The World for a Country: An Edited Interview with Frank Scott

(Conducted by Vincent Tovell in 1971)

Interviewer: Professor Frank Scott, poet, lawyer, teacher, formerly Dean of Law at McGill University, constitutional lawyer, fighter for civil liberties over many years, political activist for almost forty years, former national chairman of the C.C.F. party, Royal Commissioner, member of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and, perhaps I should say again, poet. I’ve been puzzling what order to put this long list of achievements in?

Respondent: Poetry first, and the poetic element all the way through.

Interviewer: When did the interest in poetry begin?

Respondent: I was a little late in starting like most Canadians of my day. My father wrote poetry all the time and published a great deal so I was accustomed to it, and I wrote a little bit at Oxford, but not much. It didn’t really begin in an important way until I met AJ.M. Smith at McGill in 1925 when I came back from Oxford. He was the one who took me in hand, so to speak, introduced me to modern verse, and was a great influence on my writing.

Interviewer: You really have in effect three public reputations: as a very distinguished Canadian poet—and not only of your own original poetry but also as a translator of French Canadian poetry into English—you’ve been a part of the literary scene for the last forty years or so; and, of course, you have a nationwide reputation in the field of law where you’ve been a teacher and very active in the development of Canadian philosophy of law, and you’ve had a life in politics as well. All this began in fact in Quebec city. But you went to Oxford.

Respondent: Yes, I had the most quiet and undisturbed childhood. I grew up in an Anglican rectory, and while it’s true I reached my adolescence during World War 1, Quebec was remote from the scene. My father and my three brothers went away to the war but I just quietly carried on, and nothing very much disturbed my life until I went over to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and began really to get educated in the contemporary world, in a larger way.

Interviewer: Did you go to study law?

Respondent: No. I’m much more trained in history than in law. I have three degrees in history and only one in law, but since I came back to specialize in constitutional law where history is so essentially a part and an explanation of much that exists, the two disciplines blended very well. I was very grateful for that historical background.

Interviewer: There is a number of Canadians who played a very prominent part in the last generation, who had appeared as Rhodes Scholars in England. What was its special meaning to you?

Respondent: It certainly didn’t give me any very radical ideas. Oxford to me was sort of a discovery of the roots of the Anglican view of life in which I was brought up. I was fascinated going back and back through European history to Greece and Rome, and it gave me a tremendously solid foundation for a point of view and a set of values. I think Oxford also taught me something else—it taught me scepticism. You were taught not to rely particularly on any one authority; to view everything with a question and to try and test it. There was a very fine scepticism in the history school, particularly about documents and events, which I found very important. I was brought in touch with developing post World War I ideas in Europe. Politics were beginning to interest me. I can remember the fall of Lloyd George, and I was beginning to be interested in labour politics. Mostly, I was concerned with history and literature and the discovery of Europe. As a Canadian visiting art galleries for the first time it was a wonderful experience for me. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Interviewer: Did it intensify your interest in Canadian development?

Respondent:. No. I hardly knew anything about Canada when I went to Oxford. Believe it or not I had had eight years in the Quebec high school, three years Honours in history at Bishop’s, three years in history at Oxford and I had never read one page of Canadian history. Not a solitary page. I didn’t discover Canada really until I got back and came to Montreal, and taught school for a year at Lower Canada College. I had to teach Canadian History. I had to keep ahead of my class. It was a very valuable experience.

Interviewer: You brought back, then, from Oxford a somewhat quizzical and critical attitude?

Respondent: Yes. Mind you, there was developing after World War I an English Canadian nationalism. We were beginning to revolt against the old British Empire and its ideas and I met a lot of people in Montreal who shared these views. We were working towards what came out with the League for Social Reconstruction, where I really began to learn about Canada. That and the C.C.F. which made me travel in Canada. No, as a Canadian I came rather late to knowing what this country was supposed to be all about.

Interviewer: Did you come back from Oxford with a particular interest in socialism?

Respondent: No. I had been introduced to it, had a sort of sympathetic feeling towards it but was not particularly either attracted or involved. It really started, of course, with the Great Crash of 1929 and then the founding of the League for Social Reconstruction— meeting David Lewis and meeting Underhill and a great many other people who became very important friends and influences on my thinking.

Interviewer: And indeed on the thinking of a good many others in this country. What were the dominant questions in your mind at that time, this group that ultimately gave shape to the C.C.F. party?

Respondent: Well, what had happened? The whole of North America was in collapse. Imagine eight states of the American union with all the banks closed! You suddenly realize you’ve been assuming that things would go on, only they’ve stopped going on. I wanted to find out why. As we worked through in the League for Social Reconstruction we came out with a form of democratic socialism rather Fabian in type but fundamentally concerned not with political activism so much as trying to think out the causes of the economic collapse and the possible solutions for it. You see, I was never a political activist. I’ve never run for parliament. But I was deeply concerned in the development of a political party that would have a democratic socialist philosophy adapted to the Canadian federal system.

Interviewer: Did you see any particular Canadian characteristic to this group, as opposed to the Fabians in England?

Respondent: Well, first of all, you’re dealing with a totally different country. Secondly, you’re dealing with a bilingual, bicultural country though it took us a while to appreciate how big a difference that made. I think we were inclined to believe that a socialist formula could be applied in a general way. You know it was old J.S. Woodsworth who kept saying, “We’ve got to have something Canadian. It’s no good just importing other people’s ideas.” You may import other people’s general concepts and approaches but it’s got to be tailored and that’s what we were trying to do. That’s why we started to do so much research and produced what was to us the book, Social Planning for Canada, in 1935. We were working out something we thought would fit this country.

Interviewer: Did this start some of your own rather precise and carefully developed thinking about Canadian constitutional law?

