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Max Yalden, seen here in 1984, was the rare civil servant to have headed two top government agencies: the office of official languages and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.Nancy Ackerman/The Globe and Mail

Intellectually rigorous and unflappable, Ottawa mandarin Max Yalden helped shape some of the most important policies in Canada, advancing acceptance of bilingualism and furthering the protection of human rights. He later took his expertise in human rights to the international stage.

In a 50-year career, Mr. Yalden excelled in diplomacy, international brinksmanship and protecting the vulnerable, while patiently explaining to English Canada that French was not being forced on anyone.

He was the rare civil servant to have headed two top government agencies. Mr. Yalden was the second commissioner of official languages, appointed the same month Quebec's French language charter, Bill 101, came into force, and he later led the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

He belonged to a small elite cadre of postwar Ottawa bureaucrats that included Allan Gotlieb, the foreign affairs whiz who went on to become ambassador to the United States; Ivan Head, the foreign service officer who became an adviser to Pierre Trudeau; and Keith Spicer, who became the first commissioner of official languages and later headed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Mr. Yalden died in Ottawa Feb. 9 of complications from pneumonia at the age of 84.

"He was one of the most brilliant, outstanding public servants of his generation," enthused James (Si) Taylor, who spent 40 years in the diplomatic corps and enjoyed a long friendship with Mr. Yalden. "That series of senior appointments is quite extraordinary, really. You wouldn't find more than three or four people who would have matched responsibilities like that, one after the other."

As commissioner of official languages from 1977 to 1984, Mr. Yalden brought a calm voice to the table following Ottawa's inaugural appointment to the post, the irascible Mr. Spicer. At times prickly and blunt, traits grounded in his journalist genes, Mr. Spicer conceded he had used "deliberate provocation and humour to get people smiling about official languages rather than snarling," he told The Globe and Mail from Paris. "Max came aboard and anchored my small contribution and added the power of his great experience in government. He really made sure that the job remained non-partisan and he became even more sensitive to the realities of government."

In the linguistically polarized late 1970s, Mr. Yalden suggested that protecting French in Quebec would help it thrive in the rest of Canada. He championed rights for francophones outside Quebec, but called on Quebec to do more to protect its anglophones.

"Confronted with the language tensions that marked several years of his term, [Mr. Yalden] helped mitigate the backlash from a large segment of the population against the Official Languages Act," according to Graham Fraser, the current commissioner of official languages. One of Mr. Yalden's main achievements was to ensure that federal language laws complied with the Charter of Rights, Mr. Fraser noted.

Mr. Yalden "was not a flamboyant person," said Victor Goldbloom, another unflamboyant former commissioner of official languages. "He was a serious, low-key administrator and a very effective one."

As chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission from 1987 to 1996, Mr. Yalden "took his time," his son, Robert, said, to focus on three key issues that troubled him: The state of aboriginal peoples, the needs of the disabled and prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. He succeeded in pressing Ottawa to amend the Human Rights Act to outlaw discrimination against gay people and the disabled.

And although he persuaded the government of the day to establish the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991, he rued the plight of native people as the "most shameful" aspect of Canada's human-rights record, one that is of a "different order of magnitude" than the problems of other groups.

Always courtly, he was not shy about letting Ottawa know of its shortcomings. His annual reports, which bristled with facts and methodical research, routinely blasted the federal government for failing to live up to its own human rights laws and bilingualism policy. Human-rights tribunals, for example, "make a lot of money for the lawyers, but don't do a hell of a lot else." Those reports "are now the stuff of legend," Bernie Farber, formerly of the Canadian Jewish Congress, wrote recently.

But if Mr. Yalden "growled at governments for failing to exercise leadership, he also worked to soothe inflamed public opinion," Queen's University political philosopher Will Kymlicka noted in a Globe and Mail review of Mr. Yalden's 2009 book Transforming Rights: Reflections from the Front Lines. Indeed, the contentious issues he initially faced – chiefly employment equity and accommodation – are now taken in stride by the vast majority of Canadians.

Maxwell Freeman Yalden was born in Toronto on April 12, 1930, the only child of Frederick Yalden, a salesman who had come to Canada from Britain as a child, and Marie Smith, a Trinidad-born nurse. He earned a BA from the University of Toronto in 1952, and completed master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan in the philosophy of language, studies that would come in handy later when Mr. Yalden sought to crack down on a new source of hate speech, the Internet.

Spurning a prestigious Harvard fellowship and a life in academia, he joined the Department of External Affairs, as it was then known, in 1956 and was soon sent to Cambridge to learn Russian. His first posting was to Canada's embassy in Moscow in 1958. Mr. Taylor, who would also serve in the Soviet capital a few years later, recalled a tense time. "It was not easy living in Moscow. It was the height of the Cold War [and] you were under surveillance. But Russia was fascinating," and diplomats drank in her cultural riches.

In 1960, Mr. Yalden was tapped to serve on the Canadian delegation to the Geneva Conference on Disarmament and he worked on the file in Ottawa until 1963 under Lieutenant-General E.L.M. (Tommy) Burns, Canada's chief disarmament negotiator.

A four-year posting to Paris followed, and he returned to Ottawa in 1967 as a special adviser at External Affairs.

It was roughly in this period that Mr. Trudeau, then justice minister, began to notice the talent that was growing at External Affairs and gathered around him a small group of advisers. According to University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell, they included Mr. Head, Mr. Gotlieb and Mr. Yalden – the latter two representing "what might be called a realistic approach to Canadian foreign relations."

Mr. Yalden began the process of contributing to the 1969 Official Languages Act. Starting that year, he served in the department of the Secretary of State and was named deputy minister of communications in 1973.

His appointment to commissioner of official languages was important because he was an anglophone who pushed hard for official bilingualism. "It was a very powerful message to French Canada about how serious the public service was about this project," said his son, a lawyer in Montreal. "He was involved in a constant process of explaining and justifying to English Canada why this was important. Separatism was on [the] rise and this was an important way to counter that."

That Mr. Yalden was an anglophone "might have been considered an advantage, as there was still some resistance in certain parts of the country to the federal bilingualism policy," wrote Trudeau-era cabinet minister Marc Lalonde, in an e-mail to The Globe.

Mr. Yalden had few illusions that bilingualism would succeed on a mass scale, however. "I don't think it's realistic to expect that this country is going to be functionally and fully bilingual in the sense of hearing both languages spoken daily and frequently and commonly on the streets of Vancouver or St. John's or in parts of Quebec," he told The Globe in 1977. Even so, "I think that there will be more and more people who will for one reason or another, have an interest in being bilingual, and if they aren't, then making their children so."

Mr. Yalden returned to the diplomatic corps as ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, from 1984 to 1987, and was elected in 1996 to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a rarity for a non-lawyer. He served there for eight years.

Mr. Yalden was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1988 and promoted to companion in 1999.

He leaves his wife, Janice; son, Robert; and granddaughter, Zoë. The Yaldens' daughter, Cicely, died in an accident in 1990. His memorial service is planned for April.

Mr. Yalden exemplified a bygone time, noted his long-time friend, Mr. Gotlieb, one in which the public service was a calling, not just a job. "It was a different era in which public service was the highest level at which you could contribute to public policy. It meant something."

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