Mon Oncle Keith
What kind of job is Commissioner of Official Languages for a nice WASPish boy named Spicer?
Paris, 1954. A scene of political chaos. The Indo-Chinese war had just ended, the disastrous colonial war with Algeria had already begun and the comic-opera Fourth Republic had just elected Pierre Mendes-France as its twenty-fifth head of government. Into this maelstrom stepped a 20-year-old Canadian, come to France to study French. He was a Toronto WASP from a traditional anglophile family, an impressionable romantic kid, and the political furor excited him. He read papers like Le Monde and the satirical Canard Enchaîné and felt that the future of the world was being decided here. Sometimes he skipped classes to hang around the Quai d’Orsay on the banks of the Seine, waiting within view of the magnificent Pont Alexandre III and Louis XIV’s Hôtel des Invalides to catch a glimpse of the men who were making it all happen. Mendes-France, whom most people remember as the man who pushed milk, became his personal hero, admired for his ability to take stands and let the chips fall. At the end of a year in this environment, the young student of literature became a student of politics.
Ottawa, 1972. A time of political uncertainty. Pierre Elliott Trudeau is in his fourth year as prime minister, struggling heroically to keep Quebec within Confederation. Three years ago, rejecting the deux nations theory of Quebec’s place in Canada, his government drafted the Official Languages Act, an attempt to fend off separatism by promising bilingual services from federal government agencies across the country, so that in such places as St. Boniface, Manitoba, where there is a significant French minority, a French Canadian might be able to find someone at the local post office, for example, who could speak his language. It is scarcely popular legislation. Apart from the Englishspeaking civil servants with highschool French who fear for their upward mobility and the immigrant Canadians who cannot see why French should be preferred as a second language over, say, Ukrainian or Italian, there are still those outraged citizens who cheerfully suggest that if French Canadians want to speak French they should move to some Pacific Island — like Amchitka, maybe. That’s outside Quebec. Inside Quebec, Premier Robert Bourassa has indicated indifference to the fate of French-language minorities beyond the province’s borders, and René Lévesque has proclaimed that, Official Languages Act or no, it will happen by 1976. At the centre of all this suspicion and hostility, occupying the most delicate public service job in the country, if not the most impossible, is the impressionable romantic kid from Toronto.
Today, at 38, he is Commissioner of Official Languages, a deputy minister who earns $38,000 a year, works out of an enormous “mandarin sized” Ottawa office prestigiously located just a few blocks from the Parliament Buildings, and heads a staff of 48, who sit semicamouflaged behind great potted ferns looking like commandos in the Vietnam jungle. Not bad, all in all, for a man who is, according to his sister, “the first in the family to do something more than push a plow or judge cattle.”
Keith Spicer is tall, good featured and distinctly handsome. Messy middle-length blondish curls, sideburns, casual clothes and an informality of speech that does not preclude the odd four-letter word make him refreshingly conspicuous in dowdy Ottawa. His allure suggests late boyhood more than early middle age, though a white turtleneck jersey, shrunk in the wash, shamelessly molds several beginning abdominal bulges. There are those, including an official in the Department of the Secretary of State, who suggest that Spicer wrote himself into his job as commissioner by getting to know all the right people and conning his way into some preliminary research work. Indeed, Spicer’s training so perfectly prepared him for this job that in retrospect it might seem to have been planned. But a more charitable, credible and widely held view is that Keith Spicer was by far the most suitable man in Canada for the job. Most suitable English Canadian, that is; a French Canadian would have been suspect as the guardian of minority language rights.
Spicer is a fascinating personality, poetic, multi-faceted and volatile. Canada is crashing around his ears, but he remains the eternal optimist, talking sincerely about “latent goodwill” in our land. His approach to our language problems is also disarmingly simple. “For me, the core of the problem is the basic question of human dignity. We’ve been so hypnotized by the mechanics of the constitution that we’ve lost sight of the childlike quality of instant recognition,” he says. “Children don’t question status. They accept each other.” If these noble sentiments sound naïve, Spicer is unashamed. “Maybe I’m an incorrigible optimist,” he told a parliamentary committee last March, “but I believe that by taking for granted that people have fine instincts, and by appealing to them, you cannot lose. And as for idealism, I make no apologies for believing in a certain conception of Canada.”
