David E. Smith is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan, a senior policy fellow at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. He is one of Canada’s leading scholars on Canadian political institutions, writing a number of award winning books on the Crown, the Senate, the House of Commons, Canadian Federalism, and other topics. His latest book, Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics, interrogates the following question: “How do parties with official opposition status influence Canadian politics? Across the Aisle is an innovative examination of the theory and practice of opposition in Canada, both in Parliament and in provincial legislatures. Extending from the pre-Confederation era to the present day, it focuses on whether Canada has developed a coherent tradition of parliamentary opposition.” I look forward to reading his latest book as soon as I can get my hands on it.
I’ve never actually met Prof. Smith but I’ve certainly read many of his books over the years. I’ve always admired his analytical skills, his command of the Canadian political tradition, and his breadth. You could almost teach an entire course on Canada’s political institutions using only his books and articles! The following is a transcript of a phone interview I conducted with Dr. Smith in June 2013. As with Peter Russell’s interview, I’ve lightly edited the transcript, which was transcribed by LISPOP research assistant Miki Culum, and so any remaining mistakes are my own!
I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career
that I would live so long! When you’re young, time has a very different perspective. I never thought that I would be doing this job 50 years later! I started teaching in 1964 but at the time I didn’t know much about university teaching. Gradually I became much more involved with graduate students, which I found extremely satisfying. I have maintained close ties with a number of graduate students; you follow their careers like an extended family. Then there was the research aspect; writing and researching turned out to be extremely satisfying. When I was a student, I didn’t feel that satisfaction but over time I really learned to enjoy it. If someone told me anything at the beginning of my career, I probably would not have listened.
The individual I admire the most academically
I could think of a number of academics but if I were forced to name one person, it would be Norman Ward. Norman was at the University of Saskatchewan. I went there and to some degree it was because of him. When I was a graduate student, I never took a course in Canadian politics and as an undergraduate, I studied economics. Then I went to the commonwealth study centre to teach comparative politics and did that for about 5 or 6 years. I taught courses in European and British comparative politics. I ended up teaching courses in Canadian politics not because of a deliberate plan on my part but because of Norman Ward and the enrollment increases in the late 1960s. His health had declined during those years and they needed someone to pick up his courses. So I entered in part to take over for Ward; I would have never otherwise been considered for the graduate program in Canadian politics because I never took any Canadian politics courses as an undergrad. Norman didn’t really involve himself in his younger colleague’s careers. He was very interested but he never interfered in any direct way. There are two things I learned from Norman. Firstly, Canadian politics matters; it wasn’t just a subject but rather it actually affected people’s lives. It had always been an academic exercise for me but Norman communicated the practical importance of it. Secondly, he knew the importance of checking and re-checking one’s work. I can remember him pulling up a page and saying to me, “this is what footnotes should look like,” and they were one line each and nothing dramatic about them.
My best research project during my career
I believe my work on the Crown because it led me to do further work on Parliament. When I wrote the book on the Crown, I never had an idea of writing a book on the senate or anything like that. So for that reason, it was very fruitful for me. Secondly, it turned out to be a much deeper subject than I had initially understood, probably deeper today than at the time I wrote the book. People talk about this subject today and they didn’t in 1995. When we had a conference in Regina last October, there were people there from the prime minister’s office, several Lieutenant Governors’ offices, a territorial commissioner and the Governor General. So they were all very interested and thought it was a serious matter, and the last word has definitely not been said on the subject. It is not just the question of how Canada’s constitutional arrangement will be in the future but actually, how is the Crown going to work in this country today.
My worst research project during my career
I tried at one point to do a project on provincial perspectives on federalism, but it never got off the ground. I wanted to know how the different provinces viewed the federation, with Quebec being the special case. One of the difficulties in Canada, with regard to national politics, has always been questions like these because our country is so huge. It gets even more difficult if you try to start at the bottom of the system rather than the top. Eventually, I was able to use some of that research for other projects but the initial plan didn’t come together the way I had hoped and I think that is too bad. In the United States, there used to be something called the Blue Book, and I always thought there needed to be something similar in Canada. This is obviously before the internet, but I always thought we should have a bibliographic list of documents. That was sort of what was in my mind when I started the project, but it didn’t really work out.
The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research
I started teaching in 1964 and a man named David Hoffman was hired to do a study with Norman Ward about bilingualism in the House of Commons. As a new academic, through Norman, I was asked to work on the Senate. So I went down to Ottawa and started the interviews with the Senators. Then, the whole project got cancelled after about the second week. The reason it got cancelled was because Norman and David, with the agreement of the research directors, had farmed out the interviews to several graduate students because there were so many members of parliament. One of the interview questions asked MPs, on a scale of 1-5, to rank how accurate was the phrase, politics is a dirty game. Some MPs were quite offended by the question and this got into the media. So the research directors stopped this part of the project because they thought it was really contaminating the whole thing. Unfortunately, the result was nothing was ever done on bilingualism in the Senate. This happened during one of my first summers as an academic.
The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance
I’m not really sure. I've always thought that much of the federalism literature is too remote or too unconnected to the life of the citizen. For most people, the provinces have more of an effect on them, in terms of property laws and other laws. These are the things that affect people’s lives forever and they are in the hands of the provincial governments, not the federal government. Political scientists have never really captured this reality very well. But I think it is also partly the result of political scientists generally not being very well educated in law. Historically, Canadian political science grew out of economics and not law. Canadians do not have a very sophisticated sense of law yet.
A research project I wish I had done
I would liked to have done a project on the Crown and its role in national defense issues, such as those that came out of the Omar Khadr case. There is a professor at the University of Ottawa, Philippe Lagassé, and he is a real up and comer. He works in a number of areas related to the Crown and one of them is about defense and the governor general as head of the military and nobody really knows what that means yet. At some point, this is going to be really important. Some others are tackling this question now, but when I read his work, I say to myself: “oh I wish I was doing that!”
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be
Who knows! I suppose I would have liked to have been an architect, but I am not sure I would have been capable of doing it. I think the algebra would have defeated me.
The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be
First Nations. Without a doubt in my mind. Canada has to deal with this question. It is too important and Canadians have not even come close to dealing with this issue. They have to do it.
The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be
I think it is probably the same, First Nations. Turning the minds of most Canadians, and especially young Canadian students, to these issues. We need to better connect First Nations peoples with non-First Nations peoples. It may be that the many changes in the way we communicate with technology will result in a breakthrough.
My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is
Don’t worry about what the other person is doing. You don’t need to pay too much attention to what your colleagues are doing. I think it is important to be confident in what you are doing and how you are doing it. If you don’t have that confidence then you really are limited. It is easy to be overly influenced by what others are doing and saying but ultimately what matters is what you are doing.