Memoirs of a Boffin

Chapter 10: Changing Times (1971-1975)

The Director of the Science Secretariat, Frank Forward, was due to retire in 1967. It had been intimated to me when I was hired that I would succeed him. This was not to be. One day, Gordon Robertson, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary of the Cabinet sent for me. It was to tell me that they had decided to appoint me as Principal Science Advisor in the PCO and Bob Weir as Director of the Science Secretariat.

As things turned out, the arrangement gave me more, not less scope and freedom of action. Perhaps the powers that be did know what they were doing, after all. My habit of pressing things forward in spite of the bureaucracy had hardly fitted me, in their eyes, to take the top administrative position in it.

It was just at this time there was increasing pressure on the part of industry and the utilities for the Government to declare a policy on a domestic communications satellite. An inter-departmental committee, chaired by the Ministry of Transport had been discussing the subject for more than two years, without achieving anything very much. Michael Pitfield, then Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet and I joined the Committee and soon decided to recommend that it be by-passed by the creation of a special task force.

In my capacity as Principal Science Advisor, and because of my previous unique experience in pioneering a space industry in Canada, I was given the job of creating the task force to develop a space policy. Mr. Drury, “our” Minister, intimated that I had a year in which to do it but I felt that we should do it much more quickly – in four months. In the late summer of 1967, with the approval of Cabinet, I put together a small task force, chaired by Dr. John Chapman who had led the program on the scientific satellites, the Alouette and ISIS series. The other members were Pierre Juneau, then head of CRTC, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Transport (Communications) and one of my own staff, Hank Flynn.

In four months we submitted a major report to Cabinet, (December, 1967) on the basis of which the responsibility for satellite communications was removed from the Ministry of Transport and handed temporarily to the PCO. I was also asked to prepare a White Paper on Satellite Communications, on the basis of the Task Force Report. The White Paper was published by Mr. Drury on 28th March, 1968.

A Domestic Satellite Communication System for Canada; Government White Paper, 1968

I took offices in 48, Sparks Street and put together the teams that became the nucleus of the Department of Communications and Telesat Canada satellite activities. My ad hoc team even organized the first industry contracts for competitive studies and proposals for the first Canadian Communications Satellite, to Bell Northern Research and to the RCA Victor Company. While these contracts were specified and authorized by the team I assembled, I believe they were actually issued by the Department of Industry Trade and Commerce, because the PCO did not, of course, have an appropriate contracting capability. It was almost a year before the nuclei were spun off from the PCO and the Department of Communications and Telesat Canada were formed. This was the kind of operation that could only be orchestrated from a central location, in the PCO, with the backing of Cabinet. It was carried out with the full knowledge and cooperation of the leading Deputy Ministers, including the Deputy Minister of Transport, John Baldwin who, while losing part of his Department, still appreciated and respected the process of prior consultation and was most gracious about losing some of his responsibilities. It illustrates the unique powers and the usefulness to Cabinet of a central science advisor and catalyst.

Dave Golden was named President of Telesat Canada, the body we had created to manage the Canadian domestic communication satellite system. He called me one day, ostensibly to offer me the job of Vice-President. However, it was not a job I really wanted, nor did I find myself agreeing with Golden’s acceptance of the terms of reference that were being imposed by Cabinet. Moreover, I had known for a long time that I was not by nature a second in command. So, for better or worse, I rejected the opportunity – if, indeed it was one.

The issue on which I disagreed concerns the clarity of purpose of an organization. The White Paper on satellites made it clear that the purpose of Telesat Canada was to design, build, market and operate Canadian satellite systems. But, before the organization was even formed it found itself lumbered with the responsibility for providing services to the North and services to small, isolated communities. These were worthy, indeed essential objectives, provided the Government would pay for services rendered in these areas, which would never, even fractionally, pay for themselves. Of course the government wanted the services provided free. So it was evident to me, at the outset, that subsidising these services would be an albatross round the neck of a commercial Telesat Canada, and conflict with its mandate from the Government to turn a profit. History has shown that many of Telesat’s financial troubles stemmed from this conflict of purpose. In particular Telesat felt forced to buy the first communications satellite from the USA when, due to our work at RCA Victor and SPAR, all the infrastructure was in place in Canadian industry to design and build it in Canada. This action set back the space industry in Canada by 20 years. Hidden subsidies which respond to political objectives, however worthy, destroy the clarity of purpose that is essential to any successful initiative.

In a published interview in 1980 the former Chairman of the Science Council, Dr. Omond M. Solandt was quoted as saying:

The Canadian government deliberately wiped out the RCA research lab. This is an example where a US parent company was remarkably long suffering. I’m sure you know the story of the communications satellite where the government gave RCA a letter of intent saying it would get the satellite contract. RCA Canada spent money on building a specialized facility for the purpose – against the wishes and advice of the parent company. The parent company said, look, you’ll get stuck with this for sure, and it did.

