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Thursday August 26, 2010

Speech writer helped Trudeau address the nation in times of great change

An award-winning journalist, he went on to play key role in shaping economic policy, patriating Constitution

Special to The Globe and Mail

Pierre Trudeau thought long, hard and carefully before he casually tossed off phrases or put a rose between his teeth, according to David Ablett. And as Trudeau's speech writer and special adviser in the Privy Council Office during the prime minister's last administration, he ought to have known. "I had a nearly three-year run in the best job in the country," wrote Ablett, a former journalist, in a 1998 Toronto Star piece. "I was able to watch a most extraordinary man motivate mere mortals to quite remarkable achievements."

Ablett, who died of lung cancer in Peterborough, Ont., on July 24, worked for the prime minister during the high inflation ride of the early 1980s, when Canada was caught in the grip of a severe global economic recession and Trudeau was trying to curb the country's spending habits with his "6 and 5" austerity program. He was also a key player in the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. Ablett later worked as chief editor and director of planning on the Macdonald Commission, a landmark study of Canadian economic policy whose final report came three years before the 1988 Canada-U.S. free trade agreement.

Ablett's work involved his skills as a strategic communicator and front-line mind. "It was extraordinary to work alongside [Ablett] and watch him do his thing," said commission chair Donald Macdonald, "because he was always thinking about what would be the impact of this? How could we change things from a policy perspective? And this would just be in the day-to-day news and discussions around the water cooler."

David Ablett was a born storyteller, born inside a story. He took his first breath at the Canadian Legion Hall in Gibsons Landing, B.C., on April 4, 1941. It was a high-risk birth, and his parents decided anesthetic was easier to find there and safer than taking a steamboat to a Vancouver hospital. His father, Jack Ablett, was a gentle atheist, a radical socialist and a pretty good poker player. He was in the room when Tommy Douglas's 1933 Regina Manifesto was drafted, marking the beginnings of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.

Jack was a labourer who worked on bridges for the Canadian Pacific Railway; his poker winnings reputedly allowed the family to move from the Prairies to the Sunshine Coast. The location wasn't random. He went to join a colony of socialist activists, including J. S. Woodsworth, a pioneer in the Canadian social democratic movement. Ablett worked as a plumber and pipefitter. David's mother, Hazel McAllister, the daughter of a prominent Pentecostal church family, was a schoolteacher.

By the time David was of high-school age, his family had moved to the Lower Mainland, where David worked part-time on the New Westminster Columbian, hitching rides to cover sports events. He'd shove well-thumbed copies of Oedipus at Colonus and Faust deep inside his jacket pocket just to pass time between periods. In a lucky break, he was soon promoted to be the bowling columnist and presumably let his words rip.

Ablett graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1966 with a degree in economics and political science. There, he worked at the student newspaper, the Ubyssey, alongside Michael Valpy, now a Globe and Mail journalist.

"David may have been the most driven overachiever I've ever known," wrote Valpy in an e-mail. "When I think of him - as a fellow student, a fellow journalist, later as a public service policy wonk - I think of someone constantly in motion, talking ideas, talking new experiences. I have no image of him ever being still."

On a scholarship from The Vancouver Sun, Ablett attended the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York, where he graduated in 1967 with the top history award and the Pulitzer Travelling Fellowship. Future federal cabinet minister Jim Peterson was at Columbia, too, and shared the married student quarters with Ablett and his first wife, Joan Godsell. Peterson remembers fetching his newspaper from the stoop early one morning. "I opened the door, peeked out and saw David's bum disappearing around the corner. Our Sunday New York Times was lying there, the crossword done, in ink."

Ablett spent the next two years abroad, first in Japan, where he worked on the Asahi Shimbum newspaper, then in Europe, where he covered the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia for Radio Free Europe. He returned to The Vancouver Sun in 1969, first as the Washington and then as the Ottawa bureau chief.

