Skip to main content

Cultural bureaucrat, writer, broadcaster and decorative arts collector, Bernard (Bernie) Ostry had a diminutive stature and a commanding intellect. Although he was a generous and soft-hearted man and a loyal friend, he had a crusty demeanour, a sharp and often ribald tongue and the most intimidating pair of half-moon reading glasses in the country.

Mr. Ostry died Wednesday morning in Toronto. He was 78.

He was the "go-to" cultural bureaucrat in the Pierre Trudeau era in Ottawa, the man who could launch a program or draft a white paper on a range of subjects from multiculturalism to opportunities for youth, women and First Nations. And yet, he went reluctantly from job to job in the federal government, persuaded by his political masters to be a fixer of this policy or that program, when what he really wanted to do, he said decades later, was to finish his doctorate at the London School of Economics and write books.

Story continues below advertisement

As a broadcaster Mr. Ostry was regarded as a visionary. His pronouncements about pay television and satellite broadcasting in the mid 1970s are now established realities. "What was once a Canadian scholar's vision of a global village has turned out to be an American businessman's vision of a global marketplace," he said in a talk to the International Institute of Communications in 1986.

Mr. Ostry also had a reputation for arrogance and extravagance, especially when he headed up TVOntario in the 1990s. Critics were aghast that he had nine television monitors in his office and paid a chauffeur to drive him to work.

Socially he seemed inseparable from his wife, economist Sylvia Ostry. As individuals, she was the hedgehog and he the fox. She had one large idea - economics - a discipline that she pursued brilliantly throughout her career. He was the fox, wily, opportunistic and charmed by many things, aesthetically and intellectually. He was also a very modern husband, organizing the house and their social life, long before it was fashionable to think about gender equity or domestic partnerships.

"Complementary and enduring," is the way Allan Gottlieb, former Canadian ambassador to the United States and a life long friend of the Ostrys described their marriage. "He really appreciated her talent and he did everything he could to support her."

Although Mr. Ostry denied he and his wife were a power couple in official Ottawa in the 1960s and 1970s, most observers, including journalist Peter Newman, disagreed. "I don't believe that an intellectual salon of this pedigree existed before or since." he said in an email message. They were never "neutral" hosts. "They debated the issues of the day with anger and panache. Sylvia was the Vesuvius of the pair, bursting forth with impassioned arias, while Bernard held back, but usually had the last rational word."

In an interview as he was undergoing chemotherapy a few months ago, Mr. Ostry summed up his career as a cultural bureaucrat: "Unless you are interested in money, what else is there except for the politics of a country and all the manipulation that goes on to provide for its survival?" He remained convinced that culture is "central to everything we say and do," an idea he advanced in his 1978 book, The Cultural Connection.

Bernard (Bernie) Ostry was the youngest of three children of Abraham and Tobie Ostry (née Goldman). The Ostrys' middle child died in a car accident before Bernie was born. His father was a Russian who immigrated to Canada from Ekatrinaslav in Ukraine before the First World War and took a train as far west as Winnipeg. He worked as a butcher and a carpenter. After he had accumulated a few hundred dollars, he opened a couple of stores in southern Saskatchewan, one in Kelvington and another in Wadena.

Story continues below advertisement

After hearing about a Hudson Bay Company strike of copper and gold in Flin Flon, Abraham Ostry took the train to Le Pas and walked the remaining 130 kilometres on snowshoes. In Flin Flon, he was told he couldn't open a store, according to his son, because The HBC "didn't let Jews operate on its property." After things "became more civilized," he was able to open a store in town, where, so the story goes, many miners, who were short of cash, paid him with shares in their claims. When Bernie and his older brother were coming up to Bar Mitzvah age, his father sent them to live in a Jewish orphanage in Winnipeg to learn Hebrew and study Torah.

Tough handling taught Bernie to despise bullying and to challenge authority. After wrongly being accused of lying, he punched the head of the orphanage in the teeth and later, after his family settled in north Winnipeg, he demanded that his school principal, a former police chief who had been fired for brutality, should stop strapping students on the inside of their wrists because it was against the law.

