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Mel Watkins: A life well lived

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Political economist, activist and professor Mel Watkins (1932-2020). Image by Krishna Lalbiharie.

Mel Watkins, who passed on April 2, was a wonderful human being, a friend and mentor, the leading left economist of his or indeed any generation in Canada, and, not least, a committed democratic socialist and political activist. He will be greatly missed. But his life leaves behind an inspiring legacy.

I first got to know Mel during the great free trade debate of 1988 when a group of scholars and activists came together to analyze and critique the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, and then to assess its impacts on Canada (see Canada Under Free Trade, edited by Duncan Cameron and Mel Watkins).

For us, the FTA was a wilful abrogation of Canadian sovereignty, surrendering the policy tools needed to sustain a meaningfully democratic society, one able to make real choices about our collective future.

Nationalism is in bad odour these days, but the Canadian left nationalism of the 1960s through the 1980s was about opposing the imperialism of the United States and expanding democracy at home, not primarily about cultural identity. It was also firmly internationalist in spirit. As a lifelong peace activist, Mel exemplified commitment to global collective action and solidarity.

As a scholar, Mel is best remembered for his seminal article “A Staples Theory of Economic Growth” published in the Canadian Journal of Economics in 1963. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a celebration and appraisal of this piece on its fiftieth anniversary which is the go-to source for anyone interested in Mel’s theoretical contribution.

Briefly put, Watkins set out a theoretical framework to explain Canadian economic development and underdevelopment as profoundly shaped by the demand of the dominant metropolitan power for raw resources or staples, around which the dominant parts of the domestic economy, such as the banks and transportation networks were organized. In counterpoint, the state often worked to counter the dependency upon staples by deepening the linkages from the staple sector to national economic development, for example by promoting the the processing of raw resources, and substituting domestic manufactured goods for imports.

While Canada moved away from extreme resource dependency in the 1970s and 1980s due to policies like the auto pact, the National Energy Program and foreign investment review and maintenance of a large public sector, staples theory proved to be extremely useful in analyzing the bitumen boom of recent years. Younger scholars linked staple theory to carbon capitalism and the climate crisis, which Mel greatly appreciated. What’s more, socialist scholars in Canada extended Watkins’ economic analysis to examine the class forces at play in Canada’s political economy as well as in the intersectionalities of gender and race.

It is to Mel’s enormous credit that he played a major role in overcoming a significant gap in left political economy. Based on his work for the Berger Inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and its potential impacts on the Dene nation, Mel identified and explored the issue of internal colonialism and the subjection of Indigenous peoples by the settler state.

Following the publication of his staples theory, Mel was tapped by then Finance Minister Walter Gordon to head a task force on foreign ownership, and wrote what came to be known as the Watkins Report. It sparked a not insignificant change in Canadian economic policy under the semi-nationalist Trudeau governments of the 1970s. But Mel had moved on politically, and co-authored the famous Waffle Manifesto of 1969 which called for an independent socialist Canada. An internal war within the NDP resulted in the expulsion of the Waffle in 1972.

One of the ironies of left history in Canada is that the labour movement, especially the large American private sector industrial unions, resisted the nationalism of the Waffle, especially its call for a thoroughly Canadian labour movement. They drove the demand for expulsion. But by the 1980s, the Canadian Labour Congress had changed as some unions such as the CAW split, and as Canadian autonomy guidelines were adopted. The CLC strongly opposed the Free Trade Agreement on left nationalist grounds, and Mel was hired by then President Shirley Carr to research and analyze the agreement. He wrote the formal CLC brief on the Free Trade Agreement, and made several close friends in the labour movement including myself and Bruce Campbell who later headed the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Another irony of left history is that the two most prominent leaders of the Waffle, Mel and Jim Laxer, returned to the NDP while most left intellectuals remained firmly distant. Mel ran as an NDP candidate in 2000, and knocking on doors soliciting votes cemented a new understanding of the challenges of political communication. That said, Mel was firmly opposed to the neoliberal turn of most social democratic parties in the past thirty years or so, and devoted much of his effort to the development of left economic analysis and ideas. He played a major role as a mentor and contributor to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the socialist journal Studies in Political Economy, and the Progressive Economics Forum among others. He was proud to call himself a socialist, while also very much embracing the urgent need to deal with the climate crisis.

Mel was a wonderful person to spend time with—he was witty, humorous, sardonic, insightful, never putting anyone down, and always ready to encourage much younger scholars and activists. He had friends across the political spectrum and loved debating ideas. I recall having a very enjoyable lunch at the Canadian Economics Association meetings with Mel, Armine Yalnizyan and none other than arch-conservative economist and journalist Bill Watson. Mel admired good economists of any political persuasion, though he scorned the dogmatists of neoliberalism.

Farewell Mel. Thanks for a life lived to the fullest, for your intellectual legacy, and for your inspiring political engagement and activism.

Mel and his wife Kelly Crichton, a former CBC producer.

Andrew Jackson is the former National Director of Social and Economic Policy at the Canadian Labour Congress.

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