On the life and times of James Coyne and the role of a non-partisan public service

Too often we fall short in protecting key players in our democracy


Late last year I sat in when Andrew Coyne—still with Maclean’s then before his return to writing his newspaper column for Postmedia— interviewed Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney.

While the LSE-trained journalist quizzed the Oxford-educated central banker on the finer points of monetary policy, I found plenty of time to take in the portraits of past governors that grace the boardroom of the bank’s rather imposing, neoclassical headquarters in Ottawa.

I was mainly interested in the gaze of Andrew’s father, James Coyne, the bank governor from 1955 to 1961, who died at 102 last Friday. Just before the interview began, Andrew had mentioned how well he thought the official portrait caught his father’s natural expression—a rarity, I imagine, for that sort of formal sitting.

Carney chimed in with informed and animated comments on the senior Coyne, and no wonder. James Coyne, as this weekend’s obituaries (like the engrossing one by Sandra Martin in the Globe) chronicle anew, clashed very publicly with the Diefenbaker government in 1961, in a confrontation that cost him his job, but ultimately helped establish the bank’s proper role and necessary independence. What a story.

It’s good to think, on James Coyne’s passing, that there’s a true continuity of sorts in our public service, that today’s major figures might remember yesterday’s. Carney is, of course, an unusually celebrated governor—maybe the first to be a celebrity—but he is hardly the first remarkable man to do the job. In only my own time in Ottawa, I’ve had fun watching John Crow’s ferocious inflation-fighting and listening to David Dodge put the bank’s work in the broadest possible policy frame.

We naturally think of our government most of the time in terms of the politicians we elect to power. It’s a democracy, after all. But every so often, it’s reassuring to remember there are also judges and diplomats, chief statisticians and bank governors.

We should respect and protect their non-partisan efforts, but too often we fall short. Whenever we fear that politics is impinging too much on their work, we could do worse than to think of James Coyne. For me, it won’t be hard—I’ll imagine his portrait keeping watch.



On the life and times of James Coyne and the role of a non-partisan public service

  1. The resemblance between father and son is striking. From the photographs of course, but also the descriptions of Coyne senior’s grumpy goodnaturedness. Andrew did well to emulate a great man.

  2. An excellent man who served Canada with honour and distinction.

    Let’s not make this mistake again….there are people today who are serving Canada well, and under similarly trying circumstances. Stand up for them!

  3. Sorry, but an unchallenged bureaucrat is an aristocrat. Being challenged by elected officials should be part of their job, for it surely it is a reason I send members of parliament to Ottawa, and one of the reasons I request their intervention on my behalf outside of parliament.

    • I bet you’d hire a top lawyer and then ignore his advice too.

      • People often change their counsel because they are not satisfied with their performance in representing them, yes.

        Oh wait, what am I doing bothering to talk to you? Nothing productive ever comes of it.

        • No, because you accept every down home piece of quackery there is without being able to think.

          Somehow a group of people in this country…mostly high school types…have grown up thinking they know better than anyone else on earth.

    • So, in your world it seems that only politicians are capable of serving the public?

      • I have no idea how your conclusion has anything to do with Yanni`s comment, but I would remind you that, unlike a bureaucrat, a politician is challenged by the public every 4 years.

        • Rob Anders refutes you.

        • But politicians hold the trump card over the bureaucrats.
          Case in point: Munir Sheikh (former head of stats can)
          Tony Clement publicly stated that StatsCan advised him that cancelling the MLF census would not affect the integrity of he data. The only recourse Sheikh had to bring the lie to light was to publicly refute TC’s bullshit and resign.

        • Yeah sure…Anders vs the late Mr Coyne. Clearly one is more worthy of respect just because his riding can’t be arsed to choose a better candidate. Respect is earned bud, even in a democracy.

          • You two have some problems with Rob Anders. Well there is a simple solution to that. People like you and Thwim, and the parties you support, should actually show an iota of interest in representing people like me. In lieu of that, we elect Rob Anders.

            If you are not interested in representing people like me, because I’m somehow “evil”, then Rob Anders is in there for the long haul. I hope you choke on him.

