Sylvia Ostry: A woman of firsts

November 26, 2018

Over a long and celebrated career, Dr. Sylvia Ostry left an indelible mark on the Canadian civil service—a true giant, on whose shoulders we continue to stand to this very day.

Not only was Dr. Ostry Canada’s first and only female Chief Statistician, she was also Canada’s first female deputy minister. She was born in north Winnipeg in 1927 and studied economics at McGill, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1948 and a Master of Arts in 1950; as well, she earned a doctorate from Cambridge and McGill in 1954. After teaching and doing research at McGill, the Université de Montréal, and the University of Oxford, Dr. Ostry joined Statistics Canada, serving as Assistant Director for Research and then Director in the Labour Division, from 1964 to 1969. She held the position of Chair of the Economic Council of Canada for three years, before returning to the agency in 1972 to serve as Chief Statistician.

A fundamental look at ourselves

In her first month as Chief Statistician, Dr. Ostry asked her senior staff to reflect on some of the major issues that would confront the agency in the 1970s, inviting proposals on all facets of the Bureau’s operations, including its objectives, strategy, structure, and issues. She called it a “fundamental look at ourselves,” and indicated that all proposals would be treated confidentially and should be directed to her personally. There were a great many heartfelt memos authored to that intent, outlining what Statistics Canada in the 1970s would be like, how the agency might step up to meet the needs of the times, and meet its current challenges.

Centralization

There were a number of recurring themes, one of which was growing frustration over the centralization of functions. Centralization was new—the agency was siloed, each division essentially operating largely as a separate entity. There was a great deal of frustration with competition for the attention of the service areas; one memo spoke of the challenge of obtaining services as akin to “leading a cavalry charge into a swamp.” Most of the senior staff recognized the challenges brought about by the tremendous growth of the Bureau under Walter Duffett, who preceded Ostry as chief statistician, with a number of memos indicating that the agency could not afford to get much larger. Not only had there been tremendous growth in staff and work, but the complexity of that work was also increasing along with expanding automation. This tied in with another important theme of the memos—the need to more clearly delineate the role and objective of the agency, and of its divisions, to do better at setting statistical priorities.

Human resources

On the human resources side, the memos indicated that staff morale was low and that there were serious problems with recruitment and retention of experienced personnel. Some mentioned the possibility of more opportunity for staff rotation to develop their flexibility and cultivate interest. The narrow specialization of staff was felt to produce excellent statisticians but not necessarily excellent managers, especially in an increasingly interconnected world. By 1974, a job rotation task force would be established to look into the possibility of a job rotation program at the agency.

Relationship with other departments

There was a general feeling that attitudes in the agency often conveyed a lack of concern for, or disinterest in, other federal departments and the issues they faced. It was felt that the agency was seen merely as a figure factory whose sole goal was to produce data without too much details explaining what the statistics measured. There was a need for more data analysis and better marketing to let the world in on the richness of available information.

Birth of a task force

From the deluge of lengthy memos written in response to Dr. Ostry’s request, it was obvious that senior managers were in favour of a re-organization and self-renewal. Dr. Ostry set up a task force in August 1972 with the goal of evaluating the state of Canada’s statistical system and Statistics Canada’s role in it. The major findings of the study and subsequent investigations were to improve priority-setting mechanisms in the use of the statistical resources; make the agency’s statistical products and services more relevant and accessible and promote their use more vigorously; assume a stronger coordinating role vis-à-vis the statistical activities of other federal departments; and maintain the confidence and support of the public.

Life after StatCan

Dr. Ostry’s career at Statistics Canada came to an end in 1975, when she was reassigned to the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs as Deputy Minister, a post she held until 1978.

In her time, Dr. Ostry was something of an Ottawa celebrity and knew everyone who was anyone in the nation’s capital. A lengthy Saturday Night magazine article about Dr. Ostry by George Bain, written while she was working for the OECD in Paris in 1981, notes that “next only to Pierre and Margaret, no pair had more celebrity in Ottawa in the 1970s than the Ostrys”—that is, Sylvia and her husband Bernard. The article also remarks that: “Two things almost everyone – including Sylvia Ostry – says about her are that she is intensely ambitious and that she works like a dog at whatever she is doing.”

The other positions held by Dr. Ostry during her career include Head of the Department of Economics and Statistics at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Deputy Minister of International Trade, Ambassador for Multilateral Trade Negotiations, and Canada’s sherpa—Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Personal Representative—at the G7 summits from 1985 to 1988. She has been awarded 19 honorary degrees from universities in Canada and abroad. She received the Order of Canada in 1978 and was promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada in 1990, the highest award in the national system of honours. She was also Chancellor of the University of Waterloo from 1991 to 1996, and was named Chancellor Emerita in 1997.

In 2002, to celebrate Dr. Ostry’s 75th birthday, The Sterling Public Servant was produced by former Assistant Chief Statistician Jacob Ryten. This was a festschrift, a collection of papers from eminent contributors, on subjects related to her career and the importance of her academic and governmental contributions to Canada. It included congratulatory letters from all prime ministers living at the time.

Four decades after her tenure as chief statistician, Dr. Ostry’s impact on Statistics Canada lives on, through her influence on agency programs and human resources management practices.

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