25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Helen Forsey

Share |
Helen Forsey

The formidably principled senator Eugene Forsey was a constitutional expert, a fierce promoter of civil rights and an inspirational father. His daughter, Helen Forsey, has spent nearly two decades composing a book that chronicles her father's life's work and serves as a vital resource for Canadians who are concerned about the social and political climate of our country. Finally complete and more relevant than ever, Eugene Forsey: Canada's Maverick Sage has just been published by Dundurn Press. Helen talks to Open Book about the writing of Canada's Maverick Sage and its remarkably timely publication.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Eugene Forsey: Canada's Maverick Sage.

Helen Forsey:

The book is delightfully hard to categorize. Like its subject, it doesn't fit neatly into any of the usual pigeonholes. My dad was best known as a constitutional expert and senator, but he was also one of Canada's early socialists, a trade union "civil servant" and a lifelong activist for the public good, holding governments and corporations to account. The book is partly the story of the man, with anecdotes and photographs and lots of his lively humour. But more than that, it is a resource, organized around key themes in order to provide Canadians with vital tools of fact and analysis for our present and future struggles. It delves into my father's constitutional and political views in some detail, and also discusses matters of faith, the importance of history and of language, issues in education and the economy, and the dangers of partisanship and parochialism.


You have been working on this book for 17 years — quite the endeavour! Canada has changed a good deal in that time. Is your ambition for the book's reach and influence the same as when you began, or has it evolved with the changing political climate?


It has definitely evolved. When I began, I focused on documenting the scope and relevance of my father's work for a broad readership, including younger people and new Canadians who would not otherwise know about him. As I researched his years as a radical academic and labour researcher, I was amazed at how much of what he wrote decades ago applies to our social and economic realities today. It made me even more determined to get Dad's voice "out there" in an accessible and accurate way, to help us as citizens address the continuing challenges facing Canada and the planet. But I never dreamed that the subject of his doctoral thesis — the role of the Crown in preserving our parliamentary democracy — would become a hot topic of public debate, as it has since the prorogation fiasco of 2008. Eugene Forsey's detailed knowledge and principled thinking on that subject, as well as on broader issues of democracy and social justice, are needed now more than ever.


What was the biggest challenge you encountered during the writing of this book?


The biggest challenge was just getting it all done. From the time I started planning and researching in 1995, I had to squeeze the work on the book in between earning a living and the demands of my activism. I had to put it on the shelf for months at a time, and when I picked it up again I'd see it needed all kinds of changes. Still, it progressed, and I was getting close to submitting a manuscript. Then my son Roddy became ill with cancer, and my whole life went on hold. He died in 2006, and for some time afterwards I was incapable of much of anything. But I knew he wanted me to get the book out there, so I slowly began to put what energy I had into making that happen.


How did the writing of Canada's Maverick Sage change your understanding of your father?


The process of writing the book, combined with the unfolding of events on the political and constitutional scenes over recent years, forced me to examine various personal and political issues that I had avoided or overlooked before. I came to see more clearly the reasons behind his adamant federalism, his defense of the monarchy and his loving questioning of my feminism. I joyfully uncovered more details of his lifelong connections with his native Newfoundland, felt the depth of his grief over his rupture with the newly-formed NDP in 1961, and began to grasp the realities — sometimes sad and sometimes amusing — behind his choice of battles. And I gained a visceral understanding of his frustration, even fury, at the kind of distortions and manipulations that make a mockery of the parliamentary democracy he cherished.


Can you describe a childhood experience you had with your father that contributed to your becoming the writer and activist you are today?


I remember a family picnic beside Dow's Lake in Ottawa, one summer evening when I was eight or nine. A gentleman walking by dropped a candy wrapper on the ground. Dad picked it up, went over to the man and said politely, "I think this is yours?" The litterbug turned out to be a priest, and he was most apologetic. I didn't analyze it at the time, of course, but I suspect there were two lessons there: Don't hesitate to speak out for what's right, and when you do, you may actually make a difference.


What do you feel is Eugene Forsey's most important contribution to Canada?


I would have to cite his shining example of integrity, his rigorous intellectual honesty, his respect for differences and complexity, and his passion for the common good. Our country needs his knowledge, yes, but above all it needs the uncompromising diligence with which he pursued truth, challenged injustice and hypocrisy, and insisted on calling dangerous nonsense by its right name. All this he often managed to do with humour and compassion.

"Where's Eugene Forsey when you need him?" the Hill Times asked rhetorically when it published an excerpt from Canada's Maverick Sage last spring. I hope the book helps provide an answer.


What's next for you?


Many of the issues addressed in the book remain very current, so I continue to follow up — and of course keep getting pulled into related controversies. I am also involved in efforts in my home communities in rural Ontario and Newfoundland to protect our natural and human heritage. Finally, in between political crises and outrages, I hope to get some stories and reflections down on paper for my grandchildren, to amuse them and perhaps help them defend the planet they are inheriting.

Helen Forsey, like her father, Eugene, is a social activist and writer. She studied agriculture at McGill University, then worked in international co-operation and public education in Canada and overseas. Her writing and activism focus on feminist, environmental, political and constitutional issues. As well as numerous articles, her work includes two other books: Circles of Strength: Community Alternatives to Alienation (New Society 1993) and The Caboose at the Cape: A Story of Coming Home (DRC 2011). A mother and grandmother, she divides her time between the Ottawa Valley and her father's homeland of Newfoundland.

For more information about Eugene Forsey please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Advanced Search