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Richard Simeon
Richard Simeon

Obituary

Richard Simeon defined political discourse in Canada Add to ...

Richard Simeon was one of the great scholars of Canadian federalism and constitution building of the past half-century who did much to define the political conversation in his country in an era now largely vanished behind history’s veil.

As a teacher and mentor, he was idolized by his students and credited with influencing a whole generation of young Canadian political scientists – both Quebeckers and anglophones – who labelled themselves “Simeon’s people.”

His advice on federalism and decentralized governance was sought internationally. He played a major role in helping post-apartheid South Africa shape its institutions of public administration. He received some of the highest honours his profession could bestow, and he was universally respected in provincial capitals as diverse as Edmonton, Toronto and Quebec City, although, because of his beliefs, he was somewhat less appealing to Ottawa.

Dr. Simeon died of cancer in Toronto on Oct. 11 at the age of 70.

He personified, iconically, so much of the debate that gripped Canada in the steamy two decades of constitutional strife that closed out the 20th century, and in many ways, the discourse in which he was so deeply involved has, like his life, ended.

Federalism is no longer high on the agendas of Canada’s governments. The two solitudes of French and English Canada are virtually complete, the disengagement all but absolute. Quebec is not particularly important to the national government, possibly for the first time in Canadian history.

“Stephen Harper’s view of Canada is not one of bringing together people of different views – and that’s a very powerful change,” said University of Ottawa professor Martin Papillon, one of “Simeon’s people” whose doctoral dissertation he supervised.

Dr. Simeon was the definitive bridge-builder between the political science communities of Quebec and anglophone Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, devoting himself to keeping the two sides talking about the country’s constitutional future after spectacular and heated political failures to redefine Quebec’s presence within the federation.

His view of federalism was in harmony with his view of Canada, Dr. Papillon said – not as a structure of principles, but as a structure of compromise, something never quite achieved or finished, always a work in progress.

He was decidedly not a Pierre Trudeau centralist, and thought the former prime minister had got the country wrong.

In the constitutional struggles, Dr. Simeon played a crucial role in keeping the lines of communication open among politicians, public servants and academics – first as director of Queen’s University’s prestigious Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, from 1976 to 1983, and then as head of the university’s School of Public Administration from 1985 to 1991.

He joined the University of Toronto as professor of political science and law in 1991. Dr. Simeon was a constitutional adviser to Ontario premiers William Davis, David Peterson and Bob Rae.

His engagement with South Africa began with a phone call from former top Ottawa civil servant Al Johnson, who had been appointed senior adviser to the South Africa/Canada Program on Governance in 1992 in the midst of South Africa’s transition to a multiracial democracy led by Nelson Mandela.

“Richard,” Mr. Johnson said, “they are having provinces in the new South Africa, so we had better tell them how provinces work.”

What followed was a lengthy collaboration between Dr. Simeon and University of Cape Town legal scholar Christina Murray, teaching and writing about comparative federalism and constitutionalism in South Africa in its difficult evolution to multilevel government.

The new constitution reflected much of their thought on institutional arrangements and intergovernmental relations.

Dr. Simeon’s work has been quoted by the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Perhaps more importantly, in the first years of South Africa’s democracy, it influenced understanding of how the country’s new institutions were intended to operate.

“He always tied arguments about how institutions work to larger principles – deepening democracy, developing strong government institutions, respect for all persons,” Prof. Murray said.

“I was impressed by his commitment to seeing things work. He had a kind of realistic optimism that gave courage to me and others to persist even when the prospects of getting people to think about creative ways of making institutions work seemed pretty bleak.”

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