Jack Pickersgill’s third contentious life on Parliament Hill
1937-53: the most powerful backstage figure in Ottawa 1953-57: the most derided minister in the cabinet 1957-60: the deadliest marksman in opposition
Peter C. Newman
DURING THE LAST three years in the House of Commons, the prickliest thorn in the seemingly invulnerable hide of the Conservative majority has been John Whitney Pickersgill, the member for a Newfoundland constituency with the improbable name of Bonavista - Twillingate. Pickersgill looks more like a prankster than a politician and is handicapped by the awkward limb movements of a sleepy penguin, but his attacks on just about everything the Tories touch have brought John Diefenbaker to his feet, shaking in furious denial, more often than the debating sallies of any other opposition member.
Pickersgill’s success as the leading cut-and-thrust artist of parliamentary debate has made Canadians increasingly aware that this man would be a major figure in any future government formed by the Liberal party. Political insiders have known this all along. During the two decades preceding the defeat of the Liberals, Jack Pickersgill was the most powerful backstage influence in Ottawa.
As Mackenzie King’s special assistant for eleven years, he grew so close to the prime minister that “I’ve fixed it with Jack’’ became tantamount to prime-ministerial approval among members of the Liberal cabinet. The succession to office of Louis St. Laurent made Pickersgill virtually a non-electcd deputy prime minister. It was only later, as St. Laurent’s minister of citizenship and immigration, that he became noted mostly for an ability to say the wrong thing in a way sure to catch headlines.
The 1957 and 1958 elections left Liberal leader Lester Pearson with the front-bench support of only three former cabinet colleagues — Paul Martin, Lionel Chevrier and Pickersgill. Martin has since become the Liberals’ best infighter and Chevrier is the party’s top bilingual orator. But it’s the debating fire of Jack Pickersgill that has turned out to be the Tory cabinet’s most unpleasant affliction.
Pickersgill takes the floor oftener than any other opposition member to hurl barbs at Tory ministers. He regularly calls John Diefenbaker “utterly incompetent” and uses every device to accuse him of lying without actually saying the word, which would be against parliamentary rules. In one debate last year he summed up the Diefenbaker record, then in a sweep of anger declared that Diefenbaker and his promises were just like Humpty Dumpty— broken. The prime minister laughed, agreeably surprised by Pickersgill’s mildness. Then the Liberal bore in. Referring to Allister Grosart, the former vice-president of McKim Advertising in Toronto who was Diefenbaker’s campaign manager, Pickersgill chanted: “Yes. Just like Humpty Dumpty. And all McKim’s horses and all McKim’s men can never put him together again.” Diefenbaker was furious.
During this year’s debate on the Bill of Rights, Pickersgill hesitantly asked Immigration Minister Ellen Fairclough whether the government intended to deport a Chinese woman who had emigrated to this country illegally two and a half years ago and subsequently given birth to a child. As soon as Mrs. Fairclough had admitted that the deportation was proceeding, as Pickersgill knew she would, he reared up to ask Diefenbaker: “Can the prime minister tell us how the government squares its conduct, in attempting to exile a Canadian citizen, with the Bill of Rights?” The prime minister, obviously caught without an answer, could only mumble: “The Bill of Rights hasn’t been passed yet.”
During the excitement of debate, Pickersgill has a way of emphasizing the point he’s making by tossing his slanting forelock of greying brown hair across his forehead. He’s physically clumsy, and utterly incapable of sitting still. When he was a
youngster, his grandmother made him a standing offer of five cents for every five minutes he could keep still. “I needed the money badly,” he recalls, “but I never earned a penny of it.”
The thrift he learned when he was growing up on a Prairie homestead dominates his life, in the expenditure of both time and money. He doesn’t part easily with the coins he carries in a black clasp-type woman’s change purse stuffed into his right hip pocket. He uses up pencils until they’re inch-long stubs that can barely be gripped. A few years ago. he complained at lengtjt in the House of Commons about the fifteen cents he had lost in an airport stamp-vending machine. He wears only two kinds of tic — his Oxford New College brownand-silver stripe and a blue-and-white polka dot — and depends on friends to notice when the ties become frayed and send him new ones. His suits are purchased in ten-minute expeditions to Morgan’s.
Pickersgill's home is a pleasant but not luxurious house in Rockcliffe, Ottawa’s best residential district. where he lives with his wife, the former Margaret Beattie of Winnipeg, and three children — Peter, fifteen, Alan, twelve, and Ruth, ten. His nineteen-year-old daughter Jane is a pre-medical student at Queen’s University. He participates in Ottawa social life very little, in sports and hobbies not at all. “I’ve never been able to play any kind of game, except bridge,” he says, “and I’ve given that up.” During the past two years most of Pickersgill’s spare time has been spent writing The Mackenzie King Record, 1939-1944, being published this month by the University of Toronto Press. He plans a companion volume to cover the last six. years of King’s life.
