In 1968, Ronald Ritchie, then an executive at Imperial Oil Ltd, was asked by the federal government to report on the possibility of a new “institute for research on public policy,” a construction that eventually became both the title of his report and the name of the institute that it recommended. Mr. Ritchie’s interest and involvement in public policy were longstanding, starting at least with his service with the Wartime Prices and Trade Board and including a secondment as Executive Director of the Royal Commission on Government Organisation (1960-62). An economist by training, Mr. Ritchie served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance in the Clark Government. He is the first recipient of the Roland Lutes Memorial Award for extraordinary service to the IRPP. Policy Options editor William Watson talked with Mr. Ritchie on April 4, 2002.
William Watson: Where did the idea for the IRPP come from?
Ronald Ritchie: I don’t really know. Prime Minister Trudeau put it in his first Speech from the Throne in the fall of 1968. I remember noting that at the time, but I had nothing to do with its origin. So when I was invited to undertake the study with a view to turning it into flesh and bones, it was a surprise to me.
William Watson: What were the terms of that study? How did it come about? Who talked to you about it, and what did you do?
Ronald Ritchie: I think the invitation came in early in November, a couple of months after the Speech from the Throne. I was invited to Ottawa to talk about it. I don’t know that I received the invitation directly from Pierre Trudeau, but it was in his name at any rate. And I had some ideas about how I would undertake such a study. I’d always been policy-oriented, and I did a lot of speaking and writing at that time, so I didn’t come to it as a complete novice. But I certainly became much more intrigued with the subject as I went along.
At any event, in November, I agreed to undertake it as a one-man study. The Prime Minister’s Office wanted me to come up with a finished report by the end of the first quarter of 1969. Working under pressure, and doing what I thought had to be done, I came out with the report in December 1968. At that point, it seemed to go into limbo for quite some time ”” to the point where I was quite concerned about it. I was even saying privately to Ottawa that if they didn’t get around to doing something with it pretty soon, then I’d do it indi- vidually, because I had become very sold on the need for such an institute. And it didn’t really need government sponsorship.
But Gordon Robertson, with his usual calming effect, talked me out of doing that, and then a bit later told me that things were really moving on it. And in April (or so) of 1971 Trudeau in effect committed himself to the report and authorized me to go ahead with the things I thought should be done.
William Watson: That had taken a while. You reported in December 1969 and you waited until April 1971?
Ronald Ritchie: Oh, yes. Interestingly enough, I was under pressure to get it done before Christmas 1969 because Trudeau and Michael Pitfield were going off on a Mediterranean cruise over Christmas, and they wanted to have it to look at. But then, as I say, it just went into limbo ”” or appeared to from my standpoint. Partly, that was because they weren’t terribly sure they liked the things I’d said, which weren’t exactly in the confines of what they’d originally had in mind. I’d given the Institute a little too much independence. I think they had visualized it more as an arm of government ”” loosely an arm of government. And that’s certainly not what I was proposing.
William Watson: They already had the Economic Council at that time.
Ronald Ritchie: Yes, and in the report I spent a little time ”” and also did in discussions ahead of time ”” saying why that kind of relationship wasn’t the best for this policy research institute. Then after Trudeau had said to me ”œgo ahead,” I was on pins and needles for quite a while, because it wasn’t announced. And they kept telling me they were trying to find a proper day for the Prime Minister to announce it in the House. That day finally came in August 1971. I got almost no notice. If I hadn’t been in a situation where I had access to a company plane, I don’t think I could have reached Ottawa fast enough to participate in the press conference they wanted to hold.
William Watson: What was your day job at that time?
Ronald Ritchie: I was a senior vice-president and a member of the board of directors of Imperial Oil. I’d been with Imperial ever since 1947.
William Watson: What vision did you recommend? And how did it get amended?
Ronald Ritchie: It didn’t get amended, really. I couldn’t put the vision any better than I did in the report, which I looked at last night for the first time in a long time. It sets out pretty clearly what I tried to initiate. My chief contribution, apart from the proposed mandate and some of the format, was to bring the vision into existence: to get the first board of directors, the first council of trustees, to begin the fund-raising process, to try to get provincial government interest (at least) ”” which I think I did at that time. I’m not sure that provincial government interest has continued, and you’d know better than I to what extent there are any provincial government links, formal or otherwise at this point. But my contribution ended shortly after that ”” that is, after hiring the first president, but not seeing him fully installed on the job ”” because at the end of January 1974 I announced I was leaving the business world to go into federal politics. And so from then on, I had to be very careful as to what my involvement with the Institute was. I consulted with the board and others, and in the end stayed until a little past the middle of 1974, by which time Fred Carrothers, the first president, was just getting into the job.
William Watson: What other diffi- culties did you face, once you did try to get the thing up and running?
