June 20, 1996 * Vol . 6, No. 4

"Resist the sin of indifference"

Alan Whitehorn exits stage left

In two very busy years Alan Whitehorn, SFU's first J.S. Woodsworth endowed chair in the humanities, became one of the best-known members of the university community. He not only followed in Woodsworth's footsteps, but also blazed his own trail, leaving large shoes for his successor to fill.

Whitehorn and his family have now moved back to Kingston, Ontario, where he returns to his position as professor of comparative politics and political theory at the Royal Military College. Recently - as he took down his collection of framed movie stills and posters, emptied his file cabinets and desk of papers on conferences he organized, courses he taught and articles he wrote since September, 1994 - he chatted with Bruce Mason of
Simon Fraser News.

The chair you have occupied was named after the founder of the CCF party, forerunner of the NDP. It's ironic that the programs in which he was instrumental - family allowance, old age security and unemployment insurance. etc. - are now being dismantled. Do you have a sense of urgency about these issues and feel him peering over your shoulder?

Yes, unquestionably. Woodsworth once said, "Resist the sin of indifference." This is a quote I used at the beginning and end of the six courses I taught at SFU. In addition, I was challenged by the substantial and varied expectations of donors, faculty, students and the public. Meeting those expectations meant being active in the scholarly, teaching and public realm.

Woodsworth was a remarkable figure in Canadian history. As an individual, he broke out of the conventional norms of being a clergyman and sought a variety of means to educate and enlighten the powerless and dispossessed. He shifted from scholarship and the formal church hierarchy to community organization and political activism.

Our many social and economic problems are important for academics to consider, especially during these difficult times. Should we be detached observers, or should we come down from the mountain, roll up our sleeves and help construct a better world?

The past two years have been volatile. What are your current impressions of B.C.?

It's difficult to speak and hear across the Rockies and I sympathize with B.C.'s long-standing grievances with Ottawa. But it works both ways. From here it's difficult to see the looming Canadian confederation crisis, particularly since this province is doing relatively well. There is also a failure in the East to understand and appreciate B.C.'s growing role as a major voice in constitutional deliberations. B.C. needs to help lead the country out of its regional fragmentation and break the constitutional impasse. I hope B.C. won't become increasingly isolationist and instead show generosity to the rest of the country, including Quebec.

Shortly after the recent provincial election you wrote "My election campaign: Hey mom, dad's on TV, again" for The Sun, one of many articles you have written here. You averaged six to 10 media interviews a day during the campaign and The Sun acknowledged that you were included in over 20 stories they published. You've had an opportunity to give the matter some thought. In retrospect what was the significance of Election '96?

It was pivotal. There were dramatic choices between social democracy and neo-conservatism with huge implications for the role of the state and the future of our social programs - in essence, the Canadian fabric which defines us as different from the U.S.

As well, the premier chosen can be a statesman with a profound impact on the first ministers' conferences and the future of the country and its national programs.

Canadians know how polarized B.C. has been and now the rest of the country is catching up, particularly Ontario and Alberta. In many ways the 1990s are much like the 1930s, especially with high levels of unemployment. I think we are going to see many large demonstrations in the days ahead. People will take on extra-parliamentary political activity because something is fundamentally askew. This rising chorus can already be heard in the large number of protests in Ontario recently.

You've pursued your academic career, publishing articles, a booklet on Woodsworth, a book on NDP activists and more. You've taught a wide range of courses and organized conferences which attracted the likes of Ed Broadbent and Bob Rae. What makes this endowment different?

It is relatively unique because although major foundations have made contributions, most of the endowment fund comes from ordinary people who have hopes as citizens to build a better Canada and foster greater social justice. More than anything else, I wanted to participate in our local communities and gave over two dozen public lectures, involved a wide range of people in conferences and made myself available as often as possible for media discussions.

There was also an opportunity to teach unusual interdisciplinary courses in the humanities, political science and Canadian studies, for example - The History and Philosophy of the CCF-NDP, Politics and Literature, and Contemporary Political Beliefs.

I was particularly struck by the national importance of the endowment when introduced to a convention in Saskatchewan. There I was reminded that the idea of the J. S. Woodsworth chair has widespread appeal.

Any thoughts on your students?

We live in an increasingly secular, technological world. As traditional authority and religions decline, there is a greater quest for meaning. People want to understand their place in history and the world as well as learn more about different political beliefs and cultures. This is particularly true of evening courses where many students, who clearly believe in life-long learning, are often on a personal quest for meaning.

Is there a moment which stands out?

Yes, as I return to work with the young men and women who will become Canada's military officers and peace-makers, I recall a hand-written letter to me at SFU from a former student. It was written from a bunker in Bosnia as he struggled to find words to express his emotions so far from his young family during a very dangerous assignment for peace. It made me pause and reflect on this country and our roles as individuals.

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