A Simple Man of Paradoxes
by Max Foran
With the death of Grant MacEwan on June 15, 2000, at age ninety-seven, western Canada lost more than one of its most heralded citizens. A living legend has passed; one whose achievements and lifestyle embodied the spirit of a region and whose presence touched the hearts of thousands. He was a simple man whose easy charm and consistency to self made him the friend of thousands, young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural. He was also a universal man, a man for all seasons, a public figure writ large, a teacher, a writer, an historian, and a spokesman for all living things. Grant MacEwan was also a man of paradoxes. He was my role model, my mentor, my friend, and an enigma I never really solved.
For almost forty years I was associated with him as the son-in-law he had somehow inherited from distant Australia. Being drawn together by a love of history we shared innumerable conversations over the years. He infected me with a love of the West, and was an important factor influencing me in my decision to pursue western Canadian history at the academic level. I recorded many of our conversations, not wishing future generations to be deprived of hearing him recount stories of the west in that wonderful affirmative voice, embellished by a superb turn of the phrase and just a touch of the Scottish highland brogue. I helped him build shelves, decks, and cabins. We excavated wells and stripped logs. We shingled roofs and planted trees and shrubs. I went with him often when he was Lieutenant Governor of Alberta and watched him mingle with crowds like no other. I heard him speak formally on countless occasions and, more significant to me, I listened in on dozens of informal conversations he had with an amazing range of individuals from all states and walks of life. We wrote together in his study in Edmonton sometimes for hours, both comfortable in our silences. We both enjoyed sport, and watched football games on TV although he rarely lasted beyond the half when the challenge of tasks uncompleted invariably pulled him away. I watched him be a loving grandfather to my two daughters enlivening our house with his booming laugh and incessant energy. I typed manuscripts for him when his fingers lost their nimbleness. And towards the end when he was in the Beverly Centre I used to visit him regularly, arriving armed with questions for the book I was writing on Alberta's cattle industry. In short, I came to know, appreciate and love this man who could also conjure up in me a spectrum of emotion.
I held Grant MacEwan in awe. I marveled at his formidable strength of mind and body. I admired his patience, envied his memory and took inordinate pleasure whenever he complimented me. On the other hand, his stubbornness and frugality sometimes frustrated me. For example, although he was extremely hard of hearing he would not wear a hearing aid because of the expense involved. Similarly, he refused to invest in an electric typewriter because it wasted power and cost too much. When he was in his own apartment in his late eighties, he was difficult to contact because he would not bear the expense of installing a phone. And in all three instances there was no persuading him otherwise. Sometimes I thought he pushed his concept of duty too far denying himself and others, the frequency of more sustained personal experiences. Though he laughed a lot, he could also be terse. He was as generous with his time and assistance as he was frugal towards himself. He read voraciously but never for pleasure. In many ways, the "simple man" was not simple at all. Grant MacEwan was a man of seeming contradictions.
Without question, Grant MacEwan was a romanticist, a true nineteenth century man. His roseate view of the pioneer era stands as a prime example. Probably inspired by his mother whom he loved dearly, MacEwan was forever extolling the virtues of the pioneers who endured travail cheerfully and uncomplainingly. The pioneer figures about whom he wrote were characterized by their commitment to the land, their families and to their Creator. None was lazy or dissolute. Indeed, the worst exhibited no more than a touch of gentle knavery. Nostalgia thus emerged as a dominant theme in his public and private dialogues. He called for a return to farming the old-fashioned way with horses and felt that the world would be a better place with less production and more simplicity of purpose. He loved the romantic poems, ballads, and songs of the nineteenth century, and in private moments, particularly in his later years, was unabashedly sentimental over them. He mistrusted machinery and firmly believed that the automobile was testimony to Man's wastefulness and laziness. In short, the western Canadian rural past evoked simplicity of life and purpose, and became to MacEwan a mental haven where behavioural norms were understood, obeyed and in a subconscious way, relished.
