LILLEY: Cotler, an exemplary parliamentarian, more than deserving of Churchill award

Article content

Irwin Cotler is rare among parliamentarians, having had a full career as a lawyer and academic before he took office and one who continues to take on leadership roles after leaving government.

Advertisement 2

Article content

On Wednesday, Cotler will become 39th recipient of the Churchill Society’s Award for Excellence in the Cause of Parliamentary Democracy.

Article content

It’s a pretty wonkish award, but it’s also going to a pretty wonkish guy.

Not that I say any of this in a negative light: Cotler is someone who deserves more accolades than he has received. This is a man who left a comfortable career as an academic lawyer to answer the call of public service at a time when even his own family felt he was crazy for doing so.

“My dad’s crazy! What does he want to run for Parliament for? Nothing happens and there’s a Monica Lewinsky waiting around the corner for him,” Cotler quoted his son saying at the time of his first run for office in 1999.

Perhaps Cotler was crazy, though that’s not the way I ever experienced him.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Recommended video

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

In the early 2000s, I was a young reporter and Cotler was a new MP. He was astute, he was ambitious, he was interested in hearing from all sides which isn’t something all MPs, and eventually cabinet ministers, can claim. Cotler really is one of those old-fashioned Liberals who is concerned about ideas and principles, not just power.

A few years after first meeting in Montreal, I crossed political paths with Cotler again in Ottawa when I was the Ottawa Bureau Chief for Newstalk 1010 in Toronto and CJAD800 in Montreal. While I had moved up to a fancy sounding title, he had moved up to the position of Justice Minister and Attorney General — a much more important position.

What was notable about Cotler is that he wasn’t above debating and hearing the other side of the argument.

Advertisement 4

Article content

We’ve never seen eye to eye on all issues, but even then, as the government was dealing with contentious legislation, Cotler was not above hearing out those who disagreed with him.

On more than one occasion, I can recall the man listening to those on the other side respectfully, even at times conceding points. That is the essence of a true parliamentarian.

In retirement, such as it is, Cotler has stayed active on human rights files pushing for Canada to adopt Magnitsky Act legislation, which we did in 2017, and to stay true to ourselves on issues of human rights. (The Magnitsky Act permits the Canadian government to target foreign nationals who commit human rights violations with sanctions).

“I’m engaged at this point in the defence of political prisoners,” Cotler said in a recent interview.

Advertisement 5

Article content

One of those political prisoners that Cotler fights for is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a man who has spoken out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and oppression at home. For daring to speak out, Kara-Murza has paid the price and is currently in jail.

Kara-Murza is one of the people who asked Canada to adopt Magnitsky Act legislation, appearing before Parliament to implore MPs to do the right thing. Now Cotler is doing the right thing by acting as one of his lawyers to try to free the democracy activist.

It’s one of the many reasons why Cotler receiving the award on Wednesday is so justified.

Cotler embodies what parliamentarians are called to be, regardless of political stripe: Fierce defenders of liberty, fierce defenders of democracy, willing to listen to the other side.

In office and out, Cotler has been all of those.

Advertisement 1


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Leave a Comment