Improving the Lives of Canadians: An Interview with The Hounorable Anne Cools, Canada’s First Black and Longest Serving Senator

6 minute read

By: Gérard Étienne, IOG Vice President - Diversity and Inclusion, and Dr. Steven Tomlins, IOG Senior Researcher

The Institute on Governance has recently had the pleasure of welcoming The Honorable Anne Cools, Canada’s first Black and longest serving Senator, for an interview about her historical career and greatest accomplishments.

Cools represented the Senate division of Toronto-Centre-York from 1984 until her retirement in August of 2018, which made her Canada’s longest serving senator. She served under the governments of eight Prime Ministers. In-person she is warm, humorous, intellectual and a superb historian. She is brimming with wisdom pertaining to the operations of government, the weighted significance of POGG (Peace, Order, and Good Governance), and the importance of listening to vulnerable groups, regardless of colour, class, or other demographic descriptors. To Cools, success in her political life has always meant finding solutions and doing the right thing for citizens, with the ultimate goal of increasing the freedom of Canadians, something she was quick to learn from The Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

“He had such a large intellect, and a great understanding of the sweep of human history, as human beings move every stage of development towards more freedoms, better freedoms, greater circumstances. He had a thorough understanding of the natural movement that human beings have and partake in to make their conditions better – nobody ever wants to go back, they always want to go to better.”

Born in Barbados to a political family before immigrating to Canada as a youth, Cools came to Trudeau’s attention as an anti-racism and anti-domestic violence activist who was to capture the nation’s attention when she ran for the nomination, as a Liberal, in the riding of Rosedale, in the late 1970’s:

“I started to inquire more about how candidates are chosen, and I started to build up support. Many people thought that this was unusual, but support just kept picking up, and I was getting ink every day. In the process of that, many people didn’t want to believe what the result could be. Some rejoiced that I didn’t win that seat in Rosedale to be the MP. Within two years, the Prime Minister had phoned me, and there I was, a senator, just like that,” she laughs. “So those who were always opining negatively had a new situation to deal with.”

Indeed, greatly impressed by Cools, Trudeau asked her to join the Senate, explaining, “Anne, you have great moral courage. Moral courage is rare; it is important that you stay in politics.” She accepted the seat that would make her not only Canada’s, but North America’s first Black Senator: “I knew I had to do the best job that I could do. This man had confidence in me; I decided to do the best job that I can do.”

When asked about her accomplishments, Cools is quick to point to two achievements that improved the lives of fishermen and families, both of which were solutions-oriented and driven by a desire to hear from those most affected by, or vulnerable to, proposed government policy.

The first pertains to her joining a small committee that traveled to small town Nova Scotia on a fact-finding mission of what Unemployment Insurance (UI) could mean for fishermen, who, contrary to popular opinion, did not spend their winters being idle, but, rather, they used the time to repair their nets and make other preparations for the next fishing season. At the time it was a “touchy issue” in the House of Commons, but for Cools it turned out to be “a fantastic social experience.” While the committee members were in a hotel with journalists, 200 fishermen entered the room. When Cools addressed the audience of fishermen, she related the importance of their jobs to her upbringing in Barbados, as trade between Canadian salted fish and British West Indies molasses has a history of over 300 years. Empathizing with the fishermen, and treating their career with the importance it deserves, (they felt it was being minimized), helped sway the media, the public, and ultimately, the Senate’s opinion: fishermen were granted the right to apply for UI:

“All of a sudden, those fishermen, they were for me. In one moment, the media thing, the illusion, was done, because we got freed up, and it was a wonderful experience for me to be so close to individuals who had lived in so much danger; anytime men go out on a fishing boat they are at risk. In any event, we carried the day. When we got back to Ottawa and into Caucus the applause for our committee members broke out as soon as the meeting was called to order. It was such a fantastic thing; just thinking about it is uplifting. When something like that happens, it brings solidarity and cohesion.”

The second accomplishment Cools reflected on also spoke to her ability to listen, understand, and support citizens, even when it didn’t seem like the obvious – or politically popular – thing to do at the time.

Around 1996, Cools was concerned with a bill trying to change the Divorce Act in a way that she believed would increase the child support payment burden on fathers. The Bill had a lot of support, yet Cools was concerned with what that meant for equality between the sexes, the health of the child, and frustrated fathers, many of whom were opting for suicide as a solution to their despair. She joined a joint committee of both the Senate and the House of Commons. The committee listened to a myriad of groups, including grandparents’ groups who were concerned over their grandchildren and their sons. In person, many concerned citizens would come up to her to express their heartfelt concerns and share their heart-wrenching stories:

“I couldn’t get out to the supermarket without grandparents stopping me and wanting to talk about their son, and I would listen to every one of those stories: Another grandparent would say that her son had committed suicide. I could never get enough hard facts, but I was aware that a lot of men were breaking. I remember one case: he was about 34 years old, and it was a bad case. He just disappeared. And one of his friends found him hanging in a tree.”

The Bill was a matter of public debate and polls started to show support for her side, culminating in an Ottawa Citizen headline, “Public Thinks Fathers and Children are Getting Short Shrift in Divorce.” Public opinion helped her side to amend that Bill. Thanks to her work and the work of her colleagues, a more balanced approach was achieved.

The Honorable Anne Cools has spent her public life looking for solutions and ways to make lives better for Canadians. Her public service reflections shed light on the importance of empathizing with those who are directly affected by government policy. She has paved the way not only for Black Canadians, but for all who aspire to make Canada a better place, by listening to one person at a time, attentively.

About the authors

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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Steven Tomlins

Steven Tomlins

Senior Researcher

Steven Tomlins is a Senior Researcher at the Institute on Governance. In 2016, he obtained his Doctorate degree in Religious Studies from the University of Ottawa, and he is co-editor of two international academic volumes (Springer 2015; Brill International, 2017), pertaining to religion, irreligion, identity, and expression.

Steven’s experience at the IOG includes project coordination, primary research, secondary research, communications, and report writing. Much of his work at the IOG involves research, writing, and logistical support for public sector projects. These projects include mandate reviews, governance reviews, strategic planning processes, policy research, distributed governance research, models of multilevel/inter-jurisdictional governance, and nation-to-nation (Indigenous/Federal government) relations. His recent projects include comparative case studies on international infrastructure and building code regulatory processes and two projects for the New Fiscal Relationship Working Group shared by the Assembly of First Nations and the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.