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Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant

Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant: Mackenzie King to Pierre Trudeau

Gordon Robertson
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 3847
  • Book Info
    Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant
    Book Description:

    Robertson presents a first-hand account of the events and personalities that shaped Canada during the critical post-war period, describes Canada's political development, and the prime ministers who presided over it.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7720-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Part One From the Prairies to Ottawa, 1917–1941

    • chapter one From the Prairies to Oxford, 1917–1938
      (pp. 3-17)

      The battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 made a great fighting reputation for the Canadian Corps. The corps took the commanding ridge after both French and British attempts to do so had failed. There were more than ten thousand casualties in the five-day assault; and one of them was my father, a lieutenant in the 195th Battalion. The rank of lieutenant in the infantry was, I have been told, the most dangerous in the Canadian army since the lieutenants were expected to be first out of the trenches and to lead from the front. My observation in my later...

    • chapter two From Oxford to Ottawa, 1938–1941
      (pp. 18-32)

      The sailing dinner on 23 September for the new crop of Rhodes Scholars was on a different level than the colonist car. It was in the elegance of the Windsor Hotel in Montreal: ‘black tie,’ appropriate wines, talk about Oxford, and the port at the end moving the right way – to the left. It was my first chance to meet two men who were to become lifetime friends and colleagues: Bill Lawson from Manitoba, later my brother-in-law, and Ed Ritchie from New Brunswick, later Canadian ambassador to the United States and under-secretary of state for external affairs.

      The Following...

  6. Part Two External Affairs and Mackenzie King, 1941–1948

    • chapter three The Department of External Affairs, 1941–1945
      (pp. 35-46)

      The East Block, built before Confederation when Queen Victoria settled on the ‘lumber village’ that had been Bytown to become the capital of Canada, had no difficulty containing the whole Department of External Affairs – and also the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, the Cabinet Chamber, and the Department of Finance. Government was small and departments were tiny, especially External Affairs. In 1937 there were eleven officers in Ottawa. As war approached, one former officer returned to help with the increase in work, but even after the outbreak of war in 1939 and a host of new responsibilities,...

    • chapter four Working for Mackenzie King, 1945–1948
      (pp. 47-72)

      The Prime Minister’s Office of fifty years ago was tiny. In August 1945, when I became a member, Jack Pickersgill was not only the head of the office but one of only two officers left in the East Block. Two others were at Laurier House: Edouard Handy and James A. Gibson. The two officers who had been technically senior to Jack, but much subordinate in importance and in influence with King, had been appointed to positions in the public service: Walter Turnbull, the principal secretary, to be deputy postmaster general, and H.R.L. Henry, King’s private secretary, to be registrar of...

  7. Part Three Louis St Laurent and a New North, 1948–1963

    • chapter five Working with Louis St Laurent, 1948–1953
      (pp. 75-106)

      Louis St Laurent became prime minister on 15 November 1948. He was the first French-speaking prime minister since Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s defeat in the election of 1911 and only the second in our history since Confederation. The Prime Minister’s Office reflected that fact and also the very limited place that was then given to the French language in the public service of Canada generally. There was no language problem in either the government or the service: the language was English. Under section 133 of the British North America Act of 1867, French could be used in either House of Parliament...

    • chapter six Canada Discovers the North, 1953–1957
      (pp. 107-145)

      The second election in which St Laurent ran as prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party took place on 10 August 1953. Like the first in 1949, it was a resounding victory. The Liberals won 170 seats out of 265. By early September the prime minister was rested and ready to plan his new administration. On 16 September I was told that St Laurent wished to see me. It was not a total surprise. Jack Pickersgill had warned me the day before that the prime minister had decided to offer me the position of deputy minister of resources and...

    • chapter seven Governing the Northwest Territories, 1953–1957
      (pp. 146-164)

      The Northwest Territories Act provided that ‘the Commissioner in council may, subject to the Act and any other Act of the Parliament of Canada, make ordinances for the government of the Territories’ in relation to classes of subjects that were listed. The ordinances were laws with the same legal effect in the Territories as enactments of provincial legislatures in the provinces. The ‘subjects’ were the same, with a few exceptions, as those with which a provincial legislature can deal. The most important exception was public lands and non-renewable resources, such as minerals, oil, and gas. Control of these was federal,...

    • chapter eight The Territories under the Vision, 1958–1963
      (pp. 165-199)

      The public service was totally unprepared for a change of government in June 1957. The Liberals had been in office for twenty-two years. No other party in all that time had come close to threatening their majority, based on solid Quebec support but also with substantial strength in every other province. King had survived the conscription crisis of 1944 and won the immediate post-war election of 1945 while the man who saved Britain, Winston Churchill, was decisively defeated in an election there the same year. St Laurent had achieved a position of respect: his ‘Uncle Louis’ image had grown with...

    • chapter nine The Emerging North
      (pp. 200-208)

      John Diefenbaker and his Progressive Conservative Party swept the country in 1958. With 209 seats to the Liberals’ 48, they had the largest majority in Canadian history. Only in Newfoundland did the Liberals win more. In the west and the two Territories, the part of the country with most interest in ‘the Vision,’ the Liberals carried one seat and the Conservatives sixty-six. There was no doubt about the mandate for northern development and Alvin Hamilton was the most committed, vigorous, and imaginative person that could have been called on to implement it. We in the department of Northern Affairs rejoiced...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  8. Part Four ‘Mike’ Pearson and a Changing Canada, 1963–1968

    • chapter ten Pearson and the Quiet Revolution
      (pp. 211-224)

      John Diefenbaker’s victory in the election of 1957 had been very much his own: a personal more than a party triumph. The landslide win in 1958 had been equally his. The transition from that enormous majority to the minority government of 1962 and then to the defeat of his government in the House of Commons on 5 February 1963 were also mainly attributable to his own character and ineffective leadership. Diefenbaker was a loner for most of his political life, at odds with much of his own party and frequently suspicious of some of his colleagues when he became prime...

