Professor Irwin Cotler


Professor Cotler goes to Ottawa

DANIEL McCABE | He still isn't entirely comfortable with his new role as a politician. Irwin Cotler says the sight of his face plastered on campaign posters makes him feel sheepish. And he is a little wary of what awaits him in Ottawa when he becomes a Member of Parliament representing the riding of Mount Royal.

Although the by-election for which he is the Liberal Party candidate doesn't take place until November 15, the law professor and human rights activist is pretty much a shoo-in to win. Cotler is well aware that he is running in one of the safest Liberal ridings in all of Canada. "I know Donald Duck could [win] this riding. If I lose, my son says it will be the greatest political humiliation in Canadian history."

The hard part will likely come after he is elected. That's when Cotler will find out if he can reconcile his principles with the kind of dealmaking and compromising that mark a politician's life.

Cotler is still scratching his head over how quickly events conspired to send him to Ottawa. He was out of the country when Sheila Finestone, the previous MP for Mount Royal, was appointed to the Senate, freeing up the seat.

Once he returned to Montreal for the beginning of the semester, "people in the riding began approaching me, urging me to run for the nomination."

Cotler was flattered, but understood that Eric Maldoff, a prominent attorney, was already in line for the nomination.

Then word got out that Maldoff had decided against running. "It became very intense after that," says Cotler of the campaign among residents to persuade him to run. He started to take the idea seriously. "I honestly had no thought of doing it until then."

He remembers attending synagogue one morning in an area where several synagogues are clustered together -- he could hardly take a step without somebody approaching him, urging him to run.

He mulled it over during Yom Kippur and made the decision to run. "Two hours after the fast was broken, word got out that I would do it. There were 100 people in my house within hours, strictly through word of mouth."

Within 36 hours of Cotler making his candidacy official, all the other candidates withdrew. Within a week, his volunteers had signed up 1,000 new members to the Liberal Party in the riding. The next week, 1,000 more had joined. "I think now there are more Liberal memberships there than in any other riding in Quebec," says Cotler, expressing admiration for his volunteers.

According to Chantal Hébert, a political reporter for The Toronto Star, the turn of events displeased many of the Liberal Party's top organizers, who had hand-picked another candidate to run in the riding.

"It's an understatement to say that the Liberal Party did not jump with joy at the news of Cotler's interest in the nomination. According to insiders, the message was sent to Cotler that the party could make his life difficult if he insisted on running."

Cotler says that's overstating things.

"I clearly caught them off guard," he says. "It came as a surprise. It came as a surprise to me too."

He is just as happy not to be the official choice of the party. "My candidacy didn't come from the Liberal Party, it came from the citizens in my riding. I'm responsible to their aspirations. I intend to carry their voice to Ottawa."

Since he earned the nomination, a number of top Liberals have made encouraging phone calls, including Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and senior ministers Paul Martin, Allan Rock and Herb Grey. "I was happy to see that they knew who I was and what I was about. They knew what was animating me to run."

So why is he running? As a prominent human rights activist, he already has a forum for making his views known -- he regularly writes opinion pieces for newspapers like The Gazette and The Jerusalem Post, for instance.

As a law professor, he gets to influence the thinking of students who will go on to become leading practitioners. McGill has been a valuable home base for the activities of InterAmicus, the organization he heads which regularly runs events with prominent speakers on human rights themes.

The status quo seems to work well for Cotler. Why risk mucking it up by jumping into politics? The MP to be says many of his friends ask him the same thing.

But not his wife who is also his campaign organizer. Cotler says she played a critical role in persuading him to give Ottawa a shot.

"She saw how ambivalent I was about it. She told me that if I didn't do it, I would always wonder if I made the right decision. And if I went to Ottawa, but it didn't work out, I would have a job I loved to return to. She said experiencing life in parliament could only make me a better law professor.

"One of the reasons I'm going is that I want to try to do what I can to prevent the next Kosovos and the East Timors from happening," explains Cotler, recalling the recent panel discussions he organized at McGill on how the international community should respond to the turmoil and bloodshed in those parts of the world.

Organizing such panels "is a valuable thing to do," reasons Cotler, "but I've always been haunted by the sense that talking about things after they happen isn't enough. Maybe they can be prevented."

As a human rights advocate with international connections, Cotler says his contacts often offer him disturbing news before it hits the newspapers. "I remember going to Ottawa years ago trying to tell them about the situation in Rwanda before the killing began. It just wasn't on their radar.

"Maybe I can be part of a distant early warning system."

Cotler stresses he isn't totally inexperienced about life in Ottawa.

"When I was fresh out of law school, my first real job was as an advisor to [then justice minister] John Turner," he recalls. "I regard John Turner as one of the great justice ministers in the history of this country."

During Turner's tenure, there were remarkable advances in poverty law and consumer protection law and the Law Reform Commission was established. Cotler saw first hand that Parliament can make a difference.

Cotler is quick to list several concerns that he will try to address in Ottawa.

"That 20 per cent of Canadian children live in poverty is a scandal. The plight of aboriginal people is a national disgrace."

While it's no secret that Mount Royal's Jewish community has come out strongly in favour of Cotler, he takes pride in the fact that leaders from the riding's black community and other communities have also endorsed him.

"We have to get away from a tribal approach to politics, this notion that only blacks can speak out on behalf of blacks, or only aboriginal leaders can speak out on behalf of aboriginals."

Cotler is anxious, for instance, to broadcast the results of a recent study of black Canadians conducted by the School of Social Work. "Black males have higher rates of employment and lower rates of being on welfare than white males. We have to challenge stereotypes." Cotler wants to challenge another stereotype -- that politicians are self-serving schmoes.

"My father had a reverence for Parliament," says Cotler. "He saw it as the expression of democracy in this country. As a child, I remember him taking me to Parliament and talking about the place with a certain awe."

Cotler's 12-year-old son sees Parliament in a much more cynical light. "He asks me why I want to be a politician. 'Politicians are crooks,' he says. He says I have a great reputation as a human rights lawyer. Why do I want to ruin it?"

Cotler knows his son isn't the only one to view Parliament in that fashion. It's another reason he is going to Ottawa. He wants to do his part to try to win back the faith of Canadians in their leaders.

And he isn't ready to say goodbye to McGill. "I've spoken to [Dean of Law] Peter Leuprecht about this and he's been very supportive.

"I don't intend to leave the law faculty. I love it here. What I do here dovetails with what I want to do in Ottawa. Admittedly it will have to be a much reduced load, but I'll be in Montreal on a weekly basis anyway, attending to affairs in my constituency. I've never been one to sleep much. I'll wake up a little earlier and go to bed a little later."

What happens when Cotler goes to Ottawa and takes a position about, say, aboriginal rights that flies in the face of the government's policy?

"In caucus, I'll fight for the things I believe in. And I'll fight hard." But at the end of the day, all Liberals are expected to support the government's position -- even those who initially resisted it. "That will be difficult sometimes," Cotler acknowledges.

He knows that because of his human rights work, he will be held to a higher standard than most politicians. Voters might have less patience for Cotler making the sorts of compromises that politicians often have to make.

"At the end of two years or whenever the government calls a national election, I'll see what I think," says Cotler. "I might decide that I can do more for the cause of human rights as a law professor.

"If I feel that [life in Ottawa] is all about the pursuit of political power and not about the pursuit of principles, I'll be gone."