Remarks by John Kincaid at the Memorial Service for Ronald L. Watts

Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 30 October 2015

Donna Watts, members of Ron’s family and Donna’s family, distinguished friends and colleagues of Ron.

I’m not worthy to stand in the shadow of such a towering figure as Ronald Watts. But I convey the sincere condolences and warm remembrances of all members of the International Association of Centers for Federal Studies.  The association also assembled for Donna its members’ spontaneous responses to the sad news of Ron’s death.

Ron was a world-renowned scholar, a status achieved early in life. He was an outstanding and highly respected student of federalism and intergovernmental relations worldwide.

To me, Ron was also Mr. Canada.  Ron embodied the best of Canadian values; he was proud to be Canadian; and he never shied away from letting people know that.  When he met President Bill Clinton at a Rhodes Scholar reunion, what impressed Ron most was that Clinton asked him a question about Canada.

One of the first works I read by Ron was his 1987 article in the Journal of American History comparing Canadian and American federalism. The article reminded us that there are two important federal countries north of the Rio Grande.

Earlier, I had worked with Ron in my capacity as Associate Editor of Publius: The Journal of Federalism on recruiting his 1986 article on “The Macdonald Commission Report and Canadian Federalism.” This article marked Ron’s return to federalism scholarship after a ten-year hiatus as Vice Chancellor and Principal of Queen’s University.

Ron’s best-known work internationally is his Comparing Federal Systems. Its third edition appeared in 2008.  I fondly recall the inscription he wrote in the copy of the book he sent me.

Comparing Federal Systems is the most widely cited book on comparative federalism and will be cited for many years ahead. The book captured attention in part because it is elegantly simple, free of jargon, and unencumbered by faux intellectualism. Ron had a gift for communicating complex ideas straightforwardly.

This is one reason why he was frequently invited to summarize and critique conference proceedings. He was always thorough, accurate, logical, and fair. By the end of Ron’s conclusion, I would think: “Oh, so that’s what this conference was really about.” Indeed, we should have asked Ron to read all the papers in advance and give us an insightful 30-minute commentary so we could spend the rest of the day out on the town.

Ron’s commitment to federalism scholarship also was reflected in his role as a founding member of the International Association of Centers for Federal Studies (IACFS) in 1977.  There were ten founding centers, of which Queen’s University’s Institute of Intergovernmental Relations was one.  Ron and his friend Dan Elazar gave the association its initial vitality. Ron also served as the association’s president from 1992 through 1997. The association, which meets every year in a different country, still thrives at age 38. Ron attended almost every conference. Those conferences will not be the same without his thoughtful, gracious presence.

Ron also helped found the Research Committee on Comparative Federalism and Federations (RC28) of the International Political Science Association. He remained a member for the ensuing 30 years.

How can we account for Ron’s passion for federalism and intergovernmental relations? These subjects bore most people. If you have insomnia, open a book on intergovernmental relations. Ron’s passion for federalism, I believe, stemmed from his passion for peace, democracy, and the dignified coexistence of the diverse peoples who inhabit our planet.

About 40 percent of the world’s people live in a federal arrangement, not counting the European Union as a quasi-federation, and seven of the world’s eight territorially largest countries have a federal structure. China is the exception.

Most important, federalism, especially federal democracy, seeks to achieve unity while preserving diversity by combining shared rule with self-rule. Unity requires peace; peace can be achieved by a covenant guaranteeing the continued identities and cultures of diverse peoples united by a federal arrangement in order to achieve democratically the goals they need to achieve together in a common polity rather than killing or oppressing each other because of language, religion, nationality, or skin color. Ron knew full well that the path to federal democracy lies not in revolutionary romanticism but in the nuts and bolts of constitutional design, institutional structuring, and cooperative intergovernmental relations, along with what German federalists call Bundestreue.

This passion also accounts for Ron’s many non-academic pursuits. Ron worked on issues of federalism and constitutional design in many countries, some of which, such as South Africa, have succeeded. Among others, Ron addressed federalism challenges in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, the former Yugoslavia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Cyprus, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and, most recently, the Solomon Islands. Just mentioning these places makes one realize both the importance and the difficulty of Ron’s chosen work.

Ron also was a founding board member of the international Forum of Federations from 2000 to 2006. He helped develop the Forum’s intellectual capital and its Global Dialogue on Federalism—a joint program of the Forum and International Association of Centers for Federal Studies. The Global Dialogue involved thousands of scholars, government officers, and students in cross-country discussions of federal ideas and practices. The Global Dialogue also produced nine scholarly books and popular booklets on different facets of federalism around the world.

Ron’s founding roles in the IACFS, IPSA’s RC28, and the Forum testify to another side of Ron’s lifetime contributions, namely, his skills as an institution builder. All three of these institutions, which are the leading international organizations dedicated to federalism, owe a tremendous debt to Ron.

Ron was the most pleasant and gracious academic I have known. During a career, one develops many relationships, but only a few blossom into genuine affection. Ron was a man for whom I have great affection.

My wife Lucille and I also enjoyed spending time with Donna and Ron outside of conference rooms. Lucille enjoyed, too, exploring different countries with Donna while Ron and I conferenced all day. Outside the conference venues, I discovered different sides of Ron. One vivid memory is of renting ATVs in the Brazilian jungle. In the rainforest, I realized that Ron was born not only to be a scholar but that Ron also was born to be wild.

Ron had a largeness of spirit, an openness to young scholars, and a generousness of heart that endeared him to all. Having started my academic career late, I was a 35-year-old assistant professor when I met Ron.  He welcomed me on the same footing as seasoned colleagues.

Because of Ron’s abundant personal and scholarly qualities and his happiness to mentor young scholars, the International Association of Centers for Federal Studies voted without dissent last week to name its young researcher award after Ron. It is the only award made by the association. The Ronald L. Watts Young Researcher Award will be one of Ron’s many lasting legacies. This annual award will evoke fond memories for Ron’s fellow federalism fans, though it will not change the fact that we will miss you very much, Ron.

Thank you for having enriched our lives.

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