Bill Graham was old school. The former Liberal cabinet minister loved politics, loved the Toronto riding he represented through five elections, loved being out and about in the world, loved gossip and good stories, which he could tell better than just about anyone.
“He was a gentleman,” said Adrienne Clarkson, the former governor-general and close friend, “in a time when many people no longer understand the meaning of the word.”
He was also Canada’s foreign affairs and then defence minister in the critical early years of the century, contributing heavily to keeping Canada out of the war in Iraq and in the war in Afghanistan.
As interim leader of the Liberal Party in 2006, he held a fractious caucus together – at least most of the time – as a defeated party sought to regroup.
He was, above all, a beacon of civility in the bearpit of federal politics, which made him respected on both sides of the aisle.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody speak ill of Bill,” said Scott Brison, who sat in opposition to him as a Progressive Conservative MP, and then with him as a Liberal in former prime minister Paul Martin’s cabinet. “And to be honest, I almost never heard Bill speak ill of anybody else.”
A son of privilege, he championed the rights of minorities. He owned a place in Corsica, but some of the strongest support in his inner-Toronto riding came from the poorest neighbourhoods.
He lived life large but with grace, and never too seriously, no matter how serious things became.
Or as Bob Rae, Canada’s permanent representative at the United Nations, put it, “he was just a wonderful guy.”
Mr. Graham died from cancer, Sunday, at the age of 83. He leaves his wife Catherine, daughter Katy and son Patrick.
He moved in all the right circles from birth, though family life could be tempestuous. (On the day of his stepfather’s funeral, he wrote in his memoir, his mother tearfully confessed that he had actually been his biological father.) He attended Upper Canada College and the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, U of T’s law school and the University of Paris.
It seemed perfectly natural, while he was at Trinity, to buy a Land Rover with a friend and attempt to drive it from Europe to India. (They made it as far as Afghanistan.) He also joined the naval reserves, becoming a sub-lieutenant. As defence minister, “whenever I boarded a ship, they would say, ‘the minister is one of ours, you know,’ ” he recalled years later.
He married Catherine Curry on June 9, 1962, and settled into a life of law at the Toronto firm of Fasken, quickly establishing a reputation in international trade law. In 1980, he joined the University of Toronto’s law faculty. He was highly popular with his students, but with two careers already under his belt, he decided in midlife that it was time to tackle politics.
He ran twice in the downtown Toronto riding of Rosedale (later Toronto Centre-Rosedale, then Toronto Centre), failing both times, but learning about its different communities, from the swells north of Bloor Street – his people – to the public housing projects to the gay village.
In the 1988 campaign, a young man came up to him and said: “I want to help you get elected, though I’m dying of AIDS, and don’t have a long time to live.” Mr. Graham became a passionate supporter of the LGBTQ community, defender of the same-sex marriage act of 2005 and supporter of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, known today as The ArQuives.
The support was financial, but he also showed up and pitched in as an organizer and volunteer. The queer experience in the generations before the LGBTQ rights movement “had not been documented by the community,” said Raegan Swanson, the archives’ executive director, “and here was a chance to make sure that history was preserved, essentially for the first time.”
In 1993, Mr. Graham took Rosedale as part of Jean Chrétien’s Liberal sweep of Ontario. Mr. Chrétien put him on the foreign-affairs committee, which he eventually chaired.
“He came in with a belief in the House of Commons,” said the writer and philosopher John Ralston Saul. (Catherine Graham introduced Mr. Saul to Ms. Clarkson in 1976; they were married in 1999.) A more ambitious politician might have seen committee work as, at best, a stepping stone to cabinet. “But he really loved the House,” said Mr. Saul. Mr. Graham often lamented the decline in the quality of debate in the Commons.
The committee produced major reports on the Arctic, nuclear disarmament and other issues. The historian and former MP John English said that Lloyd Axworthy, who was foreign minister at the time, told him, “Bill made that committee into something it never was before.”
In 2002, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Chrétien made Mr. Graham minister of foreign affairs. This surprised many observers, since Mr. Graham had been friends since university days with Paul Martin, who was challenging Mr. Chrétien for the Liberal leadership.
