Canadians remember scholar Stephen Clarkson

‘He inspired a generation of young Canadians to study Canada, the country he dearly loved, and to ask big questions about the world all around us.’

By: , /
March 4, 2016
clarkson
The late Stephen Clarkson. Credit: University of Toronto,

This week, Canada lost Stephen Clarkson, a beloved professor, leading expert on Canadian political economy, author and member of the Order of Canada. The University of Toronto scholar died at the age of 78 on Feb. 28 in Germany.

An outpouring of tributes from Clarkson’s former students, colleagues, friends and some of the country’s leading journalists and researchers paints a portrait of an engaged and passionate academic who inspired countless Canadians across many sectors.

“So sorry to hear of passing of Stephen Clarkson, outstanding academic, passionate Canadian. Thank you Stephen for all you've left us,” Canadian economist Jim Stanford posted on Twitter.

Stephen Clarkson was a powerhouse historian and a hugely generous guy. I owe a lot to his quiet acts of assistance,” wrote Globe and Mail international affairs columnist Doug Sanders.

OpenCanada reached out to many of his former students, now spread out far beyond Toronto, and invited them to share their memories.

Clarkson was a person "fiercely dedicated to Canada at its best; a robust welfare state, smart and effective cultural policy, government as agent for and steward of broad collective aims,” said Jonathan Sas, director of research at the Broadbent Institute in Ottawa.

Sas first met Clarkson as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and penned a tribute on the Institute’s site earlier this week. “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,” he wrote.

Fellow University of Toronto alumni Maria Banda, now a senior associate with WilmerHale law firm in Washington, D.C., reflected by email: “Professor Stephen Clarkson has inspired generations of students to re-imagine, and build, a Canada that can chart its own course in the world. While deeply critical of certain aspects of globalization and of the creeping economic integration with the United States that had weakened the Canadian state, Professor Clarkson had immense faith in the capacity of Canadians to create a kinder, gentler, and more just society, and to preserve and promote what is valuable in Canada’s internationalist and cosmopolitan heritage.”

Clarkson’s passion for Canada —reflected in his Governor General's Award-winning book, Trudeau and Our Times, which he published with Christina McCall in 1990 — was matched by his dedication to his students. 

“Stephen lived five lifetimes in the space of one,” said Matto Mildenberger, a former student and now an assistant professor in political science. Mildenberger calls his former teacher “a brilliant scholar and a generous friend, a true Renaissance man,” and notes that his teaching extended far beyond the classroom — including research workshops in his living room, complete with home-cooked meals. On top of this, Mildenberger remembers, each winter, Clarkson would take a team of budding scholars on research trips around the world, to Washington, to Mexico City, to Brasilia, to Madrid.

“I still remember the research trip to Washington, D.C., in 2003 that Professor Clarkson had organized for his students, which coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” recalled Banda. “This was a low point in Canada-U.S. relations, as Ottawa had just refused to take part in the war. But, as we learned in our meetings with senior American, Canadian, and Mexican officials, this was also one of the finer moments for Canada’s diplomacy, as Ottawa had worked hard with likeminded nations, including Mexico, to avert the war. Professor Clarkson taught us to look for lessons for Canadian foreign policy. He forcefully argued that lying on the ‘periphery’ of North America did not condemn Canada to irrelevance or dependence, and he challenged us to think analytically about how Canada could maintain its policy independence on issues ranging from trade and investment to security to environmental governance.”

As political science chair Louis Pauly described on the U of T News website, Clarkson’s last research trip was to Portugal, where he fell ill.

Some former students said they take comfort in knowing that he was doing what he loved right until the end. Mildenberger, who co-authored a book with Clarkson, said many of his old classmates have written him over the past week. “After graduating, many of us fell out of touch. Yet, my inbox has flooded over the past several days with notes from many of Stephen’s fellow students,” he said. “Stephen left an outsized mark on the student body at the University of Toronto. He inspired a generation of young Canadians to study Canada, the country he dearly loved, and to ask big questions about the world all around us. We will all miss him terribly.”