A Tribute to David E. Smith


I experienced a strange and sad serendipity today.

Around 1230, I was looking at my weekly stats on ResearchGate and the latest update on my and Nick MacDonald’s article on constitutional conventions from 2012 and found my thoughts drifting back to a time in late 2011 or early 2012 when Nick and I met David E. Smith at the restaurant in the Lord Elgin Hotel here in Ottawa. He liked our manuscript and the arguments that we brought forth but suggested that we confine ourselves to short and direct Anglo-Saxon words, especially in titles. This, in turn, led me to muse early this afternoon that if we could re-name the piece now, I’d suggest something more like “Put It in Writing: Making Constitutional Conventions Official.” Then about five minutes later, I heard that David E. Smith had died. It is a strange and sad coincidence that my thoughts should turn to him shortly after but before I was aware of his death.

I would not make such lofty claims to have known him exceptionally well, but he and I corresponded for a decade – even before I had secured my first publication – about Canadian political institutions, and we met a few times over the years. We last met in person at the Constitution at 150 Conference in Montreal in May 2017, at which we both presented, and we last spoke and corresponded in late 2020-early 2021 before he became too ill. He always reminded me of Dumbledore: a kindly avuncular figure concealing a keen mind and sharp wit behind a playful glint in the eye. He gave me much good advice over the years and showed a great interest in my work. He took the role of elder mentor to heart and genuinely enjoyed working with graduate students and cultivating the talents of younger scholars.

I’m glad to have shared in the moment when the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan awarded him the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in October 2012, at an enjoyable and informative conference which the late D. Michael Jackson so ably organised. Her Honour attempted to present David with the medal on the evening of the 27th in a great dining hall at Government House only to find that he had already retired for the evening, which provoked a mixture of embarrassment punctuated by several bouts of tension-relieving laughter. Thankfully, she succeeded in presenting him the Diamond Jubilee Medal the following morning. We all enjoyed another round of laughter at that protocolic hiccup but shared in a genuine affection and appreciation for someone so deserving of the award. David and I shared a table that morning at the back of the main conferenceroom. We exchanged a bemused and knowing glance and coordinated a slight rolling of the eyes over the cringe and awkwardness that Peter Russell created later that morning when he devoted a not insignificant portion of his presentation to admonishing me by name and attacking the work that Nick and I had done on highlighting the Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada and on the tactical prorogations of 2008 and 2009.

The scholarship on Canadian political institutions started undergoing a generational shift in the late 2010s with the passing of those born in the 1930s; it started with C.E.S. Franks in September 2018 and continued with depressing inevitability with Peter Hogg in February 2020, D. Michael Jackson in November 2022, and now David E. Smith in January 2023. I had corresponded with and knew them all to varying degrees and wish that they were still here. For whatever reasons, Boomers largely skipped out on studying constitutional conventions and Responsible Government in Canada, so the center of gravity of our field of study has now shifted decisively toward Generation Xers.

I express today my deepest condolences to David’s family and to all those who knew him better than I. But perhaps we can take some consolation that the text which we leave behind lives forever. Great scholars therefore achieve a kind of immortality, and David E. Smith’s contributions to Canadian political science with respect to political parties, representation and electoral redistribution, the House of Commons, the Senate, constitutional conventions, the history of Responsible Government, and the Crown have certainly earned him a place amongst the greats.

About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Reviews, Tributes and Memorials. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Tribute to David E. Smith

  1. Richard Berthelsen says:

    James. Such a lovely tribute and so true. I was there for much of it and it is just as you say. David Smith was one of a kind and we will not see his like again. We will benefit from his teaching and writing for a long time. He was the best of academe, generous and good company.

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  2. Rand Dyck says:

    David took great interest in you and Nick and your work from the very start. He was also a great support to me throughout my career. As you say, he wrote definitively on almost every aspect of the discipline, with his classic treatments of each institution of government. Such a giant in the discipline, and such a lovely person!

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