As the country remembers Gordon Robertson, I think this is what we should remember him for — his belief that public service must be underwritten by a deep sense of honour, duty and mission, and his willingness to put the country ahead of personal goals or ambition.
But, as Gordon himself would insist, this sense of mission was not unique to him. It was part of the culture and values of the times. I saw this plainly when he first introduced me to a colleague he admired greatly — Tom Kent, who had served with him in the federal public service.
As deputy minister of several key departments, Kent was the architect of some of our most cherished social programs. And, like Gordon, he radiated a sense of public duty and responsibility.
Robertson and Kent were among the key "details men" in the development of Trudeaupia. It seems strange now to describe bureaucrats as idealists with a keen sense of "public duty and responsibility." Today government and politics are seen as areas of corruption, incompetence and profound cynicism. It is difficult for modern Canadians to understand the almost crusading zeal, if that word can be used describe senior bureaucrats in any age, that men like Robertson had. The politicians of the era were not too dissimilar, with the usual caveats made about political life.
It was entirely possible for men of good will, intelligence and integrity to view government not as a tool of oppression or ruthless careerism, but as instrument to better the world. There was the bloody legacy of Europe and Asia's totalitarian experiments as cautionary tales, but they seemed to matter little here. This was Canada and we would never resort to such horrible tools of social control. Our experiment with social engineering was made under the aegis of liberal democracy. The voice of the people could not be ignored for long.
That was the hope anyway. The ideal faded in time. A government which tries to be all things to all people is doomed to fail. That was the conceit of Trudeaupian government and other advanced welfare states. There was no need too small or problem too intractable that government money and government power could not solve. Instead by its very nature government generated more problems than it could ever possibly manage much less solve decisively.
Programs to aid the poor became engines of dependency, while also serving as valuable tools of unionized patronage. Policies that targeted marginalized groups in hopes of integrating them into the mainstream did the exact opposite. Aboriginals, the Quebecois and many immigrant groups believe and behave more alienated from ordinary Canadian life than at any time in living memory. The list goes on and on.
An intelligent bureaucrat viewing this spectacle is bound, sooner or later, to become cynical. Either that cynicism is expressed outward toward the beneficiaries of these programs, hardening in time into a kind of contemptuous paternalism, or internalized in their own soul. Their world view is that either men are no good and they must be controlled for their own good, or that men are no good and therefore I most exploit them for my own good. Neither view is compatible with idealism and nobility.
In the above article the author quotes Michael Pitfield, one of Robertson's successors, saying about Robertson's basic decency: “You can take the boy out of Saskatchewan, but you can’t take Saskatchewan out of the boy.”
The Ottawa of Pierre Trudeau was indeed a very different place from Davidson, Saskatchewan where Robertson was born. A small town between Regina and Saskatoon it, like countless other such places in Canada, sent its young men off to fight and die in two world wars. Its people were self-sufficient, proud and family centered. A spirit of communal assistance was tempered by an abhorrence of shirkers and loafers. That was the old Canada that helped form Robertson and those of his generation. When these small town boys reached the height of power they wished to help those they left behind.
Pierre Trudeau came from different stock. The son of a millionaire he dodged the draft and did not find anything resembling a steady job until his late twenties, and then only as a government lawyer. The Canada of Pierre Trudeau, a Canada of entitlement and elitism, in time destroyed the Canada that Gordon Robertson grew-up in. The values that undergrid Davidson, Saskatchewan have been steadily undermined by Trudeau's bid to create a "just society." Robertson aided and abetted that process.
The only way to put Saskatchewan back into the boys and girls of modern Canada is to get the Ottawa out of their lives.