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Irwin Cotler, MP

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Irwin Cotler’s Farewell Speech to the House of Commons

Posted on June 10, 2015

Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):

Mr. Chair, I am pleased to participate in this rather bittersweet retrospective. I want to commend my colleagues on all sides of the House for their reflective and, indeed, moving comments.

I recall fondly my first-ever visit to, and encounter with, this House. It was 1951. I was 11 years old. My late father took me here to visit the House of Commons. He looked up at the House and said, “Son, this is the Parliament of Canada. This is vox populi, the voice of the people”.

Today, such sentiments might invite a certain cynical rejoinder, particularly as one observes the sometimes cacophony of question period or the toxicity in the political arena. Certainly and fortunately, I still retain that great respect and reverence for this institution, which I regard as the centrepiece of our democracy, the cradle, the nurturer for the pursuit of justice.

In this, I am reminded and, indeed, inspired by another set of teachings on the pursuit of justice from my late parents, of blessed memory. For it is my father who taught me before I could understand the profundity of his words. As he put it, the pursuit of justice is equal to all the other commandments combined. As he said, “This, you must teach unto your children”.

But it was my mother who, when she heard my father say this, would say to me, “If you want to pursue justice, you have to understand, you have to feel the injustice about you. You have to go in and about your community and beyond, and feel the injustice and combat the injustice. Otherwise, the pursuit of justice remains a theoretical construct”.

As a result of my parents’ teachings, I got involved in the two great human rights struggles of the second half of the 20th century, the struggle for human rights in the former Soviet Union and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And I got involved with those who were the faces and voices of those struggles, and the defence of the political prisoners, Anatoly Sharansky in the former Soviet Union and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

I got involved in the struggle for peace in the Middle East because as my mother, an authentic peace advocate, would say, “The struggle for peace is bound up in the pursuit of justice”. That same teaching about justice also underpinned my work as minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, as well as my work as an MP.

Indeed, when I was first sworn in as minister, I said at the time that I would be guided in my work by one overarching principle, the pursuit of justice and I had my father’s teachings in my mind and within that, the promotion and protection of equality, of equality not just as a centrepiece of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but as an organizing principle for the building of a just society, and for the promotion and protection of human dignity, for the building of a society that was not only just but one that was also compassionate and humane.

(2000)

[Translation]

These were my guiding principles during almost 16 years that I spent as the member for Mount Royal, a great riding, a rainbow riding, where I grew up and where I have lived for almost 60 years.

[English]

Mount Royal is a riding that I love living in. It has been a privilege and pleasure to represent my constituents while engaged in the multi-layered, multi-faceted role and responsibilities of an MP including: first, the MP as ombudsperson for individuals and groups in the riding, petitioning government and Parliament for redress of grievance on behalf of constituents.

In that regard, I have been the beneficiary of a wonderful set of assistants in the riding, including my first head, Sabina Schmidman, Louise O’Neill, Diane Du Sablon, Isabelle Casanova, and Howard Liebman, a former law student of mine who headed up my office for close to 12 years. All of them have served the people of Mount Royal, and even beyond, with understanding, empathy and wisdom and in the process have transformed the lives of people in the riding and beyond.

Second, the MP as a representative of riding-wide concerns. Here, I have been engaged in the whole gamut of cross-cutting concerns that reflect my riding on the domestic front: health, environment, child care, anti-poverty, veterans’ affairs, and le devoir de mémoire, the recognition and respect for our heritage. On the international front, we pursued a humanitarian and human rights based foreign policy, in particular, among others, the responsibility to protect.

Third is the MP as policy maker and legislator. Here I was pleased as Minister of Justice to introduce Canada’s first-ever law against human trafficking, the contemporary global slave trade; to craft a Civil Marriage Act anchored in two fundamental principles, the equality principle and freedom of religion; to initiate with the assistance of colleagues from all parties in the justice committee, including the member for Central Nova, now the Minister of Justice, Canada’s first-ever inclusive, representative, transparent and accountable appointment process for the Supreme Court, which led to the most gender-equitable Supreme Court in the world, and the appointment of the first-ever aboriginal and visible minority persons to appellate courts; and to review and participate in the reversal of wrongful convictions.

As an MP, again with all-party co-operation, I was able to shepherd through the House Canada’s first-ever Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act and, ultimately, as Minister, ended up initiating the first-ever prosecution under that act. As an opposition MP, as we have all done, I have sought to make use of the parliamentary instruments at our disposal, such as private members’ bills, motions, petitions, order paper questions and the like to help advance the public good.

This leads me to the other several roles of the MP.

The MP as overseer reflects our responsibility as representatives of the public trust and overseers of the public purse to help secure the public good. The MP as public advocate takes up cases and causes and brings them to the attention of Parliament, the government and the people of Canada, for example, to stand in solidarity with political prisoners, to let them know that they are not alone, that we will never relent in our advocacy until we secure their freedom. The MP as communicator participates in press briefings and engages with constituents, stakeholders, NGOs and civil society generally. The MP as educator, as when we meet with students from our riding and others and find that we end up learning from these students and they become our teachers. The MP as global ambassador for Canada as in our international representations and delegations.

In all of those capacities, I have found that some of our most important and impactful work is a result of cross-party collaboration and co-operation. It has been my pleasure to work with colleagues from all parties in this chamber and in the Senate on matters such as advocating for the release of political prisoners and holding, as we did recently, human rights violators to account, notably during our annual Iran Accountability Week.

In particular, I must highlight the co-operative and constructive work of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights, which operates almost exclusively by consensus. I trust that my colleagues on that subcommittee will continue that work in the same collegial and serious manner after the next election.

Of course, none of this parliamentary work would have been possible without the commitment and care of those who headed up and guided my parliamentary office: Judith Abitan, Michael Milech, David Grossman, Jacob Binder, Matt Biderman, as well as Charles Feldman, who headed up my office for seven years and whose expertise became indispensable not only to my work but to the effective functioning of Parliament as a whole.

Moreover, as Minister, I was privileged to work with exemplary senior officials and civil servants in the Department of Justice, too numerous to mention.

As well, we have all been the beneficiaries of the professional and personable House of Commons personnel, from security guards to technical staff, to pages, to legislative drafters, to House and committee clerks.

In particular, I must also thank my own inspiring party leader, the member for Papineau, the staff in the party leader’s office, the party’s House leader, the member for Beauséjour, with his irrepressible sense of humour, our exemplary whip, the member for Random—Burin—St. George’s, all the people in the House leader’s and whip’s office and, indeed, I commend them all for their support, flexibility, patience and good humour, particularly when I am not always onside. I also include my wonderful caucus colleagues.

I want to also recognize the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin, in whose government I had the privilege to serve, who was the best Finance Minister this country ever had, a great Prime Minister we did not have sufficient time to experience, and an exemplary moral leader in matters of aboriginal justice.

Finally, a word about family, with which I will close, who are first in my heart and mind. I began by speaking about my parents and I will conclude with speaking about the care, contribution and commitment of my wife Ariela, who is in the chamber this evening, and has been in the political trenches with me all these years, though, admittedly, sometimes not on the same side. I thank my children, Michal, Gila, Tanya and Yoni, who have been the source of many a humbling and healthy riposte, my grandchildren, who seem to have inherited that same quality with an even more mocking humour, and my children’s spouses. I thank them all for their support and their love. They certainly have mine in return.

(2005)

For me, Parliament is not just a place where I went to work; it has been my home. My colleagues have become my family. It has been a privilege to serve in this chamber, to serve alongside all my colleagues, to serve the people of Mount Royal and to help in the best way I can to advance the cause of justice for all.

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