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Remembering Sylvia Ostry, a Pioneering Winnipegger

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By Mark Halle, May 14, 2020

Sylvia Ostry, who passed away on May 7, 2020, at the age of 92, was surely one of the great international Canadians of her generation.

A leading economist and public servant, she was the Chief Statistician at Statistics Canada from 1972 to 1975, then became Deputy Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs (the first female deputy minister at the federal level). Prominent roles followed at the Economic Council of Canada and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. More recently, she served as Chancellor of the University of Waterloo, followed by a stint as Chair of the University of Toronto's Centre for International Studies.

On top of her professional accomplishments, Sylvia was awarded 18 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees launched a lecture series in her honour.

Less well known is that Sylvia had a particular affection for IISD. Born in Winnipeg, MB, she was proud that such an eminent worldwide institution should be based in her home province of Manitoba but, more importantly, she saw in IISD an organization prepared to take risks in pursuit of its mission, defy the status quo, and challenge accepted wisdom.

Sylvia saw in IISD an organization prepared to take risks in pursuit of its mission, defy the status quo, and challenge accepted wisdom.

Sylvia was delighted when IISD challenged the World Trade Organization (WTO) to live up to its commitment to ensuring that trade serves sustainable development. She was intolerant of ill-considered policy with no convincing economic or social purpose that only rewarded individual politicians.

Early on, IISD decided to examine the impact of subsidies on sustainable development. Initial findings were alarming: many subsidies are clumsy economic policy tools that too often undermine rather than advance sustainable development. We resolved to test the waters with a first phase of work on biofuel subsidies, then launch an initiative on fossil fuel subsidy reform. Early efforts to gather support were discouraging, and we considered throwing in the towel. 

During a long walk around the grounds of the WTO, after listening to IISD President David Runnalls and myself bleakly conclude that we couldn’t make it work, Sylvia stopped and asked point-blank: “How can an institute dedicated to sustainable development not address subsidies?”

She was right, and the result was IISD’s flagship Global Subsidies Initiative, for which Sylvia later chaired the Senior Advisory Council. Her impish humour and her maverick’s healthy disrespect for established power set the tone for the initiative, guiding it through the first shoals and out into open water. 

She also pounded home the importance of unimpeachable data and robust analysis. Challenging subsidies would make IISD many enemies and opponents’ first line of attack would be to discredit us by suggesting our analyses were incomplete or out of date and that our data were flawed. Any thread left hanging would be used to unravel the entire fabric, Sylvia cautioned. This advice served IISD well, not only in its controversial work on biofuel subsidies but more generally in all our work on sustainable development. After all, in the end, sustainable development is a challenge to the status quo and no thanks are to be expected from those who benefit from unsustainable behaviour.

She taught us that, if there is no precedent for doing something or approaching things in a particular way, the best thing to do is set that precedent. 

IISD owes a debt of gratitude to this great child of Manitoba. She represented the spirit IISD tries to bring to its work. She taught us that no idea is stronger than the analytic base on which it rests. She taught us that, if there is no precedent for doing something or approaching things in a particular way, the best thing to do is set that precedent. 

And, perhaps most importantly, she taught us not to take ourselves too seriously. Humour, disruption, questioning of authority, innovation, and creativity are all part of the magic mix that makes for a successful professional and institutional life, all of which she so fully embodied.