Bob Rae’s most memorable moment as a politician did not come on that heady night in 1990 when he led the New Democratic Party to its first and only win in Ontario.
There is no doubt, says Mr. Rae, that the victory that made him premier of Canada’s largest province for 4½ years was a “thrill,” albeit one tempered by an economy that was headed south before the NDP came to power.
But the 69-year-old Mr. Rae says the real highlight of his political career goes back to the early 1980s when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau was patriating the Constitution. Mr. Rae was in his 30s, a young NDP member of Parliament whose main claim to fame, to that point in time, was proposing a subamendment to a budget motion in December, 1979, that toppled the Conservative government of Joe Clark.
During the constitutional debates, he was just a member of the Opposition. But there was intense discussion between and among all of the parties and he was part of it.
“I think bringing the Constitution home with the Charter and with Section 35, which is the recognition of Indigenous treaty rights, was very significant,” Mr. Rae said in a recent telephone interview. “And I was very proud that the last vote I cast in the House of Commons, before I left in 1982, was the third reading vote on the constitutional package.”
Mr. Rae will be given a lifetime achievement award on Wednesday night by the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, a group of onetime senators and members of Parliament from all political parties. Past recipients include Don Mazenkowski, Ed Lumley, Alexa McDonough and Michael Wilson.
It is an honour that goes to those who served with distinction during their time in office and after their elected days ended.
The political life of Mr. Rae, a lawyer and former Rhodes scholar, began with his election to the federal House of Commons in 1978. He became leader of the Ontario New Democrats in 1982, left politics when the NDP was defeated in 1995, was re-elected to the federal House as a Liberal in 2008 and became interim leader of the federal Liberals in 2011.
In between and after political gigs, he conducted an independent assessment of the Air India bombing, helped restructure the Red Cross after the tainted blood scandal, wrote a recent report about the Rohingya crisis and has been a regular consultant and negotiator for the Indigenous people of Northwestern Ontario.
“He is a deep thinker and because of that he can sometimes appear distant. But he has a mind that can get itself around very challenging topics,” said Greg Sorbara, a former Liberal member of the Ontario legislature.
“I would want to be in the legislature if Bob was giving a speech,” Mr. Sorbara said. “He was on the other side and we opposed him. But just to listen to his eloquence, it was a real treat.”
Given that Mr. Rae considers the constitutional talks to be a high point of his political life, it is not surprising that the defeat of the Charlottetown accord, which would have amended the Constitution to resolve disputes around federal and provincial jurisdiction, was a low.
“I was heartbroken that we were not able to get the Charlottetown accord approved,” he said, “because it would have put negotiating [Indigenous] self-government on the front burner right across the country.”
Another low was, of course, the defeat in Ontario in 1995. “In the life of any politician, I think that’s hard, to see your friends go down,” Mr. Rae said.
His term as premier was made challenging by a flagging economy that forced difficult choices, including the introduction of the social contract, which imposed wage freezes, opened collective-bargaining agreements and required civil servants to take unpaid days off.
Many of Mr. Rae’s own supporters believed he had made a great mistake. And the popularity of his government plummeted.
“But, I think over all I am very proud of the time that I was in government and some of the things we were able to do, saving a lot of jobs and making a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” he said. “Employment equity, better housing programs, we did a lot of very good things.”
Andy Mitchell, the former federal Liberal cabinet minister who is the president of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, said Mr. Rae was an obvious choice to receive an award for service to community and country.
“He is passionate about public policy,” Mr. Mitchell said, “passionate about making better the Canadian condition.”