Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A characteristically quiet exit

Winnipegger Coyne had a long and dignified life

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I should have written this tribute earlier, but in a way I did.

My words in memory of James Coyne, one of Winnipeg's -- and the nation's -- truly great individuals, should have been in the newspaper before his family paid their respects in Saturday's Free Press Passages pages.

Or at least I should have around the time the Free Press Sunday Xtra reported his death in a story by Kevin Rollason on Oct. 14.

But then again, I take comfort in knowing I did pay tribute even earlier to this most remarkable Canadian who lived so long, and so quietly in his city of birth and choice.

I wrote and spoke my tribute directly to him while he was still with us.

That was on the day Mr. Coyne, as I respectively addressed him, celebrated his 100th birthday.

When he died, just two years later, on Oct. 12, I reread the column and decided I should share some of it again.

As I recall it, I even suggested the headline that day.

"The man who refused to go quietly."

-- -- --

Years ago, someone reminded me that James Coyne, the second governor of the Bank of Canada, was alive, presumably well and living quietly in Winnipeg.

I ran into a relative of Coyne's, who mentioned Jim Coyne would be 100 on July 17.

Even more impressively, his mind was still sharp.

As his birthday drew near, I phoned him at the Tuxedo condo he shared with his wife, Meribeth. A man answered on the second ring. "Hello."

The voice on the other end surprised me with its strength and momentarily I wondered if one of his sons had picked up the phone. Perhaps the prominent stepsons Sandy Riley, the Richardson Financial executive, or Patrick Riley, the lawyer. Or maybe Andrew Coyne, the journalist and commentator.

"Mr. Coyne?" I said tentatively.

"Yes," he responded.

I introduced myself, and asked if he would agree to an interview.

He replied politely that he wasn't interested in publicity.

"I'm too old for that," he said.

But when I called back to ask again -- this time more specifically about his family life -- he was eager to talk.

When I initially called, he probably thought it was to dredge up that time in 1961 that came to be called the Coyne Crisis.

Jim Coyne wasn't quiet then. He made speech after speech warning Canada was living beyond its means and it needed to battle inflation, even at the expense of higher interest rates and unemployment.

All of which John Diefenbaker took as an attack by a closet Liberal.

The Tory PM used his majority to pass a bill declaring the governor's position "vacant." Essentially firing him.

"However," as author James Powell wrote, "the governor refused to go quietly."

It was Diefenbaker's dealings with Coyne that caused the government to create a royal commission that would change the course of Canadian monetary history. But it also changed Jim Coyne's life.

In 1955, he was named the governor of the Bank of Canada and was reputedly Ottawa's most eligible bachelor. The following year, on a trip back to Winnipeg, he was introduced to a young widow who had three children under six. Her former husband, Robert Sanford Riley, was only 29 when cancer claimed him on Aug. 22, 1955.

James Elliott Coyne and the striking Meribeth Stobie Riley were married on June 26, 1957. She was 30, he was almost 47.

"I was very lucky I waited so long to get married," Coyne said. "I married a beautiful and nice person."

The couple would go on to have two more children together, Susan Coyne in 1958, and Andrew in 1960.

So it was that on July 12, 1961, with five young children, including one infant, James and Meribeth walked arm in arm into the Parliament buildings where a Liberal-stacked Senate committee gave him what the Tory-dominated House of Commons wouldn't: a chance to defend himself and the central bank.

"A vote for this bill," he would argue, "is a verdict of guilty. I shall be marked for life as a man declared by the highest court in the land to have been found unfit to hold a high office of Parliament by reason of misbehaviour."

The Senate refused to pass the bill. Later, his staff would present Coyne with a gold medallion inscribed with these words: "Presented to James Elliott Coyne by his staff for courage and integrity in defence of the office of governor of the Bank of Canada."

In 1966, Coyne moved back to Winnipeg and tried to create the Bank of Western Canada, but when its original intent was altered, he resigned.

He was never employed again.

"Oh, there are always regrets of some sort or other," he said when I asked. "But I've been fortunate."

Finally, I asked this man who refused to go quietly, but ended up living that way, how he wanted to remembered. "I don't have such a big idea of myself," he said.

So I answered for him: "As a man of high integrity and principles who always tried to do the right thing."

Even over the phone, I could almost see him smiling. "Thank you very much," he said.

-- -- --

I never intruded on his privacy again.

But I was pleased to see that in July, in the same month he celebrated his 102nd birthday, James Coyne was finally honoured with the Order of Manitoba.

His family's tender tribute in the pages of Saturday's Passages mentioned how touched he was by the recognition.

His story of doing the right thing in the name of the nation -- and himself -- should be required reading for every student of public policy. And every politician.

A celebration of his extraordinary life will be held Sunday, Nov. 4, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Manitoba Club, 194 Broadway.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2012 B1

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