David Kilgour’s trips abroad as Canada’s secretary of state for Africa and Latin America in the late 1990s and early 2000s were a chance to advance human rights abroad and, occasionally, reconnect with old friends.
On one such visit to Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, he stopped in at the official residence of Canada’s ambassador, John Schram, with whom he had studied at the University of Toronto’s law school in the 1960s. Everything was going fine until Mr. Kilgour noticed the collection of photos Mr. Schram had displayed in the residence, including those of him presenting his credentials to officials representing the states to which he was accredited.
Because Mr. Schram was also Canada’s ambassador to Sudan, these photos included one of Mr. Schram and Sudan’s then-president Omar al-Bashir. Mr. Bashir has since been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes related to Sudan’s military campaign in the country’s Darfur region. Even at the time of Mr. Kilgour’s visit, around 2000, Mr. Bashir’s government had been accused of human rights abuses, including in a civil war that pitted Khartoum against the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the south of the country.
Mr. Kilgour knew all about these allegations. Mr. Schram says Mr. Kilgour had wanted to visit Sudan during that trip but couldn’t – which may be why his eyes lingered on the photo of Canada’s ambassador and Sudan’s dictator.
“He was really upset that I had a picture of me presenting my credentials to such a – a tyrant is what I think he called him,” Mr. Schram recalls.
Mr. Schram was not really surprised. Mr. Kilgour, he says, was just as outspoken in law school, where he was guided by his principles rather than a desire to curry favour. “Very internationally famous professors complained about David in public because he would put them straight if they interpreted laws differently and to the disadvantage of people,” he says.
It’s an approach Mr. Kilgour, who died on April 5 of a rare pulmonary fibrosis in his Ottawa home at the age of 81, carried into politics as well. He was a member of Parliament for nearly 27 years, representing the same Edmonton riding (subject to constituency boundary changes) first as a Progressive Conservative, then as a Liberal, before retiring as an Independent in 2006.
He was kicked out of the Conservative caucus in 1990 because of his opposition to the goods and services tax. He quit the Liberals in 2005. According to a CBC story at the time, Mr. Kilgour said his decision to break with the Liberals under then-prime minister Paul Martin was a “cumulative thing. I have about 10 issues I disagree fundamentally with the party on.”
These included what Mr. Kilgour described then as inaction to address the crisis in Darfur. He also opposed the Liberals’ same-sex marriage legislation (Mr. Kilgour believed same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual ones but did not think such unions should be called “marriages”), and he was embarrassed by revelations about the sponsorship scandal, which he famously said made Canada look like a “northern banana republic.”
According to Irwin Cotler, minister of justice under Mr. Martin and Mr. Kilgour’s Liberal caucus colleague, “partisanship didn’t exist” for Mr. Kilgour.
“I rarely met a more principled parliamentarian who was involved for the sake of the common good, never with regard to any personal interest – always doing that which was right, always doing that which was good, always being there for everybody else and being involved in all the great and good causes.
“He was a role model, not only of what a parliamentarian can and should be and was, but also really a role model for the way he lived by his principles in all respects – modest, unassuming, but a person of real moral courage and moral clarity. Something we sorely miss in these days.”
David William Kilgour was born in Winnipeg on Feb. 18, 1941. His parents, Mary Sophia (née Russell) Kilgour and David Eckford Kilgour, were wealthy and raised him and his siblings, Donald and Geills, in comfort.
Among the summer jobs Mr. Kilgour had while studying economics at the University of Manitoba was one with Frontier College, working with Portuguese migrants on a railway steel gang in northern Ontario and teaching them English in the evenings.
“I guess I felt like I had to give a lot back, because I’ve sure been given a lot,” he said in an interview for this obituary, two days before his death.
Mr. Kilgour’s parents gave him a trip to Europe as a graduation present in 1962. He travelled with his friend Monte Black (George Montegu Black III, older brother of newspaper tycoon Conrad Black), and on their way the two stopped in Montreal where they had dinner with Mr. Kilgour’s sister, Geills, and her date, John Turner, then campaigning for election as a Liberal MP. Mr. Turner wasn’t surprised to learn Mr. Black was a staunch Conservative, Mr. Kilgour remembered, but he was disappointed to discover his date’s brother was. (The two got married anyway.)
