he sides with the Ancients rather than the Modern way, and why he sees the individualist and 1st generation liberalism of Locke, Hobbes, Hume and Smith and the social and 2nd generation liberalism of Rousseau, Kant and Hegel as kissing cousins. 1st and 2nd generation liberals do disagree about the role of the state in bringing about the good of the individual and society, but both agree that liberty, equality, choice, and freedom are the core of the liberal way. The debate between 1st and 2nd generation liberals is not so much about the principles and premises of liberalism but more about the accessibility and implementation of such principles for one and all. Grant makes it clear that such principles are problematic, and, if unquestioned, lead to serious problems. Grant, more than any other modern Canadian political philosopher, has dared to ask questions about the matrix of liberalism. Chapter V in Lament for a Nation is a sustained reflection on the inadequacy of liberal principles. If liberalism is flawed at the core and centre, what is the Tory alternate?
Chapter VI takes a long and hard look at the roots of Canadian conservatism. Grant makes it quite clear that the problem with a great deal of Canadian English speaking political thought is that it has been shaped by English liberalism. Canada was formed by many who came from England who had affinties with Locke and Smith, Hume and Hobbes. The older and more organic tradition of Hooker and Coleridge was waning at the time in England when Canada was being founded. This means Canada, like the USA, shares a certain liberal ethos. But, Canada, unlike the USA, still had a memory of an older, more ordered tradition with an abiding concern for the commonweal. It is this tension in the DNA and genetic code of English speaking Canada that makes Canada quite different from the liberty loving Yankees to the south. Canada, also, unlike the USA, walked the extra mile to preserve the French way of life. Many of the French who settled in Quebec (and elsewhere in Canada) had opposed the French Revolution of 1789. This meant that they, like the older English High Tories, shared a certain view of the good and just life. The English Tories and French Conservatives may have differed on some points, but both agreed that they did not want to be liberals or Americans. The conservative tradition in Canadian, therefore, brought together the French and English, to oppose American liberal ideals and American imperialism. Grant makes it clear in Chapter VI that the English in Canada, for the most part, have forgotten their older Tory ties. He does suggest, though, that the French are much closer to an older notion of conservatism. The roots of Canadian conservatism (English and French) are much older and go much deeper into the Classical Tradition of English liberalism (that finds its fullest expression and embodiment in the USA). Grant is ready to concede that there can be some protest to bourgeois liberalism, but even this can be co-opted by those in power. Grant had, in the 1960s, supported many in the New Left and Counter Culture. He stood by the side of the New Left and the Counter culture in their criticisms of the Canadian and American liberal bourgeois ethos. But, he had this to say as a form of warning: “The enormity of the break from the past will arouse in the dispossessed youth intense forms of beatness. But, after all, the United States supports a large Beat fringe. Joan Baez and Pete Seeger titillate the status quo rather than threaten it. Dissent is built into the fabric of the modern system. We bureaucratize it as much as anything else. Is there any reason to believe French Canada will be any different? A majority of the young is patterned for its place in the bureaucracies. Those who resist such shaping will retreat into a fringe world of pseudo-revolt”. The Beats, therefore, might seem to be questioning the status quo, but it is their anarchist fringe world and pseudo-revolt mentality (grounded and rooted in liberal notions of liberty and individualism) that makes them most American and easily co-opted. This is why Grant, at day’s end, speaks a firm and solid No to the USA in either its liberal bourgeois or Beat protest form: he saw them as different sides of the same liberal coin. At a fundamental level, therefore, Grant disagreed with the political philosophy of liberalism, and he thought the USA incarnated such a liberal tradition more than any other state in the world. In short, Grant recognized that there are those who think we have come to the end of history and ideology, but he still can envision another way.
Grant is only too well aware, though, that the forces and ideology of liberalism (as embodied in the USA and bowed before by Canadian colonials and compradors) seems to be the necessary fate we must all, whether we like it or not, live with. Is this, then, our fate? Are we doomed and fated to be liberals, and is history (in terms of ideological battles) over and done? How are we to live if liberalism is both our necessity and determined fate?
Chapter VII concludes this tract for the times. Chapters I-IV dealt with Canadian history, political actors and party politics. Chapters V-VI walked the reader into the area of political philosophy and theory. It is from the realm of theory that the script is given to the actors who merely read their parts in time. Grant questions, in these chapters, whether the script, itself, might have some problems. Could the lines of liberalism, the play and drama be written differently? Many don’t think so, and most oppose any fiddling or altering with the script and text of liberalism. Chapter VII has a more theological bent and orientation to it than the other chapters. Grant makes it clear in Chapter VII that Hegel and his notion of history is the crown jewel and centre piece of liberalism. Hegel had argued that liberalism fulfilled the deepest longing of the human intellectual and political journey. God and liberalism are ONE. Liberalism is, almost, in Hegel, divinely inspired and ordained. If this is the case, and liberalism is the creed of the day that cannot be questioned or doubted, then it is our fate that we must work within the matrix of the liberal framework. But, Grant asks, is fate and necessity the same as the GOOD? The Classical Tradition of the GOOD stands in a questioning and interrogating opposition to liberalism. Chapter VII ends with this question, therefore. “Liberalism was, in origin, criticism of the old established order. Today it is the voice of the establishment”. Grant set himself the task of questioning both liberal ideology and the establishment class that defined and defended it. This made him, in some ways, an uncomfortable prophet, and Lament for a Nation a tract with many a parallel to the Jewish prophet Jeremiah who wroteLamentations. Grant attempts to evoke notions of the GOOD, he points the way to such places and he wonders, while doing so, whether there will ever be a turn to such a way? If liberalism is our fate, then the GOOD might just be eclipsed.
