Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Anne Cools shares a joke with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during a speech by John Evans.ERIK CHRISTENSEN/The Globe and Mail

She was known among her colleagues as the Dean of the Senate, a true original and, in the words of fellow senator Peter Harder, never one to shy away from controversy – “even to the point of irritation.”

Senator Anne Cools – armed with stacks of books and a seemingly endless ability to pontificate about, well, the Senate – was a fixture in the ornate halls of Parliament Hill for more than three decades. She was appointed to the Senate on the recommendation of prime minister Pierre Trudeau on Jan. 13, 1984, at the tender age of 40.

Not that she thinks she changed much.

“I’m very connected to the outside world," she said recently from her basement office below the Senate foyer. “I mean, my name is the most recognized name as a senator.”

The longest-serving member of the Red Chamber, Ms. Cools retired on Aug. 12, the day of her 75th birthday – the mandatory retirement age for senators.

Sticking it out until the end just makes sense for someone who has long prided herself on doing things her way.

“People often look up and say, ‘The only independent in this place is Senator Cools,’ ” she said. “I’m, I would say, different.”

Along the way, she built a career out of being a contrarian. She passionately defended Senator Mike Duffy, whom she says was subjected to “gratuitous cruelty” during the expense scandal. She urged journalists to identify the sources who leaked details of the 2015 Auditor-General’s expense probe. And she once publicly claimed she saw a senator hit a child but now says, “I chose not to do anything about it."

First appointed as a Liberal, she crossed the floor in 2004 to the Conservatives, only to get kicked out three years later after criticizing prime minister Stephen Harper, who, she said, “saw nothing wrong with ruining a person’s life.” She later joined the newly formed Independent Senators’ Group after a period of non-affiliation.

“Senator Cools is not one for half-measures,” Conservative Senator Larry Smith said during a Senate tribute to Ms. Cools at the end of June. “She is a trailblazer who has always followed the beat of her own drum and gone about her life and work in her own unique way.”

For starters, there is her unrivalled reverence for the Red Chamber itself.

A visit to her office stretched on for almost two hours and includes a lengthy and spirited reading of a book of unpublished documents about the British North America Act.

Indeed, reading and talking about the Senate may be her legacy. She has given more than 350 speeches in the chamber – not including interventions or off-the-cuff contributions to debates – and spends much of her time reading history and Canadian law books.

Open this photo in gallery:

Senator Anne Cools, Senator Percy Mockler and Senator Elizabeth Marshall of the Senate Committee on National Finance host a press conference on Dec. 13, 2017.Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

“With her departure, we lose a deep source of corporate memory and an expert in parliamentary government, at least since 1066," Mr. Harder said during her tribute.

Ms. Cools immigrated to Canada from Barbados at 13. She studied social work at McGill University in Montreal and participated in a sit-in at Sir George Williams University – now part of Concordia University – over alleged racism. She went on to found one of Canada’s first women’s shelters, in Toronto, and worked in the field of family violence prevention.

The first black Canadian appointed to the Senate, she now says she hasn’t thought about it much since.

“What can I tell you, I spent my life being first,” she said. “My skin has never been top of mind in my life.”

Before her appointment, she was a federal Liberal candidate in the tony Toronto riding of Rosedale, but lost in both the 1979 and 1980 elections. A month before he decided to leave office in 1984, Mr. Trudeau – who she says had “great affection" for her – called to offer her a seat in the Senate.

Her proudest work during her time on Parliament Hill was her advocacy for the rights of fathers in divorce cases. In 1998, she was a member of a special joint committee on child custody, which recommended more focus on a child’s well-being and fair treatment for fathers.

In retirement, Ms. Cools said she’ll keep busy reading and spending time with her husband of 30 years. She still plans to do public speaking for groups such as the Bomber Command Campaign, which commemorates the young airmen of the Second World War.

And she still expects to be known by the title she held for almost 35 years.

“Once you’ve been a senator, people can keep calling you senator,” she said. “Everybody does that.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe