Hon. Joan Fraser:
Thank you, dear friends and colleagues. You are all too kind and far too generous, but your kind words mean so much to me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Serving in the Senate is an immense privilege. It is hard to grasp just how immense that privilege is until you actually get here. My nineteen and a half years here in the Senate have been an incredible journey. I sometimes had to pinch myself, for I simply could not believe how lucky I was to have the opportunity to grow and, above all, to learn, as well as to try to serve to the best of my ability.
It has been a wonderful run. Of course, I owe thanks to many people. I never used to understand why in these speeches people wanted to say thank you to so many. Now I do.
First thanks, of course, go to the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien who took a chance on somebody he barely knew who had no political links at all with the Liberal Party and called me to this place. He said to me when he did so, “You know there are at least 40 Liberals in Quebec who think they have a better claim to this position than you do.” But he did it.
Then thanks to all of the leaders and deputy leaders who gave me so many wonderful opportunities, beginning with Sharon Carstairs, who took a chance and immediately plunked me, a non-lawyer, on the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which was the most wonderful committee and where I learned so much from some of the greatest minds that this institution has known. Senator Joyal, who has been a pillar of that committee, and now chairs it, I’m sure will not mind if I say that I also learned immensely not only from him but also from Senator Nolin, from Senator Gérald Beaudoin. It was like going to law school to attend that committee. It was wonderful.
Then there are all the other leaders right down to, most recently, Senator Jim Cowan and now Senator Joe Day, who is terrific. It’s not just leadership. It’s all my colleagues, all the caucus members who took me in and welcomed me. My staff. Oh, my staff.
Céline Ethier essentially took me in hand, taught me how to be a senator and kept me on the straight and narrow. After she moved on to serve the Senate in another capacity, Kornelia Mankowski took over and has done her utmost — and her utmost is very impressive — to keep me on the straight and narrow ever since. With me now are Michael Cooke, Hélène Pilbeam and Doreen Jones, all carrying on a great tradition of keeping Senator Fraser pointed in the right direction.
Then there is the wonderful Senate staff. This institution relies so heavily on the staff who serve us. I have said before and I’ll say again, even if it takes a little time, that from the outside, people look at senators and we look like ducks or swans gliding along a smooth placid surface, but underneath there are feet propelling that serene passage. It’s the staff who are the feet and get us where we need to go. They don’t get nearly enough recognition for it.
Obviously given my love of the rules, my first thanks have to go to the table officers with whom I worked so well — all of them, but three in particular who shared particularly vigorous battles with me, working with me, not against me — Heather Lank, Till Heyde, Shaila Anwar and the incomparable Charles Robert, who also left us to go to another place. Terrible. And to all the others, all the people who serve us in so many capacities, serve us in this chamber and serve us outside the chamber to keep us going, they are all wonderful and I thank them all.
And then, as has been said, there is the family. We all know how much our families give up, or at least we think we know how much our families give up for us to come here. I don’t think we do know exactly, because so much of the time the sacrifice they make is when, by definition, we are not there. But they do it. There is no way to say how much they are appreciated.
Who else is appreciated? I’m not going to be here tomorrow, so just let me put in a little parenthesis here to say that Claudette Tardif, who succeeded and preceded me as deputy leader of the Senate Liberals, is one of the great additions — always has been — to this place. Her work on behalf of official language minorities has been of monumental importance, but also her work as deputy leader in difficult times was just precious to be part of. You don’t know how much we loved you and still do.
I’m going to be leaving this wonderful institution at a time of great change, change that has already begun but that will be continuing and that, in the main, I believe, is and will be good. This institution is not and never has been static. Change is inevitable. We have to try and make sure that the change we bring makes it better, which is perhaps easy to say and not necessarily so easy to do. If you will allow me, I will give you a few parting thoughts before I sit down again, which you can take for what they are worth.
Before we decide to change something, we should be very sure we understand why the status quo is what it is. Why did we get to where we are today? To me, some elements of the status quo are inexplicable and could probably be changed with no damage to anyone. A small example is that I’m not sure why our pages have to wear bow ties. I think they are very attractive, but I don’t think they are an inherent element of parliamentary privilege. If they got a new uniform the Senate would probably continue, though you do look really nice the way you are.
Other elements, however, are — even if their origins are no longer recalled — based on what was and is a genuine need. We must be sure we understand why something exists before we rush to change it. Nothing is sacred, but everything deserves understanding.
I would, in particular, be wary — and here I’m looking at some of my friends who will be pushing back on this one — of the sporadic attempts to make our debates more efficient. Efficiency, in this context, usually means more controlled and more predictable, but control means somebody has to be in control. It might not be one person — it might be leadership — but a controlled debate is one where, by definition, you are going to lose the capacity for spontaneity, which on occasion, can be the most beautiful characteristic of this chamber — when a debate spontaneously arises and nobody can say to another senator, “No, no, no. You’re not on the list. We don’t have time for you today.”
I believe one of the great elements of this place is the fact that any senator may rise on any day to speak to any item on the Order Paper.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Senator Fraser: There is also the option not to speak, as the case may be.
I know some of us worry and become very frustrated when items on the Order Paper seem to be delayed for what seem to be unconscionably long times. But I suggest that those who feel that frustration, which I have also felt in my time more than once, check the Rules. Our Rules actually contain many avenues by which the Senate may be brought to reach a decision. The difficulty, of course, is ensuring that you have the votes to make sure the decision will go your own way. But if you don’t have the votes, if the majority of the Senate does not agree with whatever it is that you are trying to promote, maybe you should think again. Maybe there is more time needed to persuade more of your colleagues to agree with you. But, by and large, given time, I believe this chamber has a very good track record for reaching wise conclusions.
The Westminster system, whether partisan or not, is going to be at the foundation of what we do in some form or another for a long time to come, in part because the other place operates on the Westminster system and we are half of a system. You can only vary to a certain point with the other half of the system in your structures before things start to become unworkable.
But the Westminster system here will evolve, and I’m going to be fascinated to see what you do with it.
Here are my last thoughts, although it will take me a minute to express them. Don’t ever think that the Senate must, because it is not elected, knuckle under to pressure from the government or the House of Commons.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Senator Fraser: Remember the Salisbury Convention that Senator Joyal introduced me to many years ago. If a government has been elected on a specific element of its platform, undertaking to do a specific thing, then we do not believe it appropriate to block that thing, although even then we may correct some of the errors of oversight or inattention that might creep into the necessary legislation. But if the government does not have that specific mandate, then it is our job — our job — to exercise that independence of thought and that independent research to determine whether we, collectively, believe that the measure in question is for the betterment of Canada.
That’s what John A. Macdonald meant when he talked about us not going against the settled, clearly expressed will of the people. He didn’t mean that anything any back-bench MP stands up to say automatically means we have to click our heels and salute. He meant that if the people have clearly expressed a will, then it is our job to respect that will. Otherwise, it is our bounden duty to exercise our judgment and our independence. That’s why we have independence. That’s why we have this incredible privilege of tenure until the age of 75, unless we decide to go a little early.
When you exercise your independence, don’t expect much public glory or gratitude. That’s not the way it works. But there is immense satisfaction in believing and knowing that you have done your part to contribute to the good governance of Canada. There is no better place in Canada to do that than here in this chamber.
I wish you all much happiness and much success for all the years to come.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!