A distinguished economist and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Sylvia Ostry was born in Winnipeg to Morris J. and Betsy Stoller Knelman. 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.
Sylvia Knelman studied economics at McGill University, where she earned her B. A. in 1948, her M. A. in 1950, and her Ph.D. in 1954. She then did post-graduate study at Cambridge University in England. She has taught at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University, McGill, and l’Université de Montreal, all in Montreal, and at Carleton University in Ottawa and has been a research fellow at the University of Toronto. From 1990 to 1997, she chaired the Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. From 1991 to 1997 she also served as chancellor of the University of Waterloo in Kitchener, Ontario, a mostly ceremonial post.
Ostry may be even better known as a governmental and NGO leader than as an academic. She has been the chief statistician of the Government of Canada (1972–1975); deputy minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs (1975–1978); chair of the Economic Council of Canada (1978–1979); head of the Department of Economics and Statistics of the OECD in Paris (1979–1983); deputy minister for International Trade and coordinator of International Economic Relations for the Government of Canada (1984–1985); ambassador for Multilateral Trade Negotiations and the prime minister’s personal representative for the economic summit (1985–1988); Volvo Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York (1989–1990); western co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission for Hungary’s Economic Recovery (1990–1994); and chair of the National Council of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs (1990–1995). Although never actively involved in Jewish affairs, Ostry has served on the academic advisory board of World ORT.
More than eighty publications, most of them focusing on policy analysis, are credited to Ostry. These include Governments and Corporations in a Shrinking World: The Search for Stability (New York, 1990); Techno-Nationalism and Techno-Globalism: Conflict and Cooperation (Washington, 1995), written with Richard Nelson; and Who’s on First? The Post-Cold War Trading System (Chicago, 1997).
Among the honors awarded to Ostry are eighteen honorary degrees from universities in Canada and elsewhere. She has received the Government of Canada Outstanding Achievement Award (1987) and the Honorary Associate Award of the Conference Board of Canada (1992). She was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 and elevated to Companion of the Order of Canada in 1990. Since 1992 the Sylvia Ostry Foundation has sponsored a prestigious annual lecture on international affairs.
In 1956, Ostry married Bernard Ostry (b. 1927), a native of Wadena, Saskatchewan. A historian, professor, and media personality, Bernard Ostry served for a time as CEO of TVOntario, the province’s educational television network. They have two sons, Adam (b. 1957) who works in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa and Jonathan David (b. 1962) who works for the International Monetary Fund in Washington.