Ronald Ritchie: Well, we had to raise some money for the Institute to begin to function. The federal government pledged something short of one million dollars as a first installment on a total pledge of $10 million, subject to matching from other sources. And so I had to go out money-raising, which I did wearing my Imperial Oil hat, because that carried more weight in some of the circles where money was to be had. I got some corporate support but from the provinces I got very few actual dollars. John Robarts gave some, and it looked as if others would, but I am not sure what really happened on that front over time.
William Watson: Did the provinces give you a reason for their lack of enthusiasm?
Ronald Ritchie: No, with one excep- tion they were all very much in favor of the idea of such a body, to which they could turn from time to time, but none of them were going to commit too much on that score. The only exception was W.A.C. Bennett, the one I probably knew the best, except for John Robarts. And he just out and out said he didn’t see any point in this at all. But all the other premiers of the day ”” with whom I met in person, except for the Premier of Manitoba, whose senior staff spoke on his behalf ”” all the other premiers of the day were highly supportive. But when it came to putting down dollars, that wasn’t a finished topic when I left. So I’m not sure to what extent it went on.
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One of the interesting things about the process is that location of the Institute’s headquarters was an active and vehemently argued topic. The three Prairie provinces put in a strong plea to have the Institute in the West, as a basis for strengthening their position in the nation, which was quite understandable. There was a big argument: should we have it in Ottawa, or elsewhere? We eventually settled on Montreal, and I think that, behind the scenes, that was as a gesture to Quebec. But we didn’t want it in Ottawa. We thought it would be too close to the federal government alone if we had it in Ottawa.
All of these things are some of the reasons why it took a while to get the Institute actually up and functioning.
William Watson: What was your vision of how the Institute would relate to government? Was it a resource that government could call on? Or was government going to make general requests about areas to study and then…?
Ronald Ritchie: No, not the latter. The first, yes, but under the condition that the Institute would determine whether a request for a particular area of study by a government was appropriate to the Institute’s position and its own independence. So it was meant to be a resource, but not one controlled and determined by government.
William Watson: There were going to be trustees as well as a board of directors. What was the rationale for that?
Ronald Ritchie: That was one aspect that really was influenced by Michael Pitfield and behind the scenes by Trudeau, I think. I don’t know that Trudeau took an active interest in that, but certainly he approved of the idea.
Originally I was thinking only of a board of directors. The idea of the trustees was, I think, to ensure broad representation, to have representation from the federal government, and probably some at the provincial level, and certainly to help make the Institute a national body. And it made sense: it wasn’t too hard to sell me on the idea. But it was not part of my idea originally.
William Watson: Do you think that the Institute that eventually was set up more or less did reflect your recommendations and your vision?
Ronald Ritchie: Yes, looking at the things it’s done, I think it has. The range of topics it has taken and, as best I can judge, the way in which the Institute itself is organized for research ”” these fit in pretty well with the sort of ideas that I formed as I did the study.
William Watson: How do you think the world of think-tanks now compares to the world of think-tanks, at least the Canadian world of think- tanks, 30 years ago? It was a pretty small world at that time.
Ronald Ritchie: Well it was, and although I’m not really all that informed about the range that now exists I don’t see any lesser need for the Institute than I saw then. It should be a senior body with a great deal of weight. It doesn’t matter if there are others, some of which have special viewpoints. But this Institute is the one that should be objective and in-depth, it seems to me.
William Watson: There is always this problem that the press infers that when a research institute issues a study it endorses the study, including its conclusions and any policy recommendations that might follow from it. What was your view of how the Institute would relate to the studies that it issued? Would it endorse them? Or would it simply say: this is good research and you must pay attention to this?
Ronald Ritchie: I saw its role as being to enlighten, not just governments, but the public, as much as possible, on very complex subjects where decisions didn’t have to be made today or even tomorrow. It would be involved in the gradual development of thought. And therefore it doesn’t seem to me that the Institute should necessarily endorse various views. But on the other hand, it should have some broad range of view- points so that, over time, it’s likely to produce things it is in favour of.
One of the things that concerned me is that you don’t want to have the Institute get too embroiled in current controversy, at least to the extent that it gets labeled as partisan. It wants to give governments and the public the ingredients they need for thought and conclusions. And therefore it doesn’t want to be seen as a special-interest or narrow-focus group. Now, you’re involved with Options and you do inevitably get into current subjects more. The Institute itself is more involved in current subjects than perhaps I foresaw, but maybe that’s a necessary role in these times. And as far as I know, it hasn’t got a par- ticular partisan label at this point.
William Watson: Do you think we still need a reasonably close relationship with government? Or is government large enough now to do its own think-tank work internally?
Ronald Ritchie: I think there should be a good relationship in the sense of good communication, and maybe projects which are requested by gov- ernment. But it’s very important that the Institute keep its distance to some degree, to the extent that it can be truly independent, and can be relied upon by the public, including the academic world, to be more than just an arm of government.
William Watson: In closing, let me congratulate you, Mr. Ritchie, for the award the Institute is giving you on May 28th. It’s in recognition for a life-time of service to Canadian policy-making and of course to the IRPP.
Ronald Ritchie: Well, thank you very much. I look forward to that. And it’s very gratifying.