Irwin Cotler has brought to the House of Commons a dignity and intellect that seem to belong to another era. In the latest edition of Inside Policy, he looks back on a stellar career defending human rights across the globe and discusses what his plans are once he leaves politics following the federal election.
By Robin V. Sears, July 29, 2015
It would be wrong to call him a relic, as he is far too engaged and engaging to wear that label. But he is nonetheless an improbable member of Parliament who seems to have been teleported from an earlier time, from an era that valued intellect over show and unstinting courtesy over childish combat — an era that regarded self-promotion dimly.
A commitment to a series of causes, relentlessly, tirelessly nudging them forward with the help of colleagues on all sides of the House: that was once the convention for serious backbench MPs. Deep knowledge and expertise, often shared with colleagues and academics from a half a dozen places around the world, was not uncommon two generations ago, though by the 1970s such comity had begun to fade.
Dozens of hours of research and interviews in anticipation of a parliamentary committee hearing, background reading by members themselves — not just scanning a one-page digest from an eager young staffer: while not always the norm, neither was it uncommon.
One can imagine Professor Irwin Cotler sitting in the old West Block cafeteria on a late afternoon, papers spread around the long tables, a cooling cup of tea at his elbow, holding forth — at some length, it must be said — on the importance of samizdat to Natan Sharansky’s Soviet underground influence, or on why Raoul Wallenberg was the subject of so much baloney from Moscow, or on why the latest change in the PLO leadership would not be very important to the stalled dialogue with the Israelis, or, well, a dozen other themes.
A formidable storyteller with a delightful, self-deprecating sense of humour, one shares a cup of tea with Cotler, both listening and watching his agile memory and intellect flick between one cause and another, one friend or geography and a second or third, and be astonished that more than an hour has gone by without one noticing.
Proof of his unique style is his honorary membership in the Liberal National Women’s Caucus. Invited by caucus chair Carolyn Bennett to attend a meeting soon after he arrived in Ottawa, he asked if he could stay, becoming the inaugural — and still only permanent — honorary member. The story is iconic of his style and his charm. “We found his contribution to be invaluable. Sometimes he would offer legal gravitas like no one else. He called it his favorite meeting of the week,” says Bennett.
Before his election to Parliament, Cotler was a successful academic at McGill, an internationally respected expert on international law and human rights, and already a pioneer on apartheid, the Middle East, conflict resolution, Soviet dissidents and a list of subsidiary causes too long to document. He was content with his life and he had reached a moment of serenity in his work.
The invitation to seek the Liberal nomination for the famous riding of Mont-Royal came in 1999 as a result of the previous occupant’s being “elevated” — as we used to say in pre-Brazeau/Duffy era — to the Senate. The Liberal operatives locally and nationally were keen that this world-famous human rights activist and constitutional scholar should join the Red team.
The professor was not.
In fact, he was bound and determined not to succumb to their blandishments and to a broader no-so-subtle community pressure. They must have been dumfounded by his truculence — this was Pierre Trudeau’s own riding, for Pete’s sake, one of the safest Liberal rotten boroughs in the nation. What was his problem, dammit?
The operatives increased the pressure by pushing other potential candidates aside, making it clear that the seat was not open for contention by other local Liberals — a move, given the professor’s stubborn refusal, that must have enraged other ambitions local Liberals. The matter was still not resolved by the weekend before the following week’s published nomination day. Cotler was unmovable.
At a Saturday synagogue service, the defiant non-candidate was astonished when the rabbi concluded his sermon by saying that Cotler must be the candidate, and that everyone was invited to his home after the service to help him see reason. He added that similar invitations were being delivered in synagogues and churches across the riding. The reluctant candidate came home to several hundred people milling about his house and property.
His wife had tried to encourage him to consider running and he had blown her off as well. But like most men in contests with their wives, over causes about which their partner is determined to prevail, he badly underestimated her guile.
“Look, Irwin,” she said soothingly, “I know you don’t want to run, but I think you really should. Anyway, you’re going on sabbatical next year. This is a bye-election and there is only a year left until the general election, so it’s really just a sabbatical in a different office. It’ll make you a better law professor, seeing how parliament works. When it’s over you can say thanks very much, if you don’t like it, and come home. There’s really no difference….”
He won with 92 per cent of the vote.
His son remained fiercely opposed to his running, and told a reporter at the nomination meeting that he thought his father was crazy. “Politicians don’t ever do anything, some of them even get corrupt … and there’ll be a Monica Lewinsky waiting for him around every corner,” he added. When his father’s massive victory was reported to him for reaction, he was not mollified. “So what? Donald Duck running as a Liberal would have got 92 per cent of the vote in that riding.”
