By Sally Barnes
Hugh Segal has lost his final battle but his campaign for civility in politics and help for the disadvantaged lives on in the hearts and minds of all those who have followed his lifetime of public service.
Big in stature and voice, he was a true patriot and had to work at hiding his emotions whenever O Canada was played.
Since his death on Aug. 9, 2023, there has been an outpouring of condolences from ordinary people across the country who saw him as the defender of the “little guy” and the “happy warrior” who just kept coming back for more after each political defeat and disappointment.
Not often enough does there come along a politician willing to criticize the snobbery of our national capital, the soul-destroying infighting in his own party, and people too busy or uncaring to exercise their privilege of voting.
From the beginning to the end of his long career, Hugh Segal had his principles and, if you didn’t like them, he had no standbys in his back pocket.
Hugh accomplished much and has received many of the nation’s top honours in his 72 years. Sadly, there is so much more he would have done if ill health had not stopped him.
I’ve known Hugh since 1975 when we were both hired to work for Premier Bill Davis at Queen’s Park following a staff shakeup. I was there because of my journalist background and the need to improve media relations. Hugh had earned the title Whiz Kid in Ottawa and was hired away for his experience dealing with a minority government.
For decades, Hugh has been the go-to guy in politics because he has filled every role in the process: two-time candidate for Parliament when he was still in university, Ontario’s youngest deputy minister at 29, senior advisor to Premier Davis, federal Conservative leader Robert Stanfield and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, candidate for leadership of the then Progressive Conservative Party, member of the Senate, and Canadian appointee on the Eminent Persons Group that advised Queen Elizabeth ll on matters pertaining to the Commonwealth.
On the academic side, Hugh has mentored countless young people and encouraged their participation in the democratic process. He was head of Massey College and a lecturer at Queen’s University and holds multiple honorary doctorates.
The story of Hugh Segal’s passion for politics and loyalty to the Conservative Party began in 1962 when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker visited the United Talmud Torah in working-class Montreal.
The Old Chieftain came to address the student body and present a copy of his Bill of Rights, a beacon of decency, fairness, tolerance, and opportunity that was especially well received in a school peopled largely by the children of immigrants.
In his memoir No Surrender, Reflections of a Happy Warrior in the Tory Crusade (1996) Hugh explains:
“I was a 12 year old student in Grade 7 and his (Mr. Diefenbaker) message, quite frankly, grabbed me by the throat.” Dief’s belief that Canada was a nation open to all especially resonated with the teenage recruit.
Shocked at the news of Hugh’s death, I found comfort in re-reading this book and hearing Hugh’s words and laughter.
Young Hugh’s announcement of his newfound Tory hero went over badly at the family dinner table, especially with his father.
“My father was a Liberal because the Liberals were in power when his wave of immigration came ashore and because the power structure in the Jewish community had strong links to the Liberal Party.”
Hugh’s father was a cab driver and his grandfather was a tailor who emigrated to Canada to escape Russian oppression.
His family’s financial troubles and his early political involvement helped form his understanding of poverty and inequality.
“You live with the perception that many opportunities in this world are closed to you. You live with the expectation that, for people who are poor, there are severe limitations in life,” he wrote.
As a teenager, Hugh was writing letters to the editors of Liberal newspapers and at 14 he subscribed to Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary debate.
“I had become far more fiscally conservative the closer I got to government but reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged was a big part of my frame of reference along with hard-line positions on foreign policy, defense and capital punishment. They were adamant and determined.”
Hugh’s dexterity in dealing with the media goes back a long way. Under pressure to say whether he would enter the Conservative leadership race that would ultimately choose Kim Campbell, Hugh recalled a press conference where he was asked whether he had ever smoked pot.
“I replied spontaneously that I hadn’t, that I preferred corned beef and, as was obvious, I had inhaled. Taking one’s self too seriously was not my idea of serving in public life.”
I have never known anyone as self-deprecating as Hugh. His weight and lack of prowess at anything athletic were favourite targets.
He would retell the story about docking their boat at Ontario Place—an exercise that always drew a crowd of other boaters worried about their own craft. On one occasion the good ship Segal was thrown into reverse by its captain and Donna, his wife who was standing on the bow, was unceremoniously tossed into the lake.
My colleagues covering an election campaign recall the day that Hugh delivered his stump speech in a small town around Peterborough and during a question and answer session was asked by a lady in the audience whether he was a Roman Catholic.
“Madame, I can assure you that there has not been a Roman Catholic in the Segal family for the last 5,000 years,” Hugh shot back with a wide grin.
From his early involvement in politics, he learned that laughter and honesty were effective tools to disarm critics.
One of his fellow candidates running in an Ottawa riding had a less-than-perfect reputation and at an all-candidates meeting was asked if it was true that he had been married three times and had a drinking problem.
Without missing a breath, the candidate walked to the microphone and said, “Don’t you think that if you’d been married three times you’d be drinking too?”
The candidate got a standing ovation but both he and Hugh lost that election.
Hugh has described the early Davis years as the “happiest of my life.”
On the personal side, his college roommate was getting married, Hugh was his best man and he ended up marrying the maid of honour, Donna Armstrong of Kingston.
Vows were exchanged in English, French, and Hebrew.
Donna has supported Hugh in all of his endeavours and carried on a successful career of her own. They have a beautiful daughter, Jaqueline, soon to be married.
Totally bilingual with a Quebec upbringing, Hugh Segal was a valuable member of the Davis team during negotiations with Quebec, the other provinces, and Ottawa over repatriating the constitution.
With the survival of Canada on the line, the near-death experience of the close defeat of the separatists in Quebec in the referendum shocked all of Canada.
Hugh has been involved in more political campaigns than anyone—including himself—can count.
Some he has won—many he has lost.
The one guy he couldn’t get elected was himself.
Had Hugh lived to see another day, he would be actively supporting centrist candidates he felt were vital to overcome the influence of extremists on his party and on the country.
He hoped to live to see a Guaranteed Annual Income program replace several wage and social benefit programs that now exist.
Although he had little respect for Liberals, he worked with the Wynne Liberal government to establish a pilot program in three Ontario cities. But one of the first things Doug Ford, the new Tory premier, did was cancel the pilot before its effectiveness could be assessed.
It wasn’t the first time Hugh was disillusioned and angry with his party—and it wasn’t the last.
Hugh described his much loved Conservative leader Robert Stanfield as “the best Prime Minister Canada never had.”
The same could be said of Hugh Segal.
Rest in peace, my friend.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s publisher, Hugh Mackenzie, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com.
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