The government reneged on its letter of intent. The government reneged on years of preparation because DRB had spent money over 15 years to build up the technology of satellite production in Canada and had it to the point where RCA could have built the satellite here. This is an example of how you can’t pursue a social purpose at a profit. The government, with what I regard as incredible stupidity, set up its own satellite corporation for the purpose of providing communications to Northern Canada and the Arctic, and said you’ve got to do this at a profit. Well, this is like telling somebody to run the Salvation Army at a profit. It can’t be done.

I talked to Dave Golden at the time and he felt as a Canadian the contract ought to go to RCA but as the operator of Telesat he had to make money. He got a cheaper satellite from Hughes and he wrecked 20 years of careful build-up of technological competence.

Dialogue with Omand(sic) Solandt (An interview with Jim McPherson), Canadian Research, February, 1980.

It was characteristic of Omond Solandt that he saw those disastrous events in their true perspective.

Meanwhile, in the East Block, things were rapidly deteriorating. Unexpectedly, Trudeau decided to introduce an omnibus bill in the House of Commons, to give him the power to create up to six Ministries of State, as he needed them, by Order in Council. That meant that he would be able to create a Ministry of State and appoint a Minister of State, without going back to Parliament. These bodies were ostensibly secretariats intended to advise him on issues that were common to a number of Departments. At least, that was the theory. He chose Science and Technology as the first example. I suppose he thought it was pretty harmless, being less controversial than some other options. I have always wondered what the tortured reasoning was behind the creation of these bodies and why they were given the name “Ministries of State”. In the UK a “Minister of State” is simply a Parliamentary Secretary to a Secretary of State (a senior Minister). Was the name given to these new bodies in order to suggest that their Ministers were in the nature of Parliamentary Secretaries to the Prime Minister? Was it to indicate that they were a part of his team as opposed to the Departments’? Who knows?

(In 1993, the new Liberal government decided to give a number of junior ministers the title “Secretary of State”. This confuses the issue even further and leads to a real possibility that a Canadian Minister abroad might find that his junior minister is regarded by his hosts as his boss.)

The transformation of the Science Secretariat of the Privy Council Office into the nucleus of the new Ministry of State for Science and Technology had removed it and us from the centre of Government. As Prime Minister Lefèvre had foreseen, years before, in Belgium, a junior Ministry of Science would be either resented or ignored by the major departments of government and despised by the scientific community. It would have neither a position of influence nor adequate resources to give it clout. I had warned the powers that be that this would be so, but the warnings were not heeded, possibly because science policy was not a main consideration in the decision to create up to six Ministries of State under the Omnibus Bill of 1971. I judged that the main reasons were concerned with bilingualism policy and the freedom to create new Ministries without referring the decision to Parliament, thus making Cabinet shuffling a good deal easier. They could have had very little to do with science.

The only effective opposition to the Government when it introduced the Bill in the House of Commons was made by David Orlikow, on behalf of the NDP. Now, while I have never had significant leanings towards one political party or another, I have always held what most people judge to be conservative views. My family was too poor and too proud to indulge in the luxury of socialism. Consequently I had no political reason to be in sympathy with Orlikow’s views. However, somehow he got to the core of the problem in his speech that day. Hansard records him as saying:

“There is no better method of glorifying and continuing the status quo than by superimposing a Minister of State for Science and Technology on everything we have had up to now. By definition, he would have nothing to do with the implementation of the policies. He would not be responsible for the departments that in fact carry out the research. He would be just another ivory-tower creation examining and inventing the policy with regard to science which would hopefully be pursued by the ministers of other departments under whose jurisdiction the real scientific work was carried out. The formulation of policy is not planning. Planning requires the establishment of a structure that would place the control of the activity, by means of budgets, in the hands of the planning authority which, within very broad limits of policy, establishes the program and the means of measuring the results achieved. A Minister who had these functions would have the total responsibility for the policy and for its implementation. This is a far different thing from what is being proposed today.”

Moreover, it was widely (and correctly) rumoured that the Ministry of State for Science and Technology (MOSST) would be a largely francophone body. When Alastair Gillespie was appointed Minister, I acted temporarily for a few weeks as Secretary (i.e. Deputy Minister), until the Québec francophone appointment was made. Gillespie spent many hours in my office during those first weeks and I liked and respected him. He has since told me that the feelings were reciprocated. But it was not to last. The francophone appointment was made and so was my decision to leave government as soon as I could afford to. Golden handshakes had not yet been invented. So I decided to stay with MOSST to the end of my 10 years’ minimum pensionable service, as Assistant Secretary for Industrial and International Affairs.

