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Spicer, Dicerni, Segal and life
It’s impossible to read Keith Spicer’s Chairman’s Forward to the 1991 final report of the Citizen’s Forum on Canada’s Future without wondering how the hell somebody like him was ever put in charge of anything. I mean this as high praise. Here, take a minute to read the first page:
He goes on like that for 10 more pages. Two things are immediately obvious: (1) This is wordsmithing of a very high order; (2) I don’t know what any of it means.
They must have been having strokes in the PMO when this thing landed on their desks. “We’re all a bit guilty,” Keith? “Nation without nationality?” “Open-soul surgery,” Keith?
What the hell, Keith?
Probably most people reading this will have no memory of the context. An ambitious and delicate package of proposed constitutional amendments, the Meech Lake Accord, had collapsed without the necessary unanimous provincial ratification. Most of the country’s leadership had played reckless brinkmanship in the home stretch to try to force its approval. That backfired. Because the amendments were designed to calm Quebec nationalist sentiment, their failure at the hands of so many sorcerers’ apprentices caused support for separatism to skyrocket. The unity of the country really did seem endangered. The country felt broken in specific ways that nobody could fix. If the people in charge screwed up just a little bit more, they’d be cursed through history to the last generation.
So Brian Mulroney appointed Keith Spicer, the noted… rakish boulevardier, to spend months on the road listening to… to… what, to aggrieved randos, I guess, and sharpening his pencil so he could write this… whatever this thing was.
Just thinking about it conjures an almost physically oppressive wave of nostalgia.
How to express that feeling? It’s a sense of astonishment that somebody managed to smuggle so much personality and eccentricity and soul past the bouncers at the door. It’s like watching big movies from the ’70s, Apocalypse Now or McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Last Detail and thinking, holy jumpers. These guys had no script, no shooting schedule, they didn’t even really know where to put the camera. For some reason movie studios gave them money anyway. From today’s genteel perspective, the stuff they produced seems, at times, barely competent. But watching it, at least you can tell some people were alive and that they felt things strongly.
Keith Spicer died on Thursday at 89. His son Nick is one of my dearest friends. Nick texted me on Monday and said it looked like the old man’s day to go. On Tuesday night he sent an amendment. “Well, he just doesn’t like to leave the stage, does he?” On Thursday the story ended the way all our stories will. My own father died at the same age a few years ago so maybe I was able to provide some comfort. The obits, especially Andrew Duffy’s fine effort for the Ottawa Citizen, cover the career details and hint at the cheerful weirdness no CV could capture.
This year some of the people I used to turn to for a quote or, later, for advice have been dying. I wrote about Peter Herrndorf in February. When Richard Dicerni, whose name will be less familiar to most of you, died a few weeks ago, a mutual friend asked whether I’d write about him. Maybe I should. Dicerni was a deputy minister, agency head, multi-purpose mandarin across jurisdictions for years. His formal career ended, for the most part, when he became Secretary to Cabinet to two successive Alberta premiers, Jim Prentice and Rachel Notley. But he also simply liked to help people. There’s a tiny self-aware colony of people who knew he would help them if he could. I’m on that list.
I decided not to write about Dicerni, or thought I had, because this newsletter is many things, but it can’t vocationally be the obituary page for a generation of Canadian leadership. Besides, Hugh Segal had died two days earlier. Who knows who’ll die tomorrow? Once you start, where do you stop?
So I apologize in advance to the loved ones of everyone whose coming death I won’t acknowledge here. But I am also in the business of noticing presences and absences, and of connecting seemingly distantly connected things and events. What can one learn from lives like Herrndorf’s, Segal’s, Dicerni’s, Spicer’s?
To name one obvious thing, they were all white dudes who spent most of their careers in Ontario and Quebec. They were born into varying circumstances — Herrndorf immigrating as a child from the Netherlands, Segal attending Talmud Torah school in Montreal — but they lived in a world where doors opened more easily for young white men from the right parts of the country, even if they lacked some polish, than for women or people of other backgrounds. It’s a good thing that this is changing. For the challenges any complex society faces, it’s always better to have all hands on deck.
But it also seems to me that at least for the luckiest members of that earlier generation, the cost of entry into decision-making circles wasn’t quite so high as it is now. They didn’t have to give up as much. They could bring more of their whole selves into the game. Their quirks, their gambles, their styles.
Hugh Segal was an ambitious student at
Queen’s University [UPDATE: Swing and a miss. It was the University of Ottawa, where he studied to improve his French — pw] when Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in 1970. Support for that move was overwhelming, as support for governments that seek to impose order in the face of surprise often is. But young Segal published a pamphlet decrying this use of the Act on civil-liberties grounds. It was a rare and, for all he knew, career-limiting move. But it marked Segal as somebody with a moral core.
Herrndorf used to promote people, within each of the shops he ran, who seemed on paper to be precisely the wrong sort of people to promote. He just followed his gut. It rarely betrayed him.
Spicer became Canada’s first commissioner of official languages in 1970, not quite 36 years old. “I wasn’t sure then if I’d leave by reason of scandal, ulcers, impeachment, or assassination,” he wrote later. “The early signs did not, as the Marxists used to say, augur singing tomorrows.”
Their generation made a hash of things as often as they helped. The Ottawa and Montreal and Toronto where they made their careers were too clubby, too often built on access and connections. I don’t want to romanticize them even now, although who am I kidding, that’s obviously what I’m doing.
But their conversations, remembered or recorded, sound more like conversations than what we hear today. Their actions seem more often to have been the product of autonomous decision-making. They didn’t have access to the very best in modern communications theory, so they were stuck listening and thinking and talking and doing. This made them different, and I think in important ways luckier, than a later generation of could-have-been leaders who have real things to contribute but are too often condemned to stand behind a prime minister and nod:
That was harsh. Sorry. But yes, at the end of this summer, I can’t stop thinking about what’s been lost, and wondering how to get it back. Autumn can be like that.