On the other hand, Grant MacEwan was a true visionary. He was writing seriously about conservation issues long before they became public concerns. His messages about habitat destruction, natural resource depletion and land degradation were more than warnings; they were pleas for action before it was too late. He told me shortly before his death that the issue of the twenty-first century would be water, and that its scarcity and increasing importance to human existence posed Mankind with its greatest threat to date. Evidence suggests that he might be right. Just like his early statements about urban encroachment on prime rural land have proved chillingly accurate, the tenor of his last book speaks of an even more serious problem waiting for its time.
I would contend that MacEwan's adoption of vegetarianism on moral grounds places him squarely in a futurist tradition. It has been argued that the survival of the human race is linked to Man's success in recognizing his proper ecological place on the planet. MacEwan embraced vegetarianism on two grounds. First he believed that in the presence of choice, any willful killing was morally wrong. Second, he saw conscious and unnecessary extermination of life as disturbing the earth's harmonious cycles. As such, his call for tolerance and restraint places him towards the end of a moral and ecological spectrum that stretches far into the future. As he once told a pro-hunting group: "I don't eat my friends." In all the time I knew him, I never saw him kill anything. I have seen him working in the sun, his hands and legs covered with flies and mosquitoes, and ignoring them on the grounds that "they had to eat too." The beautiful simplicity with which he acted out these beliefs on the public stage sets Grant MacEwan apart. Devoid of political motivations, self-aggrandizement, martyrdom or fanaticism, his attitude towards all "his friends" provided a blueprint for a better future.
One should not forget that these sentiments were forged in a man who had practiced animal husbandry for most of his life, a man who had given beef butchering and dressing seminars, and who made his living for a time promoting beef consumption. Like all great people, MacEwan allowed his philosophy to evolve. Never a reflective man, his attitudinal change towards his fellow creatures was an emotional and intellectual reaction to things he could no longer abide. He once told me that his gradual change in philosophy was related to his ultimate realization that God and Nature were inseparable. Yet I also firmly believe that he killed only out of necessity, or as a clinical function of his job. In this sense, his transformation from viewing a steer as a product to seeing it as a sentient being, marked one of the most significant episodes in his life.
Not surprisingly then his writings became increasingly oriented to the future. With age, his forays into the past were concerned mainly with gathering information that would reinforce his Toynbeeian notions of the cyclical nature of history. In some ways he saw the future as a trust, and felt that the current generations had no moral right to usurp what belonged to their descendants. When we were not discussing the book I was writing, most of our conversations in the Beverly Centre in 1999-2000 were about the challenges facing the twenty-first century.
The paradox of the man living in both the past and the future is not difficult to understand if one recognizes Grant MacEwan's ideal of the land as sacred, as symbolic and even part of a Deity he was bound to serve. His beautifully eloquent Creed says it far better than I ever could. He identified with the past because he saw the pioneer's relationship with the land as interdependent. Farms were smaller and interference with the Land was restricted. He once told my wife Heather and me that if he ever farmed his property at Westward Ho, he would replicate nineteenth century cultivation methods. I sometimes think that despite his enormous appreciation of cash crop agriculture his own personal ambitions did not go beyond subsistence farming. He thus saw the past as a time when land-usage approximated his ideals of agriculture. This was part of the reason he loved the heavy farm horses. Strong as they were they could not rape the land.
Similarly, MacEwan lived in the future for the same sort of reasons only; here he saw very different processes taking place. He saw pillage and degradation by machines that could dominate the land. The large agricultural enterprises that tormented the land with chemicals and which needed less and less human sweat and Jove; the swathes of devastation caused by clear-cut logging; and the pollution of streams by industry were too much for him to bear. The crusader in him could not stand by and watch. He had to speak out. He needed to project his thoughts and this necessitated both research and informed reasoning. In short, the past was his haven; the future was his battlefield and he lived in both.