Cotler laughs at his naïveté as he tells this story, marveling all these years later at how expertly his wife corralled him. He really had no excuse: when they met, Ariela Cotler had been the party whip in the Likud Party in the Israeli Knesset, and clearly knew the delicate art of managing political egos with gentle nudges and flattery. He admits that he was well into his first year before be realized that she had set the whole thing up.
There is also an air of Forrest Gump about Cotler, so long is the list of famous people, places and events he has played bit parts in. Lecturing at the Al-Ahram Institute in Cairo in 1977, he was invited by Egypt’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an old friend, to meet with the president, Anwar Sadat. In the course of a private meeting, Sadat asked whether Cotler thought that it was really possible to negotiate with Menachem Begin.
It was an understandably doubtful query, given the hardline hawkish posture for which the leader of the Israeli right was famous. Cotler, an early advocate of a “two-state solution” between Israel and Palestine, was no Begin supporter. He was, and still is, nonetheless an acute observer of the nuances and complexities of the Israeli political spectrum, and he clearly understood how hungry Begin and Likud, only weeks after having broken the Labour Party’s lock on power, were to demonstrate they were a responsible party of government. He told Sadat that he thought Begin would very much like to be the first Israeli leader to make peace with an Arab neighbour.
Cotler no doubt surprised the Egyptian leader and his advisers with his enthusiasm for such an initiative. He was asked if he would carry a message to Begin from Sadat — an astute suggestion, given that if it were leaked or rejected, Cotler could easily have been dismissed as a naïve amateur.
On the way to Israel he stopped in Syria for meetings with the oppressed and dwindling Jewish community there. Once in Jerusalem, he was invited by a political friend to a meeting of recently elected young members of the Israeli Parliament. He told the group that he was surprised but pleased to report that Syrian community leaders had hailed Begin’s election and declared, “Now, we will be liberated!”
Ariela was among the group of young MPs. She was skeptical about this leftie Canadian visitor, whispering to a friend that he must be a spy to have had such access in strange places. (The idea of Cotler as a spy summons visions of Maxwell Smart, the hapless spy of the 1960s TV show, Get Smart.) Nonetheless, she was impressed by his report of the enthusiasm of Syrian Jews for her boss, and offered to set up a meeting.
During the discussion, Begin asked Cotler the same questions as Sadat: Was real negotiation possible? Could Sadat commit to peace? Cotler had judged Begin, whom he had never met, accurately. The new Israeli prime minister was willing to talk.
The Camp David process that Cotler’s message unlocked was one of the high points in Israeli/Arab relations in the past 50 years. Years later, Cotler is circumspect for the record about his view of current Israeli politics and the stalled peace process.
He clearly loves and admires his partner, describing their union as a “multiple mixed marriage on all levels”. Laughing, he recalls his son’s defence for backing his mother in dinner-table political argument, supporting views he knew his son didn’t agree with. “Dad, we love you, but we fear mommy …!”
And he recalls his first meeting with Yasser Arafat on a parliamentary delegation to Israel and Palestine shortly after his election. Ariela’s parting words were, “Just one thing. Don’t you dare shake that man’s hand!”
Taking his wife’s admonition seriously, Cotler tried to duck the receiving line, only to be admonished by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who warmly introduced his newest MP. Arafat wrapped Cotler in a long, tight Arab embrace. Chrétien’s cameraman got the shot, leaving Cotler to plead with him — to no avail — not to include it in the day’s coverage. His return to Chez Cotler was as frosty as he feared.
Cotler’s leadership and indefatigable campaigning on behalf of human rights causes crossed all party lines and continents. He was an early apartheid opponent. He has championed the cause of Iranian political prisoners for decades, and of Venezuelans in more recent years. He has been loud in his denunciation of the brutal whipping of Raif Badawi, the imprisoned Saudi blogger. And he continues to strive for peace in the Middle East, trying to build and maintain bridges between Palestinian and Israeli moderates during the tensest period in many decades.
His work on behalf of Soviet dissidents connected him to the famous Soviet physicist and political activist, Andrei Sakharov. Together they worked on the mystery of Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance in 1945. Cotler recalls meeting a Soviet general at the beginning of the short-lived glasnost era, who told him that the Soviets had indeed murdered the Swedish diplomat, a figure revered for his work helping Jews and political opponents to escape the Nazis in Hungary and elsewhere in occupied Europe. The general claimed that the KGB murdered Wallenberg because he knew too much about Soviet/Nazi collaboration, and their joint theft of gold and art from family and national treasuries. Cotler is unconvinced of the account that Wallenberg died in 1947, as there is too much witness testimony that he was alive in a Soviet prison until well into the 1950s.
Among his many adventures, dropped in passing, as if he were describing an unpleasant dinner party, was the attempt by the Russians to kill him on a return visit. Still very active in the Russian dissident world, Cotler was a friend of the recently murdered anti-Putin activist Boris Nemtsov. On a recent visit that brought him into contact with those trying to win international attention for the repression in Chechnya and elsewhere by the first Putin regime, Cotler — like several other trouble-makers who have earned the displeasure of the Russian intelligence apparat — was poisoned. The quick diagnosis of a Canadian doctor at the embassy and his emergency medical evacuation probably saved his life.
