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  • Eugene A. Forsey: An Intellectual Biography
  • Roger Hutchinson (bio)
Frank Milligan . Eugene A. Forsey: An Intellectual Biography University of Calgary Press. xiv, 318. $34.95

Frank Milligan has provided a rich and enticing portrait of Eugene Forsey as a creative intellectual, as an engaged social reformer and constitutional expert, and, more questionably, as a transitional figure in a Canadian society that had become less Christian and more secular by the time of his death in 1991. As a former director of museums in Alberta and New Brunswick, and as director of the Nantucket Historical Association and its properties, Milligan drew heavily on primary sources - lecture notes, unpublished manuscripts, and correspondence. In addition, he used Forsey's published works and secondary materials to explore the interactions among ideas, personalities, and the institutions of civil society and parliamentary democracy. As the note on the paperback cover promises, in this study of Forsey's religious and political beliefs 'Milligan unearths the philosophical underpinnings of many of Canada's early twentieth-century political, economic, religious, and social reform movements.' He also identifies the personal background and social factors shaping the life of this incisive, argumentative constitutional expert whose 1980 publication, How Canadians Govern Themselves, has been reissued four times with the last printing in 2003.

Forsey was born in Newfoundland and raised in Ottawa in a British Methodist home. He remained grounded in the beliefs and values of Christianity as his religious affiliations shifted among the Methodism of his youth, the United Church (after church union in 1925, and for the last three decades of his life as an active member of Église Saint-Marc, a French-language United Church in Ottawa), and Quaker (at Oxford until the Spanish Civil War made pacifism no longer a viable option), plus frequent attendance at Anglican services in Montreal and at Oxford.

The nature of his liberal, social justice-oriented Christian faith is suggested by his affinities with John Macmurray, King Gordon, Gregory Vlastos and R.B.Y. Scott, and by his active membership in the Student Christian Movement, the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, and committees of the United Church such as the Montreal Presbytery Committee on Social and Economic Research.

He remained faithful to 'the authentic tradition of Canadian conservativism' (as he recalled in his biography, A Life on the Fringe) as his political affiliations changed from Conservative to CCF (he refused to join the NDP over its 'two nations' policy) to Liberal (when he agreed to sit as a Liberal in the Senate), to a growing uncertainty about which political party provided the best vehicle for his political and religious convictions.

His ideas about social reform and economic planning, the relationships among civil society, organizations, and the state, civil liberties, and the role [End Page 376] of organized labour both contributed to and were shaped by his involvement with the League for Social Reconstruction, the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, and the Canadian Congress of Labour (later the Canadian Labour Congress), and his experience as a university instructor at McGill, Carleton, and Waterloo.

Milligan does a good job of discussing the importance of Forsey's Christian faith. However, by picturing him as a transitional figure in a Canada that became less Christian and more secular, Milligan reflects the assumptions of the secularization theory of mainstream social science. An alternative perspective would involve stressing Forsey's respect for other religious views throughout his life, and his emphasis on the role of reasoned, factually based arguments when churches participate in public debates. Whether or not Forsey used explicitly theological language depended more on the audience than on whether a speech was early or late in his career. When addressing church groups he used the theological language appropriate for the occasion as well as reasoned, factually based arguments. His insistence that 'the churches should support what labour wants because that is what is in the interests of the whole community' did not represent, as secularization theorists suggest, the reduction of religion to politics or the transition from a religious to secular orientation. It represented a foretaste of the way citizens in a pluralistic society deliberate with one another as citizens and as members of 'those...


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