Irwin Cotler’s secret: calm amid the chaos

How a decent man subjected to vicious attacks can actually stand to work in parliament—and like John Baird to boot
Calm amid the chaos
Photograph by Blair Gable

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Parliament is engaged in the daily schoolyard display known as question period. Everybody is shouting. Hyperbole and outrage rain down.

MP Irwin Cotler is seated in the midst of the Liberal caucus, his glasses perched atop a messy lick of hair, his head buried in his papers. When MP Wayne Easter noisily questions the Prime Minister’s commitment to democracy, his Liberal colleagues erupt in a bout of righteous applause. Not Cotler. Rather, the man who helped free the likes of Nelson Mandela, Russian dissident Natan Sharansky and Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil from various tyrannical regimes around the world puts on his glasses and looks around to see what all the fuss is about. Then he smiles and goes back to his notes.

It’s a classic Cotlerian moment: calm in the face of chaos, intellect amidst noise, utter obliviousness to the brutish partisanry of present-day Ottawa. It is the type of politics the 71-year-old MP, human rights advocate and former justice minister has practised since arriving in Ottawa in 1999—politics with a purpose, not a sideshow for the sake of re-election. Yet his constituents in the Montreal riding of Mont Royal keep sending him back, six times in 12 years, despite an aggressive Conservative campaign last year that left many of Cotler’s former supporters questioning his very Jewishness. Last December, Campaign Research, a market research firm linked to the Conservative Party of Canada, conducted a phone campaign in Cotler’s riding in which its staff suggested Cotler was about to retire—an incident that foreshadowed the recent so-called robocall scandal, in which voters in some ridings were misled as to where to vote. The Speaker of the House of Commons deemed the suggestive poll question about Cotler as “reprehensible.” It was certainly dirty, Cotler says, and there will be no more. “The position I’ve taken was that this would be my last election,” he tells Maclean’s at 10:30 at night, before delving into another three hours of work.

At least, that’s what the lifelong Montrealer says on bad days, when his voice is hoarse and there’s flu swimming around his skull. Then in a follow-up conversation the next day, all he can think of are the human rights cases he’s championing, the looming threat of Iran, the various tragedies in Syria and Sudan, not to mention the Conservatives’ mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, women’s rights, seniors health care—on days like that he can’t imagine stopping, and it’s a struggle just to keep up with him.

To get a sense of the ambitious workload Cotler carries at any one point, consider a press conference he called following a recent trip to the Middle East. Over 30 minutes, Cotler covers the state of political prisoners in Iran, the Palestinian justice system and his recent meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, a joint Canadian-American Middle East peace initiative that Cotler spearheaded, and the violence in Syria. His staff lays out the bios of three Iranian political prisoners whose causes he has taken up.

His phrases spill out in bursts of unwavering baritone—“We have been witnessing now for some time . . . a state-sanctioned assault . . . on human rights in Iran ”—that quickens and becomes louder as he progresses. There are no questions from the gallery when he is done. In fact, there aren’t any journalists covering the press conference at all.

Cotler shrugs and smiles, but his staff is clearly annoyed. “It’s unfortunate,” says Judith Abitan, who until recently served as Cotler’s legislative adviser. “We say that if we were going to release a robocall thing, we’d have a lineup outside.” For instance, last December Cotler repeatedly denounced rumours of his retirement to a rapt Ottawa press corp—which promptly went elsewhere when Cotler wanted to talk instead of the plight of an Egyptian political prisoner.

Cotler has been directing attention to these cases—and, more importantly, embarrassment for the regimes who jailed them—since Natan Sharansky. One of the original “refuseniks”—Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the U.S.S.R.—Sharansky was thrown in a Soviet jail in 1977, ostensibly for treason, anti-Soviet slander and agitation.

With lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whom he met when the two were at Yale in 1965, Cotler devised a plan he today calls “the mobilization of shame against the human rights violator”—effectively, a PR blitz against a world superpower. “Luckily, we had a picture of Sharansky, and we had a pact to keep his picture in the media,” Dershowitz says. “I think for [Cotler] it stems from the Holocaust. In a way, the six-million figure dehumanizes the tragedy. We didn’t like that. It had to mean something.”

In addition to the media blitz, which landed Sharansky on the cover of Newsweek in 1978, Cotler went to Moscow with a letter signed by several American senators urging his release from prison. He also filed legal briefs in Russian court (he studied Russian law at Yale). He was then promptly arrested and expelled. Sharansky remembers the first time he heard that this string-thin Canadian lawyer was representing him. “I was in Soviet prison, and you have very limited access to information,” Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency, an Israel-based advocacy group, tells Maclean’s. “Sometimes as a special treat you or your neighbour can be given some Soviet magazines, and suddenly there’s an article condemning anti-Soviet propaganda abroad by American agent Irwin Cotler. So for me it was a huge encouragement in prison to read that American senators are sending letters of support. It was good to know that I had a lawyer.”

Sharansky was ultimately released in 1986 during Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascendancy to power, but before his liberalizing perestroika measures of 1990. Cotler never figured out why until he met Gorbachev in person, in 1997. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you a story. My first foreign trip was as agriculture minister to Canada. I came to Parliament. I was there to talk about agriculture, and they start asking me questions about Sharansky. I came out of the Parliament buildings, there was a big demonstration for Sharansky. Then not long after I became head of the Soviet Union, I ordered up his file. I saw that he was a troublemaker, but not a criminal, and it’s costing us politically to keep him in prison.’ ”

Cotler has since used the same strategy to help free Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman, Egyptian professor and staunch Mubarak critic Saad Eddin Ibrahim, among dozens of others. Most recently, Cotler’s advocacy helped lead to the release of Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil, whose criticism of Egypt’s military junta following the fall of president Hosni Mubarak earned him the dubious honour of being the country’s first political prisoner of the post-Mubarak era. Cotler heard of the case in November 2011 through Cyber Dissidents, a New York-based advocacy group supporting online dissidents critical of Middle East dictatorships.

