After 19 years at university, training first as a lawyer and then as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert “Bob” Elgie turned his formidable intellect to politics as a Conservative MPP and cabinet minister.
Whatever he did, he was always adept at getting his point across with a few well-chosen words.
When Liberal leader Stuart Smith, a psychiatrist, interrupted him during question period, Dr. Elgie turned to the Speaker of the House, saying, “Mr. Speaker, would you please advise the member from Hamilton West that I am not on his couch today. He is on my operating table, so tell him to listen.”
In the seventies, as chief of medical staff at Scarborough General Hospital, he lobbied heavily for a CAT scanner. The board turned him down.
During a retirement dinner, Dr. Elgie presented the head of the hospital with his self-proclaimed “chicken” award.
As Dr. Elgie explained to stunned guests, the chicken was in fact a capon from his freezer and entirely appropriate because it was, “a rooster that lost its balls.” A CAT scanner duly arrived.
This victory was a source of pride for Dr. Elgie, a man with a wry sense of humour who devoted himself to public service until his death on April 3 at 84. The cause was suspected congestive heart failure.
Despite an illustrious career in medicine, politics had always been at the back of Dr. Elgie’s mind. Growing up in a political family, he strongly believed that, by influencing public policy, he could continue to improve people’s lives.
He entered the political arena in 1977, and was handily elected as the Conservative member for Toronto’s York East. He went on to hold portfolios in Labour, Consumer and Commercial Relations, and Community and Social Services in various Conservative cabinets.
In 1978, thanks to Dr. Elgie’s efforts as minister of labour, amendments to Ontario’s Human Rights Code passed into law: People with disabilities could no longer be discriminated against.
David Lepofsky, a blind lawyer who worked with Dr. Elgie battling line by line over the bill, writes, “More than three decades later, this huge advance in disability rights continues to massively benefit over 1.7 million Ontarians with disabilities. Dr. Elgie didn’t do it because it would win seats for his party or bump them up in the polls. He didn’t do it for a legacy because many won’t remember. He did it simply because it was the right thing to do. He was a man of great conscience.”
Dr. Elgie, a red Tory who supported unions, was beloved by labour. During an MPP swearing-in ceremony for one of Frank Miller’s governments, too far to the right for Dr. Elgie’s liking, he eschewed the traditional dark blue suit, opting instead for a brown one over a pink shirt. The Clerk of the Assembly remarked, “I think you’re trying to send a message, Dr. Elgie.”
When the Liberals returned to power in 1985, Dr. Elgie had no interest in being a backbencher. He formally resigned and accepted an appointment as chairman of the Workers Compensation Board, where he served until 1991.
While there, he created a tribunal to adjudicate the concerns of disaffected workers.
Later that same year, Dr. Elgie moved to Halifax, where he founded Dalhousie University’s Health Law Institute, for which he received an honorary degree. He also served half time as chairman of the province’s Workers’ Compensation Board, and spent eight days a month in Ottawa heading the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, the body that sets prices for medications.
On his blog, Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s nightly public-affairs program The Agenda, refers to Dr. Elgie as “One of the most brilliant and compassionate MPPs Queen’s Park has ever known.”
Bob Rae, who was interim leader of the federal Liberal Party and former NDP premier of Ontario, wrote via e-mail, “He was smart, courteous, with a great sense of humour and great warmth. No one reflected the traditions of progressive conservatism more than Bob Elgie. I loved the guy.”
While law or medicine could individually provide a lucrative income, Dr. Robert Elgie was motivated less by money than the desire to leave the world a better place.