Phrases like “human dignity” occur frequently in Spicer’s conversation and seem to express an inner searching, which is one of the most compelling aspects of his personality. There’s an “unfinished” quality about him that is unusual in a man his age — an unsettled reaching for something yet undefined which will touch some deep nerve centre and make him whole. He speaks of an “attraction for the exotic.” He’s fascinated by the strange findings of archaeology, the French Romantics and the mystical aspects of philosophy and religion, though he describes himself as an “atheist Presbyterian.” He’s a man of deep vibrations, but
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KEITH SPICER from page 37
a man of deep vibrations, but these impulses must frighten him to some extent because he works hard at control. His main preoccupations are “courage,” “reasonableness” and “civilized behavior.” He’s the kind of guy who could wear a Harris tweed jacket and love beads and not be out of character.
The commissioner is basically a language ombudsman, investigating complaints from the public and from civil servants in 150 federal departments, agencies and crown corporations. (An English-speaking Canadian might complain that no one at Air Canada in Rimouski, Quebec, could speak to him in English, a French civil servant might complain that his job interview was conducted in English.) He may also initiate special studies and recommend changes. Spicer describes his technique as beginning with “smiling tactfulness,” moving through “gentle reminders” and if necessary on to “stinging denunciations,” meaning his authority to report to parliament, the body to which he is responsible. His tack is persuasive diplomacy, a thick velvet glove over what is, in fact, an iron fist, for the Commissioner of Official Languages wields some of the most controversial powers in Canada. According to Section 30 of the Act, he may summon witnesses and compel them to testify, using evidence that might be inadmissible in a court of law. Today, sitting in his fern-filled office, eating a mixed ethnic lunch of chopped liver sandwiches and rosé, he ponders his position thoughtfully. “It’s almost inconceivable that I’d use those powers,” he says, “but if I don’t show my teeth a little in this job I’ve lost credibility. Every day I feel as though I’m walking through a minefield.” Which may be only slightly overstating the dilemma. If he fully uses his powers (he hasn’t yet) he’ll tear down the very lines of communication he’s working so hard to build. Doucement, the French say. Easy does it. You can’t be your friendly Ottawa ombudsman and a despot, too. On the other hand, if he doesn’t use them, if the official status of either French or English is being deliberately flouted and he does nothing, he is in dereliction of his duty as commissioner
Even Spicer describes his job as “impossible,” a question of fostering communication between groups as diverse as the Orange Lodge and the Parti Québécois. And he readily admits that he has at most four or five years in which to ensure linguistic justice in federal departments and get his message of mutual dignity across before the notion of bilingualism itself
loses credibility. But he delights in the challenge and, in any case, he’s not trying to “save” Confederation. “If I can cool the climate and help establish an atmosphere of dialogue, I’ll feel successful.”
Well, Keith Spicer has been Commissioner of Official Languages for almost two years. What has he done?
There was, to begin with, the Air Canada caper. In December, 1970, one of Spicer’s staff was caught secretly tape-recording a conversation with an Air Canada agent at the Ottawa airport. The situation was all the more embarrassing because Spicer had been quoted in March of that year as chuckling, “I can’t see myself as being a Big Brother and spying on people.” A less psychologically astute man might have ruined his career with a flub of similar magnitude, but by apologizing to everyone concerned before the story broke in the papers he got away with it. Later, his office did a “special study” on Air Canada’s language service. An airline executive who was involved in negotiations over the commissioner’s recommendations says Spicer was very sure of himself, though somewhat heavy handed. He was impressed that during the course of one afternoon Spicer was able to talk a key Air Canada vice-president into substantial changes.
