In 1975, an ugly spat broke out over the use of language in the skies above Quebec, with Francophone pilots insisting they be allowed to use French when communicating with air traffic control.
Quebec separatist sentiment was on the rise. Many Anglophone Canadians resented Ottawa’s active promotion of bilingualism and felt forcing French into the cockpit was dangerous. It was a toxic mix.
Into the fray strode Keith Spicer, the country’s first Commissioner of Official Languages, a flamboyant academic and journalist who was equally articulate in French and English. A darling of the Quebec media, he made an appearance on a late-night TV talk show hosted by Lise Payette, an outspoken Quebec nationalist.
“I would rather land in a unilingual plane than crash in a bilingual one,” he joked to the audience. It didn’t go over well, as Mr. Spicer later recalled in his memoir. “My quip seemed not only heretical. It seemed an insulting, even demagogic betrayal of French-speakers.” But, he added, “it was plainly folly to risk human lives for cultural or political reasons.”
Despite the backlash in Quebec, Mr. Spicer didn’t back down. He was used to ruffling feathers. A couple of years earlier, he had provoked anger from the other side of Canada’s linguistic divide when he called Quebec’s English-speaking elite “Westmount Rhodesians,” borrowing an insult coined originally by René Lévesque.
Mr. Spicer became fully immersed in the language of aviation debate. A tense truce ensued until a modified system of bilingual air traffic was finally okayed by Transport Canada in 1979.
Mr. Spicer, who died in Ottawa on Aug. 24 at the age of 89, strode through Canadian public life for 35 years in a career where he took his singular, often eclectic approach to issues as diverse as Canada’s constitutional anxieties, to telephone rates, to violence on TV. He was also a prolific journalist and TV personality.
“He was really his own man and was driven by a relentless curiosity,” said his youngest son, Nick Spicer, a broadcast journalist based in Berlin.
“His great strength and weakness was that he was not a bureaucrat,” said Graham Fraser, the journalist who was Official Languages Commissioner in the Harper years. “He had a theatrical quality that he used to great effect.”
In late 1990, in the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney conscripted Mr. Spicer to head up the Citizens’ Forum, a task force designed to take the pulse of an angry country. In preparation for his first news conference, he reached into a closet and spotted a wide-brimmed black fedora that he had bought in Germany and had never worn.
“I tried it and straightened it in the mirror until I saw 1939 and something like Casablanca,” he recalled. “I decided then and there that this would be my Forum signature.” It was often matched with a trench coat. Or a cape. The camera loved it.
James Keith Spicer was born in Toronto on March 6, 1934, the second child of James Spicer, a mechanic and factory worker, and his wife, Gertrude McMullen. The family struggled during the Depression but things began turning around when they purchased a rambling old house, which his mother turned into an all-female boarding house.
In his 2004 memoir, Life Sentences, Mr. Spicer recalls falling in love with the French language in high school, particularly after he became overseas pen-pals with a girl named Yolande, “a dark-skinned 14-year-old beauty from a Paris suburb,” adding that “My bilingualism started with biology.” Studying French also allowed him to escape what he called the “Anglo-Orange tribalism” of his family and conservative, Protestant wartime Toronto.
Mr. Spicer earned an honours B.A. in French and Spanish at University of Toronto and then travelled to Paris to study at the Institut d’Études Politiques, where he earned a diploma, before returning to University of Toronto and completing a PhD in political science.
He married his French sweetheart, Thérèse Brard, with whom he eventually had three children. He was tireless in his pursuits, helping to establish a charity to encourage young Canadians to volunteer abroad, a precursor to Canadian University Service Overseas. In 1966, he became a speechwriter for Guy Favreau, the federal justice minister who died in office in 1967.
Without formal journalism experience, he managed to convince The Globe and Mail to hire him as an editorial writer, a job he did for a time while simultaneously being a full-time professor at U of T. Mr. Spicer even tried and failed to snare the Liberal nomination for a federal riding in Toronto, a humiliation which would be his only foray into electoral politics.
