November 5, 2014

Cotler honoured with Wallenberg Centennial Medal


Zev Singer

Irwin Cotler’s resume would need book binding were it to list all the honours received by the Mount Royal MP.

Yet, the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Medal, presented to him last Tuesday on Parliament Hill, was special. Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, is Cotler’s life-long hero.

Cotler, who served as Canada’s justice minister and is known for his international human rights work, described Wallenberg as someone who “demonstrated how one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can confront evil and resist and transform history.”

The cross-partisan crowd at the Centre Block ceremony showed the rare level of respect Cotler commands in Ottawa.

Andrew Scheer, Speaker of the House and a Conservative MP, told the audience that Cotler is a model for Parliamentarians.

“His tireless work in support of human rights and in the defence of the vulnerable brings esteem to our chamber and exists as a glowing example of what members can aspire to achieve in this place.”

Scheer added his unique perspective as the person responsible for keeping order in the House during Question Period.

“When Irwin Cotler stands to speak,” Scheer said, “there is a noticeable change in the room. It is, perhaps, the greatest compliment that the chamber can bestow on an individual…the sound of a room full of individuals who are professional talkers – listening attentively.”

After announcing in February that he will not seek re-election, Cotler’s final term in office has something of an air of a great athlete’s final season, where he is honoured even in the buildings of opposing teams.

John Baird, foreign affairs minister and fiercely partisan Conservative MP, attended and spoke at the ceremony, despite the fact that he was hosting his American counterpart that day, US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Baird, who values Cotler’s advice on international human rights issues, joked that he spends more time with the Liberal MP than he does with his own family.

Historian and academic Irving Abella and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau were among others who spoke.

Cotler told the Jewish Tribune the ceremony gave him the chance to again publicly ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to open the archives and finally resolve what became of Wallenberg after his 1945 arrest by the Soviets. Meanwhile, Cotler said, he will continue to be inspired by Wallenberg’s legacy.

“It’s with me all the time.”