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The Globe and Mail

A strong voice for federalism falls silent

Over lunch with a reporter last week, Mario Laguë talked a little shop, gossiped just a bit and discussed the challenges boomers face in dealing with kids and aging parents. Rather mischievously, he mentioned, too, that he had taken up with a motorcycle this summer.

The 52-year-old director of communications for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff joked that riding a motorcycle was his way of dealing with his "midlife crisis," noting coyly it was much better than any alternative.

Mr. Laguë was killed Thursday morning as he rode his motorcycle to work. At an intersection in Ottawa's west end, not far from his office near Parliament Hill, he was involved in an accident with an SUV. Reports say he sustained head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene.

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News of his death travelled quickly around the Hill via Facebook, Twitter and phone, stunning leaders and staffers from all parties.

Mr. Laguë was well known and well liked on the Hill, having served in various senior communications jobs, working for two prime ministers and finally returning last fall to work for the Leader of the Official Opposition.

He was a big physical presence, but not a threatening one. He had a salty tongue and a killer wit, and he gave candid advice.

His expertise was Quebec, but he also had a good sense of the entire country; he was an ardent federalist.

Mr. Laguë, who was born Feb. 2, 1958, cut his teeth in Quebec politics, working for the provincial Liberals under Robert Bourassa.

His love for his country came through when he resigned his post as Quebec agent to Mexico - Mr. Bourassa had sent him down there - rather than swear allegiance to the separatist Parti Québécois when it came to power in the province.

"So he chose his conscience over his job," said Peter Donolo, chief of staff to Ignatieff. "He was a guy who refused to go on bended knee before Quebec separatists and was willing to sacrifice his provincial career."

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Mr. Donolo was the one who had asked Mr. Laguë to return to politics last November, as part of the new team around Mr. Ignatieff.

Mr. Laguë, however, first came to Ottawa politics after the 1995 Quebec referendum. He had worked on the No side of the campaign and had come to know some of the Ottawa crowd.

At the Privy Council Office, from 1998 to 2003, he worked himself up to the very senior role of assistant secretary for communications to the cabinet. As the most senior bureaucrat in charge of all government communications, Mr. Laguë would later attract some controversy over the sponsorship scandal.

At that time, Mr. Donolo was the director of communications to prime minister Jean Chrétien. Mr. Laguë was his public service counterpart and the two met regularly.

Eddie Goldenberg, who served as Mr. Chrétien's principal secretary, said Mr. Laguë worked closely on the controversial Clarity Act, which spelled out the conditions under which the federal government would negotiate separation with Quebec. It is considered one of Mr. Chrétien's legacy initiatives.

"He was a consummate professional … had a very good understanding of Quebec and gave extraordinarily good advice," said Mr. Goldenberg, who was also a good friend of Mr. Laguë.

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When Paul Martin became prime minister in late 2003, Mr. Laguë moved over to the political side, working as his director of communications. That was not a great union; there appeared to be some tension with the Martin senior staffers.

Mr. Laguë was moved out and given the post of ambassador to Costa Rica in 2005.

After serving in that role, he went on a secondment, working in Switzerland for an international environmental group, then returned to Ottawa last summer.

When it came time to appoint a communications director to help Mr. Ignatieff improve his image after a disastrous summer, Mr. Donolo knew whom to call. He said there was no hesitation: Mr. Laguë was a guy he could count on.

"He was an immediate hit here, because there's a wonderful kind of mid-level cadre of talent here [in the Opposition Leader's office]and he was just wonderful with these younger staffers … excited by the edgiest kind of Internet ideas they had," Mr. Donolo said.

In turn, he added, the staffers loved the fact that Mr. Laguë was so blunt: "Every other word out of his mouth was four-letter … He had a terrific … sense of humour and he was infectious."

Even more important, Mr. Laguë developed a good relationship with the Opposition Leader, who loved his "salty manner." He could make Mr. Ignatieff laugh, Mr. Donolo said.

Added Mr. Goldenberg: "He could always see the big picture … You always knew where Mario stood."

Mr. Laguë leaves his wife, Caroline Vu-Nguyen, two teenage children and his extended family.

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