Sylvia Ostry, who died Thursday at the age of 92 after a long illness, was one of the most accomplished civil servants of her generation. The head of Statistics Canada, she was the country’s first female federal deputy minister – a post she held in several government departments – before becoming the chief economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.
At the end of her career, she was the “sherpa” for then-prime minister Brian Mulroney at several international summits, including the Group of Seven summit in Toronto in 1988. Each of the seven leaders had one person who was with them in every meeting and who worked on the details of the final communiqué.
“Sylvia had a very sharp mind. She was able to explain the government’s position in down-to-earth terms,” Mr. Mulroney said on Thursday after hearing of Dr. Ostry’s death. “She was a loyal public servant. I liked her personally and felt that as a woman, she didn’t get the recognition she deserved.”
Sylvia Knelman was born in Winnipeg on June 3, 1927, although she was always coy about her age and didn’t list her birth date in Who’s Who. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and joined the growing Jewish community in Winnipeg’s North End after they arrived in Canada in 1912. Her father, Morris, ran a lumber operation in northern Manitoba, and her mother, Bess, taught English to immigrants in the evenings. That is where the two met.
Sylvia was a child prodigy and had many offers of university scholarships while still in high school, where she scored the highest marks in the province of Manitoba. By the time she was 18, she had finished three years of medical school. But she left before graduating.
“There are two reasons she left medical school,” her son Adam Ostry said. “The first was that she found medicine too inward-looking while she was interested in ideas and the world. The second was the anti-Semitism at the University of Manitoba. The dean said he only accepted her because she had the highest marks in the province. He not only disapproved of Jews but also women who [he said he believed] would only get married and pregnant and give up medicine.”
She left Winnipeg for McGill University, where she studied economics and had a brief marriage to a Montrealer named Henry Wiseman. From there, she went to England and took a master’s and doctorate at Cambridge. She married Bernard Ostry in London in 1956. He was studying at the London School of Economics, but the two had known each other since first grade and lived a block away from each other in Winnipeg. Mr. Ostry spent much of his career in public broadcasting, first at the CBC, then TVOntario, although he was also a deputy minister in Ottawa in the 1970s. He died in 2006.
After working as a researcher at the Oxford Institute of Statistics in England, Dr. Ostry returned to Canada and started working for the Department of Labour in 1960. She was soon a rising star in Ottawa. She first achieved national prominence when she became chief statistician at Statscan in 1972, the equivalent of being a deputy minister. At the age of 44, she was in charge of a staff of 6,000 and a budget of $100-million.
Her appointment came after a press conference in which then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau announced that the next senior government post would go to a woman.
Unusual for a civil servant, Dr. Ostry became famous. Magazines did profiles of her. Universities begged her to be chancellor and she turned them down. She and her husband became a power couple in Ottawa during the Trudeau era. The writer Kildare Dobbs said they were the only Canadian civil servants who ever “radiated glamour.” After Statscan, she became a deputy minister, the person who runs the department for the minister, in the Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. She was the first woman to have that job, and she went on to become the deputy minister of International Trade.
She was so allied to the Trudeau government that during the short regime of Joe Clark, she was frozen out. Mr. Mulroney says he believes some senior Tories misjudged her at the time.
So Dr. Ostry left for Paris, where from 1979-83 she was chief economist at the OECD, the first North American to hold the post and the first woman. The appointment came at a turbulent time for the world economy after the second world oil-price shock.
While she was in Paris, the journalist George Bain wrote a magazine profile of her in 1981.
“Next only to Pierre and Margaret, no pair had more celebrity in Ottawa in the 1970s than the Ostrys,” Mr. Bain wrote. The article went on to say, “Two things almost everyone – including Sylvia Ostry – says about her are that she is intensely ambitious and that she works like a dog at whatever she is doing.”
On her return to Canada, Dr. Ostry showed that she believed in the non-partisan role of the career civil servant when she worked as hard for the Conservatives as she had for Liberals. Under Mr. Mulroney, Dr. Ostry was a special adviser on the international economy for more than four years.
“It was widely said in Ottawa that Sylvia and Bernie Ostry were too close to the Liberal government. But she proved she was a loyal public servant and worked without favour for whichever party was in power,” Mr. Mulroney said.
It was when she returned from the OECD that she made her greatest mark. She had made connections with all the leading economies of the world, and she worked hard on those connections.
“She built a vast network internationally which … made Canada credible,” the late Allan Gotlieb said in a Globe and Mail profile of Dr. Ostry in 2004. Mr. Gotlieb said that in every task Dr. Ostry took on – chief statistician, deputy minister of consumer and corporate affairs, deputy minister of trade, ambassador for multilateral trade negotiations, the prime minister’s representative to the G8 economic summits – she brought a standard of professionalism “that was an important part of our credibility internationally.”
Adam recounts that at one summit, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher walked up to her, shook her hand and said: “You’re the person we have to thank for the simplicity of the language in the communiqué.”
David Dodge, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, praised Dr. Ostry in the foreword to the book The Sterling Public Servant: A Global Tribute to Sylvia Ostry (2004), a collection of essays published in honour of her 75th birthday.
“Perhaps no Canadian economist’s contributions to public policy have been as wide-ranging as Sylvia Ostry’s. … Public policies – both national and international – are better off because of her efforts,” Mr. Dodge wrote.
She left government service for good in 1990, when she was elected chancellor of the University of Waterloo. She was also on the board of several companies, including Power Corp. and the Bank of Montreal. She received more than 40 honorary degrees and was a companion of the Order of Canada, the highest of the three stages of the honour.
“This public servant has continued her impressive career as the Head of the Department of Economics and Statistics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Deputy Minister of International Trade and Ambassador for Multilateral Trade Negotiations at the Department of External Affairs. Currently, Chairperson of the National Council of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, she is highly respected both nationally and internationally for her expertise in economic policy,” read the citation in 1991.
From 1990 to 97, she served as chairman of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in her career, she was chairwoman of the Economic Council of Canada.
She remained active and outspoken and, in 2010, criticized Stephen Harper’s government’s decision to scrap the long-form census.
“I think it’s ridiculous the government would intervene and tell Statistics Canada how to collect its information,” the former head of Statscan said. “The whole thing is shocking,”
Dr. Ostry was one of the most successful women of her generation. She was tough, some say hard on her staff, and liked to say that she got where she did on her own. An elegant dresser and a brilliant conversationalist, Dr. Ostry was popular in elite circles and invited to A-list parties.
She and her husband collected Art Deco furniture, and their collection is now on display in a special section at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
For someone who moved in the establishment all her life, Dr. Ostry was unconventional and liked to shock. She was a life-long smoker and would provoke arguments on subjects she felt strongly about, and there were many of them. Her world view was similar to that of Pierre Trudeau, but she was open to change, for instance, on free trade.
“She was centre-left in her politics,” her son Adam said.
Dr. Ostry leaves her two sons, Jonathan, an economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington; and Adam, who works at the OECD in Paris; and two grandchildren, Daniel and Joshua.