I recall fondly my first visit to Parliament. The year was 1951, and my father took me, an 11-year-old, to the House of Commons and spoke words that still resonate to this day: “Son, this is the Parliament of Canada. This is vox populi – ‘the voice of the people’.”
Today, such sentiments might be greeted with a certain degree of cynicism – particularly as one observes the cacophony of question period or the toxicity in the political arena. Fortunately, I retain both great respect and reverence for this institution, which I have come to view as the centrepiece of our democracy and the cradle for the pursuit of justice.
When I announced that I would not seek re-election – having served some 15 years – I had the opportunity to reflect on my time here. When I was elected, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, my predecessor in Mount Royal, imparted important words of wisdom: “You can compromise on matters of policy, but never compromise on matters of principle.” I have sought to pursue that course, and to act on matters of principle as they underpin issues of policy.
Though it is perhaps not well known, I never intended to run for Parliament, as I was perfectly happy as a McGill University law professor and human rights lawyer. When the vacancy arose in the riding as a result of MP Sheila Finestone’s appointment to the Senate, there was a field of candidates already vying for the seat. I had no interest in running and turned away any request to do so. Nonetheless, a draft movement developed, the other candidates dropped out, the nomination deadline was imminent, and, as Finestone had one year left in her mandate, I looked upon going to Ottawa as a sabbatical. I can acknowledge that I had no intention of serving five years, let alone the 15 I will have served by the end of this year.
As I continued to serve in Parliament, which I consider to be one of the highest forms of public service, I was invited by prime minister Paul Martin to join his cabinet as minister of justice and attorney general of Canada. I am particularly proud of my time as minister, during which I introduced Canada’s first law to combat human trafficking, crafted the Civil Marriage Act – landmark legislation that extended marriage equality to gays and lesbians, while at the same time, guaranteeing religious freedom – and made the quashing of wrongful convictions a priority.
During my tenure as minister, we democratized the process of appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, appointed two outstanding women justices, making the Supreme Court of Canada the most gender representative supreme court in the world, while also appointing the first aboriginal justice and first visible minority justice to an appellate court.
Along the way, I was guided by Jewish values imparted in the teachings of my parents. Indeed, after being sworn-in as minister, I began my media scrum stating that “I will be guided in my work by one over-arching principle, that of tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall ye pursue,” which my father taught me “was equal to all the other commandments combined,” to which my mother, hearing my father’s teachings, would add: “If you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice about you – and combat the injustice – otherwise pursuing justice is a theoretical abstraction.”
Accordingly, I was guided in my work by such values as zachor – “remembrance” – which led to me proposing, and the House unanimously adopting, a motion to establish a National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide.
I was also taught early on by my mother, who exemplified this throughout her life, that “life and death are on the tip of the tongue,” which led to my making the combating of incitement to hate and genocide a priority, launching the National Justice Initiative Against Racism and Hate, and founding and chairing the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism.
Another foundational Jewish value – “Thou shall not stand idly by while thy brothers’ and sisters’ blood is being shed” – inspired my involvement in the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, and led to my chairing of the Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition, Iran Accountability Week, the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Interparliamentary Group.
Beyond 2015, I look forward to remaining active in public life, lecturing and writing on the issues of the day, advancing the causes of human rights and international justice in particular, protecting the vulnerable, working for gender equality and advocating on behalf political prisoners – all anchored in Jewish values – efforts in which I have been engaged for over 35 years.
I believe Parliament is at its best when we put aside partisanship and incivility to work in common cause for the public good. Rancour and recrimination only serve to diminish public confidence in the institution, and we, as parliamentarians, owe it to Canadians to afford Parliament the dignity and respect it warrants.
I have been humbled by the expressions of support and words of encouragement from members of all parties, constituents, Canadians and beyond, since I made my decision public. It has truly been a privilege and an honour to serve – and I fortunately have 20 months left to go until the next election.
Irwin Cotler is the member of Parliament for Mount Royal and a professor emeritus of law at McGill University. On Feb. 5, he announced he would not seek re-election for a seventh term.