Former federal cabinet minister David Anderson met Ablett in Washington in 1970. "I was trying to get an environmental impact analysis for the Alaska pipeline proposal," he wrote in an online tribute. "[Ablett] suggested I embark on the lawsuit that eventually achieved that goal. He wrote about the issue at least once a month ... and it became a major issue in U.S.-Canada relations."

Ablett's time in the Ottawa press gallery was also marked by how supportive he was to women colleagues. "There was an old school that had been there a long time and practically had their names on the seats," said journalist Susan Reisler. "They were the ones who wanted to keep the press club all male ... and people like David were a breath of fresh air."

In 1975, Ablett returned to Vancouver as the Sun's editorial page editor. He won the National Newspaper Award for editorial writing in 1977. Enticed back to Ottawa in 1978 by his admiration for Trudeau and new ideas in public policy, he shifted from observer to participant as a special adviser in the Privy Council Office. He soon became secretary to the cabinet, and worked closely with the prime minister, dropping off briefings at 24 Sussex Drive on Friday nights, then gathering the revised documents, with his boss's margin notes, first thing Monday.

Canada faced many critical issues at that time, including patriating the Constitution, the rise in popularity of Parti Québécois, and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Trudeau's principal secretary, Tom Axworthy, says that among Ablett's most notable contributions was writing Trudeau's speeches for three back-to-back televised addresses on the economy in 1982. The Trudeau government's 6 and 5 program held public sector wage gains to 6 per cent in 1982 and 5 per cent in 1983. Trudeau tried to sell voluntary restraint to labour and business.

"[The public addresses] were a particular communications challenge, where you had to be very aware of the flow of your words, and giving a television speech is very different than giving a speech in a hall," Axworthy said.

In Ablett's prose, inflation morphed into a living, breathing monster, Axworthy suggested. "There were some very evocative words about what a virus of inflation does to society, that it discombobulates ... inflation became a kind of silent killer of people's dreams."

In 1983, David Ablett left the Privy Council Office for the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada (the Macdonald Commission). As well as pursuing a free trade agreement with the United States, the commission recommended reforms emphasizing social equity and economic efficiency. It also recommended the adoption of an elected senate.

In 1986, Ablett left Ottawa and moved to Toronto as an editorial writer at the Toronto Star, but moved on shortly to Bay Street. He took a job as senior writer for the Bank of Montreal and a short time later became the director of public and corporate affairs at the Bank of Nova Scotia.

From 2002 until his retirement five years later, he worked at the Toronto Stock Exchange as director of public affairs. This position included writing speeches for chief executive officer Barbara Stymiest.

"When you saw draft speeches from David, it was like opening up a present," she said. "I remember I was invited to the Middle East, and the speech that he wrote, talking about the parallels between the Middle East, who were trying to start up their own securities markets, and Canada, was remarkable."

"He talked about how their temperatures were like our temperatures in the winter: They experienced 40 above and we experienced 40 below. And how their vast desert is like our vast Arctic.

"We also did a series of speeches on reforming Canada's securities regulatory structure ... I remember him saying that you know you're winning when people start using your language, when people were beginning to talk about the issue the way that we were writing about the issue."

During retirement, he spent time building and stocking higher bookshelves, as well as preparing and hosting fabulous meals in his forested bungalow. Fine food became a lifeline, said his brother Richard Ablett. He talked about food: the asiago cheese and pork sausages from St. Lawrence Market, the butcher who sold him his dependable knife and would periodically sharpen it. He talked about family cookouts in Prince Edward County, near home, and the delectable Roma tomatoes he used to make sauce.

Ablett's sense of humour was frequently shared. "He didn't take himself seriously; he didn't take Ottawa seriously; the people he wrote for took themselves very seriously," said Tom Axworthy, Trudeau's principal secretary. "He didn't make fun of his political peers, but he was very alive to the foibles of the human species which politicians demonstrated."

David Ablett leaves his wife, Colleen; children Jonathan, Elizabeth, Krista, Kelly and Kevin; and 12 grandchildren.

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