Michael Ignatieff’s latest book is On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.
Every year, young men and women arrive in Ottawa to work in Parliament as interns, “gofers,” assistants, or parliamentary pages. They come from every region, background, and political conviction. They’re all ambitious, for themselves and for their country. Canadians owe these young people a great deal. If disillusionment or cynicism ever caused that stream of youthful ambition to dry up, our democracy would wither and die.
Trevor Harrison was emblematic of that youthful optimism. In 2006, just out of Queen’s University, he showed up in my office on Parliament Hill. I was a newly elected rookie MP, learning the ropes.
He was rail-thin, very tall, with a long face, a wide smile, a brush cut and a thoughtful, considered manner. He signed on as an unpaid intern and quickly figured out how to make himself essential. From getting the coffee and changing the paper in the photocopier, he was soon helping me prepare for Question Period in the House of Commons. We learned the strange rituals of Parliament together.
In every politician’s office, people like Trevor prep you for press conferences and scrums, for Question Period and campaign tours. They accompany you on those rainy Thursday night visits to a riding meeting and keep you company in the bar afterward. They share in the glory times and the hard slog. Trevor shared it all.
So it continued through my five and a half years in politics, from constituency MP, to leadership candidate, to deputy leader and finally, leader of my party. Trevor was always there, with the small team of young men and women who’d hitched their star to mine.
Cynics will tell you there are no true friendships in politics, but that neglects the emotion that holds politics together. It’s called loyalty. You only discover what loyalty means when you lose – as I did, badly, in 2011. I expected all the young people who had flocked to my banner would desert me. Instead, their loyalty remained. Once I was no longer their boss, we could become friends.
Trevor became a friend. He stayed on the Hill and worked, in his customarily sober, careful, thoughtful way. He worked for the party when it was in opposition, and continued to work for the party when it returned to government, for ministers and the Deputy Prime Minister.
My wife, Zsuzsanna, and I became friends with Trevor’s mother, father and brother, and then with Kaisha Thompson, the lawyer who became his wife. We got to know their family rituals, like the annual pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
When Trevor collapsed during a touch football game 12 years ago, we were pretty sure everything would turn out okay. He was so young, so athletic. When the brain scan found a tumour, we hoped that surgery would take care of it. When Trevor went into remission, after radiation and chemo, we were confident that he had beaten it.
There were good years. Trevor went back to work, and in his spare time he campaigned for brain tumour research. Trevor and Kaisha came to see us in Europe, and he proposed to her in our apartment.
And then, the brain cancer returned and the doctors who had cared for him told him he had about a year left. Kaisha and Trevor decided to live it as fully as they could, and so they travelled: to Mexico, Las Vegas, Northern Canada, Italy, France – all the places they had wanted to see together.
Trevor walked with a stick, then got around in a wheelchair, always lucid, tearful sometimes, but determined to keep going. Zsuzsanna and I saw him this past April, and as we said goodbye, he walked away, leaning on his stick before turning back to whisper, “I’ll see you again.” It was as if to say, “We – you and I – must believe we will.”
That was how he lived his life, believing he could, understanding, as few people do, how setting an example could give others courage and hope.
Last week he and Kaisha phoned us to wish Zsuzsanna a happy birthday. He died, a few days later, at peace, in hospice care, looking out at the trees in Wakefield, Que. He was 36 years old. As a politician, long since retired, I celebrate his life, and through him, celebrate all the young people who believe in our democracy and dedicate their days to making it work.