This is a priceless memoir written by a valuable man. There could be no better witness to the Canadian politics of his time than John Whitney (Jack) Pickersgill. From Mackenzie King to Lester Pearson—and beyond—he was there, at the beck and call of prime ministers, dispatched to run their errands, out of the Prime Minister’s Office or the Office of the Privy Council. He was an aide, secretary, clerk, minister, opposition critic, mover, shaker, deal-maker and, all along, a loyal Grit. Pickersgill, now 89 and still living in Ottawa, served his political masters with consummate loyalty and boundless energy. He did not always serve them well, but, as he says with slight contrition, “there are no second chances.”
SEEING CANADA WHOLE: A MEMOIR
By J. W. Pickersgill
(Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 846 pages, $45)
It is not possible to do justice here to the range and scope of Pickersgill’s account of his wonderful adventures. He was born in Wyecombe, Ont., in 1905, but moved as an infant to Manitoba, where his homesteader parents put down roots in the hard soil of the Interlake district. Despite the death of his father in 1920, Jack and his four younger siblings all managed to go to university. After studies at the University of Manitoba and Oxford, Pickersgill became a history teacher at Winnipeg’s Wesley College. Eight years later, in 1937, he went to work for the department of external affairs.
There can be no question that Pickersgill saw it all happening in Ottawa, from one vantage or another; no question either that he made much of it happen. As an adviser, he had an opinion for every occasion—he was not a man to dither or equivocate. It is clear that, serving as Louis St. Laurent’s éminence grise in the early 1950s, he nudged and prodded the prime minister into decisions that might have been postponed or never made.
“You know, Jack,” St. Laurent told him, at the end of the day, “I believe you and I together were able to accomplish a good many things for the public good that neither of us could have done by himself.”
In 1953, Pickersgill entered St. Laurent’s cabinet more by accident than design. In order to serve the prime minister in the election campaign, Pickersgill hoped to become a senator. Instead, he found a better way when Joey Smallwood, then premier of Newfoundland, visited Ottawa seeking advice on what to do about Gordon Bradley, the federal cabinet minister for Newfoundland, who had health problems and wanted to be appointed a senator. No problem, but who would be a suitable successor in the cabinet? Smallwood had his eye on Pickersgill as Bradley’s re placement, assuring Pickersgill that he could be elected in Newfoundland “without even putting in an appearance.” Bradley went to the Senate, and Pickersgill won in Bonavista/Twillingate and entered the cabinet, giving Smallwood a minister who, unlike Bradley, was an Ottawa insider.
Winnipeg Free Press parliamentary correspondent Grant Dexter, writing his publisher,
Victor Sifton, observed at the time: “Jack will now become an honest man, possessing power properly, but in due course will land on his face in the street. His constituency is a pocket borough and will go Liberal only so long as the Liberals are in office.” Dexter was wrong, as Pickersgill writes with evident satisfaction: he survived the Diefenbaker era, choosing to leave the House of Commons after 14 years to head the Canadian Transport Commission.
For Newfoundland, Pickersgill became nearly as much of a bargain as Confederation itself. Single-handedly, and despite St. Laurent’s profound reservations, he brought unemployment insurance benefits to the fishermen. He did Smallwood’s bidding when it suited him, which was often enough. He hurried the completion of the TransCanada Highway in the province, much of it running through his constituency of Bonavista/Twillingate, and he managed to locate a national park there.
When the CBC announced intentions of opening a TV station in St. John’s, Pickersgill stopped the move in its tracks: “I felt there were at least a dozen better ways to spend a million dollars of public money for the benefit of Newfoundland. I knew that Geoffrey Stirling and Donald Jamieson, the owners of the private radio station CJON, were prepared to finance a private television station without any cost to the treasury.” This sounds uncharacteristically naïve. Jamieson, who became Pickersgill’s successor in the Trudeau cabinet, and Stirling were both valued supporters of Smallwood, and it would be a long time before Newfoundland would « have a full-service CBC “ station in St. John’s. En| joying a monopoly presV ence, CJON TV became a 1 licence to print money.
2 Pickersgill worships' ped St. Laurent but found Pierre Trudeau to be lacking “common sense.” He is scathing in his indictment of Trudeau’s conduct during the constitutional discussions: “The truth was that every provision of the Meech Lake accord had been proposed at one time or another by Trudeau as prime minister in his spasmodic attempts to patriate the Constitution.”
And there’s more, all of it informative and entertaining. Did we know that Mackenzie King’s aptly self-defining phrase, “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary,” came originally from a Toronto Star editorial? It was Pickersgill who passed it on to King, “who made it his own.” This is a book by a national treasure.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.