Doorstep Postings: ‘The indulgence in grief is a blunder’—Josh Lieblein remembers Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal. (Credit: U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

This is a special edition of Doorstep Postings, the periodic political commentary column written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

They will say, now that Hugh Segal has passed away, that the Canada he embodied is gone.

And after the tributes invariably praise his pleasant demeanour, his unwavering belief in a united Canada, his unfailing efforts to reach across the aisles and see the good in people… the grumbling about how Red Tories like him are now politically homeless will start back up again.

Rest assured, the fretting about how the different parties don’t respect each other, how the country is on the verge of breaking up—and how everyone is just so mean these days—will return to its regularly scheduled programming. 

So, let’s take a respectful pause while we can.

In truth—and this is, perhaps, the greatest compliment I, or anyone, could pay the former senator—the Canada that Hugh Segal spent his life boosting will endure as long as we don’t come across a real existential crisis, as opposed to the pretend ones we create for ourselves.

Speaking as someone who’s criticized and fought against Consensus Canada for decades, I realize what I’m up against.

And if I worked for a hundred lifetimes, I and everyone else who agrees that it’s time for a change in the way the country operates could never hope to gain an inch against Segal’s vision of optimistic, polite, friendly, prosperous Canada. That is how deeply entrenched his legacy is—although, strictly speaking, it isn’t his legacy alone.  

I know because, once upon a time, in order to gain entry to Canada’s political world—a world I believed was the exclusive domain of people like the then-newly appointed senator—I had to write an essay describing the politician I most admired. And who do you suppose I chose? You guessed it: Senator Hugh Segal, a man I’d never met, whose books I’d never so much bothered to crack open, whose many speeches I’d never been able to or wanted to listen to. At the time, I may not have even known what he looked like.

None of that made the slightest difference compared to what I did know, which was that Hugh Segal was what a Jewish Canadian politician was, and was supposed to be. How could it be any other way?

Jews in politics were humble, quiet, self-effacing, polite, and kept their heritage to themselves except on special occasions. They disdained ideological differences, reacted with instinctive alarm to anything that threatened national unity or to American incursions, and never spoke out of turn when the WASP elites were around. This was the impression Segal left on me, back when I was barely into my 20s. 

And when I got to Ottawa, and met people from the Prairies who grew up idolizing the Mannings, the Quebecker kids who admired the Duplessises and Lévesques who I’d been raised to fear, and people from the Maritimes who swore by Conservative premiers whose families they’d grown up alongside, do you know what I did? That’s right—I went right on defending Hugh Segal, despite not being able to name a single accomplishment of his, or knowing about the elections he helped win for Ontario premier Bill Davis before I was born.

But that wasn’t the point, anyhow. Hugh Segal wasn’t supposed to win elections or flip seats or score ideological wins. Real authority in Canada doesn’t come from those things, and no matter how much it rankled those Tories from afar, they knew it

Well, as the years went by and I was forced to deal with the repeated self-inflicted failures of Segal’s contemporaries (John Tory, Patrick Brown, Erin O’Toole, Peter MacKay, and a directory of Red Tory contenders that couldn’t even secure a leadership position) I became less inclined to defend Segal and his vision, although that had nothing to do with him personally.

Unlike all of the above, he seemed to understand that he didn’t need to stress himself out seeking the approval of a bunch of voters. He never dirtied himself getting into ethical scraps like Brian Mulroney—for whom Segal served as the final chief of staff—never signalled his displeasure with the direction of the modern Conservative party by campaigning for the Liberals a la Joe Clark, and never was forced into a humiliating defeat by a bunch of Parti Québécois-enabled woke students a la Jean Charest.

While others pined for the old days—and the old Progressive Conservative party—Segal just kept on doing what he did, and remained respected by everyone right up until the end. He achieved what none of those other torch-bearers for “Red Toryism” or whatever it’s called strove their entire lives for—universal acclaim as a conservative, nominal a thought that may have been. He played their game, and he won. Whatever else I might be wrong about, I was right to defend him for that. 

Hugh Segal’s Canada is not a political party, a colour, a bunch of united or disunited provinces, a government, or a Senate. It is the likes of Pierre Poilievre being obligated to pay tribute to his memory. It is the entire party, the entire country, continuing to pay lip service to the Progressive Conservative party of old and the virtues he embodied, even if it makes their skin crawl to do so. And how could it be any other way? 

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.