Volume 14 Number 2
Worshipping at a Different Altar
01 April 2001

Tony Reynolds was a high flier until a change of motive led his career into a seeming backwater. But, as he tells Paul Williams, there were unexpected spin-offs.

Tony Reynolds joined the Canadian federal civil service later than most of his colleagues because of a decade in unpaid voluntary work. He soon made up for lost time. 'Within a few years,' he says, 'the taxes I was paying outstripped the salary I had first received as a junior officer.'

Early on he was executive assistant to the deputy minister in the Department of Finance, one of the power brokers in the civil service. 'I loved being around where key decisions were made,' he says. 'I loved the smell of powder in the air as the big guns went off.' He had grown up with certain assumptions about his place in the world, about the style of life that he wanted, 'assumptions which perhaps are typical of many young men but were highly self- centred and self-important'. He had now found the avenue to fulfil these.

He took on varied tasks in the Department of Finance and later of Industry, Trade and Commerce. He headed up the latter's activities in the province of Manitoba. These included helping to develop the inner city of Winnipeg with its large Aboriginal population. Success in these activities brought notice in Ottawa and he was given an award 'for exceptional contribution' to the public service. 'By my measurements, my career was on track,' he says.

But his rise had not been without cost. 'It left me little time for or interest in my growing family,' he says. 'Clashes with my teenage daughters were becoming frequent. My son was quiet and seldom around. Anger was a frequent companion in my relationship with my wife, Rachel--anger born out of guilt at my neglect.'

Reynolds' preoccupation was noticed by the rector of the church they attended. 'One day he said to me, "Tony, I get the sense that you worship at a different altar. Do you want to talk about it?" My honest response was "not likely!" But talk we did.' It did not take Reynolds long to recognize that his career was the altar he worshipped at. 'Jesus and his demands on my life were an accessory. But the thought of switching altars created panic. Where would I get my drive? And what about the success I was beginning to enjoy? The sense of self-worth that my civil service career embodied was the bedrock of my identity.'

Yet he knew the rector's question required a choice--revising the centre of his life or walking away from his faith. 'I could not do the latter. My decision to do the former was not made on any kind of spiritual high. It was just a choice exercised.'

His wife and children noticed the difference within days. The anger and the 'driven-ness' were subsiding. Within three weeks of taking that decision he was asked to lead the Canadian Government's efforts to promote economic development among the country's Aboriginal people. Although the job carried the title of assistant deputy minister, it definitely would not lead to the top of the civil service ladder. 'If it hadn't been for the rector's intervention, I would not have considered it,' he says.

It led to what he describes as 'years of fascinating work'--building a team across the country, helping many communities recapture the dignity of self-reliance, getting to know Canada's Aboriginal leaders. 'Far from losing energy or passion, these rebounded but in a far more wholesome fashion,' he says. For the first time, his wife and children became really interested in his work. 'They loved to hear about it. We were frequently awed by the sense of God's hand honouring the earlier choice made.'

Five years into this work he was asked to become executive director of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Again he recognized it was a task he had been prepared for. The Commission held hearings in 96 communities, initiated 350 research projects and accumulated 70,000 pages of public testimony. Reynolds says that its final report four years later 'challenged Canadians to a fundamental restructuring of the relationship with the Aboriginal peoples'. The national Aboriginal leadership told the country that they could wholeheartedly endorse the Commission's recommendations, and that their implementation would finally resolve the crisis in their relationship with the people and the federal and provincial governments of Canada.

After a year, the Canadian Federal Government issued an historic Statement of Reconciliation. This went some way to implement the Commission's report, but left many critical questions unaddressed. But Reynolds realized his contribution in that forum had come to an end. He now farms on Vancouver Island and does voluntary work with an Aboriginal social agency. He has no regrets. 'We have learned not to try to perpetuate the past,' he says. 'If the core of your life is not self-gratification, then there is significance in everything and everyone around you.'
Paul Williams