Thomas d’Aquino Former CEO, Canadian Council of Chief Executives, Ottawa, January 21, 2013
Gordon Robertson — a good, fair, principled and ever so courteous man — was a modest person. But we here today know that he was a giant. Indeed, he has been described as his generation’s most distinguished public servant.
Gordon reported for duty at the East Block in June 1941. It then housed the whole Department of External Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, the Department of Finance and the cabinet chamber.
In 1945, he was summoned by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and soon found himself working with King’s closest confidant, Jack Pickersgill. In his engrossing Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant, Gordon explains how close to impossible it was to carry out his new responsibilities — ”Perfection was a bare pass in working for King,” he said.
In one particular achievement, Gordon took special pride — the proclamation on January 1, 1947, of the Canadian Citizenship Act. Prior to that, we were legally — first and foremost — British subjects. The first ceremony for the conferring of certificates of this new Canadian citizenship took place before the Supreme Court. Gordon describes the joy that Mackenzie King felt as he received certificate number 1 and was met with rapt applause as he started his remarks for the first time with ”I speak as a citizen of Canada…”
The election of Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent in 1948 launched a new chapter in Gordon’s life. St-Laurent’s interest in constitutional reform allowed Gordon to shine, as he was the only official close to the Prime Minister at the time with a background in constitutional law. Throughout the First Constitutional Conference of 1950 and the Quebec Conference of the same year, Gordon was at St-Laurent’s side.
In 1953, Gordon began his 10-year northern odyssey. A re-elected St-Laurent appointed him, at the age of 36, the first deputy minister of northern affairs and national resources and commissioner of the Northwest Territories (St-Laurent was determined during the Cold War to build an active presence in Canada’s North).
Shortly after the election of Lester Pearson in 1963, Gordon was invited to succeed Robert Bryce as Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet — a post, he records, that he did not seek, as he was very happy working in the north where progress was finally discernible.
Despite the minority governments and turbulence of the subsequent five years, Gordon had a hand in decisions that changed the face of Canada — the creation of the Canada Assistance Plan, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the Canada Pension Plan and Medicare; the institutionalizing of federal-provincial relations as an instrument of governance; the federal response to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution; the ferociously debated adoption of the maple leaf flag; the design and launch of the Order of Canada; and the splendid celebration of Canada’s centennial in 1967.
Gordon was generous in his assessment of the Pearson legacy, saying simply, ”People of genius can and do make a difference. Mike Pearson was such a man.” I believe that we can say that the Pearson legacy bears the imprint of Gordon Robertson at his best.
It was in February 1968 that Gordon bumped into Pierre Trudeau at the front door of the Chateau Laurier. He asked Gordon if he would be his Secretary to the Cabinet if he were to become prime minister. Gordon said yes, and noted, ”So began an association of eleven years in which there was never a clash or an angry word.”
It was Gordon’s expertise in constitutional matters that Trudeau most called upon as he pursued his central ambition — to patriate the Constitution and enshrine the Charter of Rights. The journey was tortuous and full of disappointments, and much depended on Gordon’s behind-the-scenes negotiating skills. For him, it was also deeply personal. It was his abiding conviction that the unity of our country is primordial, and for this he would fight — and fight again.
With the advent of the Clark government in May 1979, Gordon retired from the public service (he went on to become president of the IRPP). An editorial in the Ottawa Journal spoke of his achievements: ”What is beyond dispute is the extraordinary breadth of his knowledge of the art of public administration at the highest level. His influence was far wider than any particular post he held. His discretion, his integrity, his humane wisdom, commanded respect from very different prime ministers and cabinet ministers. He gave his advice in the highest tradition of a disinterested public servant.”