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Marcel Prud’homme: Underdog defender fought to right wrongs

Marcel Prud'homme spent his career as an advocate for sometimes unpopular issues, which may have led to him being passed over for a cabinet seat over the span of three Liberal prime ministers.

Jean-Marc Carisse

In a political career that spanned more than 45 years as a Liberal MP and then as an independent senator, Marcel Prud'homme was a fierce federalist, an eloquent defender of the underdog and a man who never appeared in public dressed in anything less than a natty suit and perfectly knotted tie. Tall, with beetling eyebrows and a sometimes impolitic tendency to speak his mind, he was beloved by his constituents in the working-class riding of Saint-Denis, in east-end Montreal, and he was in demand as a speaker across the country, from major rallies to church socials.

But Mr. Prud'homme, who died at 82 in Ottawa on Jan. 25 from complications after a fall, also spoke out about what he saw as human-rights violations, which may have led to him being passed over for a cabinet seat by three Liberal prime ministers. For him, the plight of Palestinians, for example, was a matter of calling out a wrong and trying to help, no matter the consequences for his career. He helped cultivate relations between Canada and Russia, China, Cuba and Libya, and, in his last speech to the Senate before retiring in 2009, he said: "It is my fervent hope that Canada will fill the unique role that has fallen to it in the world, by unfailingly taking the healthy and essential approach of engaging in the dialogue that is needed to guarantee that humanity will have a future."

"My uncle always told me it was easy to say, 'I don't want to do something because it's uncomfortable for me.' He taught me to do what's right, no matter how tough and the price you have to pay," his nephew Geoffrey Prud'homme said. "And he did pay the price."

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Mohamad Barakat, Mr. Prud'homme's former chief of staff in the Senate, recalled walking with his boss in 2009 through the streets of Montreal's Park Extension neighbourhood, which had been part of the riding he represented as an MP from 1964 to 1993. People were coming out of stores to talk with him and shake his hand – to tell him of how he had helped their father or grandfather or mother or sister.

"He always supported the diversity of the district and he was elected nine times there as a Liberal," Mr. Barakat said. "He understood that part of democracy was agreeing to disagree and always insisted when we were working on a file that I present him not only with facts he wanted to hear but those that he didn't. He felt that if people really talked there would be fewer wars."

Marcel Prud'homme was born in Montreal on Nov. 30, 1934, the youngest of Dr. Hector Prud'homme and the former Lucia Paquette's 12 children. It wasn't an easy life. The family was crammed into the second floor of a house in the east end, with Dr. Prud'homme using the front rooms for his practice. One sibling, Laurent, died at the age of 11 when he fell off the roof of the school across the street while attempting to put up a flag. And Lucia died when she was in her 50s, leaving her large family motherless.

Dr. Prud'homme, who delivered more than 10,000 babies in the neighbourhood, became a city councillor, showing his children the importance of being engaged in the world around them. He taught them to love reading – newspapers, magazines, all kinds of books – a habit they carried into adulthood. He taught them to be proud of their French language and to champion the rights of everyone, not just those of select groups. Platitudes were not enough, he said. Create a dialogue with people who may not share your opinions. And stand up, speak out and fight for what is right.

Soon enough, Marcel was gearing up for a life in politics, completing a BA in social sciences, economics and politics at the University of Ottawa in 1959, then studying law at the University of Montreal.

While still at school, in 1958, he was elected president of the Young Liberals of Canada. Then, while studying law, the natural performer would take on a future prime minister named Brian Mulroney, then a law student at Laval University in Quebec City, during mock parliamentary debates and conferences. The two became lifelong friends, and in 1992, as Canada turned 125, Mr. Mulroney had him appointed to the Privy Council. The following year, he named Mr. Prud'homme to the Senate.

"When I arrived in Parliament, it was clear he had been excluded from all cabinet posts even though he was one of the finest orators on the Liberal side," Mr. Mulroney said. "Having been excluded, he did not have the right to the title 'The Honourable,' and I thought it would be appropriate for Marcel."

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In occasional chats with his friend, Mr. Mulroney said he learned that Mr. Prud'homme, who never married, considered Parliament Hill his life and his home. "I decided the way to make certain Marcel never had to leave home was to make him a senator," he explained. "He stayed until the end and he continued to go by what he believed was right."

Mr. Prud'homme's first foray into politics almost took him on a different path. He was tapped to run for the provincial Liberals in the riding of Montreal-Laurier, only to be asked to step aside at the last minute for a star candidate named René Lévesque.

Mr. Prud'homme was first sent to Ottawa in a by-election in 1964, and he won again by large margins in 1965, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1979, 1980, 1984 and 1988. Indeed, he was one of the few Liberals to survive the Progressive Conservative Party's victory in 1984, winning by 6,628 votes; four years later, when Mr. Mulroney won his second mandate, Mr. Prud'homme increased that margin of victory to 7,085.

Along the way, he served as parliamentary secretary several times – once for the secretary of state for Canada and twice for the minister of regional economic expansion. In 1987, he was elected president of the federal party's national caucus and served a similar position for the Quebec caucus at the end of the 1970s and again in the early 90s.

He was given five Canadian commemorative medals, received citations from countries such as Russia, Morocco, Cuba and Hungary and was granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Algiers.

Retired Liberal senator Jack Austin – who in 1974 was then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau's chief of staff and later, as a senator, a member of the cabinet – recalled Mr. Prud'homme as a diligent young MP willing to speak in ridings that were hard to win, especially in the West.

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"He made a lot of friends in the party in his younger years because of that outreach," Mr. Austin said. "He had high energy, charm and empathy. And if you wanted a speaker from Ottawa, Marcel Prud'homme would come before anyone else.

"He was his own version of a Liberal – a social progressive and a federalist – and that made him genuinely a Liberal in the Trudeau era," Mr. Austin continued.

Near the end of his life, Mr. Prud'homme suffered from heart and kidney problems, but whenever he had to go to the hospital for dialysis, he would dress up in a suit and tie. It was about image. It was about respect. It was the measure of the man.

Mr. Prud'homme was predeceased by his 11 siblings. He leaves his nieces and nephews, their spouses and children, friends, former colleagues and former staff members.

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