On the life and times of James Coyne and the role of a non-partisan public service

Too often we fall short in protecting key players in our democracy
James E. Coyne, former Governor of the Bank of Canada, arrives at the Senate entrance of the Parliament Buildings, July 11, 1961, for his second appearance before the Senate banking and commerce committee. (CP PHOTO)

Late last year I sat in when Andrew Coyne—still with Maclean’s then before his return to writing his newspaper column for Postmedia— interviewed Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney.

While the LSE-trained journalist quizzed the Oxford-educated central banker on the finer points of monetary policy, I found plenty of time to take in the portraits of past governors that grace the boardroom of the bank’s rather imposing, neoclassical headquarters in Ottawa.

I was mainly interested in the gaze of Andrew’s father, James Coyne, the bank governor from 1955 to 1961, who died at 102 last Friday. Just before the interview began, Andrew had mentioned how well he thought the official portrait caught his father’s natural expression—a rarity, I imagine, for that sort of formal sitting.

Carney chimed in with informed and animated comments on the senior Coyne, and no wonder. James Coyne, as this weekend’s obituaries (like the engrossing one by Sandra Martin in the Globe) chronicle anew, clashed very publicly with the Diefenbaker government in 1961, in a confrontation that cost him his job, but ultimately helped establish the bank’s proper role and necessary independence. What a story.

It’s good to think, on James Coyne’s passing, that there’s a true continuity of sorts in our public service, that today’s major figures might remember yesterday’s. Carney is, of course, an unusually celebrated governor—maybe the first to be a celebrity—but he is hardly the first remarkable man to do the job. In only my own time in Ottawa, I’ve had fun watching John Crow’s ferocious inflation-fighting and listening to David Dodge put the bank’s work in the broadest possible policy frame.

We naturally think of our government most of the time in terms of the politicians we elect to power. It’s a democracy, after all. But every so often, it’s reassuring to remember there are also judges and diplomats, chief statisticians and bank governors.

We should respect and protect their non-partisan efforts, but too often we fall short. Whenever we fear that politics is impinging too much on their work, we could do worse than to think of James Coyne. For me, it won’t be hard—I’ll imagine his portrait keeping watch.