BORN: Davidson, Saskatchewan • 19 May 1917
PUBLIC SERVANTS OBEY THE WILL OF THEIR POLITICAL masters, but there can be no denying that those who draft policy and present options to ministers and prime ministers have substantial power. The memoranda of bureaucrats, discovered much later by researchers poring over old files, frequently turn out to be the key documents that shaped the country’s direction.
Only twenty-four when he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1941, Gordon Robertson had already attended the universities of Saskatchewan, Oxford, and Toronto. There were no overseas postings for him, however; instead he went almost directly to the Prime Minister’s Office and then to be an assistant to Norman Robertson, the undersecretary of state for external affairs.
These jobs involved him directly in the highest affairs of state—and in some of the thorniest problems. A liberal man but a realist, Robertson understood that a civil servant could not go where the government chose not to proceed.
When the question was whether or not to deport all Japanese Canadians, citizens included, back to Japan, Robertson did what he could to ameliorate the policy, and it was a triumph, he believed, when only those adjudged disloyal were to be forced out; the others had a choice of a kind.
Half a century later, his advice now in the public domain, journalists without much understanding of the pressures and bitter attitudes of an earlier era denounced those policies and those who recommended them.After the war, there was continuing service in the PMO and the Privy Council Office and then, at age thirty-six, appointment as deputy minister of northern affairs and national resources and commissioner of the Northwest Territories.
In effect, Robertson was the supreme ruler of 40 per cent of Canada, at once lieutenant governor, premier, Cabinet, and speaker of the council of the NWT. As such, he dealt with everything from sewage to schools to liquor prices. He also was responsible for moving a community of Inuit from northern Quebec to Resolute Bay, NWT, in 1953, again actions that were sharply attacked forty years later.
Critics charged that the Inuit suffered greatly and had been moved without sufficient supplies simply to bolster Canada’s claim to the high Arctic. Robertson’s defence—life in the North was always harsh and the relocation was in the best interest of the Inuit—fell on deaf ears, however true it was.
Robertson’s stewardship of the North was seen as a great success and he was rewarded with the top post in the public service, clerk of the Privy Council and secretary of the Cabinet. For the next dozen years he served Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau during the challenging years of the Quiet Revolution and through successive administrative reorgani¬ zations that saw the number of advisers at the prime ministe¬ rial beck and call expand tremendously.
Shrewd, cautious, a source of ever sound advice, Robertson was greatly prized. But after the 1974 election, Trudeau moved Michael Pitfield into the clerk’s post and Robertson became secretary to the Cabinet on federal-provincial relations. His advice was not always listened to by Trudeau, who had his own views on constitutional change and Quebec.
In 1980, a private citizen at last, Robertson headed the Institute for Research on Public Policy, a think tank based in Ottawa. As the Canadian constitutional crisis began to reach the boiling point after the failure of the Meech and Charlottetown accords, Robertson spoke out frequently.
To him, Canada’s options seemed limited: either Quebec separated or Canadians accepted the premise that Quebec needed more powers than other provinces. Asymmetrical federalism, however, clashed with English Canada’s opposi¬ tion to any special place for Quebec and with the powerful notion that all provinces were and must remain equal.
Whatever Canada was or would become, Gordon Robertson had been one of those who had shaped it. He had made much wartime policy, had guided the development of the Far North, and had carved out the federal government’s constitutional position in a critical era. Though denounced for his sins by a historically uninformed and politically correct present, he had offered balanced and sound advice to a succession of leaders from King to Mulroney.