This is a very endearing and rigorously honest memoir from a universally well-regarded figure of 50 years in the upper echelons of Ontario government and Canadian business. It is, in fact, a compact summary of the transition of Ontario from a post-Victorian branch-plant bastion of enlightened, monochromatic, monarchist, imperial Protestantism, to the comparatively metropolitan crossroads of cultures, ethnicities, and secular experimentation that Southern Ontario, and especially Toronto, are becoming. There can be few lives more illustrative of all the best aspects of that serene, tranquil, and confident earlier era than Darcy McKeough and his family.
There never seems to have been a serious dispute in his family, until he and his brother had a difficult but civilized disagreement when the author was in his 40s. McKeough lives in the house he and his father helped the contractors build, and appears to know practically everyone in the city of Chatham, whose population has long been steady at about 20,000, where he has spent his life. He was sent to boarding school in 1944, at the age of 11, loved every second of it, had no objections to corporal punishment, became “cock of the walk” (his preferred title of the many he has earned), and was given the headmaster’s prize by the Governor-General of Canada in 1951, Field Marshal, Viscount (later Earl) Alexander of Tunis, Canada’s last British governor-general who was then about to return to Britain as Mr. Churchill’s defence secretary.
McKeough cherished catching a glimpse, in Washington, of three-time contender for the Republican presidential nomination and Senate leader, Robert A. Taft, (son of the president and chief justice), and was delighted even as an adult to have seen presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy at a distance in New York. Everyone who was interested in politics when they were young can remember the pleasure of being a spectator – it was particularly pleasing to meet an important public figure, (I well remember how happy I was to shake hands with Adlai E. Stevenson at Atlantic City in 1964.)
What appears unusual, and very endearing, in this memoir, is that it is the story of a man who feels himself fortunate to have been born when and where and to whom he was, and accepted without cavil the benignity and even the superiority of the values and institutions in which he was raised. He did not lack respect for other countries and systems, for other political parties, religious views, but was never uneasy for a minute in what was his by birthright, amplified by his own diligence.
Born in Chatham, he has remained there. An alumnus of Ridley College, he remains a pillar of the St. Catharines, Ont., school 65 years after graduating. Brought up an Anglican, he served decades as a vestryman and an official at regional synods, and even as his church has been riven by controversies over female clergy, same-sex marriage and all the tensions of trying to determine whether it is Protestant or Catholic, McKeough does not inflict theological opinions on the reader and continues majestically in his faith, concluding his book with a familiar and moving passage from the Book of Common Prayer.
As a youth, he often went to Detroit, then one of America’s great cities, and has often sought gentler weather in the United States and Caribbean in the winter, but, as he acknowledges, rarely considers that the U.S. political system is worthy of emulation. Those people who impress him, do this by integrity, consistency, decency and competence. Apart from his own father, his headmaster at Ridley and Premier John P. Robarts seem to have had the greatest impact on him. This is not remarkable – it is conventional, but it is rare in my experience, that family, school and a person’s initial mentor in a principal career are so seamlessly good and admirable. With this launch in the world, it is little wonder that McKeough entered what must be as close as it gets to a perfect marriage, with the delightful Joyce, and that they have a very happy life with two successful sons.
It is certainly time in this review that I mention that from when he retired from government in 1978 until I departed for England a decade later, I saw McKeough often and never failed to be impressed by his direct, competent reliability, strongly engaging personality, decisive contributions to any subject and his delightful qualities in all social settings, including well gone on very liquefied evenings. He was at all times a man of clear thoughts and principles very effective at any task he undertook. He never had an ego that drove him toward unattainable goals, or convictions inadequate to keep him well within the boundaries of commendable behaviour. He was a good man in every way, but never a goody-goody or in the slightest a prig.
I have no standing to contradict McKeough, but I think he may regret, as many Ontarians including myself, that he did not run to succeed Bill Davis as Progressive Conservative leader and premier of Ontario. I don’t think he could have been an effective federal leader, any more than Robarts or Davis could have, as we cannot go back to having one of the official language groups and over a quarter of the people listening to their national leader through an interpreter. In misunderstanding the aid to separate schools issue, McKeough shows no prejudice but, I think, a slight under-comprehension of the guaranties implicit in the Confederation agreement.
There is one place where he imposes his strong sense of personal loyalty, I suspect, over his political judgment. The McKeough I have known and admired these nearly 40 years, (and who complains of teachers’ unions near the end of his book) cannot have been pleased when Davis, as minister of education, turned our public schools into disorderly daycare centres with the Hall-Dennis report, the nostrums of OISE, and finally the devolution of the right to strike and to create chaos to the teachers’ unions. Had McKeough come back as premier, he might have been able to prevent the state education system of Ontario from putrefying as it has. If he is generous in his praise, he is not completely above airing his distaste for some people – his comments on the condescensions of Dalton Camp brought back similar memories to me.
Ever since I was in an Ontario private school myself, I have wondered how some of my friends of those days have pursued such serene careers, purposeful, ambitious certainly, but with abrasions confined almost entirely to policy differences in varying conditions, and navigating effortlessly between fixed points of belief and practice that were never found wanting. The fact that I have, until recently, followed a more perturbed course does not occasion me much regret, but this book reminds me, as it will many readers, that to achieve a great deal and have a good life, nothing replaces a launch that inspires and is worthy of a young man’s faith. McKeough gives new meaning to the French expression bien dans sa peau, (happy in one’s self, “one’s skin” literally).
This is a lively and interesting read from a very high-quality man. He also happens to be a delight to have a mahogany-coloured glass of whisky or brandy with, when everyone else has folded, and I look forward to doing it again with him one of these days.
Conrad Black’s most recent book is Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada From Vikings to the Present. Backward Glances, a collection of his journalism, will be published in October.
Courtesy: The Globe And Mail