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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Calgary Neo-Cons Hunt Controversy

National Post, 22 July 2000

CalgaryTrying to find those perfect guests for your next dinner party? Folks who’ll put everyone at ease with light banter and innocuous opinion? A hint – don’t invite these men:

Barry Cooper thinks welfare should be abolished. Tom Flanagan believes that aboriginal Canadians must be assimilated. David Bercuson once suggested that getting rid of Quebec might just be the key to long-term Canadian prosperity. And, according to Rainer Knopff and Ted Morton, the Canadian political system is being hijacked by a cabal of red-robed leftists on the Supreme Court.

A small but dedicated posse of University of Calgary scholars, they’ve spent the last quarter-century hunting down liberals, feminists, multi-cult-ists, Trudeau-ites, and other assorted villains. Now in their fifties, the bad boys of Canadian academia might finally be earning some respect. Scholarly papers have referred to them as the “Calgary School,” calling them a “new motor of Canadian political thought.” Polite company has even started including them in their dinner invitations: this Tuesday, when the Donner Canadian Foundation hosts a small banquet at Toronto’s Hotel Inter-Continental, those gathered will be sipping merlot and listening respectfully as Ted Morton launches his attack on “judicial activism.”

Public intellectuals aren’t a new phenomenon in Canada, of course. Earlier this century, Frank Underhill had a long career as a historian and political activist of the left. In 1933, he helped pen the Regina Manifesto, a cornerstone of the newly-formed Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). But outside Europe, activists in the academy are still a rare species. The conservative breed of public intellectual has been rarer still.

So how has an entire colony managed to thrive and propagate in Calgary? Rainer Knopff points to the salubrious climate. “Calgary’s a rather congenial place for conservatives,” he says over lunch at the U of C’s Faculty Club. Canadian Alliance headquarters are located here, of course, but Knopff also spins off a random list of conservative think tanks that have also established a home, or set up regional outposts, in Calgary: The Fraser Institute, the Canadian Property Rights Research Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, the National Foundation for Family Research and Education.

The brisk air of Calgary conservatism has even seeped into that traditional fortress of liberal thought – the university. “This is the first time that there have been people in departments like this who grew up in this part of the country,” explains Barry Cooper, who shares his office with the head of a black-tailed deer. Talk with Cooper, and you’ll get the impression that he and his colleagues are as Albertan as cowboys, canola, and crude oil. Cooper himself was born in Vancouver, but he spent the summers of his youth in Alberta and British Columbia, ranching, logging, fishing, and laying pipeline.

His colleagues are also Calgarians more by conviction than by birth. Knopff was born in Germany and raised in Hamilton, Ontario. Tom Flanagan and Ted Morton were both born in the US. David Bercuson, the lone historian among his political science colleagues, was raised in a liberal Jewish family in Montreal. But when the U of C offered him his first academic position in 1970, Bercuson never looked back. “Living in Alberta is like living a dream,” he reflects, a slight paunch brimming over a prominent belt buckle. “It’s a place where people don’t spend a lot of time bitchin’ and moanin’. If something’s wrong, they fix it.”

More often than not, fixing problems means working together. Cooper and Bercuson have collaborated on two books and countless newspaper columns; Knopff and Morton have joined forces on three other books. And when they get bored taking shots at Quebec separatists and Supreme Court justices, chances are you’ll find them together in the great outdoors, taking aim at more challenging prey. All are avid fishermen; Cooper, Knopff and Morton are hunters as well. Spending time together outside the university has helped cement their friendship, and honed many of their ideas. “When the fish aren’t biting, or the ducks aren’t flying, you typically spend a lot of time driving around in the dark,” Morton points out. “It’s created a lot of opportunity for informal exchange and testing of ideas.”

The end result has been an immense body of writing, almost all of it deeply contentious. A sizable proportion has been meat-and-potatoes scholarship, laden with references to dead German and French philosophers. But much of it has been what Cooper has christened “forensic scholarship.”

