02.08.2014 12:00 PM

In Sunday’s Sun: Parliament’s giant

Weep for Parliament. Irwin Cotler is gone.

You may be unfamiliar with Irwin Cotler’s name – he was a politician, but a quiet one. He was totally unlike many other politicians, in fact. He was not a shouter, or a showboater. He was one of a kind, and – even you didn’t know about him – it’s also a fact that our politics were elevated by his presence.

The Montreal Liberal MP this week announced that he will not be running again. For his party – for his constituents, for Canada – it is a big loss. Cotler is, truly, a giant in a political landscape populated by lilliputian underachievers.

Take a look around. In today’s House of Commons, we remain cursed with the ongoing pestilence of Rob Anders – who called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, and who literally falls asleep on the job. We still are obliged to listen to the likes of Pipsqueak Pierre Poilievre – who, coincidentally we’re sure, announced election-fraud reforms on the very day the supposedly-independent RCMP charged two ex-Senators with fraud.

And, if that wasn’t enough to make you depressed, we have a new MP – Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland – heckled Tuesday in the Commons (and mocked by a Vancouver media troglodyte) for, wait for it, the sound of her voice. Use your “big girl voice,” the media misogynist said.

It is an ugly, unintelligent political culture. But Irwin Cotler stood above and apart of all that. He was the kind of leader our parents used to tell us about: a dignified, decent, brilliant man. A statesman.

In Canada, ironically, Cotler didn’t ever quite achieve the sort of fame bestowed on him internationally. Around the democratic world, however, Cotler was rightly regarded as a human rights expert, and he was therefore regularly consulted by governments in Israel, the United States, and places in between.

He was legal counsel to the aforementioned Mandela, and an advisor to Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky – who later became Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. Cotler acted as lawyer to the wrongly-accused Maher Arar. He defended both Palestinians and Israelis against their own governments.

He pursued war criminals. He helped draft anti-terrorism legislation. He crafted constitutions, here and abroad.

He was a moderate, too, in a time when extremists rule the podium and the pulpit. Unlike Harper and a few demagogues within the Jewish community’s leadership, Cotler did not regard fair-minded criticism of Israeli government policy to be “anti-Semitic.” For that, he was reviled by some far-right special interests. But Cotler knew that true democracies – and Israel is indisputably one – must always be prepared to take, and consider, reasonable criticism.

Since 1999, he has represented the Mount Royal riding once held by Pierre Trudeau, racking up huge majorities. For a decade, the Harper Conservatives were obsessed with defeating Cotler, but without success. He won every time. (Their last challenger, a man they devoted considerable resources to help out, is now facing fraud charges in the Montreal municipal politics scandal.)

The last time I saw Cotler was at the anti-climactic Ottawa gathering that saw Justin Trudeau annointed Liberal leader. We surrounded Cotler, beseeching him to run again. He demurred.

“It’s time for me to go,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

But it is. Cotler’s much-admired right-hand man, Howard Liebman, will likely keep the seat for the Grits. But his boss leaves a legacy that will be difficult to match.

Politicians get criticized all the time for their shortcomings, and rightly so. It isn’t a rare thing.

Much rarer are politicians like Irwin Cotler, who radiate wisdom, courage and good judgment.

You may not know of him – but you should know this: our politics is greatly diminished by his departure.

26 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    Howard Liebman has said he is not running. Popular CSL mayor Anthony Housefather is running for the Liberal nomination.

  2. Elisabeth Lindsay says:

    I will really miss Mr. Cotler, but don`t think for just one minute that he has ceased contributing his fine mind. I see great things for him in the future.

    Being an MP in HOC is WAY beneath his abilities.

    • Sean says:

      “Being an MP in HOC is WAY beneath his abilities”

      Yes, exactly. He is one of those rare people who is definitely too good for politics.

  3. Cynical says:

    We’ll miss him. Especially now that the CPC is pushing this “election reform” bill. He really is the antithesis of the Poilevres of this world: intelligent, articulate and very far from glib.

