In the mid-1950s there was little hope a Conservative Government would or could be elected in Ottawa. By 1955, the Liberals had ruled with little effective opposition for 20 years. It felt like 40 years. Who was going to stop them?
At universities, Canadian history texts read like a slightly revised version of the history of the Liberal Party. No one found that strange. The preeminent historian was A.R.M. Lower of Queen’s University, the author of the definitive book on Canadian history, Colony to Nation. It was clear, even to unsophisticated undergraduates reading Lower, that prosperity was equated with the Liberals in power. Tory governments, on the other hand, brought misery.
Along came Dalton Camp, who had spent his formative years in the United States and his university years in Canada as a Liberal. One of his first jobs in politics was to work on the re-election of the McNair Liberal government in New Brunswick in 1948. His second job was to work for the defeat of the McNair government by Conservative Hugh John Flemming in 1952. He was on the winning side both times. In the next 40 years, he engineered tidal changes in Canadian politics on the provincial and federal scene.
In all, Camp watched over and directed 28 elections. His helped create and fertilize several Tory dynasties on the provincial scene, including Robert Stanfield’s in Nova Scotia (11 years), Richard Hatfield’s in New Brunswick (16 years), William Davis’ in Ontario (14 years) and Duff Roblin’s in Manitoba (11 years). He helped direct John Diefenbaker’s campaigns in 1957, 1958, 1962 and 1963, before becoming president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, from which post he forced Diefenbaker’s resignation in 1966. The bloody beheading profoundly changed Canadian politics. From then on, party leaders in Canada were periodically obliged to test their leadership at a party convention, usually after a general election. It was a large step forward in democratizing political parties.
”Any public man ought to be accountable, first to his conscience, and, of course, he must be accountable to his country, but in the course of his duty, he must accept his responsibility to his party,” Camp said in a major speech to the Empire Club in Toronto just before the fateful party meeting. It was the high point of Camp’s last public involvement in politics, and his last.
For the next 30 years he was an observer rather than a participant, turning to writing columns for the Toronto Star and participating in debates about politics on TV, radio and in public debates.
He was, in short, ”a player” which is also the title of Geoffrey Stevens superbly researched and cogently written biography of Camp. Not everyone, including many who were deeply involved in politics in the 1960s and 1970s, will want to read it. Camp’s name still evokes curses from those who will never forgive him for stabbing ”Dief the Chief.” Camp was sensitive to those feelings until the end of life, only 18 months ago.
Stevens recounts a life in politics but also an extraordinary life outside politics. Camp covered a wide canvas in his public and private lives. The radio debate with Eric Kierans and Stephen Lewis on Peter Gzowski’s Morningside every Tuesday morning in the 1980s and early 1990s became one of the most popular segments on CBC radio.
”It was unlike any other political panel on radio or television, then or now,” says Stevens. ”There was no shouting, no partisan posturing and no pompous banalities. The three panelists demonstrated that intelligent discourse and informed opinion, vigorously expressed, do have a place on the airwaves of the nation.”
Camp was a loner, as Stevens points out. His favourite song was ”My Way,” by Frank Sinatra, and he lived that song. To the astonishment of his friends and his grown up family, he left his first wife in the 1970s and acquired a second wife, by whom he had a sixth child. There were other women and every detail of these relationships is chronicled by Stevens ” sometimes more than one wants.
The end result, though, is an illuminating biography that could serve as a tour through the years 1952 to 2002 in Canadian politics. Stevens catches the flavour of the times ” even if it often is a bitter flavour ” because he lived and worked through it as a journalist and commentator himself.
Camp never made it to the top rung, though he harboured ambitions to be prime minister himself. But he had an abiding influence on Canadian politics nonetheless. For a start, he revived the Conservative Party as a viable and credible political force in Canada. And, as Stevens put it, ”He attracted scores of previously uncommitted young people who became involved in public life because he made them believe that they, too, could make a difference. In the process he raised the level of politics in Canada.” That is quite an achievement, which even his political opponents would not deny.