On Thursday, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler will receive the Law Society of Upper Canada’s inaugural human rights award at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. The society represents some 46,000 lawyers in Ontario.
Cotler, a former law professor at McGill University in Montreal, was first elected to Parliament in 1999, and served as justice minister under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin from 2003 to 2006.
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As justice minister, Cotler introduced Canada’s first-ever human trafficking legislation and initiated the country’s first prosecution under the War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity Act. He also crafted the Civil Marriage Act, which granted marriage equality to gays and lesbians.
He also served as counsel to prisoners from around the world, including Nelson Mandela. He has received 10 honorary doctorates and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Cotler, 74, announced last year he would not seek re-election in his Montreal riding of Mount Royal.
Global News spoke to Martin about Cotler’s work for human rights in Canada and abroad. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I’m curious about your relationship with Mr. Cotler.
A: Irwin Cotler and I are very close friends. But I first heard of Irwin Cotler long before I ever met him. I spent a lot of time in Africa and I must say that one of the first questions you get when you go to places like Africa if you’re a Canadian is, ‘Do you know Irwin Cotler?’
He brought in so much legislation for the first time. His legislation was the first to criminalize trafficking in persons, which is just one of the worst things that has ever afflicted humankind. He brought in the first ever prosecution under the Canadian War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Act, in terms of the genocide in Rwanda.
He was at the forefront, you know, of the international struggle against apartheid. And that’s one of the reasons, I think, when I was in Africa and people would come up to me and say, ‘Do you know Irwin Cotler?’ It was the battle against apartheid.
He really has spoken for justice on all of the issues in the Middle East. He lectured in Arab countries and Israel for long before he ever went into public life. I think that in terms of human rights, Irwin Cotler, more than anybody I know – his name is associated with the rights protecting us all.
Q: Where do you think it comes from in him? Where do you think he has this drive to fight so hard, for so long, on this topic?
A: The question is a good one because it obviously comes from very deep within. Long before the Charter of Rights in this country, Irwin Cotler was the living embodiment of what the Charter of Rights is. Where it comes from I think is just his huge, huge sense of fairness – his huge understanding of the inequities that so many people suffer. And I think that he has felt that it’s up to people like him to speak for all of us and he has done that so well.
Q: And he’ll be leaving politics. He said won’t run again in 2015. What hole do you think that leaves in federal politics when Irwin Cotler moves on?
A: While he’s leaving politics, he’s not leaving the fight for human rights. He never will. I think that he will be fighting for peace, he’ll be fighting for fairness, and he will be fighting for human rights, and he did it before he went into public life. He did it magnificently when he was in public life, when he was a minister, and he has continued to do it. He’s continuing to do it even now, long after he left government. So I don’t think he’s ever going to leave the field, and I can say to you, that I hope he never does.
Q: Do you have any specific memories of him working on any files, or working late nights, that you can share?
A: I certainly remember talking to him about the whole question of the genocide in Rwanda. And I remember how strongly he felt. He was able to carry so many files in his mind at the same time. And I think that’s what really struck me more about him. I don’t think he did sleep very much (laughs), because he was always focused on really the unfairness that (was) being done to people. I remember talking to him on the whole question of trafficking in persons. I can tell you, that in private conversation, I’ve never seen anybody rise to the height that he did in conversation with me in which he was talking about just what an obscene thing the trafficking in persons is, and why it is so important that governments take the action to stop it. And I can tell you that it’s one of the great tragedies that that private conversation that he had with me was not recorded, because it’s a blight on humanity, and there’s nobody that has ever spoken against it with his vehemence and nobody ever worked against it with the vehemence that he has taken to the issue. And that’s what he brought to everything that he ever looked at. Whether it was apartheid, whether it was defending human rights – in China, actually. No matter what, Irwin Cotler was there.
Q: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Is there anything else you’d like to add about Irwin Cotler?
A: No, I don’t think so. I once said to him that I thought that our cold winters were becoming a human rights affront, and could he do something about it?