It is with sadness that we mark the passing of Mel Watkins (May 15, 1932 – April 2, 2020). Mel was a “giant” among Canadian political economists, a savvy political organizer, and by all accounts, a person dear to many for his generosity of spirit and kindness. Mel was a frequent presenter and guest at the annual conferences of the Society of Socialist Studies and a contributor to this Journal.
In this “Tribute to Mel Watkins” we have collected memories and recollections of colleagues and friends — but this is just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the many scholarly and lasting contributions of Mel Watkins. We invite readers to share their own memories and recognitions at the bottom of this web page.
Tributes to Mel Watkins
Sandra Rein, Editor, Socialist Studies
Frank Cunningham, Simon Fraser University
Marjorie Cohen, Burnaby, British Columbia
Paul Kellogg, Athabasca University
Abigail Bakan, OISE, University of Toronto
Ken Collier, Mission, British Columbia
Radhika Desai, University of Manitoba
Kari Polanyi Levitt, McGill University
Please see: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2020/04/09/watkins-spirit-lives-on-during-pandemic-battle.html for a piece by Rick Salutin in The Star.
I first met Mel Watkins in the late 1960s through our mutual involvement in the Waffle. Mel was a clear leader in shaping the policies and directions of the Waffle and helped give the movement a significant national profile.
Mel made an important contribution to the work of the left in BC in 1984/85. I had asked him if he would serve as a commissioner on the People’s Commission set up in 1984 by the Solidarity Coalition following the massive protests and major strike in 1983. I knew it was a long shot because Mel was a very busy and active person. But he agreed to do it and travelled often to BC over the next year to sit at hearings around the province and to work on the commission report. The People’s Report; A Social and Economic Alternative for BC. The report became a critical document for the left in BC at that time because it analyzed what was happening in the economy and provided a progressive agenda for moving forward. Mel’s contribution was significant and much appreciated by all of us in BC. The commitment and dedication Mel showed to the project,
was to many of us, an indication of the type of person he was; a caring person prepared to share his intellect, his time and his energy with us in a great demonstration of real solidarity.
I remember meeting Mel Watkins for the first time in 1994. I was a student at the University of Toronto, and our NDP Club invited Mel to speak to us at Heart House to discuss the damages of corporate-managed “free” trade to workers’ rights and the environment.
Mel later came out to Oakville and helped me with door-to-door campaigning when I was the NDP candidate during the June 1999 Ontario Provincial election. In between doors, we discussed economics, told political jokes and of course, both dreamed about the end of global, corporate capitalism. I was amazed by his energy and enthusiasm. I was only 24 years-old at the time, but I had trouble keeping up with him… He knocked on more doors and spoke with more voters in an afternoon than I could all day.
A year later I joined him (along with Elaine Coburn) for door-to-door campaigning in Beaches-East York, when he was the NDP candidate for the federal election.
We all know Mel from this scholarly work and groundbreaking economic research, but I’ll particularly remember him for his warmth, energetic activism and upstanding character.
It’s marvellous that other tributes can be added. Here is Duncan Cameron’s from Rabble: https://rabble.ca/columnists/2020/04/mel-watkins-engagement-common-good
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in the office for Mel’s campaign, not the outcome he should have had, but how lucky to have been there as he swished in and out,keeping us going and the humor, the bounding enthusiasm and conversations. He was an inspiring person.
I first met Mel during the 1971 Texpack strike in Brantford. The plant had been acquired by American Hospital Supply Corporation which had decided to shift production out-of-country. I was impressed by Mel’s passion as he addressed rallies about the risks to the economy and public safety. It’s humbling to realize we now face that same issue with Covid-19, a dangerous shortage of hospital supplies and manufacturing capacity.
Mel was also a wit. Years later I remember sitting with a group around a corner table in the old Rooftop Lounge at the Park Plaza hotel. We were there for some happy hour drinking after a forum on free trade down the street at U of T. Mel was sitting opposite as some Mexican friends from the FAT, a leftwing labour federation, began arguing about how a ministers-in-waiting gambit should play out after the loss of their ’88 election. Mel leaned forward in the dark and growled “if the NDP ever forms a government, I’m not interested in being a minister. They better make me the Governor of the Bank of Canada!” I laughed out loud. But then, wondered… is he serious?!”
The thing is, he would have been a very interesting one.