    It is also a credit to his constituents to consistently elect such a fine man.

    (Warren, you have to right something on the election reform bill. Well, you don’t have to, but I’d really like to see it. )

  4. Attack! says:

    Nice tribute, and very informative. Thank you.

  5. Robin says:

    Thank you, Warren, for taking time to write this homage to Hon. Irwin Cotler.

    As we watch our democratic institutions being incrementally and surreptitiously dismantled brick by brick it is disheartening to learn that one of its pillars will be departing Parliament; it will be diminished by his absence. The Orwellian Fair Elections Act will further erode our electoral system and tilt it in favour of a zealous minority of unscrupulous demagogues.

  6. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Warren,

    Nothing quite like those parliamentarians who are in it just to do the job to the very best of their abilities. Some, have had the misfortune of being an understated leader. Broadbent, Clark and Dion immediately come to mind. But so do other good to great MPs such as Cotler, Graham, Blaikie, Prentice, and even some current ministers such as Fast and the perrenially overlooked Rajotte.

  7. CW says:

    Thanks for that. Have always admired Cotler.

  8. dave says:

    Mr. Cotler left because he didn’t like the way Justin handled the Liberal senators.

  9. dave says:

    I have a mixed reaction.
    Irving Cotler is certainly an MP I pay attention to. When he stands in the House to enumerate his arguments for or against he is clear and to the point. He almost always says what I already agree with, or that I agree with after thinking about his argument.

    However,
    (1, as Mr Cotler might begin, holding his paper in one hand, and holding up one finger…) I do not like secretive laws, like our anti terrorist legislation, giving way too much power to secret police with little public accountability. That kind of stuff invariably ends up being used to cover abuses and bureaucratic fiat.

    (2) He worked with Jason Kenney to cobble together that extra parliamentary group of MP’s on anti Semitism to come up with the definition of ‘new’ anti Semitism that Harper parroted in his visit to the Knesset.

    But, for the most part, you are right…a classy person.

  10. JamesM says:

    The first thing that comes to mind when reading Mr. Cotler’s CV is oddly enough Stanley Knowles of the CCF/NDP.

    They both seemed to have a healthy respect for public service and acquitted themselves well. MR Knowles was universally respected by all and sundry, though I doubt the current crop of CPC reform types would be as gracious to Mr. Cotler as Joe Clark was to Mr. Knowles. Pierre Trudeau also respected MR Knowles as well.

    The current crop of politicians haunting Ottawa these days do not compare to either gentleman.

    For a look at true respect for public service check out this column from the Ottawa Sun of all places.

    http://www.ottawasun.com/2013/05/26/the-public-service–then-and-now

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      Warren,

      Few people can live up to Stanley Knowles’ record of extraordinary service. I suspect he viewed it as par for the course. I’m glad Trudeau honoured him the way he did. He was more than worth his weight in gold after such a stellar contribution to Canada.

  11. david ray says:

    Sorry but I just don’t think the citizens of Canada give a shit anymore beyond online petitions and posting comments and watching sequined mannequins skating in Sochi while children are slaughtered in the streets of Homs. Where is the outrage indeed.

    Over and out.

    fur and feather field and stream
    we destroy in the name of greed
    cause we can’t tell want from need
    oh, what a future we will leave

    hey hey hey
    the hell with tomorrow
    when we’re living for today

    i know people that still buy cars
    just to fill their empty yards
    when the gas runs out
    they’ll start a war just to keep theirs away from yours

    will we the people ever rise
    or gamble away our children’s lives
    have we had it too good, have we had it too fine
    if you have to ask then we’re out of time

    hey hey hey
    the hell with tomorrow
    when we’re living for today

    there’s a rich man down the street
    pounding his fist and walking his beat
    want’s everything and today
    long as he don’t have to pay

    hey hey hey
    the hell with tomorrow
    when we’re living for today

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