          • Actually, there’s a lot of people who are like you and want good people to represent them in that area. They even formed a majority of the conservative riding association board in that area, and wanted to get a new candidate in place who actually *would* represent them.

            The CPC head office shut them down and changed the rules so that Anders would remain there.

            Choke on that.

          • Well, I would, but the other parties shelter their incompetents from their riding associations too.

            But yes, thanks for bringing that to my attention. Of course, that is quite a bit different than the sentiment of “can’t be arsed to choose a better candidate”. Looks like they need someone of a different party to represent them if they can’t get the candidate they want from the CPC. Yet, they still vote CPC for some reason… which brings me to my previous point.

          • You still don’t understand. They’ve tried. They’ve put forward alternative candidates as independents who ran as well. Anders wins all the time, and the reasoning always is, “He’s the Conservative Party Candidate”. Most of the people in that area, and I know quite a few of them, aren’t interested in evaluating their options. They vote conservative. That’s all.

          • Yes, because in our system independents don’t have much power, visibility, or resources. Plus, a lot of people vote for the party as well as the MP, which is why you got all those NDP votes in Quebec for placeholder candidates.

            The solution is then to put forth a party that is interested in representing those people. It is not beyond the NDP and Liberal party as long as they reform their attitude towards the people they want to represent. The Reform party did it, and so did Wild Rose in the province of Alberta. So your suggestion that people don’t know how to vote for anything else than an incumbent just doesn’t hold water.

          • You finally said it, though I think you still missed it.

            Try reading your second sentence again and think *really* hard on it, and you may get an inkling of what’s actually going on.

          • The reform did it? That’s hilarious. I can’t think of the number of times i’ve considered switching my vote to a reform candidate because they had “reformed” themselves and come to represent my social views or even respect the charter at a minimum.

          • You should be choking on him is more to the point. To be clear you blame folks like me for your choice, on the gounds that my party doesn’t give you any other choice. That’s a really strange argument for a social conservative of all people to make. I had no idea that you personally could not run against or contest Anders nomination. What a crock!

          • Actually, it’s worse than that. When given evidence that some people do personally run against him, he pulls out the “Well they’ll have no power” thing, thus making it so that entire parties need to convert their philosophies in order to have a chance to get rid of a single MP.

          • That is assuming that westerners aren’t open to left of center philosophies, which is false. They were born here after all.

      • I’m merely saying that a bureaucrat doesn’t become a philosopher king merely by being hired. If our elected officials aren’t going to be the ones to challenge them, then who is allowed to?

        • And a politician doesn’t become one just by being elected. Usually for backslapping & BBQ’ing at that.

          The Bank of Canada produces results the world can see, Yanni….they don’t need some politician telling them nonsense.

          • Yes, but he does have a point. A good public servant becomes a great public servant when he is challenged–and stands up for what he’s doing.

          • What? Since when did the civil service become some kind of a joust or a tournament??

            A good public servant shouldn’t have to constantly defend himself against the mental wanderings of passing politicians

            Running the gauntlet is not a job requirement, and it’s counter-productive

            And I don’t know why we’re using an obituary to attack our civil service.

          • “A good public servant shouldn’t have to constantly defend himself against the mental wanderings of passing politicians” Totally agreed.
            That’s what makes those who successfully defend themselves, when it IS necessary, so great.
            Also agreed that an obituary is probably not the place for this, although I am in no way attacking our civil service.

          • A good public servant should have to defend himself from not only politicians, but the public as well. That is the only way to keep them in check. If they are doing a good job, they will stand up to scrutiny.

            There have been far too many cases of politicians that have closed ranks and defended the public service even when they have abused their power and hurt people.

            But you guys don’t care that the First Nations live in deplorable conditions because of specific practices of the department of Indian Affairs (like not bothering to hire inspectors for the houses they build). You don’t care that Fisheries can mismanage the stocks and devastate an entire region and nobody gets fired. You don’t care that over a billion dollars can be blown on building a database meant to track a few guns. You don’t care that public employees can hold a literal satanic witch trial in Saskatchewan and the NDP government will close ranks and prevent any consequences at all to befall those who did it. I can continue with showing you specific cases of extreme behavior without punishment all day.

