A life well lived — thank you Earl

On Thursday afternoon, at 2:00 p.m., at Strathcona Baptist Church, there will be a celebration of the life of Dr. Earl Hawkesworth, who died last week at the age of 96.

So many death notices convey the same information, and we are unmindful, unless the person is family, or a friend, or currently in the news.

Earl’s passing should be noted by all Albertans, for two reasons.

Thirty-five years ago he was Deputy Minister of Education (1971 – 1982). Prior to that he had been a superintendent, school principal, and classroom teacher. He led a wonderful life, and he was at the centre of many educational developments that have stood Alberta in good stead for years.

He was also a great representative of a model of public service that is far too scarce in this day and age. It is appropriate, in the middle of an election campaign, to remember and honour the importance of the public service to the success of our political process and representatives. It is important to consider the appropriate relationship of the public service to the politicians — if the public interest is to be well served.

In 1971 — the last time the government changed in Alberta — the incoming Progressive Conservatives ‘inherited’ a very professional public service, with a reputation for integrity, independent and expert advice, and a deliberate and careful partisan neutrality. Alberta’s public service was well regarded around the world. Public servants came here from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia to understand the workings of the Energy Resources Conservation Board (led by Dr. Govier). Thailand modelled its secondary school system on Alberta’s junior and senior high schools. There were many other examples of Alberta’s public service having a world-wide reputation.

There were, undoubtedly, many reasons for this. Some of them stand out in my mind.

1. Public service, like elected office, was thought of as a vocation. The rewards were not primarily monetary, for M.L.A.s or for Deputy Ministers. No one argued that the pay and benefits had to be atmospheric in order to attract the best and the brightest.
2. Senior public servants were forbidden to belong to a political party (not the government party and not any other), and they were discouraged from attending or participating in partisan political events. No one argued that the Deputy should be at the Minister’s campaign headquarters on election night, or that senior managers should “cut some slack” for juniors in the department who wanted to moonlight on the governing party’s campaigns.
3. Public servants were expected to give honest advice, and the best possible advice, to Ministers. There was no ‘gilding the lily’, or giving the Minister what s/he wanted in preference to the best possible advice. Advice was evidence and experience based, not ideologically driven. In any case, the Minister was responsible for the decision, and the Department would make the Minister’s decision work.
4. Politicians made political statements, and answered questions about politics and policy. Departmental communications people made statements about administration and expert knowledge.
5. Deputy’s were, first of all, experts in the work of the department, and then they were systems managers. Forty years ago, no one argued that deputies would serve the government better if they were management specialists, without deep knowledge of the department’s work.

Earl was my Deputy Minister for the first two years I was Minister of Education. He was a man of deep integrity. He loved the effect of education on students, opening them up to the world, revealing attitudes, talents and skills that made for good people and good citizens. He had a deep respect for teachers and for teaching, partly because he had done it and knew it isn’t easy. He believed deeply in public service and in the common wealth. He treated everyone with respect. He had a gentle personality, and a good sense of humour, and a backbone of steel. Initially, he was one of my many mentors. We became friends. If he thought I was making a mistake, or doing wrong (and they are two different things), he was clear and direct, but he didn’t harangue. When his views were known it was for the Minister to make the decision. (I think that, if I’d gone far astray, Earl would have resigned.)

During the time that Earl was Deputy the government initiated Early Childhood Services, bi-lingual education, special education programs, Native education programs, Designated Community Schools, and many other initiatives. He oversaw the end of Departmental examinations (in 1972 – ’72), and then laid the groundwork for Diploma Exams and Provincial Achievement Tests eight years later. (My standard defense is that Provincial Achievement Tests today are a perversion of what was intended 30 years ago.)

Earl was a great man, and a great standard-bearer for the public service of that day. As we celebrate his life, we might pause for a moment to think about what kind of public service we want in the future, and how we want our public service to relate to our political representatives.

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