The second paradox I noticed in Grant MacEwan was really one of my first observations about him. When I arrived in Calgary, he was Mayor and I was swept into a social world where he appeared to know everyone. I was introduced to so many people that I felt at times like visiting Royalty. I soon learned that a walk down Stephen Avenue or through the midway during Stampede with him could be interminable stop-start exercises. And this went on through the years. I once chose about a dozen Alberta and Saskatchewan towns at random and asked him if he knew anyone in them or their surrounding regions. Not surprisingly, he batted one hundred percent. During my extensive interviews with him I discovered that he was on good speaking terms with the vast majority of political and agricultural figures in western Canada over a time span of more than sixty years.
Yet Grant MacEwan had few if any close friends. By close friends I mean those in whom he would confide; those with whom he would do things voluntarily or just for fun. In short, "those he palled around with." By this I do not mean to denigrate those who over the years have counted him as a true friend. I knew and loved him as much as anybody and I certainly place myself in the same category. You could not get close to Grant MacEwan, not on the intuitive level where shared vulnerabilities bind you together as friends. Except when he was asking me about my work, our conversations were extremely objective.
His privacy reinforced my own. In retrospect, I realize that it was our mutual interest in history that bound us together more than anything else, and now am led to wonder what the depth of our relationship would have been otherwise.
The paradox of the man with thousands of friends but no close ones is buttressed by another dimension. Grant MacEwan was a public figure writ large. He loved being with the people no matter who, or what their status. He had this uncanny ability to relate to large groups. When he was in his seventies he used to speak about returning to politics. One can envisage his formidable presence on the campaign trail. I have no doubt that he would have presented a much different and more powerful persona than he did in 1958 when he led the provincial Liberal Party into an election. The strength of his common touch with people was rooted in its genuineness. I vividly recall an incident when he drove me to the train station in Edmonton. It was a cold winter day and he was habitually clad in a top coat of marginal quality and warmth. He was Lieutenant Governor at the time, and as the train pulled away I looked back to the platform to see him standing bareheaded against the north wind, hands in pockets laughing uproariously with two black porters. Time and time again, I saw him work his magic among the people. A gifted public speaker he could capture an audience like no one else I have ever seen. He gravitated to the public as much as they were drawn to him. In many ways it was a symbiotic relationship.
Set against this extraordinary record of voluntary and spontaneous public involvement is the fact that Grant MacEwan was an extremely private man. For example, he was not an easy person to interview in that he would not talk about himself except in broad generalities. I always had a devilish time trying to extract meaningful information about pivotal events in his life. When I was reading his journals I was astounded to find him referring to himself as "the MacEwan." I heard speak on many occasions about the co-operative efforts of the pioneers who worked diligently together to achieve a common goal. One would assume that he saw this as an ideal to be lived. Not so. When we were building our house in Priddis, we called on our friends to help erect the pre-cut log structure. Of course Grant was there. He was the first to arrive as I recall. By late morning the group was assembled working together noisily and with the loose form of cohesion typical of working bees. Where was Grant? Off his own. He had set himself aside to work alone and silently, and at his own pace. He kept working through rest breaks and would have through lunch had not Heather insisted he join us. Where was the camaraderie of the volunteer endeavour? He certainly was not part of it. At
Christmas time when we opened our presents, he was more intent with assembling all the paper wrappings than he was with enjoying his or others' gifts. He would leave to dispose of them sometimes before the last present was opened much to the chagrin of his wife, Phyllis. Whenever he suddenly vanished from a social group at our house I knew where to find him. In my library of course. The public figure writ large was also a loner. How could one have so many friends yet none really, or cloak a private personal under such a beloved public presence? I think a possible explanation lies on two levels. First is the fact that Grant MacEwan's concept of friendship was different to mine and to most (if my generation. When he was with people, his warmth and easy familiarity forged relationships that went beyond mere acquaintance. To him, the people enjoyed being with, even for a little time, were his friends; those he was delighted to see on the street were his friends; those he respected and who shared similar interests were his friends. Equally as significant was the fact that it, was reciprocal. So, at a level consistent with his generation and concept of friendship, it could be argued that Grant MacEwan had many friends indeed.