Respondent: Well, I was teaching constitutional law at the same time as I was trying to work out these new solutions, and I learned far more about the Canadian constitution from my contacts with the L.S.R. and the C.C.F. and from seeing the problems it was supposed to deal with than I ever did from any Privy Council cases. It kept the law on the fringe of application to new situations so you had to have new ideas coming into law. Hence my continued dislike of the way the Privy Council interpreted the constitution, keeping it sort of rigid and stereotyped and unable to adapt. It was a natural relationship, and in consequence, constitutional law remained increasingly important to me and increasingly real.

Interviewer: Who were some of the people in that group who profoundly affected you?

Respondent: Well, of course, F.H. Underhill affected everybody and he always had a fine pessimistic note. We were full of more enthusiasm and hope I think than he ever possessed, but he kept us questioning our attitudes and solutions. Then there were other good close personal friends like King Gordon, Graham Spry, and Eugene Forcey. Harry Cassidy was an important member of the group at that time, and there were many others. It was to me a wonderful experience both in terms of friendship and intellectual challenge. It was a very wonderful experience.

Interviewer: Some thirty odd years have passed now. How does this picture of J.S. Woodsworth stand in your mind at this stage looking back?

Respondent: Well, he’s sort of untouchable, you know. Tides go, fall, rise, changes occur but he was a great figure, and he was great because he stood on values and principles that don’t change. The things he thought were good I still think were good. All you could change were the ways you tried to make them more effective in your national life. You see he thought of the C.C.F. as a movement rather than as a party-a movement, just that thing which moves people. He was always a little bit frightened of party structure. I still think that the movement is there, but of course there’s more party now and you can’t organize a great many people for political action in a parliamentary system unless you do have a party. At any rate he was a saint in politics, that’s the answer, and he still is.

Interviewer: Was his power over you as a group at that time essentially a moral power?

Respondent: Yes, it wasn’t very profoundly an intellectual one. It was mostly a moral power. His absolute sincerity and uprightness, you know.

Interviewer: Can you remember when you first met him?

Respondent: I met him before the L.S.R. was founded. I can remember his coming to Montreal. It must have been about 1927 or 1928. He was giving one of those lectures he used to go around the country giving and he always had little charts showing the accumulation of wealth, the absence of trade union protection and all the social facts that illustrated to him the injustices of our society. He was not a person that necessarily impressed you deeply on first meeting. He was not a powerful speaker, but it’s when you understood the real character of the man that you saw his worth.

Interviewer: Do you know any parallel for him in either Canadian history or in modern western history?

Respondent: I don’t know of any parallel to him in my knowledge of English Canada. I think in French Canada some people have had something of that influence, though how long that’s going to last with the changes in Quebec you don’t know. No, I don’t know who I would pick out in European or English history even of that quality of mind. The combination of the spiritual in the best sense of the term but constantly seeking to express itself in the actualities of today and not just being a Sunday religion. This was the important thing about him.

Interviewer: You’ve seen great changes take place; the C.C.F. has become the N.D.P. and has now become a major party. Are you active in any way at all at this stage?

Respondent: No, not particularly. I was from 1933 until the founding of the N.D.P. in 1961. All that time I held some office in the C.C.F. and I was on the founding committee for the N.D.P., but the N.D.P. after all is to be a new party. It should have some new faces, and I was then already sixty-two and I thought it was better if I withdrew from any office. So I didn’t run for any office in the N.D.P. though I am of course still a member of it. I haven’t the same desire to go out and make speeches on every matter as I used to have. I don’t know, I think I’d rather put it in poetry now.

Interviewer: Do you?

Respondent: Well at certain times, yes.

Interviewer: And now the N.D.P. within it’s body is developing a group with an idea or set of ideas seemingly as radical as those with which you identified a generation or so ago. What do you think of the Waffle group?

Respondent: I think they’re well named to begin with. I know they’re very sincere. I think they’ve had the unfortunate effect of making Canada look at the fights within the N.D.P. instead of looking at the evils in our society that the N.D.P. is concentrating on. I don’t mean that absolutely but it has distracted attention I think on the issue of American investment. Of course there’s too much American investment in Canada, of course everybody’s concerned about it, and of course some degree of public ownership is an answer to the problem because the only things Americans can’t buy are the things we own publicly. They can buy the C.P.R. tomorrow, but they can’t buy the C.N.R. I think any frontal attack of the waffle type now is just out of this world, and I don’t think it’s going to convince people that they’re very serious. On the Quebec question it seems to me they haven’t much more to say than “you decided what you want to do, and we say you have the right to do it.” Whereas I think what the N.D.P. has to say and is saying is “you may be free to go, but look, it’s going to hurt you and hurt us if you do and nobody is going to come out the better.” There’s a policy as distinct from a sort of laissez-faire attitude. Now maybe I’m not fair to the Waffle group, every party’s got to have it’s left and right wing. That’s fine, but if the wings get organized into parties within parties it’s not healthy and there’s a danger in that.

Interviewer: You’ve seen some changes in the climate within the province of Quebec. The Waffles addressed themselves to that in part and you’ve served now for some years on the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Can we talk about that for a moment?

Respondent: Certainly, that’s taken seven interesting years of my life.

Interviewer: What would you say has been the principle value of the commission?

