During a ceremony in Ottawa on May 12, 2008, the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians presented its 10th annual peer-nominated Distinguished Service Award to the Honorable Sheila Finestone, P.C., B.Sc., former Senator for the Liberal Party of Canada representing the riding of Mount Royal, Quebec, in recognition for her outstanding contributions to the promotion and understanding of Canada’s parliamentary system of government.
Speakers, members of the House and Senate, Mrs. Leung, honoured guests: Please allow me to begin by saying how much my mother, Sheila, misses the opportunity to be here in person to receive your recognition and speak to you herself in this, her second home for so long. I know that many of you are wondering how she is doing, and I can tell you, thankfully, that she is on the mend.
When we received the call that you wished to bestow this honour on mother, we spoke to her. She was surprised and then a bit reticent at first to accept, feeling that she had done nothing out the ordinary, but finally she agreed. It prompted her to think about her experiences as a parliamentarian and now, like many of you, former parliamentarian. She wrote the following, and it is my pleasure to be able to read her words to you:
My friends, there is no greater recognition than that made by one’s colleagues, for among them there is little mystery and certainly no mystique. I know I have worked hard but so have so many of you. To be singled out is a very, very special thing to me, and I thank you.
This building — use of Commons and the Senate — where I spent 17 years, became my home. After all those years, like an adolescent, I left the family home. But I did not want to really leave, nor could I, so I found some activities to keep me busy.
This honour today says that you think some of them were worth the effort. You all know me personally or of me as one of this special club: shy, retiring, reticent — to share an opinion is not me. This recognition and preparation of these remarks prompted some self-examination. If I might, I will share some of my reflections on how I got to this place and to be me. Perhaps in them there is a message for others outside of our group.
Five words may capture the summary: family, connection, respect, commitment, and awareness. I grew up in a family, and then joined another when I married Allan, that had connection with and respect for others as its foundation stone. Family was not just nuclear, it meant community, and now I realize that for me this grew to include the whole human family.
As in any family, there were unique people and personalities. There were tensions and difficulties. But I was taught to respect those differences and those people nonetheless. I also grew up and was deeply influenced by the post- Holocaust era, with a heightened awareness of the plight of displaced persons, the need for new beginnings and of the requirement of a safe place to live. Following the lead of my mother and father, commitment and action were natural. I could not just call others to action.
No one, and me in particular, would conceive of this octogenarian as a sixties child, but I need to tell you that it was the civil rights movement, Canada’s emergence as a global peacekeeper, the Quiet Revolution, and the culture that lead to the creation of our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms that triggered my political engagement. These are the things that shaped me, gave me courage and pushed me to help and promote others.
I have travelled this land and much of the world geographically, but I am most proud of the fact that as a Jewish woman, grandmother and parliamentarian from Montreal I have managed to travel the personalities, cultures, genders and racial divides of Quebec, Canada and the globe. My mantra, if you will, is that differences at a minimum must be tolerated and understood, hopefully then respected.
You have seen me work to push individuals and societies towards the acceptance of difference. Perhaps my one regret is that the task of instilling tolerance and carrying to the world the magic of Canada in this regard remains so incomplete.
My work here in this great place, with and among you, has at its centre been about community, awareness, respect and commitment. These values have guided me. They have made it simple to know where to go. Interestingly, in this special club of ours, I have found others who were as committed and who did wonderful work. I watched as you grew your efforts to great significance and with an ability to avoid the discouragement created by the pervasive selfishness that seems to always be placing the “me” above and ahead of the “we.” I have pushed, perhaps at times been pushy; however, where this trait may have moved forward women’s issues, built the engagement of youth, championed rights or rid the world of some land mines, I just have say, too bad.
Let me conclude by saying how much I miss the opportunity to be here in person, receive your recognition and speak to you myself. This place has been my second home for so long and it is where so many relationships have grown within my caucus but also, so importantly, in others.
Lastly, to be here with you, who have chosen to serve our country, is a singular privilege and an honour for me. And to call so many of you “friend” is my greatest reward. Thank you for sharing yourselves with me and all Canadians. Thank you for your respect and this recognition.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.