The Métropolitain

Prud’homme retires

By Alan Hustak on October 1, 2009

Dignitaries from a number of Arab countries as well as Cuba and Russia attended a reception at Montreal City Hall Sept. 9 to honour the Dean of Canada’s parliamentarians, retiring senator Marcel Prud’homme.  

Prud’homme, who was described as the institutional memory on Parliament Hill  was first elected as a Liberal MP in 1963 and never lost an election before Brian Mulroney appointed him a senator 16 years ago. 

Prud’homme’s outspoken support of Arab causes made him a political liability and he was confined him to the back benches for all of his parliamentary career. 

During the reception, Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay took the opportunity of the captive audience to cultivate the Arab vote in upcoming municipal election by declaring that, although he wasn’t a convert to Islam, he was observing the Ramadan fast out of respect to the faith and wouldn’t eat any of the food being served at the reception.

The mayor introduced all of the ambassadors and consular officials present, then asked if he had missed anyone.

A voice in the crowd shouted the name of one dignitary, but they mayor didn`t quite catch exactly what was said.

“Israel? Did I miss the Ambassador of Israel?” the mayor asked.

“No. He’s not here,” Prud’homme quipped to widespread laughter, “ Next time, maybe.”

Prud’homme warned the audience that the only politician who could speak as long as he could was Fidel Castro. He then proceeded to deliver a rambling 45-minute speech recapping his political career, and his commitment to human rights. 

Prud’homme was born into a political family; His father, Hector, was a Montreal city councillor during the years Camillien Houde was mayor, and his mother, Lucia, was a militant organizer for the Bloc Populaire, a forerunner of the Parti Quebecois.

(A park in Dr. Hector Prud’homme’s name was inaugurated in the east end by Tremblay earlier this year).

Prud’homme has always prided himself on being “a French Canadian Federalist in my mind and a Quebec nationalist in my heart.

“Federalism is the only way for diverse people to live together,” he says, “There’s nothing wrong with being a nationalist, but good nationalist respect the pride of others. It’s when people think that they are superior, when they have a superiority complex, that they are better than others, when the trouble starts.’’ Prud’homme’s interest in foreign affairs was sparked in the 1960s by Algeria’s fight for independence. 

Senator-Marcel-Prudhomme.jpgIn the 1970s Prud’homme toured the Arab world and befriended Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

He stubbornly supported the Arab position in the Middle East. When Arafat delivered a speech to the United Nations in 1974, Prud’homme rose to applaud in a standing ovation, and later invited him to Canada. The invitation was withdrawn by Prime Minister Trudeau.  As a senator, Prud’homme once held a private reception for the King of Jordan atop the Peace Tower in Ottawa, which meant carting food and supplies to the top of the tower by elevator. 

“I am not a provocateur. But you don’t reach out to people by slapping them in the face,” Prud’homme said. “We are often afraid to reach out to human beings.”

When Canada introduced the $1 coin in 1987 Prud’homme proposed putting former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s head on the money to replace the Queen’s image. If nothing else, that put him in the books as Western Canada’s favourite Quebec MP.

In 1993, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney thought the Progressive Conservatives could win Prud’homme’s St. Denis riding, which today is known as Papineau. According to Prud’homme, Mulroney offered him any patronage appointment he wanted to vacate the seat.  “He started by offering me an appointment as Canada’s ambassador to Tunisa, but in the end I set my own conditions for stepping down as an MP and appointed myself to the Senate. Mulroney agreed,” he said.

The Conservatives lost the seat in the election that followed.

Prud’homme sat as an independent Senator, but had little influence.

In November 2007 he was awarded the Russian Federation’s highest civilian honour, The Order of Friendship, and was a recipient of the Hungarian government’s freedom fighters award. 

By law, he has to give up his seat when he turns 75 at the end of November.