Respondent: Well, I think it was absolutely essential that it should have been appointed and should have started the work, and I’m bold enough to say that I think it began the work the way it should have. The first thing that we found out was that nobody really knew what it was we were supposed to be studying. Whole areas of Canada thought, “well what’s wrong now”? “No problem here” was what we heard in most parts of English Canada. “No problem here until you came along,” they said. So for our first year and a half or so we travelled around the country just holding public meetings and discussing the issue. I think we began to awaken Canadians to the fact that there really was, as we said in our Parliamentary Department, a real crisis of a new kind. The second important thing we did was a vast amount of research. It had never been done before from the point of view of bilingualism and biculturalism, only individual statistical studies of economics and so forth, but it had never been viewed globally from this perspective. You’ll find we were a costly commission though I don’t think a few million dollars is much to spend if you’re trying to save a country. Most of that money went on research. Now to get the research organized we had a vast team of people both francophone and anglophone and a great many of them in universities, and they learned themselves about the nature of the problem. I’m sure there was a continuing influence on the teachers and intellectuals of the country, quite apart from the value of the research that came out. And then when our reports had come out, I think it’s perhaps fair to say we’ve been one of the most influential Royal Commissions this country ever had and there’s nothing we have said that isn’t relevant to the present situation. In fact some people think we should have said more. I think that was a very worthwhile operation and it left a permanent mark on the country.

Interviewer: Specifically?

Respondent: Well, we’ve now got a federal commitment to a coast to coast bilingualism in federal matters, the Official Languages Act, and a recognition that Canada is not just an English country with a French minority in Quebec, but it’s a bilingual and bicultural country with a concentration of French in Quebec, a million Frenchspeaking outside Quebec, mostly in New Brunswick and Ontario and Manitoba, and a million English-speaking inside Quebec so that even if Quebec became independent they’ve still got a problem. A minority of a million, that’s quite a lot. So you see, you don’t solve the problem by the independence of Quebec, we’ll still have a million French-speaking people in English Canada assuming there still is an English Canada. There’ll still be a million English-speaking in French Canada and I believe that collectivities of this type have a right to their language as a human right. I think language is a human right. It isn’t only freedom of speech, the right to say what you want to say, it’s the right to say what you want to say in the language in which you want to say it. If you get that notion then the English minority in Quebec has the right to schools in which the teaching’s in English and the French have the right to schools in which they teach in French outside Quebec. Whether Quebec’s independent or not I think those same rights exist. Whether we’ll be big enough to maintain them is another matter. Either side.

Interviewer: Are you optimistic about this?

Respondent: I am by nature sort of optimistic though I see so many examples of people appearing to chose the least helpful solution. I still believe this basic “gros bon sens” in Quebec because then they really count the cost, the extra they get as a means of expressing themselves through independence may be more than offset by what they have to pay for it, and similarly, on the English side, there’s a point at which I think we’re going to have to decide how far we go in pulling the federal structure down to a point where it isn’t viable. We’re each in a dilemma here and it’s not easy but I’m prepared to believe we’ll work it out, with difficulty.

Interviewer: You’ve been a part of a political and social tradition that I suppose you could sum up by the word reasonable. It has British antecedents in the Fabian Society and its influence on the labour party; a certain belief in the power of man to gather together and come by the process of reason to sensible conclusions and sensible arrangements. Do you see this as a continuing possibility in the kinds of societies the western world is now evolving. I’m thinking in particular of Canada and North America.

Respondent: Well I still maintain my belief, if not in the effectiveness of reason, in the essential need to keep on using our minds as best we can. I’ve always liked a definition of law that is actually from my former dean at McGill, Percy Corbett: “Law is that set of institutions which most subject men’s passions to their reason”. You try to find a reasonable solution, and for all its clumsiness (looking at the law courts you may wonder sometimes), it is constantly trying to do that. I know that reason fell into great disrepute for a while and the influence of psychologists and psychoanalysts has given us a better appreciation of the fact that reason is by no means the whole makeup of man, and when he thinks he’s using his reason he may just be expressing some deep-seated internal psychological pain or agony which makes him come out with the “reason.” We understand that much better now; but no, I’m still a believer in the constant necessity of attempting to find the reasonable solution. It’s not a very cheering or exciting thought but it’s essential to civilized man.

Interviewer: You once said that law is crystallized politics and that a good constitution is like a good poem; both are concerned with the spirit of man.

Respondent: Well, I believe that. You see I believe (to use a phrase I borrowed from the historian Berkhardt) “the state can be a work of art”. In other words man’s creativity can come out in his politics and be expressed in his constitution. In fact that’s what happens all the time. You can create a constitution which will make one kind of a country like Fascist Spain, or a constitution which will make another kind of a country like Communist Russia, or you can make one as the Americans did when they started, with a very great contribution towards the notion of a form of participatory democracy. You can choose these constitutions and by choosing them you are aiming at a certain kind of society you’re trying to build. I mean the constitution and the law are instruments for trying to achieve a certain social objective. I find that a very creative thought, and that’s why I think politics is one of the greatest activities of man because that’s where he makes his terrific choices. It’s a constant choosing. Now when you get an evolving society like England, for instance, where they haven’t had a violent revolution in three hundred years, or three hundred and fifty years, that’s quite an achievement. They’ve had revolutions but they got through them, not without some violence, but without that degree of bloodshed which you call civil war, and violent revolution. There you accumulate advances which get written into the constitutional law. Hence the constitution is crystallized politics of the past. Sometimes you’ve got to change your crystals you know, you’ve got to amend the constitution and bring it along. I like the concept of an evolving society with constantly better perceptions of what you can do to achieve the more free and the more just society. I really think the ultimate aim of politics is to create the material conditions and the institutions that enable each individual to be himself, to ‘do his thing.’ As I’ve sometimes said it’s the art of making artists, not making in the sense that you’re telling people what they’re going to be but making it possible for them to be artists. This perhaps gets a bit fancy. You know, when you’re in a political convention you don’t see it quite so clearly though it comes out there in the resolutions.

Interviewer: And your lifelong concern with civil liberties, with individual rights, group rights and minority rights. . . 

Respondent: It’s the same thing of course, but what is civil liberty? It’s freeing a man to say what he thinks, meet whom he likes, join groups that he wants, practice the religion that he wants, you know, to grow. They are a condition of the individual’s growth so you want to expand them.

