Skip navigation

Saturday December 10, 2011

Political thinker had a passion for Canada

Tom Kent wasn't a diehard partisan - he was an exemplar of the intellectually engaged citizen

Ed Broadbent had barely left the podium after announcing the foundation of the Broadbent Institute for Public Policy last June, when he had a call from Tom Kent. A key policy guru for Prime Minister Lester Pearson and the founding editor of Policy Options, Kent wanted to write a paper for the new institute overhauling parts of the same social network he had proposed, and which the Pearson Liberals had implemented, back in the 1960s.

With his customary journalistic dispatch, Kent, 89, sent an "incredibly lucid, very relevant" paper with a "progressive agenda for Canada" before the institute had set up the apparatus to process, let alone publish it. So, when Broadbent got an e-mail from Kent five months later, the former NDP leader thought he was being chivvied about the delay in releasing the document. Instead, it was a message from Kent's family, delivered through Kent's own address list, saying that the former journalist and public intellectual had died of cardiac arrest after surgery for appendicitis.

It was a profoundly sad moment for Broadbent, who had become close friends with Kent when they were both at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University a decade ago. Knowing him "was one of the great joys of my life," Broadbent said. "We had a total intellectual rapport." That a Liberal insider and a former leader of the NDP could share such empathy says a lot about Kent's political values, which were unwaveringly left of centre, and his engagement - political and otherwise - with the well-being of his adopted country.

A rising star

Kent, who retained his English accent despite living here for 60 years, arrived in the mid-1950s with an Oxbridge education and an impressive résumé as a rising editorial star at The Economist. In Canada, he was primarily a behind-the-scenes thinker and strategist for Pearson, but he was also editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, the founding deputy minister for two federal departments, the head of two Crown corporations in Nova Scotia, the dean of the faculty of administrative studies at Dalhousie University and the head of a controversial Royal Commission into newspaper ownership in the 1980s.

Even as editor of the Free Press, back in the 1950s, Kent was involved in provincial and federal politics. Kent's links with Pearson preceded his own arrival in Canada. Later, he drafted his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 1957, his address to the Liberal Leadership Convention in 1958, and the party's campaign platform in the subsequent election. Kent was also close to Jean Lesage, especially after he switched to provincial politics and became Liberal premier of Quebec in 1960 and began lighting the embers of the Quiet Revolution.

Mention the Kingston Conference of September, 1960, and Kent is talked about with reverence by people on all sides of the political spectrum. Then, as now, the Liberal Party was in need of renewal. Kent was a key strategist for what was supposed to be a private, off-the-record, meeting of "liberally minded" thinkers. He was slated to deliver a paper on social security with economist and defeated Liberal candidate Maurice Lamontagne, presenting one on economic policy. Instead, Pearson changed his mind and opened the proceedings to the press and allowed many more participants to attend.

Consequently, Kent's discussion paper, which proposed an agenda for health care, unemployment insurance, training, regional development, public housing and equality of opportunity for postsecondary education, caught the imagination of the press and the public and set the policy agenda for the Pearson government and for future generations of Canadians. It also, according to journalist Peter Newman, who was there, pumped enough fresh blood and nerve into the party to keep it in power for most of the next quarter century.

A backroom strategist

The epitome of the backroom strategist and thinker, Kent's two most public forays were his least successful ventures. After two years serving as Lester Pearson's policy adviser, he was urged to run for the Liberals in the 1963 election, with the presumption that he would join the cabinet if he won a seat. He delayed seeking a nomination and ended up competing against Tommy Douglas in Burnaby-Coquitlam in what was probably "the safest NDP seat in the country," as Kent himself later said. Kent was nobody's idea of a charismatic figure, and certainly not in comparison to Douglas, a fiery speaker who had honed his elocution skills as a Baptist minister. Still, Kent racked up 14,000 votes to Douglas's 19,000 tally - good but not enough to win a seat at the cabinet table for Pearson's first minority government. Instead, he became Pearson's chief of staff, although his title was the more long-winded, co-ordinator of programming and policy secretary.

After the public furor about the simultaneous closing of the Thomson-owned Ottawa Journal and the Southam-owned Winnipeg Tribune in late August, 1980, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Kent to lead a public inquiry into media concentration. The other members were Borden Spears, a senior editor at The Toronto Star, and Laurent Picard, former president of the CBC. They delivered their report in 1981 with wide-ranging recommendations calling for government oversight of newspaper acquisitions and barriers to cross-ownership of different media outlets. The recommendations about "freeing the press" were met with outrage in the editorial pages of the very newspapers the $3-million commission had investigated. They have never been implemented.

Although Kent had found a home within the Liberal Party, he wasn't a diehard partisan. He had openly criticized the deficit-cutting measures of the Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin budgets in the mid-1990s. As recently as six months ago, he had expressed his frustration with the Liberal Party in very strong terms to interim leader Bob Rae. Kent felt the party had "lost its sense of activism," which was a large factor in the party's drubbing in the last election. But that doesn't mean he was disillusioned with the Liberal Party, Rae said, arguing that he had never left the party or found one he preferred. To which Broadbent responded: He may have remained a Liberal, but he voted NDP, "at least I think he did."

The early years

Thomas Worrall Kent was born into a working-class family in Stafford in the English Midlands on April 3, 1922.

Secondary education was not free in those days, but Tom was a very smart boy who won scholarships to Wolstanton Grammar School and then Corpus Christi College in Oxford. He graduated in 1941, at barely 19, with a first in politics, philosophy and economics, and was immediately recruited into the wartime intelligence service. He worked at Bletchley Park, with the code-breakers who had cracked what we now know as the ULTRA secret.

In his memoir, A Public Purpose, Kent writes that his "contribution to breaking ciphers was minor compared with the reward: It was this activity that brought my wife [Phyllida] and me together." She also worked at Bletchley Park.

"He proposed to me on our first date and clearly expected me to accept him promptly," she said in an e-mail message, "which I surprised myself by doing." They were married on June 3, 1944, subsequently had three sons, Duncan, Oliver and Andrew, and celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary this year.

After the war, Kent worked as an editorial writer for the Manchester Guardian, having been hired, in 1946, through connections forged at Bletchley. He more than earned his keep and by 1950 had a choice of becoming assistant editor of the Guardian or moving south to London to take on the same position at The Economist. How could he refuse, given that Geoffrey Crowther was editor-in-chief and Barbara Ward was foreign editor? Thanks to Crowther, Kent became the youngest member of the dining club that the late John Maynard Keynes had founded, sharing food and conversation with the likes of future prime minister Harold Macmillan and former chancellor of the exchequer John Anderson.

His work in Canada

The next year, he made a trip to North America and spent three weeks in Canada at the invitation of the Winnipeg Free Press, for whom Kent, through his friendship with Frank Walker, the paper's London correspondent, had become a regular contributor. It was during this trip that Victor Sifton, publisher of the Free Press, invited Kent to become the paper's editor. Needless to say, the job offer seemed like thin gruel compared to London and The Economist.

By 1953, his dissatisfaction with the Labour government and its refusal to join Europe, which even then was contemplating a common market, made Kent rethink his rejection of the editorship of the Free Press. Fortunately the offer was still on the table. In 1954, the Kents sold up in England, moved into a rambling house in Winnipeg and began a new life. "We never regretted it," Phyllida said.

Kent's editorship of the paper lasted five years, from 1954-1959, after which Kent worked in Montreal at a corporate job for a couple of years -overlapping with the Kingston Conference - until he moved to Ottawa with his family to join Pearson's staff officially. For the next decade, Kent was an integral part of the Pearson government as an adviser, confidant, chief of staff and drafter of strategic public policy agendas. Peter Newman remembers Pearson saying of Kent at a press conference in 1965: "I've never worked with anybody in all my years of public service who has had greater devotion and ability."

A significant Liberal politician with whom Kent did not have a strong rapport was Pierre Trudeau, who succeeded Pearson as leader of the party and prime minister in 1968. By then, Kent had moved from Pearson's political staff to work in the bureaucracy as deputy minister of Manpower and Immigration (1966-68) and deputy minister of Regional and Economic Expansion (1969-71). Working with Jean Marchand, Pearson's minister of citizenship and immigration, he developed a plan for a super-ministry under Marchand that would combine manpower and regional development. Trudeau was not enthusiastic, so Kent made another career shift and moved to the Maritimes to put his public policy ideas into practice as the president and CEO of the Cape Breton Development Corp. (1971-77), and then as the head of the Sydney Steel Corp. (1977-79), before retreating into academe at Dalhousie University.

Even on the verge of his ninth decade, he never stopped thinking and writing about the country and its institutions - for that alone he is an exemplar of the intellectually engaged citizen.

Tom Kent died on Nov. 15 in Kingston, Ont., where he had been living since the early 1990s. He leaves his wife, Phyllida, his three sons and their families.

Back to top