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Remembering Stephen Clarkson


Not a year since the death of Abe Rotstein, another giant from the University of Toronto's political science department has passed away. Stephen Clarkson died this past Sunday at the age of 78.

I remember distinctly my first day of class in Stephen's course on NAFTA and the Canadian state back in 2005. All of our materials were printed on the long-since-defunct letterhead of the Department of Political Economy. Stephen spent the first five minutes of that class explaining that we were indeed in a political economy course, not political "science" (whatever that was).

It was in that class I got my first taste of left Canadian nationalism and the Canadian political economy tradition, from staples theory to the great free-trade debates of the 1980s. I had always cringed at any talk of "nationalism". But here was a professor fiercely dedicated to Canada at its best: a robust welfare state, smart and effective cultural policy, the government as agent for, and steward of, broad collective aims. 

Stephen was a scholar interested in understanding how globalization was challenging and transforming the state as it emerged from the social democratic consensus. In particular, he was interested in how it was affecting the Canada he had clearly come to know and cherish. His courses on globalization and Canadian political economy indelibly marked my own politics, particularly my understanding of how multilateral trade agreements can undermine sovereignty and the ability of government to act and regulate in the public interest. 

Perhaps most fundamentally, he made me think critically about what Canada is, how active government policy can be a force for good, and what the state could be if we take care to shape it. His classes were exciting precisely because they were so urgent. He was lucidly interpreting the ascendence of neoliberalism as it was happening, taking care to explain how it was operating —especially important for students who, by and large, had not been alive during the building of what was now being undermined.

Stephen was interested in doing good scholarship. He could write both for academic and popular audiences, and was incredibly prolific. He wrote accessibly and offered plausible and thorough accounts based on the facts at hand. He was not interested in serving any strict analytical framework or sub-disciplinary obsession, many as there are these days to serve.

On a personal note, I found Stephen a sweet and fascinating person. Quick witted, funny but serious. He was known for having big dinner parties with his students, good wine and food abound. He remained to the end a passionate teacher, and I take some comfort in knowing it was this he was doing to his last days.  

Stephen believed in my abilities and potential... and he told me as much at the age of 19 when I needed to hear it. I had been emailing with him not two months ago about the TPP and the implications of the investor state dispute settlement mechanism for Canada. 

Like many others, I am going to miss him sorely.

Jonathan Sas is Director of Research at the Broadbent Institute. He was lucky to take three courses with Stephen Clarkson at the University of Toronto and conduct a major research study under Stephen's direction.