Former Equality Party MNA, History Professor and Suburban columnist Neil Cameron died Wednesday December 18th 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. 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.
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 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.
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 Churchill‘s 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.
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 the late 1970s and early 80s he 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 he 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 Quebec‘s 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-Québec‘s 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 Profs‘ table and allowed him to hold court and discuss history, philosophy and politics. He likely didn‘t 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 service will be held for him in January.