Tribute to the late Honorable Ian Shugart, P.C.

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Halls of Parliament, Ottawa

Hon. Peter Harder: Thank you, colleagues. The hour is late, but the time is right.

We have spent a few weeks now grieving the passing of our dear friend and colleague, Senator Ian Shugart. We have remembered Ian for his kindness, for his devotion to public service, his deep faith and his love of family. These were the essence of the man.

A few of us, including me, had the privilege of speaking with him in the weeks before he died, when we were able to convey some of these sentiments personally. During those conversations, Ian imparted much wisdom in return, some of which he hoped he would be able to share with you.

Originally, Ian was supposed to give this address, but it became clear that his failing health wouldn’t allow him to do so. He asked if I would read it for him. Alas, Senator Shugart died before we could complete the final draft.

It is always risky to convey in your own words the thoughts of another. Just ask anyone who tried to write a speech for Senator Shugart. There was often almost no similarity between the speeches Ian delivered and the words that were originally put on the page in front of him. While his style was simple and direct, it was still original and earthy, as befits the man.

Given these caveats, I will try here to put a few of Ian’s final thoughts into the record. In our conversations before he passed away, Ian conveyed to me his belief that the political environment in which we find ourselves is leading to a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. He saw two choices: We would succumb to the polarization that has riven so many countries around the world, in some cases making the ability to govern almost impossible; or we could find a way to recommit ourselves to a solutions-based future, which could mark Canada as an example for a democratic world under siege.

Senators will recall, because it was referred to even this week, when Senator Shugart urged that members occupying this body must demonstrate restraint when reviewing legislation that emerges from the other place. Should we overreach in amending or, perhaps, by defeating legislation, we risk putting the Senate at odds with the MPs and, in turn, the voters who elected them. As we discussed it over the summer, Senator Shugart wanted to elaborate on that theme so that it would encompass all those other individuals who have a hand in building our nation — not just governments, but industry, members of civil society, educators and voters themselves.

When intransigence and conflict are the order of the day, Senator Shugart believed we risked being unable to effectively deal with the contemporary and existential threats to our society. Without compromise, we would leave potential solutions withering on the vine. Ian was not prone to overstatement. He was a cool head who, nonetheless, saw evidence all around him of intransigence, isolationism and hardening positions making resolutions almost impossible to achieve.

He worried, for example, about America, where the international community was looking for leadership on the war between Israel and Hamas, only to find the House of Representatives leaderless and adrift because it could not agree on who should lead the House of Representatives itself. He would have noted that those in the United States, which rightly calls itself the cradle of modern democracy, can’t seem to find common ground on issues like immigration, gun control or abortion. He saw that attitudes were dangerously frozen, leading to insult, abuse and sometimes even violence.

These polarizing forces have yet to create a similar environment in Canada, but harder edges are also showing up in our national discourse, and anger is building here too. Witness the profanities regularly thrown at our Prime Minister, whose speeches sometimes have to be cancelled for security reasons. The same happens at institutions of higher learning, where speakers are made to feel unwelcome because of the subjects of their speechs.

Those on the left are characterized as the “woke mob” and those on the right as “redneck greedheads” who care nothing for the environment. But Ian was a solutions-oriented man, and he wanted this speech to give examples of how Canada has overcome political differences in the past.

He mentioned, for example, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which is integral to Canada’s economic well-being and handles over 40 to 50 million tonnes of cargo annually. Few of us are old enough to remember, but the idea for the seaway was hardly a unanimous proposition when it was first put forward. Indeed, at various points in the process, the governments of Ontario and Quebec both opposed the plan, as did various railway associations and those operating harbours in Atlantic Canada. By 1945, however, the arguments for the prosperity of the seaway gained ground to the extent that Canadians proposed building the project even if the U.S. didn’t contribute. That idea triggered a further groundswell of support in Canada, and the U.S. eventually joined in the venture. In all, 22,000 workers were employed in the seaway’s construction, which has been characterized as a 3,700-kilometre-long superhighway of ocean freighters. Is a project like the seaway something that we could agree on today, given the intergovernmental battles over pipelines, dams and other cross‑jurisdictional projects? It is a worthy question.

More recently, former prime minister Paul Martin and Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders signed a 10-year, $41.3-billion agreement to strengthen the health care system. The 2003 agreement promised shorter wait times for surgery, increased access to primary and home care and the creation of a health human resources strategy. In return for the federal contribution, provinces agreed to a defined waiting period in which certain surgeries would be completed.

National objectives were and are politically charged issues for governments. Failure to meet them can cause the government to lose popular support. As an assistant deputy minister for Health Canada at the time, Senator Shugart would have seen these risks first-hand and appreciated the sacrifices made on both sides to reach this compromise. He would also have understood that some felt the agreement was too rich, while others believed there were not enough strings attached to the money. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? An agreement was reached despite these misgivings. The perfect did not become the enemy of the good — at least not in this case.

Would such an agreement be possible in 2023? Today, as Canada and the world face challenges involving climate change, demographic shifts and threats to democracy, we might ask ourselves if we have the stuff to forge compromises and find solutions to these challenges.

For example, how will Canadians react should Alberta forge ahead with its idea to pull out of the Canada Pension Plan? Will regional tensions make it impossible for future national governments to find measures to mitigate climate change? And what of the use of the notwithstanding clause? Do we face a future in which the clause is regularly utilized to override the protections afforded by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms so one or other political parties can curry favour with a proportion of their electorate?

The watch words that guided Ian’s public service career were “judgment,” “compromise” and “inclusiveness.” In a country as diverse and large as our own, what other words do we have if we wish to get things done? Ian would have known that we are too big and our population is too varied for everyone to get what they want.

Ian didn’t say this to me directly, but I know he believed that the role of legislators is to broker disparate views and desires into something coherent that benefits the whole. The other choice is to cater to narrow segments of society who may provide enough seats for a party to govern but will not reflect the desires and needs of others.

My friend Lord Hennessy, the noted English historian, wrote, “Our system is based on decencies. Without them, it ceases to exist.” Honourable senators, these are words to live by. In one of our final conversations, Senator Shugart mentioned he wanted to make one final appeal for civility to those candidates who will be contesting the next election.

Ian was not a Pollyanna. After all, he had worked as a political assistant. Election campaigns are vigorous, loud and sometimes rough. They should be. Convincing voters you have the best ideas often necessitates a noisy and enthusiastic debate in which you must demonstrate to people that you mean what you say. Elections also provide a narrow window of time during which numbers of Canadians are listening. They are a time when ideas need to be well articulated, dissected and evaluated. The more time we take away from debates with name calling, half truths and character assassinations, the less time we have to talk about more important matters. Moreover, with fewer traditional media outlets around to cover the debate, as well as an increase in the number of actors who want to manipulate it, the obligation of politicians to conduct themselves truthfully and with civility is essential. To not do so would shortchange Canadians who deserve as much honest and informed debate as we can give them.

Let me end by saying that Ian believed that serving in the Senate was a privilege. He had high hopes for a more independent and less partisan way of getting things done, and that we might serve an example for others. For my part, I will try to honour his memory by pursuing those goals, and with your help, I believe we can bring this lasting memory of Ian to a better Senate. Thank you.

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