Whatever you call it, it packs a punch. Early this year Cooper’s colleagues hit the warpath again, with two of their most controversial books in years: Flanagan’s First Nations? Second Thoughts, and Morton and Knopff’s The Charter Revolution and the Court Party. The response from the political establishment has been swift and unforgiving. Flanagan’s attack on “aboriginal orthodoxy” spurred a charge of racism from former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, in a letter published to the National Post two months ago. Knopff and Morton have earned stern rebukes from the highest justices in the land.

Others are troubled by their political partisanship. Flanagan was a prominent adviser to Preston Manning from 1991 to 1993. Ted Morton has been even more active politically, winning a 1998 election as one of two of Alberta’s “senators-in-waiting.” Three weeks ago, he made headlines again for allegedly threatening an Alliance MP who supported Preston Manning with dire political retribution. Does he worry that such open partisanship will compromise his scholarship? “I guess at this point I really don’t care,” he says over the phone from Calgary. “When you’re a scholar your purpose is to write clear and balanced and nuanced analyses. But as an advocate you tend to wash out these distinctions, to simplify, in order to get people to act. There’s certainly a tension there, but I think I can do my scholarship in a way that I think is right, and I think people that are interested will take it on its own merits.”

Even many scholars on the left of the political spectrum say there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such advocacy. “I think that academics have an obligation to grapple with the bigger questions, and bring them to a wider audience,” says Gordon Laxer , a University of Alberta political economist and director of the Parkland Institute . “Most universities are financed substantially by the public. I disagree with Flanagan on almost every single question, but I like to read him because he’s got something to say.”

Alan Cairns, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, agrees, although he has major disagreements with Flanagan over aboriginal rights. “Flanagan is a major, serious scholar,” he insists. But Cairns disagrees with Flanagan over the issue of aboriginal “assimilation,” a word he rejects in his recent book, Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State (UBC Press). “Aboriginal peoples have carved out a distinct place for themselves in Canada,” says Cairns, “the specifics of which have to be worked out. I prefer to call this a ‘plus’ category. If there’s a role for that ‘plus’ category for Tom, it’s one that he only reluctantly agrees to.”

Other critics have been less generous. University of Manitoba history professor Douglas Sprague has “nothing but contempt for Flanagan’s scholarship and his views on aboriginal policy.” In Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1988) Sprague directly attacks Flanagan’s interpretation of Riel and the North-West Rebellion. “Flanagan’s perspective,” explains Sprague over the phone, “is that the métis were a flock of helpless sheep manipulated by a self-serving madman. In fact, they genuinely sought an accommodation, but were goaded into rebellion by the crass manipulation of the government of Canada. It’s the same thing with the history of aboriginal treaties.”

Even within their own department, such scholarship is often greeted with both hostility and envy – many projects have been generously supported by conservative think tanks and foundations such as the Fraser Institute and the Donner Foundation. “We’re still a dramatic minority,” explains Knopff, “not even 25% of the department.” Adds Cooper, “if you feel slightly besieged, and you know that there are people who would like to diminish your effectiveness, then that enhances your vitality. I know that whenever Bercuson and I do a column, it gives me extra enjoyment when I know that I’ll be irritating some of my colleagues.”

Their colleagues can count on many more years of irritation. Knopff is currently working on another book, tentatively entitled Courting Controversy, in which he examines the legal and political rationale behind recent court decisions. He’s also collaborating in a Fraser Institute study which will assess the costs of recent landmark Supreme Court decisions. Cooper, meanwhile, is busy targeting the Canadian Wheat Board and environmental policy in Parks Canada.

What unites them all is more a state of mind than a coherent philosophy. Most cheerfully admit to duking it out over various issues. Cooper is skeptical of Alliance policies such as parliamentary recall, and has clashed with Flanagan over political campaign regulations. Bercuson, who emphatically rejects the notion that he and his colleagues form a “school” of thought, finds little to admire in the social conservatism of his colleagues: “I believe the greatest danger to individual liberty is from an interventionist state,” he states firmly, “whether that comes from intervention in the economy or in intervention in individuals’ personal lives.”

So if they’re not a school, what should we call this collegial, controversial, and increasingly influential group of Calgary free-marketeers? Ted Morton pauses, then makes a tentative suggestion: “How about the ‘Calgary mafia’?”