Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
The Late Honourable Sheila Finestone, P.C.

The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, the Leader of the Government has requested, pursuant to rule 22(10), that the time provided for the consideration of Senators’ Statements be extended today for the purpose of paying tribute to the Honourable Sheila Finestone, P.C., who died on June 8, 2009.

[English]

I remind honourable senators that, pursuant to the Rules of the Senate, each senator will be allowed three minutes and may speak only once and that the time for tributes shall not exceed 15 minutes.

Hon. Joan Fraser: Honourable senators, Sheila Finestone was born in Montreal and had deep roots in that city. She was the daughter of Monroe Abbey and Minnie Cummings Abbey, who were deeply involved in community service. Her father was once President of the Canadian Jewish Congress. She carried those values with her until the day she died.

She graduated from McGill University in 1947, got married that year and proceeded to have four sons, which normally would be considered a full-time career in its own right. It is written somewhere that the mothers of three sons have a special place in heaven. I cannot imagine how special the place must be for mothers of four sons. That, of course, was not enough to occupy Sheila Finestone.

Her community work was famous. Notably, from 1977 to 1980, she was President of the Fédération des femmes du Québec. It was in those years that she was one of the organizers of the famed Yvette rally, preceding that referendum on Quebec independence, which had such a profound influence on the course of that campaign.

She came to the House of Commons in 1984 and was re-elected in the following three elections. She came to represent the riding of Mount Royal, which is one of the most historic ridings imaginable. Her predecessor was the Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau and her successor was the Honourable Irwin Cotler. That might lead you to think that to be an MP from Mount Royal, one needed to be dedicated to human rights; and you would be right. Sheila Finestone was dedicated to every aspect of human rights, in particular women’s rights as well as minority language rights, ethnic rights and humanitarian work, both here and abroad.

In the House of Commons, Sheila Finestone served as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women. She led the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. When she came to the Senate in 1999, she barely took a deep breath before she went right on running and served here as Deputy Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights. She did enormous work in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, where she was an around-the-world renowned fighter against land mines and for the Ottawa Treaty and the International Criminal Court.

Those are dry facts, but those who knew her will tell you that Sheila Finestone was also one of the warmest, loveliest, and most energetic, indefatigable and caring people any of us will ever know. She was lovely. She was a world-class shopper and she was an absolutely devoted mother and grandmother. She wanted everyone else to be just as happy in their family as she was. She created happiness around her, and we owe her a great deal.

Hon. Michael Duffy: Honourable senators, I want to associate myself wholeheartedly with the words of Senator Fraser, who in a very short time summed up a remarkable human being and a great parliamentarian.

I first came to know Sheila Finestone when she was elected in 1984. As Senator Fraser has said, those of us who were following politics at the time were quite interested in knowing what kind of remarkable person would follow in the footsteps of a giant: The Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau. While Sheila Finestone was not a physical giant, she was a giant in everything she did. We have heard all about her various campaigns on behalf of the disadvantaged to eliminate land mines and so on.

In defence of that indefatigable quality, I remind honourable senators that very often she commuted daily by train from her home in Montreal to Ottawa and back. She used to spend an entire day on the Hill, which can be so tiring, and return home by train in the evening to make sure her family was well looked after. She was warm, caring and the epitome of all that is great about a parliamentarian. We will miss her dearly.

Hon. Catherine S. Callbeck: Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise today to participate in the tribute to Sheila Finestone, whom I considered a friend and colleague. During the 1984 election, many Liberal candidates were defeated, but in the riding of Mount Royal, Quebec, Sheila Finestone was elected for the first time, with an impressive majority.

Growing up in Montreal in the 1930s and 1940s, Sheila personally experienced racism and sexism, and because of those experiences, made it her goal in life to ensure that others would not face the same kinds of barriers. From her first days in Ottawa, Sheila made it known that her priority would be to give a voice to those who had no voice, be they women or people in cultural or linguistic minority situations. She often said that her most important work was the all-party committee study to identify laws that needed updating to ensure that they were in line with section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Sheila came to Ottawa with several careers already behind her. She was a wife and mother of four boys, each of whom is very successful today in his chosen career. She had answered many calls for volunteerism. She worked in youth protection in Quebec and as a member of the political staff of Claude Ryan, former Leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec. When Sheila was at a stage in her life when many would be thinking of slowing down, she opted for a new career as a member of Parliament and then as a senator.

