Obituary

A nation builder

Robert Bryce forged durable communal ideas

CARL MOLLINS August 11 1997
Obituary

A nation builder

Robert Bryce forged durable communal ideas

CARL MOLLINS August 11 1997

A nation builder

Robert Bryce forged durable communal ideas

CARL MOLLINS

Obituary

Even in the ripe years of his career, long before his death last week at 87, Robert Broughton Bryce never looked the part of the public service potentate he was for more than 30 years in Ottawa. Bustling around Parliament Hill, walleyed and bald, geekish in his thick glasses, he was easy to lose among sleeker fellow bureaucrats or the slicker politicians. Until he began talking. From the day the young economist with the strong social conscience joined the finance department in 1938, and as an adviser for a decade after his official retirement in 1970,

Bryce was ever eager to deliver bright ideas in a matter-of-fact manner and offer common-sense solutions to political predicaments. Parliaments and prime ministers eagerly received the advice of the super-mandarin commonly known around Ottawa, and abroad, as plain Bob Bryce.

Through five administrations, from Mackenzie King’s to Pierre Trudeau’s— for nine years (1954-1963) the chief civil servant as secretary to the cabinet and clerk of the Privy Council under Liberal Louis Saint-Laurent and Conservative John Diefenbaker—Bryce was a leader among a contingent of long-service bureaucrats who provided a sense of stability and consistency to Canadian government. He and his cohorts, roughly 20 of them, were mainly bright young postgraduates recruited to federal service in the 1930s, most of them Canadian nationalists, many of them political leftists. They were highly influential in establishing the foundations of a socially conscious Canada. Beginning during the closing years of the Great Depression of the 1930s and through to the politically fertile 1960s, they fostered policies that produced such programs as unemployment insurance, old age pensions and medicare. None in that group

were more influential than Bryce. The Toronto-born son of a businessman mining investor and a socialist mother, Bryce pursued the study of economics at Cambridge and Harvard universities only after graduating from the University of Toronto a mining engineer, his father’s wish. In England, rife with student agitation against the rise of European fascism, Bryce and some of his

future Ottawa public service colleagues embraced Marxism as a more humane option. And in economics, the young Canadian encountered John Maynard Keynes and his then-radical notions of manipulating government spending and taxation programs to promote employment, foster growth and curb inflation.

Bryce became a Keynesian evangelist, first at Harvard and then in Ottawa. In April, 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight and political thinking geared to postwar reconstruction, the government published a plan devised by Bryce and his colleagues that was to govern federal policy for 40 years, the white paper on employ-

ment and income. Henceforth, it proclaimed, the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment and incomes in Canada would be a major federal policy and “a great national objective.”

The 1945 document declared: “The government will be prepared, in periods when unemployment threatens, to incur deficits and increases in the national debt resulting from its employment and income policy, whether that policy in the circumstances is best applied through increased expenditures or reduced taxation.” The paper proposed to “keep the national debt within manageable proportions.” But the KeynesBryce idea has faded with the disappearance in the 1990s of a Marxist challenge to capitalism.

At the height of the Cold War, and anticommunist witch-hunts, Bryce and some of his colleagues from Cambridge days were tarred with Marxist allegations easily deflected. In some respects, Bryce’s contributions may seem as dated as the controversies he provoked. But he helped shape policies that remain pillars of Canada’s sense of community. That was noted last week in a tribute from John Kenneth Galbraith, another Canadian-born Keynesian economist, who tutored at Harvard when Bryce attended and now, at 88, is a professor emeritus. Recalled Galbraith:

“Bob Bryce was part of a revolution at Harvard. In a substantial measure, he brought Keynes to the United States. He was the centre of interest at the uni¡2 versity during the time he I was here and the focal § point of the most intense ü! discussion that I ever re| member. He was also a S source of great annoyance g to some of the older, conservative members of the faculty. Joseph Schumpeter [an economist at Harvard from 1932 to 1950] once said in an indignant way, ‘Keynes is Allah and Bryce is his prophet.’ He didn’t approve of either.

“Bob Bryce went on, of course, to Ottawa, and Canada became perhaps the first country, other than Sweden, to have a commitment to Keynesian support of aggregate demand and employment. He became the most influential economist in Ottawa. Many made pilgrimages to Ottawa to see how Keynes and Bryce were performing on that scene. Bryce has been out of the news in these last years, but he should be remembered as one of the most influential economists of his time.” □