Jack Pickersgill (Obituary)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 24, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

In the late 1930s, when Jack Pickersgill was a freshly minted civil servant in Ottawa, he decided to take a motorcycle trip to the United States. When he arrived at the border, a customs official asked him to prove his Canadian citizenship by naming his place of birth.

In the late 1930s, when Jack Pickersgill was a freshly minted civil servant in Ottawa, he decided to take a motorcycle trip to the United States. When he arrived at the border, a customs official asked him to prove his Canadian citizenship by naming his place of birth. Pickersgill, whose family moved from Weycombe, Ont., to Manitoba shortly after he was born, could not remember. "Then wait here until it comes to you," the official said. Pickersgill, a stocky stubborn man, responded, he later told friends, by saying: "The hell with it - I don't care if I never see your silly country." Upon hearing that, the customs official waved him through, saying: "With that attitude, you must be Canadian."

That story, recounted by Pickersgill's longtime colleague Mitchell Sharp, illustrates two elements of his remarkable life: Pickersgill always said exactly what he thought, and with his formidable intellect and drive, he usually got what he wanted. His death at age 92 last week after a long illness ended a public life that began in 1937, continued into the 1990s, and saw him serve as adviser, cabinet minister and confidant to three Liberal prime ministers. "He was," said the 86-year-old Sharp, an adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who first met Pickersgill in the late 1930s, "an extraordinarily important person in this country for an extraordinarily long time."

Within the tightly bound political life of Ottawa, Pickersgill's nicknames at various times - including "Jumping Jack," "Sailor Jack" and "the Commons' Comic" - reflected his restless energy and willingness to chide prime ministers and underlings with equally eloquent abandon. An Oxford graduate who was hired by External Affairs in 1937, he was drafted into prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's office six weeks later, and soon became principal speechwriter and a key policy adviser. Pickersgill revelled in his work, but chafed under what he considered King's excessive demands on his underlings. In his critically praised 1994 memoirs, Seeing Canada Whole, Pickersgill made a play on the title of King's own book, Industry and Humanity, writing that working for King was "all industry but no humanity." And mindful of King's unhappiness when Pickersgill worked for other ministers, he said of his leader that "my god was a jealous god."

Pickersgill, who metamorphosed from civil servant into intensely partisan politician, was directly involved in many major events of the century. In 1941, he gave King a copy of a Toronto Star editorial about the conscription debate. King then appropriated for himself the key phrase "conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." As an adviser and, later, elected MP and cabinet minister, Pickersgill helped in developing the family allowance program, co-ordinating the postwar reconstruction program and expansion of the civil service, and negotiating Newfoundland's entry into Confederation. Under prime minister Lester Pearson in 1964, he presented an early version of the new Canadian flag to Queen Elizabeth II. Pickersgill left the cabinet and elected politics in 1967 to become president of the Canadian Transport Commission. And in 1990, he came out of retirement to fight his last political battle - and suffer a rare loss - as a member of the Friends of Meech Lake, a group that supported the failed constitutional accord.

Although Pickersgill rose to power under King, he achieved his greatest renown under prime minister Louis Saint-Laurent - the man he considered the country's greatest leader. As historian Jack Granatstein wrote in his book The Ottawa Men: The Civil Service Mandarins 1935-57: "The watchword in Ottawa was 'clear it with Jack.' " In 1949, during Saint-Laurent's first election campaign, Pickersgill lived with him in the same railway car as they travelled the country. As Pickersgill wrote, Saint-Laurent "gave me full responsibility to decide what places he would visit and how often he would speak. He would make no commitments on his own and would refer all requests for changes in his program to me."

Pickersgill ran for Parliament in 1953 - startling many people by choosing a rural seat in Newfoundland - and thus began a 14-year career as a member of Parliament. When Saint-Laurent lost to John Diefenbaker in 1957, Pickersgill became a member of what was known as the Liberals' "Four Horsemen" - MPs who were particularly relentless opponents of the Progressive Conservative leader. Pickersgill detested Diefenbaker, who nonetheless had grudging respect for him. "Parliament, without Pickersgill," Diefenbaker said once, "would be like hell without the devil."

Pickersgill's partisanship led to some mistakes. In one of his worst, he urged Pearson to take the lead in proposing a motion that brought down Diefenbaker's minority government in 1958. The Tories then rode the voters' outrage to the largest Commons majority ever seen. But he was also capable of chiding Liberals - and showing respect and affection for some Tories. In his memoirs, he praised Diefenbaker's justice minister Davie Fulton, and Robert Stanfield, who succeeded Diefenbaker as Conservative leader. He often criticized Pierre Trudeau, saying that he "lacked common sense."

Pickersgill, whose son, Peter, is a renowned cartoonist, stayed in Ottawa and continued writing and lecturing until several years ago, when both he and his wife, Margaret, fell ill. He was sympathetic to many of Quebec's traditional constitutional demands and, despite his dismay over the failure of the Meech accord, remained an optimist about the country. In a 1991 appearance before an Ontario government committee, he predicted that "we will find a compromise." And, he added, "most of those voices who say Canada has no tomorrow seem to be people who don't realize Canada has a yesterday." With his passing, the nation loses a key link to its past, and a farsighted figure who always looked to a brighter future.

Maclean's November 24, 1997