The industrial side rapidly declined. The Minister felt obliged to take the advice of the Secretary, which was contrary to mine. I felt I could not promulgate a policy I did not believe in so I handed back the industry mandate and concentrated on international matters. It was impossible to work under conditions in which I was persona grata with all the senior officials across government, while my immediate superior and the people he brought with him, were not. That was because, unlike me, they personified the concept of a Ministry of State for Science and Technology which, insofar as it declared a mandate in any area, came into conflict with the relevant Government Department in that area. Consequently, MOSST became very unpopular in most of the Government departments.

It is hard to over-estimate the damage done to the public service by the exodus of senior public servants in the ’70s and ’80s. The announcement by Mr. Pearson, in 1966, of a move towards bilingualism ahead of its time had already caused some disillusionment and panic in the public service by the year 1970. The early implementation of that ill-defined policy by Pierre Trudeau accentuated the problem.

The bilingualism policy brought a great deal of pressure to bear on the merit principle. Merit should have nothing to do with whether the incumbent is a man or a woman, an anglophone or a francophone or whether they are black or white. They must all be judged on the same standards if the public service is to be stable, effective and fair. That was not done in the early ’70s. Nor, I think, is the merit principle strictly observed today. The talk of “quotas” automatically militates against merit, because of the widely disparate numbers of qualified people in the relevant sectors of the population. That can only be remedied in the very long term. To shorten it courts disaster. Indeed if you look at the Canadian Public Service today you can say that it has already brought disaster.

The integrity of the Civil Service was first damaged by a weakening (in fact, if not in theory) of the Civil Service Commission. As in Britain, the Commission had protected the merit principal and had insulated the Civil Service from politics and nepotism at the level of Assistant Deputy Minister and below for many years. It was, at some stage, renamed the “Public Service Commission”. By 1970 it was clearly operating as if under political supervision, to bend the merit principle in order to accommodate Québec francophones, many of whom lacked the qualifications and experience for the senior jobs they acquired. The lack of an adequate number of qualified francophones to satisfy the political bilingualism numbers game was easily explained – at least in science and technology. Education in Québec had been largely in classical colleges under religious orders up to that time and there were very few francophones graduating in the sciences and engineering.

The reaction of many anglophones was not against the French language or French Canadians, but against the widespread devaluation of the merit principle in order to enable the government to play the bilingualism numbers game. Their jobs were threatened by individuals, whether anglophone or francophone, who, in normal circumstances, could never have competed for them on a level playing field. These reactions were particularly poignant for me, because we had lived in Québec for 13 years and we had many francophone friends and neighbours. Moreover I had often been heard to remark that the culture shock when we moved from Québec to Ontario in 1965 was much greater than that we had experienced moving from Britain to Montréal in 1951. In contrast to the Québecois, Ontarians at that time seemed dull and colourless to us and some southern Ontarians vaguely resembled our Victorian ancestors.

The problems that were caused, directly or indirectly by the bilingualism policy were brought home to me one day when I had been chairing an Interdepartmental Committee, in the East Block. One of the members, a recognized world expert in his subject, approached me at the end of the meeting and asked if he could have a few private words. He had worked for 25 years to get to his present position. He asked: “Do you have a job for me?” He went on to explain that he now reported to a 27-year-old Assistant Deputy Minister whose qualifications, knowledge and experience were inadequate and irrelevant to the job. Circumstances were such that I couldn’t find a way to help him and he soon left government at a great loss to the public service and to Canada’s reputation abroad.

This experience was to be repeated a hundred times in the next five years. Once the merit principle had been broken for any reason, however valid, the door had been left open to its being broken for other reasons, political or personal. I watched competent, relevant executives being replaced by men or women, anglophone and francophone, who knew no better than to be obedient servants of their political masters. As such, they were not expected to be expert, or even knowledgeable in the substance of the work of the Department before they arrived. And you don’t learn at the top – even if you have the intellectual qualities in the first place, which many of them, in my judgement, did not.

Moreover, there had always been a loophole at the Deputy Minister level. Unlike the British model, Deputy Ministers in Canada are appointed by Order in Council, that is to say, by the Cabinet. They are not screened by the Civil Service Commission. However that loophole seemed to have been used rarely, if at all, for political appointments before the late ’60s. The key Deputy Ministers at that time had been in their positions for many years and were recognized as men of high integrity and independent thinking. Among them were Bob Bryce in Finance, George Davidson in Treasury Board, Jake Warren in Industry, Trade and Commerce and Ed Ritchie in External Affairs. Others, such as Simon Riesman fitted this pattern and they were all a delight to work with during my years in the PCO. Moreover, all of them had held the same position for many years.

