Irwin Cotler is leaving politics after a 15-year career in which he fought for justice and human rights on all stages but also waged a tough battle to keep the Quebec riding of Mount Royal in Liberal hands.
The MP's support levels steadily declined from his arrival in politics in a 1999 by-election he won with 92 per cent of the vote to his sixth election in 2011, when, with 41 per cent, he barely beat his Conservative rival. Announcing his retirement with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at his side on Wednesday, Mr. Cotler accused the Conservatives of using Middle East politics as a "wedge issue" in his riding, which has a large proportion of Jewish voters.
"I did lose the Jewish vote last time," Mr. Cotler said at a news conference. "The next time around, I believe we will win both the Jewish and the non-Jewish vote. I hope we won't be engaging in that kind of ethnic politics. I don't think that serves the cause of Parliament and the cause of human rights."
Mr. Cotler said he will remain an MP until the 2015 election campaign, which he hopes will primarily be about issues such as child care and the environment. He predicted that the Liberals will be in a strong position to hold back their opponents' attacks.
The Conservatives tried for years to take Mount Royal, using negative mailings and robocalls in a bid to unseat Mr. Cotler. The party attempted after the last election to increase the profile of its standard bearer in the riding, Saulie Zajdel, by hiring him in the office of the Minister of Heritage at the time. However, Mr. Zajdel has since been charged with fraud in connection with his role in Montreal municipal politics, and it remains unclear if Mount Royal will remain a target for the Conservative Party.
Mr. Trudeau, whose father held Mount Royal from 1965 to 1984, said he will not appoint a star candidate, upholding his policy of open nomination meetings. The race to represent the Liberals can be expected to be fiercely fought in Mount Royal, because the riding offers a good chance to become a member of Parliament.
"I hope that a future minister or a star will be running in that riding and elsewhere, but they will have to win the nomination," Mr. Trudeau said.
Mr. Cotler, 73, said he will help the Liberal candidate on the hustings, making it clear he has not forgotten the Conservative attacks he withstood.
"If I were not one of the oldest, if not the oldest, member of Parliament, I might still be in there in the next election," he said.
Before entering politics, Mr. Cotler carved out a reputation around the globe as the Canadian counsel for South African leader Nelson Mandela and main counsel for former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, and was active in the effort to secure the release Andrei Sakharov, another Soviet dissident. He was a professor of law at McGill University before entering politics, and a minister of justice in the government of Paul Martin from 2003 to 2006.
Mr. Cotler said he received great advice from former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau when he entered politics.
"His words still resonate for me, which were, 'You can compromise on matters of policy, but never compromise on matters of principles.' I've always tried to pursue that course," Mr. Cotler said.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said he has only good things to say about Mr. Cotler, who taught him at McGill 40 years ago.
"He is a man with ideals and who puts them into practice, who always used all of his resources and energy to fight and help those who needed it the most," Mr. Mulcair said.
The Conservatives commended Mr. Cotler for his years of public service.