Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce

BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 27 February 1910

DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 30 July 1997

Robert Bryce, said an admiring colleague in the Canadian public service, “was a one-man band.He could do everything better than anybody else could do anything.” We are always told that no one is indispensable, and that rule is always correct— except for Bob Bryce.

Born to a mining man whose life was a succession ofbooms and busts, Bryce trained as an engineer, grad¬ uating from the University of Toronto in 1932. But he found that economics captivated him, which might have been expected of the son of a socialist mother who came of age in the Depression.

Although he had never taken a single economics course, he went off to Cambridge University to study with the great John Maynard Keynes. His career was made, for Bryce became one of the first North Americans to understand Keynes’ General Theory—indeed, one of the first anywhere.

Bryce became the explicator of Keynes first in London, then at Harvard University, and finally in Canada. He worked briefly for Sun Life Assurance Co. in Montreal, but soon was snatched away by the Department of Finance.

There he became an instant star in the department run by Clifford Clark, in part because of his ability to explain Keynes’ theory but primarily because of his intelligence, his extraordinary capacity for work, and his gift for simple prose explication of the most complicated economic matters.

The Second World War saw Bryce, just entering his thirties, play a key role in devising the statistical underpinning of the war effort, in serving on the myriad committees that devised policy on everything, including agriculture, mutual aid, price supports, and monetary aid to Britain.

Overnight, Bryce could produce a thirty-page memorandum on any issue, and he could clearly explain what it all meant to ministers and mandarins. Peering owlishly through his thick,round glasses, Bryce brainstormed his way towards the top of the heap.

By 1947 he was assistant deputy minister of finance and secretary of the Treasury Board, and when the Korean War gave rearmament a huge push after 1950, he mastered defence questions, yet another string to his prodigious bow.

In 1953 the prime minister named Bryce clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to Cabinet, the senior post in the bureaucracy. He worked closely with Prime Minister Louis St Laurent, advising the Quebec City lawyer on every aspect of policy and winning his admiration and affection.

And when John Diefenbaker came to office in 1957 with his para¬ noia about the “Liberal” civil service, Bryce instantly turned the Chiefs doubts into admiration with his straightforward approach, his knowledge of every aspect of government, the soundness of his advice, and his skill in briefing Cabinet ministers and the media.

It was Bryce who, analysing African and Asian opinion, pressed Diefenbaker to support South Africa’s ouster from the Commonwealth, undoubtedly Diefs major foreign policy triumph. The Tory government was often an administrative shambles, but such coherence as it had sometimes seemed to be provided by Bob Bryce alone.

Diefenbaker depended on him every day—yet characteristi¬ cally found no room in his three volumes of memoirs to offer one word of commendation to his clerk of the Privy Council.When the Liberals returned to power in 1963, Bryce switched over to the Department of Finance as deputy minister, where he entered on yet another difficult period serving Walter Gordon, a minister with fixed views on certain financial and investment questions.

Still, Canada was in a boom period, major pieces of expensive social legislation were being put on the books, and federal budgets were expanding. No one played a more critical role in managing matters—and in working out the delicate balance with a newly nationalist and aggressive Quebec City—than the practical Bryce.

In 1970 he became economic adviser on the constitution to Pierre Trudeau, and in 1971 he went to Washington as executive director of the International Monetary Fund, where he remained for four years.

Then the government named him as chair of the Royal Commission on Corporate Concentration until 1977, when his health broke down. Bryce’s active career was over, except for writing an able account of the history of the Department of Finance during the Depression.

Remarkably clear thinking, supremely intelligent,Bryce embodied the best of the Canadian public service tradition. His hand was in virtually every important decision ofgovernment for almost forty years. The mandarin’s mandarin, he ranks as the most influential public servant in Canadian history.