Memoirs of an Incorrigible Canadian

By Keith Spicer
McClelland & Stewart, 356 Pp.

Keith Spicer wouldn’t write one of those deadly political memoirs, would he?  One of those bricks full of sentences like: “As Mulroney spoke, I recalled my talks with Trudeau in this same room. I remembered the privilege it was to serve the country. Almost fatalistically, after a long pause, I told the PM, `I guess I could do this.’ ”

Not Spicer, surely. Not the dashing public figure, the flamboyant civil servant, the impudent intellectual who prides above all his ability to write. Ah, well. Life is full of disappointments.

Good news if you show up in the index, because this is one of those books in which everyone who’s mentioned by name is mentioned favourably, usually with a twin scoop of flattery. If you are a former clerk of the Privy Council, you are probably charming but shrewd. If you are a former Spicer staff member, you are commendably loyal and a welcome ballast to the boss’s soaring ideas. If you are the author, you come across as a self-deprecating egomaniac.

This is a shame, because Keith Spicer has both the talent and the material to write a rollicking memoir. He’s 70 now, but over his life he has been the chairman of the CRTC, the editor of The Ottawa Citizen, the head of a high-profile public commission on national unity and the country’s original tongue trooper, the first commissioner of official languages.

He wasn’t bad as the chairman of the CRTC, he wasn’t bad as the editor of the Citizen, he pulled off the public commission, and he was really very good in the official languages portfolio. Not a bad record in the end.

On what updraft is such a life held aloft? Dead simple. A smart guy, Spicer taught himself how to speak French in 1950s Toronto. That took him to Paris for graduate work, where his French got burnished. Back to Toronto for doctoral studies, during which he founded Canadian Overseas Volunteers, a project that brought him right into John Diefenbaker’s office a good two years before Jack Kennedy would launch the U.S. Peace Corps.

He took his PhD and taught for a few years in Ottawa and Toronto, but he was always doing something on the side. In Toronto, he talked his way into a job as an editorial writer for The Globe and Mail, and eventually he would quit his university position to pursue journalism for a while. A young, self-confident smart aleck from deepest anglophone Canada, he was a darling in the Quebec media, a champion of the francophone fact.

He was a Trudeaucrat just waiting to happen. One day the phone rang and he was suddenly the national ombudsman for language disputes. His job was to defuse tension while stylishly promoting bilingualism. He did so, and it was no mean feat.

That gave him the credentials to be Captain Canada on both sides of the linguistic divide. And in true Canadian fashion, he made a career out of being an ombudsman, an arbiter between competing interests.

In some respects, in our country this is where the political power resides. Our foreign policy and our economic latitude are both closely circumscribed by geopolitical realpolitik. What we have to ourselves is the ability to tell one another how to behave. (Register those guns! Acknowledge gay marriage! We’ll get back to you on assisted suicide. Meanwhile, speak French, dammit!) In the land of the shouting match, the ombudsman can be king.

Though in his day a public figure, if Spicer is remembered at all by Canadians over the age of 35, it is because of the Spicer Commission, a whirlwind inquiry created in 1990 by Brian Mulroney to take the measure of the country in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. A lightning rod for animosity, it was a mobile loony bin of cross-country crackpots – and that was just the commissioners. The eventual report came to the startling conclusion that the populace was mightily angry, with Spicer going out on a limb in his own introduction to state baldly that the PM was not the most popular kid in the playground.

Somehow, this exercise in stating the obvious was seen as courageous at the time. Too bad his memoir displays none of the counterpunching wit to which he aspired throughout his career.

I knew Keith Spicer when he was the editor of The Ottawa Citizen and I worked for him as a junior editorial writer. I quite liked him. He struck me as very bright, certainly mercurial and sometimes not quite on the beam.  But I never thought of him as dull.

If this book is how he sees his life, I was

  • Globe and Mail December 4, 2004