Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University and the author of five books. Here he discusses his 2003 book While Canada Slept.
Describe the genesis of While Canada Slept. What brought you to the subject?
I had been thinking about Canada’s place in the world during the 1990s, when our spending on defence, development and diplomacy was slashed in the name of austerity. I thought we were losing stature abroad and we weren’t discussing it. In 2002, with the recession over, the budget in surplus, Jean Chrétien retiring, the Liberal Party in transition and the country approaching an election, it seemed a good time to ask: where in the world is Canada?
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
The book took more than a year to research and about three months to write, but for me, there was as much work in the revision, which probably took another three months. The challenge was trying to keep abreast of current events while rooting the story in Canada’s past.
Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?
The book turns on the lives of Lester Pearson, Norman Robertson and Hume Wrong, all figures of the Golden Age of Canadian Diplomacy. I relied on the exhaustive biographies by John English (Pearson) and J.L. Granatstein (Robertson). I mined the diaries of Charles Ritchie and the memoirs of Escott Reid, Paul Martin, Sr. and Douglas LePan, among others, as well as the memoirs of Pearson himself. Geoffrey Pearson’s book on his father (Seize the Day) was insightful. To make the argument about Canada’s decline, I used reports from parliamentary committees and NGOs on international aid, the foreign service and national defence.
Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen.
While Canada Slept is a critique of a country that had abandoned its spirited internationalism. It’s a lament for a country that had punched above its weight in the world and was now barely carrying it. As a working title I had used A Place in the Sun (for a Canada that would re-claim its proud place in the world) until a friend thought I was describing a condo in Florida. While Canada Slept plays on Winston Churchill’s While England Slept, which inspired JFK’s Why England Slept, both addressing Britain and the approach of the Second World War. However, it implies no comparison between Canada and Britain.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
The response to the book was terrific. Time Magazine in Canada built a cover story around it. Politicians and the public responded. The book was excerpted widely and reviewed favourably. It became a best-seller and later a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. I was thrilled.
Did you have any problems with people reading what you had written about them and getting upset?
No. But I did annoy some diplomats, both serving and retired, who didn’t like my critique of Canada abroad. They thought everything was fine. One aggrieved diplomat, with no small sense of self-regard, spent some 15 minutes trashing While Canada Slept at an award ceremony, at which he was being honoured, among others. His hosts were surprised and dismayed. I appreciated the publicity but was sorry I wasn’t there to respond.
Did While Canada Slept change the trajectory of your career? In what way?
The success of the book encouraged me to write two other books, The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are (2007), and Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson (2008). Both reflect, in part, some of themes of While Canada Slept: the promise of Canada.
In your view, how has the literature on Canadian politics changed substantially since you published While Canada Slept? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of?
I cannot say the literature has changed. There is a strong tradition of fine political writing in Canada, dating from Peter C. Newman’s Renegade in Power and carried on by Lawrence Martin and Richard Gwyn and others. I just wish there were more of it today – in newspapers, magazines and books.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favourite book?
I liked Ron Graham’s One-Eyed Kings.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book on two (consecutive) days in the administration of John F. Kennedy, when he confronts the two biggest issues of his generation. Pressed by events, he has to make critical decisions that he knows may cost him re-election. His presidency reaches a moral tipping point, and so does the United States. The story is about leadership, personal growth and political courage, and it speaks to his successors – and to us – today.
Should we continue to starve our military, reduce our humanitarian assistance, dilute our diplomacy, and absent ourselves from global intelligence-gathering? Can we expect to sit at the global table by virtue of our economic power without pursuing a foreign policy worthy of our history, geography, and diversity? Canada has been getting by on the cheap, writes Andrew Cohen in this bestselling and award-nominated book. We are still trading on the reputation this country built two generations ago, but it is a reputation we no longer deserve. With Canada’s international strategy and place in the world still unclear, While Canada Slept raised important issues and questions that have still not been answered today.