OTTAWA — Bob Rae, a fixture on Canada’s political scene for more than three decades, is giving up his seat in the House of Commons to devote himself to another of his Canadian passions: working on behalf of First Nations.
The Toronto Liberal MP and one-time Ontario premier announced Wednesday he’s leaving politics so he can focus on his new role: chief negotiator for the Matawa Tribal Council in talks with the province about development of the Ring of Fire mining project in northern Ontario.
“It’s been a very difficult decision and, as you may have heard from the caucus, quite an emotional one for me. I don’t make any bones about that,” a puffy-eyed Rae told a surprise news conference after informing his Liberal colleagues of his decision.
Rae pre-empted any speculation that thrice-thwarted leadership ambitions were behind his departure. He heaped praise on Justin Trudeau, whose decision to consider seeking the leadership last spring prompted Rae to abandon his own leadership plans and content himself with the role of holding down the Liberals’ parliamentary fort in the interim.
“I’m more than confident that Mr. Trudeau will become the prime minister of Canada and I regret very much and I know what I’m giving up when I say that I won’t be there for this next leg of the journey,” Rae said.
“But I hope that I have been able, in my own way in the last few years, to help create the conditions in the party that have strengthened our position.”
In turn, Trudeau lavished praise on Rae.
“I personally am sad, to be entirely blunt about it, that Bob has taken the decision that he has,” the Liberal leader said.
“We will miss his wise counsel, we will miss his wisdom and experience. But we will miss mostly his passion, his emotion, his very, very human dedication to wearing his heart on his sleeve and his love for his country for all to see.”
Although Trudeau urged him to stay and the federal ethics watchdog cleared his involvement in the Ring of Fire talks while remaining an MP, Rae said he quickly realized he couldn’t do both jobs at the same time.
In explaining his ultimate choice to give up politics, Rae recounted a recent fishing trip in northern Ontario with an aboriginal man and his daughter, Eleanor, “which, as some of you know, is the same name as my own daughter Eleanor.”
“And as we were riding and going out fishing and talking about life, it seemed to me that perhaps I could do something to make sure that his daughter had the same chances as mine,” he said, his voice breaking.
“The passion and enthusiasm I feel for the First Nations of Canada, the need for a different kind of partnership in this country between Canada’s first peoples and those of us who have come later on is absolutely necessary.”
He acknowledged that his age — he’ll be 65 on Aug. 2 — was also a factor in his decision. Even so, Rae did not close the door on politics forever.
“Look, never say never,” he said. “But it certainly closes the door for now.”
He ruled out any suggestion that he could have a future in municipal politics: “I will not be a candidate for the mayor of Toronto.”
Rae’s departure opens up some prime political real estate — the riding of Toronto Centre, a long-time Liberal bastion.
Trudeau has promised that, under his leadership, every riding will have to stage wide-open, democratic nomination contests to choose election candidates. As a result, the contest in Toronto Centre, one of the few remaining seats the Liberals can claim as safe, could be a wild one.
Names of potential heavyweight contenders are already circulating, including Tim Murphy, a former member of the Ontario legislature and one-time chief of staff to former prime minister Paul Martin, and George Smitherman, a former Ontario cabinet minister who used to represent the riding provincially.
“Toronto Centre is my home base and a return to politics at the federal level has been the subject of active conversation in our household for some time,” Smitherman said in an email Wednesday, adding that he’s been “consumed today by offers of help and encouragement.”
Murphy declined to comment on his own ambitions, saying “this is a day to focus on Bob Rae and his extraordinary contribution to the country and public policy.”
For all the accolades that poured in from Liberals on Wednesday, Rae’s ambition to become the party’s federal leader was never realized, in large part because many in the party’s Ontario wing could never forgive or forget his previous political life as a New Democrat.