Last June the commissioner was in the news again with a special report to parliament in which he accused Statistics Canada of “serious infringements of the Official Languages Act.” Census forms were being delivered in the wrong language, and in some cases unilingual census workers were operating in bilingual areas. Section 9 of the Official Languages Act states that bilingual services must be provided in areas where there is a “significant demand” to the extent that it is “feasible.” The ridiculous truth is that no one knows what “significant demand” means, nor who should determine it, though during the initial committee discussions on the Act, Justice Minister John Turner indicated that individual federal departments would have this prerogative. Is a 1 % minority population “significant”? Two percent? Five percent? It’s all up for grabs. In the case of the census, Spicer felt bilingual services should be provided everywhere in Canada.
Bringing the census to the attention of parliament was an act of courage — Spicer says that had he not had the guts to act, he would have resigned— but courage is something the commissioner works hard at. (“Keith is thin skinned,” says his mother, “but he’s working at toughening up.”) He reads the Stoic philosophers daily. “I’m
attracted to the self-discipline and the expression of duty in these writings,” he says. “I think, ‘Ha! Two thousand years ago men had basically the same hopes and fears and they all died and we’re doing it, so what the hell else is new!’ I’m fascinated that all the painful discoveries and mistakes we make were committed so long ago.”
Like a man in search of a spiritual father, Spicer has hero-worshipped all his life. After Mendes-France his hero was Dag Hammarskjöld, the late UN Secretary-General, whom he admired for “his strength and his dignity in the face of attacks by Khrushchev.” Hero number three was Guy Favreau, justice minister under Lester Pearson, for whom he worked as a speech writer during the last dark days of Favreau’s career. “I’m almost blasphemously idolatrous,” he admits. “Guy was sensitive, courageous and honest during that terrible time when the Opposition was tearing into him. I didn’t have his charity, either. I wanted to counterattack. Whenever I feel bitchy, I think of Guy.”
The next public event in the commissioner’s career was a “meet-thepublic” excursion to Saskatchewan in November, 1971. Moose Jaw town council voted twice not to receive him. At one of the get-togethers a woman muttered angrily, “There’s that SOB Spicer who’s trying to shove French down our gut.” Moose Jaw MP John Skoberg, who invited Spicer out West, was impressed with the way the commissioner handled himself. “Each place we went to was a bear-pit session, but Spicer really met questions head on,” says Skoberg, an NDPer who has never been exactly enthusiastic about the Official Languages Act. “He’d talk for five minutes then open up the floor. A less courageous man would have talked for 45 minutes and answered questions for 10.”
Informal communication is what Spicer does best. He has always had a way with people. Maybe it began at age four when his mother had him backed into a corner to wash his ears. According to his sister, Helen, young Keith changed the tone of the confrontation by throwing out a couple of kisses and whispering, “I love you, Mom.” John McClelland, an old school friend, who now teaches French at the University of Toronto, says Spicer is strong, attractive and manipulative. “He’s good at persuading people to do things they might not want to do.” McClelland recalls that when he and Spicer were in Paris in the late Fifties Spicer had a collection of female friends who typed and took notes for him. “He also cultivated people he thought might be of use. Teachers at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques or the fellow whose father was the Dutch ambassador to Brazil, or the English girl who worked at the home of Mendes-France, with whom he was infatuated at the time.” Paul Fox, Spicer’s professor of political science at the University of Toronto, says Spicer offends a lot of people who are envious of the way he sweeps them along. “He’s got a quality of raw, frightening, almost hyperkinetic energy, like a great dynamo inside him pumping it out. He’s far from the little guy plotting his every move and climbing steadily up the ladder. Keith is more like a star burst.” Spicer’s most important accomplishment since becoming commissioner was his first annual report to parliament in November, 1971. “This office is not a vehicle to sell any particular constitutional optio n,” he wrote. “Rather, it seeks, while respecting the constitution as it stands and democratically evolves, to consider justice in state bilingualism simply as an ideal of human dignity and as one of the much needed long-term bridges to
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understanding among Canadians. Asserting this dignity and strengthening these bridges is not utopian. It is mere self-interest to try to preserve for Canadians as a whole, come what may, our singular heritage of two of the world’s most useful and prestigious tongues.” He went on to say that in the long term, the kind of education being provided to young Canadians will make or break any bilingualism programs dreamed up in Ottawa. And in a brilliant tactical move he formally endorsed the use of French as the official language of work and culture in Quebec. “The vitality of French everywhere in Canada,” he wrote, “will rest on . . . the healthy predominance of French [in Quebec] where francophones form a majority.”
