Mel Watkins, a leading social democratic voice for Canadian economic and political independence, died in early 2020 during the height of the Covid epidemic. That plague and its necessary accompanying restrictions prevented his family, friends, former colleagues, and others from gathering to honor the death of this remarkable man.
This month, more than two years later, we finally got the chance. A large crowd of us gathered on October 1st to fill the hall at U of T’s University College (where he taught) to remember Mel and sing his praises. A series of brief presentations from family, friends and former colleagues painted a composite picture of Mel, his life and accomplishments. I was privileged to be one of the presenters. (A three-minute time limit helps concentrate the mind, but necessarily leaves one aware of how much has been left out!) Here is a transcript of my contribution:
Mel was first and foremost my friend. Someone whose company I enjoyed, against whom I could test my ideas, and from whom I could learn. I can still hear his cheerful greeting, his infectious sense of humour. He was a kind, gentle and affectionate man, and though we were not without our occasional differences, he was easy to love.
I miss him / and I grieve his death.
We met in the NWT in 1974.
We and our Dene colleagues collaborated on the idea of a different kind of treaty between our settler government and the original inhabitants of this land – an agreement that would be more than a “land settlement”, or property claim. – A political settlement, that would recognize the Indigenous right to self-determination and create an Indigenous jurisdiction. An idea before its time, it turned out, though who could doubt that it will yet have its day?
Dene Nation: The Colony Within, a book that Mel edited, marshalled the arguments for such a settlement. The book broke new ground – for the first time, applying the lessons of anti-colonial movements elsewhere in the world to Canada itself.
It remains relevant and influential to this day.
Death is a time for mythologizing, in the best sense of the word. Today, we mourn and celebrate a friend whose memory lives on in the myths he personified – Myths by which he influenced us, and by which we will remember him. Myths to live by.
Solidarity, for one.
Mel took his learning and placed it at the service of those seeking a more equitable, more humane society. His work with the Dene Nation in the NWT was only one example of a life devoted to making practical use of his academic research, standing shoulder to shoulder with progressive forces across this country – from Indigenous peoples, to unions, to fair trade activists, to the fight for nuclear disarmament.
The writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, (no stranger to the North) speaks of the writer’s obligation to write from a position of “moral responsibility”. Well, Mel was an accomplished polemicist and writer. And he wrote instinctively from a position of “moral responsibility”.
Such writing is not easy. It can demand of its practitioners enormous and on-going courage, because its enemies are often powerful, and petty, and vindictive.
Above all, Mel believed Canada could be a truly great democracy, despite our failure to date. Underlying his work is a key assumption of every true democrat – that the majority is capable of greatness if it recognizes its moral responsibility, and its determinative collective strength.
At this time of multiple crises – think, the climate emergency, rampant corporate colonialism, insufferable inequality – those with the power to effect change in this country all too often opt for less, not more, democracy. Yet, vibrant democracy is the answer.
Now, more than ever, we need more Mels – intellectual leaders who will call on us, in the words of the great non-conformist poet, Shelley, to:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many; they are few!”
On the occasion of Mel’s death I wrote a more fulsome description of Mel’s work in the NWT and its legacy for the Broadbent Institute’s Blog. You can find it here.