Purged. from Memory: The Department of External Affairs and John Holmes

By Mackenzie, Hector | International Journal, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Purged. from Memory: The Department of External Affairs and John Holmes


Mackenzie, Hector, International Journal


Hector Mackenzie is senior departmental historian at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not the department.

ON 26 APRIL 1996, the minister of foreign affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, announced that a recently created "foreign policy outreach fund" would be named for John Holmes, who was described in the news release as a "former Canadian diplomat, academic policy activist and long-time head of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs." This tribute seemed an apt way to remember one who had contributed so much to the making of Canadian foreign policy and to public understanding of Canada's international relations. "Throughout his distinguished career, John Holmes always encouraged Canadians to be actively involved in international affairs," the release quoted Axworthy as saying. "It is therefore appropriate to honour his memory in a fashion that will foster and sustain public participation."(1)

Accompanying this announcement was a short biographical note about Holmes. Even in outline, the story of his working life was impressive. Holmes earned a BA from the University of Western Ontario and an MA from the University of Toronto, taught at Pickering College and went on to do graduate work at the University of London. Rejected from the armed forces for poor eyesight, Holmes returned to Canada, where he was first information secretary and then national secretary of the CIIA at its headquarters in Toronto. In 1943, he joined the Department of External Affairs (DEA) as one of the "special wartime assistants" brought in to bolster a ministry that found itself with a greatly expanded mandate but a shortage of qualified personnel.

Within a decade, Holmes had risen to the rank of assistant under-secretary of state for external affairs, "a key adviser on Canadian delegations to international meetings and conferences, particularly those associated with the United Nations." Indeed, Holmes was a familiar figure in photographs of Canadian diplomats at work in the 1950s, whether in London as second secretary, in Moscow as charge d'affaires, in New York as acting permanent representative to the United Nations (or, more frequently, as one of the delegates who came down from Ottawa for sessions of the General Assembly or other UN bodies), or in the East Block, where he played a critical role in the development and articulation of Canada's position in world affairs in the "golden age of Canadian diplomacy." Holmes held the position of assistant under-secretary from 1953 until "his retirement from the Department in 1960."(2)

More space is devoted in the short biography to the next and final public phase of the career of John Holmes, when he was the president and then director general of the CIIA (until 1973), as well as a prolific scholar and lecturer on Canada's international relations before his death in 1988. His analysis of Canada's planning for the post-war world and its implementation of those plans, published in two volumes as The Shaping of Peace: Canada and the Search for World Order, 1943-1957, is still the definitive examination of that formidable topic, one that reflects his unique insights as practitioner and then commentator.(3) Many of his lectures and papers have been collected and published, so that it is appropriate that Glendon College at York University in Toronto honoured his memory with a distinguished lecture series and that the CIIA named its library for him. Holmes inspired colleagues and students, some of whom penned essays for An Acceptance of Paradox: Essays on Canadian diplomacy in honour of John W. Holmes, edited by Kim Richard Nossal and published by the CIIA.(4) Through these efforts, as well as his numerous appearances on radio and television, Holmes made a remarkable contribution to the public understanding of Canadian foreign policy.

The release and the note, however, left at least one key question unanswered. …

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