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  • Visions of Canada. The Alan B. Plaunt Lectures 1958-1992
  • Doug Owram (bio)
Bernard Ostry and Janice Yalden , editors. Visions of Canada. The Alan B. Plaunt Lectures 1958-1992McGill-Queen's University Press. xvii, 568. $32.95

The best way to approach this collection is to see it as an expression of intellectual affection for an era and a tradition. The work brings together the Alan B. Plaunt lectures, which ran at Carleton from the late 1950s through the early 1990s. They were initially developed with support from the Plaunt family and Claude Bissell, the then president of Carleton. In the third of a century in which they were given, they reflected the public issues of the time and linked the world of public policy and critical assessment.

The very creation of these lectures rested on certain assumptions and attitudes. The first is that there is a natural and important link between the university world, the public at large, and the policy-maker. Ideas matter, and ideas that affect policy decisions matter a great deal. The people who form policy therefore have a responsibility to discuss the philosophic underpinnings that drive them. Conversely, both the public and the policymaker have a responsibility to listen to intellectuals who ponder the broad public issues of the day.

In some ways, as well, the Plaunt lectures reflect the outlook of a generation or at least an era. In the interwar years academics, public intellectuals, and a new mandarin class in Canada began to assert the importance of public policy as a sophisticated and rational process. Plaunt himself was very much the public policy intellectual, active with Graham Spry and others in the push for public broadcasting in the later 1920s and early 1930s. The intellectual circles in which Plaunt travelled overlapped with the mandarin class then forming in Ottawa. It was also linked to the rising social sciences within universities. These academic and public service intellectuals shared assumptions about the world around them and about their ability to influence events. The ability of sophisticated ideas to have a real influence is a second assumption underpinning these lectures.

The actual lectures are wide-ranging. Each topic, after all, stood on its own and as times changed so too did the interests of the public and sponsors. Looking at the lecturers as a group is nonetheless revealing. Both the dominant pattern and the exceptions are interesting. There is one foray into the literary world. In 1973 Mordecai Richler gives an untitled talk. Only one politician appears on the list. Peter Lougheed's lecture on Canadian-American trade in 1986 reflects his transition to elder statesmen and his stature as respected policy-maker. For the most part, though, the list is true to the notion of the public intellectual. Academics with an interest in policy are prevalent. Harry Johnson, Frank Scott, and J.A. Corry are typical of this group. Also important are those who, while not academics, are noted for their thoughtful analysis of policy issues: people like Graham Spry, Jane Jacobs, and Lise Bissonette all gave talks. [End Page 211]

Of course the content of the individual lectures reflects the times in which they are given. Sometimes they appear prescient. Frank Scott's 1959 comments on the emergence of constitutional rights in the Canadian system both reflects the contemporary interest in the issue and points forward to the much more revolutionary change a generation later. But then Scott influenced Trudeau so the connections of the intellectual elite are once again brought home. Harry Johnson's 1962 lecture on the economy is also significant. Even though he fails to foresee the Asian resurgence, his comments very much describe a world in transition from the immediate post-war era to something more complex. Mel Hurtig's 1988 talk echoes the anguish and frustration of those who opposed closer integration with the United States as the free trade agreement unfolded.

Hurtig's talk, though focused on one event, also points to another pattern in these lectures. Plaunt was a Canadian nationalist and the lectures are faithful to his interest in the Canadian nation. The majority of lectures are, in one way or another, concerned...


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