Interviewer: Do you think that the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission has helped us understand these issues clearly?

Respondent: It hasn’t dealt much with what we call the individual civil liberties; it’s dealt more with group rights, and that’s a factor that needed to be perhaps added on to the British tradition, which is much more on the individual right, whereas the greater interest has been in Quebec on the minority rights, the group rights. Now we have a wonderful chance of blending the two together in Canada. And I think the B & B Commission pointed out that it isn’t enough to say to each French-speaking person in Ontario that after all he can read what he likes and join the Catholic church if he wants to or any other church, but what about him as one of a group meeting together and having its own institutions, expressing himself in that more collective way? What about public schools? I think we did a lot to open people’s eyes on that matter. It’s difficult to sort out those two aspects of rights, the private and the group rights.

Interviewer: Has that been a particular Canadian concern?

Respondent: Every country has the problem, at least every country that isn’t totally homogeneous has it to some extent, and don’t forget the B & B Commission had to bring in the concept of what were called the other ethnic groups. We have so many other ethnic groups each with its collective feeling and cultural tradition. How do they fit into the total Canadian picture? I think we did a good deal in that regard. That Canada is a multi-cultural country is pretty widely accepted.

Interviewer: What response have you had personally from students you meet, young people you’re in touch with regularly, to the work of the B & B?

Respondent: Not nearly as much as I should have liked. In fact apart from the great splurge when a new report is issued, the thing seems to die away. I think it would be very hard to find one percent of the Canadian population that could tell you more than one percent of the recommendations. One of the things that’s wrong is that the reports are sold at too high a price! I criticized, or if I haven’t I do now, the policy in Ottawa of making people pay three, four and five dollars for one volume of a report of this kind. They should go for fifty cents apiece or a dollar apiece if you believe that you want to have people knowing about it. I also think there’s been very little explanation of it, in any consistent way, in the mass media, whether it be the C.B.C. or the newspapers. Now we didn’t have all the wisdom but at least we didn’t make any recommendations that didn’t have behind them a great deal of study and reflection and discussion and they are worth consideration in every respect.

Interviewer: Why do you think the media didn’t do what you think it should have done?

Respondent: Well you know that when some calamity occurs somewhere everything else passes off the page. I think it’s been a little better now; you’re getting more articles of importance at least in weekend newspapers. Personally I think the C.B.C. does far more to inform people about Canada than the newspapers, but they could still do more if they weren’t so bound by the commercial problem.

Interviewer: The final report of the B & B, the final volume, has not appeared and is not to appear. . .

Respondent: There was grave doubt as to whether it should or needed to appear. I don’t need to go into all the details. We couldn’t as a group agree on exactly what it would contain and we therefore just said we couldn’t write it. I think that proves that the B & B Commission in it’s composition really reflected Canada because Canada hasn’t been able to agree on its constitutional future. Besides, we left this towards the end and by the time we came to it there must have been fifteen different committees in Canada tackling the job. Every province had its own committee around its premier and there were several in Ottawa all wrestling away with the problem of the constitution. Some people think we might have added something but it proved to be impossible. I don’t think we were the type of commission especially designed to handle that particular problem.

Interviewer: The issue of our constitutional future is going to be in the news for a long time to come. Are we making some progress in clarifying our choices here, in your view?

Respondent: I think perhaps we are, though I must say it’s not very clear. We’ve had a new government in Quebec whose insistence is, and whose demands are, somewhat different from those of previous governments. That Quebec wants more autonomy is one thing that’s really clear, but just where that should go is not so clear, or how much it can be agreed to without very great damage to the function of government in respect of many of our major problems. I believe that the jurisdiction of a government ought to be as far as possible as large as the problem it’s dealing with. It’s not much use saying only the municipalities will clean up pollution in Canada. You wouldn’t get any clean-up of pollution if you put it at that level. Nor can you put it on the provincial level because you’ve got rivers running between provinces carrying pollution, smoke, crossing frontiers and so forth. You have to have a government with jurisdiction somewhat related to the problem, which is why eventually we’ve got to get some kind of world government. Many problems are worldwide. So I don’t know how far we can make progress in going within the federal system towards very much decentralization. There can be areas of give and take.

I’m very concerned about the language issue. There was some suggestion that the obligations of Quebec to its laws in the two official languages which has existed since before Confederation might be removed. That’s to say that the rights of the English minority, the biggest provincial language minority in Canada, twice as big as any other, that they would be reduced at this stage. This struck me as a most backward step if it was being seriously considered. But it did get discussed and I’m asking myself where the idea came from. You see that’s exactly contrary to the B & B Commission. We wanted other provinces to come up alongside Quebec, which we took to be the model. A good example is New Brunswick. As a matter of fact New Brunswick has achieved, by recent change, just about everything that Section 133 of the B.N.A. Act requires. We also wanted Ontario to come in. Ontario’s position is a little more difficult, they have about half a million French-speaking. That’s 7% of the population and the adjustment process is a little greater. Ontario had started where I think it should have started, namely guaranteeing or promising complete education in the French language-to me one of the greatest effects of the B & B Commission. Plus everything else, we’ve now got the provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba committed to the idea that a person of the French language wanting instruction in French has a right to it, all the way through the public school system. It isn’t all worked out yet but this is now the first time in our history that the idea has been accepted so widely. What’s worrying some of us in Quebec is that at this very moment Quebec seems to be suggesting that the English language instruction should be reduced or abolished in the English public schools. It would be ironic if the rest of the country went ahead as the B & B asked it to and Quebec started going backwards.

Interviewer: You have a long connection with the defence of minority rights and particularly in the province of Quebec. You fought against the Padlock Law of the Duplessis government. Yet last autumn at the time of the F.L.Q. events, you took a view that the War Measures Act ought, indeed, to have been applied. Is that correct?

