Another mission for Ontario’s one-time boy wonder

A former premier and national party leader, Bob Rae now heads to New York to take on the same job his father once had
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 13, 2020
Bob Rae holds a press conference on Parliament Hill on July 6 regarding his appointment as the next ambassador to the United Nations. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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If being prime minister is the top of the political pecking order in Canada, you could argue that being premier of Ontario is the next best job. You’re responsible for more than 14 million constituents and nearly 40 per cent of the country’s economy — and, if you want to, you can play a major national or even international role as well.

Most of the people who’ve had the job left it at an age when you’re no longer looking to play a significant role in public life. Bill Davis retired from the office in 1985 at age 55 and was content to move seamlessly into the corporate world. Mike Harris was 57 when he stepped down in 2002. Dalton McGuinty was 57 when he departed in 2013. Kathleen Wynne was 65.

I raise all this because, when Bob Rae lost the 1995 election and had to vacate the second-best job in Canadian politics, he was only 46. That is a very young age at which to become a “former,” and, in Rae’s case, it was particularly problematic.

For whatever reason, Rae has just never had the gene that motivates someone to accumulate great personal wealth. Whereas other high-ranking political figures have been able and keen to monetize the knowledge they gained in politics, Rae has always reminded me of that Sesame Street lyric: “one of these things is not like the others.” Big paydays on corporate boards just weren’t part of his plan. He has always been waiting for that next big public-service mission to present itself.

Observers thought that moment might have come when he returned to federal politics in 2006. After all, he blasted onto the Ottawa political scene in 1978 as the 30-year-old boy wonder New Democrat MP and finance critic and then helped defeat the nascent Joe Clark PC government a year later.

But, by the 21st century, Rae’s timing was a little off. He ran for leader of the federal Liberals, having come to the view that the NDP was just too rigidly ideological and more interested in being right than in winning power. He returned to Parliament in the 2008 election but found a Liberal Party riven by internal factioning. After the 2011 election saw the party reduced to its worst showing ever — third place, with only 34 seats — Liberals asked their best performer to become leader and keep the ship from sinking. I’ve always felt it wasn’t an exaggeration to say that, for the next two years, Rae prevented the Liberals from disappearing. He kept them a relevant political force despite their paltry numbers. And he stabilized the party long enough that, when Justin Trudeau took it over in 2013, it was strong enough to compete and win the next election.

Since then, Rae has kept active in public life while waiting for “the next big mission.” Two decades ago, he helped the Toronto Symphony Orchestra find its financial footing after a musicians’ strike. He wrote the most influential report on Ontario’s post-secondary school system in half a century for the McGuinty government. As chair of the Forum of Federations, he helped oversee constitutional discussions as Sri Lanka tried to emerge from its civil war. He led a public inquiry into the Air India bombing. After his second stint as an MP ended in 2013, he joined a Toronto law firm that specializes in representing First Nations and became Trudeau’s special envoy on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

And, yet, that elusive “next big mission” had still not appeared.

Then, this past February, Trudeau invited Rae to come to Ottawa for lunch. Rae had no idea what was on the PM’s agenda. Turns out, it was the next big mission: Canada’s United Nations ambassador.

“When the prime minister invited me to think about it, it was a very happy moment,” Rae told me this past Saturday.

I reminded Rae that, when he was premier, he once walked across the floor of the legislature to offer the dean of the Liberal caucus, Robert Nixon, the chance to represent Ontario in the United Kingdom. Nixon has often joked it took him about one one-hundredth of a second to say yes.

How long did it take Rae to decide about the UN offer?

“A shorter time than it took Mr. Nixon” is how he described it.

Rae’s phone and email have been buzzing non-stop since the announcement of his appointment last week. Bill Davis, the former Ontario premier with whom he has the closest relationship, also spoke to him on Saturday.

Part of what makes Rae’s friends and acquaintances so happy for him is that he will be taking on the same job his father once had.

Saul Rae was a lifelong diplomat for Canada during what was considered the golden age of this country’s international standing. His career — which included serving as ambassador to the United States (where his son Bob was vice-president Richard Nixon’s paperboy) — took him all over the world. Saul was UN ambassador from 1972 to ’76, and, his son admitted, “It was not very long at all after the prime minister offered me the job that I thought of my dad.” Saul Rae died in 1999 at age 84.

Father and son do have many similarities. “My father was very quick on his feet,” Rae said. “He was a quick study. He had a great sense of humour, and he was a great musician.” When I pointed out that the son played a pretty good piano, Rae answered, “I’m not nearly as good as he was.”

As for differences, Rae pointed out that his father’s time at the UN was the culmination of four decades in the foreign service. While Rae knows all Canada’s former UN ambassadors quite well (and has been in touch with all of them), this is a very new role for him, and he takes it at a time when the world is dealing with the worst global pandemic in a century, massive economic dislocation, and an unprecedented lack of international leadership from the United States (my words, not his).

Can Rae really move the yardsticks in this climate?

“You have to come in with realistic expectations,” he said. “But you can’t have total impact on anything worth the effort.”

Rae will be Canada’s 25th UN ambassador. He’ll replace Marc-Andre Blanchard next month. He finished our conversation with an interesting admission. When I asked him whether he ever doubted the “next big mission” would happen, he candidly answered: “No. I was always confident it would. And so now, the job is to do what you can with what you can.”

On August 2, Bob Rae will turn 72. Never mind that this new gig is a pretty good birthday gift.  It’s also a great reminder that, if you keep at it, “the next big mission” for any of us — should we want it — may be just a little further down the road.

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