Mauril Bélanger, longtime Ottawa-Vanier MP, dies of ALS at 61

Published in CBC News August 16, 2016, written by Christina Dugan

Champion of fairness until the end, respected politician faced terminal illness with dignity, determination

Mauril Bélanger, the long-serving Liberal member of Parliament for Ottawa-Vanier, has died at age 61. Bélanger was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, following the 2015 federal election, and his condition had deteriorated rapidly.

At the moment when Bélanger should have been celebrating his eighth electoral triumph as the member of Parliament for Ottawa-Vanier, he had struggled to find his voice to make a victory speech.

And yet even in his final days, Bélanger summoned his remaining strength eight months later to attend a vote in the House of Commons where his colleagues backed his private member’s bill to make the lyrics of the national anthem more representative of all Canadians.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Bélanger’s death Tuesday night.

“I was incredibly saddened to learn today of the death of my friend and colleague Mauril Bélanger. On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to his family, friends, constituents, and many, many admirers,” Trudeau said in a statement.  

Bélanger was first elected as MP for Ottawa-Vanier in 1995. (CBC)
“Mauril’s immense contributions to our country will be honoured and remembered. We are all the poorer for his passing. Goodbye my friend.”

After more than two decades serving his constituents, it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a cruel and incurable disease that ultimately silenced the longtime Ottawa politician.

He leaves behind a legacy of community service and was an inspirational example of determined grit and dignity.

While campaigning during the 2015 federal election, Bélanger would occasionally lose his voice and experience difficulty articulating campaign messages. At first, he and his staff blamed exhaustion and the stress of running a longer and more challenging campaign than he’d grown accustomed to.

It soon became clear there was something far more seriously wrong.

Bélanger was first elected as MP for Ottawa-Vanier in 1995. (CBC)

Considered front-runner for Speaker’s post

When Trudeau’s Liberals gained power in a landslide victory, the long-serving member from Ottawa-Vanier was considered a front-runner for the role of Speaker of the House, a position he had long dreamed of holding.

But Bélanger withdrew from consideration in November after being diagnosed with ALS. The untreatable ailment gradually shuts down the body’s muscles, robbing its victims of the ability to speak, control movement and, eventually, breathe.

The disease took over quickly. Yet even after Bélanger lost his ability to speak and could move through the halls of Parliament only with the help of a walker, he insisted on showing up to work each day.

O Canada bill passed by MPs

On June 15, 2016, Belanger’s private member’s bill to make the national anthem more gender neutral cleared its final hurdle in the House of Commons, passing by a vote of 225-74.

Bill C-210 changed the second line of the anthem from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” Bélanger was in the House for the vote.

After the vote nearly all MPs in the House stood and sang the national anthem.

The anthem change had been a cause of Bélanger’s for years, but took on far greater urgency after his ALS diagnosis. The bill has not yet passed the Senate.

Championed francophone rights

“My priorities have not changed. Even after being diagnosed in late November, I remain committed to serving the constituents in Ottawa-Vanier and representing them in the House of Commons as long as possible,” said Bélanger through the voice generating computer he used to communicate with staff and MPs.

The longtime MP made the comments in March, around the time he was reading to sit as honorary Speaker of the House, where colleagues paid tribute to his years of service.

In a demonstration of respect and friendship, MPs voted unanimously to give Bélanger his moment in the chair as honorary Speaker. His colleagues, the prime minister and Bélanger’s wife, Catherine, joined in an emotional tribute to a man whose service to the public ended far too soon.

Born in the logging town of Mattawa, Ont., on June 15, 1955, Bélanger graduated from the University of Ottawa in 1977, where he was president of the student federation.

He was elected the Liberal member of Parliament for Ottawa-Vanier on Feb 13, 1995, and held the riding for the next 21 years, decisively winning eight consecutive elections. From the beginning, he was an outspoken advocate for the rights of Franco-Ontarians.

In 1997, when the provincial Progressive Conservative government under Mike Harris decided to shut down Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital, Bélanger waged a successful battle to keep the French-language health-care facility open.

Emotional tribute

Bélanger’s colleagues remember him as a humble, self-effacing politician who worked tirelessly for the people in his riding. He was known as a fair-minded lawmaker who reached across party lines to achieve common goals.

As a member of Parliament he held a number of positions, including minister responsible for official languages. He served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of heritage, as well as deputy leader of the government and chief government whip.

One of Bélanger’s other enduring legacies stems from his commitment to help Africans overcome economic and social challenges, which led him to co-found the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association. It linked Canadian parliamentarians with their African counterparts to forge ties that would foster both democracy and community development.

Bélanger is survived by his wife, Catherine.

Bélanger answers a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Dec. 7, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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