To make the most of his time, Pickersgill usually lies awake in bed for an hour planning his day, before getting up at seven. He then weighs himself (if the scales hit more than 190 pounds he won’t eat any bread that day) and does a few of the exercises prescribed in the RCAF’s physical-fitness course. Most days he begins walking to work, then hitchhikes, sometimes turning down three or four rides until he gets a driver who’s likely to provide interesting political conversation.
The highlight of Pickersgill’s year is the six weeks he spends with his family in a cottage without electricity or telephone at Traytown, a fishing village in his riding in northeastern Newfoundland. In 1956 he made the rounds of his constituency in a 1 15-foot schooner he bought for $7,500. She piled up on the rocks off Cape Race on a chartered freight run in 1958 and he’s now thinking of buying another boat with the insurance money.
Pickersgill originally won his Newfoundland seat only because of the vigorous campaign waged on his behalf by Joey Smallwood, the provincial premier. But he has since become a vote-getter in his own right, and campaigned effectively for the Newfoundland Liberals in the last provincial election. He’s now so well established in his riding that Smallwood told a friend recently: “If 1 were as sure of getting into heaven as Jack Pickersgill is of getting re-elected in Bonavista-Twillingate, I’d have cause to be happy.” In the 1957 election, when Liberal candidates were going down to defeat across the country, Pickersgill got eighty-seven percent of the votes cast in his riding.
His popularity is based on a genuine concern for the welfare of the people in the depressed outports. As a Liberal cabinet minister he was mainly responsible for the establishment of unemployment insurance for fishermen. But overshadowing Pickersgili’s other attractions to his constituents is the memory of the buildup he got during his first campaign, in 1953, when Smallwood billed him as the father of Canada’s family - allowance legislation. The baby bonus is an CONTINUED ON PAGE 59
CONTINUED ON PAGE 59
Jack Pickersgill’s third contentious life on Parliament Hill continued from page 21
At ten he was such an ardent Tory that he converted two schoolmates to the cause
important source of cash income in the riding.
The credit for introducing the familyallowance law shouldn't really have gone to Pickersgill, but in a typically indirect way he did influence its adoption. The baby bonus was first proposed by government officials in 1941, and resurrected two years later by Pickersgill, then secretary to Mackenzie King, as a suggestion for reviving Liberal fortunes, following the defeat of Ontario’s Liberal government and the loss of five federal by-elections. King flatly turned down the idea, because he thought “family allowances would put Catholic against Protestant, and divide the country.” Pickersgill insisted they'd work with such vigor that King, one evening in the library of Laurier House, asked him wffiy he w'as so noisily in favor of the plan. “That's simple,” Pickersgill answered. "If it hadn’t been for the allowances paid twenty years ago to the families of veterans killed in World War I, 1 wouldn’t be here now.” King made no reply, but his diary entry for that day indicates the exchange did help persuade him to introduce the baby-bonus law.
The war allowance that was so important to Pickersgill’s life was paid to his family, starting in 1920, after his father died of w'ounds suffered at Passchendaele. The modest government pension was enough to keep the fourteen-year-old Jack in school. But he still had to help run a small lumber business managed
by the family to supplement the income from their quarter-section homestead at Ashern, near Lake Manitoba.
Both before and after the death of the senior Pickersgill, politics was the family’s main dinner-table topic. The father had been a hard-bitten Tory w'ho gave his eldest son the middle name of Whitney, after Sir James Pliny Whitney, a Conservative who became premier of Ontario in 1905.
Young Jack grew up such an ardent Tory that at ten he converted to his faith two school chums who happened to be the sons of Ashern’s leading Liberals. When the boys in turn tried fumblingly to convert their families, the angry fathers called the elder Pickersgill and demanded that he order his son to give up the schoolyard politicking. “That didn't stop me,” Pickersgill recalls. “I swore the boys to secrecy, took them into the woods at lunchtime, and instructed them on the evils of giving the franchise to women and the glories of the Conservative party.”
Pickersgill’s own conversion to Liberalism occurred in the fall of 1926 wffien, as a University of Manitoba history student, he went to hear Arthur Meighen, then Conservative party leader, speak at the Winnipeg Rink. "I was a Tory when I went in and a Liberal when I came out,” he says. "I felt that Meighen was on the wrong side of three issues—racial tolerance, tariffs and colonialism. The Tories had not really accepted the im-
plications of self-government; they were reluctant to see Canada become an adult nation.” The young student’s ideological transformation was further strengthened during his two years of studying nineteenth-century history at Oxford, on an IODE scholarship. He qualified for two degrees at the end of his studies there, but hadn't enough money to pay his diploma fees. (Pickersgill finally collected one of the degrees in 1953, when he visited Oxford just after the coronation with Louis St. Laurent, who received an honorary degree at the same time.)
