Remembering Mel Watkins (1932 – 2020)

April 6, 2020

Professor Melville H. Watkins OC, Professor Emeritus of the Departments of Political Science and Economics, passed away on April 2 at age 87. For more than fifty years, he was a leading figure in the study of Canadian economic history and the nature of Canada’s political economy. He provided a direct link between an earlier generation of Canadian political economists and intellectuals from the 1930s and 1940s, principally Harold A. Innis, and the subsequent generation of Canadian scholars whose careers launched in the 1970’s. Over the course of his forty-year career, he wrote extensively on the staples thesis, the impact of the multinational corporation and foreign investment on the Canadian economy, and the implications of Canada’s resource-based pattern of development for our indigenous communities, particularly in the North.

A prime concern was to link the theories of the staple economy developed by the prewar generation of scholars with the development of the economy from the 1950’s onward. This led, shortly after his return from Ph.D. studies at MIT to take up his position in the Department of Political Economy in the early 1960’s, to the publication of his seminal article “A Staple Theory of Economic Growth”. An influential intellectual contribution is one that scholars and commentators return to decades later to find lasting insights as relevant as when it was originally penned. In 2013, a wide array of colleagues and a younger generation of scholars came together to reflect on his seminal paper fifty years after its publication. The overriding consensus was that its insights were as relevant to understanding the nature of Canada today as when it was originally published.

His academic and applied policy work quickly brought him to the attention of Walter Gordon, then a key minister in Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s federal cabinet. From the mid-1950’s onwards, Mr. Gordon had been concerned with the impact of high levels of foreign investment on the development of the Canadian economy. Following the 1965 election, he asked Prof. Watkins to head a federal task force to investigate the issue. The result, known as The Watkins Report, quickly became a touchstone for public debate, with Prof. Watkins nationally recognized as the spokesperson for the Report. Despite the fact that divisions in the federal cabinet blocked action on its recommendations, he continued to speak and lobby on the issue. The following year he helped pen the Waffle Manifesto, which became one of the most hotly debated political documents across the country for the next half dozen years. It marked the beginning of a long period of his career as a political activist both within political parties, but more generally in public and scholarly debates.

In the mid-1970’s, he became increasingly concerned with the impact that the pattern of resource development in the oil and gas industry was having on both the environment and indigenous people. The research he coordinated for the Dene people and the subsequent volume published on The Dene Nation were pathbreaking in putting the perspective of Canada’s indigenous people front and centre in debates over the future course of our energy and resource development. He remained deeply committed to linking resource development to environmental issues for the rest of his career.

His continuing role as a public intellectual contributing to debates about the pattern of economic development in Canada stands as one of his most enduring contributions to public life in this country. His historical and theoretical understanding of the constraints on the development of dependent economies drew him, as a man of conscience, from the academy into the public arena. His activism as well as his progressive politics set him at odds with the ascendant intellectual thinking of much of his own generation, but as an inspiration to subsequent generations of scholars.

As a consequence, perhaps his most enduring legacy is as a teacher and mentor to almost three generations of students at the University of Toronto and in countless lectures across the country. Throughout his career, Prof. Watkins was driven by a deep passion for Canada and a determination to bring the academic skills and knowledge at his disposal to bear on helping make this a more prosperous and equitable country for all Canadians and future generations.

Professor David Wolfe

 

The Globe and Mail obituary is available here.

Other tributes:

Jonathan Sas (The Broadbent Institute) Former Institute Director of Policy and current Director of Communications for the BC Federation of Labour.

Peter Puxley (The Broadbent Institute) activist and long-time friend of Mel’s.

Karl Nerenberg (Rabble.ca)

For those wishing to offer a tribute to Mel, donations can be made to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives where a special fund has been created. Please make your donation in memory of Mel Watkins (www.policyalternatives.ca).