Mel Watkins is dead and Canada is the poorer for it.
This is not a dispassionate assessment, but nonetheless true. He was my friend and an important influence and example for me and so many others who had the good fortune of knowing and working side by side with him.
He was a man of great accomplishments and a full accounting of those is the work of his fellow academics, biographers and encyclopedia writers. I admired Mel for his output, but it was his enormous humanity, and his commitment to making his knowledge accessible to those who needed it in their everyday struggles for justice and equality, that stands out for me above all.
I met Mel in the early 70s when, as research advisor to the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT (soon to become the Dene Nation), I was casting about for a person who could give academic credibility and profile to our efforts to build the basis for a new kind of Aboriginal Rights claim, a political, not just property, settlement.
Those were the days of “action-research” and we believed federal research funding, if deployed properly, would help reclaim Dene history and raise the political consciousness of the North’s First Nations. We needed an academic sympathetic to that perspective, someone willing to share the research experience with the subjects of that research. Such individuals are a scarce breed. Mel was a perfect fit.
I recall our first meeting with him in the North. We sat outdoors on the ground on a mosquito-ridden spring day by the Cameron River, east of Yellowknife. I remember marvelling at Mel, so recently a national public figure, in the news as a leader of the Waffle faction of David Lewis’ NDP, and not long before that, as the brave author of the Pearson-commissioned Watkins Report on foreign ownership of the Canadian economy, sitting in those remote and humble surroundings and listening intently to the young Dene gathered there.
It was the start of an important and fruitful collaboration. Mel took a leave from U of T and he and his partner, Kelly Crichton, a journalistic force in her own right, moved their young and growing family to Yellowknife, a move of evident solidarity. Our families’ respective trajectories have been intertwined ever since.
In 1974, Justice Thomas Berger and his Royal Commission on the terms that should govern construction of the proposed Arctic Gas Pipeline – a public inquiry so successful it has never been repeated – provided the stage on which to demonstrate Canada’s internal colonialism and the justice of a negotiated settlement recognizing the Dene’s political right to self-determination. In addition to travelling widely throughout the MacKenzie Valley and encountering the reality on the ground, Mel worked tirelessly to raise awareness in southern Canada, and to bring his network of academic and civil society colleagues to bear on the issue.
Both the Berger Report and a book of essays, Dene Nation: The Colony Within, edited by Mel, bear the imprint of his influence. In the history of the fight to re-establish Indigenous rights in Canada, they stand as landmarks whose impact is still felt today in that unfinished business.
I dwell on this personal anecdote not because it is exceptional of Mel’s life, but because it speaks to his generosity and humility in the service of others. I know similar stories could be told of his work with trade unions, his campaigns and candidacy, often Quixotic, on behalf of the NDP, and his readiness to aid colleagues or students in distress. Perhaps it was his rural Parry Sound origins that taught him that urban isolation among like-thinkers was an unhealthy elitist temptation, but Mel always had time for those who could put his ideas to good use.
Economics is not a forgiving profession where politics are concerned and Mel’s social democratic inclinations were often judged infirm or unacceptable by colleagues of narrower perspective. Despite that, Mel was a bridge-builder, able to communicate and win the friendship of less liberal and even conservative academics who couldn’t help but respect his work, authenticity and commitment. He loved the opportunity to debate the likes of John Crispo or Simon Reisman on his favourite topic, the downside of free trade.
Mel’s production was a phenomenon in itself. One of the world’s fastest readers, he would incorporate the very latest writing in whatever paper he was immersed in. He never stopped writing lucidly up to the end. And his wide interests ran from political economy to Jungian psychology and the world of art and cultural criticism. An evening with Mel and Kelly could be certain to cover a lot of territory!
Despite his ever-present sense of humour, Mel struggled all his life with a monkey on his back, the Black Dog of inescapable depression. It could disable him unpredictably and lay him low. All his considerable efforts to find some way out from underneath were of no avail. It makes his successes all the more remarkable.
His loving family was also key to keeping Mel grounded. An accomplished wife to challenge him and three, as might be expected, sharply intelligent and curious children, all making their own impressions on the world. And Mel was also a devoted grandfather, doting on his grandkids, engaging with them and their worlds with enthusiasm. It was a recipe for keeping his dismal science humane.
This year, Mel was awarded membership in the Order of Canada, belatedly, but so justly deserved. I can think of few people who better embody the values and actions that should make us, as citizens of this country, proud.