Is Grant a cynic and skeptic, therefore? Does he see no possibility of opposing and resisting the Moloch, establishment and matrix of liberalism? Grant was asked in 1970 to write an Introduction to Lament for a Nation; he did so. It is in this Introduction that he attempted to state his case against apathy, cynicism, indifference and skepticism. It is interesting to note that in the Introduction he refers twice to the Moloch of the USA. This was a term that was used by Allen Ginsberg in his classic poem, Howl (1956). There are close connections between Ginsberg and Grant in what they are protesting against. Ginsberg’s Howl and Grant’s Lament do share some important affinities, and these do need to be explored. Lament for a Nation is, in many ways, the Canadian version of Howl.The fact that Grant uses the image and metaphor of Molech as a way of depicting the American empire in his Introduction to Lament for a Nationhighlighted his affinity with the New Left and the Counter Culture of the 1960s and the 1970s, but, as I noted above, Grant was somewhat wary of the fringe world and pseudo-revolt of the Counter Culture. Those like Ginsberg and clan used and furthered the very principles of liberalism in their legitimate criticisms of liberal bourgeois culture that the dominant classes in the USA sought to defend.
Grant was neither a cynic nor pessimist, though. He insisted and argued in his Introduction that action was better than apathy, and political paralysis is not the answer. Liberalism might dominate (in a variety of guises and appearances), but if history teaches nothing else it is that all ideologies have their day. When such a day will come is beyond the ken of most, but to sit down and fold the hands is not the answer. Grant ever pointed to the GOOD, and encouraged one and all to look where his finger was pointing. The language of optimism and pessimism must be set within a much larger and longer historic context. When this is done, and the end of the journey is seen, there is reason for hope and Grant was ever hopeful.
Sheila Grant (George Grant’s wife) was asked to write an Afterword to Lament for a Nation in 1997. She made it clear that if Lament for a Nation is ever going to be properly understood, a better reading and understanding of Chapter VII is much needed. Sheila further unpacked Grant’s discussion about necessity and the good, and argued that Grant was not a pessimist. He believed in acting even when the odds seemed overwhelming, and he lived from a source that went much deeper and was much older than liberalism. The final few paragraphs in Chapter VII highlight what this source was and why Grant turned to such a well to dip his bucket.
There is no doubt Lament for a Nation is a political masterpiece and a missive of prophetic vigour and depth. This tract for the times moves from the Federal election of 1963, to Canadian-American relations, to political philosophy, to theology and back, in the 1970 Introduction, to Canadian-American relations and the need for Canadians to be ever vigilant about American intentions and the colonial class in Canada that would make Americans of Canadians.
Lament for a Nation has many affinities with Ginsberg’s Howl, but even though Grant might lament and Ginsberg howl at the imperial nature of the USA and the liberal bourgeois ethos that underwrites such military industrial complex, Grant would see Ginsberg, the New Left, the Beats and the Counter Culture of the 1960s and 1970s as more subtle agents of the liberal ideology that he sought to question and interrogate. In fact, a close reading of life and writings of Allen Ginsberg and George Grant would highlight how and why the Canadian High Tory way shares some affinities with the Anarchist Left, , but, on substantive issues, they part company on both the issues of philosophic principles and political means. George Grant gives Canadians a uniquely Canadian way (both in a philosophical and political way) of opposing the varieties of liberalism that are smuggled into Canada, like a Trojan horse, by Americans. Beware, indeed, of Americans when they come bringing gifts of either the imperial, liberal bourgeois or protest type. To quote another Canadian, by way of conclusion, “even the dissidents speak as members of the empire”(John Newlove).
Ron S. Dart

Ron Dart is a professor in the Religious Studies and Political Science departments at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. He has authored numerous books and articles on Grant, including his latest text, George Grant: Spiders and Bees (Fresh Wind Press, 2008).


  1. I have read 'Lament for a Nation' again and again over the last 40 years. For any student interested in the theme of of EMPIRE the book is a 'must have'....and now with Globalization it seems we must choose between Shopping or Jihad as the stark choices for mankind (at the moment) so as crass as it is and seems (value judgement) I will support the Internationalshopistas!!!!!

  2. I have read 'Lament for a Nation' again and again over the last 40 years. For any student interested in the theme of of EMPIRE the book is a 'must have'....and now with Globalization it seems we must choose between Shopping or Jihad as the stark choices for mankind (at the moment) so as crass as it is and seems (value judgement) I will support the Internationalshopistas!!!!!