“You won’t last”—but he did
Pickersgill spent the eight years after his return from Oxford as an obscure lecturer in European history at Wesley College in Winnipeg. When he still hadn't received a salary increase or promotion by 1936, he wrote exams for the External Affairs Department, topping his group, and joined the civil service at $2,280 a year. Mackenzie King was then in the habit of seconding to his office bright young men from the department, and O. D. Skelton, the undersecretary of state, nominated Pickersgill for the job.
"You won’t last more than six months,” a colleague predicted. "Nobody ever does.”
But the posting lasted eleven years and grew into a relationship unique in the history of Canadian politics. As King's
main speechwriter, private secretary and general confidant, Pickersgill was closer to the prime minister than any other man in Ottawa. King, as he grew older, found contact with new faces increasingly distasteful and learned to depend more and more on his trusted assistant to maintain touch with the political world. For eleven years Pickersgill lived like an obstetrician with a maternity ward full of nervous patients. He couldn't go on a ten-minute stroll without first checking into the prime minister’s private switchboard to see if he might be wanted.
One reason Pickersgill's help was so acceptable to King was the younger man's instant realization of how useless it would be to attempt any alteration of the prime minister's style and vocabulary. “His language," Pickersgill said later, “appeared to have been frozen in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Mr. King didn't like flamboyant phrases. He detested the word ‘challenge’ and would never use the adjectives ‘sober’ or ‘decent.’ " Pickersgill became such an expert in gauging King's reactions that he could point out, to other assistants who helped draft paragraphs for the prime minister's speeches, exactly which words would be stroked out. “Fundamentally, the reason 1 got along with King." Pickersgill says, “is that I refused to grind axes for people with him, and that I never tried to usurp his authority. If he didn’t take my advice, I didn't sulk or pester him. 1 went ahead, even if his decision
was against my better judgment.”
The relationship wasn’t always smooth, though.
Pickersgill disagreed privately with King over the conscription issue. “The government should have gone down if necessary rather than accept conscription," he says. “It wasn’t worth tearing the country apart for the sake of recruiting sixteen thousand men.” The two men quarreled openly during the 1945 meeting in San Francisco that established the United Nations.
Pickersgill had suggested to King that a good way of solving Canada’s dilemma over a national flag would be to replace the Union Jack flying on Parliament Hill with the Red Ensign on VE Day, then pass a law adopting it as the official flag. King agreed to hoist the distinctive emblem for VE Day, but insisted that Pickersgill tell Ottawa it should be removed the next morning. “If you once put it up, you’ll never be able to take it down,” Pickersgill snapped irritably at the prime minister. King angrily ordered him to do as he was told, and when after King’s death Pickersgill read the diary entry for that day, he found himself referred to as “an impudent upstart.”
“Mr. King knew I would take only so much,” says Pickersgill. To protect himself Pickersgill maintained his job classification as a foreign service officer, temporarily assigned to the prime minister’s office. He admires King, but doubts that the admiration was mutual. “To an extraordinary degree,” he says, “Mr. King regarded me as part of the furniture.”
His relationship to Louis St. Laurent was vastly different. The obscure fixer of the King era became the grey eminence of Canadian politics under King’s successor. When he was sworn into office on November 15, 1948, St. Laurent had spent most of the preceding two years in the politically insulated External Affairs portfolio. He depended on the “special assistant” he had inherited from King for much of the direction on how to operate the prime minister’s office. Many political pundits in Ottawa insist that for the first three months of St. Laurent’s term at least, the country was to an astonishing degree being run by Jack Pickersgill. “I had a very great influence on Mr. St. Laurent,” Pickersgill admits. “He had more confidence in me
than in any cabinet minister or anyone else.” During the 1949 election St. Laurent made a pact that he would commit himself to no appointments or public appearances that weren’t cleared with Pickersgill.
Most Canadians first heard of Pickersgill in June 1952, when St. Laurent appointed him secretary to the cabinet and clerk of the Privy Council. The top civil service position in Ottawa, it’s a job whose unacknowledged and unpublicized influence on the affairs of the country is profound. It’s also a non-political job, which was the reason Pickersgill wanted it—he really hoped to resume the status of a good grey civil servant. This notion was soon shown to be preposterous, and St. Laurent agreed it might be more useful to have Pickersgill in the cabinet. That meant not only promoting him over the heads of 160 Liberal backbenchers, but also finding a constituency he could win.
