Former Senator Hugh Segal dead at 72

Former Senator Hugh Segal, who represented Kingston-Frontenac-Leeds in the upper chamber from 2005 to 2013, has died at the age of 72. Photo via Hugh Segal.

Former Canadian Senator, political staffer, and Kingston resident, Hugh Segal has died. Late in the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, news of Segal’s passing first broke; the longtime political strategist, policy analyst, and former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister was 72.

Segal, who was born in Montreal on October 13, 1950, first joined the political ranks as a staffer for Progressive Conservative Opposition Leader Robert Stanfield in the early 1970s, while studying as a student at the University of Ottawa.  After graduating, Segal unsuccessfully contested two federal elections as a Candidate for the Progressive Conservatives, losing races in Ottawa Centre in 1972 and 1974. 

After trying his hand as a political candidate, Segal returned to the staffing ranks, joining Ontario PC Premier Bill Davis’ office as a senior aide throughout the 1970s and 1980s. According to Kingston political historian Arthur Milnes, as a member of the Premier’s Office, Segal played a vital role in the repatriation of Canada’s Constitution in 1982. “A lot of Kingstonians and Canadians today, don’t realize the role a young Segal played… in the repatriation of Canada’s constitution, and its return to Canada with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Milnes added that Segal was included in many of the high-profile constitutional negotiations between then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and Canada’s provincial premiers. “He was at the crucial meetings between Premier Davis and Prime Minister Trudeau, where Trudeau, a Liberal, and Davis, a Conservative, tried to put things aside and give us a reformed Constitution, and one that was binding and truly Canadian.”

In 1992, Segal was appointed as the Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Throughout this time, Segal often served as a pundit on Canadian political television shows and radio programs, while also writing a number of newspaper columns and political books. Locally, Segal also taught as a faculty member in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.

In 2005, Segal was appointed as the Canadian Senator for Kingstonston-Frontenac-Leeds by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin. Throughout his time in the Senate, Segal held many prominent positions, including the chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. After resigning from the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2007, Segal went on to serve as the chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism. Throughout his time in the Senate, Segal championed a number of issues, including defence spending, anti-terrorism efforts,  and the notion of a guaranteed basic income. In late 2013, Segal announced his retirement from the Senate, as he accepted a position as a Senior Fellow at Toronto’s Massey College. 

Following his time in Ottawa, Segal continued to influence public policy decisions as an author and columnist, penning numerous articles on issues related to democracy, foreign affairs, and Canada’s welfare state. In 2019, Segal published the book Bootstraps Need Bootstraps: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada, which advocated for a guaranteed annual income for all Canadians. 

While the idea of a guaranteed basic income has picked up steam in recent years throughout the country, Milnes said Segal played a critical role in bringing it to the forefront of Canadian politicians’ minds. “Decade after decade, and government after government, Segal never lost faith that there will be a day that Canada will have a guaranteed annual income. When we get to that wonderful day, it will be, in large part, thanks to Hugh Segal’s never-ending advocacy and his lifelong battle against poverty.”

Outside of his work in the Senate, Segal also served as a representative to the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, as well as a special envoy to the Commonwealth of Nations on behalf of the federal government. In these roles, Segal worked to encourage member nations to sign on to goals related to human rights issues, including the decriminalization of homosexuality in certain commonwealth countries. 

Due to his decades-long commitment to public service, Segal has received various awards and accolades, including the Award for Excellence from the Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy, as well as the Vimy Award for service to democracy and national security from the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

While Segal was appointed to the Senate by a Liberal Prime Minister and worked in various capacities under Progressive Conservative leaders, his political ideology was seen by many as moderate, as Segal once described himself as a “Red Tory warrior.” While some may have viewed Segal’s conservatism as inconsistent with the modern views of the party, Milnes said he was often able to work closely with politicians of all political stripes, as demonstrated by his appointment as a special envoy to the Commonwealth by Stephen Harper’s government.

“[Senator Segal] had an incredibly respectful and influential role with Prime Minister Harper. The two of them worked together, even though they were from different wings of the party,” Milnes remarked.

Following the news of Segal’s passing, many prominent Canadian politicians took to social media to pay tribute to the former Senator. In a post to X (formerly known as Twitter), former Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Segal “a great Canadian.” Harper wrote, “During my government, he served honourably in the Senate and stood up forcefully for Canadian values as my Commonwealth emissary.” 

Former Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper shares his condolences on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Meanwhile, John Baird, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who appointed Segal as the special envoy to the Commonwealth wrote on X, “Hugh Segal was a remarkable Canadian. I was so privileged to work with him on Commonwealth renewal. He was a fighter and his voice will be missed in our country. So honoured to have counted him as a friend. May his memory be a blessing.”

Local politicians have also responded to Segal’s death, as Kingston and the Islands MP Mark Gerretsen called the former Senator a “visionary and thoughtful leader.” On X, Gerretsen wrote, “Through decades of public service, in both provincial and federal government, and later as a Senator serving Kingston-Frontenac-Leeds, Hugh was truly a progressive conservative and inspiration to so many of us, regardless of party lines. Hugh will be dearly missed, in Kingston, and across the nation. A shining example of a life well-lived, Hugh will be remembered as a remarkable leader, serving Canada with a strong heart and mind.”

In an email to Kingstonist, Kingston and the Islands Member of Provincial Parliament Ted Hsu wrote, “I was sorry to hear of Hugh Segal’s passing.  My best memory of Hugh, at the time the Conservative Senator for Kingston-Frontenac-Leeds, was his congratulations and warm welcome to Parliament Hill in 2011 and the words of advice and encouragement he had for me as the newly arrived Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands in the wake of the worst ever defeat for the federal Liberal Party.”

According to Milines, it was Segal’s commitment to politics of “decency and mutual respect” for which he will be remembered most. “Senator Segal was a proud Progressive Conservative, but he didn’t see Liberals as his enemies. He didn’t see new democrats as his personal enemies. He saw them as Canadians just like him, who wanted a better Canada, a better province, or a better Kingston. He thought they shared his goal, they just simply had a different way of getting there,” he said.

Milnes added, “Whenever a politician of any party reaches across the floor and clasps hands with an opposing party member in friendship, resolve, and commitment to fighting for a better Canada, that’s how Hugh Segal will live on.”

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