New book pays tribute to historian John Saywell

Scattered across this fair land like so many apostles are academics who studied at the knee of John Saywell and now also teach the gospel of federalism. Four years ago, two of them, Dimitry Anastakis (MA ’95, PhD ’02) and Penny Bryden (MA ’88, PhD ’94), were chatting at a conference about the profound impact this retired York history professor had on them and decided to produce a book in his honour.

In no time, they found willing contributors to a book of essays on Canadian federalism, the signature theme in Saywell’s work. Except for two, all contributors to this Festschrift are former students or colleagues who came to know him during his 35 years of teaching at York. All teach at universities from Victoria to Halifax, most inspired by this passionate historian to delve into the field he helped define. They had no trouble plucking essays from their own current bodies of work for inclusion in Framing Canadian Federalism: Essays in Honour of John T. Saywell. Many are expected to turn up in Anastakis’ Toronto living room on June 26 to present it to him.

When Saywell retired in 1998, celebrations focused on his administrative career, says Bryden, especially his decade as dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science during York’s formative years. “Dimitry and I thought it would be nice to acknowledge the intellectual influence he had on students and colleagues.”

Left: Dimitry Anastakis

They decided to trawl for essays on federalism from former students and colleagues of Saywell when he taught at York and the University of Toronto, where he began his academic career. They had no trouble finding material. “The book does two things,” says Bryden. It highlights Saywell’s scholarly legacy and adds to current literature on Canadian federalism. “It celebrates the past while pointing toward the future,” she says. It could become a valuable addition to university course reading lists.

The 10 essays in the 300-page Framing Canadian Federalism examine the pervasive effect federalism has had on Canadian politics, economics, culture and history. Contributors write about its effect on the Supreme Court of Canada, human rights policy, First Nations and the legendary battles between Mitchell Hepburn and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Many of the 11 contributors did their graduate studies under Saywell in the 1990s and are now history professors at Canadian universities – Anastakis teaches at Trent University; Bryden, at the University of Victoria; Blake Brown, at St. Mary’s University; Stephen Henderson, at Acadia University; Mark Kuhlberg, at Laurentian University; and Richard Rajala, at the University of Victoria.

Right: Penny Bryden

Two were students at York in the 1970s – Paul Axelrod (BA Hons. ’72, PhD ’80), education professor at York, and Michael Behiels (PhD ’78), history professor at the University of Ottawa. Bruce Muirhead (PhD ’86), history professor at the University of Waterloo, was a student in the 1980s. Jack Granatstein, retired history professor at York, took Saywell’s courses at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s, and was later hired by him to teach at York. Peter Russell, a political science university professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, never studied or worked with Saywell but is a peer and one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars.

Saywell inspired them all.

For Bryden, he “has been an extraordinarily important mentor and source of inspiration. My fascination with things constitutional really gelled when I took his course on federalism and the Canadian constitution.”

“He was extremely engaging and very intense,” remembers Bryden. “There was so much packed into his lectures. He was definitely enthusiastic and there was no question that this was someone who really cared about his subject.”

Anastakis studied under Saywell, worked for him as a research assistant and faced him on his doctoral committee. “He had a very significant impact on me, on my scholarly and academic career. He influenced my career direction. I learned so much from him. I wouldn’t be the academic I am today if it weren’t for him.”

“The amazing thing about John is that even if you were a pipsqueak student he would treat your opinion seriously and would engage you,” recalls Anastakis. Saywell impressed him by “the sheer energy and determination he put into teaching.” Students never missed a class. “He wrote the introduction to Federalism and the French Canadians (1968) by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which introduced the new prime minister from Quebec to English Canadians. “It was that kind of connection to the material that made it come alive, so students never missed a lecture.”

Saywell wrote several books, including The Office of Lieutenant Governor: A Study in Canadian Government and Politics (1957), Making the Law – The Courts and the Constitution (1991), Canada: Pathways to the Present (1994) and, most notably, Just Call Me Mitch: The Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn (1991). After retirement, he wrote The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism (2002).

Right: John Saywell in earlier days

In 2008, he published Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960-1973, part history, part memoir of York’s early days. In it, Saywell documents the development of the college system, the creation of York’s Faculty of Education, the student revolt of the late 1960s and the controversy over hiring American professors to teach in Canadian universities, an issue he remembers debating in 1969, as co-host of CBC TV’s "The Way It Is". He was also editor of the Canadian Historical Review (1957-1963) and the Canadian Annual Review (1960-1979).

In 1980, Saywell was one of the first faculty members to be named University Professor. When he retired in 1998, he was director of York’s Graduate Program in History. In 1999, York’s 40th anniversary year, he was inducted into the Founders Society for contributions to York during its formative years.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer