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Saturday January 26, 2013

Privy Council clerk described as a 'gentleman from the old school'

In his courtly, gracious way, he exemplified the best traditions of Canada's English-speaking establishment

Special to the Globe and Mail

OTTAWA -- Gordon Robertson devoted his life to Canada's public service when that was still regarded as a noble goal in itself. The hard work, dedication and love of country he displayed over four decades helped to build an international reputation that made him arguably the most distinguished public servant of his generation.

He spent decades as one of the men who ran the country behind the scenes, and sat at the right hand of two prime ministers during a turbulent era that saw Canada transformed, both on the national and the international stage.

Appointed clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to the federal cabinet by Prime Minister Lester Pearson on July 1, 1963, Robertson enjoyed a ringside view of Canadian politics for almost 12 years. When Pearson retired in 1968, successor Pierre Elliott Trudeau opted to keep him in the post until January, 1975.

The job as a prime minister's de facto deputy minister and chief policy adviser might have been made for the tall, patrician lawyer from Saskatchewan. Described as one of the last, great Ottawa mandarins - a "gentleman from the old school" - he believed strongly in an independent, non-partisan civil service.

Described by daughter Kerrie Hale as someone "genuinely interested in people" who "cared deeply about Canada and its future and did his best to help shape a better country," Robertson died in Ottawa on Jan. 15. He was 95 and suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

He liked to tell people he had one of the most exciting and weirdest jobs going, since "you never knew when you started each day whether it would be your last, because you have to be ready to resign" at any time.

As clerk, he directed "everything relating to the operation of the cabinet" and its various committees." He was also head of the civil service, thus the most powerful bureaucrat in Canada.

Any success in the job, he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant: Mackenzie King to Pierre Trudeau, depends on "judgment and confidence - good judgment on the part of the clerk, and the sure confidence of, above all, the prime minister but also of ministers and heads of departments."

By all accounts, Mr. Robertson, who worked closely with four prime ministers over 34 years, flourished in Ottawa's Byzantine corridors of power.

In his courtly, gracious way, he exemplified the best traditions of Canada's English-speaking establishment, including a deep respect for its British parliamentary traditions. He was also passionate about national unity.

One epic event he observed at close quarters came during Canada's centennial year when, standing on the balcony of Montreal's City Hall on July 24, 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle delivered his notorious "Vive le Quebec libre" speech in front of thousands.

After watching the bombshell on television, Robertson thought, "there has to be a cabinet meeting," and started moving toward his telephone, which began to ring before he got there. It was Pearson, who eventually came up with what Robertson called the perfect solution. De Gaulle was condemned, but welcome to continue his state visit to Ottawa. Instead, he returned to France in a huff.

That was Pearson at his best, Robertson said. Over all, he thought Pearson's record was "remarkable," considering his two minority governments lasted less than five years: the new flag, the Canada Assistance Plan, the guaranteed-income supplement, financial assistance for post-secondary education and medicare - "Canada's most valued social program."

In turn, Pearson wrote in his memoirs that he "came to rely more and more" on Robertson: "Whenever I wanted anything done, anything investigated, anything reported, I could depend on him."

Pearson resigned in 1968, succeeded by his 48-year-old justice minister, who unleashed Trudeaumania on an unsuspecting country. Robertson had first met his new boss two decades earlier when Trudeau was hired by the Privy Council Office as an economic adviser.

Back then, he'd reported to Robertson. Now, he was running the country and Robertson's job was to help him "impose a new order and rationality on the decision-making process," George Radwanski wrote in his 1978 biography, Trudeau.

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