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William Gairdner, Olympian, academic, and author, 1940-2024.

‘Keep on Pushing’: In Memory of William Gairdner

Originally posted on The Epoch Times. Editor’s note: It is with great sadness that we inform our readers of the passing of William Gairdner, one of Canada’s most prolific and influential contemporary intellectuals.

Born in 1940, Bill was an accomplished athlete and Olympian, academic, businessman, best-selling author, artist, and above all, a wonderful human being, friend, and family man. He passed away on Jan. 12 surrounded by loved ones.

Bill’s best-selling book “The Trouble With Canada” was a game-changer, inspiring generations of Canadians to become interested in public policy. His other best-seller, “The War Against the Family,” was an immense work of passion, and Bill often mused about how he shed tears as he was writing it.

Bill’s last of many books, “Beyond the Rhetoric,” published by The Epoch Times, is a collection of in-depth essays that were published in this newspaper.

The following tribute is by Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and a founding board member of Civitas, a society Bill created to facilitate the open discussion and nurturing of ideas.

Bill Gairdner burst onto the Canadian political scene in 1990 when he published “The Trouble with Canada.” I was stunned. At the time, Canadian conservatism for me meant Ted Byfield and his weekly news magazine Alberta Report; Preston Manning and the Reform Party of Canada, also based in Alberta; and the Fraser Institute, located in Vancouver. Yet suddenly here was a best-selling conservative author from Ontario. I didn’t know what to make of it.

By then Bill had already had at least three different careers. He was an outstanding amateur athlete who represented Canada internationally in the 400-metre race and the decathlon, including at the 1964 Olympics. He had earned a Ph.D. in linguistics and literature at Stanford, then taught for a while at York University before deciding the classroom was too confining. And he had had a successful run in business with a chain of exercise centres, getting in early on Canadians’ growing interest in health and fitness.

William Gairdner throws a javelin as he takes part in the decathlon competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. (Courtesy of Gairdner family)
William Gairdner throws a javelin as he takes part in the decathlon competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. (Courtesy of Gairdner family)

I read “The Trouble with Canada“ around the time I went to work for Preston Manning and the Reform Party. I wanted to get Bill involved with the party, but Preston thought—probably rightly—that Bill was too plain-spoken for electoral politics.

So, the first time I met Bill in person was in 1996 at the “Winds of Change” conference in Calgary. It had become apparent that the Reform Party was stalled at the Ontario border, so David Frum and Ezra Levant organized a conference of about 100 political activists, researchers, and writers to discuss merger or cooperation between the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives. But the talks went nowhere because the Tory leadership wasn’t yet ready to admit they would never win another election on their own.

Even while political unification was going nowhere, someone—in my memory it was the economist and former Reform MP Herb Grubel—said that, no matter what the politicians were doing, it was so great for the researchers and writers to get together that we should do it again. Bill went back to Toronto and ran with the idea. Together with a few other Toronto friends, he drafted a constitution, recruited an executive, raised a little money, designed a logo, sent out an invitation to those who might be interested, and booked a hotel for a meeting in spring 1997. Voilà, Civitas was born.

William Gairdner approaches the finish line during a hurdles race while taking part in a decathlon competition. (Courtesy of Gairdner family)
William Gairdner approaches the finish line during a hurdles race while taking part in a decathlon competition. (Courtesy of Gairdner family)

The organization has met every year since. Operating under Chatham House rules, it does not seek publicity. Most members already have access to the media, so they prefer a forum where they can speak without fear of being (mis)quoted by reporters.

Civitas has been a clearing house for conservative ideas and a nursery for conservative politicians. Members who went on to have distinguished careers in politics include a prime minister of Canada, two premiers of Alberta, and numerous federal and provincial MPs, MLAs, and cabinet ministers. But all the while, as Bill insisted from the start, Civitas never took political positions or supported candidates. It has always remained “A Society Where Ideas Meet,” to quote the motto that Bill created.

After serving three years as the first president of Civitas, Bill remained heavily involved, helping to guide the organization to maturity. Yet he also continued to write prolifically. Here I can only mention my two favourites from the many books he produced in this period.

William Gairdner wearing his 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games jacket and hat. (Courtesy Gairdner family)
William Gairdner wearing his 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games jacket and hat. (Courtesy Gairdner family)

One is “Canada’s Founding Debates,” first published by Stoddart in 1999 and republished by the University of Toronto Press. Done in conjunction with political scientist Janet Ajzenstat and historians Ian Gentles and Paul Romney, it is an edited collection of debates about the making of Confederation, taken from all provincial legislatures. It is a work of lasting significance for students of Canadian history. It also shows that Bill could have excelled as a conventional academic scholar had he chosen that path.

My other favourite is “The Book of Absolutes“ (2008). Bill collected evidence from across many disciplines, from social sciences such as anthropology and linguistics to natural sciences such as physics and astronomy, to show that objective truths exist and that they can be discovered, albeit imperfectly and gradually, by the human mind. It is a crushing refutation of relativism.

Let me close with a personal recollection. In the early years of Civitas, Bill came to Calgary for a meeting, then stayed for some hiking in the Rockies. Knowing that he was an Ontario flatlander, I worried he might have trouble keeping up the pace at high altitude. But, of course, the opposite proved true: it was I who struggled to keep up with Bill. The world-class athlete had not lost his endurance.

That was Bill—always going further and faster than the rest of us. The familiar wish—“rest in peace”—just doesn’t seem right for him. “Keep on pushing” would be more appropriate.

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