Members of Parliament who passed away during the 42nd session of Parliament: (from left) Jim Hillyer, Mauril Belanger and Arnold Chan. “Of the 4,419 MPs elected to the House of Commons since Confederation, 321 have died while serving as an MP,” writes Penny Collenette. “If we want to honour our former MPs and their love of democracy, let’s do that in meaningful ways.” (Toronto Star file photos)
Death stalks us all but when it pounces on an elected Member of Parliament, it causes a national gasp. No one will ever forget the traumatic death of Jack Layton, the former NDP leader, who had just achieved a historic electoral breakthrough. His time as Leader of the Official Opposition was cruelly over in the blink of an eye.
Of the 4,419 MPs elected to the House of Commons since Confederation, 321 have died while serving as an MP. Tragically, three of those deaths have been in this 42nd session of Parliament.
Mauril Belanger, the hard working MP for Ottawa Vanier, was on the cusp of potentially achieving his dream to be Speaker of the House of Commons. Forced to withdraw from the race due to the debilitating ravages of ALS, Belanger died last year while still an MP. He was 61.
Jim Hillyer, a well-liked Conservative MP from Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner, also died in 2016. Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative leader at the time, noted that Hillyer had wanted to be an MP all his life. He was additionally a cancer survivor who had spent years battling health challenges. Shockingly, he was found dead in his Ottawa office of a sudden heart attack. He was 41.
And recently, we have witnessed the heart breaking death of Arnold Chan, a popular and highly respected MP from Scarborough — Agincourt. Both Ontario MPPs at Queen’s Park and federal MPs in Ottawa paid tribute to Chan, for his courage and to for his last impassioned plea for political civility. He was 50.
Death happens to MPs just as it happens to anyone. However, dying in office brings unique considerations.
The public nature of the death can add great strain on the individual politician, the family and staff.
As with Layton, Chan and Belanger knew their deaths were expected. Similar to Senator John McCain now and Senator Teddy Kennedy before him, each fought publicly for their respective political legacies while simultaneously fighting for their lives. Public life is hard enough without having to publicly grapple with death.
Secondly, the causes that the MP espoused take on a greater weight after a death. Friends and supporters must take up the challenge of a lost voice.
Most importantly, the legacy of any MP is linked directly to Canada’s history.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Father of Confederation and famous Liberal-Conservative firebrand, was the first to die in office. Returning to his Ottawa rooming house following a late night Parliamentary debate in 1868, he was assassinated. His assassin was later hanged, as Canada at that time, had capital punishment.
George Harold Baker, a Conservative, from Brome, Que., was killed in action at Ypres in 1916.
A Yarmouth MP, Bowman Brown Law, died in the terrible fire that engulfed the Centre Block in 1916 on a bitterly cold February night.
Like Jim Hillyer, Shaughnessy Cohen, had no idea that death was waiting. Cohen, a gregarious and outspoken Liberal, was the first female MP for Windsor-St. Clair. She collapsed on the floor of the House of Commons, on Dec. 9, 1998, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage.
MPs have formed the backbone of Canada for 150 years as they have witnessed and contributed to history. Their own individual narratives provide snapshots of time to regional, linguistic and gender sensitivities. Thankfully, their official words are recorded in Hansard, the transcript of Parliament but television was not allowed in the Chamber until 1977.
Knowing their valuable stories and guarding their memories connects us with the past, while remembering them can link us to the future, depending on the way in which we remember.
The tradition of naming schools, government buildings or airports serves to honour a name and to constantly remind of history, but does little to advance society’s progress. In fact, just the opposite may be true. In June, PM Justin Trudeau removed the name of Hector-Louis Langevin, a former minister of public works, from the office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council, as a result of Langevin’s administration of the reviled and discredited residential school program for Indigenous youth.
If we want to honour our former MPs and their love of democracy, let’s do that in meaningful ways. Establishing scholarships for students or awards for outstanding individuals inspire and tell new stories while simultaneously allowing a legacy to be inclusive and diverse. Who knows? We may even learn to listen to each other — just as Arnold Chan wished.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.