Updated on:
November 25, 2021

WWII Veteran, Dr. Robert Spencer Honoured at Summit in Ottawa at Age 101

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As part of the Summit proceedings on the Digitalization of Defence and Security held in Ottawa, Canada this month, Summit Chair and Moderator Lieutenant General (Ret'd) Michel Maisonneuve and Samuel Associates CEO and Chair of the Policy Insights Forum, Goran Samuel Pesic, were pleased to honour Dr. Robert Spencer, who received a well-served standing ovation in recognition of his very long-standing commitment to fostering the relationship between Canada and NATO, and between Canada and Germany.

Just days after celebrating his 101st birthday, Dr. Spencer was introduced to the Summit participants by Lieutenant General (Ret'd) Maisonneuve, who led the tribute to a distinguished Canadian who spent his career defending Canada and Canadian interests on the European stage, noting that Dr. Spencer had been at the creation of NATO, and was still a staunch supporter of the Transatlantic relationship.

Born in Montreal on 9 November 1920, Robert Spencer was educated at McGill University, Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and Oxford University.

He joined McGill's Contingent of the Canadian Officers' Training Corps (COTC), and, upon graduation in 1941, joined first the Victoria Rifles and then the Royal Canadian Artillery.  He served with distinction in the 15th Canadian Field Regiment (4th Canadian Armoured Division) in France, the Netherlands and Germany, being Mentioned in Dispatches in 1945. He was wounded in February 1945 but returned to action after that.

After the war, Robert remained in Europe working for Col Charles Stacey in the Historical Section, returning to Canada 1946 to continue his education.  

Having received his Master's degree from Trinity College in 1947 and his doctorate in history from Oxford in 1950, he was appointed to the History Department of the University of Toronto, where he both taught and held many senior administrative posts, including Vice-Chair of the History Department and a Dean in the graduate school, for over 35 years.

In addition to his academic work, Dr. Spencer returned to uniform with the COTC contingent at the University of Toronto in the early 1950s, serving as one of the last commanding officers of the COTC before retiring in 1966.

Dr. Spencer's academic interests were many and varied. Specializing initially in German history, he became increasingly engaged in international relations as the years passed. A member of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs from 1950 until the present, heco-edited the International Journal for 25 years. He is the author of many books and articles in both English and German, including the high school history text in Ontario, and contributed (as author and editor) to many scholarly journals in Canada, the UK and Germany.  His most recent publication was his memoirs, published in 2006, appropriately entitled A European Affair, who presented a signed copy to Mr. Pesic.

A Charter member of the Atlantic Council of Canada, he was the President from 1990 to 1999.  During this period, he was also a staunch supporter of the Atlantic Treaty Association (ATA), serving as Vice-President from 1994 to 1997.  In the latter capacity, he hosted the ATA's assembly in Toronto in 1995, which not only was a resounding success in terms of promoting Canada-NATO relations, but he was ably assisted by his intern of the day, Goran Samuel Pesic.  He built up the University’s Centre for International Studies. At the same time, its director for many years put it on the path to become today’s Munk Centre at the University of Toronto.

In recognition of his many accomplishments, Dr. Spencer is the recipient of the Canadian Forces Decoration, the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal, the Netherlands’ Liberation Medal, and the Legion d’Honneur.  For his long-term efforts at promoting and supporting Canada’s international relations with NATO and Germany, in 1983, he was awarded the Goethe Medal. He was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1986 (one of only three Canadian recipients).

Dr. Spencer married Ruth Margaret Church, a Fellow McGill graduate, in 1948. Ruth served during the war in the WRENs in Canada, Northern Ireland and Scotland, before joining the Foreign Service as the Librarian at Canada House in London, being the first married woman in Canada’s Foreign Service. Upon their return to Canada, Ruth was the Librarian for the Canadian Institute of International Affairs. While raising three children, including enduring many extended trips to Europe, was Robert’s constant companion until her death in 2000.

Now in his 102nd year, Robert Spencer still actively engages in the study of European affairs. Until the pandemic, he was a weekly visitor to the library at Global Affairs Canada, where he read the international newspapers and convinced the library to order many important books.

Dr. Spencer was profoundly grateful to have been saluted at the Summit. He is also very honoured to lend his name to the Policy Insights Forum's internship program, commencing in January 2022.  As a Professor Emeritus and Honorary Fellow of Trinity College of the University of Toronto, and a respected teacher and mentor to generations of students, many of whom had their own distinguished careers in the Foreign Service, academia and the broader Canadian society, this is indeed a fitting tribute.

To see full published article, click here.
To see full published article, click here.