“Now, why was I Conservative? I guess it had a lot to do with John Diefenbaker,” Mr. Kilgour said. “I was a kid on the Prairies who was very blown away by John Diefenbaker.”
Mr. Kilgour’s first tried to get elected in 1968. He ran in the riding of Vancouver Centre and lost. His first success came in 1979 when he ran in Edmonton in the election that saw Conservative leader Joe Clark become prime minister.
Mr. Kilgour, along with his wife, Laura Scott Kilgour, and their growing family moved into Skyridge, a tiny community in Gatineau Park, across the Ottawa River from Parliament. Rick Higgins, a neighbour from that time, describes a close-knit group of neighbours who went Christmas carolling together and held an annual “Skyridge Soapbox Derby” race that involved contestants pushing each other across a finish line in wheelbarrows.
The neighbourhood was a bit of an oasis from politics, but when Mr. Higgins’s elderly mother came to visit from Australia, Mr. Kilgour promised to show her around the Parliament Buildings. Mr. Kilgour told her that because it was the lunch hour the prime minister was unlikely to be in his office, so he could show her that, too. The pair were wandering through Joe Clark’s office when he returned to find them there – nonplussed, according to Mr. Higgins.
Mr. Kilgour was elected three more times as a Progressive Conservative. Mr. Cotler, then a McGill University law professor, says he got to know Mr. Kilgour at this time because the MP founded and chaired a parliamentary committee for Soviet Jewry and did crucial if underappreciated work.
“If you look at the galaxy of those involved in the struggle of Soviet Jewry, you might not see his name with the prominence and impact that he had, but he was there, always in the trenches,” Mr. Cotler says.
Mr. Kilgour’s move to the Liberal Party allowed him to pursue further his work on international human rights. After working as secretary of state for Africa and Latin America, in 2002 he was made secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific. “He was generous by nature – not by political calculation – to help people and causes,” remembers Elliot Tepper, a political scientist at Carleton University who worked with Mr. Kilgour on files related to Asia.
Shortly after Mr. Kilgour joined the Liberals, the family moved to Rockcliffe Park, an affluent neighbourhood east of Ottawa’s downtown core, where they became neighbours of Elizabeth May, the future leader of the Green Party. The Kilgours’ daughters would occasionally babysit Elizabeth May’s daughter. Ms. May once received a last-minute invitation when her daughter was three or four. “Bring her over,” Ms. May recalls Mr. Kilgour saying. “The girls will be home soon.” They weren’t, and Mr. Kilgour probably knew they wouldn’t be. He looked after Ms. May’s daughter himself for several hours.
Mr. Kilgour didn’t run in the 2006 federal election, but his departure from party politics wasn’t much of a break from public life.
With Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas, he published a report accusing China of harvesting organs from members of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in that country. China denied the allegations. He campaigned on behalf of Chinese Uyghurs, a persecuted ethnic and religious minority. A strong Christian, he promoted interfaith fellowship. He championed the causes of refugees, political prisoners and vulnerable dissidents the world over, co-operating in recent years with both Ms. May and Mr. Cotler. Ms. May describes him as a “crusader.” Mr. Cotler says he was “at the forefront of combatting the resurgence of global authoritarianism.”
Mr. Kilgour leaves his wife, Ms. Kilgour; his children, Margot Kilgour, Eileen Kilgour, Dave Kilgour, Hilary Kilgour and Tierra Baker; and six grandchildren.
In recent weeks, even as his health worsened, he continued to write, advocate and engage with those who sought his assistance. Eventually, Ms. Kilgour was forced to intervene on his behalf, explaining that Mr. Kilgour was too sick to respond himself. Asked shortly before he died of what in his life he was most proud, Mr. Kilgour said it was trying to help people.