But he was a loyal and effective minister, supporting Mr. Chrétien in his decision not to involve Canada in the American-led war in Iraq. Mr. Graham did not believe the evidence supported American arguments that the Saddam Hussein regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.
But Mr. Graham was also a political realist. As he wrote in his memoir, both he and Mr. Chrétien well knew that “most of the country, most of the cabinet, most of the Liberal caucus, most of the Commons, and a vast majority in the politically key provinces of Quebec and British Columbia were against sending Canadian troops into Iraq.”
Mr. Graham was a political rarity in that he served in the cabinets of both Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin. Though he wrote that he was disappointed when, in 2004, Mr. Martin shuffled him into defence, he served the department well.
Mr. Graham successfully pitched to have General Rick Hillier made chief of the defence staff, supported the military’s push for a greater combat role in Afghanistan, and persuaded Mr. Martin and Finance Minister Ralph Goodale to increase defence spending.
For Mr. Graham, the Afghanistan mission differed from Iraq in that it had greater international legitimacy. But in hindsight, he had regrets.
“We knew much less about Afghanistan and the politics of the region than we should have,” he wrote. “… It was unrealistic of us to expect that we could construct a truly effective government and civil society in the midst of the ongoing carnage.”
When Mr. Martin stepped down after Stephen Harper’s Conservative victory in January, 2006, caucus voted to make Mr. Graham interim leader. He successfully persuaded Liberal MPs to support a Conservative resolution recognizing the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada – opposing the resolution would mean the death of the Liberal Party in Quebec, he argued. But he could not bring the caucus with him when the Harper government sought parliamentary support to extend the mission in Afghanistan.
“You don’t understand anything about politics, Bill,” one MP told him. Maybe not, Mr. Graham replied, but “I do understand one thing: if we vote against this motion, Canadians are going to look at us and wonder what kind of chumps would flip-flop on such an important issue, involving the lives of our troops, just because we don’t happen to be sitting in the same seats as we were a few months ago.”
Nonetheless, a majority of caucus opposed the motion, which barely scraped through with the help of Mr. Graham and a rump of Liberal MPs, revealing the depths of divisions within the party in the wake of its defeat.
His friend and cabinet colleague Carolyn Bennett said Mr. Graham’s approach during policy debates was to talk quietly and to genuinely listen to people’s concerns.
“He used his knowledge and his leadership to be persuasive in a way that was kind and gentle,” she said. “I think Bill taught us all how you can be persuasive on progressive matters. … He made politics slightly less of a swear word.”
When Mr. Rae, who had been Ontario’s NDP premier, was looking for a riding to run in as a Liberal, Mr. Graham offered him his. He had decided it was time to step down and let a new crew take charge. Mr. Rae would himself one day serve as interim leader.
After his retirement from politics, Mr. Graham returned to Trinity College, this time as chancellor. He served on various boards, councils and commissions. He endowed the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History (Mr. English was its first director), which promotes the study of contemporary events from a historical perspective.
When the Liberals returned to power under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he served as an adviser for the defence review that was published as Strong, Secure, Engaged. His memoir, which appeared in 2016, received praise for its candour, especially in his writings on Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it was his personal qualities that set Bill Graham apart as a politician. He was respected and admired by all sides, in part because he never let politics become personal.
Chris Tindal tweeted about the time in 2006, when he was running as the Green candidate in Toronto Centre. “One morning, I was canvassing at a subway stop when he pulled up. ‘You were here first,’ he said. ‘We’ll go somewhere else.’ But he stayed and chatted with me for a while. Whenever people recognized him, he redirected. “This is Chris, the Green Party candidate! Good guy!”
The Twittersphere was full of such stories this week, as friends and political opponents praised Mr. Graham’s courtesy, friendliness, lack of pretension, grace.
“Even while a determined opponent, Bill was always a gentleman, and he always kept the best interests of the country in mind,” tweeted Mr. Harper.
“He represented a certain tradition in Canadian political life,” said Mr. English. “It is the passing of a generation, and he was an exceptional representative of that generation.”
Scott Brison just misses his friend. “He was one of the kindest, smartest, wisest, funniest and best people I’ve known. And he embodied public service at its best.”