Hugh Segal liked to say that he grew up on “the cheery edge of poverty.” But there was nothing cheery about the day the bailiff came for the furniture.
Everyone called Mr. Segal the Happy Warrior: a fiercely partisan Tory – though more Red than Blue – who battled Liberals his whole life, as principal secretary to Ontario premier Bill Davis, as chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, as a Conservative senator, and as a political candidate.
Win or lose – and he lost as often as he won – Mr. Segal never abandoned his ready smile and self-deprecating sense of humour.
“The people are never wrong. Occasionally, they’re excessive, but never wrong,” he told Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda, after one painful defeat.
But behind that ready humour lay passion and pain, and a life-long determination to end the poverty that shaped his early years. Mr. Segal died Aug. 9 at the age of 72.
He was born Oct. 13, 1950, “into a very low-end, working-class family in what is now called Le Plateau,” he wrote of his Montreal childhood in his last book, Bootstraps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada. His father, Morris, was often unemployed, while his mother, Sadye, worked at an all-night drugstore and then in an office. These conditions “conspired to make our financial position quite precarious and sometimes desperate,” Mr. Segal recalled. One day the bailiff came for the family car; another day for the furniture.
But better-off relatives ensured Mr. Segal and his brothers got a good education. And in May, 1962, prime minister John Diefenbaker came to his school to speak about his bill of rights and the common duty of all citizens to serve their country. “Diefenbaker’s words lit a pilot light inside of me,” Mr. Segal wrote. Then and there, he committed to a life of public service.
It was quite a life. While studying history at the University of Ottawa and revelling in student politics, he served as an aide to federal Progressive Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield, running unsuccessfully in 1972 and 1974 in the riding of Ottawa Centre. He later served as Ontario premier William Davis’s principal secretary and associate secretary of cabinet, plunging into the fraught debates over energy policy and prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s proposed new constitution.
“Aside from his brilliant intellect, he was just so funny,” said former Toronto mayor John Tory, who succeeded Mr. Segal in the premier’s office. Mr. Tory remembered his predecessor as a formidably talented and creative aide to the premier, someone who “came up with a hundred ideas every day,” some of which were even doable.
And during the tense constitutional negotiations with Pierre Trudeau and the premiers, said Mr. Tory, “he was at the right hand of Mr. Davis.”
In 1983 Mr. Segal left for a career in advertising and marketing, while also appearing often as a political commentator on TV. Almost a decade later, in 1991, prime minister Brian Mulroney brought him on as chief of staff, at a time when his government was enmeshed in fights over the goods and services tax, the North American free trade agreement and the Charlottetown constitutional accord.
“I needed someone with a very broad, generous vision of Canada, who could work well with people of various persuasions,” Mr. Mulroney said in an interview, “and that’s an ideal calling card for Hugh Segal. He came on and did a fabulous job in extremely trying circumstances.” Mr. Segal departed in April 1993, as Mr. Mulroney was stepping down.
Five years after the Progressive Conservatives were decimated in the 1993 election, Mr. Segal ran for the leadership of the party, losing to Joe Clark. Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, to his great credit, appointed Mr. Segal to the Senate in 2005, even though Mr. Segal insisted on sitting as a Conservative.
“I wanted a committed Canadian, someone with a sharp wit and a keen mind, a qualified parliamentarian and an ardent partisan,” Mr. Martin told The Globe and Mail. As well, “Sheila and I both liked him tremendously. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like Hugh Segal. I wouldn’t want to know anyone who didn’t like Hugh Segal.”
The Senate gave Mr. Segal a platform to champion a cause to which he was passionately dedicated: establishing a guaranteed annual income (also known as a universal basic income) for all Canadians.
He had been converted to the idea as a university student and fought for it throughout his life. Providing income security for those who were struggling “without being judged, demeaned, diminished or micromanaged by the ‘swells’ who work in various overseeing government departments strikes me as the ultimate liberating and uplifting conservative instrument,” he wrote.
Hugh Segal’s conservatism embodied – apart from the sheer joy of rubbishing the Grits – a respect for tradition and the rule of law, for the institutions that bind society together, for a strong military, for an engaged foreign policy.
But it was also the conservatism of the outsider, of those who were not People Like Us. His commitment to fight poverty sprang not from some patronizing progressivism or sense of noblesse oblige. He just wanted no one to have to go through what he had experienced as a child.
He almost saw his wish partly fulfilled. In 2016 Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne asked Mr. Segal to advise her on creating a basic-income pilot project. That Ms. Wynne was a Liberal and Mr. Segal a Conservative was no impediment to either of them.
“I loved the idea that he was a Progressive Conservative,” she said, because it would reinforce the notion that a basic income project should be attractive to both the left and the right. Besides, she said, by this time Mr. Segal had become less engaged in partisan politics.
“I know that the conservatism that is being practised right now was not his kind of conservatism,” Ms. Wynne said.
He threw himself into the work, which he insisted must be unpaid. Based in part on his recommendations, in the spring of 2017 the Wynne government launched a three-year pilot program, involving 4,000 residents in Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. Doug Ford cancelled the pilot project when he became Progressive Conservative premier a year later. For Mr. Segal, it was a devastating loss.
“Ford had campaigned on a slogan of ‘For the people.’ Obviously, this didn’t extend to low-income people,” he wrote bitterly.
By this point Mr. Segal was no longer in the Senate. Though he got on reasonably well with Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, he was appalled when the Harper government moved to censure three of its own senators in 2013 over allegations of improper expense claims.
Mr. Segal considered the suspension without pay of senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin “a monstrous violation of their recourse rights,” as he later wrote.
“He loved the Senate and the Senate loved him,” Ms. Wallin said. “It was heartbreaking for him to watch this institution that he cared for break down in that way, to let political differences tarnish the institution itself.” Beyond that, Ms. Wallin was his friend and Mr. Segal was loyal to his friends.
Not long after the suspension vote, Mr. Segal retired from the Senate to become master (later renamed principal) of Massey College, an elite institution for graduate students and visiting fellows at the University of Toronto.
It was one of a string of distinguished appointments he had outside political life, which included a stint as president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, a Montreal-based think tank, along with teaching and advisory positions at Queen’s University. Kingston was his adopted home, where he and his wife, Donna Armstrong Segal, a public servant specializing in health care, raised their daughter, Jacqueline.
As well as appearing on political panels, he could often be found in the op-ed pages of newspapers. He was the author of several books, including No Surrender: Reflections of a Happy Warrior in the Tory Crusade and The Right Balance: Canada’s Conservative Tradition.
He was also devoted to promoting the Commonwealth, serving as a member of its Eminent Persons Group when Stephen Harper was prime minister.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Segal leaves his brothers, Seymour and Brian, and many nieces and nephews.
Hugh Segal was comfortable in board rooms, back rooms, green rooms and classrooms. He smiled even when he was upset. He was willing to compromise but never to surrender principle. He enriched Canadian political life with his conviction, his wisdom and his wit.
“We’ve lost someone who represented the glue that keeps us together,” Mr. Mulroney said. “Good humour, honesty, friendship, the capacity to see good in other people, including people of other political parties. That’s the glue of Canada. And that was Hugh Segal.”