This problem was solved by Joey Smallwood, the premier of Newfoundland, who had become friendly with Pickersgill during the negotiations leading up to confederation. In fact, at one critical moment it was only Pickersgill’s quick thinking that saved the whole project. Mackenzie King had felt that Newfoundland should join Canada only if a substantial majority of her people voted for confederation. The first plebiscite ended in a stalemate. When Pickersgill heard on the morning news that a bare 52 percent had supported union in the second vote, he rushed down to his office and dug up the percentages of the popular vote received by the Liberals in every election under King. At ten o’clock that morning King placed his first daily phone call to Pickersgill. “Well, did you hear the Newfoundland result?” he asked coolly, implying that the vote wasn’t high enough to warrant confederation. “Yes. Isn’t it wonderful!” Pickersgill shot back gleefully. “Do you realize, sir, that the Newfoundlanders want union with Canada by a considerably higher percentage than Canadians voted for you in any election except 1940?” King, obviously surprised, replied with a snort, but the plebiscite figures suddenly became acceptable.
When Smallwood first suggested to Pickersgill that he should run in the Newfoundland seat about to be vacated by Gordon Bradley, the secretary of
This is Pickersgill,” joey Smallwood told the voters of Newfoundland. “Isn’t that an incredible name?”
state, who was being retired to the Senate. Pickersgill was incredulous. “What kind of harebrained stunt would that be?” he demanded. "You've worked one political miracle in pushing through confederation. How can you now persuade Newfoundlanders that not one of them is good enough to be in the cabinet, and that they should vote for an outsider?”
“Don't worry about that,” Smallwood assured him. "When I'm through with you, you won’t recognize yourself.” Pickersgill agreed to run, providing he could limit his electioneering on the island to five days, so that he could spend the rest of the campaign at St. Laurent’s side. He was appointed secretary of state on June 12, 1953, and a week later opened his brief campaign by sailing into Twillingate aboard the coastal steamer Glencoe. The local fishermen saluted him with a blast from thirty sealing guns, while on the flag-decked wharf a brass and drum band whacked out the hymn Hold the Fort, For I Am Coming.
Pin-up boy of the outports
Pickersgill found himself hailed more as a hero than a vote-seeker. Smallwood would get up on a platform, point to him and thunder: "This is Pickersgill! Isn’t that an incredible name?” Then the premier would lean down and confide to his audience: "You’d better like him despite his name. This is the author of the family allowances . . . he’s the second most important man in Canada . . . some day he’ll be prime minister!”
The fishermen plastered Pickersgill’s picture on their bedroom walls in the manner of a pin-up boy, nicknamed him Skipperskill, and voted him into the Commons by a 7,500-ballot margin over his Conservative opponent.
Smallwood’s assurances that Pickersgill would become prime minister were received less enthusiastically in Ottawa. C. D. Howe, the senior minister in the St. Laurent government, acidly remarked to a reporter: “I don’t think the newest member of the cabinet should aspire to leadership right away.” In the House of Commons, the Conservatives were delighted that they could finally taunt the man so long dedicated to advising prime ministers on how to keep them out of office. They treated Pickersgill as something of a performing animal. Tory hecklers called him, among other things, “Jumping Jack with springs in his trousers” and “Poor Old Pick,” and asserted that lie was “deaf in one ear and dumb in the other.” Pickersgill didn’t help matters by replying to every opposition thrust with a smart-aleck retort. On July 1, 1954, St. Laurent astonished
Pickersgill’s critics by appointing him to the important and sensitive immigration portfolio.
It's now generally agreed that Pickersgill was an able immigration minister, particularly in his handling of the Hungarian refugees after the rebellion of 1956. But the best-remembered legacy of his term in office is the report of a speech he made to a group of Liberals in Victoria that quoted him as saying that no immigrant is as good as a Canadianborn baby. He insists that the Victoria Colonist ripped his words out of context, leaving out his vital qualification that a child born and raised in this country is naturally better adapted to the Canadian way of life than any newcomer. But his denials never did catch up with the orig-
inal headlines. Pickersgill was condemned by every ethnic group in the country, and one Toronto group of Italians even hanged him in effigy.
Any ambitions for the party leadership that Smallwood's buildup may have inspired in Pickersgill seemed to disappear after his experiences in the immigration portfolio. But he does long passionately for a return to power of the Liberals so
that he may once again be in the position of influencing the decisions of Canada's prime minister.
He waits with unconcealed impatience. Most of his pronouncements are outrageously partisan: just before the 1957 election, he declared that the Liberals should be returned to office "not merely for the well-being of Canadians, but for the good of mankind in general.”
Pickersgill neatly summed up his ideology earlier this year during a House of Commons debate, when he ended a blast at Conservative fiscal policies by addressing a rhetorical plea to the Speaker. "I am sure,” he said, “that this country will survive this government, as it survived the last Tory regime. But why. sir. why do we have to suffer these things once in every generation?” ★