I showed the report to Gaspé MP Pierre de Bañé, a radical among the federal Liberals who says Trudeau’s federalism is beautiful but isn’t working. (He was one of the few Liberal MPs who opposed the Public Order Act of November, 1970.) De Bañé read it and was visibly moved. “Surprised?” I asked. “Not from a man like Keith Spicer,” he replied. René Lévesque, arch enemy of federalism, was also impressed. “He has situated the problem more courageously than Trudeau who lost the issue in intricacies,” he told me. “Spicer’s the first guy out of Ottawa to say, for Christ’s sake, the problem’s in Quebec!”
Spicer also used his annual report as a vehicle to comment on the widespread fear among English - speaking public servants that bilingualism is a threat to their careers. He recommended a policy of announcing redesignated bilingual positions at least six months before each competition, which would enable aspirants to make a serious start at language training. Making proposals of this sort is not, strictly speaking, the commissioner’s business, which Spicer admits, but it is typical of Spicer to push his mandate as far as it will take him.
Nothing in Keith Spicer’s early life suggested he’d become the fluently bilingual defender of minority languages rights. Son of a rural Ontario family going back three generations, Keith and his sister, Helen, were the first urban - born generation. They were brought up in an area of Toronto that remains strongly Anglo-Saxon. His parents’ friends were people like themselves. Spicer never knew a member of any ethnic minority on an intimate basis during the whole of his childhood and adolescence. Tory sentiments ran high in the household, and both children grew up in an atmosphere of political discussion. “We were free to do whatever we wanted
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to do as long as we thought Conservative,” Helen recalls. “Only WASPs counted.”
Spicer’s parents imparted a strong sense of “being Canadian” to both their children. “The most important thing,” his mother says, “was that they grow up to be good citizens.”
Not surprisingly, Spicer was a super-straitlaced kid (“He’s more of a hippie now than when he was a teenager,” laughs his father), but everyone in the family recalls that as a youngster he had great feeling for the underdog. He wouldn’t hesitate to attack an older boy who was beating up someone smaller, and his sister often had to step in to protect him. “It was the two of us against the world,” she says. “I was a fat girl and Keith was a little runt.”
Spicer’s early school career was something less than brilliant. After receiving D for effort all the way through public school, he settled down to a comfortable 65% average, which he maintained primarily because anything less would have cost him his place in the school band where he played trumpet.
Reading French on cornflakes boxes, he became intrigued with the idea that there were Canadian kids who actually spoke that language, and a French pen pal who sent him a picture of herself in shorts and a sweater lent the subjunctive verb and the intimacy of the French tu an aura of sex and excitement. There was also an infectiously enthusiastic teacher whose devotion to the fine points of grammar and pronunciation meant he had to repeat everything until it was right. Spicer told me he was going to send her a copy of his report, and suddenly his eyes were brimming with tears. (“Yeah, I’m emotional about a lot of things.”) Eventually, he married a French girl, and once made headlines by saying that the best place to learn French is in bed. (He and his wife are now separated.)
Spicer planned to study music at the University of Toronto but his mother thought all musicians were crazy, so the day before classes began he enrolled in Modern Languages where he specialized in French. McClelland remembers him as vain and as having an inflated opinion of his own abilities. “I’d never think of Keith as modest or self-effacing,” he says, “but he’d be capable of appearing modest and self-effacing. He’s the kind of person you either feel attracted to or you hate. If you feel attracted to him, you find yourself being talked into his enthusiasms and forgiving him the frustration he’s caused you.”
