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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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Oration honouring Alexander Himelfarb

From left: Premier Danny Williams, Frum Himelfarb and Dr. Alex Himelfarb.

Let me provide a context for today’s honorary degree. I ask you to imagine the office of the Prime Minister ­ in another country. The cabinet secretary is explaining a difficulty with one of the PM’s projects: “[Sir] It is clear that the committee has agreed that your new policy is really … [most] excellent …. But in view of the doubts being expressed, … the considered view of the committee was that, while they considered that the proposal met with broad approval in principle … and some of the considerations [were] so complex and finely balanced in practice that in principle it was proposed that the sensible and prudent practice would be to submit the proposal for more detailed consideration, laying stress on the essential continuity of the new proposal with existing principles, the principal of the principal arguments which the proposal proposes and propounds for their approval. In principle.” As the secretary explains, “Prime Minister, in government, a clarification is not to make things clear. [Its role] is to put oneself in the clear.”

Now do understand, Vice-Chancellor ­ lest the hapless Public Orator be taken before a Memorial ethics tribunal for some academic malfeasance so unusual in these halls - that this little sketch was lifted from the BBC’s, Yes, Prime Minister. Do also understand that such obfuscation would never happen in Canada. Yet not all will believe this. For many, to think of the Public Service is to think of the gun registry ­ living proof that it is not guns that are dangerous, but public servants. After all, the registry did far more damage to public policy than ever guns did. Now that is a highly unfair characterization of the Public Servant and of the gun registry and even of the relationship between the two. What it does suggest is the terrible dilemma of the Public Servant who is forever caught between Principle and the Practical, between the Proposed and the Possible, between the Politician and the People. A wry but wise statesman, seeing the world through the knowing eye of a Public Servant, once observed that in politics, idealism proposes, reality disposes.

So this is the difficulty of those who seek to serve ­ that what is good is not always workable or; if it is both workable and good, it is not acceptable to the majority; or if workable, good and acceptable to the majority, is rejected by a noisy or influential minority. Is it any wonder there are so many bars in Ottawa? But all is not despondency and gloom. In fact, Vice-Chancellor, our university is here today to celebrate the bridging of this dilemma in the person of Alex Himelfarb, Public Servant par excellence. And we do not have to rely solely on our own judgment to determine this for, in 2000, he was presented with the federal government’s Outstanding Achievement Award, the highest accolade given in the public service.

With a PhD in sociology from Toronto, he began as an academic until the federal service drew him in. From 1981 on he worked at progressively more responsible tasks until, in 1999, he was made deputy minister of Canadian Heritage and then, in 2002, Clerk of the Privy Council ­ the pinnacle of Canada’s civil service. So let us examine Alex Himelfarb for this degree. Governed by a profound sense of the inter-relationship of people and place, and guided by a deep concern for the vulnerable, his career has been to put these principles into application. And their application affects all of us as Canadians ­ for individuals: the Health Care Accord, child benefits, childcare, recognition of unpaid caregivers, support for the homeless; for community organizations: acknowledgment of the role of such groups in the development of the economy and society; for municipalities: the New Deal for Cities. But all this does not get done without much negotiation, examination and consideration. To each of these files, to his many portfolios, Alex Himelfarb brought a capacity to encourage collaboration, optimism, and the sense of the possible, and he got done what many would consider undoable. It is a measure of his capacity to work well with people that, having served under three quite different Prime Ministers, he was held in high regard by all, a regard demonstrated by his recent appointment as our Ambassador to Italy. Vice-Chancellor I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, one who, gifted with an unusual capacity for wisdom, patience and diplomacy, has advanced the social development of Canada, Alexander Himelfarb.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator

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