"He made a big impression on me even then," said Mr. Gottlieb who lived in South Winnipeg. "He was a child who had very high standards, who was very fastidious and for whom nothing less than the best was every going to be good enough for him in life."

Mr. Ostry and his future wife Sylvia Knelman lived a block away from each other and were in the same classes at school. They both went to the University of Manitoba, but she transferred to McGill to study economics and subsequently married a Montrealer named Henry Wiseman. Mr. Ostry, who was a desultory student, "woke up" in third year and realized he "wasn't going to get a job anywhere" with his grades.

He went to see historian W.L. (Bill) Morton who gave him a list of books to read and exempted him from all but his history courses. Years later in Reading From Left to Right: One Man's Political History (1983), H. L. Ferns wrote: "Mr. Ostry is the only student of mine who ever drove a Cadillac and the only one who ever addressed me by my first name before he passed his examinations."

Swagger aside, Mr. Ostry claims he "did nothing but history for two years and I topped all of the competition and ended up with scholarships to two or three places including Harvard and the London School of Economics." Not knowing which offer to accept, he consulted a friend who advised: "If you want an education, go to Harvard, if you want to be civilized go to London."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Ostry was sidetracked by Prof. Ferns, one of his old professors from the U. of M., who had been driven out of Canada in a celebrated intellectual freedom scandal and had found a teaching job at the University of Birmingham. He was writing a book on former Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and enlisted Mr. Ostry's help. "As a researcher, Bernie was an energetic bloodhound willing to follow every lead and to hunt down his quarry," Prof. Ferns wrote later.

Mr. Ostry always had more than one target in his sights. At the same time as he was doing research for Prof. Ferns, and working on his graduate degree (on a Korean conflict in the 1890s) at the L.S.E., Mr. Ostry had joined the India League. That's how he met Krishna Menon, then High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from a newly independent India. Mr. Menon left London for New York in 1952 to lead the Indian delegation to the United Nations. Highly critical of the United States, Mr. Menon wanted an independent solution to the raging Korean conflict.

After some less than gentle persuasion, Mr. Ostry (and his expertise on Korean politics) was on his way to New York as Mr. Menon's unpaid aide. For the next few months Mr. Ostry helped Mr. Menon draft the 10-point peace plan that eventually ended the Korean conflict. For the rest of his life Mr. Ostry believed his Korean peacemaking (which involved persuading the Latin American and Asian delegations to vote as a bloc) was "the most important thing I did in my life."

Not all was rosy in Mr. Ostry's life, however. By the time The Age of Mackenzie King: The Rise of the Leader was published in 1955, Prof. Ferns and his researcher had fallen out. Prof. Ferns claimed (in Reading From Left to Right) that "Bernie was determined not only to advertise the book himself but to put himself in the limelight." Despite their differences, both men agreed to reissue the book in 1970 with Toronto publisher James Lorimer. It is still considered one of the best books on the young Mr. Mackenzie King.

Back in England, Mr. Ostry renewed his friendship with Sylvia Knelman. By then she had shed her first husband, acquired a doctorate from Cambridge University and was working and living in Oxford. The high school sweethearts married in 1956 and lived in "a fine flat in London" according to Mr. Gottlieb, who was then studying at Oxford. Despite being a very junior lecturer, Mr. Ostry "drove a jaguar and dressed very elegantly." Their elder son Adam, a cultural bureaucrat like his father, was born in 1957.

They returned to Canada in the 1960s and bought a house in the countryside on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. In his early days in Ottawa, Mr. Ostry worked for the Social Science and Humanities Research Councils and freelanced for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as moderator for a program called Nightline. The Ostrys' younger son Jonathan, an economist like his mother, was born in 1962.

