Keith Spicer, who as a spirited government official pushed his fellow Canadians to define their national identity and reconcile their bilingual heritage more than two centuries after the British defeated the French to capture Quebec, died on Aug. 24 in Ottawa. He was 89.
His death, in a hospital, was confirmed to The Canadian Press by Nick Spicer, one of his three children.
Raised by Protestant parents who were anti-Catholic and anti-French, Mr. Spicer began his professional career as a political science professor before being drafted by two prime ministers into ombudsman’s jobs that more risk-averse Canadians might have rejected.
One task was to get all Canadians to accept their country as officially bilingual; the other was hear them out if they complained about language mandates and other irritants.
Mr. Spicer was only 35 in 1970 when the Liberal Party prime minister Pierre Trudeau named him Canada’s first commissioner of official languages, charged with enforcing the Official Languages Act, which gave English and French official status in organizations and institutions under federal jurisdiction.
The law was drafted in the 1960s by a government commission set up to respond to demands for equal language status by the one in four Canadians whose first language was French, and to fend off a volatile secessionist movement in Quebec.
Getting all Canadians on board with bilingualism, however, was easier said than done. A mandate that national air traffic be directed in French as well as English provoked, among other protests, a threat by English-speaking Canadian pilots to disrupt the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
Explaining that bilingualism was required of the government, not of individual Canadians, Mr. Spicer said the policy provided that “each citizen is served in the language he’s taxed in.” But he also promoted the teaching of “French immersion” in English-language schools across Canada.
Known as vociferous and irreverent, Mr. Spicer favored safari suits and Panama hats while working as an editor in Ottawa (where the average low temperature ranges from 6 degrees Fahrenheit in January to 60 in July). He preferred to drink beer from a wine glass because, he said, that’s what Parisians did.
He good-humoredly reminded English speakers that his own affection for French had flowered in the 10th grade, when he began corresponding with a French girl as a pen pal. He was so besotted by a photograph she sent him, he said, that he became a confirmed Francophile.
“Bilingualism and biculturalism work best through biology,” he later declared, adding unabashedly, “The best place to learn French is in bed.”
In 1990, after the collapse of a constitutional compromise that would have further empowered Canada’s provinces and declared Quebec a “distinct society,” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney enlisted Mr. Spicer to take on another challenging task: to lead the Citizens Forum on Canada’s Future, in which he would sound out his fellow citizens’ gripes about the government and the character of the country, a federation of provinces and territories, all part of the British Commonwealth, that hadn’t adopted a national flag until 1965 or a national anthem until 1980.
Mr. Spicer was more or less an official gadfly. In town hall meetings, polls, videoconferences and other interactive surveys, his Citizens Forum was said to have interacted with as many as 700,000 Canadians.
“I thought I was singing ‘This Land Is My Land,’” Mr. Spicer recalled of the ridicule that the task force initially generated, but the “media and public heard the theme from ‘Looney Tunes.’”(Unfazed by the mockery, Mr. Spicer said, “If I wanted a job that had no stress, I’d be selling bananas in Martinique.”)
“Angst is our ecstasy,” he wrote in “Identities in North America: The Search for Community,” a 1995 collection of essays, referring to a population inhabiting what many Canadians consider to be “the Woody Allen of nations,” beset by inferiority complexes.
Despite their placid reputation abroad, what united Canadians was their discontent, the Citizens Forum report concluded, noting to Mr. Mulroney’s dismay, “There is a fury in the land against the prime minister.”
Canadians wanted politicians to listen to the people, the report said, “to stop playing little parlor games in Ottawa, to do what they promised they would do, and if they didn’t, the people said, ‘We’ll recall you.’”
The report recommended various government reforms, more rights for Indigenous peoples and a recognition of the unique culture of Quebec. But proposed compromises largely failed, and in 1993 Mr. Mulroney retired and his Progressive Conservative Party suffered a historic defeat.
Keith Spicer was born on March 6, 1934, in Toronto. His parents, who met in an auto factory in Oshawa, on Lake Ontario, owned a boardinghouse for single women.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in modern languages and literatures (French and Spanish) from the University of Toronto in 1956 and earned a doctorate there in 1962.
He taught at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto and studied at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. He was a founder in 1961 of CUSO International (formerly Canadian University Service Overseas), a volunteer organization whose goals are to eliminate poverty and income inequality.
Mr. Spicer wrote editorials for The Globe and Mail in Toronto from 1966 to 1969, was a columnist for The Vancouver Sun from 1977 to 1984 and editor of The Ottawa Citizen from 1985 to 1989. From 1989 to 1996 he headed Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory agency. He then moved to Paris, where he worked for Ernst & Young, the consulting firm, on telecommunications and internet issues.
He was later a founding director of the Institute for Media, Peace and Security at the University for Peace in Costa Rica, established by the United Nations, serving in that capacity from 2000 to 2007.
After publishing “Life Sentences: Memoirs of an Incorrigible Canadian” (2004), he said, “Everyone should write their memoirs to find out what they’ve been up to all their lives.”
While he self-deprecatingly called himself the Commissioner of Corn Flakes during his seven years enforcing the bilingual law — even the ingredients on cereal boxes had to be listed in both languages — Mr. Spicer prided himself on a peaceful transition to improved communications between French and English-speaking Canadians during his watch.
“Our goal was to make this boring, and we have succeeded,” he told The New York Times in 1986.
Nick Spicer, his son, told The Canadian Press that in the Ottawa Hospital not long before Mr. Spicer’s death, he reminded his father that his bilingual legacy in Canada, and especially in the capital, once a bastion of English speakers, was very much in evidence. His medical chart was filled out in both languages.
“That all changed because of you,” the son said.