    • chapter eleven The Symbols and Structure of Canada
      (pp. 225-248)

      In January 1960 Pearson criticized the failure of the Diefenbaker government ‘to find a solution for the problem of a distinctive national flag.’¹ It took courage to launch his own solution a year after he became prime minister in a forum that he knew would be hostile – the annual convention of the Royal Canadian Legion in Winnipeg on 17 May 1964. ‘I had perhaps one or two friends on the platform on the night of my address, but not many out in front. Nevertheless, I laid it on the line: “... I believe most sincerely that it is time...

  9. Part Five Winds of Change with Pierre Trudeau, 1968–1980

    • chapter twelve Pierre Trudeau and a New Style of Governing, 1968–1970
      (pp. 251-268)

      Pierre Trudeau and I had been in touch with one another at intervals, especially after he became parliamentary secretary to the prime minister in 1966. When I returned from Quebec in early January 1968, I became chairman of a task force ‘to prepare an overall constitutional position for the consideration of ministers and to make immediate preparations for the conference’ the prime minister had called for 5 February.¹ The task force was to report to the prime minister but to ‘keep in close touch’ with Trudeau as minister of justice. In fact, Pierre attended some of the task force meetings,...

    • chapter thirteen Trudeau and the Constitution, 1968–1979
      (pp. 269-298)

      Before he became a minister in the Pearson government in 1965, Trudeau had argued against attempting a reform of the constitution: it would be a ‘can of worms.’ The first ten years of his life as prime minister were to show how right he had been. That does not mean that Pearson had been wrong in launching the atttempt. In the national circumstances of 1968, a prime minister concerned about the unity of the country had little choice but to make the effort. And when he became prime minister, Trudeau realized that he in turn had no choice but to...

    • chapter fourteen Transition and Change, 1978–1980
      (pp. 299-318)

      One of the little-known roles of the clerk of the Privy Council is, on rare occasions, to advise the governor general on some problems on which he cannot turn to the prime minister. One such question came up in February 1968, when my family and I were living in Quebec City. The prime minister – Lester Pearson – was in Jamaica for a much needed rest after the constitutional conference over which he had just presided. That rest had hardly begun when he had to come back to Ottawa: the government had been defeated in the House of Commons on...

  10. Part Six Trudeau’s ‘Power Play,’ Meech Lake, and the Charlottetown Accord, 1980–1992

    • chapter fifteen The Trudeau Power Play, 1980–1982
      (pp. 321-327)

      Not long after his reappointment as clerk in March 1980, Michael Pitfield came to see me in my tiny office in the IRPP. The apparent purpose was to ask whether I wanted to return to the job I had held from 1975 to 1979 of secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial relations.

      If Michael was acting on behalf of the prime minister, he should have known that I had said in my letter of congratulation that my retirement was not reversible. Whether he knew or not, it was obviously a pro forma question to which I was supposed to answer...

    • chapter sixteen Away from Government
      (pp. 328-336)

      Within a few months of my two-year appointment as a fellow-in-residence at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Michael Kirby, the president of the Institute, had been appointed to fill my old job as secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial relations. I then accepted an appointment to Kirby’s position as president of the Institute, which left no time to embark on the book about constitutional reform I had in mind.

      The institute had been founded in 1972 as an independent organization supported by the income from an endowment fund established by grants from the federal and provincial governments, together...

    • chapter seventeen Meech Lake: The Best Hope Lost
      (pp. 337-348)

      Before the election of September 1984, Brian Mulroney promised that, if elected, Conservatives would endeavour to bring Quebec to accept ‘with honour and enthusiasm’ the constitution it had rejected in 1982. The essential condition to make that possible came with the victory of the Liberal Party of Quebec, led by Robert Bourassa, in the provincial election of December 1985. In May 1986 Gil Rémillard, the minister of intergovernmental affairs in the new Liberal government, presented Quebec’s conditions for acceptance of the constitution to a conference on the future of Quebec and Canada at Mont Gabriel, Quebec.

      There were five requirements,...

    • chapter eighteen Meech Lake Dead: Where Next?
      (pp. 349-374)

      The reaction in Quebec to the defeat of Meech Lake was immediate and enduring. The federalist government of Robert Bourassa had taken a political gamble in putting forward a program as modest as the five points at Mont Gabriel. Having the National Assembly of Quebec be the first provincial legislature to approve the accord, even though, in its final form, four of the points had been generalized in a way that made them less attractive in Quebec, increased the risk but it was necessary to forestall any fear that Quebec would, in the end, draw back as it had after...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 375-384)

    I was fortunate in the prime ministers I worked with over a period of nearly forty years. All four were highly intelligent, committed to the welfare of Canada, and effective political leaders. Each brought his own style to the office and each dominated his cabinet as a successful prime minister must. Only King was difficult to work with – or ‘for’ in his case – although all had cause to be at times. The problems and pressures of the office have ample rewards in prestige and power but even strong nerves can become frayed. Old age and diminished energy were...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 385-394)
  13. Index
    (pp. 395-408)