LILLEY: Cotler, an exemplary parliamentarian, deserves the Churchill Prize

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Irwin Cotler is rare among parliamentarians, having had a full career as a lawyer and academic before taking office and continuing to take on leadership roles after leaving government.

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On Wednesday, Cotler will become the 39th recipient of the Churchill Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award for the cause of parliamentary democracy.

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It’s a pretty silly prize, but it also goes to a pretty silly guy.

Not that I’m saying all of this in a negative light: Cotler is someone who deserves more accolades than he’s received. He is a man who left a comfortable career as an academic lawyer to answer the call of public service at a time when even his own family felt mad to do so.

“My father is crazy! Why does he want to stand in the legislative elections? Nothing happens and there’s a Monica Lewinsky waiting for him around the corner,” Cotler said, quoting his son, when he first ran for office in 1999.

Maybe Cotler was crazy, although that’s not how I experienced it.

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In the early 2000s, I was a young journalist and Cotler was a new MP. He was shrewd, he was ambitious, he was interested in hearing from all sides, which not all MPs, and possibly ministers, can claim. Cotler is truly one of those old-school liberals who cares about ideas and principles, not just power.

A few years after I first met in Montreal, I again crossed paths politically with Cotler in Ottawa when I was Ottawa bureau chief for Newstalk 1010 in Toronto and CJAD800 in Montreal. While I had moved on to a fancy-sounding title, he had risen to the position of Attorney General and Attorney General – a much more important post.

What was remarkable about Cotler was that he was not above debating and hearing the other side of the argument.

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We never agreed on every issue, but even then, as the government dealt with controversial legislation, Cotler was not above listening to those who disagreed with him.

On more than one occasion, I remember the man listening respectfully to those on the other side, sometimes even conceding points. This is the essence of a true parliamentarian.

Retired as she is, Cotler has remained active on human rights issues pushing Canada to pass the Magnitsky Act, which we did in 2017, and staying true to ourselves on human rights issues. (The Magnitsky Act allows the Canadian government to target foreign nationals who commit human rights violations with penalties).

« I am committed at this point to the defense of political prisoners, » Cotler said in a recent interview.

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One such political prisoner Cotler is fighting for is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a man who spoke out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and oppression in his country. For daring to speak out, Kara-Murza has paid the price and is currently in prison.

Kara-Murza is one of the people who have called on Canada to pass the Magnitsky Act, appearing before Parliament to implore MPs to do the right thing. Now Cotler is doing the right thing by acting as one of his lawyers to try to free the democracy activist.

It’s one of the many reasons why Cotler receiving the award on Wednesday is so warranted.

Cotler embodies what parliamentarians are called to be, whatever their political affiliation: fierce defenders of freedom, fierce defenders of democracy, ready to listen to the other side.

In and out of the office, Cotler has been all of these.

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