The Ottawa Citizen

November 15, 1997

Liberal legend served three PMs

'Parliament without Pick would be like hell without the devil'

by Kathryn May

A master storyteller and tactician with a razor wit, Jack Pickersgill was one of the most influential political forces of his time. He was the close adviser and confidante of three prime ministers and instrumental in the unseating of a fourth.

But even that fourth prime minister, John Diefenbaker, who every day faced his colourful, stinging jabs across the floor in the House of Commons, paid Mr. Pickersgill what some consider his greatest tribute. Upon Mr. Pickersgill's decision to leave politics in 1967, Mr. Diefenbaker said: "Parliament without Pick would be like hell without the devil."

One of the last of the famed Ottawa Men who guided the industrializing of post-war Canada, John Whitney Pickersgill died in Ottawa yesterday at 92. The family is planning a private funeral to be followed by a public memorial service in several weeks.

"He was one of the greatest figures of my time in Canada. It really marks the end of an era," said Mitchell Sharp, a longtime bureaucrat and former cabinet minister who is now a special adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

From the time he arrived in Ottawa in 1937 until he resigned as federal transport minister 30 years later, there wasn't a policy, piece of legislation or even a hint of gossip or scandal that Mr. Pickersgill didn't know or have a hand in. Dubbed by Peter C. Newman as one of the "best political brains in Ottawa," no bureaucrat or politician made a move without "clearing it with Jack first."

Gordon Robertson, a senior mandarin, called him one of the greatest Canadians of the 20th century because he held some of the key posts during Canada's coming of age. He came in at the end of the Depression and oversaw the glory days of government in Canada as a principal secretary to prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent and later as a cabinet minister in the Lester Pearson government.

"He was a remarkable man who had a great range of talent and qualities, both as an active partisan for the Liberal party and as a public servant," said Robertson.

In opposition, Pickersgill led the question period barbs and stinging debate that helped undermine Diefenbaker's Conservative government in the early 1960s.

And his son, Peter Pickersgill, says it was that parliamentary sparring with Diefenbaker that his father, then the MP for the Newfoundland riding of Bonavista-Twillingate, relished the most.

While in opposition, he became the thorn in Diefenbaker's side, savaging the government with jabbing questions and outbursts that packed the galleries with spectators. He, along with Pearson, Paul Martin Sr. and Lionel Chevrier were the Rat Pack of the day, known as the "Four Horsemen," for their goading questions and explosions of righteous indignation. In fact, the four were so relentless in their questioning that the government was forced to lay down the rules that became the beginning of today's daily question period.

Pickersgill was called "Pick the politician," "the Jumping Jack," the "Commons Comic" and even "the Penguin" for his puffed-out his chest and rocking on his feet. Many say it was "Pick" who coined the sage advice for parliamentarians: "Never ask a question unless you know the answer."

"He had a terrific time being in opposition and getting up Diefenbaker's nose. He could be clever and annoying. The most fun he ever had was making mischief and making the government squirm. It drove Diefenbaker to distraction so my father loved it," said son Peter.

Born in 1905 in Wyecombe Ont., Pickersgill was raised on a Manitoba farm. The Oxford-educated student breezed through school and university and began teaching history at Wesley College in Winnipeg in 1929.

At the urging of John W. Dafoe, then editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, Pickersgill wrote the competitive entrance exam for the foreign service and got the highest marks of the 200 candidates. Within months of joining the Department of External Affairs, he was seconded to Prime Minister King's office as an adviser.

"He quickly developed a particular understanding of Mr. King who was a very complex man but he developed a better understanding of him than anyone else," said Robertson.

Pickersgill remained with King until he retired and has been widely credited with developing the concept of the family allowance scheme; playing a leading role in the negotiations that brought Newfoundland into Confederation; and in developing the reconstruction program of post-war Canada.

Louis St. Laurent, who succeeded King as Liberal prime minister, kept Pickersgill on as his principal secretary and later made him clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to cabinet.

It was during this period that former Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, impressed by Pickersgill's performance during the province's Confederation negotiations, persuaded him to run for office. In 1953, Pickersgill ran in the isolated Newfoundland riding of Bonavista-Twillingate, a seat he would hold for 14 years. And many said he became more of a Newfoundlander than many Newfoundlanders, touring his isolated constituency on his schooner, the Millie Ford.

"He fell in love with Newfoundland and his constituency fell in love with him and he was elected in every election after that," said Robertson.

Pickersgill joined the St. Laurent cabinet, where he quickly became known for his encyclopedic knowledge of House rules that distinguished him as a formidable political opponent. When former Conservative leader George Drew once tried to reprimand him for his repeated interruptions, Pickersgill shot back:

"I submit sir, that it has never been a rule of the House that honourable members have to submit quietly to being bored."

Pickersgill held various cabinet posts, including minister of citizenship and immigration and minister of transport in the Pearson government before leaving politics in 1967 to become president of the Canadian Transport Commission.

Sharp said that once of Pickersgill's greatest and proudest achievements was opening up post-war Canada's borders to immigration. As immigration minister, he personally helped arrange visas for hundreds of Hungarians who fled to Austria after the 1956 revolution attempt to to overthrow the Soviets.

But he was also an ardent nationalist, who got himself into hot water with the ethnic community when, as immigration minister, he said: "I don't believe any immigrant ... no matter where he comes from, or how good he is ... is as good as another Canadian baby."

Throughout his career, Pickersgill the historian and raconteur was always at work. He was a prolific writer whose historical studies of the King-St. Laurent years are considered important for students of Canadian political history. His books included: The Mackenzie King Record; My years with Louis St. Laurent; Seeing Canada Whole: A Memoir and The Road Back: By a Liberal in Opposition.

Pickersgill is survived by his wife Margaret and four children, Jane, Peter, Alan and Ruth.

"He had a wonderful sense of humor, a good turn of phrase, and great sense of the ironic and knew how to deflate the most inflated of people," said Peter.

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