Respondent: Yes, I thought drastic though it was and though it was applied with more severity then was necessary, that at the time had it not been applied the risk was too great of some very serious disturbances in Quebec from which it would have been difficult to recover. What terrified me was, frankly, bloodshed in the streets resulting from confrontations of bands of students with the army present. I think of Kent State, of little, excited trigger-happy soldiers or something, and if you’d had that kind of confrontation and that kind of bloodshed there would have been a wound so deep it would have divided forever. Apart from that, the War Measures Act provided a shock treatment that in my view restored a sense of self-government in Quebec to six million people. There was a time when we didn’t know whether the government was able to govern. Ministers were afraid to meet. You can’t understand that if you weren’t there to feel it. Panic in the Cabinet. Now I think the Federal Government had far too severe measures for the police. I sympathize with the N.D.P. having to vote (a) for the application of the War Measures Act and (b) for a particular set of regulations which were too severe. At the same time they couldn’t separate them. The civil liberties union to which I belong immediately criticized the severity of these first regulations and then came the turn- around, a slight alleviation in the Turner amendments. That’s an issue I can understand people getting worried about, but I really think from what I know of Quebec (and my knowledge of civil disorder in Quebec goes back to 1918, being most vivid when the Spanish republican delegates came in 1936) that drastic measures were necessary. It was an accumulation of those memories that prompted my decision. There’s a lot of tinder around in Quebec, a lot of passionate feeling, a lot of potential danger.

Interviewer: You’ve written a good deal about the Bill of Rights, the one we have and the place of a Bill of Rights in a national constitution. How do you feel about that now?

Respondent: I still think we need an entrenched Bill of Rights. We need to put some language rights in too and don’t forget the B & B Commission recommended two amendments to the B.N.A. Act, one of which would have put other provinces alongside Quebec in Section 133, to have the laws in the two languages and the right to plead in the courts in the two languages. They also recommended that there be a provision in regard to education, the right of parents to choose the language of instruction either French or English wherever there is a sufficient number of people to make a school viable. Those were two collective rights we recommended and they would form a part of a total Bill of Rights. I would want the total Bill also to have the individual rights that we now only have in the Diefenbaker Bill. So I am still in favour of committing our country to a certain limitation on the power of governments.

Interviewer: Including parliament?

Respondent: Well, particularly parliament. The two sets of parliament, provincial and federal.

Interviewer: Do you think these bills have any capacity to put some limits on the new kinds of threats to individual privacy or individual liberty that people talk about in connection with electronic bugging or any other number of other technological innovations?

Respondent: They don’t touch them closely enough. You can’t ever keep pace with the threats to personal liberty merely by what you put in the Bill of Rights. That helps but you’re going to have to have constant vigilance; because the electronic spying has reached the point now where I find it difficult to know how we control it directly unless we do a great deal more to restrict the power of the police. At least if wire-tapping is ever going to be used, a warrant should be required. Police cannot search your house now for seditious documents unless they’ve got a warrant. Well some people say that they should not be able to tap a telephone wire unless they have a warrant. I haven’t made up my mind on that but it would certainly be a limitation. I don’t want to suggest the Bill of Rights entrenched in the constitution is the solution to our problem of personal freedom by any means.

Interviewer: Yet entrenched rights have some general value. How would you sum up that value? Some specific values too. . .

Respondent: Well they have a great educational value. First of all the effort is a commitment and then the courts are fortified in their application. In many situations an imaginative court can deduce something from a right that will go a little further. I know many people object to the power it gives the courts but on the whole I am inclined to take that risk as contrasted with the risk inherent in legislatures, particularly in a country like Canada with such a heterogeneous population, where you never can be quite sure some province won’t  get carried away by a wave of fear or enthusiasm or nationalism or something.

Interviewer: You spent some months working for the United Nations years ago?

Respondent: I spent the better part of a year, yes. Where I met you in fact.

Interviewer: That was an exciting period in which techniques of international co-operation were being evolved rather rapidly. And you spent some time in Burma. What was your main impression of that?

Respondent: It was the new techniques of international cooperation that deeply impressed me. I felt we had evolved a method by which more technically advanced countries could help those less technically advanced without any political strings being attached and without any sort of attitude of superiority. Co-operation was mutual. I found such a wonderful spirit among the U.N. personnel that I met in Burma. It’s sad for me to look at Burma now, twenty years later, and see that not much of what we did has remained.

Interviewer: This was the beginning of the technical assistance program?

Respondent: The beginning of the technical assistance program, yes. I was the Resident Representative then. I understand this individual has grown in importance since I left the office. Alongside us were some bilateral programs of individual American aid and that was a different thing. They didn’t have the same international spirit in them. A number of people working for the American program told me they wished they were working for the United Nations. There was just a feeling of co-operation and a certain optimism. I’m sure it’s still going on in a large degree.

Interviewer: This is something that has been felt by a good many Canadians and a good many Canadians have worked in those areas and in just that type of program. What is it in the background of Canadians that seems to make them so at home when they go into these areas and do that particular thing?

Respondent: Well Canadians are pretty knowledgeable in modern industrial techniques, and they are accustomed to working in a country where they have to balance authorities. Also they’ve got no image of imperialism behind them. Fortunately, these countries don’t see how we treat our Indians, otherwise they wouldn’t think we were so crystal pure. I do think there is a natural spirit of moderateness and reasonableness in the Canadian that enables him to be a good international civil servant. We’ve got a touch of the Scandinavian perhaps. The Scandinavians make good civil servants too. They’re international civil servants, they make good peace forces, and I think this is a role Canada can greatly develop and in which she can be a great help.

Interviewer: Do you think we still have much to do that way, or do you think that phase is over now?

