Published in The Globe and Mail from Dec. 24 to Dec. 28, 2020.
Trailblazing ex-diplomat Peter Dobell
gave policy advice to parliamentarians
BY ALAN FREEMAN
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
PUBLISHED JANUARY 5, 2021
It was 1959 and Peter Dobell was an ambitious young foreign service officer at the Department of External Affairs providing policy advice on the Communist nations of Eastern Europe.
Yugoslavia had left the Soviet Bloc and a prominent Yugoslav journalist was due to visit Ottawa. Four days before his arrival, Howard Green was appointed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker as Canada’s new Minister of External Affairs and agreed to an interview with the Yugoslav visitor, accompanied by Mr. Dobell.
It started badly. Whenever the journalist asked a question, Mr. Green responded with a simple yes or no. Then the minister came up with his own question. “What happened to Crotia [sic]?” apparently referring to Croatia. The journalist responded that Croatia was part of the Yugoslav federation. Mr. Green then asked the journalist about every other Yugoslav republic, from Serbia to Macedonia, and got the same answer.
Mr. Green concluded, “I guess Albania must also be part of the Yugoslav federation.” It wasn’t. Mr. Dobell couldn’t believe that Canada’s foreign minister could be so ignorant. “Stunned, I left the meeting … privately wondering how Mr. Green could have spent 24 years in the House of Commons and learned so little,” Mr. Dobell recalled later in an unpublished memoir.
That incident convinced the diplomat that there was an urgent need to improve MPs’ knowledge and understanding of foreign policy, prompting him to establish the Parliamentary Centre for Foreign Policy and Foreign Trade several years later, launching a golden age of independent policy formulation in Canada’s Parliament.
Mr. Dobell, an energetic defender of democratic institutions in Canada and abroad and a respected presence on Parliament Hill for decades, died of pneumonia in Ottawa on Dec. 18. He was 93.
“Peter was really a trailblazer,” said Herb Breau, a former MP from New Brunswick who served on the board of the Parliamentary Centre for 34 years, until stepping down last year. “Peter would make sure that MPs would have access to information other than what was government policy and to understand that there were options,” he said in an interview.
Peter Colin Dobell was born in Montreal on March 31, 1927, the eldest son of Sydney Hope Dobell, a chartered accountant and member of a Quebec family of timber merchants, and the former Mary Macintosh, a painter and interior decorator.
The young Peter attended Selwyn House, a private all-boys school in Westmount, and completed high school at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., before obtaining a B.A. in history from Trinity College at University of Toronto, where he met his future wife, Jane Matthews. They married in 1951.
After completing a degree in philosophy, politics and economics in England at Oxford University’s New College, he returned to Canada where he realized a boyhood dream and joined Canada’s foreign service. After an initial assignment in Ottawa, the Dobells were off to Prague where Mr. Dobell spent three years as third secretary.
After the stint handling Eastern European policy in Ottawa, Mr. Dobell served for five years in the early 1960s at the Canadian Mission to the United Nations in New York, returning to Ottawa, where he worked on NATO issues. Determined to improve MPs’ knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs, Mr. Dobell ignored the advice of colleagues and decided to quit his diplomatic job, setting up the Parliamentary Centre in 1968.
It was a heady time in Ottawa. Pierre Trudeau had become prime minister, promising to give long-ignored backbench MPs a more important role in formulating policy.
Initially, Mr. Dobell imagined running evening seminars for MPs in the Commons but that changed quickly when Donald Macdonald, the Liberal House Leader, asked Mr. Dobell to act as an adviser to a special parliamentary committee named to study whether Canada should remain in NATO and keep troops in Europe.
Before long, the Parliamentary Centre was being asked to provide advice and research to committees and task forces in both chambers on issues as disparate as immigration, the Middle East and fiscal federalism. When the Centre didn’t have the needed expertise in house, it would look outside. In the late 1970s, it hired David Dodge, the future Bank of Canada governor, then teaching at Johns Hopkins in the United States, to help draft a Senate committee report on free trade with the U.S.
The committees worked on a non-partisan basis, occasionally coming up with recommendations that contradicted government policy. The Centre expanded its offerings, providing advice to inter-parliamentary delegations and even running a series of training seminars for new MPs after the 1979 federal election.
Bernard Wood was one of the Centre’s first employees, freshly graduated from Carleton University with a master’s degree in international affairs. He recalls Mr. Dobell as a boss who was excellent at delegating responsibility and skilled at getting the best out of employees.
“He was rather formal to some degree, extremely meticulous and well organized. … He used to dictate notes to file as if he was doing his end-of-day reports as a diplomat,” according to Mr. Wood, who went on to found the North-South Institute. He also recalls a man who was scrupulously non-partisan. “I can’t remember Peter saying anything nasty about anybody.”
The Centre’s role as the go-to place for independent research was not to last. The Library of Parliament began building up its research branch, offering expert advice to committees at no cost. The increasingly partisan atmosphere among MPs meant the days of cross-party collaboration were waning. And prime ministers began to seek more control of committee deliberations and reports.
Contracts for the Parliamentary Centre from parliamentary committees started to decline in the Mulroney years and dried up in the Chrétien era. After more than 20 years, the Centre had been pushed aside.
“I have to acknowledge that the Centre’s efforts over the years to increase the influence of MPs came to naught,” Mr. Dobell confided in his memoir in 2011. “Members can advocate but the prime minister decides and history demonstrates that the instinct of the greater part of those who battled their way to the top is to maintain power.”
Starved of work at home, the Parliamentary Centre looked abroad. Following the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s, the Centre became active in democratization efforts in the former Soviet Union and later launched an extensive program to strengthen legislatures in Africa. Financing wasn’t easy, with the Centre dependent on contracts from Global Affairs, the European Union and other donors. Mr. Dobell also stepped in with a large personal donation.
Today, the Centre’s activities include projects in Burkina Faso, Timor Leste, Armenia and Ukraine. It is also looking to increase its activities in Canada with Parliament.
Beyond his dedication to public policy, Mr. Dobell was an outdoorsman and nature lover, who for 30 years went on annual canoe trips with his wife and a group of friends, exploring waterways like the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories.
Closer to home, his focus was on Peterswood, a 1,000-acre property north of Buckingham, Que., where he built a lakeside home in the early 1960s and a collection of eight cottages which he initially rented and then sold to friends through a co-operative arrangement that still exists.
He also ran a neighbouring maple sugar bush for many years, bottling the syrup as Papineau Gold and selling it to diplomatic acquaintances who would head off to postings abroad with a stash of the stuff, the perfect Canadian gift.
Beyond the Parliamentary Centre, Mr. Dobell served as secretary of the Canadian delegation to the Trilateral Commission. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1991 and received an honorary degree from Trinity College in 2003.
Mr. Dobell is survived by his wife, Jane, a former chair of the Ottawa Board of Education and one-time municipal councillor in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood; son, Colin; daughter-in-law, Gail; and grandson, Reid; as well as several nieces and nephews.