Spirit Quest


A fellow traveller is found within the pages of a book

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective 

It has often been remarked by wiser cynics than I that “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” It has also been averred that “statistics don’t lie but you can sure as hell lie with statistics.” I know ministers of governments that do that.

MySpirit Quest today is about Prof. John Meisel who as the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Political Science, spent much of his career questing the myths, maths and mysteries of Canadian election statistics.

John and I are old friends. Born in Czechoslovakia we are of course great admirers of Tomas Guarrique Masaryk, the philosopher king and founding president of the republic, the subject of John’s master’s thesis. We came to Queens about the same time, the early fifties, having arrived there via nonlinear routes, he by way of Casablanca and Haiti and me by Scotland and Saskatchewan. I vaguely recall meeting him for the first time  shortly after his arrival at Batawa, Ontario, home of the Bata Shoe Company where both our fathers were employed. But what does a 13 year old have in common with an 18 year old, not much at the time, but that would change.


Over the years our paths have often crossed, most recently at the Ottawa launch of his book A Life of Learning And Other Pleasures: John Meisel’s Tale, an account much anticipated for by his friends and former students, in which he comes clean about his youth, his prolonged illness, osteomyelitis, schooling at Pickering College, the London School of Economics and the University of Toronto as well as a brief stint with Bata. John came to Queen’s to teach, I left  Queen’s to preach. Hotel management had been mooted by his parents for a fitting career. Hmm.

Peter Newman, a fellow Czech calls John “a national treasure.” Gilles Paquet of the Centre for Governance of University of Ottawa describes John's book as “a tale of courage and creativity.” Derek Burney a former Canadian Ambassador to the United States, praises this opus as a “memory of learning ... erudite, insightful and often witty.” Donald Watts, Principal Emeritus of Queen’s writes that “he is revered by colleagues and students for six decades.”

In his chapter “The Third Pillar” John writes that “academic work ... is a colossally wide and varied ant heap of activities affecting one’s profession and the world beyond. I guess that close to a third of my academic and quasi academic working time was devoted to non teaching  and non research activities...”

There are those who disparage academics saying that “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” Knowing John Meisel and reading his Tale one is convinced that he can both do and teach admirably well. Rich are those who have had occasion to sit at his feet, to experience his wisdom and wit, and those who worked at his side at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Forum, as well as numerous government and university bodies.

Professor Emeritus John Meisel.  

He leaves a host of reports and studies. He was a well-known lecturer, the prestigeous Dunning Trust Lecturer at Queen’s and as visiting professor at Yale University. But his book is a conversation. “Quite frankly, I loved conversing with you,” he writes. While economics, politics and particularly statistics may not sound like a very captivating topic to many, John is one who makes it live and become lively. It’s him! His joie de vivre shows.

Some years ago, John Meisel gave Queen’s an extraordinary gift. That gift is now on the way to enriching the Queen’s community and may very well raise the international profile of the university.

One hour north of the campus on ten acres of Canadian Shield amidst the rocks and trees of Frontenac County, sits a charming snail-shaped house. Students know it as Colimaison (snail house), the home that John and his late wife opened to hundreds of students and fellow academics. It is now called the John Meisel Atalier de Pensee and is the start  of Queen’s humanities centre.  It has a bright studio and art library. His hope is that  this legacy would be used  by students, visiting artist and scholars in-residence. The property abuts 130 acres of wildernes encircling a small lake which  is part of the Meisel Woods Conservation Area. This project speaks of John Meisel’s devotion not only to Queen’s but to all of Canada, the land of his adoption and of his vision for its future.

Janice Gross Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, in her Foreword writes that “John Meisel’s life is the story of Canada but Canada also defines the story of his life. The one mirrors and shapes the other so that the two become inseparable. It is this symbiosis that makes the story so compelling.”

Questing for the Spirit as is my wont, takes many routes. It is great to encounter a “mensch” as fellow traveller even though, or particularly if, the terrain is strange. Read it, enjoy it and learn. I felt the spirit move within those pages.

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