When he went to Paris as a student, Spicer was still, in his own words, a “rabid Tory” (he kept a huge picture of John Diefenbaker in his Paris room) and remained staunchly proCommonwealth for quite a while. During the Suez crisis, he wrote a letter to Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, apologizing for the position taken by Lester Pearson. According to McClelland, Spicer was on the right during the Algerian war, as well. “Always idealistic, yes, but it could have become an idealism of the right or the left.”
He completed a doctorate in Political Science at the University of Toronto in 1962. While writing his thesis he helped found Canadian Overseas Volunteers, a forerunner of CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas). Over the next few years, he taught political science at several Ontario universities, wrote speeches for Favreau, worked as a researcher for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (quitting out of “desperate impatience” at the slow pace of change), did regular political commentary on French-language radio and TV and wrote editorials for To-
ronto’s Globe and Mail. He also tried for the nomination as a Liberal candidate in Scarborough East in the 1968 federal election until he was booed for denouncing personality cults, at the height of Trudeaumania, and Canada’s Vietnam policy. (He wrote a highly flattering article on Trudeau for the Globe poetically entitled Strange He Is, But Not A Stranger, in which he attempted to dispel the enigmatic aura surrounding Trudeau. And although he still admires the Prime Minister personally, he refuses to evaluate him politically.)
Globe and Mail editor Richard Doyle, who hired Spicer as an editorial writer, describes him as “middle of the road, politically, definitely not to the left,” but a former colleague on the Globe editorial board says Spicer liberalized the newspaper’s attitudes toward both France and Quebec. That same colleague recalls a cynicism and self-deprecating quality about Spicer. “He was teaching at Scarborough College at the same time he was working .with us, and he’d refer to all academics, including himself, as con men and freeloaders.” (Ironically, Paul Fox describes Spicer’s Scarborough College course on French-Canadian studies as “the best of its kind ever organized in North America.”) Doyle agrees that when the Official Languages Act came along Spicer was obviously the man for the job, but he admits he had some doubts about Spicer’s ability as an administrator and his reaction to settling in on a single course.
Doyle calls it “nervous energy,” Paul Fox “erraticism,” and Spicer himself says he’s “unstable.” The plain fact is he has never stayed anywhere more than three years. “Keith’s basic problem is that he hasn’t been able to discipline his great energy into something sustained and productive,” says Fox. “When you’re that gifted, where’s it all going?”
Spicer doesn’t make any promises about staying out his seven-year mandate, but he makes a point of emphasizing that he really enjoys being languages commissioner. “This job is one hell of an honor, and I feel a moral obligation to ride out a few storms.”
Stormy is perhaps the most optimistic forecast possible for the future of bilingualism in Canada, given the climate of antagonism, mistrust and indifference that now prevails between Quebec and the rest of the country. Indeed, Keith Spicer’s job seems an anachronistic joke when you listen to men like Claude Morin, Quebec’s deputy minister of federalprovincial affairs, who thinks bilingualism is useless. “Canadian unity doesn’t depend on the extension of the French language all over the place,” he says. “It depends on the strength of Quebec.” Or François Cloutier, the Bourassa government’s Minister of Cultural Affairs: “National unity,” he says,” will not be achieved through bilingualism. It will be achieved by getting down to basic problems such as regional disparities and a redistribution of powers. If English Canadians think bilingualism can solve any problems in Canada, they’re just not aware.”
So you ask Spicer, is there any hope? And his response almost makes you believe it’s true: “All that matters is the simple need to recognize the other guy’s dignity, and that will always remain valid. No matter what happens, Quebec’s not likely to put on roller skates and go off to the Fiji Islands. It will probably stay right here on this continent, so in the long term the forces of community will likely be stronger than the forces of separateness. If we can communicate and respect each other, the political solutions just don’t matter.” ■