- Made in Canada: A Businessman’s Adventures in Politics
Autobiographies and biographies can provide some fascinating insights into the evolution of public policy. Books about the “Ottawa men,” the “government generation,” and works by or about Canadian policy heavyweights such as Gordon Robertson and Louis Rasminsky have shed light on the internal workings of the civil service and the Bank of Canada. Virtually all of this literature has been from the perspective of career civil servants or career politicians, mostly on the period prior to 1960. Alastair Gillespie’s autobiography, focused on life in Ottawa as a cabinet minister in the tumultuous 1970s, provides a nice departure from this approach: Gillespie was a rarity in politics in that he was a successful entrepreneur and businessman before and after entering the House of Commons.
On the one hand, Made in Canada is indeed a traditional autobiography of a retired politician. Gillespie, born in Victoria in 1922 into a staunchly Canadian/Scottish/imperial milieu, was a top-flight athlete, Rhodes Scholar, and Second World War veteran. His life epitomizes so much of the “greatest generation” that shaped wartime and postwar Canada, and reflected the emergent nationalism of the period. As a proud British Columbian who moved east, became part of the Ontario business elite and was a Trudeau Liberal, Gillespie’s story also cuts against the grain in many ways.
One of the few Westerners in Trudeau’s cabinet, Gillespie gives us insight into caucus and cabinet processes and a different view from recent biographies of Trudeau’s personality and his approach to government and politics in the 1970s. An earnestly written tale of courage and perseverance (Gillespie lost his brother and countless friends during the war and was nearly killed himself), like many autobiographies, it can nonetheless be a bit anecdotal and rambling at times.
Yet these minor issues can be indulged since, at the same time, the book is also a polemic, and a pretty sharp one at that. The book provides Gillespie with a platform to decry the lack of will among Canadian politicians and policy-makers to act against what he sees as long-standing problems in Canadian economic and political life: the hollowing out of corporate Canada, the continued dependence on resource extraction and its attendant “Dutch disease,” the lack of commercialization and R&D by Canadian firms and universities, and the absence of support for “champion firms” such as Nortel.
Gillespie comes by these positions honestly. Before entering politics in 1968, he was president of a Canadian publishing house and led a number of start-ups in a wide variety of manufacturing and service industries. As minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce he helped shepherd into existence the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) and established the “Gillespie Guidelines” for foreign multinationals operating in Canada. As minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, he dealt with the fallout from the 1973 OPEC embargo and laid the groundwork for the National Energy Policy [End Page 289] (defeated in 1979, Gillespie chose not to run again in 1980). Though a Walter Gordon economic nationalist (he calls Gordon his mentor), he remained a pragmatist in cabinet, and lamented Gordon’s slide into anti-Americanism and “inward-looking” policies.
Just as importantly, Gillespie brings a practical approach to economic problems based on real-world experiences that challenge prevailing economic orthodoxies. He is a committed capitalist, yet he is no fan of unregulated globalization or free trade, which he sees as a failure: “Our goods are blocked at the border and the American Congress blithely ignores our legitimate complaints” (p. 6). Gillespie’s view is that there should be “countervailing powers—government against the power of multinationals and central Canadian provinces against the energy dominance of Alberta” (p. 5).
It would be easy to dismiss Gillespie as a remnant of a long-gone Canadian past, pushing impractical solutions no longer realistic in a globalized world. But what is striking about Gillespie’s manifesto is how little things seem...