Mr. Ostry joined the CBC full-time in 1963 as Supervisor for the Dept. of Public Affairs for radio and television. He oversaw controversial programs such as This Hour Has Seven Days and the making of award-winning documentaries such as "The Style is the Man Himself," a profile of Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

He Ostry officially joined the federal bureaucracy as assistant under secretary of state for Mr. Trudeau's old friend and political colleague, Gérard Pelletier. He worked in a number of departments, at a senior level, from Secretary of State (Citizenship) to Communications and Culture, Communications Technology and National Museums throughout the 1970s.

He seemed to be the bureaucrat for all crises, the person who could draft legislation on citizenship and then write a brief on multiculturalism in an attempt to counterbalance the West's perception that Quebec was getting too much attention in the wake of the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and the designation of French as one of two official Canadian languages.

He was like a government impresario trying to enlist the young, the old, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, and the newly arrived in a series of engagement programs with names such as "Opportunities for Youth, and Local Initiatives Program. His detractors sneered and called them "Opportunities for Everybody." The Ostrys' annual party, always a coveted invitation, attained legendary status in Oct. 1970 because it coincided with the Declaration of the War Measures Act. The place was agog with rumour and speculation as undercover security shadowed politicians and alleged FLQ targets.

By the end of the 1970s, the Ostrys were bored with Ottawa. Ms. Ostry left the Economic Council of Canada in 1980 to take up a three year appointment with Organization of Economic and Co-operative Development in Paris. Mr. Ostry followed his wife to Paris on "special assignment" courtesy of Prime Minister Trudeau's office, or as Mr. Ostry described it, as an "entrepreneur on behalf of Canadian cultural and communications companies."

Mr. Ostry returned to Canada in Aug. 1981 after then Conservative Premier William Davis appointed him deputy minister of industry and trade in Ontario. At the time, the Globe opined in an editorial that "the liverwurst castle on Queen's Park Crescent" in Toronto would seem "a poky provincial backwater" after Paris on the Seine for the bureaucrat who was said to have been "the first to prove the value in close-quarters combat of a pair of Gucci loafers with armour-steel toes."

In Toronto, Mr. Ostry rented a large mid-town apartment and began collecting art, furniture and glass from the Art Deco, Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Haunting auction houses and private sales and buying on the lay away plan, Mr. Ostry built up such a formidable collection that the couple's living quarters often resembled the storage facility for a highly specialized decorative arts museum. Even after making several major gifts to the Royal Ontario Museum in the last decade (which will become the basis for a new gallery of 20th century design) their home was still crammed with sleekly curved chairs and settees, tall cabinets, overhanging chandeliers and silver tea services.

Mr. Ostry served in a number of provincial portfolios (Industry and Tourism, Industry and Trade, and Citizenship and Culture) before Liberal Premier David Peterson appointed him Chairman and C.E.O. of the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (TVOntario) in 1985. A year into Mr. Ostry's mandate, TVO launched La Chaine Française, its French-language counterpart, with an annual budget of $14-million. Six years later, Mr. Ostry was in trouble at TVO. The annual budget had grown to about $80-million and Premier David Peterson had been soundly defeated by Bob Rae and the NDP. Mr. Ostry was caught in the cross fire, especially after a Provincial Auditor's report detailed questionable expense claims at the public broadcaster. Mr. Ostry tendered his resignation, effective Dec. 1991. He was 64.

Meanwhile Mr. Ostry's health was deteriorating. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, a disease he fought valiantly for another 15 years as it slowly metastasized to his brain. Even while he was desperately ill he continued to work on three books simultaneously: a series of profiles of First Nations' achievers, tentatively called, Victims No More; a study of multiculturalism; and a long essay on integrity in public service that drew on his own speeches and reflections on current practice.

About six months ago, he sold at auction an L.S. Lowry painting and a drawing that he had picked up cheaply decades before. The windfall, in the range of a million dollars, allowed him to make two $500,000 charitable bequests, one in his wife's name to the Munk Centre at Trinity College and another in his own name at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

Bernard Ostry was born in Wadena, Sask., on June 19, 1927. He died in Toronto of metastasized prostate cancer. He was 78. He is survived by his wife Sylvia, his sons Adam and Jonathan, two grandchildren, three nephews and their families.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter