Obit: public servant Gerry Shannon (1935-2003)

Gerry Shannon could have been a professional hockey player like his father, but sought instead to play in a much bigger arena.

Shannon went on to become a top career public servant who helped formulate Ottawa’s policies on international trade. At one time he held the No. 2 posting in the Canadian Embassy in Washington and was a key negotiator in the talks known as the Uruguay Round, which led to the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995.

Shannon, who died recently in Vancouver at age 67, is being remembered as a fair, tough and passionate trade policy analyst who was a trusted advisor to ministers in the successive cabinets of Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney in the ’80s.

“Gerry was a larger than life character,” said Peter Sutherland, a former director-general of the WTO. “He played a crucial role in the conclusion of the Uruguay Round. He had a belief in the multilateral system that he combined with an intense Canadian patriotism. His personality was also a factor in bringing peaceful resolution to difficult negotiations.”

“He was a straightforward guy — you always knew where you stood with him,” said Marc Lalonde, a former Liberal finance minister. “He was a man with a very solid judgement. He was a good team player in that regard, the kind of guy you would want to have as a senior public servant.”

Born in Ottawa in 1935, Shannon received an early lesson from his father — hockey player Jerry Shannon, who played for the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins and other NHL teams — on the necessity of appearing strong, no matter what. Once, after a puck knocked out the boy’s two front teeth, his father shouted, “Get up, son, shake it off!” Young Gerry did so and stayed in the game. The same spirit of toughness also probably helped him cope with the death of his mother when he was ten.

Despite an offer to try out for the Bruins, Shannon took his father’s advice and went to university. Graduating from Carleton University’s school of journalism, he worked as a reporter for the Sudbury Star for several years before lifting his sights again. He wrote a foreign service exam and was accepted as a diplomat in 1963. “He realized that being a small-town reporter was great and he enjoyed it, but he wanted to be involved in the big world,” said his wife, Anne Park Shannon.

His first posting was in Washington where, despite any formal training as an economist, he handled matters of trade and economic policy. “He was good at pursuing Canadian interests with the Americans, they liked him,” Ms. Park Shannon said. “He was very affable and very good at just getting to the essence of things.” He also served as Canada’s senior foreign affairs representative in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, and later as ambassador to Korea, one of Canada’s youngest at the time.

In the mid-’70s, at the height of the Trudeau era, he became director of commercial policy for the then-department of external affairs. After several years he returned to Washington as the Embassy’s second-in-command at a time when Canada’s national energy program generated heated discussions.

Recalled to Ottawa about 1982, he became the assistant deputy minister of finance for the Liberals, then deputy minister of international trade for the Progressive Conservatives — in which capacities he advised Lalonde and later PC ministers Michael Wilson and Barbara McDougall.

“He was a very professional public servant, he had a sense of professionalism, he had a very good mind, he was tough, and he understood very well the role of the senior public servant,” McDougall said. “He never tried to be the minister and he was a straight-shooter, which many of us appreciated when we realized that this was the exception and not the rule.”

“I worked with a lot of great public servants but he was certainly right up at the top,” she said.

Anne Marie Doyle, who worked extensively with Shannon in various government departments, recalls that he would go out on a limb for employees when he thought they were in the right, and possessed “iron in his spine” that made his superiors also respect him as steadfast, and trustworthy.

“He had this phenomenal gift — the ability to take a very complex problem, see to its core, and express it in just two or three very articulate sentences so that someone like a minister or prime minister would have found him just invaluable,” she said. “They would have his complex briefing and he would say, ‘Well, Minister, what it boils down to is just this,’ and it would be just brilliant.”

Shannon was “one of the giants of Canadian trade policy of the ’80s and ’90s,” according to Bill Dymond, executive director for the Center for Trade Policy and Law at Carleton University. “The politicians trusted him because he was blunt, honest and loyal to the government,” he said.

Known for his enthusiasm and for being indefatiguable on the job, Shannon performed an astonishing array of official duties while in Geneva between 1989 and 1995. As Canada’s chief negotiator for the Uruguay Round, he developed a binding dispute settlement system that was hailed as a major breakthrough. He was Canada’s first ambassador to the WTO as he had been to its predecessor, the GATT, the general agreement on tariffs and trade. As an occasional ambassador to the UN, he contributed the so-called “Shannon mandate” to its committee on disarmament; it is a significant negotiating protocol, still in use today.

Soon after leaving government in 1995 to work as an international trade policy consultant, he penned an article for the Globe and Mail on Canada’s protracted and seemingly never-ending softwood lumber dispute with the United States. “We always get roughed up in dealing alone with the Americans on issues they deem to be critical to them,” he observed. “They simply have too many guns and they persevere until they win.”

Shannon enjoyed hiking, gardening, opera, traveling, dogs, crossword puzzles and playing hockey. He and his wife moved from Ottawa to Victoria about a year ago with the intent of retiring there. He was sick only a few weeks before he died on April 26. He leaves his wife, Anne Park Shannon, and sons Michael and Steven from a previous marriage. He also leaves a sister, Carol Schwarz, of Ottawa. ♦

© 2003