Remembering Neil Cameron

Last year at this time Discourse happily published senior contributor Neil Cameron’s annual Christmas doggerel, a piece he thoroughly enjoyed preparing over the years for the amusement of friends and colleagues around the St. Lawrence Institute in Montreal.

Sadly, after prolonged health problems, Neil passed away this year before he could produce a final contribution. His lively wit and prolific command of history will be sorely missed. He was an irreplaceable fixture in our city’s small but feisty network of conservative intellectuals.

Neil was held in high esteem by many of his former students at John Abbott College. Among them was, Andrew Swidzinski, who penned the following piece about his life and times for The Montreal Suburban.

Remembering Neil Cameron

By Andrew Swidzinski

Former Equality Party MNA, History Professor and Suburban columnist Neil Cameron died Wednesday December 18th 2019 at age 81 from complications resulting from kidney failure. He will be long remembered and sorely missed not only for his brief but eventful political career but as an exceptional teacher and mentor to generations of students who, like myself, had the privilege of learning from him.

Neil Cameron was born in 1938 in Weyburn Saskatchewan, but grew up mostly in Calgary, Alberta. His father, a surgeon who had served as a field medic in World War I, died when he was an infant, leaving his mother to raise him alone. From an early age he was a voracious reader and excellent student. His childhood heroes were the great scientists and philosophers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a rare young admirer of the soapbox atheism of Bertrand Russell in the heart of the Bible Belt, he would sometimes attend evangelical revival meetings so that, when asked for his name and number for further contact, he could cheerfully provide that of a neighbor or acquaintance instead. He earned a degree in Mathematics from Queens University in 1964, travelled Europe, and moved to Montreal where he studied at McGill, earning an M.A. in History and working towards a PhD for which he moved to Britain to research and interview leading British scientists on their involvement in the Allied war effort in WWII.

As a teacher he was both a brilliant intellect and an entertaining storyteller. Where others read from notes he would sit on his desk and lecture entirely from memory, reciting items as arcane as the figures for Czechoslovakian steel production in the 1930s, anecdotes from the rise of Al Capone or details of Winston Churchills bizarre plans for aerial mines or converting icebergs into aircraft carriers. With the skill of an actor he would imitate the voices of politicians ranging from Churchill to Jacques Parizeau to a frightening Hitler radio address delivered entirely in German. To those of us lucky enough to have been taught by him, he brought history to life and made it relevant to our lives, repeating Hegels mantra that the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk, meaning that it is only possible to truly understand the world around us by carefully learning from the past and avoiding its mistakes. He formed lasting friendships with many of his students, who continued to visit and correspond with him years and even decades later.

He did not complete his PhD, being hired in 1973 to teach history at John Abbott College. He remained there for the next 30 years, while also lecturing in the history and philosophy of science at McGill and Concordia.  From the 1980s on he became a frequent columnist in local papers including the Suburban, the Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen. He also became a fixture on the Montreal bar scene in the days of Nick Auf Der Maur, with whom he shared the now vanished view of bars as a great social equalizer, bringing together everyone from politicians, businessmen and academics like himself to clergymen and gangsters to exchange ideas and solve the problems of the World, beer in hand.

In his opinions he was a constant skeptic and contrarian. Politically he began as a supporter of the NDP and an admirer of then leader David Lewis. When confronted with the failures of socialism in 1970s Britain, where he lived during his PhD research, and PQ ruled Quebec, he became an outspoken conservative. But his conservatism was one rooted in a profound skepticism of all government intervention, political partisanship and ideological visions. In a prescient article in Policy Options he accurately predicted the role of banking deregulation and the spread of financial derivate instruments in causing the 2009 economic crash. His politics were also mixed with his trademark wit and humour. When an angry letter writer referred to an op-ed as shrieks from an archaic cocoon he unsuccessfully tried to make it the title of his weekly Suburban column. When taking part in a public debate with a colleague who told their student audience that they would all soon die because of nuclear war, he started by calmly asking why, if he really believed this, he had chosen to spend his last days as a suburban college professor.

The Equality Partys popularity quickly began to unravel after its 1989 breakthrough. Libman was forced out of the party leadership. Atkinson sat as an independent. Holden infamously defected to the PQ in the hopes of receiving a patronage appointment. But Cameron soldiered on and was the only one of Equalitys MNAs to run again for the party in 1994. Defeated by his friend and former student Geoffrey Kelley, he returned to his teaching career and never attempted a political comeback.

In the late 1970s and early 80s Neil spoke out regularly in his columns against both the language laws of the PQ government and prominent Anglos who wanted to accommodate themselves to Bill 101. When the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa not only kept 101 but invoked the notwithstanding clause to impose French only commercial signs after the Supreme Court found that such a requirement violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms he regarded it as a betrayal of English speaking Quebeckers. He became a founding member of the Equality Party, formed to run candidates against the Liberals in their Montreal safe seats and in defense of Anglo rights. Appointed as a last minute candidate in the West Island riding of Jacques-Cartier he was, to his surprise and that of most observers, elected along with party leader Robert Libman, Richard Holden and Gordon Atkinson in the September 25th 1989 provincial election.

As an MNA Neil distinguished himself as a capable orator who in a four man caucus could act as critic to several cabinet ministers and speak without notes on a wide variety of subjects. As a member of the 1991 Bélanger Campeau commission tasked by Bourassa with looking into the possibility of Québec Independence, he authored a minority report entitled Imagining Sovereignty which pointed to the practical difficulty of negotiating an exit deal with the remaining provinces and preserving Quebecs territorial integrity, long before the debates over the 1998 Clarity Act. As a member of the National Assembly Committee on Hydro-Electric power he helped expose Hydro-Québecs practice of subsidizing aluminum and steel producers by selling them electricity at a loss, at the expense of residential consumers.

His final years were devoted to his writing, lectures given at the Côte-St-Luc Library, and meetings and correspondence with his many friends. The highlight of his week was the regular Friday night gathering of friends, former students and academics at the Forum Sports Bar which was affectionately called the Profstable and allowed him to hold court and discuss history, philosophy and politics. He likely didnt believe in any kind of afterlife, but he will live on to those of us who were fortunate enough to know or be taught by him and may still lift a glass in his memory.

Neil Cameron is survived by his former wife Ruth and children Glenn and Cheryl. A memorial celebration of his life will be held in the coming year.