            The public service pretty much has carte blanche to abuse people without any penalty, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them if they get challenged a little bit by the current government. No way.

            Hell, half of you have so much time to post here on Macleans because you work for the public service. You can just fritter away the entire work day on this garbage, and I’m not supposed to be upset about it.

          • Public servants aren’t the ones we have to keep an eye on…..politicians are.

            Public servants don’t make laws on FN or Fisheries or guns or ‘satanic witch trials’ ….politicians do. And they do it right in front of us.

            I don’t know of anybody on here who works for the publc service….I think you’re just paranoid. Conbots always think there is some vast conspiracy to ‘get them’

          • Hi, Yanni; what is the “literal satanic witch trial in Saskatchewan” that you refer to?

        • Sure, i get your point. The other side of the issue is that the battle isn’t equal if the bureaucrat [ as in Coyne’s case] is simply doing his job and the political arguments used against him amount to nothing more than turf protection.

          • Yep, and politicians have to be held responsible too. But that’s not what people are saying. They are saying that public servant’s aren’t the ones who we need to keep an eye on, even though with their protection by CUPE it almost impossible to discipline, demote or fire them.

            The elected politicians are literally the only ones who can stand up to their power, but we’re supposedly not supposed to do it because public servants are non-partisan, flawless in performance, philosopher kings. Well they are not. They are just liable of partisanship, corruption, incompetence and cruelty as everyone else, and this is exacerbated by the fact that since they have been increasingly isolated from accountability.

          • Who are these “people” you speak of?

            And clearly you have no idea of what is at stake if bureaucrats don’t feel they can deliver advise to the GOTD without political interference, fear or favour. It sounds like you have an idealogical bee in your bonnet about bureaucrats and unions.
            Tell me, is the US model of ousting the bureaucracy and electing judges such a overwhelming success story?

          • The people in this thread of course. They are disputing my rather uncontroversial statement that public servants have to be challenged by elected officials. That is all I said that got this whole ball rolling, but somehow I’m supposed to accept that bureaucrats are immune from fault or that somehow they are under attack when they have almost 100% job security.

            You know what would make me feel comfortable with the public service and make me believe it was clean? If we saw people as powerful in the public sector going to jail for malfeasance and mismanagement as we’ve seen people in the private sector go to prison. The fact that billions of dollars can go missing and no public service employees go to jail is all I need to know about how accountable the public service is.

          • Well maybe we/i misunderstood your point, at least to some extent, given this was a thread about an honourable man? Or perhaps you’re underestimating how much we/i are tired of unfounded attacks on hard working bureaucrats, and on the system in general and in the main by Conservatives who can’t be bothered to inform themselves or make allowance for how the system works?
            No one has suggested the system is perfect, or “clean” at all. That’s your presumption.

          • I am just flabbergasted that people don’t think that bureaucrats shouldn’t have their work challenged or attacked. It should be part of being in the public service because the standards are higher.

            I should attack the public service whenever I feel like something stinks, and be allowed to pursue it until I am satisfied. So should my elected officials. That’s the only way the system would work at all.

    • At the risk of beginning an unworthy discussion in what should be a somber tribute to the father of a former Macleans journalist:

      Can anyone remember the last time a politician fought bureaucrats and was in the right? Certianly CPC tiresome diatribes about “activist” judges are stupid and idiotic. PMO vs. Kevin Page, head of statscan’s resignation and Shelia Fraser on adscam all seem to be cases where the civil servant was in the right.

      Any cases I’m overlooking?

      • Yes. You are also overlooking the thousands of cases where bureaucrats hurt people and the politicians gave (and are giving) them a free pass.

        • Anyone? Anyone with an answer?

  4. He stood tall.

  5. I am BIG fan of Andrew Coyne, he doesn’t take sides, he just wants to keep it pure and straight forward, it’s nice to see where he got that from.

    My heartfelt condolences to him and his family.

    • Do either James or Andrew have any relation to the stupid leadership candidate Deborah?

      • Yes, they are related.