Queen's University

In memoriam: political scientist Richard Simeon

Richard Simeon: Federalism’s bridge-builder

[photo of Richard Simeon]Richard Simeon, FRSC, one of Canada’s leading political scientists and a faculty member at Queen’s from 1968 to 1991, died in October at the age of 70. He was a leading scholar of federalism who shaped political conversations during Canada’s great debates over constitutional reform and later advised governments around the world on the potential of the federalist idea.

Richard completed his undergraduate degree at UBC and his doctorate at Yale before coming to Queen’s as a member of the Department of Political Studies in 1968. He was intellectually innovative. His first and most important book brought the framework of international relations – the study of how sovereign states relate to each other – to the analysis of relations between Canada’s federal and provincial governments. The title, Federal-Provincial Diplomacy, neatly captured this insight. In the decades that followed, Richard built a legacy of some 20 books and more than 100 articles and book chapters.

During his years at Queen’s, Prof. Simeon emerged as a public intellectual, equally engaged in the worlds of scholarship and public debate. He became the director of Queen’s Institute of Intergovernmental Relations just two months before the election of the first Parti Québécois government in Quebec gave new intensity to Canada’s constitutional struggles. Under his leadership, the Institute became a central node in the country’s constitutional debates, linking scholars and public officials across the country. The Institute became a magnet for talent in those days, and was a fun place to work. At one Institute conference, everyone ­received a button that proclaimed: “No sex please. All our relations are intergovernmental.”

Richard was by nature a bridge-builder. He sought to understand the different perspectives underlying any intellectual or political conflict and then created links between the contending parties. During his days in Intergovernmental Relations, he built bridges between Quebec and the rest of Canada, creating a neutral site for open discussion between academics and officials in difficult times. He also served as an advisor to Ontario premiers Bill Davis (LLD’68), David Petersen, and Bob Rae.

Richard had recently summed up his approach to such conflicts as follows: “My view then was not so much to take sides or to go to war for national unity, but rather to help promote mutual recognition and understanding across the linguistic divide. This search for compromise, consensus and accommodation, more than any partisan position, was and is my core belief and has shaped my responses not only to many aspects of Canada’s linguistic, regional and Aboriginal differences, but also to international cases as well.”

His contribution to public policy and to Queen’s extended well beyond the constitutional file. In 1983, he served as a research coordinator and member of the report-drafting team for the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada. In 1985, he became Director of Queen’s School of Public Administration, the precursor of today’s School of Policy Studies. He began the process of building a core of faculty expertise in the School and enhanced its profile nationally and internationally. As always, Richard animated the School with his energy and enthusiasm, setting it on course to become the leading policy school in the country.

Richard moved to the U of T in 1991. In the years that followed, his research and engagements moved in comparative and international directions, focusing increasingly on emerging democracies and the potential role for federalism in reconciling deeply divided societies. This phase of his research brought him back into contact with Queen’s scholars, including Bruce Berman, Will Kymlicka, John McGarry, and Margaret Moore.

Richard’s contributions were widely recognized. Harvard University invited him twice to be its Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies. In 2001, he was made a member of the Advisory Committee of the Club of Rome, an international organization of former heads of state and government dedicated to democratic transition and consolidation. In 2004, he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2010 the American Political Science Association awarded him the Daniel J. Elazar Award for a ”lifetime of distinguished scholarship on federalism and intergovernmental relations.”

Richard Simeon was a distinguished scholar and public intellectual whose colleagues found him unfailingly generous and open-spirited. He was a wonderful friend and brought out the best in everyone fortunate enough to work with him. He left us too early, and will be sorely missed. 

Keith Banting, Arts’69, is Queen’s Research Chair in Public Policy and a professor in both the School of Policy Studies and the Department of Political Studies.

Queen's Alumni Review, 2014 Issue #1Queen's Alumni Review
2014 Issue #1
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