MONTREAL — Sheila Finestone’s sister related an anecdote at last week’s funeral for the longtime parliamentarian and social justice activist that she believes illustrates the kind of person Finestone was.
About two months before her death from cancer on June 8 at age 82, Finestone reluctantly accepted that she needed full-time home care, said Diane Abbey-Livingston.
Abbey-Livingston, arriving at Finestone’s first meeting with her new caregiver, found the young woman in an apartment building corridor in deep conversation with Finestone, who was leaning on a walker and carrying her pain medication.
But Finestone wasn’t querying the care worker on her qualifications. She wanted to know all about her life: her homeland, her studies, her dreams. Finestone encouraged her to get her Canadian papers and to go back to school.
“To her very marrow, Sheila was committed to the potential in each of us,” said Abbey-Livingston. She set ambitions and standards for herself, and she wanted others to pursue theirs with as much energy as she did, her sister said.
Her grandson, Jason Finestone, said that Finestone “did not hesitate to let others know if she felt they were not giving their best. She spoke her mind more frequently than expected, and sometimes desired.”
Her youngest son, Stephen Finestone, said, “Mom was focused and slightly opinionated,” but she respected and sought the views of others.
She put family first, which wasn’t easy, given the long hours she devoted to her public life, he said. She was “a mother to more than four boys. She was a mother to a generation of men and women.”
Though she is most associated with fighting for women’s equality, she was not a true feminist, he said, because “her core value was humanity, not gender: she believed in work and effort, not entitlement.”
Former prime minister Paul Martin, who attended the funeral, told reporters that Finestone offered him advice from the time he was a rookie MP to his retirement. “She never shrank from giving me advice, even when I was in cabinet, and I always took it… she certainly had the right balance. She had a very strong social conscience, but would also say, ‘You’ve got to balance the books.’”
He added: “She did enormous good for the country, and Canada is poorer for her passing.”
Finestone was the Liberal member of Parliament for Mount Royal riding from 1984 to 1999. The riding, which at the time had probably the largest Jewish population in the country, had been held since 1965 by former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who retired in 1984. Finestone admired Trudeau and has said he inspired her to go into politics.
She had to fight for the party nomination in 1984 against two other contenders, both from the Jewish community.
She was secretary of state for multiculturalism and the status of women under prime minister Jean Chrétien from 1993 to 1996, and she served on dozens of committees over her time in Parliament. In 1999, Chrétien appointed Finestone to the Senate, where she served until her mandatory retirement seven years ago.
She also worked for women’s rights at the international level, attending the UN World Conferences on Women in Nairobi and Copenhagen, and leading the Canadian delegation to Beijing in 1995.
Finestone was the daughter of a prominent Montreal Jewish family, and came by community service naturally. Her father was Monroe Abbey, president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1968 to 1971, and her mother was the former Minnie Cummings.
From an early age, Finestone volunteered in the Jewish community, including serving as president of the Women’s Federation of Allied Jewish Community Services (now Federation CJA), and was a founder of Project Genesis, a storefront agency helping people in need secure their rights in the 1970s and of the francophone Centre Communautaire Juif in the 1960s.
She worked professionally in Jewish Family Services’ youth protection department, just before entering politics.
Her interest in women’s and human rights in general led her to activism in the broader society. She was the first anglophone (and Jewish) president of the Féderation des Femmes du Québec, the province’s largest women’s organization. She was elected in 1977.
Back then, she said in an interview with The CJN: “I’ve always been a groundbreaker in many ways. There’s a little of the avant-gardist in me.”
She was behind the famous pro-federalist “Yvette” rally of thousands of women during the 1980 referendum on sovereignty, a protest against a derisive remark by Parti Québécois cabinet minister Lise Payette about women on the “no” side. Some observers felt the event, held at the old Montreal Forum, help turn the tide against separatism.
At the funeral, Martin termed it “a political masterpiece.”
The eulogy was delivered by Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, who officiated 62 years ago to the day at the wedding of Sheila and her husband, Alan, who predeceased her.
Tributes to Finestone have been numerous. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff stated: “Dedicating a large part of her life to public service, she fought to better the lives of the less fortunate… Ms. Finestone’s tireless devotion and compassion for others stemmed from her belief that ‘living in society goes beyond caring about yourself.’ Her exemplary commitment to helping her community was an inspiration to us all.”
Irwin Cotler, who followed in Finestone’s footsteps as Mount Royal MP, said in the House of Commons that she “knew every quartier of this increasingly multicultural constituency. She was a natural choice for secretary of state for multiculturalism and the status of women, and reflected and represented the cases and causes of her constituents in an outstanding fashion.”
At her funeral, Cotler recalled jocularly that Finestone was a bit of a speed demon behind the wheel and always seemed to get to Ottawa faster than any other Montreal-area MP. She also was quick down the slopes as an avid skier.
Canadian Jewish Congress president Mark Freiman of Toronto said Finestone was “a tremendous role model, in particular, for women in public life” and lived by “the credo of giving back to others” that she learned from her parents.
Bernie Farber, Congress CEO, added: “As an MP, Sheila represented a riding with a considerable Jewish constituency, but she exemplified the best of Jewish values by fighting for social justice for all Canadians. Sheila made our country a better place.”
In his condolences, Israeli Consul General Yoram Elron called Finestone “a vocal supporter of Israel.”
Finestone is survived by her sons David of Ottawa, Peter of Toronto, Maxwell also of Toronto, and Stephen of Ottawa and their spouses and seven grandchildren, as well as a brother, Stanley Abbey of Montreal.