Respondent: I don’t see how it can be quite over. If we don’t get some of this international economic co-operation you’re going to leave the whole economic development to the multi-national private corporation which goes into a country and builds things up. I just saw the other day where somewhere in North Africa they’re inviting in a great American gas plant to teach them how to liquefy natural gas. They’re going to bring in a great American outfit and build 300 million dollars worth of some kind of plant. Now that is a form of technical co-operation but I don’t think it is going to be put in the same sort of psychological category as U.N. helping. I hope U.N. aid and Canada’s aid along that type of program will increase and not decline.

Interviewer: There’s a good deal of questioning if not scepticism now about the kinds of technological solutions being proposed for the underdeveloped areas and those years in the 1950’s. People are wondering now whether that’s the right way to go?

Respondent: Of course we’re wondering whether our own technological development was the right thing to have done and we’re beginning to realize that we dashed in and put a huge pipeline through somewhere and perhaps did more harm than good. I’m wondering about the James Bay program at home. What’s that going to do? Perhaps we’re not so sure of solutions but I think then you have to see whether the other country wants you to give this kind of aid. Let them share the possible discovery that it didn’t work out as well as they thought. But there are so many you can be sure of, you know. Health problems, though health care without population control can also wreak havoc.

Interviewer: What do you think of the Prime Minister’s suggestion that young people form new communities in the North?

Respondent: Well, I’m all for young people forming any community they want to form. Having seen bits of the North, I’m almost glad I’m not too young. I don’t like to think about them getting hived off, out of touch. Though it might be an experience for some time. I think young people want to be able to do something other than to just go into the rat-race. They want something with a little more imagination to it, someplace where they can be themselves naturally, and the Northland is there. But what are they going to do? Dig mines?

Interviewer: Coming back to poetry now which has never been far from your mind and never far from mine when I’ve talked to you — because you’ve really touched on aspects of society — which are precisely those parts which a poet would be thinking about, the spirit of the society-which of your poems has a special attraction for you?

Respondent: Well, naturally they all attract me to some extent. My father used to be asked which of his seven children he liked best and he always replied, “The one that’s nearest.” But if you’re talking of Canada and something that was an experience . . . my poem, “Trans-Canada.” The first time I had a rather long flight from Regina back to Montreal and the wonder of flying and the cloud formations, you know the land below and the communications, the shrinking, all the earth — all these feelings were in me at the time so I wrote “Trans-Canada.” Incidentally in that poem I refer to “pile of bones”. That used to be the name of Regina, you know.

Interviewer: When did you write that?

Respondent: I wrote that about 1944 after I had presided at a four-day C.C.F. convention. I was dead tired and I left Regina about 10 o’clock at night. It took me eight hours to get to Montreal and I was completely reinvigorated by the flight when I arrived. All the tiredness had gone. It was the most marvellous experience.

Interviewer: You’re still writing poetry?

Respondent: I still write a certain amount and I’m revising, collecting and editing.

Interviewer: You’ve written many different kinds: you’ve written satiric verse of considerable note, some of it about our politicians, some of it about our national customs, and you’ve written descriptive verse of this kind which captures a great deal of what many of us sense as the Canadian experience. Do you have any favourites among your satiric poems?

Respondent: Oh, I don’t know. Don’t forget, when you satirize something you are contrasting the thing you satirize with its opposite which you would like to have instead. So you’re really affirming the opposite values to those you’re satirizing. It’s not purely destructive that way. It was a belief in Canada. There was so much going on that seemed foolish or dangerous or just funny that it was a way of getting it off your chest. I don’t know why, it comes to me rather easily, too easily perhaps, and I indulged in it to a considerable extent.

Interviewer: Your father wrote poetry.

Respondent: Yes. He wrote a lot of humorous verse he never published. He was always making up little rhymes, he was very fond of that. Of course, he had a tremendous sense of humour. He used to read me Stephen Leacock aloud when we were children. He used to read to the family. There was a lot of satire in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich or in Nonsense Novels, and so forth. I can remember thoroughly enjoying those.

Interviewer: You grew up in Quebec City?

Respondent: Yes, in my father’s rectory. I was physically born in the rectory and lived there, except for three years at Bishop’s, until I was 20. So I had this very stable beginning in a very stable community (it was then, except for the disturbances of 1918) and lovely Laurentian country nearby. That’s where I got my interest in writing about the North, the sense of that emptiness and vastness. Those Laurentian hills which my father always pointed out were the oldest mountains in the world and he would say, “Frank, stand on this stone and look north. There’s nothing between you and the North Pole.” You know it is a sort of terrifying thought. You didn’t quite know what it meant but you got a sense of some kind of power which I think most Canadians know about; and this is where our northern frontier is something which our American neighbours don’t quite have. We’re messing it up pretty fast. Perhaps these young people should go up into the North while it’s still there and get this incredible sense.

Interviewer: Did your understanding and sympathy with French Canada develop as a child in Quebec City?

Respondent: Not very much. I’m very grateful to my father for having made me like rather than dislike the Catholic Church. He was an Anglo-Catholic, you know. He believed there were three great branches of the Catholic Church in world. There was the Roman, the Anglican and the Greek! So they were all equal, you see. He was very fond of Quebec though he couldn’t speak any French. My mother spoke French. Later when I came back from Oxford and began to be concerned about Canada as a whole, that’s when the French thing became essential. And of course, once the C.C.F. started it became even more essential. I was, therefore, led into an understanding of some of the feelings. Then, of course, French-Canadian literature has brought me in contact with a great deal of their thinking.

Interviewer: You read French-Canadian literature?

Respondent: Oh yes, a certain amount. Of course, I’ve got a tremendous admiration for France through my study of civil law, for the greatness of the French mind (apart from my visits to Paris, of course, and France when I was a student at Oxford). The structure of French thought, the great French novelists — this was quite apart from Quebec. I mean, French culture in its great sense deeply impressed me. It still does and to have a natural way for that to be part of our makeup in Canada is to me a tremendous thought if we just don’t ruin it.

