Peter Russell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He has written on a wide variety of subjects, including minority governments, parliamentary democracy, constitutional change and reform, and aboriginal and judicial politics. His classic book, Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People? is a must read for students and scholars of Canadian politics as is his book, Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism, among others. Not only has Peter had a strong influence on the academic world, but he has also been active in the real world of politics, advising governments and Royal Commissions on a wide range of issues and topics.
Much of my initial interactions with Peter were through his scholarship, which taught me the importance of taking into account history and agency for analyzing Canadian politics. Later, he served as the final departmental reader on my dissertation, and has since then provided me with valuable advice about publishing, book writing, and how to make the most of my academic career.
The following is a transcription of a phone interview I did with Peter several weeks ago. I’ve lightly edited and condensed it so any and all mistakes that may appear below are mine alone.
I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career:
how much I would enjoy it and how much fun I would have. As well, nobody told me that you could participate in and pontificate about politics. I sort of stumbled into participating. Some of my colleagues think you shouldn’t do that. They believe that you should stay in the ivory tower and not dirty your feet in the real world of politics but I’ve never agreed with that.
The individual I admire the most academically:
was C.B. Macpherson. He was a political philosopher, par excellence, and he was a Marxist (small-m). He was a wonderful and interesting philosopher of politics. I actually didn’t agree with his fundamental argument in his most important book but that’s beside the point. I really admired him because he spent the first 25 years of his life just working on his basic critique of what you might call liberalism. He didn’t publish his main book until well until his 40s. In those days, you could get away with that. He didn’t bother with a lot of little articles in refereed journals. There wasn’t the same “publish or perish” expectation. At the same time he was doing political theory, he was very active in the community around him, mostly in the civil liberties area. For me, he was a wonderful example of a superb scholar and a real participant in the part of politics that really mattered to him.
My best research project during my career:
was without a doubt, the Mabo case. I stumbled into it and really learned so much by studying it. I knew a little about Aboriginal peoples and politics but not nearly enough about western imperialism. By doing that book, which took about 9 years, I learned so much about my own background as a person of British heritage and so much about the variety of experiences that Aboriginal peoples had; the comparative aspect really came out. I also learned a lot about the limits of what can happen in courts because the Mabo decision really didn’t do much until it started to influence politics; and it still has a long way to go before fundamental improvements to the lives of Aborigines in Australia can occur. So basically I learned about the limits of judicial power.
My worst research project during my career
was my work on trial courts, which I really worked hard on but which turned out to be mostly a dead end. I did a lot of writing about them and I ended up editing the only book we have in Canada on trial courts. Part of my goal was to get political scientists interested in lower courts and to get their gaze off of the Supreme Court. I didn’t succeed. I also had a very strong view about reforming the structure of our trial courts and I had lots of support from the people who worked in those courts and experienced them. I organized a conference, edited a book and did quite a bit of writing on the topic but it was the most inconsequential of any of my research. Nobody is interested in trial courts. You mention trial courts to political scientists and, as they say, their “eyes glaze over.”
The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research
was when I was out at a place called Discovery Island. It’s in the Torres Straits, just north of Cape York in Australia, and they call it Discovery Island because that’s where Captain Cook stopped and gazed southward at what we now call Cape York. I was there with an Aboriginal friend who explained to me that this is where Captain Cook stopped and looked at everything across the strait before saying, “I claim all of this for my sovereign, King George III.” Cook didn’t know much about the area. He just sailed up the coast of what is now Queensland and claimed it. “Wow! That’s crazy!” I said. “No, no, no, Peter. That’s not the word for it,” my Aboriginal friend responded. “That’s legal magic. It’s real magic. Not only did Captain Cook claim ownership of lands he didn’t know, but then a whole bunch of lawyers over the centuries that followed, wearing wigs and looking like magicians with long black robes, would go into court and they took it seriously. They believed it! They put an army and navy and everything else behind it. They made what was a really ridiculous statement come true! That’s magic Peter! That’s legal magic.” I use that phrase a lot. People say “how did Britain get sovereignty over this?” and I say “Legal magic.” I thought it was such a perceptive moment in my life.
The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance:
was when I was director of research for the Royal Commission on certain activities of the RCMP. Those certain activities had been going on during the 1960s and the 1970s and they involved the security service, which was part of the RCMP at the time. The security service had been collecting intelligence for the government about various things, including in those days, separatism, and they had done some terrible things that led to the creation of a Royal Commission. There were public hearings and so on. During the first six month’s of the Commission’s work, all we heard about was the many horrible things that the security service had done. They had planted dynamite in the back of people’s cars to implicate them as terrorists. They had burned a barn to implicate the PQ as terrorists. They were trying to frame the PQ as a terrorist organization. That was the main rotten thing they were doing.
One day, it dawned on me that the commissioners should find out if the security service had done anything good to help Canada. The commissioner said to me, “That’s a very good idea. Ask them if they can put together 20 good examples of the good stuff that they had done for Canada.” The security service took several months to assemble a binder with 20 such case studies but of course they were all at this point, and will remain, top secret because they dealt with serious espionage and terrorist attempts that they had thwarted. So we had two or three days of in-camera meetings with the security service on those success stories.