Among his first tasks on retirement will be the creation of a Raoul Wallenberg Centre for International Justice, to be based in Montreal. The centre will be a base for Cotler to carry on his work in the name of one of the 20th century’s towering figures in human rights leadership.
Cotler is the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe who imbued their son with a deep respect for the great institutions of democracy — parliament and the legal system, and the military sacrifices made to defend them. As an 11-year-old visitor to Ottawa, he was trooped by his dad from the Supreme Court, to the House of Commons, to the Soldiers’ Memorial on Confederation Square, with each stop including a brief lecture on their majesty and the almost sacred reverence his lawyer father had for them.
As a long-haired Yale grad a decade later, he served in one of the most fascinating periods of law reform in recent Canadian history. As the house radical for Justice Minister John Turner, he worked with the team that set up the Law Reform Commission, liberated Canadian divorce law, and set in train the work that lead to the Charter of Rights. His young staff colleagues included David Smith, Gerry Grafstein and Lloyd Axworthy — to whom he must have seemed like an unnecessary troublemaker.
In a great career-closing of the loop, Irwin Cotler became Justice Minister himself in the Martin government, and was again at the centre during fascinating legal times. It was on his watch that the gay marriage reference to the Supreme Court was made. Ariela attacked his support of equal marriage publicly! He points out that it is not much noticed today that at Ariela’s “suggestion,” a test of the acceptability of civil unions be included as a compromise. The Court said no to that but did grant a religious exemption to those whose faith did not permit them to endorse equal marriage.
The Cotler years at Justice saw the government also tackle human trafficking and establish a tougher set of laws and regulations for the protection of children. Reflecting on the difference between his career as a law professor and as a minister, Cotler says as an academic you can conduct seminars for years on tough issues; as a minister you must decide. He clearly relishes the achievements of his years in Justice, both as a longhaired house radical and as a seasoned expert.
He recalls a lesson his mother offered when he was an aspiring legal academic: You must see injustice, you must feel what it is like to be the victim of injustice, if you are going to be an effective advocate for real justice — otherwise it will just be abstract and theory. It’s a lesson he took to heart in struggling on behalf of political prisoners and other victims of injustice for more than 50 years.
Asked what he would like to be his epitaph, he takes some time and then says, simply, “He pursued justice to the best of his ability.”
Cotler’s office on the day of our meeting was a chaos of unsorted files, half-filled boxes, and the accumulated mess of souvenirs and gifts that a decade of political work generates. He had attended a retirement dinner for all departing MPs the night before and had been moved by the tributes and remembrances from all parties.
He was particularly touched by the comments of Alexandrine Latendresse, a young NDP MP from Quebec who is stepping down after only one term, citing the struggle she often felt to win respect in the House, and how unpleasant she found the toxic partisan atmosphere. Ms. Latendresse singled out Cotler as one of the only opposition members who had stayed one evening to listen to her maiden speech, and then came over to compliment her and offer her some tips on surviving as a newbie.
Asked what has changed the most in the 16 years he spent in Ottawa, Cotler sighs and says the collapse of cross-party friendships and dialogue is what saddens him the most. He cites a few places where the old traditions are respected: the unknown, but often hard-working specialist sub-committees of the Commons, and the “take note” debates in the House where non-binding resolutions, often sponsored by MPs from different parties, attempt to turn a spotlight, however briefly, on ongoing injustices and unfolding disasters such as AIDs, or conflicts in South Sudan or the Congo.
He served for many years on the Human Rights Sub-Committee, helping it churn out cross-partisan appeals on behalf of political prisoners in a dozen countries, challenging the human rights abuses of governments of all stripes. In his last month as an MP the committee once again focused on the abuse of women, gays, activists and others in Iran.
Asked to reflect on what had finally pushed him into agreeing to stay on as an MP, he said simply, “Rwanda.” He explained that if the world were ever to face another Rwandan-scale genocide, he would want to be one of the decision-makers, not merely one of the supplicants. As he returns to the supplicant side of the table, Canadian politics is poorer for his absence.
Perhaps his years conducting himself as a parliamentarian of the Old School will have made an impression on some members of the new generation. Perhaps his dogged, unflinching advocacy of causes that often took decades before real change resulted will inspire others not to give up at the first defeat, or to drop a cause in favour of what is today’s Twitter sensation.
And perhaps his legacy will even include that small group MPs and staffers, with whom he worked closely, who will in future, ask themselves and others: “What would Irwin have done?”
Contributing writer Robin V. Sears, a former national director of the NDP, is a principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group.
MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.