Yet, why did he not spend a great deal of time with any of his friends, nor exchange private concerns or vulnerabilities with them? The answer, I think, lies in his obsessive commitment to task-completion. I think his failure to cultivate close friendships has a lot to do with the dictates of time and urgency that governed his life. Work was everything; play was a fleeting luxury. The self-imposed demands of work and the urgency that accompanied them precluded the time necessary to cultivate close friendships. His closest acquaintances were invariably people he worked or had worked with, and it was they who provided him with his social discourse. And even these had to be squeezed in between commitments. He once told me that he would have rafted down the South Saskatchewan River with his colleague Al Ewen more often but time always got in the way. He also denied himself the enrichment of friendships through sustained social interactions or activities. Parties, happy hours, golf, or a few drinks with faculty members on Friday afternoons were never part of his life.
He was obsessive about work. His stock phrase of "having a few things to do" has become part of our family lexicon, and we often joke about measuring the worth of individuals in terms of their general usefulness. For example, although he never said anything, I doubt whether he ever really approved of my playing squash and spending time with friends afterwards. Shoveling snow or planting trees would give me as much exercise and I would be a better man for it since I would have done something useful. The socializing part was absolutely irrelevant. I am reminded of the time when we were traveling one Saturday, and passed a field where newly mown hay was lying on the ground. Grant was appalled at the owner's negligence. When I pointed out that it was a weekend and that the farmer may have had a social life, he just said, "Maybe" in that maddeningly dismissive way he had of rejecting arguments with which he did not agree.
A third paradox concerns Grant MacEwan's attitude towards individuals as opposed to institutions. He made a name for himself as an author by writing about people. During his writing career he brought the unknown deeds of more western Canadians to the public eye that anyone else. To him, everyone had a story to tell and he relished the opportunity to tell it for them. Thus many of his characters had no particular claim to greatness except that they were true "characters." Grant MacEwan admired individuality and his subjects all demonstrated some nobility of human endeavour. Whether it be Bob Edwards, the iconoclastic editor of the Eye Opener; "Mother" Fulham, frontier Calgary's uncouth pig lady; Pere Athol Murray, the colourful founder of Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, Paddy Nolan, the often intemperate but brilliant early Calgary lawyer, or even Heather's ferrets, leaping and dancing around our kitchen like furry dervishes, Grant MacEwan loved spirit and character in people and animals.
He himself, was one of life's world's great characters, and in many ways was the embodiment of the effervescence and uniqueness he found in others.
Yet for all this love of individuality, and admiration for people who did things "their way" in spite of opposition and travail, Grant MacEwan was a firm believer in the primacy of institutions over the individual. He felt that the institutional voice was more stable than the individual. In some ways he mistrusted human capability, and felt that people generally had a propensity towards ill-discipline and personal ambition. Institutions on the other hand could be trusted, and therefore their policies and decisions should be followed to the letter. In response to a federal government news release, he once wrote a sizeable cheque to Revenue Canada defraying his share of the national debt.
When I told him about a policeman who had given me a break on a marginal speeding infraction, he was very critical of the officer, and bluntly informed me that he (the policeman) had no right to interpret the article of the law. Similarly, he was not pleased with my wife's public demonstrations in favour of Animal Rights because they were unsanctioned and anti-institutional statements. His penchant for establishing charitable foundations also provides an excellent example of his belief in the efficacy of the corporate voice over the individual.
MacEwan's faith in institutional behaviour is not hard to understand. As I have indicated earlier, he was very much a nineteenth century man. His view is consistent with nineteenth century Whiggery that saw man's development in terms of orderly patterns shaped and determined by institutional gradualism. He saw institutions as bastions of stability, rather than agents of control. The impersonal role of institutions as a buttress against human caprice appealed to MacEwan's conservative nature. Indeed, he felt that institutional waywardness only occurred when they were pre-empted by irresponsible leaders.