Despite that setback, Mr. Spicer was attracting attention in Ottawa. In 1970, the government of Pierre Trudeau asked him to become the first Commissioner of Official Languages, watchdog for the recently passed Official Languages Act. He was 35. During the ensuing seven years, he was a proselytizer for bilingualism, urging English Canadians to embrace French immersion for their children and defending Francophone minorities outside Quebec. His office even invented a board game, Oh Canada, to promote bilingual ideals.
After completing his stint as Commissioner, he moved to Vancouver, where he taught political science, became a newspaper columnist and hosted an interview show for Radio-Québec, the provincially owned TV network. After a series of disastrous real estate investments, he jumped at the opportunity to move back east as editor of The Ottawa Citizen, taking the job in 1985.
The publisher, Paddy Sherman, was attempting to transform the local Ottawa daily into a highbrow national presence akin to The Washington Post. He went on a hiring spree, bringing on, among others, a Latvian-born foreign-affairs columnist who had great connections but couldn’t type. And Mr. Spicer came up with pet projects, including a special section of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and a Sunday edition that he described as “an elegant canter through an educated mind.”
Near the end of his tenure at the paper, Mr. Spicer even managed to convince Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist and rights activist, to visit Ottawa with his wife Yelena Bonner as guests of the Citizen, where they were wined and dined and received honorary degrees from the University of Ottawa.
In 1989, after receiving several job offers, Mr. Spicer got a call from Mr. Mulroney, who asked him to chair the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Mr. Mulroney said he wanted Mr. Spicer to stand up for the public interest and defend Canadian culture as the free trade agreement with the U.S. took effect. Mr. Spicer agreed.
Heading the CRTC, a regulator with hundreds of employees overseeing corporate titans in telecoms and broadcasting, was an odd fit for the energetic and free-wheeling Mr. Spicer. The staff was surprised to hear early on that their new boss never watched TV and wasn’t much interested in it.
As journalist Michael Enright, a long-time friend and collaborator, later recalled, Mr. Spicer was handed two cases of briefing books on his first day on the job and immediately said he had no intention of reading them. “He is not a details man,” Mr. Enright wrote. “He is a big-picture man. Not for him, dozens of three-ring binders brimming with policy hieroglyphics.” Mr. Spicer was later known to get bored at CRTC management meetings and sneak in magazines and books, which he read surreptitiously.
While Mr. Spicer was passionate about issues such as Canadian culture and content, “the day-to-day grind of being CEO didn’t play to his strengths,” said Janet Yale, who was a director general at the agency at the time.
Yet soon after joining the CRTC, Mr. Spicer was pulled away from the job to head the Citizens’ Forum, which he termed “a bizarre adventure,” travelling across the country with 11 commissioners during “eight months of agony” where they heard the complaints of angry Canadians at a series of fractious town hall meetings.
Mr. Spicer’s report in early 1991 was a bombshell, declaring that “our democracy is sick. Canadians do not accept their leaders’ legitimacy.” At a news conference, he went further, laying the blame on the prime minister, noting that Mr. Mulroney had become a “lightning rod” for the anger the Forum had encountered in its travels.
Mr. Spicer returned to the CRTC, even though many of the business interests who balked at his leadership style had hoped he would stay away. He completed his term in 1996. Among his proudest achievements was the setting of limits on TV violence aimed at children.
On retirement, Mr. Spicer moved to Paris, with the occasional visit home. “He left Canada because he loved France and loved the lifestyle in Paris,” said his son Nick. He never really retired, writing a column for The Ottawa Citizen and penning books on French politics and lifestyle as well as international relations. He became the founding director of the Institute for Media, Peace and Security at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica.
Mr. Spicer befriended French politicians and other personalities, including Leslie Caron, the celebrated actress, now in her 90s. He wrote two mystery novels, one entitled Murder by Champagne, in which the heroine is a police commissioner known as Denise Caron, an homage to the great actor.
Mr. Spicer was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 and received honorary degrees from York University, Laurentian University and University of Ottawa.
He moved back to Canada in 2017 to be closer to family. Mr. Spicer leaves his children Dag, Geneviève and Nick and three grandchildren.