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3 min

Remembering Abe Rotstein, 1929–2015

A man known for his intellect and abundant love will be missed

Abraham Rotstein died of a heart attack on April 27; his many friends and colleagues will miss his warmth, generosity of spirit, piercing intellect and progressive commitment. In academic and political circles, he had long been a heroic defender of Canadian economic independence. He was a public intellectual and asked the big questions; he was someone who spoke and wrote with great eloquence and wit. His endless curiosity meant that he listened with gentle attentiveness. He was naturally full of conversation.

“There is no replacing a man of wisdom,” Rabbi Miriam Margles told Rotstein’s family and friends at his funeral, in front of a simple white coffin.

Rotstein was born in 1929 to poor immigrant parents, and grew up east of St Urbain Street in Montreal. His formidable intellect eventually took him to graduate work at Chicago and Columbia. He then completed a PhD thesis on the Canadian fur trade at the University of Toronto, and in the 1960s, he was appointed as a faculty member in what was then the Department of Political Economy.

Rotstein’s teaching work was mostly in the field of Canadian economic history, but his interests delved into politics, anthropology, theology and philosophy. The breadth of his intellect endured long after his economics colleagues decided that they should separate from those who focused on politics. His teachings continued to straddle that divide, and he never believed that deliberations about Canadian pasts or futures could be illuminated by the cold supply-and-demand models so favoured by the dominant currents in economics.

Rotstein continued teaching long after he formally retired in 1993, conducting a seminar course as recently as the summer of 2014. Friends and colleagues in the political science department fondly remember their luck in sharing courses with him in comparative and international political economy. He taught thousands of students and retained a superb reputation as an inspiring teacher. Until the end, as his dear friend and intellectual comrade Mel Watkins said, he was still so sound of body and mind.

Rotstein’s influence extended far beyond the academy. He was a founding member of various groups, including the University League for Social Reform, the Canadian Institute for Economic Policy and the Committee for an Independent Canada (a precursor to the Council of Canadians). For years, he edited Canadian Forum, a highly influential vehicle for progressive deliberation. He campaigned for measures aimed at limiting foreign corporate domination, particularly from the United States, and opposed simple-minded growth strategies that relied on free trade and free markets. He was often on the losing side of the political debates he so passionately took up, but that never dulled his good-humoured optimism and commitment to social justice.

His written works were varied and inspired. In the 1960s and ’70s, he authored: The Precarious Homsetead: Essays on Economics, Technology and NationalismBeyond Industrial Growth; and Rebuilding From Within: Remedies for Canada’s Ailing Economy. Even beyond those, he authored many books that make the case for Canadian economic independence. He contributed chapters to 28 different books, and wrote many opinion pieces for magazines and newspapers. He was completing two book manuscripts when he died — ever active and intellectually alive.

With his wife Diane, he had two children, Daniel and Eve, and three grandchildren he loved dearly. He also had a younger brother, Morris, who mourned his big brother’s passing alongside his wife and their children. They all remember his love of music and his violin playing. He loved travelling and bringing back presents for his family from all over the world. He was proud of being Jewish, even though he grew up knowing anti-Semitism first-hand and how it positioned him outside the mainstream.

It was some time after his formal retirement that Rotstein began to explore his sexuality. His first questions were about what to expect and how to meet people — the same questions so many others have asked before and since. This marked a difficult period within his family, with wounds that are often papered over in “coming out” narratives. But he was driven to open himself to experiences that had, until then, been repressed.

With the kind of inquisitiveness and charm that had so marked his life until then, he threw himself into forging networks across the LGBT community. He joined The Fraternity, a social club, and enthusiastically attended events sponsored by the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at UofT, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, the Association of LGBT Journalists (NLGJA) and Qu(e)rying Religion. He was everywhere, and he brought with him the generosity and wit that he had so marked his life and career until then. He kept this part of his life quite separate from the rest, but it was a large life he quickly created for himself.

At his funeral, when his son, his brother and Watkins spoke to us, stories of humour, politics, family, music, travel and conversation spilled from their scripts. As Watkins said, Abe Rotstein was “a good and wise person.”

(Photo credit: U of T)