CanLit Canon Review #18: George Grant’s Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism

Lament_FRONTThere is a lot of great stuff jammed into the 100 pages of Lament for a Nation: it is a short history of conservatism, liberalism, and socialism; it is an analysis of Canada’s changing place in the world during the Cold War; and it’s an emotional tirade by a brilliant thinker who no longer recognizes the country he once loved.

George Grant—philosopher, professor, and founder of McMaster University’s religion program—wrote Lament for a Nation, published in 1965, in a fit of prolonged anger after the 1963 federal election.

That was the election in which Grant’s man, Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker, was dethroned by Liberal Lester B. Pearson.

The election hinged on Dief the Chief’s unwillingness to house U.S. nuclear warheads on Canadian soil, even though he had already accepted the missiles that were to carry those nuclear warheads. Pearson, in the name of internationalism, was willing to accept the U.S. warheads, and he painted Diefenbaker as indecisive and parochial for refusing them.

“The election of 1963 was the first time in our history that a strongly nationalist campaign did not succeed,” Grant writes, “and that a government was brought down for standing up to the Americans.”

Ultimately, this left Canada as a country only in name, Grant contends, and the Liberal dream of Canada becoming a branch plant of the American Empire was complete.

He sums up his thoughts most bluntly here: “The impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada.”

It’s worth noting that this is not Stephen Harper’s conservatism, nor is it any other brand of conservatism we see in North America today. Grant’s Red Toryism would “use government control over economic life to protect the public good against private freedom.” It’s why conservatives created public institutions such as Ontario Hydro, the CNR, and the CBC, because the dangers of untrammelled individualism and capitalism in these sectors were too great to risk.

This conservatism enabled Grant to write entire pages in Lament that could be transferred to a Naomi Klein book without anyone noticing. He has an obsession with the demise of the local and the harmful effects of globalization, and he is wildly distrustful of corporations and rich people.

He writes, “The wealthy rarely maintain their nationalism when it is in conflict with the economic drive of the day.”

And also, “No small country can depend for its existence on the loyalty of its capitalists. International interests may require the sacrifice of the lesser loyalty of patriotism.”

The only real problem with the book is one that Grant himself admits to in the introduction to the re-issue; he let his emotions beat out his intellect.

Lament for a Nation is not going to be a fun read for political agnostics, but it is a complex and important book in the canon for how it documents a turning point in Canadian politics and a shift in political attitudes. This is accessible political philosophy that is enhanced by Grant’s deeply intelligent and thoughtful partisanship, a nice contrast to today’s hollering and slandering.

About the author

Craig MacBride

Craig MacBride (@craigmacbride) is a Toronto-based writer and communications consultant.

By Craig MacBride