We at the commission could never tell those stories publicly because we would be giving away all sorts of secrets about their techniques and sources in other countries. I’d love a chance to tell some of those stories one day because they convinced me that a country needs a security service to collect information and protect it against terrorism and espionage. But of course I can’t tell any of those stories! They are very revealing of what goes on in the world. Canadians are very innocent and every once in while, we hear stories like someone selling secrets to the Russians but that’s fairly mild compared to the things I’m talking about.
A research project I wish I had done
is a study of native peoples in the United States. I know the outline of the story, but I still don’t have a good handle on where things are with Aboriginal peoples in the United States. I know they are not at the top of the political agenda, as they are here, and that’s a remarkable contrast. I know there’s a lot more of them in the U.S., not as a percentage of the population, but in terms of raw numbers; there’s about three million and we just have over a million. And I know they’ve got some successes but they have also had a lot of problems. I’ve never had a good handle on the situation in the U.S. I have a very good understanding of the Maori, and what they’ve been through and where they are now. I also have a really in-depth understanding of Aboriginal people in Australia, including the Torres Strait islanders. But in terms of the U.S., I’ve always been interested in knowing more, and by knowing more I mean spending time with them because I feel comfortable talking about the Maori and the Aborigines in Australia and the Torres Strait islanders, and many of our own First Nations, and certainly the Inuit and the Métis, because I’ve spent time with them, hung out with them, and made friends with them. But I’ve never had that experience in the United States. It’s all second hand. I don’t trust second hand. I’d rather have first hand experience.
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be:
a lawyer. I got talked out of being a lawyer by Bora Laskin. I had started in 1958 at the University of Toronto teaching Canadian politics and I got very quickly to the lecture on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. I wanted to talk about the implications of the JCPC handing things over to the Supreme Court. To prepare a lecture on that, I went and knocked on the doors of some of my colleagues because I couldn’t find anything to read. What difference does it make if the Supreme Court of Canada is supreme? “Oh Peter,” they said, “that’s law. We don’t really study those kinds of things but there’s a nice fellow down on Philosopher’s Walk at the law school and his name is Bora Laskin and he’ll help you. He doesn’t mind political scientists.” I was a little nervous. I didn’t know him and I didn’t know anyone at the law school. It was my first year at UofT. I went down and knocked on his door, and this guy with a great big smile welcomed me in. Right away we were on a first-name basis. It was clear he knew a lot. He had been reading all of the Supreme Court cases since 1949 when the Supreme Court became supreme. I lapped it all up and he says, “why don’t you sit in my course?” And I say “I’d love to that” and so I sat in the back row and took notes and so on. Next year, I took another course, not with him, but with another Professor, on the U.S. Constitution, and another course the year after that on administrative law. I had taken three courses and I loved them all. So I went down to see Bora in 1961 and I said, “Bora, I want you to make an honest lawyer of me. I’m going to get a law degree.” And he looked at me, and for the first time, this really nice and friendly fellow, waved his finger and said to me, “Oh you mustn’t do that, Peter. You mustn’t do that.” I said, “Really? You’re a lawyer, Bora, and you’re ok! I’ve enjoyed our conversations immensely.” “Oh,” he said, “yeah, but if you become a lawyer, you’ll lose any kind of perspective outside of law. You’ll be on the inside where all of us are. Stay on the outside. Stay in political science. You’ll have a very distinctive, interesting, and valuable perspective from the outside.” I really didn’t understand what he was talking about, quite honestly, but I took his advice because it would save me a lot of money. The wife wasn’t too keen, we had two little kids, and so I didn’t do it. So he talked me out of it! I told that story at Bora’s memorial service. People may say, “well Peter, you should have taken his advice. You’ve been messing with the law ever since and have made a big mess of it!” But I’m glad I kept on the political science path.
The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be:
to create a better, more just, and mutually beneficial relationship with our First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. I think we need to improve that relationship and make it a source of pride rather than a source of shame. We have done some good stuff and are doing some good stuff, but I think a lot more has to be done and we don’t quite know how to do it yet.
The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be:
I have an odd reaction to contemporary political scientists of your generation. I find they are being moulded too much by the discipline. They are being too constrained in what they can do by the discipline and I guess it’s partly the constraints of the tenure system which says to them, “get out some publications real fast. And what we really love are articles in refereed journals!” Political science does put some value on books, but I see so many young political scientists concentrating on these small pieces of the puzzle. That’s all you do in a journal article, which is unlike C.B. Macpherson. In a journal article, you are not taking on something that’s really big and challenging. I hope political science will break out of the tight discipline mould a bit. I’d like to see that happen.
My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is:
enjoy yourself and if you are not enjoying yourself, get out fast. Take some chances. I know that’s easier said then done, particularly if you have a family to feed and you are a young, starting political scientist, but be bold! Take some chances. Have some confidence in your own creative juices. Don’t be so damn set on pleasing your peers! There’s too much deference to the leading writers in the field and too much caution about breaking away and taking new approaches.