“Irwin went into human rights mode, galvanizing parliaments around the world, calling in Egyptian ambassadors, raising [Nabil’s] name in his own parliament, in the UN, he wrote about him in the Huffington Post,” says Cyber Dissident co-founder David Keyes.

He also petitioned Foreign Minister John Baird, who spoke to Egyptian Ambassador Wael Ahmed Kamal Aboul-Magd about Nabil’s case. Cotler spoke to Aboul-Magd as well, in November. “I said to him, ‘It’s just not in your interest for people to see Egypt through the prism that they arrested a blogger. You put this blogger in prison. What does this say about the Arab Spring?’ ” Nabil was released from prison in February, after spending 302 days in jail.

“If [Cotler] didn’t join the campaign for my freedom, my release would have been delayed, maybe for days or weeks, and maybe for months and years,” Nabil wrote in an email to Maclean’s. “He is courageous, never lets differences stand in his way to defend freedom fighters.”

Cotler had no qualms about approaching Baird regarding Nabil. The pair regularly discuss foreign affairs and human rights cases. “He’s an excellent foreign minister,” Cotler says of Baird; for his part, Baird calls Cotler “a friend” and “an incredibly smart guy.” In February, Cotler accompanied Baird to Israel to meet Sharansky. “I think it’s a great example where people of different political stripes can work together,” Baird says. “We should do more of that, I think.”

It’s something to hear these words from Baird, one of the fiercest partisans in Ottawa—and one of the key tacticians of the Conservative election strategy. Ahead of last year’s election, the Conservatives mounted a campaign focused almost entirely on the question of Israel in Cotler’s riding. Cotler says it essentially implied he was anti-Semitic.

During the campaign, the Conservatives delivered hundreds of pamphlets to Jewish households in the Mont Royal riding, contrasting Stephen Harper’s commitment to Israel to the Liberals’ “confusing messages when it comes to issues of concern to Jewish-Canadians.” It said the Liberals “willingly participated in the overtly anti-Semitic Durban I” conference, “opposed defunding Hamas and asked that Hezbollah be delisted as a terrorist organization” and noted how then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff “accused Israel of committing war crimes” during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

“Some of the texts I read before the election on Irwin Cotler were really ridiculous, because you can’t have a better champion of Israel or Jewish causes, a better champion of the deep connection between the connection of human rights, freedom and the state of Israel than Irwin Cotler,” Sharansky says.

Still, the effect of the pamphlets was immediate, particularly among elderly Jewish voters who supported Cotler throughout his career. “I remember giving a talk at the Montefiore [a seniors’ home in Cotler’s riding] and a woman, she must be in her early 80s, says to me, ‘Irwin, I don’t know what’s happened to you,’ ” Cotler says. “She says, ‘When did you become so anti-Jewish?’ And she pulled out the pamphlet that had apparently been left in the mailboxes in the senior citizens’ home.” As a result, Cotler lost the Jewish vote for the first time; he was saved, he says, thanks largely to the support of the Filipino vote in his riding. As well, many Jews “stayed home because they couldn’t reconcile not voting for Irwin,” says philanthropist and businessman Steven Cummings, a prominent member of Montreal’s Jewish community.

“There was literally hate against Irwin in the riding,” says his wife Ariela Cotler, who has served as campaign manager for all of Cotler’s elections. The feeling was exacerbated, she says, by dozens of strange phone calls on Jewish holidays, purportedly from Liberals, about where to vote. “People would call us besides themselves. ‘Why are you calling us on the Sabbath? Why are you calling me during a holy day?’ I’d say, ‘Madam, our office doesn’t call on the Sabbath.’ I wouldn’t be smart enough to think that someone is playing a trick.” (Reached for comment, Conservative party spokesperson Fred DeLorey called Ms. Cotler’s allegation “nothing more than baseless smears from the opposition.”)

Cotler, who was largely responsible for placing Hezbollah on the terrorist list in 2002, says the Conservatives’ sole focus on Israel has hurt that country’s cause. “It’s making it a wedge issue. It’s also distancing [those] who might come to support Israel because they don’t want to support either Harper or how he supports Israel.”

“If Mr. Cotler feels the Liberal record turned voters away from him, then that is something he’ll need to address as a Liberal,” DeLorey says. Other Tories are more circumspect. Baird distanced himself from the Mont Royal campaign. “I’m one of the political ministers for Ontario, not Quebec,” he says. Others disassociate themselves from their party’s treatment of Cotler. “I wanted to say I’m a big fan of your work,” Conservative backbencher Joy Smith said to Cotler in the halls of Parliament recently. Referring to the robocall scandal, Smith told Cotler, “I don’t support what’s been going on in Parliament.”

Such comments hearten Cotler, giving him another reason to hedge on his declaration that he has run his last campaign. He has kids who have grown up, grandkids he hardly sees and a wife he often only talks to over the phone. There’s also the prospect of facing another potentially nasty campaign at the age of 75.

And yet there is so much to do. “I got home last night after we talked,” he says as he boards a bus for another day on the Hill. “I sort of made a list of the things I’m involved in, what I hope to get accomplished. And I said to myself, maybe I’m going to end up running again.”