Stephen Clarkson, 1937-2016

Terribly sad news. Stephen Clarkson was the external reviewer on my dissertation and a real inspiration. His signing off on my dissertation was a career and life highlight; his work the starting point for everything I’ve written and taught about North American regionalism. The brilliance of his work in this and other areas doesn’t come across at all in the Globe and Mail’s perfunctory obituary; much, much better is Louis Pauly’s on the University of Toronto’s website.

It was Prof. Clarkson (it still doesn’t feel right to call him Stephen) who suggested to me, an MA student who approached him out of the blue at a conference in Ottawa in the early 2000s, that if I was going to study Canada-US politics, I should include Mexico in my research. Only my friend Keith Serry’s suggestion that I also study copyright has been more important for my academic career.

One quick story. In 2007, I was at an Association for Canadian Studies in the United States conference in Toronto(!) as a third-year PhD student. I had not had a good conference. My (undercooked) paper elicited exactly zero interest, and I didn’t do well in the networking department. Last panel of the conference, late Saturday afternoon (aka, the dead zone), I was listening to a presentation promoting a North American student model parliament whose underlying assumption was that if you just got rid of all the power politics that come from the United States being the world’s biggest superpower, and Canada and Mexico’s reluctance to surrender their sovereignty (i.e., if you just pretended the world was other than what it was), then everything would be fine. Stephen Clarkson was in attendance (not on the panel).

During the Q&A, I asked the panelists: if a model parliament’s underlying assumptions are fantastical, then isn’t the whole exercise pretty much useless? That went over about as well as you’d expect. Great way to end a dismal conference.

Except Prof. Clarkson — who I’m pretty sure had no idea who I was — came up to me after the panel was over and said, “Now, that’s the question, isn’t it?” This brief remark not only redeemed what had been a miserable conference, but confirmed to me that I might have something worth saying.

You don’t have to get everyone’s approval, just the right people. Prof. Clarkson was definitely the right people. RIP.

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