The importance of the relationship between the Minister and the Deputy Minister of a Department is ill-understood and, in most Departments, has now been distorted. That interface is the place where the stability or instability of government in a parliamentary democracy is determined. The department, headed by the Deputy Minister is the flywheel of government. The Deputy is its executive head. When the Minister appears in the morning and says to his Deputy Minister “I had a great idea in the shower” it is the Deputy and only the Deputy who can stop any crazy idea right there and then. A Deputy with guts will look the Minister in the eye, tell him his idea is terrible (if it is) and list all the reasons why. This vital function has been sadly blurred by the plethora of wet-behind-the-ears political advisors who have access at the political level to Ministers and MPs. At the same time, Deputy Ministers have been floated in who do not have a sound grasp of the substance of their jobs. Consequently they respond to every whim of the Ministers and their political advisers . The result has been a surfeit of shoddy advice and an inability of ministers to use and benefit from the wealth of talent in the enormous pyramid of Departmental competence below them. It is largely by-passed or out-guessed at the political level. No wonder morale in the Public Service has declined so much.

If Canadian Governments have gone astray during the last 20 years – and it is pretty clear that they have – it is because a great number of experienced public servants who were crucial to their operation were caused to resign in disgust when they saw what was happening to the public service in the ’70s and ’80s. It was not only because they saw their own careers blocked, but because of the uncomfortable working atmosphere and low morale that was generated. There was also a gradually increasing perception of abuse of the rules for personal gain in some places. Once the integrity of the Public Service Commission was compromised due to the bilingualism policy, it was open to compromise for all kinds of other reasons, such as favouritism and nepotism. In such appointments qualifications and experience were often irrelevant.

An executive who knows his job will promulgate his decisions on the basis of reason and intelligent argument and will be respected. An executive who is afraid of displaying his ignorance will not allow his decisions to be discussed or questioned. No red-blooded professional can maintain his self-respect by working under such an individual. And hundreds, maybe thousands of them decided not to do so, as a direct or indirect result of a policy to force in five years a change which, if made at all, should have taken fifty.

There has been a great deal of hypocrisy concerning bilingualism policy in Canada. It seems to me that it has never been defined intelligibly. If it is a policy to print everything in both languages then few people need to be bilingual and even fewer to be biliterate. If the policy is to encourage people to speak and read both languages, then the best route is to print everything in only the language of origin. That is because the average adult will only learn to be competent in a second language if there is a pressing need and practical reasons to use it regularly. These circumstances have never existed for most anglophones in Canada, nor do they exist today. These fundamental truths have been completely ignored for political reasons. That is one reason why the bilingualism courses in the public service have been such a disastrous, expensive failure. Most of the products of them are still functionally illiterate in French, yet they are designated “officially bilingual”. There are those anglophones who have pursued French with enthusiasm, because of a love of the language and its literature, awakened during school years. But they are few and far between!

The bilingualism policy has debased the currency of communication within government. There are few things more sickening than to attend an interdepartmental committee at which, for political reasons, the discussion takes place in the lowest common denominator of the participants’ linguistic competence. There can be no political or other justification for conducting the affairs of government in other than the most efficient and practical way. I believe it was Michael Pitfield the Deputy Secretary of Cabinet who once modestly (and jokingly) said to me, when I complimented him on his bilingualism: “To be bilingual is to be illiterate in two languages.” And he has been bilingual from childhood. In his case it was simply not true.

Now that it has been made quite clear that official bilingualism is no more popular with Québec than it is with most anglophones, things might change. The cultural life of Québec is, to us, much richer and more colourful than that of the rest of Canada. It is important that it not be lost. But a compromise will have to be made between the preservation of that culture, the maintenance of essential services in two languages and the practical language of commerce and government. Québec is a small island of French on a largely anglophone continent. Moreover, la langue Québecoise, the joual of the majority of the people of Québec, picturesque as it surely is, is not greatly respected in other French-speaking countries. These are the hard realities. There must be some way of maintaining and developing Québec’s rich culture without breaking up the country. The existing bilingualism policy is not the answer.

There is no doubt that the increasing hypocrisy, inefficiency and ignorance at senior levels of government, that was an indirect result of bilingualism policy in the ’70s, contributed to my decision to leave the public service as soon as I could afford to do so – which was not to be for a couple of years.

Fortunately my involvement in international science policy was at its peak. And I was rapidly finding my international colleagues a good deal more congenial and appreciative than some of my immediate domestic ones. A domestic exception was the Minister himself, Alastair Gillespie, for whom I had great respect and who consistently made his support as clear as he could in view of the political constraints that were imposed on him.

Furthermore this was the time when concern was spreading about the implications of the rapid growth of the world population on the demands for energy, materials and food and on global stability. So, with the initial approval of the Minister, I was able to become even more deeply involved in a number of exciting international activities, both governmental and non-governmental during the next few years.