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.