Interviewer: You have some special favourites among French Canadian writers?

Respondent: Well, I translated two that particularly interested me. Saint Denys- Garneau and Anne Flobert and some other poets writing at that time because it is clear they were foretelling the quiet revolution or the unquiet revolution. I mean, they were expressing their complete refusal to accept the frozen Quebec that had existed right up through Duplessis. The thing was just ready to adapt. It had to give in many places and in their poetry you could feel this, and this attracted me because of the implied political comment that was in it. There were other very fine poets. Then, of course, I’ve done a good deal of translating. I took part in that anthology of The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, that John Glassco got out. Now it’s been a continuing relationship and a very rewarding one to me.

Interviewer: Can the writers be a bridge between French-speaking and English-speaking Canada?

Respondent: In part. Some of them put up machine guns at their end of the bridge. You know, you’ve got purely revolutionary writers but I think all writing is ultimately a bridge between people’s understanding. I’ve just been reading that book of Valliore’s, White Niggers of America. It’s an astonishing, moving book in many parts, quite wrong in others in my view. When you read the writers you sense this tremendous emotional yearning and drive and power. They’ve just got to be something more than they are and they’ve jolly well got to be it. You can’t read that and not sympathize with it. So it’s always a bridge to have some sympathy even if you don’t always agree with the person you sympathize with. I think that’s a bridge, yes. I’m glad to see there’s more translation into English of the more important French books that come out.

Interviewer: What about the other way around?

Respondent: Not nearly so much. They’re much more self-centred, intensely, but there is some of it. There are many more articles written by English Canadians that appear in Le Deuoir for instance, and La Presse. Mr. Laxer put the Waffle into that, into Le Deuoir, I think it was, so there’s an exchange, though I think there could be more.

Interviewer: You’ve spent a good deal of your time among artists of various kinds. Painters. Do you think that they have played some useful part in connecting up the different parts of Canada? Is this emerging now as some kind of a national bond?

Respondent: I think so again. I mean, look at the respect paid to French Canadian painting in any part of Canada. I don’t think our Group of Seven painters had anything like the same effect in French Canada as they did in English Canada. A lot of English Canadians got a sense of their own country out of that. But the French Canadian painters went from a much more traditional 19th century style right into surrealism. They made a tremendous leap forward and they’ve come up with some very fine painters as you know, and that exchange is going on all the time. We could and should do so much more of that. Take the great restrospective Group of Seven show. Where was it shown? In three places in Canada. There wasn’t something called money to show it anywhere else? What’s wrong with us? We’re crazy.

Interviewer: You’ve retired now from the teaching of law at McGill. Will you go on teaching?

Respondent: Oh, I always hope I’ll go on doing some teaching. I’m doing a little bit next year though I’ve cut down. If I want to go after it I think I can always get something to do that way, but there are various other things I want to do at the moment. I don’t want to tie myself down to too close a schedule of hours per week. A little relaxation from that. Forty-three years of it is quite a lot.

Interviewer: Including a period as Dean?

Respondent: Yes, that was quite enough.

Interviewer: Are you glad your deanship is in the past rather than the future? I’m talking now about the problems of universities.

Respondent: Well, the problem of universities are very much greater now than they were. They were beginning to be great when I was Dean. It is a pretty exacting job and I suppose in that sense I’m fairly lucky to have got out. I think of the simplicity of the university when I was there. When I first went there as a teacher in those simple days, the governors governed, the teachers taught and the students more or less studied. That was it. Wasn’t that a lovely trinity? I’m not so sure a lot of good work wasn’t done under that system.

Interviewer: What about McGill and its place in Vew Quebec?

Respondent: There are a million English-speaking people in Quebec. They have McGill, which is the only fully-fledged university, Sir George Williams and little Bishop’s. There are 225,000 French-speaking people in New Brunswick. They have an entirely French-speaking university, Moncton, and they have a right to it as we have a right to an entirely English-speaking one in Montreal. But McGill, unfortunately, now is being squeezed financially in a way in which the university has pointed out seems not fair. That’s to say there’s far more money per student being given to the French universities than to McGill. Now everybody knows there is a need for the French universities to catch up from a period of non-development, but that can go on without McGill having to be depressed and McGill is financially depressed now to the point where it’s forced to run great deficits, not employing 42 teachers this year that it would like to employ, and so forth. No, the situation is rather unhappy and I hope we’ll come through it in time. McGill is a great university and how a great university can be a menace to anybody, I don’t know.

Interviewer: We’ve been talking really very seriously about a lot of national-international questions and I’m not sure that we’ve quite revealed the fact that Frank Scott has a celebrated sense of humour, touching on many things in a lively and satiric fashion. Do you have any particular events or moments in Canadian history that strike you as delightfully Canadian in their comic aspects. We’ve been so aware of the paradoxical and amusing about Canadian life.

Respondent: I don’t know. Of course, I collected a great number of bilingual/bicultural stories which are extraordinarily revealing. A really good bilingual story will tell you as much as a hundred-and-fiftypage survey of some aspect. I’ve been thinking of publishing them. They go both ways, you know, sometimes against the English and sometimes less frequently against the French, because I think the French make up more stories. But, you know, I was startled by the first of those when the Bilingual Commission was appointed. Time magazine was supposed to have sent a man out to Alberta to find out the grass roots feeling in English Canada towards bilingualism. So he finds an old Albertan farmer somewhere out in the sticks and he says, “My man, tell me what you think about bilingualsim?” “I’ll tell you what I think about bilingualism,” says the farmer, “if the English language is good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” And you get a host of these stories that reveal misconceptions, or some of them exhibit real, suppressed anger. The French Canadian goes into a restaurant on St. Catherines Street in Montreal with a large alligator at the end of a chain and he says to the waitress, “Do you serve Englishmen here?” She says, “Yes, we serve Englishmen here.” “Serve one to my alligator.” There are many of these that are very bright. Of course, it’s a great thing about French Canada, they’ve got a great sense of humour. Their cartoons are the most lively, and it’s a great solvent. Of course, who was it who said that nothing was really important unless you were able to laugh about it?

