Sylvia Ostry, Economist, Civil Servant, dies at 92

Sylvia Ostry, a distinguished economist and Canada’s first female federal deputy minister, died in Toronto on May 7. She was 92.

Photo courtesy Statistics Canada.

A polymath mandarin and expansive thinker, Ostry tallied a long and prestigious list of achievements that represented breakthroughs for women in the workplace. She was the first and only female Chief Statistician at Statistics Canada, and was the country’s first female federal deputy minister in several government departments before becoming the chief economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

“Sylvia had a very sharp mind,” former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told the Globe and Mail in its obituary on Ostry. “She was able to explain the government’s position in down-to-earth terms. She was a loyal public servant. I liked her personally and felt that as a woman, she didn’t get the recognition she deserved,” said Mulroney, who tapped Ostry to help represent Canada at several international meetings, including the Group of Seven summit in Toronto in 1988.

She was born in Winnipeg in 1927 to Morris J. and Betsy Stoller Knelman. According to the entry on Ostry at the Jewish Women’s Archive, her father (1894-1982), a businessman, was born in Odessa and arrived in Canada in 1910. Her mother (1893-1982), a school teacher, was born in London, England and also came to Canada in 1910.

Ostry studied economics at McGill University, where she earned her BA in 1948 and her MA in 1950. She earned her PhD from Cambridge University in 1954, and went on to teach at McGill and the University of Montreal.

From 1990 to 1997, she chaired the Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto while serving as Chancellor of the University of Waterloo.

While in England in 1956, she married Bernard Ostry, a native of Wadena, Sask. A historian, professor, and media personality, Bernard Ostry served for a time as CEO of TVOntario. He died in 2006.

Sylvia Ostry’s government career tallied a long list of posts: She was Chief Statistician of Canada (1972-1975); deputy minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs (1975-1978); chair of the Economic Council of Canada (1978-1979); deputy minister for International Trade and coordinator of International Economic Relations (1984-1985); ambassador for Multilateral Trade Negotiations, and the prime minister’s personal representative for economic summits (1985-1988).

From 1990 to 1997, she was Chair of the University of Toronto’s Centre for International Studies.

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, although never actively involved in Jewish affairs, Ostry once served on the academic advisory board of World ORT.

In her time, Ostry was something of an Ottawa celebrity and knew everyone who was anyone in the nation’s capital. Statistics Canada’s website relates that a lengthy Saturday Night magazine profile about her, written while she was working for the OECD in Paris in 1981, noted that “next only to Pierre and Margaret [Trudeau], no pair had more celebrity in Ottawa in the 1970s than the Ostrys.” The article also remarked: “Two things almost everyone – including Sylvia Ostry – says about her are that she is intensely ambitious and that she works like a dog at whatever she is doing.”

She wrote, co-wrote or edited some 80 publications, most of them focusing on policy analysis.

She was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 and elevated to Companion in 1990. Since 1992 the Sylvia Ostry Foundation has sponsored a prestigious annual lecture on international affairs.

Ostry leaves her two sons, Jonathan, an economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington; and Adam, who works at the OECD in Paris; and two grandchildren, Daniel and Joshua.