I met Sheila when I was first elected in 1988. As a newcomer to Ottawa and to the House of Commons, I appreciated her ongoing friendship and advice. She had infinite energy. She was curious and had a great thirst for information and knowledge. Friendships were also important to Sheila. She had friends on all sides and worked with all parties.

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I will close by relating a story from one of Sheila’s campaigns. A young child saw her campaign sign and was struggling to pronounce her family name. It came out "Sheila Finest One." Honourable senators, I believe that sums up Sheila — the finest one.

[Translation]

Hon. Lucie Pépin: Honourable senators, today we are paying tribute to a woman who lived life to its fullest in service of others. With the passing of Sheila Finestone, we have lost a great Canadian and a dedicated and engaging woman.

I was elected to Parliament in 1984 at the same time as Sheila, but I had the honour of meeting her well before that. Not only did we both come from Montreal, but we also shared a passion for a number of causes.

Sheila was a woman of conviction, a born leader who spoke out against social injustice and fought against all injustice. She always cared a great deal about changing the daily lives of her fellow Canadians. Her actions made it clear that she had a passion to serve.

Becoming a member of Parliament, secretary of state and then a senator was Sheila’s way to continue the fight for equality and justice. She always stayed true to her values, and never stopped fighting to protect the rights of every person, regardless of sex or race.

Sheila was heavily involved in the Canadian Jewish Congress, where she held various responsibilities, generally for social issues.

Canadian women have encountered many obstacles in their path and Sheila Finestone was one of the women who helped clear the way. In 1977, she was the first anglophone to lead the Fédération des femmes du Québec. She had a talent for bringing people together, and she built bridges between anglophone and francophone women’s associations. Women’s associations in Quebec were much more collegial in her day than they are now.

Sheila was an ardent federalist. She entered politics on the eve of the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum. Her work for the No side was noticed. During the campaign leading up to the referendum, she was among the organizers of the women’s movement known as the Yvettes. I am sure that we all remember how that movement’s success helped improve the federalists’ standing in the polls.

Sheila’s dedication to the Liberal Party of Canada was recognized and appreciated by all. When I spoke here on the occasion of her retirement in 2001, I reminded her about the chicken dinners and spaghetti suppers she organized winter and summer all across Quebec to benefit the party.

I am very proud to have known this amazing woman, and to have been her friend and colleague. Sheila is no longer with us, but we can be proud of her legacy. Above all, she inspired us to always be there for people in need.

Sheila, you will not be forgotten.

[English]

Hon. Mobina S.B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, I rise today to pay tribute to the late Honourable Sheila Finestone, a person who I always thought of as a special friend.

What I admired about Sheila was her courage to work on issues she truly believed in, even if she knew they were issues that needed convincing and persuasion. My best memory of her was when she would say:

At my age, if you think I’m going to start shutting up, forget it.

As a member of the executive of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women from 1975 to 1980, she dedicated her time to change the lives of vulnerable women. As a director of youth protection for Jewish Family Services and a founder of Project Genesis, which provides legal and other services for those in need, Sheila demonstrated early on in her life how important the trials and tribulations of others were to her.

When Sheila assumed her role as a member of Parliament in 1984, she knew the footsteps left by Prime Minister Trudeau in Mount Royal required her to walk in big shoes. As those of us who had the privilege to work with her in this chamber know, she not only wore those shoes but made them her own.

Sheila continued the cause of women when first elected to the House of Commons, proclaiming in her first speech:

The government risks the charge that its attention to the significant concerns of Canadian women is little more than tokenism, for it excludes them from the heart of policy-making.

Sheila Finestone knew the virtues and importance of bridging gaps between different groups of women and cultures. She understood that the critical importance involved in the idea of democracy was to contribute to it, ensuring many different groups a place and a voice in society. I know she included us all in her deliberations.

As a member of Parliament, Sheila dispensed great energy in her multicultural, multilingual riding of Mount Royal. Her popularity among her constituents was no more evident than during her election campaign in 1993, when she retained her seat with a margin of 36,000 votes. After this election, Sheila continued to serve the causes of women and multiculturalism as the first Secretary of State, Status of Women, and Multiculturalism.

Upon her appointment to this chamber in 1999, she continued to campaign not only for a better Canada, but for a better world. A believer in the International Court and an active campaigner to ban the use of land mines, she echoed the sentiments of a waiting world hoping for peace.

Her position as Deputy Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights afforded her the opportunity to steer the debate in a direction where a majority would benefit.

When Sheila left the Senate and us, she left a vacuum in this chamber. Now that she has gone to a better place, she has left a void in our lives.

[Translation]