In terms of reconciling this paradox, I think MacEwan's admiration of individual endeavor needs to be qualified. I do not think he saw conflict between what his historical figures were trying to do and the undermining of institutions. Paddy Nolan sought justice; Frederick Haultain had a vision of western Canada; Pat Burns brought pluck and ingenuity to develop a new industry. The closest he came to lauding an individual bent on undermining the status quo was Bob Edwards. But here Grant saw Edwards as mocking pretension not societal stability, and he certainly approved of Edwards' championing of the Prohibitionist cause. As he once told me, he tended to mute distasteful aspects of his biographical subjects' personality in the interests of their nobler qualities.
Grant MacEwan had a wonderful sense of humour. It was very important to his life as anyone who has heard his booming infectious laugh will agree. He loved to laugh and laugh hard. Heather and I used to joke about the one thing that might bring on a heart attack would be a too boisterous response to one of her ferret's crazy antics. He liked most kinds of humour especially the absurd in animals and the spontaneous in humans. One might be surprised to learn that he liked silly small dogs far better than large dignified ones. I recall many times his ability to reduce an audience to tears of laughter by recounting stories of his experiences as Mayor or Lieutenant Governor. Given the importance of humour to Grant MacEwan, one can see his gravitation towards biography instead of institutional studies. Humans are funny; institutions are not.
Finally, Grant MacEwan admired uniqueness for its own sake. Yet it could be enhanced through determination and hard work. On the other hand, institutions were symbols, the embodiments of order and sensible management. As a practical man, he never saw them in contradictory terms. The flesh and blood of individuals nurtured spirit, humour, uniqueness, and caprice. The latter (caprice) might be selectively ignored in biography, or when one admired "characters" from a distance, but ultimately it engendered disorder. On the other hand, one could not write nor talk fondly about institutions because they were fleshless, impersonal and devoid of humour. But in the final analysis, it was they who could be trusted to do the right and proper thing.
Though I have tried to explain away what I perceived to be Grant MacEwan's paradoxical behaviour, the reader might be excused for thinking that I found him inconsistent. Nothing could be further from the truth, and herein lies the greatest paradox of all. I maintain that Grant MacEwan's paradoxical patterns are contradicted by a consistency to self unmatched in my own reading or personal experience. Unlike many of us who define our ambitions in terms of self-satisfaction, Grant MacEwan was driven by three abhorrences. All were manifested to the extreme, and either singly or interdependently explained his behaviour. His lifestyle was a mirror of these perceptions. The first and probably the most important was waste. His hatred of waste explained his frugality, his conservation, and his lament over resource depletion. When applied to time, it gave motivation to his work ethic. Second, he could not abide idleness. His disdain for extended social activity and his relentless unending commitment to the work ethic are cases in point. He saw task completion as the sole antidote of idleness and this impacted negatively on his ability to develop close relationships. Finally Grant MacEwan despised irresponsibility, and to be sure his concept of responsibility was extremely high. A superbly self-disciplined man, his penchant for applying similar standards to everyone else placed a lot of Mankind in the "irresponsible" category. It was this attitude plus his observations on the implications of waste and idleness that led him to see institutions as Mankind's best spokespersons.
One could argue that there was a fourth dimension to Grant MacEwan, a gentler, more personal side. His charisma; his total lack of ego; his warmth and folksy charm and genuineness; his love of children; and his empathy towards those in pain contributed to his enormous popular appeal. His facility with people was quite remarkable, because in its symbiotic nature, it went well beyond the mere populism of political figures with the common touch. In another person, his relentless assault on waste, idleness and irresponsibility might not have been received well. In Grant MacEwan's case, the way the message was delivered, plus the fact that the messenger was also the message, have enshrined him as one of western Canada's leading and most beloved public figures of the twentieth century.
Grant MacEwan was many things to many people. All who met him have their own favourite story and special memory. It takes a very unique figure to command that degree of personal identification. To me he was a multi-faceted person who never ceased to surprise me. I still miss him greatly. Like many great figures his simplicity hid many complexities, and in this discussion, I have tried to explain some of these. Yet, in the final analysis, I will remember Grant MacEwan as the toughest and gentlest man I have ever met. Yet, another paradox.
Max Foran, a son-in-law of Grant MacEwan, is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Communications & Culture, University of Calgary.