The Ottawa Men: The Civil Service Mandarins, 1935-1957


333 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-19-540386-X




Reviewed by Margaret Conrad

Margaret Conrad is a history professor at Acadia University and editor
of They Planted Well: New England Planters in Maritime Canada.


Jack Granatstein, that most prolific authority on Canadian political history, has turned his attention away from politicians to the shadowy figures who stood behind them. After briefly surveying the evaluation of the public service since 1867, Granatstein focuses on the “golden years” between 1935 and 1957. This period witnessed the emergence of the modern civil servant — educated, non-partisan, well paid — and was a time in which a small group of men — WASP, British-trained, and progressive in their thinking — shaped federal policy to an alarming degree. Their achievements, which included a Keynesian monetary policy, contributory welfare mechanisms, and functionalism in foreign affairs, still haunt us.

Drawing upon recent research by himself and others, Granatstein provides fascinating biographies of the mandarins, profiling their personal as well as their bureaucratic lives. We learn, for instance, that Deputy Minister of Finance Clifford Clark completed five honours degrees at Queen’s; that Graham Towers, first Governor of the Bank of Canada, began his career as an accountant in Havana; that Norman Robertson, Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, once made an emotional decision; and that Arnold Heeney, who most successfully embodied the attributes of Mr. Civil Servant, served in the militia which confronted the strikers at Winnipeg in 1919. We also learn details of the mandarins’ schools and family relationships, their salaries and jockeying for position, and their incredibly close personal ties which included the exclusive Five Lakes Fishing Club in the Gatineaus, where the great men got away — typically only 31 miles — from Ottawa.

According to Granatstein, these public servants presided over the “humanization” of capitalism and the strengthening of the federal government. But, in serving their own interests for permanency and growth, they also sowed the seeds of their own downfall. The federal civil service is no longer exclusive in gender or ethnicity, is certainly not small, and is frequently challenged in its merits by competing bureaucracies in the provinces and private industry. It also lost any pretence to impartiality when two of its brightest lights, Lester Pearson and Jack Pickersgill, began the tradition of moving with indecent ease from bureaucratic to political life. Henceforth, the civil service became the well-chosen target of those who had suffered from the decisions of the “Government Party.”

Though Granatstein seems somewhat dazzled by the array of Queen’s graduates and Rhodes scholars who comprise the early mandarinate — the word “brilliant” is a little overworked — he skillfully weaves personality and policy in a highly readable book. The Ottawa Men serves us well as a delightful entry into the sordid morass of Canadian bureaucratic history.


Granatstein, J.L., “The Ottawa Men: The Civil Service Mandarins, 1935-1957,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 24, 2024,