Interviewer: What Canadians in your lifetime stand out above all others as being somehow distinctively Canadian as opposed to American, British, European or whatever? That is, having characteristics which seem to you over the years to add up to being Canadian.

Respondent: You know, this word, Canadian, doesn’t ring anything like all the bells in my system. I don’t quite know. There are people who have been my particularly close friends and for whom I have a great respect, but the great change now is that there are so many fields of endeavour in Canada where there are first-rate people doing firstrate work than there were in the early 1930’s. You felt that you knew practically everybody in Canada who was doing anything. In the academic world, I bought every new book that came out, about four per year, and generally knew the author. That’s certainly true of anything in the way of poetry. You knew the painters. Morley Callaghan once said, “Canada was a club run by a few people on the inside.” Well, those were the early days. There’s a tremendous wide base now to the culture. I mean, I think of the importance of Creighton’s historical writings. Creighton’s book, The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, was the first one that made any sense to me about Canadian history, which was nothing but a series of boring incidents that didn’t seem to be related until he put a geophysical base to it. There were many other individual artists and writers, not very many political leaders of great inspiration. We were short on them, I think.

Interviewer: Why?

Respondent: I don’t know. Woodsworth of course would be by far the greatest, but then he was so far out as not to be directly in the rough and tumble. You can’t associate many new laws with his name. No, I don’t know quite how to answer your question. Let me take Glenn Gould as a pianist. Tremendous. You can pick out people and you realize now there is a cultural activity in this country that didn’t exist in anything like the same degree in the 1930’s. As a matter of fact, Underhill said that’s why the C.C.F. couldn’t plant its ideas because there wasn’t a substance underneath. There was no solidity in the country; there was a surface of ideas and nothing underneath it and there’s more chance of that now. This is where the revolution in Quebec is so filled with cultural aspects of its writers and painters and poets. It’s got a complete solidity. Plays, they write the plays. They write musicals and revolutionary songs. We have nothing to compare with their chansonniers who go around. Vigneault is a great poet as well as a great singer. He’s a powerful figure. We don’t produce anything quite so intense in English Canada. If we produced a great deal more than shows we could be a very contributing country, if we keep it going, and I would like to think contributing to the world is the way you can solve precisely the Quebec-Canada problem because there are so many countries in the world that have language and cultural problems. It’s not the exception, it’s more or less the rule in countries; and particularly as countries tend to get larger and larger areas of operation the problems emerge more and more. We are wrestling with a worldwide problem. In a way this should be more simple to solve. I was reading about New Guinea with 200 different tribes all hating each other, and about 1600 dialects and trying to make a human society out of that. We have two great languages of the Western World, and two great legal traditions have all the good things ready except our own little selves. Not too bad.

Interviewer: Just before we stop, is there any one of the satiric poems that you would like to read, or any of the others as far as that’s concerned? Any one in particular? Or what about one of the descriptive poems that catch something of the immensity and the magic of the Canadian northern half of the continent?

Respondent: Well, I sometimes think I’ve overplayed my image as a satirist but as I say, it’s a way of getting things off your chest. In view of the tremendous impact upon our present civilization, of the corporation, whether it be national or international or multi-national, in view of the way you observe the annual company meetings at which the great decisions are theoretically taken, I might read the one called “Company Meeting”. I was at an interesting meeting of Alcan the other day, as a matter of fact. [Reads Poem] You’ll notice that’s a perfect sonnet.

Interviewer: Yes, I noticed that. You have great fun playing around with the conventional forms.

Respondent: I wanted to see if you could use the sonnet form for a satirical thing but of course you can use the sonnet form for anything if you put your mind to it. As a matter of fact, you can use practically any form for anything.

Interviewer: How many books of poems have you written?

Respondent: Oh, I’ve published about five of my own with two anthologies: New Provinces and then The Blasted Pine with A.J. M. Smith.

Interviewer: Which is a collection of satiric verse?

Respondent: Yes, by all sorts of Canadians and people about Canada.

Interviewer: There’s more Frank Scott poetry to come?

Respondent: I hope so. Perhaps it will end in nothing but satire if we keep it up. I think we may be coming into a new age of belief, though this is going to be very interesting. Maybe the younger people are seeking for an affirmation of values which will suffice for religions that no longer quite meet their needs. This is the possibility.

Interviewer: Do you see the shape of it yet at all?

Respondent: No. I think the values will come and then we’ll try and find the ritual for it and then we may find some kind of common services in which all kinds of human beings may join. I don’t think you can get one world unless you have more of one religion, one set of values in it than you have now. Anyway, this seems to me something to be felt and hoped for.

Interviewer: But back of your own work in every field, whether it be politics or law, poetry or whatever, there’s always been consistency of faith. Can you sum it up?

Respondent: I like to think so. I don’t think any activity was incompatible with any other, though naturally if you put more time on one thing, you have less time for another. It’s the distribution of your energies and interests. It’s not being different people; it’s doing different things with the same person that you are.

Interviewer: Occasionally there’s a glimpse of this in your poetry. What about the poem, “Creed”?

Respondent: Well, “Creed” is very short but it sums up a good part of my philosophy. I don’t think any one form would take it all . . .

The world is my country
The human race is my race
The spirit of man is my God
The future of man is my heaven