Henry Basil Robinson hated the spotlight. He also hated winter.
This was perhaps why, looking out the window of the Perley Rideau veterans home in Ottawa four days before Christmas and seeing a blanket of white, the respected public servant decided it was finally time.
“It was -6 outside and there were 20 centimetres of snow and I think he said, ‘This is about the right time to go,’” said Mr. Robinson’s son David. “He had one last song and he died.”
Always known as Basil, Mr. Robinson loved family, friends, sports and song. He was a gifted cricket player, a decorated Second World War veteran, a meticulous deputy minister of foreign affairs, and, in his most notable role, the man who earned the trust of Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker as his foreign policy steward. His book, Diefenbaker’s World, remains one of the pre-eminent historical records of the intractable leader’s era and chronicles a glorious period for Canadian diplomacy.
A recipient of the Order of Canada in 1990, Mr. Robinson was a tolerant, modest, funny and compassionate man who wrote a letter to his parents in Vancouver every week for 40 years and never missed saying hello to a secretary in the hallways of Parliament Hill’s East Block or the handyman working on his summer cottage in Quebec.
“He was a very warm man,” said retired senator Landon Pearson. “Anybody who knew Basil liked him. He was a man of great integrity.”
James H. Taylor, foreign affairs deputy minister eight years after Mr. Robinson, called him “a man of very considerable talents … very, very good at his work.”
During his years with Mr. Diefenbaker, Mr. Robinson was a meticulous aide to the prime minister, Mr. Taylor remembered, and “always had a notebook and a pen in hand.”
“It was a sign of humility,” he added.
Henry Basil Robinson was born March 3, 1919, in Eastbourne, England, to H. Basil O. Robinson, a soldier wounded at Ypres in the First World War, and Charlotte Agnes Graham, a nurse who tended his wounds. The year Basil was born, the family immigrated to Vancouver and began a humble life with little money. Basil had a younger brother, Geoffrey, with whom he shared a powerful bond. He studied history and classics at the University of British Columbia, was sports editor for the university newspaper and played on the soccer, rugby and cricket teams. He was eventually inducted into UBC’s Sports Hall of Fame.
A write-up on his athletic talents by the school historian paints the curly-haired, blue-eyed young man as a demigod on a field. “Bas” was a “prolific” soccer goal scorer and a versatile and “flawless” cricket captain who led the team to multiple championships.
UBC named him a Rhodes scholar in 1940. Hearing his first call of duty, however, Mr. Robinson deferred his studies to serve as an intelligence officer in the Netherlands, as liaison for the Dutch underground resistance movement against the Nazis. He was made a Knight Officer of the Order of Oranje-Nassau for his work, which included providing Canadian forces a map of German munition lines that a woman snatched from the clutches of a dead Nazi soldier.
He was a man of modesty who believed in the soft power of working behind the scenes. Responding to journalist Don Newman’s suggestion that he was a hero during an interview in 2007, he said: “Well, I don’t know. It was such an exciting thing to be doing, you hardly thought of what would come in the form of medals.”
It was his ability to be socially accepting, politically open-minded, trustworthy, unassuming and humble, as well as disciplined, that led to a series of impressive posts in the foreign public service.
After the war, he was given a job as a low-level diplomat in the foreign affairs office in Ottawa, but served only a short time before taking up his Rhodes scholarship. He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, and played on the cricket team. With the team’s victory against Cambridge in 1947, Mr. Robinson earned a cricket “blue,” the most prestigious university honour in the game.
After he graduated and returned to Canada, he rose quickly through department ranks. In 1949, he met his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Gooderham, a secretary in the department who was won over by his “nice smile” and because “he was so friendly.”
In 1952, they were posted to London, where their first children, Katharine and David, were born. Then to Paris, where daughter Ann was born, and finally to Ottawa, where Geoffrey arrived. In Ottawa, Mr. Robinson was made head of the Middle East bureau at the time of the Suez crisis.
In 1958, he was assigned as the department’s liaison to John Diefenbaker, whom he would counsel until 1962. He provided guidance to the department on how to navigate a notoriously rocky relationship between Mr. Diefenbaker and civil servants, many of whom the prime minister grudgingly called “Pearsonalities.” He also played a leading role in writing the prime minister’s international speeches and carefully counselled him about nuclear missiles, as well as apartheid in South Africa.
“The important thing about the relationship was that it was successful,” said John Hilliker, a former historian with the department, who called Mr. Robinson a “very clever diplomat” who earned the trust of Mr. Diefenbaker. “[Robinson] had influence.”
In an interview before his death, Mr. Diefenbaker called Mr. Robinson “an invaluable member” of his team.
It was during Mr. Robinson’s years with the Chief, the height of his prominence, that he became a “weekend dad,” his son David remembers.
“But he was also a ‘take your kid to the hockey game at 5 in the morning and watch him play hockey’ dad,” David says. “We didn’t have much time with him, but it was quality time.”
Mr. Robinson, a good singer, would belt out She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain or Take Me Out to the Ball Game during family car rides, his boys recall.
Sometimes he took his young sons with him to his Parliament Hill office; other times it was fishing with the prime minister. In 1968, when Geoffrey needed help delivering newspapers on a frigid winter morning, Mr. Robinson, a passionate enemy of winter, leaped out of bed to help. When father and son reached the home of German ambassador Joachim Friedrich Ritter, whom Mr. Robinson had been with the night before for a diplomatic function, Mr. Robinson was his true modest self.
“There he was, huffing and puffing,” Geoffrey recalls, “and he said, ‘Good morning, Your Excellency,’ and he gave him the paper.”
After his time with Mr. Diefenbaker, Mr. Robinson was posted to Washington, D.C., as deputy head of mission, where Canadian ambassador Charles Ritchie got to know him. Mr. Ritchie says he had a “good, tough mind” and a “passion for integrity and fairness.”
Mr. Robinson was appointed deputy minister of Indian Affairs in 1970 and finally undersecretary of state for external affairs, or deputy foreign minister, in 1974. During his three years in office, he helped shape Canada’s response to the Vietnam War, the IRA bombing campaign and tensions in the Golan Heights.
He retired in 1982, when he wrote his book on Mr. Diefenbaker, as well as This Family Robinson, about his roots. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1990.
His health problems, connected with his liberal eating habits, began in the early 1990s and he suffered a heart attack in 1995. He had triple bypass heart surgery that was only partially successful. Forced onto a diet of cucumbers and brown bread by Elizabeth, he took up exercise in the pool and learned to swim at the age of 80.
Mr. Robinson died of congestive heart failure on Dec. 21. He was 93 and had been battling Alzheimer’s disease since 2009. Despite problems with his speech, he would call Elizabeth every evening to say goodnight.
Although he could no longer talk for hours about diplomacy or politics during his last year, the blue-eyed B.C. boy could still sing – and he did.
“He loved to sing, he really loved music,” says Emma Soleta, one of his caregivers, who sang him one of his favourite songs, Bill Murray’s 1918 war classic K-K-K-Katy, the night before he died. “He was such a polite man … I miss him.”
In the last years of his life, Mr. Robinson put together a final folder of notes, letters, documents, photographs and memories for his family.
He called it “the final whistle.”
“For him it was a wonderful game,” David said.
Basil Robinson leaves his wife Elizabeth, their children Katharine, David, Brigitte Ann and Geoffrey, and grandchildren Olivia, Nicolas, Adam, Amalia and Sofia.
A Memorial Service will be held at St. Bartholomew’s Church at 125 McKay Street, New Edinburgh, Ottawa, at 2 p.m. on March 2.
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