THE DATE WAS Thursday February 15, 2007, and I was on my way to a parliamentary Senate breakfast on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. With me was the former long-time CBC national reporter, Whit Fraser, a man who is never lacking for a quip of the moment. As I opened the door to the Senate building, keen to escape Ottawa’s notorious winds, he remarked: “eighty percent of these people are useless. But the other twenty make up for it.”
In these post-scandal years, many will doubtless object, judging the math too generous and the conclusion to which it leads too optimistic. In those days, I agreed wholeheartedly with Whit’s assessment, that the Senate was mostly a waste of space, to say nothing of taxpayer money, but that it did on the whole redeem itself with good and useful work. The retired General, Romeo Dallaire, at that time less than two years a Senator, was Exhibit A of this argument.
As for those notorious Ottawa Winters, my office was only one block from the Hill, and I used to say that the hot air of the East and Centre blocks kept me warm through the season. Dallaire, however, was a balm to cynicism of this kind: what he had to say was in my opinion not only worth listening to, but necessary. The first time I met him, he had just given a Senate speech on the disgraceful and widespread crime of forcing children into warfare. (This would be the topic of his 2010 book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children.) For reasons which are amply documented and well-known, as a Senator he committed himself to the most serious of issues: prevention of genocide, Post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD), child soldiers, conflict resolution and investigation into crimes against humanity.
He is, in other words, a champion of causes that are for most politicians quagmires to be circumnavigated. Anyone who can recall the UN debates over Rwanda and the “G word” knows exactly what I mean. In 1998, with the Hutu Power genocide only a few years behind, Philip Gourevitch quoted Dallaire as saying, “the day I take my uniform off will be the day that I will also respond to my soul, and to the traumas . . . particularly of millions of Rwandans.” Two years later the uniform did come off, the result of an honourable discharge owing to a mental breakdown that would culminate in attempted suicide. Having seen Mr. Dallaire at work, in the years since, I can think of no better way to characterize him than indeed as a man who is responding to his soul.
It’s not for everyone, however, all this soul-and-trauma business. In my own work, I’ve had the disheartening experience of watching Parliamentarian eyes glaze over at the mention of PTSD. Uniquely equipped to grasp the long-term human burden of violent armed conflict, Dallaire has been a usefully outspoken critic, for example, of the current Canadian government’s treatment of veterans in need of emotional and mental health support. It’s a shame what narrow currency the constructive work of the Senate often has. A few weeks after the parliamentary breakfast, Mr. Dallaire’s office sent me a new Senate report called The Silenced Citizens: Effective Implementation of Canada’s International Obligations with Respect to the Rights of Children. It’s a worthwhile piece of work, but how many Canadians will have even heard of it? Nowhere, I suspect, near the number that would later hear in detail of Senators Duffy and Brazeau.
In politics this is termed a problem of “optics,” but the tendency of institutions and offices perceived as corrupt and dysfunctional is toward the self-fulfilling prophecy, driving away the very people who would alter perception. The departure of Romeo Dallaire means that there will be one less serious, hard-working and principled member in the Upper Chamber, but even if the 80/20 rule still applies I no longer maintain that the Senate is worth its upkeep. Mr. Dallaire assures us that his work will continue. I believe him, and I also think it likely he’ll be able to accomplish more outside the chamber than he could within it.