Precursors without Successors

The Sixties were a decade of both self-questioning (national identity and French-English relations) and coming-of-age (Expo 67 and the Centennial, the Maple Leaf flag) for Canada. That decade saw two major political narrative texts, the CBC’s television series Quentin Durgens MP (1965-69) and Arthur Hailey’s 1962 novel In High Places.

The television series was about a young idealistic backbench government MP from small-town Ontario, portrayed in a breakout role by Gordon Pinsent. It provided a setting for discussing contemporary policy issues (French-English relations, immigration policy, policy towards indigenous Canadians) as well as parliamentary inside baseball (powers of parliamentary committees, work-life balance for MPs). Durgens’s back-bench initiatives were rarely successful, often stymied by ministers or bureaucrats, but they nonetheless served as a critique of accepted public policy at the time.

The program was a critical success, winning raves for its intelligent writing and Pinsent’s forceful performances. Nevertheless, it was not a popular success for several reasons. The CBC aired it just before Wojeck, a series about an activist coroner (modeled on Ontario coroner Morton Shulman). The public took more to the inside baseball of forensic pathology than of parliamentary procedure (and indeed the forensic pathology subgenre has been popular in many countries over the last half-century, for example CSI in the US). Its narrative arc was limited and it remained a bildungsroman to the end: Durgens becomes wiser to the ways of Parliament, but never takes the next step, remaining a backbencher. In this it contrasts with many more recent series about politics – Borgen, Parks and Recreation, Madame Secretary, Veep, and House of Cards – in which characters’ lives evolve over the course of several seasons. Finally, Quentin Durgens MP was overtaken by events as a cool bachelor backbench MP soon became a minister, and ultimately prime minister.

Arthur Hailey’s In High Places (1962) was published at the height of the Cold War and reflects that era’s fears. Prime Minister James Howden, certain that a nuclear war with Russia is imminent, secretly negotiates a 25-year agreement with the President of the US in which the US would assume control of the Canadian Armed Forces, the two countries would conduct foreign policy jointly and establish a customs union, and the US would cede Alaska to Canada to serve as a post-nuclear war seat of government. In presenting the agreement cabinet for approval, Howden faces opposition led by the Minister of Defence, a war hero. The novel ends with a cabinet revolt, in which six ministers resign, but Prime Minister Howden nonetheless is hopeful that the House of Commons will approve the agreement.

What I particularly like is that Hailey populated his novel with three kinds of political actors: power-seekers, idealists, and realists. It stands as an important contrast to The Thick of It, House of Cards, and Yes Minister, in which the actors are all power-seekers, and The West Wing, in which most of the actors are idealists. Hailey’s power-seekers are mainly backroom advisers, such as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.

The Defence Minister, in contrast, is an idealist. The Prime Minister promises him the position of Governor General if he will support the Act of Union. He doesn’t, because his vision of an independent Canada is more important than presiding over what he feels will be a diminished country. The Opposition leader is an idealist as well. He learns about a secret deal Howden had made to win power in his party, but does not make public scandalous information that would likely drive Howden from office, choosing to debate Howden solely on the merits of the Act of Union. When the Opposition leader tells Howden this, Howden thinks “But I would have done it to you. Without hesitation, I would have done it to you.”

Prime Minister Howden is willing to make a secret deal to gain power and to offer a cabinet colleague the post of Governor-General to buy support. Howden believes that “If you want to be pure, you must stand alone. If you seek to do positive things, achieve something, leave the world a mite better than you found it, then you must choose power and throw some of your purity away”.

When it was published, In High Places stimulated considerable attention and debate concerning its radical scenario. Hailey spoke to a convention of Canadian authors and delivered a pessimistic conclusion regarding Canadian culture:

I wish I could speak with enthusiasm and belief of an awakening Canadian identity, a mainstream of Canadian culture, flowing toward some halcyon future where art and wisdom, nurtured in nationhood, would flourish side by side. But I cannot do this because it is not true. It might have happened if Confederation had been 150 years earlier, or our population were 50,000,000 instead of 18,500,000. But now it’s too late.

Given Hailey’s pessimism about Canadian culture, it is no surprise that he wrote a novel that contemplated Canada giving up much of its sovereignty (though the novel takes no position on is desirability). Though In High Places’ inconclusive conclusion invited a sequel, he never wrote it. Instead he turned his talents to writing about commercial institutions (airports, hotels, and automobile manufacturers) for American audiences, and as soon as he had a bestseller decamped to the US. It is unfortunate not only that Hailey stopped writing about Canada, but that he also stopped writing about politics and government. His creation of a political universe populated by power-seekers, idealists, and realists – rather than dominated by one of these three groups – could have led to some fascinating narratives.

Like Arthur Hailey, Gordon Pinsent’s attention and ambitions were turned towards the US market and, as soon as Quentin Durgens MP finished, he moved to Hollywood. The series itself has not been made available online or on disc and can only be seen by appointment at the CBC archives in downtown Toronto.

These two early texts could have established a strong Canadian political narrative genre, but they did not, and lacked immediate successors. Both received considerable attention, but an insufficient audience. And the author of one and lead actor of the other were drawn to the larger American market.

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